Instrumental metal: an idea whose time has come

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When Burzum released Hvis Lyset Tar Oss in 1994, underground metal was forever split. This album featured longer songs where concept was closely intertwined with song structure, and riff shape defined by mood. It both made undone past paradigms and raised the bar.

After that point, black metal and death metal deflated. The initial rise of ideas created in reaction to outrage at a dying civilization was gone, and nothing else propelled the genre forward, so it fell into self-imitation based on outward traits. Further, few bands could handle the raised bar, so it was “explained away” in social circles and the music tended toward the more primitive, not less.

Thus is the problem with raising the bar. Once you have done it, people either rise to the challenge and forge ahead in the new language, or have to hide the fact that they’re here for the gravy train which means they want to make the same dumbass music they would make in rock, pop, punk or blues, but use some distortion and call it “black metal.” That leads to high margins: the product is cheap to make because it’s a well-known type, but it has a higher markup due to novelty.

However, unless you’re deaf, you’ve noticed that the output of underground metal has seriously flagged in quality since the mid-1990s. Not so in quantity, of course, where we have more bands than ever before who have better production, are better instrumentalists, and generally more savvy at the music industry. Unfortunately the music they produce is not as good as what a few lonely intelligent outcasts did in the early 1990s.

This leads us back to a question of metal’s growth. Do we keep up with the raised bar? Style is not substance, but the two are related. Without enough substance, style never evolves; without the right style, substance often gets lost. Artists tend to visualize the two at the same time as part of the same articulation of an idea that they are communicating through mood, or the sensation of perceiving something and wanting to engage with it. In theory, metal could continue with what it has, using the same styles but writing new music, and many bands have succeeded in that. But keeping up with the raised bar has some advantages.

First, instrumental metal would be difficult and this would draw a line between metal and the pop, rock, blues and rap and place us closer to ambient and classical in the respect scale. Take for example this quote from educator Liam Malloy:

“In the past, heavy metal has not been taken seriously and is seen as lacking academic credibility when compared with other genres such as jazz and classical music. But that’s just a cultural construction.”

Second, this change would get rid of the vocal problem in metal. We know what death/black metal vocals are, but the shock has worn off as they’ve been appropriated by other genres. They are not extreme anymore, and overused by those who like them because a plausible imitation is easy to pull off. On the other hand, shouting vocals (Pantera) are annoying, most male singing sounds like drunk guys brawling, and the high pitched “operatic” vocals divide an audience. No vocals, no worries.

Third, this would make it easier to tell real metal bands from the weekenders. Real bands can put together long pieces that make sense, where the weekends just want the appearance thereof. Contrast real progressive rock like Yes to the somewhat paltry substitute in Opeth. Opeth have nailed the aesthetic, but not the underlying musical depth or density. When you hear the two together, it’s clear they are from different genres.

Fourth, instrumental metal would enable greater riffiness in metal. Already there’s a storm of protest when “riff salad” songs emerge, even if the riff makes sense. Much of death metal was an end run around using constant verse-chorus vocals, thus liberating guitars to create more interplay between riffs. Without vocals to keep bringing the song back to repetition, riffs could have greater leeway and repetition would exist not out of standard song form, but to emphasize parts of the song that need repeating for the sake of atmosphere.

Many people out there want metal to go instrumental. While it loses the masculine and terrifying aspect of the vocals, it encourages a competition among metal bands to not only preserve that but make it more extreme among their instrumentals. And if anything, that’s closer to the spirit of metal itself.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MJf3PEFqh3k

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czi5rbl0Ghw

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Aosoth – IV: An Arrow in Heart

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Formed in 2002, Aosoth launched themselves down an intellectual path blazed by the Order of Nine Angles, a theological Satanist outfit whose ideology differs greatly from the usual atheistic, materialist Satanism of modern “black metal.” This would become significant as the band evolved musically to match their inclinations in aesthetic and ideal.

Early Aosoth releases fit within the run-of-the-mill French black metal style with more aggression and yet control than most bands of that type were demonstrating at the time. As the band incubated their sound changes came, and each release improved upon prior works while also reaching for a style more likely to be unique to Aosoth.

IV: An Arrow in Heart meshes textures the way a painter mixes paint and applies to canvas. Most songs are in a somewhat standard format with riffs recycled often. Though the pitfalls of being monotonous from repetitive riffing are present in this release, Aosoth keep it interesting by having well-thought-out structures and progressions. Occasional ambiance meshes with the bleak and desolate droning riffs to provide an atmosphere of distress.

As black metal has found itself in a position of being separated from its origins without having discovered a path to the future, releases like IV: An Arrow in Heart site astride two very different standards, loyalty to form and need to innovate. While none will argue that Aosoth has left black metal behind like the post-metal et-al crowd, it is clear that this band has found a way to innovate within a faithful tribute to the past, and the result has given the band the voice it had desperately needed.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pqq-YKI5dlU

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The Best of Underground Metal of 2013

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I used to loathe end-of-year lists. They struck me as a pointless chance to advertise what should have been obvious before. Over the years they have risen in my estimation as a way not only to mark the year, but to bring up the gold that gets lost in the chaos of everyday life. And yes, they’re also shopping lists for the metalhead in your life.

This year our list is surprising even to hardened cynics. At a time when metal is bragging up and down the Williamsburg alleys about how “innovative” and “ground-breaking” it is, that novelty turns out to be the remnants of the 1980s: emo, pop punk, shoegaze and indie. The real innovation is as always underground, because to get out of the hive mind one must first remove oneself from participation in normalcy.

Thus what you will find here is not what you will see in either (a) the big-label-financed slick magazines and web sites or (b) the majority of small zines and websites out there. That is because the genre as a whole has shifted from creation towards an idea to emulation of the past, or reaction to the past by trying to adulterate it with outside influences. Neither approach succeeds.

When a reviewer chooses an album, he should pick one that will last in your collection. Your time is limited, as is your money. Thus we look only for works that you can purchase and enjoy over the years, and can return to with a sense of wonder and discovery as new angles and nuances emerge. This standard seems high, so they call us elitists. What we really are is people who love metal and want it to be strengthened by its best, not weakened by accepting its worst.

