Question – Doomed Passages (2014)

question-doomed_passages

This review was contributed to Death Metal Underground by Neil Sigmundsson.

The best albums are greater than the sum of their parts and provide the capability for listener immersion due to their length and integration but the song is still generally the most important and most fundamental compositional unit in death metal. Paying too much attention to atmosphere, musicianship, individual riffs, or other aesthetical and shallow (though important) qualities of an album can lead to overlooking compositional shortcomings, especially after the mind starts to fatigue or when listening to dense material. This is the case with Doomed Passages, which feels convincing – and in some aspects it is – but suffers from a number of flaws that might be missed during casual listening. That being said, even though the music of Question is imperfect, it is modest and sincere and at its best moments overflows with contagious vigor and energy that leaps fearlessly towards the abyss, a mark of the upper echelons of death metal artists.

First, praise is due to some of the mechanical and aesthetical elements of this album. The roaring, expressive vocals, replete with various single-syllable exclamations and grunts, are highly enjoyable and benefit from a cavernous quality due to studio-induced reverb. The drums are commendable in their creativity and in demonstrating a subtle understanding of the level of activity that best complements any given situation. Rumbling double bass creates a “rolling” sensation of high momentum at certain tempi. The production is deep and clear, and has a bit of cushion, but more separation between the instruments might have been beneficial.

There are two truly excellent songs on Doomed Passages: the second and fifth tracks. “Nefarious Conclusion” is the most structurally rigorous composition on the album, being basically linear but still having a clear exposition, rising action, climax, and falling action. This results in a rewarding experience. 0:00-0:50 is an example of creating variation, exploration, and motion out of a single phrase. The drum build-up to the invigorating climactic riff is genius; it sounds like transitioning from walking to running. The transitions at 1:15 and 4:34 are somewhat rough, but not enough to harm the composition. “Universal Path of Disgrace” has one of the most memorable riffs on the album, a sprawling eight bar tremolo-picked cycle. After the second occurrence of this riff and its accomplice, the song heads logically into a strange middle section that sounds like being in an unstable, slightly psychedelic limbo. A climax and resolution emerge from there. This song offers an interesting journey but it is slightly less satisfying than “Nefarious Conclusion.”

Aside from these two tracks, the remainder of the material on Doomed Passages shows promise and has shining moments but suffers from various problems. Some of these issues are abrupt transitions (“Mournful Stench” at 3:35), weak conclusions (“Devoured from Within”), and segments that overstay their welcome (the introduction of “…Bitter Gleam of Inexistence”). However, the major recurring problem and the biggest downfall of Question, though it is not immediately apparent due to the large number of riffs (many of which sound similar), is the purposeless, wandering song structures. In their template, Question take a single riff or a small group of riffs that act as an “anchor,” and they dance a bunch of ideas around that anchor before departing in an uncertain, random direction. This resembles a very relaxed version of what Slayer pioneered on tracks like “At Dawn They Sleep,” which completes two verse-chorus cycles and then departs radically from pop structure. The difference – and it’s a significant difference – is that Slayer maintained a strong narrative and a sense of purpose and tension throughout the entirety of their songs, whereas Question is usually content with wandering aimlessly. That Question can string a huge number of riffs together without the result sounding like patchwork is impressive (see “Grey Sorrow”), but cohesion alone does not make death metal of lasting quality, and as a result an appreciable amount of this material feels pointless and is frustrating to endure.

As hinted at above, there are simply too many riffs on Doomed Passages, a large proportion of which are interchangeable and forgettable, appear only once, and serve no vital function. Question demonstrate that they know how to overcome this problem in multiple ways (developing phrases, relating riffs through common or similar phrases, writing highly memorable riffs, returning to previous ideas in different contexts, etc.), but they need to apply these habits more diligently. There are focused passages, and there are highly memorable riffs, but ideally all of the passages should be focused and all of the riffs memorable and necessary. Thus, whereas many death metal bands have simplified their song structures to the detriment of the music, Question can actually benefit from being somewhat more repetitive in order to remove the forgettable and less evocative riffs and develop only their best and darkest ideas. This can be done while retaining the narrative, exploratory song structures. It will occurs more  naturally and easily when the music is written and played with specific purpose and direction. More dynamics might also help in stressing important sections, as the sound sometimes blends into a monotonous stream. The digital, compressed production is of no help.

