Cognizance – _Inceptum

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The quest for the palatable metalcore album continues.

While doing so is controversial, it makes sense to group all of the metal hybrids which organize themselves as post-hardcore bands did under the metalcore banner. This is because compositionally they are heading in the same direction. That direction involves high contrast stop-start riffing and use of fills instead of connecting riffs together so their contrasts form a narrative, as death metal did.

Cognizance leap into this fray with a new EP, _Inceptum. The cyber-title reflects the mania in metal since ’94 to seem like the next generation, of something. But stepping past this, _Inceptum presents two songs of medium length in the metalcore style. The vocals are open throat and lead the rhythm of the song, which plays off against it jazz-style with the drums and by alternating between percussive rhythmic riffing in the “prog-death” style and sweeps/fills as has been the tendency of metalcore since Necrophagist. Lead guitars take the license they get from jazz fusion in the rock school and break from rhythm, which allows more flexible exploration of related themes.

This exceeds the norm for metalcore. These songs still spend too much energy on being catchy and creating contrast, which reminds me of the 1980s carnival metal they sold as an alternative to speed metal, mixing gothic, hard rock, heavy metal and industrial in these sample platter albums that went nowhere but would distract you with something “new, unique, different” (NUD) every iconoclastic second. The tendency of vocals in metalcore to blurt out a repeated rhythm is offensive not on an aesthetic level but a musical one, as it forces the rest of instrumentation to discoordinate. That was sort of new when Napalm Death did it… twenty-five years later, it plays out as contrived. Where this band shines however is in their ability to tie together songs with a central harmonic theme and thus despite the wide range of technique, still use the craft of songwriting to guide listeners through a musical experience more than an aesthetic one. Lead guitars are far above average and make the best use of their flexible style, although sometimes the melodies and patterns that emerge could be the basis of additional songs in their own right.

As they saying goes, with metalcore “you either do or you do not,” and many of us firmly underline the do not option because we prefer death metal for its greater expressiveness. Among the post-metal hybrids however Cognizance provides one of the better options by keeping musicality at the center of their songwriting and refusing to allow it to be swallowed up by instrumentalism, pushing back against the most wanky aspects of the metalcore genre. Musical performances show competence extended to the point of some comfort with the performance, which allows this band to relax a bit and write some songs instead of spending too much time using Visio to script their riff transitions. While _Inceptum shows us only two songs, it reveals a positive side of this band that may offer new breath for the flagging metalcore genre.

    Tracklist:

  1. The Succession of Flesh
  2. Aeon of Creation

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Einherjer – Av Oss, For Oss

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Very few albums are truly horrible in the sense of doing something every moment that repels the senses. Instead, they are just bad, meaning inept at achieving an effect, often to the point where you wonder why no one questioned the attempt somewhere in the process.

Av Oss, For Oss could well be the missing Alestorm album. Its songs always revert to bouncy faux-Nordic style that might fit a Disney ride or guest musicians on a motorized Viking longboat tour of the marshes of Louisiana. Musically, nothing here is incompetent, but it also lacks any inspiration and plods along with nothing to offer and then loses track of itself, and falls back on the same shorthand. There really is no point discussing the album beyond saying that because no album can redeem itself from that point.

I remember acquiring an early Einherjer album which people swore was just the bee’s knees. Hipsters really talked that way in the past but thankfully they’ve moved on to newer phrases like sui generis and “off the chain.” Back then it seemed unfocused but short. Av Oss, For Oss just seems like people sketching out a rough guideline and then writing to fill, and when they get something that qualifies, never looking back. Hit record, then print, and hope some money wanders in the door.

What is really missing here is a sense of proportion and of the parts relating to one another. Instead we get a random flow of boring riffs put together in nonsense order with heavy repetition and when the song goes nowhere, as said above, it falls back on a few patterns these guys really like. Individual parts are well-executed but without energy or flair, which makes me think this band should just break up and donate members to better bands who need competent people to fill basic roles. They are far from alone, since post-1994 black metal generally sucks, but this album just double-underlines the point and then writes it, Bart Simpson style, in endless repetitions down the chalkboard.

