Since the early 1970s, the music industry and the social scene behind it — comprised of those who use external appearance to signal social success — has been trying to find some way to counter the authenticity of metal. While rock and blues stars appeared to be rebels, the truth emerged over time that most were very conventional in their outlook except for hedonism.
Heavy metal on the other hand rejected the founding myths of our society since the intellectual shift so-called “The Enlightenment,” in which people decided that social pressure to enable the individual to be “equal” whether right or wrong, good or bad, was more important than social standards. Heavy metal pointed out that our perceived enemies are scapegoats, and the real problem is that the enemy is us, and that people are delusional and happy hippie flower power is another variety of the bourgeois deliberate ignorance of reality that promotes social decay.
In recent years, the same people who were hippies back in the 1960s — the conformity of appearance non-conformist and then going to work at a bank and retiring as a fat Baby Boomer — have returned as “social justice workers,” or SJWs. These people, together with an industry that realizes it can sell more re-branded indie rock than it can discover compelling metal bands, have created a new style that culturally appropriates the appearance of black metal while injecting it with the same messages of self-indulgence, self-pity, victimhood and pacifism that the hippies bleated about back in the day.
Enter “blackgaze”, the buzz term for a new school of bands taking black metal out of the shadows and melding its blast beats, dungeon wailing and razorwire guitars with the more reflective melodies of post-rock, shoegaze and post-hardcore. It’s a geographically loose scene and its bands have been embraced by the indie media, which means you’re now as likely to hear black metal at ATP as in the Carpathian mountains.
Alert readers may note the “post-rock, shoegaze and post-hardcore” attribution, which Death Metal Underground has long identified as being the origins of this material. In other words, it is not black metal, but indie rock playing “dress up” as black metal. The quest of the industry for a safe rebellion goes on.
In the early 1990s, everybody who was anybody had a Godflesh Streetcleaner t-shirt. That album broke out of the usual problems with industrial, which is that it was generally either rhythm music without beauty or dance music without aggression, and escaped the tendency of metal to be as intense as possibly by mixing in aspects of melody from crustcore and indie rock.
Since that time, Godflesh creators have spent their time searching for Selfless II. The crisis is that they are unsure of why that album is so revered. The band began its career with the rhythmic but amelodic Godflesh EP, which became repetitive and noisy but never rose to the level of grace of the album afterward, Streetcleaner. On that album, song structures expanded and use of melody and guitar harmony gave it a power beyond what the EP had. Then came Slavestate which introduced more of a techno influence, but underneath the skin was the same looping song structures with little more than rhythm that defined the EP.
After that, Godflesh tried Pure which attempted some melody, and when they were accused of being too “rock” on that album, Selfless which went back to tuneless droning in an industrial landscape for the most part. After that, the band experimented with alternative rock (Songs of Love and Hate, later resurrected in one of the bravest experiments in popular music, Songs of Love and Hate in Dub) and lost direction until Broadrick found Jesu as an outlet for his shoegaze/indie hopes. He kept enough of the metal and crustcore (remember his role as founding member of Napalm Death, which essentially combined crustcore and DRI-style thrash to make a new art form). But with the second album, Jesu lost its independent voice and became indie/shoegaze entirely, thus dispatching legions of not just metal fans but those who seek something unique.
With A World Lit Only by Fire, Godflesh attempts to return to the musical foreground but makes two critical mistakes. First, let us assume that Godflesh like a serial killer is a duality composed of “hard” and “soft” elements, which are stylistically grindcore and indie/shoegaze respectively. Let us also assume somewhat correctly that these create another binary of extreme rhythm and heavy distortion on one hand and melodic intervals and harmony through drone on the other. The history of Godflesh shows a band bouncing back and forth between these poles. When an album gets too soft, as Jesu did starting with Conqueror, the band bounces to the other area in which it knows it can succeed and sell product. On the other hand, when an album gets too abrasively grinding, it tries to go back toward the middle where it perceives Streetcleaner as existing. Its first mistake is being unable to find a style that balances its two extremes without varying them song by song, and as part of that, in failing to pick up on how much death metal influenced its choice of song structure and radically improved Streetcleaner. (When I last checked in 1994 or so, Godflesh was outright hostile to metal — understandable given the collapse of death and black metal in that year — although a few years earlier the influence had been more accepted as fact.)