Another lesser issue with Doomed Passages is that consonance sometimes feels out of place when it appears in the midst of the generally dissonant and chromatic music. The interlude “Through the Vacuous River” is the most blatant offender, though the riff at 5:28 of “Universal Path of Disgrace” is questionable as well. While consonance is not vital for this music to express something meaningful, there is potential in its skillful application, as demonstrated by 3:00-3:35 of “Mournful Stench,” a section that arises at an appropriate time but is unfortunately not fully developed. The acoustic final track also works fairly well in context. If Question would hone their skills at incorporating consonance into their musical language, the wider range of expression will provide them with more tools for communication.

The standout songs on this album prove that Question is capable of writing intense and adventurous narrative death metal of the highest caliber. All of the tracks have redeemable and enjoyable qualities and marks of skilled craftsmanship, but most are hampered by the flaws discussed above. To further improve their already above average music, Question need to at least  scrap the forgettable riffs and instead develop more extensively their best ideas while taking  the reins and writing more directed and focused compositions. The second change can be realized either by forcing the songs to move toward clear climaxes and satisfying conclusions or by finding some wisdom and inspiration that can be represented in and communicated through the music. These young musicians are certainly technically proficient but need to write more coherent compositions if they want to inspirit their music instead of joining the ranks of so many other failed techdeath endeavors.

Readers may listen to Doomed Passages on Chaos Record’s Bandcamp page.

Sarpanitum – Blessed Be My Brothers…

Sarpanitum blessed be my brothers

Sarpanitum’s Blessed Be My Brothers was one of Death Metal Underground’s rejected albums for the Best of 2015. The album initially showed promise. The introductory track, “Komenos”, presents the audience with Sarpanitum’s combination of chromatic death metal riffs, melodic heavy metal leads, Unique Leader Records brutality, and Emperor-like use of a melotron to approximate medieval polyphony to anchor the concept album’s theme of the Crusades.

“By Virtuous Reclamation” surges forth with soaring, harmonized guitars calling for the conquest of the Holy Land continuing into an Immolation style rhythm riff. A break starts the counterpointed dissonant riffing in the Unique Leader style that variates logically enough for Pope Urban II to call for crusade against the heathen Saracens with a metalcore scream, providing a harbinger of the randomness to come. The band returns to the opening riff minus the accompanying lead. The lead’s eventual return signals the start of the Emperor melotron. A sudden slowdown for a cheesy emotional solo continues into the original riffs, climaxing into a polyphonic blend of every musical element and texture. The song barely avoids falling on its face on the way to to the finish line.

The second real song, “Truth” opens directly with Unique Leader riff salad. The Emperor worship is only to plant listeners in a Western European medieval mindset to distract them from the fact the tension built up by the dissonant riffing is never appropriately resolved. The emotional stadium rock solos are just as disconnected from the death metal as the Emperor aping. “Glorification Upon the Bones of the Sundered Dead” better glues the riffs together but still resorts to emotional, Slash-style solos to impart the triumph of the Siege of Jerusalem.

If Blessed Be My Brothers had ended there, it would have been a disparate but listenable concept album. Instead Sarpanitum use the second half to tell the Muslim side of the later Crusades through similarly flawed but less effective songs. This isn’t just a 180 degree change in perspective: the band added another of their heavy metal heroes to the blender. Ersatz Gorguts riffing plus even more masturbatory glam rock solos leads distract from the effective atmospheric and brutal elements. The songs turn even more so into senseless technical deaf metal with Emperor rendered down into pop hooks.

The drastic changes of viewpoint and influence betray the album’s semi-successful first half. The atmosphere of Western mysticality established using Emperor to approximate a polyphonic medieval choir is wrecked by the hippie drum circle interlude, “I Defy For I Am Free”. Blessed Be My Brothers is a postmodern, apologetic Frankenstein. Wikipedia “neutral point of view” metal for meek liberals is antithetical to Emperor’s classical triumph and heavy metal’s “Compassion is the vice of kings: stamp down the wretched and the weak,” virtus.

Listen at Willowtip Record’s Bandcamp

Better yet, just listen to In the Nightside Eclipse again instead.

Blinded by Faith – Chernobyl Survivor

blinded_by_faith-chernobyl_survivorBlinded by Faith shape melodic metal out of the combined styles approach that The Haunted first used, complete with over-the-top vocals, and show an aptitude for writing fluid melodic riffs that don’t end up as saccharine floods of very similar patterns.