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Blodhemn – H7

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Black metal surrendered to a farce back in the mid-1990s. This farce took the surface ideas of black metal and used them to enclose the same old crap that rock music had been passing off for at least two decades at that point. Blodhemn resurrects those glory days with an album that is not just random, but boring, and completely pointless.

H7 consists of songs about songs. That is, these are songs written by someone listening to black metal and trying to make a version of that, instead of attempting to understand the cause-effect relationship that pushed Norwegian musicians in the early 1990s to create some of the most epic and interesting music that heavy metal has ever seen. That is not to say that this album lacks moments of interesting riff, or transition, but that these things are put together into a package that drones through repetition and “unexpected” expected changes, linked up with riffs that are boring because they are predictable.

In these songs, careful attention to what black metal bands did in their glory days shows through in a penchant for certain dramatic riff types and transitions. These do not make the song, and frequently Blodhemn introduce a promising start then take it nowhere, either dropping into paint-by-numbers riffing or the post-Ulver carnival style where riffs do not relate to each other but provide “contrast” which ends up producing a song devoid of emotion or anything else that requires consistency, development and purpose. Vocals fit the trademark late-90s Norsecore rasp and many of these riff archetypes come from the proudest moments of Satyricon and Darkthrone. In particular, percussion shows a diligent understanding of how Fenriz produced a throbbing intensity of sonic force that swept listeners up into its mystery.

Unfortunately, no amount of doing the parts right can save H7 from its destiny, which is as a summary of the techniques of black metal without delving into the content that those bands labored to provide. As a result, even when promise emerges, it soon becomes lost in the flow of random and pointless activity. Blodhemn and H7 are good things to avoid, unless you really adore tedium and bootlicking.

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Decimation – Reign of Ungodly Creation

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Deathcore relies on trope to the point where the style becomes almost all convention with little variation within. Joining other styles like rap and techno, it reduces itself to minor deviations from a norm and so the difference between bands, albums and songs becomes less important than currency.

Decimation attempt to restore deathcore with many of the stylistic methods of later percussive death metal, specifically Suffocation Pierced From Within, and are remarkably successful in doing so but because of their extensive reliance on deathcore passages may not make the threshold for many death metal listeners. When looking through history, we see deathcore arising from the Cannibal Corpse axis where vocals lead the music and guitars exist to blat out rhythmically hook-centric riffs in coordination with drums but in support of vocal rhythms.

Decimation upgrade this to giving the guitars more leeway at the ends of phrases and between verses, where the band use phrasal riffing and open strumming to generate interest. They even write in melodic lead riffing over high-speed strumming in the way Suffocation would, which infuses these songs with a new energy but will probably offend deathcore purists. If you can imagine a hip-hop troupe who broke every other phrase to play full-on bebop, the effect is similar here in that it makes return to the deathcore that much more jarring but puts into play enough for the ears to listen to that the deathcore parts become more like rhythm comping to build up for the sweetness. Deathcore fans will note that the characteristic lack of variation in technique and approach to rhythm is consistent on the deathcore passages.

Where Decimation excels is in assembling songs around an idea despite surrounding it with a riff salad. These songs sound more composed than your average deathcore song in that they have a center and changing layout to reflect what that is, but less “composed” in that unlike classic deathcore they do not attempt to create a rhythm groove and ride it, alternating with a chorus, into the ground. Bass-intense vocals fall into cadence with guitar during verses, but range free for fills and choruses, allowing the range and texture of vocals to expand. Drums adopt the overactive style of post-Suffocation deathcore but keep an emphasis on varied internal rhythm to produce expectation rather than sheer repetition and breakdown as both techno and deathcore tend to do.