The following albums are those that merit such a standard:

argus-beyond_the_martyrsArgus – Beyond The Martyrs

Rejecting the notion of newness in itself, Argus returns to fundamental influences from the 1980s and makes a band that sounds like a fusion between Mercyful Fate, Iron Maiden and Candlemass. Guitar riffery is designed to be inventive and interesting in its own right but is trimmed down to what fits the function of each song. As a result, these songs “sound like” the classics in more ways than one. They are thoughtful and deliberate, purposeful and driven. Classic heavy metal riffs merge with meandering leads that somehow pull it all together, under the mournful voice of a vocalist who clearly enjoys classic Candlemass both in vocal delivery and sense of melody. See full review / interview.

autopsy-the_headless_ritualAutopsy – The Headless Ritual

Autopsy are famous for their contributions to death metal which notably peaked in Mental Funeral where their chaotic tendencies got wrapped up in their sense of atmosphere and produced a dark ambling journey into the subconscious. Of their later works, The Headless Ritual gets close to such a balance although it aims for something more everyday. This is an album that wants to deliver classic death metal thrills, and it does so with moderately paced songs that balance melody and savage chromatic riffing. Chris Reifert’s drumming pirouttes and grapples through vicious tempo changes as riffs unlock a Lament Configuration that is equal parts nostalgia and invention.

birth_a_d-i_blame_youBirth A.D. – I Blame You

What happened to real thrash, like DRI and Cryptic Slaughter? In much the same vein as hardcore punk before it, thrash was so intense that it burned out after only four years of real presence. Birth A.D. wisely choose not to “bring it back” but rather to pick up as if thrash were a party and the next day, the hung over participants awaken among the ruins. They’ve sharpened its message, which merged the anarchy of punk with the search for societal purpose of metal, and given its riffs the S.O.D. speed metal infusion without unduly modernizing them. As a result, these two-minute songs hit hard and retreat into the jungle, leaving behind their sardonic lyrics mocking society for being so stupid. When the record stops playing, there is a sense of both having received too much information to process, and a sadness that there isn’t more. See full review.

black_sabbath-13Black Sabbath – 13

Realizing what Black Sabbath meant to fans not just as a named entity but as a phenomenon, Black Sabbath integrate the sounds of vocalist Ozzy Osbourne’s solo years into their later, more refined music, with citations to Master of Reality as well. The result is a powerful album that is more pop than their original works but, in a time when nu-metal rages on the radio, reclaims heavy metal as having a voice of its own. It also pushes controversy, affirming a presence of God in this world for good or ill at a time when most people want to get polemic one way or the other. A supporting cast of sprawling but hard-hitting songs make this a great immersive lesson and transition from regular rock to metal for new listeners. See full review.

blitzkrieg-back_from_hellBlitzkrieg – Back From Hell

This band shares members with Satan, who also re-entered the fray with an album of strong tunes. Like Satan, Blitzkrieg know how to simultaneously avoid “changing” for change’s sake (inevitably a lateral move to other contemporarily popular genres) and nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, making instead an album that fits into their catalogue but doesn’t deny the older, wiser status of its members. These are mostly straightforward songs with melodic choruses and driving, riff-centric verses, plus nimble-fingered and harmonically-aggressive soloing. See full review.

burzum-sol_austan_mani_vestanBurzum – Sôl Austan, Mâni Vestan

People said they wanted old Burzum back. The spirit of old Burzum comes back in this ambient album. It’s a bit more hasty and less refined by fanatical attention to detail than his previous works, but it creates the same world, only zoomed forward in time. It is both a practical and imaginative album. In style, it resembles a cross between Tangerine Dream, William Orbit and the Scandinavian folk music of Grieg, Hedningarna or Wardruna. Strongly ritualized, it unfolds like a descent through mythical worlds and finds its own balance. One of the best offerings in this field. See full review / interview.

centurian-contra_rationemCenturian – Contra Rationem

For years many of us have wanted this Dutch band to catch a break. They have written several albums of relentlessly pounding, rhythmically intense riffing that somehow doesn’t add up. First, writing the whole album at high speed means that soon it backgrounds itself; second, there was always a lack of melody or song structure to hold it together. Centurian have improved on the latter two and toned down the former to a great degree, such that this is no longer trying to be Krisiun but more like a more Angelcorpse/Fallen Christ approach to Consuming Impulse. The result showcases this band’s dexterity with riffcraft and creates an intense atmosphere of violence. See full review.

condor-nadiaCóndor – Nadia

This entry album by a new band shows a lot of promise in tackling the power metal format and trying to give it the balls of death metal and funeral doom metal. This contemplative, mostly mid-paced album shows a sense of atmosphere as manipulated by riff, in the death metal sense, given a somewhat upward curve and heroic spin in the best tradition of power metal. Although it’s a new act, and still organizing itself, Cóndor shows that life remains in true metal that can be explored by revisiting its motivations. See full review / interview.

derogatory-above_all_elseDerogatory – Above All Else

In the tradition of Vader, Mortuary and other fast phrasal death metal bands, Derogatory invoke the classic death metal form with an album of nicely interlocking riffs that reveal a basic but distinctive structure beneath each song. This album is not self-consciously “retro” so much as it is using the voice of the older style, and while it doesn’t expand stylistically, it has found a voice of its own. See full review/interview.

empyrium-into_the_pantheon-coverEmpyrium – Into the Pantheon

Combining funeral doom metal with European folk music creates for Empyrium a fertile style that is showcased here in a retrospective of the best of their career presented in a rare live setting. Expect plenty of use of silence and resonance to build up these songs, which start slowly and then become engaging before evaporating into more esoteric conclusions. While most funeral doom aims to be dark, Empyrium creates an emotional contrast like a Gothic band, with beauty arising from chaos only to be strangled by inevitability and fall again. See full review / interview.

graveland-thunderbolts_of_the_godsGraveland – Thunderbolts of the Gods

Following up on 2012’s Lord Wind release, Polish/Italian artist Rob Darken unleashes a new work under his black metal brand Graveland. Like the band’s second career-defining Memory and Destiny, this release features Bathory Hammerheart-style guitars which mix speed metal and black metal to produce rhythmic riffing as a backdrop for keyboards and vocals, now featuring also human female vocals and violin. The result is a collision between heavy metal, neofolk and epic movie soundtracks that evokes the glory of the ancient past.

master-the_witchhuntMaster – The Witchhunt

Paul Speckmann is a metal institution who has stayed with death metal from its genesis in the early 1980s through the presence. His latest, The Witchhunt, showcases the stable lineup he has used for recent releases but tones down the overall intensity to focus on songwriting. Fast riffs blend together with touches of melody and the classic Speckmann vocal patterns which resemble the struggles of daily life turned up to eleven. Where previous Master works of recent vintage tended to blend together, on this one each song is distinct. See full review / interview.