The second mistake made by this band strikes me as more crucial. People create great albums in just about any genre but they need to introduce enough complexity to be able to clearly express an experience and corresponding feelings so that the audience can identify with the work and appreciate the viewpoint it illustrates. Napalm Death for example on its early albums succeeded by using individual songs as phrases in what essentially became a longer atmospheric work, but few people listen to it on a daily basis because it is mostly novelty. Not many people hail the Godflesh EP either because despite being a stylistic outlier, it makes for poor listening unless you like droning chromatic grind. The band lacked enough to express itself. With Streetcleaner, the band not only nailed style (mistake 1 rectified) but also nailed content (mistake 2 fix) by introducing enough complexity in song structure, melody, harmony and riff shape to be able to create atmosphere and manipulate it. Everything the band has done since, with the possible exception of Love and Hate in Dub, has focused on a one-dimensional approach where style is substance. While this “the medium is the message” makes sense in an academic setting, with music, it cuts out what Godflesh do well.
At this point, the meat of this review — the part that actually focuses on the new Godflesh album A World Lit Only by Fire — should be fairly obvious: Godflesh reverts to the mistake it made on its initial EP, Pure and Selfless and makes an album that is abrasive but repetitive and fails to introduce the elements of tension that gave Streetcleaner its power. If Godflesh finds a way to make an album like Streetcleaner in any style, even disco, it will take over the world. But that did not happen here. Songs are for the most part simple loops of verse and chorus riffs that while musically competent are essentially boring and rely on rhythm — very similar to Selfless — both in driving riff and in having an offbeat conclusion to each phrase. Over that, vocals rant out a phrase or two. The second half of the album improves with “Curse Us All” which has a powerful rhythmic hook, but the band never develops any of this potential into something with enough depth to want to revisit. This reveals that Godflesh has confused error 1 (style) with error 2 (content) because style cannot magically create content; it can only fit content and thus make it easier for the artist to visualize the content he or she is creating. Thus what we get is an album that sounds like classic Godflesh, but misses out on both voice and substance of classical Godflesh. Summary: Selfless II.
While that seems unusually cruel, even for a site known for its unrelenting musical cruelty, the greatest cruelty would lie in rubber-stamping this rather droning for fan consumption with the formula that most reviewers will endorse: “It’s hard like Streetcleaner, therefore it must be Streetcleaner II, not Selfless II.” This rubber-stamping displaces the funds that fans could spend on a better album and instead redirects them into what ultimately appears to be a dying franchise here, but also, lies to the artists about what they do well. They do not know, as is evident here. What made Streetcleaner great was a fully articulated style that did not slide into Pantera-style angry-bro rhythm music nor wandered into fixie-and-Pabst self-commiserating shoegaze. It took the best from all of its influences, including death metal, and made from it a voice unique to Godflesh. They can do it again; A World Lit Only by Fire is not that album however.
Former extreme shoegaze/indie band Wolves in the Throne Room released a lengthy track from their upcoming album Celestite Mirror. This time they follow the path of cosmic synth bands like Tangerine Dream, Neptune Tower and Jääportit. The new Wolves in the Throne Room uses of the flexible and grand sound of synthesizers to write sci-fi symphony that invokes a celestial world above our head.
Unlike Tangerine Dream and Neptune Tower, Wolves in the Throne Room demonstrate a clearer melodic pattern. Through the method of successive repetition and progress like a serial of logical thoughts, the music maintains the organizational strength of metal music while adding melodic development and an expansion of mood beyond the intense surging power of guitars. As a result, Celestite Mirror advances the heritage established by Tangerine Dream and Neptune Tower.
Whether Celestite Mirror emerges as a strong fusion of metal and cosmic ambient or not, it merits our anticipation. Metal possesses a will to catch up with classical music and always has, which is what the core fans of this genre expect and hope for too. The new Wolves in the Throne Room might fulfill the vision we dreamed of all these years.
What are Sadistic Metal Reviews? When people decide that life is worth living, try to make good music. Unless they hope to make a quick buck, in which case they disguise bad music as “innovation.” We separate the good from the bad — with a machete. Come for the misery, stay for the occasional exception…
Divine Circles – Oblivion Songs
The mainstream assimilation of metal continues. This is basically coffeehouse femme-folk-rock like Jewel would have spun two decades ago when metal was still doing something relevant. Instead, it sounds like a Taylor Swift/Janis Joplin hybrid on piano while someone strums a lightly distorted guitar in the background and some bell-bottomed burnout bangs a cowbell. I can appreciate the similarity to neofolk bands, especially Hekate, or even the folk-rock tradition of the Americas. But it’s most similar to the goddamn crap they play in Starbucks or our local “alternative” (read: clean every other Tuesday) coffee shack. A girl sings about fanciful things, there’s some guitar and a lot of slightly exotic rhythm. But when you leave and drive home, you’re thankful for the silence. This has nothing to do with metal and should go back to the coffee shops.