Reign of Ungodly Creation will split death metal purists. If you could listen to Cannibal Corpse alongside Suffocation and Kataklysm, this 37-minute diatribe will appeal and seem to expand on those conventions. If like many you preferred death metal before it started imitating post-hardcore, there may be too much deathcore in here for you. This perspective is entirely understandable, as the deathcore portions of this album use a few common forms in many variations, where the death metal segments vary more widely in form. It is more infectiously rhythmic and disciplined than most deathcore and so could well inject some needed life into that flagging genre.

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Witchfinder General – Death Penalty

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After Black Sabbath invented proto-metal, people mixed together hard rock like Led Zeppelin and came up with a new hybrid they called heavy metal, but it lacked the intensity of Black Sabbath. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) fused the energy of punk and garage rock back into the music to restore the alienated energy, and Witchfinder General numbered among its strongest arguments.

Bands making music of this nature face a challenge: the entire rock community is based on making things sound smooth and grandiose in the kind of narcissistic ecstasy that people who want to be the center of attention for their 15 minutes exhibit, and this clashes with the need to sound like a combat unit taking a break to bash out a few tunes. As the Witchfinder General Live ’83 release shows us, this band had great intensity when they could focus their energies in that fashion.

While Death Penalty features the same excellent songwriting, matching vocal melodies that evoke the ambition without regard for convention that made Ozzy Osbourne the favorite Black Sabbath vocalist, and powerful riffing that expanded beyond the rock vocabulary to the side door of speed metal, the more refined production convinced Witchfinder General to play these songs more slowly and to layer on additional lead guitar and production effects to “enhance” the sound. The result is that much of the energy dissipates into a 1970s rock filter, and the production emphasizes a thin guitar tone to which the band adapts. Other than this disadvantage, Death Penalty shows us Witchfinder General at their most powerful.

Like the best of NWOBHM bands, Witchfinder General used shorter riffs than Black Sabbath and focused more on melodic guitar composition that echoed the previous generation of British heavy guitar rock. In addition, the band injected fast rhythmic riffing using a muted strum, and fast lead fills that allowed more flexibility in riff placement, but also borrowed from many of the progressive bands a more flexible sense of song structure. There will be the verse-chorus cycle, but it often transitions with a break that emphasizes some aspect of the song and allows the band to use variants of riffs for great contrast, before returning to the original cycle. To death metal fans, it may seem tame, but in the day it was a revolution against heavy metal convention, and these songs still stand tall with a power that all those artists who wish to be more polished than pugnacious cannot capture.

Much of the focus of songwriting wraps around the vocals which guide each song ably by taking the high register and infusing just enough melody into these riffs to give each passage a hook. Sometimes this limits what the band could spend its energy on, as we can hear through many of the incidental guitar passages such as the fade-out instrumental break in “Death Penalty,” but it also helps hold together these sounds which are bursting with energy and musical creativity. Much of this album sounds like later Black Sabbath with more caffeinated leads, but that is its voice and not its essence, which is a flexible view of songwriting that never loses the need for a charge of the light brigade in power chords against the pleasant illusions of the average rock fan, then or now.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uu-UW7agTkY

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Grave – Necropsy: The Complete Demo Recordings 1986-1991

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Back around 1991 or so, Grave Into the Grave lived in every Hessian room across the land. It combined an intense rhythmic attack with a type of accessibility that did not on the surface resemble the pop music — generally downtempo bittersweet wailing indie-rock — of the age. Then the band seemed to drop out of reality.