profanatica-thy_kingdom_cumProfanatica – Thy Kingdom Cum

Taking a hint from Necrovore and intensifying it through technical prowess, Profanatica step back from the longer melodic riffs of Profanatitas de Domonatia and instead write short, cyclic phrases within compact rhythms in the style of the ancient Texas death metal cult. The result is like a primitive album with complexity embedded in it as melodies expand within fixed riff forms, uniting savagery and beauty in the service of blasphemy. As with all Profanatica works, this is experimental to the extreme, but Thy Kingdom Cum ranks among their most listenable releases. See full review /interview.

rudra-rtaRudra – RTA

The Singaporean maniacs return with an album that uses more traditional melodic death metal riffing but retains its rhythmic structure based on speed metal and possibly the Hindu rituals described in its lyrics. As with most Rudra releases, RTA does not aim for the pop song idea of hitting a sweet spot and luring in your ears. It is the construction of an experience, in this case a dark descent that forges a resolve to continue through warfare and a martial stilling of the reckless personality through militant silence of the soul.

satan-life_sentenceSatan – Life Sentence

The rougher edge of NWOBHM that was a kissing cousin to speed metal emerges again in this highly musical album from Satan. Like their groundbreaking early 1980s works which presaged the debut of Metallica and birth of speed metal, Life Sentence features inventive riffs in classic song format in which melodic development in the vocals harmonizes riffs to bring songs to a conclusion. Shy of speed metal mostly because it relies on relatively fixed song format which emphasizes verse-chorus riff pairs, this album nonetheless reveals both the greatness of NWOBHM and its continuing relevance in a time of tuneless songs and random song structure. See full review / interview.

summoning-old_mornings_dawnSummoning – Old Mornings Dawn

After black metal fully constituted itself in the early 1990s in Scandinavia, people looked for the next development along these lines. Some went to dark ambient, but others like Summoning and Graveland instead explored longer melodies and more drawn-out, atmospheric songs. Summoning take a medieval and Tolkien-inspired approach in contrast to the more martial outlook of other bands, and produce as a result immersive waves of melody that evoke a more organic society. With Old Mornings Dawn, these Austrian metal maniacs build on the emotion of Oath Bound but exploit it in more compact and separable songs, making one of the more intense metal statements of the year. See full review.

von-dark_gods_seven_billion_slavesVon – Dark Gods, Seven Billion Slaves

Following up on Von’s early career material like Satanic Blood is not easy; in fact, it’s impossible. A band would either have to re-create that minimalist style and risk irrelevance, or embark on a campaign to dress it up as something it is not. Von has opted for something else entirely which is to create a minimalistic core within a rock opera style of black metal, producing one of the more puzzling but satisfying releases in the underground metal world this year. See full review.

wardruna-runaljod-yggdrasilWardruna – Runaljod – Yggdrasil

Combining folk music, world music, droning found noises and the type of ritualistic dark ambient that emerged from the end days of black metal, Wardruna is a black metal side project that offers a different vision of music. While earlier works seemed detached from the end listener, Runaljod – Yggdrasil embeds the listener within a wave of ceremonial sound that aims not to be forebrain listening as Western rock is, but a mentally ambient experience that overwhelms by addressing all of the senses and channeling that experience toward a realization.

warmaster-blood_dawnWar Master – Blood Dawn

Underground death metal continuation act War Master released a four-track EP, Blood Dawn, amidst personnel changes and other upheavals this year. Like the previous Pyramid of the Necropolis, Blood Dawn focuses on futuristic and yet ancient concepts, almost like Voivod taking on Robert E. Howard or Edgar Rice Burroughs. From this vast concept come songs that both grind their way to nihilism and implement the death metal method of matching riffs into an internal dialogue from which a conclusion emerges, creating a pocket of mystery which is filled with wonder and violence.

Album of the year:

imprecation-satane_tenebris_infinitaImprecation – Satanae Tenebris Infinita

There is no completely fair way to pick an album of the year from a list with this many strong contenders, but Imprecation win this one on both substance and situation. For substance, this is a solid album that combines a black metal sense of ritualistic song development with the death metal tendency to make abstract riffs into an organic whole. For situation, Satanae Tenebris Infinita sees a band that started in 1991 and is famous for releasing its discography of demos in 1995 finally reach a stage where it can release a full-length album independent of any past influences. In addition, Satanae Tenebris Infinita hits hard and does not relent. Each element serves a purpose toward creating a transition in moods, like a perpetual parallax as continents shift. If death metal was waiting for a direction forward, Imprecation have opened that gate to a new occult science and art of subversive metal. See full review / interview.

The following were considered, and then not so much considered:

  • Morbosidad – Muerte De Cristo En Golgota. This is like Krisiun or Impiety rendered in the style of Mystifier, or like any of the war metal bands that imitated Blasphemy but with a dose of downtuned Sarcofago. It’s not bad, but aside from high intensity rhythm, it doesn’t have much to offer. Thus think of it as Satanic death techno performed on muddy guitars.
  • Fates Warning – Darkness in a Different Light. Bands: don’t try to roll with the trends. You were good at something else for a reason. This album has strong smary indie rock influences on its vocals and the result is embarrassing to be caught listening to. Riffs are reasonable, but don’t particularly develop, and emphasize space and consistency more than something with a personality.
  • Grave Upheaval – Untitled. Not bad; mostly rumbling noises, very true to form. Unfortunately, also doesn’t go anywhere. It’s an atmosphere piece of one dimension.
  • Warlord – The Holy Empire. Some sort of rock-metal hybrid from back in the day, this form of power metal uses mostly lead riffing anchored by static open chording. The dominant instrument is the voice, more like Rush or Asia than most metal. It’s pleasant but lullabye and too close to rock music.
  • Hell – Curse and Chapter. Do you know how far I would have run to get away from this back in the 1980s? It’s NWOBHM/early power metal without much melodic movement in the riff, so there’s a lot of chugging and shifting but not much actual motion. Nor will you have much actual motion as you listen to this… in fact, you might find yourself immobile and snoring.
  • Battlecross – War of Will. This is traditional metal affected by metalcore aesthetics. The vocals follow the surge pattern of later hardcore, and the melodic riffs use rhythmic “chasing” to accelerate patterns older than Chuck Berry. The result is so distracting the band can’t compose a song, but instead write a riff pair and then leap into a blast beat to transition.
  • Enforcer – Death by Fire. Here we have another band from Scandinavia creating highly musically-literate, catchy and otherwise perfect music. The problems are twofold: (1) it is a clone of 1970s styles that are liked for their innocent pop cheeze (2) while it is emotive, and aesthetically appealing, it is also empty.
  • Queensryche – Queensryche. Since the band went legal on each other, there’s now two Queensryches… this one sounds like Coldplay. The same posi-pop vibe and expansive chorus feel drives this work, and it has a similar outlook on the world, which is a sort of pathological compulsion to make things beautiful instead of finding beauty where it is rare. Unsettling.
  • Leprous – Coal. If this Queen-slash-bad-indie band gets anywhere in metal, it’s time to bury the genre under warm ruminant feces. Power metal mixed with dramatic English pop. The result is bracingly twee with metal riffs batting about in the background.
  • Iggy and the Stooges – Ready to Die. Almost all reviews of this album will waffle, because it is good, but it’s not distinctive. It all kind of flows together, as if the band paid more attention to the aesthetics of sounding like themselves than whatever’s driving them. But how do you “be punk” when you have a paid up retirement plan and health insurance?
  • Abyssal – Novit Enim Dominus Qui Sunt Eius. This was the hip thing for a few weeks, but shows you that you cannot revive a genre by imitating it through outward form. These songs use all the right pieces, but in a random order, and thus create no mood except nostalgia. And I piss on nostalgia’s grave.
  • Tyrant’s Blood – Into the Kingdom of Graves. Great title, has a Blasphemy ex-member, can’t go wrong… right? There’s a lot to like about this, but it doesn’t hold together. It embraces the “hotel buffet” style of offering many different riff types in a single song that ends up distorting any coherence. Storming Perdition Temple-style fast metal explodes into melodic mid-paced riffs and then ends up chugging deathgrind, lost and adrift on the seas of making a point.
  • Cultes des Ghoules – Henbane. It’s ludicrous that so many in the underground were fooled by this comical album. It’s a lot of bad heavy metal riffs interrupted by “avantgarde” noise, samples, etc. — the usual cliches — so that you don’t notice it’s bog-standard. This is hipster incarnate.
  • Acerus – The Unreachable Salvation. Galloping uptempo yet mid-paced heavy metal with a lot of Iron Maiden and Mercyful Fate. Not bad, but not particularly expansive to anything more than that aesthetic role.
  • Aosoth – IV: Arrow in Heart. This album, like Immolation, got credit because people expected it should. Its strong point is listenable songs with some technicality; its weakness is that they express nothing strong. It is Participation with an A+ for method and a B- for content.
  • Sodom – Epitome of Torture. This rather sentimental, somewhat modern-metal influenced take on a speed metal album is very catchy and represents Sodom’s most professional work, but also loses the unique perspective this band offered on the world around it. This is more like the heavy metal albums of their youths, heavy on emotion which makes their repetitive, chorus-heavy approach almost too saccharine.
  • Grave Miasma – Odori Sepulcorum. I have wallpaper. It’s named “It’s 1991 again and you can rediscover things you believed in once again.” It sounds like a mishmash of 1990s era death metal and yet, because it’s wallpaper, it never comes to a point. It just creates an atmosphere.
  • Týr – Valkyrja. Power metal of the newer stype seems to me it has a mystery ingredient, and that is devotional music. This sounds like church music, with sweeping choruses and whole-note cadences, and it has an admitted power, but it also loses much of what makes metal powerful: it’s not protest music, nor is it music that tries to cover ugliness with beauty, but music that finds beauty in what is considered ugly.
  • Onslaught – VI. Eager to effect a return to the music business, Onslaught speed up their punk/metal hybrid but adopt the vocal styles and constant driving mechanical rhythm of modern metal. The result is unrelenting but also disconnected and monolithic. The catchy choruses don’t help and seem almost to mock the rest of the music, which sounds like a pilotless threshing machine gone amok in a pumpkin patch…
  • Death Angel – The Dream Calls for Blood. In the 1980s, speed metal bands had a certain annoying rhythm where they tried to be as obnoxiously bouncy as possible while ranting as intensely as possible. With modern metal much of the internal rhythmic interplay has been eliminated, resulting in something that sounds like chanting Stalinist propaganda with guitars strobing in the background.
  • Bölzer – Aura. Like Oranssi Pazuzu, Bölzer experiment in disorganized slowed black/death/heavy metal with mixed-in weirdo alternative rock. Weirdo alternative rock has existed since early rock bands made a name for themselves by being odd. The problem is that it doesn’t connect to form an impression, only a sense of instrumentalism.
  • Coffins – The Fleshland. Doom-death with some quality riffing, Coffins nonetheless manage to inevitably get lost in each of their songs and fill the void with noodly pentatonic leads, distracted tributaries of non-essential riffs, and “atmospheric” repetition.
  • Metal Church – Generation Nothing. This shrill metal band has always struck me as more in the heavy metal camp than speed metal camp, and here it’s borne out. The riffs don’t have form like speed metal riffs do but are mostly static based on rhythmic repetition. Focus is on the voice, which wails. Not bad but annoying and kind of empty. Also, older guys trying to bond with the new generation is awkward when done this way.
  • Malthusian – MMXIII. Like many sonic experiments, this band relies on style to shape content because style is the substance of the experiment. The idea here is to combine the Incantation-clone death metal that is trendy with melodic progressive touches, including some sneakster modern metal influences. The result loses what could have been and fails to transition to what it wants to be.
  • Stratovarius – Nemesis. When did this band get so bad? The first track sounds like a rip of Heart’s “On My Own,” and the rest of the album proceeds in this fashion: combine classic metal riff archetype with classic 1980s vocal melody, add some flourishes and hope it’s good enough. I liked it better when this band was more speed metally and less pop.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HmuHHGfUBEE

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Sadistic Metal Reviews 12-21-13

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What are Sadistic Metal Reviews? We think heavy metal has artistic value. Advertisers want heavy metal to be the token rebellion of future generations of consumers. We have truth and cruelty on our side, but they’ve got the money. Read between the screams for the rare non-failures…

ghost-if_you_have_ghostGhost – If You Have Ghost

Stop. When you hear the name Ghost (or Ghost B.C., since they got sued for unoriginality) don’t think “metal band.” Think hipster product. Ghost create yet another social status pandering musical widget for frappuccino enthusiasts to feel superior to the rest of us. If you go look at your local independent coffee haven, they are there raising their left fists above their foreheads whilst tilting a pinky finger outward and staring down their noses at the rest of us who aren’t as pop-culture savvy as their enlightened Adult Swim-watching kind are. Ghost added a Roky Erickson cover to have “street cred” amongst the garage/psych-rock crowd that hipsters associate with (because it’s rock music, but different…), but then play a series of pop songs from ABBA, Army of Lovers, and Depeche Mode to feign a sense of “open minded-ness” which reveals the true money-grubbing ways that motivate the constant churn of vapid media products. Sure to be a talking point amongst latte experts, this EP culminates in a live take of an original song which sounds like a bad excuse for carnival music.