Chernobyl Survivor stands out for having these melodic patterns emerge from the otherwise chaotic stream of mixed-genre elements and dominating vocals. Within all of what’s going on, which is a lot of fast-fingered frenzied riffing in the style of technical metalcore bands like Ulcerate, what emerges is the ability that Blinded by Faith has to write melodies and then expand upon them. They also have a really good nose for rhythm and how to match riffs and rhythm to make a song.

The best bands to compare to Blinded by Faith are Ulcerate or Cosmogenesis-era Obscura, but Blinded by Faith appears to be pulling away from the strict metalcore approach that Obscura in particular has taken. I realize “metalcore” isn’t a definition and that most people refer to Ulcerate and Obscura as “tech-deth” bands. It’s an anti-definition, meaning stuff that uses metal riffs but isn’t metal, because it reflects how those riffs are put together. Metal bands use their riffs to glue each other together, commenting on each other and furthering evolution. Rock bands use riffs like foundations, as something to build upon with vocals and other instruments, and don’t expect them to comment on each other. In fact, they like them to be radically different for a sense of change, and rely on harmony (key, scale) to make them fit together. This is why all rock-based music with metal riffs is probably going to be metalcore, much like all rock-based music with punk riffs became post-hardcore and eventually developed all of the tropes we see in metalcore today. Blinded by Faith is reversing this metalcore tendency by making their metal riffs comment on each other, kind of like themes in 1950s musicals, but more intense!

This CD could be many things. Chernobyl Survivor could easily be made into an amazing power metal album. It has elements of the old (real) death metal as well, and could also go the other way and be a killer jazz-prog album like At War With Self. Right now, it’s searching for the next evolution of its voice somewhere in the middle of these.

On the whole, Blinded by Faith have put together an album that helps nudge this style closer toward figuring out who or what it is, which is good because the tech-deth/metalcore explosion is running out of steam. If they continue in this direction, they could claim a place in the next evolution of popular music and be recognized for their strength in writing melodic riffs.

What the heck is metalcore?

fugazi_flyerDuring the late 1990s, a different style of metal emerged in the death metal camp. Starting with bands like Dillinger Escape Plan, Killswitch Engage, Misery Index, The Haunted, Human remains, Ulcerate, Meshuggah and Discordance Axis, this new style was given many names at first.

It’s math-metal, they said. No, it’s technical death metal (later shortened to “tech-deth” to keep people from expecting something like what Pestilence did on Spheres). Finally someone came up with “modern metal,” which many of us use like a catch-all.

The record companies were excited. Musically it was different. This style is accessible to more musicians, in addition to more fans, than the old style. It’s easier to make a reasonable impression of it, at least.

Thematically it was different. It’s everything that rock ‘n’ roll has always been. It’s loud, angry, and chaotic; perfect to disturb parents, which sells albums. Finally, unlike metal, it doesn’t stray into truly dangerous areas of thought. It is more likely to be written from an individual perspective, and less likely to glorify war, disease and death than protest them. Socially, it’s much “safer.”

What made it new was that it wasn’t like the extreme metal before it. However, it shared many techniques in common not just with that generation, but the generation before it. Specifically, many of the composition aspects are similar to those from post-hardcore bands like Fugazi, Rites of Spring, and Botch. These differences distinguished it from death metal in the following ways:

  1. Vocal rhythms. Death metal vocals are more like speed metal, which is to chant out the rhythm of the main riff or chorus phrase. Modern metal vocals are much like hardcore, which uses regularity of intervals between syllables to form a sound of protest. Death metal also prefers monotonic delivery with variant timbre, where hardcore vocals prefer more melodic vocal delivery with invariant timbre.
  2. Riffing. Death metal riffs are phrasal, or written as a flow of power chords forming a phrase or melody, and these fit together to form a narrative with poetic form, meaning that it takes the song from an initial place to a final place with a much different outlook. Modern metal riffs are inherently designed toward circular song constructions, like hardcore, and are based upon radical contrast between each other to suggestdeconstruction, like hardcore. Metal riffs form a synthesis through contrast; hardcore riffs deconstruct through contrast and reject synthesis.
  3. Drumming. Death metal drumming tends to follow the riff changes; modern metal drumming tends to lead the riff changes, anticipating them. In death metal, instruments tend to act in unison. In metalcore, they tend to each work separately and overlap as convenient.
  4. Style. Death metal aims toward unison of all instruments and riffs fitting together to make a larger narrative so as to maintain mood; modern metal, like hardcore before it, seeks to interrupt mood as if a form of protest music.