Listening to Necropsy: The Complete Demo Recordings 1986-1991 has clarified for me exactly what I like and detest about this band. Unlike most bands of that era, Grave understood the concept of hook, in this case a rhythm that is fascinating enough to be instantly memorable. On the downside, the hook swims in what are ultimately predictable song structures borrowed from the lower echelons of 1980s speed metal. These demos show Grave developing its style from an early Possessed/Kreator hybrid into full-fledged death metal, yet the band never really breaks into what made death metal powerful. These songs cycle through verse-chorus with exceptions made to fit in some transitional riffs, but never construct themselves around an idea expressed in both riff and song. As a result, they come across as random outside of the one moment of clarity for the hook, at which point the brain goes to sleep waiting for the random power chord slamming to end and the hook to come around again.

The good parts of Grave should not be understated. At a time when most bands were trying to make themselves presentable to the average music listener by reining in their extreme tendencies, Grave leaped howling into the abyss with rigid and abrupt riffs that slammed home with the intensity of the big American bands. Much like style-mates Seance and Hypocrisy, Grave took Swedish death metal away from the melodic riffs and restraint into full-on textural assault with primitive rhythm as its guide. And yet listening back over this, one might wish for a little bit more of Carnage and Entombed in with the Malevolent Creation style riffs. The song structures are too simple to give these riffs room to breathe, so they just cycle, which is to say raw repetition “one removed” by introduction of a contrary or at least different theme. If tied together with some melody, more structure, or even a greater sense of internal dialogue between the songs, the early work from Grave would have been legendary and far surpassed Entombed and others who made big names for themselves in Swedish metal.

These demos progress from the prescient in style works of the 1986-1988 period in which bands were still figuring out how to work with the fertile ferment of Bathory, Hellhammer, Possessed, Sepultura, Sodom and Slayer. The Grave tracks from this era sound like a second-rate speed metal band imitating Possessed as death vocals ring out around clumsier versions of riff patterns you might find on a Heathen or Dark Angel album. As time goes on, the riffs pick up more technique and the clumsiness becomes an aggressive slamming rhythm mated to an adroit sense of pick-up rhythm that conserves and intensifies the energy of each riff. But, much as with Kreator, the riff is the hook and the “sweet spot” in the midst of relatively unrelated material, which means songs keep clunking along on the rhythm of the drums and vocals while the guitars do random stuff. It’s as if these bands never fully come together and are just too individualistic for their own good, Kreator especially. As the demos accelerate toward 1991, the technique streamlines into recognizable full death metal, but the song structures revert to the 1986 styles and despite increased proficiency remain just as clumsy in end result.

What emerges from these demos as a result is a crash-course in how to write great death metal riffs without writing great death metal. Grave faded before its time because it never knitted these power riffs into full songs, and went after the German model of a friendly rhythm with great hook in a song where everything else is essentially linear. This makes the listener fade in for the hook, then fade out, and end the listening session with no sense of continuity or overall impression of an event, emotion or attitude. In this, Grave — despite having mastered the science of death metal riffcraft — missed the boat on the innovation that death metal brought to the wider world of heavy music, and this explains why their work has not obtained the staying power assigned easily to bands with less-powerful riffing but more focus on integrative songwriting.

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Gorement – The Ending Quest

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Gorement could send a thank-you letter to Amorphis and the funeral doom movement for popularizing its riffs over the years, since despite a large amount of raw promise this release was never going anywhere. The Ending Quest is like a book of ideas, raw riffs of great potential floating in a background of poor ideas and randomness.

Often reasons exist for why underground treasures never made it to the surface back in the day. In the case of The Ending Quest, the reason is that it is a boring and frustrating listen, for two reasons. The band does not know how to develop songs, and thus its greatest ideas either go nowhere or run somewhere pointless, and its songwriting duties seem divided between a genius at melodic riffs and a guy who likes to write chromatic skim fills to keep those riffs from getting ahead of themselves.

Only two years after this album came out, a band named Skepticism took this aesthetic and brought it to a better place: crashing glacial riffs, slow bass-intense vocals, and a melodic basis. They dropped the death metal influences that required those melodic riffs to move quickly, and the guitar solos, which meant that they made their music in more of an ambient capacity. Gorement instead try to make death metal and so they piece it together, two boring riffs for every melodic sweet spot, and a sense of rhythm that often disconnects the needs of the riff from the needs of the song.