Slipknot – Slipknot
For people who thought Korn was too musical, Roadrunner has saved the day. ANGRY MAN babbling over death metal riffs reduced 100 levels of complexity, with random vinyl scratching noises and sampling thrown in for…some reason. These riffs were lifted from a White Zombie album which lifted them from a Metallica album which borrowed them from a NWOBHM 7″ which probably borrowed them from the rantings of cavemen etched into sandstone near the local juvenile detention center. To these basic speed metal riffs, they have added abundant bounce and doubling the internal rhythm on the offbeat, which gives the illusion of complexity for about ten seconds, and they’ve wrapped them around rock melodies. Speaking of wrapped, why aren’t we calling this rap/rock? It’s obviously rap music sanitized for the people too uptight for even backpack hip-hop, thus it gets injected into rock and to disguise the obvious lameness of this combination they cover it in heavy metal stylings like melted chocolate poured over a corpse. Lyrics are moronic, riffs are moronic, album art is moronic…is anything in this band appealing to functional humans? If a vengeful god were to rain napalm on America for producing this album, it would be justified.
Éva Polgár & Sándor Vály – Gilgamesh
Art music faces one ultimate test: will people listen to it on a regular basis, in regular lives? I’m not talking about the heroin and cigarettes crowd in Williamsburg with their postmodern degrees from Brown, but normal people. Thoughtful, intelligent, realistic, well-adjusted people. Do they listen to it? Or is it something they think is neat, maybe would be good in a movie, and then politely clap and never hear it again? Gilgamesh qualifies as some of the better art music I’ve heard. It is an sonic backdrop to the famous tale, rendering in quickly played piano riffs while other instruments fill in background chording. This has more in common with industrial music and avantgarde jazz than rock, but each track creates a series of emotional sensations corresponding to its chapter of the Gilgamesh saga. It is artfully done and powerful but is too abrasive and repetitive for every day primary listening. Further, it is too arty and conceptual to find a place in the balanced life. It would make a killer soundtrack for a silent film however.
Fear of Domination – Distorted Delusions
Music designed to pander to newer listeners is often excruciating. First, it must have an obvious novelty in style that usually defeats common sense. Next, it must appeal to people whose first instinct is essentially disruption and chaos. As part of this, they favor weapons like repetition and garish aesthetics. This album will not disappoint on those points. Mixing clubby techno (itself suspiciously like disco) with metalcore and crowd-positive industrial like Rammstein, Fear of Domination spit out music that is essential keyboard-led but has background guitar and bass which are entirely obliterated by the harsh, chanty and repetitive vocals. There is not a single metal riff on the album. There is also nothing new to people who have experienced even Ministry, but a form with novelty gives this some of the appeal of more austere industrial bands. Still the repetition level and degree of obvious manipulation makes it excruciating for people who have heard more than a dozen albums.
Benighted – Carnivore Sublime
In the absence of Nu Metal, everyone is rushing to take over the territory of Limp bizkit or Korn. From bling bling tech-core band Despised Icon to recent Napalm Death to streamlined Unique Leader sounding Morbid Angel palm muting riffs, Benighted blend everything that’s hip and br00tal in the scene together as the perfect sonic weapon for the frustrated school kids. This whole album is full of preachy and overreacting jerking noise. The band’s new music video reflect all of these: attending school is bad and teachers are evil, the world is insane, so buying this album is the right way to the first step of revolution. The hilariously out of place cleared-throat howling choruses sound like any metalcore rather than death metal, they make me want to put on the Korn records instead. Nothing from Benighted’s album is remotely exciting to the ear of a longtime metal listener. The volume is louder than Grammy performer Metallica, but the music is just as bland. Benighted and their far relatives Insane Clown Posse and Fleshgod Apocalypse are definitely worth exiling from the metal world.