crystal_age-far_beyond_divine_horizonsCrystal Age – Far Beyond Divine Horizon

With their seasoned membership which includes former Liers in Wait personnel, a Necrolord cover and an overblown concept, this “seems” like a death metal gem, but it isn’t. Coming off like Liers in Wait after hearing too much Yngwie Malmsteen and Nocturnus’ Thresholds, Crystal Age play an unfocused form of late 80s Forbidden style melodic speed metal with “extreme” updates in the form of raspy vocals, Egyptian themed tremolo riffs, and blast beats aplenty. Considering the scatter brained riff salad nature of these songs, it’s a surprise these guys would even have the aptitude for writing commercially viable AOR power metal later on in Hammerfall. Nothing too offensive, but at the same time random and uninspiring, this band could best be described as “spectacularly mundane.”

bat-primitive_ageBat – Primitive Age

This is a NWOBHM with the rhythms of an American punk band playing in honky tonks. Riffs are less ornate than most NWOBHM except for the fills which are classic early Iron Maiden and the like. It has a local band vibe and as a high-energy act fits more in a live bar setting than being heard on record. Songs vary between having the punk side win out and the metal side win out. On the whole, it’s above average quality with good energy, and songs that develop in very simple but not inept ways. Why is it here among the sadism, then? I like it, but I wouldn’t want to hear it often. It would be a great local bar band, A+. For listening in the world beyond, it’s not yet ready. Most reviewers won’t tell you this, because most reviewers go through a 2.5′ pile of CDs at three minutes each and like anything that they recognize as being like the other stuff they like.

ceremonial_age-the_book_of_truthCeremonial Oath – The Book of Truth

A Tampa death metal influenced project that made compromises to fit in better with the Gothenburg crowd of their scene at the time, Ceremonial Oath manage to wear their influences on their sleeves without living up to the promise of any one single influence, much less the hope that adding them together would make a better teen rebellion sonic product. There are some well developed counterpoint riffs and some of the tracks have interesting structures but, aside from the awesome artwork provided by former At the Gates guitarist Alf Svensson, this doesn’t hold up well over time or when compared to other releases from it’s era. Like a less worthwhile and stadium rock cheese infused Swedish counterpart to Shadows of the Past by Sentenced, but with more rhythm riffs, The Book of Truth is best judged by its cover and recycled early.

abramelin-transgressing_the_afterlifeAbramelin – Transgressing The Afterlife – The Complete Recordings 1988-2002

This box set, lovingly released by Century Media on 3 CDs or 5 LPs, is a boon — if you like Abramelin. I am totally divided on this band, since they have many great ideas for song construction, but can’t get over the hurdle of writing obvious and somewhat painfully blunt and directionless riffs, which leaves the end result as a lot of potential left in the hands of implements too crude to realize it. This seems to be a national characteristic of Australian metal which often has great ideas for songs but doesn’t have the technical power of the Americans or the melodic flair of the Europeans that enables it to reach those goals. The production on these restored demos, 7″ records, live tracks and album grooves is amazing and this set does great credit to Abramelin. I just can’t see myself listening to it again.

solefald-pills_against_the_ageless_illsSolefald – Pills Against the Ageless Ills

Let me tell you something about the term “avant-garde”: it works when other people use it to describe you. When you use it to describe yourself, it sounds like an excuse for low quality. Claiming to be “avant-garde”, Solefald play a style of black metal that uses the raspy vocals, thin guitar tone, and fast playing typical of the genre, but nothing else from black metal persists here. Especially not, you know, coherent songwriting, melodic development or atmosphere that isn’t a mile wide and an inch deep. Like Opeth, Solefald use “metal” sections in juxtaposition to “outside” elements in order to create “contrast” which is apparently the opposite of writing a song. This results in a compilation of new wave, rock, and synthpop elements superficially dressed up as black metal, but it’s like a bag of puppies and snakes fighting it, i.e. visible from a mile away as not being in any way unified. Listening to this, one can imagine Ulver, Enslaved, Opeth, and Dimmu Borgir sitting around a conference table and patting each other on the back to see how, like AIDS, their muzak has spread its “influence” which will ensure the ruining of metal beyond them. After us, nothing but pop brain-death, as far as the eye can see…

cadaver_inc-disciplineCadaver Inc. – Discipline

Discipline is not too bad for a late model black metal aesthetic-ized theatre of blasturbation. The problem is the songs are way too similar for their own good and it gets grating, not because of style, but because of monotonously linear songcraft. Considering guitarist Anders Odden’s (playing here under the “Neddo” alias) imaginative and exploratory playing on Cadaver’s In Pains album, Cadaver Inc. seems like a waste of talent as he tries to make a more popular style that is literally too simple for his brain to do well. The music is worthier than Marduk or Dark Funeral, more heavily favoring a grindcore heritage than throwing pop jingles under blasts. Still, this band will perhaps be remembered more for its bringing of underground cynicism and morbidity into the “.com” era in the form of a satirical website than its music.

arvas-into_the_realm_of_the_occultArvas – Into the Realm of the Occult.

Good riffs, random order. Combine Bathory Blood Fire Death with Ancient The Cainian Chronicle. The result is black metal with a heavy metal feel and while it can build atmosphere, it can’t develop it, thus feels incomplete and deflated like early Satyricon, both in melody and song structure. This is too bad because there are some quality riffs on here, nothing groundbreaking but clearly showing a fair amount of thought. There are also some borrowed riffs which when used too blatantly without being in a new context can crush the atmosphere achieved. Still, the feeling here is that this band has a huge amount of potential but needs an editor to put the riffs in the right order to develop the moods so adroitly evoked.

karmatik-humani-tKarmatik – Humani-T

When something gets trendy, like metal, everyone else starts trying to shoehorn their own genre into it. Karmatik is basically a lite progressive band that like guitary riffs, but has nothing in common with metal other than a few moments of speed metal riff before the band gets back to the real business, which is extended space jams. They do a good job of this, although its somewhat personal nature will probably appear a bit cheesy to a metalhead. The hard rock riffs here are, for all that this band likes to be progressive, of extremely well-known types and so there’s not much to listen to there. Like other bands who have become metal when they wanted to be prog, this band shines when they’re doing what they enjoy, which is the space jam parts. This should probably be referred to a prog-rock audience, but their criticism will probably be most severe for the metal parts as well, since they are the weakest link here.