Material of stunning insight, foresight and promise fills this disc. Many of these riffs are cognizable from the albums of bands that went on to more success, and some of these ideas far exceed the substitutes that came in their place. The unique low and slow bass-intense vocals were an innovation, as was the tendency — later exploited by bands like Amorphis, Dissection, Sentenced, Bolt Thrower and Sacramentum — to stitch a fast melodic lead over a vermicular riff and slow partial groove. Gorement also know how to create a dramatic transition through simultaneous tempo and riff shift. The problem is that so many of these riffs fall into predictable patterns, and so many of these songs fail to organize their elements into any expression, so we end up with the curse of all early death metal: the album of good riffs that goes nowhere.

Our ex-editor Kontinual, who died suddenly of AIDS in 2010, wrote fondly of this band. But this is ultimately where we differ: death metal is propelled by structure, with each song forming a kind of “riff-poem” in which emotion is derived from how the riffs fit together, not the particular key and mode in which they are written. Riff-poems fail when they stop making sense, or when there is blathering nonsense that should have been edited out inserted just after a phrase of great profundity. The Ending Quest inspired legions of bands and imitators, is partially responsible for the first “melodic doom” explosion that tried to make death metal for rock music fans with Tiamat and later Opeth, and clearly gave many bands a riff book to use in their own projects. But as a listening experience, it resembles a speech by a distracted professor: moments of brilliance, surrounded by confusion.

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Cóndor announces new album Duin will be released January 27, 2015

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South American death metal and progressive band Cóndor will release its second album, Duin, on January 27. This band takes an approach more like that of classical guitarists toward melding death metal with progressive rock, blues, folk and other influences: it mixes them in serially and adopts them within the style, rather than hybridizing the two styles.

In other words, most bands that try to sound like progressive death metal try to act like a progressive rock band playing death metal, or a death metal band playing progressive rock. Cóndor takes an approach more like that of musicians in the past, which is to adopt other voices within its style, so that it creates essentially the same material but works in passages that show the influence of other thought.

Cóndor‘s first album Nadia made our best of 2013 for its mix between primal death metal and other guitar-oriented styles. It will be interesting to see how much the band matured and developed during the past two years and how it will handle what are undoubtedly new influences.

The tracklist is as follows:

  1. Río frío
  2. El lamento de Penélope
  3. La gran laguna
  4. Coeur-de-lion
  5. Condordäle
  6. Helle gemundon in mod-sefan
  7. Adagio
  8. Duin
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Robert Walser Running With the Devil re-editioned

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One of the first-wave works of heavy metal academia will see a new edition in the coming weeks as Robert Walser Running With the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music sees a re-issue with an expanded introduction by Harris M. Berger, co-editor of Metal Rules the Globe.

While its research focus is on gender, which was the most popular topic of music study in the decade in which it emerged, the 1993 first edition of this book shocked the world awake to the possibilities of heavy metal by drawing connections to other social movements, classical music and extremist political movements. Its strength is an understanding of the metal spirit and its implications both socially and in the individual. Walser writes convincingly and sparsely, understanding the root of good academic writing to be clarity and not a posturing of vocabulary and prose conventions.

It will be interesting to see how this book is updated over time. Many of the tropes of gender from the 1990s have themselves been updated, whether for better or worse being left as an exercise to the reader, and much of heavy metal has evolved. As with most books from that decade, Walser’s first edition does not distinguish between hard rock and heavy metal, leading to a bleedover of commercial heavy metal with the separate genre itself. This is a minor quibble, as Walser sees with insight into several areas that every other book at the time missed, which made Running With the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music 1.0 the ideal starting point for academics in its time.

Copies are shipping now from University Press of New England with copies showing up on Amazon and in e-Book form shortly.

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