Fluisteraars – Dromers
What is problematic about post-metal/indie-metal, and rock music itself, is nto that it’s distinctive. Rather, like a good product, it’s created by audience surveys. What do they respond to? — put that in. What got bad response? — take it out. What was neutral? — reduce it. The problem is that you need all the colors of the rainbow to paint a picture, so just because audiences prefer blue over yellow does not mean yellow should be removed. In fact, it aims to create a monotone picture where all of it is the color audiences want in their living room and none is the less favored colors. But art is a communication of a mental journey between two points. It shows us someone emerging from a state to a higher realization and then acting on that for triumph. It reveals a mixture of emotions that signal an ultimate resolution, or at least a clarification in the mind. But what we call “modern metal” — itself a clone of the late hardcore, post-hardcore, emo and indie movements of the late 1980s through middle 1990s (Jawbreaker, Rites of Spring, Fugazi) — is like rock music designed to just be that perfect wallpaper for your life. The right shade of sweater, the right ironic frames for your glasses, the purse that makes you look like a wandering boho hippie who might just happen to have a degree in art history. It’s the cult of the ego, and the ego demands only what serves it in full and denies the experience required to get there. This is because the ego wants nothing to do with the external world, and prefers that which is “human,” namely itself and those it socializes with. Fluisteraars is 2/5 old school black metal like Enslaved and Darkthrone, and the rest the newer material in a dronining long form that uses multiple riffs derived from a single theme, like Pelican. The result is very pleasant to listen to but when it is done nothing has changed in your life. You are back shopping for wallpaper, ignoring anything outside of yourself, and consequently, missing out on anything that can be called soul.
Woods of Desolation – As the Stars
Most of people can’t tell the difference between shallow light-hearted commercial product and art, therefore the conformists can always make some metallic indie rock to troll the underground. Woods of Desolation is the black metal version of Explosions In The Sky; both of them use the highest notes of the guitar chords to outline the weary lie-down-and-die pentatonic melodies while songs build around the sweeping textures. Just like the prototype of this sub-genre Alcest, Woods of Desolation’s music is nice and sweet and flawless, it make one hard to criticize them. But the reality is, three months after the hype, those who praised it like hell initially would throw this album away for these spun sugars annoying them just as the morning wake up cell phone jingles.
Towers – II
Post-rock and post-metal generally mean attempts to recreate emo through expanded minimalist sound. Towers takes an approach more like Swans where they build a drone and then layer it with interesting textures. The result is rhythmically motivational, like a march, but ultimately can’t go anywhere because like the notion of “concept music” it can’t go anywhere but to its furthest extreme. Thus what we have is interesting, but not something you’d want to repeatedly listen to except in the background or as part of a movie soundtrack. It is not terrible in any part, and on the whole it is bland and inoffensive once you get past the “extreme” style. Arguably, Towers is the best example so far of how to make post-rock/emo into something that is not terrible. The problem is that listening to it feels like being driven over by Friday 5 pm NYC traffic, and so it’s unlikely that anyone will turn to this for repeated listens that bring out some positive aspect of being alive.
Sunn O))) and Ulver – Terrestrials
Background drone of distorted guitar vibratto and feedback. Foreground slow chords, standard post-metal. Melody slowly layered, then repeats. It goes on in a big loop. Any given second of it is inoffensive and seems like something cool might be happening, but then, if you listen to the whole thing, you realize its fatal flaw is that it’s boring. Nevermind that Lull and Fripp did this years ago but better. Nevermind that these bands were both wrecking balls to metal’s integrity. Just listen to the music: it’s repetitive, doesn’t development, and basically does nothing but establish a drone and a half of a mood. What would you do with it? Listen to it? No, this is music for you to explain to your friends. The point is that you know something they don’t and you can thus explain how profound it (and you) are. It’s no different than people going to rap concerts to pose at being gangsters or young girls who cry when Shakira sings about her hips. It’s just more pretentious.
Dodsferd – The Parasitic Survival of the Human Race
Despite the ideologically-correct title (for black metal), this band shows us the true death of black metal: it has been assimilated by punk music. This sounds, with the exception of a couple black metal open strum riffs, exactly like the same droning hardcore bands were pumping out in the early 1980s. That music was the source of the stagnation that launched underground metal. I’ve listened to this thing three times and it has no negatives. There is nothing wrong with it. There’s also nothing compelling about it; it’s just more void. Technically, it all fits together. It’s just boring and expresses nothing. It is essentially hardcore punk music from the early 1980s with better drumming and production, maybe a black metal riff every seven riffs. But if you already own Discharge and Darkthrone, there’s utterly no reason to listen to this. Even if you don’t, it makes no sense to try to listen to this instead.