Critics of the terms “metalcore” and “modern metal” correctly note that these terms are being used as a catch-all. That’s correct, but it’s only part of the story. These terms are being used to describe something that’s not new, but existed before death metal and black metal reached their modern form. It’s an alternate branch of metal’s evolution, upgraded with death metal technique.

For students of metal history, this isn’t surprising. Genres tend to lie dormant in alternating generations, and then pick up on whatever was done well by the intervening generation. For example, power metal is what happens when speed metal and glam metal bands integrate death metal technique. Grindcore occurs when hardcore adopts crust and death metal technique. Speed metal occurs when metal adopts punk technique. By the same token, metalcore is what happens when you mix Fugazi with death metal technique.

This is not an argument against metalcore. If we’re going to like metal, we should understand it; if we’re going to understand it, we should study it; if we study it, we should organize our categories and language so as not to mislead each other. By this analysis, metalcore is an extension not of metal, but of the post-hardcore movement using metal technique, and thus it should be analyzed as more like hardcore instead of having us project our metal expectations upon it.

Monsterworks – Album of Man

monsterworks-album_of_manThe job of a reviewer is to describe music, not judge it. Assessment ultimately becomes obvious from the context of expectation created by the reviewer which shows where all things must fit in the bigger pattern.

Monsterworks resembles a mixture of things and prefers to stay that way. The majority of the structural parts of songs are like Led Zeppelin mixed with Southern Rock and early doom metal, using metalcore style rasp vocals, so that most of what you hear is very guitar-rock styled heavy metal. This is a welcome change from the less organic metalcore of late.

If you like guitar playing that is bluesy, varied and emotional, this album will pique your interest. While the vocals rant, guitars hit all the right rhythms and then work in leads with the fills, slowly building up intensity until the song explodes in sound. If you can imagine Led Zeppelin and Ion Dissonance collaborating on a stoner doom album, this might be about it.

Monsterworks create very much in the 1970s style, and yet with its vocals and aesthetics, very much in the 2010s style as well. The result is both deeply engaged and like newer metal hybrids, incessant in its peak intensity, which can make it meld together indistinctly. It often detours into “different” arenas, like progressive rock, tech-deth, and straight up hardcore, as if a variety show.

Album of Man reforms the anti-technical side of post-metal and metalcore however by using the guitar as a voice of its own, and breaking up the strident extremity with old fashioned instrumentalism. This both brings rock and metal back to their core and renews the intensity of the vocals. By doing so, it takes newer metal to a better place and makes for a more satisfying listen.

Portal – Swarth

The mystery behind this Australian band as well as their approach to music making has been very appealing ever since they arrived at the scene with their demo back in 1998. The boiling cauldron of Lovecraftian aesthetics, ambient and death metal appears to be potent enough to completely reinvent the genre and this is something we secretly hope for with every Portal release… But it never happens. Well, not quite. There is always something that stands in the way of the pure demonic current: be it compositional flaws, production quality or artwork. The latest release is no exception here.

The servants of Chaos return with their third full-length effort. Following the pattern set by its predecessor, Outre (2007) the songs on Swarth take the muddy path of broken arrangements jumping in and out of focus constantly. The vocals are buried in the mix and thus enhance the overall blurry feel of this sound wall. The jagged, at times almost black metal-sounding guitar backdrop wails and waves over the skittering, jazzy drumming. The band manages to recreate the menacing sonic world of Immolation (an obvious influence here), yet where Immolation weaves their melodies and rhythms into some otherworldly math, Portal attempt at playing “ambient” death metal. These attempts often result in completely vague and non-inspired parts, a gray monotonous sound shimmer. The highlights of the album (“Omenknow”, “Marityme” and “Werships”, the latter being a re-recorded version of the track appeared on 2004’s Sweyy EP) feature some nice half-melodies, “inverted” riffing and conceivable – yet no less chaotic, – rhythm structure. Slowing things down a little definitely helps these Lovecraftian priests to get a better idea of their own conjuring and set up a good involving atmosphere.

An important note: Portal badly needs a good visual artist. With so much of their appeal coming from on-stage imagery, theatrics and general entourage it seems like the obvious Photoshop approach to their album artwork paired with some bad taste comic art doodles is extremely ill-advised. The band pictures are always appropriately evil though. Go see them live at MDF next year!

-The Eye in the Smoke-