bones-sons_of_sleazeBones – Sons of Sleaze

One of these comes along every few years. In the late 1990s, it was Driller Killer. Remember them? ME NEITHER. Bones is late-model grindcore set up to have the energy and listening appeal of a late hardcore band. The embrace of sleaze/perversity is almost always a red flag that a band has zero in terms of ideas about life, thus zero in terms of musical ideas that aren’t based on what another band did. In this case, it’s a crying shame because these guys are good songwriters who can pump out quality (but not groundbreaking) grinding riffs. These songs hold together, have emotional content and are memorable, for the most part. The problem is that like Hollywood stars they don’t connect to anything but themselves.

reverted-sputter_the_wormsReverted – Sputter the Worms

Despite attempts to appear otherwise, this is LA strip styled hair metal re-shaped with modern sludge/metalcore drumming and a few aesthetic touches such as an alt-rock influence in the vocals. However, it’s the hard rock riffs from the late 1970s with just enough groove to slide into the vocals and the decadent simplicity mated with period touches of guitar virtuosity, as if showing a once-vital civilization under the collapsed ruin. It’s not bad but there’s no real reason to listen to it either. I am always repulsed when bands try to disguise their inner nature, and also, when metal bands try to dumb it down to the point of appealing to a rock audience. Just be a damn rock band. And unleash that guitarist. There’s a lot of talent here in mating up these riffs, keeping up with the drums, and making the whole thing work. Unleash some solos, go Van Halen and play more of those epic riffs that sneak in toward the end of the songs. The vocalist is too dominant, as is the giddy slaphappy shuffle drumming, which detracts from any attention span the listener might have had. Then again, if you’re marketing to morons, that’s a good bet.

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Sammath – Godless Arrogance

digipak4Panel-DW.ai

Sammath combines the dark melodic understructure of black metal with the type of charging full-ahead death metal that Fallen Christ or Angelcorpse pioneered (which might descend from Morbid Angel’s “Thy Kingdom Come”). At this speed, the riff-salad approach of more traditional death metal would become a muddle, so the band focuses on a few ripping riffs per song and uses song structure deviations to incorporate entirely different riffs to create dialogue with the main verse-chorus pair and the Slayer-style introduction/transition riffs that accompany it.

Remarkably, Sammath has been consistent in this approach but have not found a voice for it until now. 1999’s Strijd showed an archly elegant melodic sense and underlying violence, but switched between the two much like later Entombed varied between pounding d-beat ambient riffs and architectures derived from John Carpenter soundtracks that showcased a spatial element to the music. During the early 2000s, two transitional albums Verwoesting/Devastation and Dodengang showed the band refining its rhythmic attack. Building on that past, Sammath went for guitar technicality and a more death metal approach to riffs on Triumph in Hatred but ended up losing the tendency to create an expansive spatial feel with complementary but radically different melodies in the death metal style, which uses riff to define context and then alters context for a type of continually evolving surprise ending.

Godless Arrogance features nearly constant high-intensity rhythmic riffing and finally has a production to match which emphasizes internal harmony but projects vocals and guitars to the forefront, creating an enveloping wall of sound. Drumming is violent martial battery without the happy kickbeat tendencies of overly rock-trained drummer; percussion here is more like punk, hard-driving intensity to channel the guitars, which alternate between abrupt chromatic confrontation in the Demoncy style to gentle unfolding melodies much like were found on Strijd. Bass folds into the guitar, and vocals are the high-volume bluster that reduces distorted vocals to a sound like a whisper spoken close to a microphone in high wind. The result is incessant and unrelenting but also has an inner life of melody that gives it depth and allows it to manipulate riff context like a death metal band while evoking ambient atmosphere in the best tradition of black metal.

“Godless Arrogance” will be released February 3, 2014 on Hammerheart Records.

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Sadistic Metal Reviews 12-12-13

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What are Sadistic Metal Reviews? Heavy metal is either art, or like the rest it’s a product to make sad people feel better about their empty and pointless lives. Brutal honesty is all that separates us from that abyss. Remember, tears are a sign that you’ve really reached people…

evereve-seasonsEvereve – Seasons

Nuclear Blast, this is NOT “music to mangle your mind.” This is the AIDS of the music world. Cheap, hokey synths ramble under tepid saccharine guitar melodies while effete whiny crooning that makes Morrissey sound like Tom Warrior radiates in the background. You can just about hear the teenage bedrooms of America, reeking of self-pity and masturbation, where the obese and inbred listen to this. It’s OK, kid, everyone gets turned down by a fleshlight at least once. If you can imagine heavy metal with all of its soul removed, candied like one of those disgusting little fruits in a fruitcake, this would be it. There is nothing here that is metal except under the flimsiest of pretenses. “Evereve” is more like “Summer’s Eve.” Seasons could be a forerunner for HIM. If you ever hear a note of this, you’re going to need hormone replacement therapy.

covenant-nexus_polarisCovenant – Nexus Polaris (also released as The Kovenant – Nexus Polaris)

The cheese of “black metal” circa 1998 is on full display here in this one album. Considering the Dimmu Borgir membership and the touting of a drum performance by Hellhammer circa his “help, I need money and even joined Arcturus” days, you know this will be bad. The vaudevillian sideshow vibe of later Ancient and Cradle of Filth is tricked out to sound like a joyous PG rated sci-fi soundtrack is playing over a rock opera, making this all sound more absurd. Imagine the music from a children’s variety TV show but with some drunk guitarist in the background hammering out heavy metal riffs with black metal stylings as he copulates with close family members while wearing a tutu. If you heard a “black metal” parody in recent times, chances are it sounded like this.

immolation-majesty_and_decayImmolation – Majesty and Decay

This album brings to mind Dogwin’s Law for metal: as a metal band ages, the probability of it reverting to its influences becomes one. Immolation started out as a speed metal band, then detoured into death metal for a few albums, and now is back to heavy metal but in a simplified form using death metal technique. When they did that cover of Mercyful Fate, it shook something loose, and Immolation thought, “Why spend hours fitting twisty riffs into intricate combinations?” Verse, chorus, break, solo — done! Collect check, buy motorcycle parts. This is the metal equivalent of baby food: over-cooked, pre-ground, sweetened and without any difficult parts. Gone are the wildly imaginative riffs and catcomb-like song structures. Instead it’s The Jets covering Bryan Adams put into power chord riffs. Embarrassed by their own non-output, Immolation tries to hide the emptiness by getting emo on the choruses but nothing can save this pile of paint-by-numbers metal. This is metal’s equivalent of Bangerz with some guy howling along in the background about stuff he read on Infowars.com.