Gris – À l’Âme Enflammée, l’Äme Constellée…
Oh wow. Titles in French, looks misanthropic, maybe Vlad Tepes has returned! Second coming of Loudblast, even? No, it’s emo. Riddle me this: if emo isn’t like the fat girl addicted with meth that you woke up next to in the basement and felt great shame for the next, why do people keep trying to hide it? This is the same droning yet bittersweet minor-key background noise that Jawbreaker put on their albums and before that, that emo bands kept trying to insert into punk. What is emo, after all, but the very basic tonalities of rock music translated over an upbeat groove into power chords with dissonant voicings? When you look at what can’t be used, you see what is left. In the same way that the blues scale is the classical diatonic major scale with the key-centric notes removed (and a blue note for color-note rhythm comp fudging), emo is what happens when you take all the life out of music and translate it into rules to keep an audience in suspense. It doesn’t ever go anywhere, just shifts between these same few interval progressions. And yet, there it is. And people who apparently know nothing about thinking keep buying it. This is very frilly, dressed-up, entertaining variety, but underneath all the stupid pet tricks and gaudy clothing is the same old tedium. This is the sound of a genre dying.
Frost Legion – Death of Mankind
Crossing punk and heavy metal styles with a black metal aesthetic of constant high-intensity drumming and droning riffs, Frost Legion make black metal that often sounds like it is assembled from spare parts but tries to keep a focus on the melody and savagery of black metal. Vocals are a constant rasp that varies inflection as little as possible, over active double-bass drumming reminiscent of later Ancient Rites. Riffs are often drifting melodic constellations formed of a few chords which work through permutations of loss and re-acquisition of a root note. Often the riffs are very similar to each other which causes an unsettling loss of orientation, and frequently they bring out melodies which resemble music from the 1930s, but the effect is to create a sense of longing. One thing this band could do better is dynamics; it uses nearly constant intensity most of the time which is exhausting. While song structure is essentially riff-based, these riffs may need to correlate to something else in order to make the composition memorable. The constant melodic riffing is reminiscent of Carcariass and bands of that ilk who are deeply invested in guitar creativity and sometimes lose sight of memorable songs. This is a good start and it will be interesting to see where these guys end up after they’ve had a chance to contemplate the results of listening to this album several dozen times.
Aethereal – Faceless Messiah
We walk among you. We are legion and yet can travel unnoticed in the midst of your cities. We are those who try too hard, and many of us ended up in black emtal. Aethereal brings many strengths but suffers from trying too hard. Coming from the wilds of the USA, the amazing thing about this demo is that it attempts to shape the melodic architectures of a European band. It seems caught between a more vicious Behexen-style assault and a traditional melodic metal attack shaped around Sacramentum, Dissection and perhaps even Sentenced. Most would argue this into the black metal camp on vocals alone, but it has aspects of many genres of metal. Technically precise and musically coherent, these longer songs more resemble the ambitious music before the Great Partition in black metal which set the classics in the past and brought a deluge of imitators to attempt to pollute the genre. The first track, “Scornful Skies,” launches from a battering assault of melodic chords resembling rainfall in sheets to a neo-Celtic style intricate lead riff, fading into a Dissection styled mood piece before evaporating into an interlude of gentle strumming without distortion and a return to a contortion of its origins. The second track, “Qliphothic Reflections,” resembles much more of the black metal of the post-initial era, with low use of dynamics and high intensity blasting with transitional melodic riffs leading us through a semi-circular structure. Both tracks show promise if developed. But again, the problem is trying too hard: looking at what all the great songs have, and trying to make your own version without knowing what connects them. If these guys trust their gut instinct and what they like to listen to rather than what they think they should be creating, they would do better. Take it from a guy who tries too hard in his biggest failures as a writer.
Asking Alexandria – Stand Up and Scream
If any of you were to discover that your testosterone levels were too high, and your doctor advises you to take estrogen injections: before doing that, consider listening to this album – in approximately 3 minutes, you will feel immediate results. An album like this could be created only by the results of a CIA project designed to make people believe malls are desirable. (Somewhere, Bill Hicks is turning over in his grave.) For the rest of us, upon hearing this we wish that we were in that grave. This band has the uncanny ability to not only make every song sound identical, but also every riff. Then again, most people listening to this are undergoing “spiral learning” – the repetition is something they’re used to. Please don’t listen to this. If you don’t have enough respect for yourself to avoid this, just go all the way: go to Starbucks, pick up a la- oh alright, that joke is overused. This band sucks. That’s all.