morgoth-feel_sorry_for_the_fanaticMorgoth – Feel Sorry for the Fanatic

Another case of mid-90s “evolution,” Morgoth ditch the Death Leprosy worship for a sound more akin to Voivod at their most commercial playing Killing Joke at their poppiest. Vocals sound like a parody of Amebix, lots of mumbling and tuneless sung-shouts. Verse-chorus structures and an industrial rock production suggest this band was attempting to cash in on the industrial/cyber image trend of Ministry, Godflesh, and Fetish 69. With waves of label hype behind it, Feel Sorry for the Fanatic failed as only the falsest of marketing hype can. Creating a neutered album with fringe-accessibility to an audience that didn’t exist the year this album was released left the band to fall on its face in embarrassment and dishonorably disband.

wolves_in_the_throne_room-bbc_session_2011_anno_dominiWolves in the Throne Room – BBC Session 2011 Anno Domini

This band of hippies in denial have improved in the songwriting department, but by so doing reveal the underlying emo to their music. It’s clearer than ever before that Wolves in the Throne Room were never black metal. This two-song release allows the “post-metal” to shine, but musically “post-metal” is identical to emo, a subset of late hardcore/indie rock hybrids of the late 1980s. Musically, nothing has changed since that time, so if you’ve been in a cave since 1984 you might enjoy this band. These two tracks are far less random than previous Wolves in the Throne Room output. While they try to ape black metal with heavy guitar distortion and howled vocals, in harmony and choice of scale this material would fit in on a Jawbreaker or Rites of Spring album more than any black metal album. In fact it’s a complete sham to ever list this band as black metal because it misses out on what they do well, which is a very slow version of emo. Droning emptiness portrayed with slighly dissonant tracks that sound like self-pity incarnate. It evokes a lot of different feelings that boil down to the same state of suspension, in which mixed-emotions and self-pity that brings self-doubt resolve all things to the same. I wouldn’t recommend this for any metal fan or anyone who remembers the late 1980s.

solar_deity-devil_worshipSolar Deity – Devil Worship

If you approached a black metal band as if it were a doom metal band, you might end up with something like Solar Deity. Very musically literate in a way that is reminiscent of Necrophobic, with understated melodic riffs and good rhythm, this band nonetheless suffers from a type of drone syndrome where just not enough changes to keep interest, although there’s nothing offensive. Clearly mostly inspired by the first two Gorgoroth albums, Solar Deity attempt to set up a number of songs to narrate and develop theme, and do a reasonable job of it, but their riffs are rather lukewarm and repetition-intensive as is their usage. The result would be great if designed for doom metal, but as black metal ends up being an abrasive drone and sense of confused purpose within otherwise well-composed music. It might be good background music for repetitive tasks. You know, really feel that tedium as you clean water heaters, file taxes or chase hipsters off your front lawn with a shotgun (aim for the knees).

tribulation-the_formulas_of_deathTribulation – The Formulas of Death

Death metal isn’t hard rock. If it wanted to be hard rock, its members being honest people, it would have elected to simply be that instead. However, there’s a huge market in dressing up regular boring corporate product rock music as something “edgy” like death metal, which still hasn’t been conquered by the civilizing forces of socialization. Like previous Tribulation releases, The Formulas of Death is ambiguously in the death metal realm and in fact treats its death metal elements with ironic scorn. The result is a pretty good hard rock band embedded in a bunch of unnecessary stuff. Get a real vocalist, throw out the token chromatic riffs and d-beats, and re-style this album as something along the lines of early Queensryche or Cinderella and it would be great. This will make just about every “Best of 2013” because people can’t tell the difference between turd and steak tartare but also because it’s catchy. Simple music for simple minds.

skeletonwitch-serpents_unleashedSkeleton Witch – Serpents Unleashed

If focus groups found a way to slam Sentenced Amok and At the Gates Slaughter of the Soul into a metalcore product that panders to Adult Swim viewers, then Skeleton Witch would be the abomination unleashed. Tired and generic riffs more bound to cliche than tradition power an interchangeable series of mellow-deaf parts stitched into galloping rhythms. Although it appears to be like metal from a distance, I suspect if MC Hammer knew how to play a guitar, he’d come up with something like this. Poppy and bouncy background noise for people who value video games and Comedy Central more than music, Serpents Unleashed might be the sonic equivalent of a middle schooler’s diary: covered in stickers and glitter, but the content within is more than predictable in essence even if not in particulars, and in ten years it will humiliate them if unleashed.

beyond-fatal_power_of_deathBeyond – Fatal Power of Death

The problem with retro works is context. What was once a whole context is broken down into techniques, “moments,” transitions, tempo changes, riff-archetypes and melodic frameworks, and then reconstituted. However, since there’s no motivation except to be retro, there’s no new context except appearance. Thus the bands doing this tend to default to the simplest elements possible, which are either age-independent but average stuff the original genre tried to escape or conventions of the present age. The result is that you get the same stuff, but someone has covered it in retro-feeling-stuff. The end result is like a bison spray-painted with corporate logos, a contextless mishmash that’s oblivious to its own true nature. Beyond make a credible effort but they are trying to fit riffs together, not use riffs like words or colors on a painting, and as a result, nothing is communicated by frenetic energy, doubt and disorganization. Moments of this release are stunning, but the whole does not add up to much because it’s not about anything.

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The Heaviest Encyclopedia of Swedish Hard Rock and Heavy Metal Ever! by Janne Stark

janne_stark-the_heaviest_encyclopedia_of_swedish_hard_rock_and_heavy_metal_ever-smallSince the popularization age of search engines began, some have wondered if this spelled the impending doom of paper encyclopedias. If heavy metal is any indication, traditional methods of distributing information are still enduring.

Newly released tome from Premium Publishing, entitled The Heaviest Encyclopedia of Swedish Hard Rock and Heavy Metal Ever!, compiles information on the Swedish scene from the early 70s through the present day. Written by Janne Stark, the book lists releases from 3600 bands with short biographical information for each, notably a format reference for each album, in addition to a index searchable by both area and name. There is also a section on visual history, featuring album art and unpublished band photos.

Packaged with an accompanying CD, the book weighs in at 8.5 lbs. and 912 pages and can be picked up for $79 via the Premium Publishing webstore or $73 at Amazon. In addition, you can preview the book online.

The book contains a bonus CD of rare or never before issued tracks.

Tracklist:

  1. AMBUSH – Don´t Stop (Let Them Burn)
  2. EDDY MALM BAND – Turn In Down
  3. HELLACOASTER – Mani Jack
  4. ICE AGE – General Alert
  5. MASTER MASSIVE – Time Out Of Mind
  6. MACBETH – Sounds Of A Hurricane
  7. THE HIDDEN – For Gods Ache
  8. VOLTERGEIST – Desperate Highway
  9. PAINKILLAZ – Lost My Religion
  10. ZOOM CLUB – Walking On Stilts
  11. RAWBURT – Psycho Man
  12. MONICA MAZE BAND – Eyes Of The Living
  13. STRAITJACKETS – Stripped To The Bone
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Dawn to re-issue entire back catalog through Century Media in 2014

dawn-slaughtersun_crown_of_the_triarchy

Swedish black/death metal outfit Dawn returned from the chaos of the 2000s a year ago and have been steadily moving toward releasing new material since. In support of this, the band will be re-issuing its entire discography through Century Media in 2014.

Formed in 1990, Dawn migrated from the death metal of their early demos into a more complex, melodic, epic and atmospheric style of black/death metal that culminated in Slaughtersun – Crown Of The Triarchy in (1998). Along with Dissection, Unanimated, Eucharist and Sacramentum, Dawn created a hybrid of melodic metal styles that expressed Iron Maiden-style harmony and melodic within the more rigorous rhythmic format of underground death metal.

During the first half of 2014, Dawn‘s back catalog will finally be made available again on CD and — for the first time ever — on vinyl. Carefully re-mastered by Dan Swanö, who also mastered Sacramentum and Fleshcrawl classics, these re-issues feature re-developed artwork done with full cooperation with the band.

Look for these releases in 2014:

  • (title TBA) Demos 1991-1993 on CD/LP
  • Nær Sólen Gar Niþer For Evogher (1994) on CD/LP
  • Sorgh På Svarte Vingar Fløgh (1996) on MCD/MLP
  • Slaughtersun – Crown Of The Triarchy (1998) on CD/2LP

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7_q_F9ubwE

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Sadistic Metal Reviews 12-05-13

sand_dunes

What are Sadistic Metal Reviews? If you treat heavy metal like a form of art or culture, it suddenly reveals its inner depth. Labels want you to see the surface only. To separate the two, we must be brutally honest. Look for the occasional gem in the sands of sonic feces.

cemetary-phantasmaCemetary – Phantasma

Claiming to be tired of the “dungeons and dragons metal stuff”, Cemetary mainman Mathias Lodmalm stops trying to rip off Tiamat and Sisters of Mercy for Nuclear Blast fan boiz and unleashes his last pose. If his progressively more AIDS-influenced output didn’t clue you in, this last Cemetary album feels like a garage band project done for the purpose of emulating Nine Inch Nails or Skinny Puppy. It shows how interchangeable most poppy industrial is, so I can see something like this album succeeding on the radio, but as luck would have it, this is just another faceless electronica product in a sea of many. The only thing this release has in common with the previous Cemetary output is the same sub-standard quality that left them entombed in the chasms of out of print Black Mark releases no one cares for.

periphery-periphery_ii_this_time_its_personalPeriphery – Periphery 2: This Time It’s Personal

It’s important to note that borrowing a few techniques from the metal genre doesn’t make you a metal band. Underneath the “harsh” vocals and “crazy” drumming are mechanical Nu riffs and mathcore noodlings. Whiny crybaby vocals and pop-choruses make this nothing more than a commercial product for socialization amongst Xanax-addled teenagers who are somewhere between dropping out of high school and becoming Che Guevara shirt-wearing low level pot dealers who often lapse into 9/11 conspiracy rants. The whole thing is organized to seem more like an emo album with its pop-punk cheerfulness and feminine vocals that reflect a feeling of being “hurt” by “mean society and girls with standards,” much like their clone targets in Sikth. If these people were more honest with themselves, they would drop the superficial “EXTREME” portions and become the next Hawthorne Heights.

satyricon-the_shadowthroneSatyricon – The Shadowthrone

If you are looking for the start of black metal’s disintegration, it can be found here. Taking liberal inspiration from bands that preceded it, this album is the blueprint for how semi-talented musicians can copy a genre’s sound while embodying none of its spirit. The songs are narrative on the surface; however, when the listener attempts to peer beyond appearance it is quickly apparent that there is nothing of depth, the musical equivalent of modern poetry. Tracks meander from one location to another, never providing any causation for why the arena is changing. The riffs are tiring in their simplicity and irrelevance, and motifs are at best uninspired. The band also deserves blame for introducing drunken popularizations of folk melodies that distract listeners from the vapid quality of metal present, which has been the operating principle of folk metal for the last 20 years. The only people who can appreciate this album are the deaf and fans that lack standards.

harm-cadaver_christiHarm – Cadaver Christi

The real way to be a reviewer is to assume that nothing is free. No one gets a promo. Everyone must pay mall prices. There are no buddy hookups, freebies from the cutout bin, and you have a budget that’s commensurate with that which the average 15-27 year old can field. It doesn’t matter that the wiper blades for your Lexus cost more than even an album from overseas; the question is what your audience can afford. Your readers. And knowing that they have finite money and time, what’s worth spending it on for them? Music is a zero-sum game. If you can buy only five CDs a month, you want to buy the best five possible. All of this is what was once called common sense, apparently, but now is voodoo quantum dark energy esoteric witchcraft knowledge to most people. That being said, I’m sure the guys in Harm are nice people but this album is dismal. It’s bog-standard Swedish-style mid-paced death metal with every cliche of bad metal involved, including the highly derivative riffs, emphasis on vocals as lead instrument (a fatal failure for metal bands), plodding pace and lack of melodic or structural development. Avoid unless you’re so average that anything else is over your head.

xysma-first_and_magicalXysma – First and Magical

Starting life as a Carcass clone, Xysma have progressively been perverting that band’s Symphonies of Sickness formula into becoming a more accessible “rock” product through perceptively mainstream blues and psychedelic moments as well as the “angsty” sounds of then “nu” radio hit band Helmet. With liner notes claiming The Beach Boys as an influence, it all comes together as a light-hearted parody of underground metal through the juxtaposition of “happy” and “trippy” moments amidst blasting death/grind fare and two-note groove riffs. Arguably the first death n’ roll band, Xysma could be held responsible for the mainstreaming of death metal through the use of elements the genre at that point have fully filtered out of its sound. While I don’t think the band meant any harm with this release, it has nothing to offer except “light-hearted fun” and seems like a bizarre interim period between their old Carcass-influenced sounds and the Helmet style they would adopt on their next album Deluxe. Similar to what Tiamat and Entombed did, Xysma saw the potential for material gain in emphasizing grooves and so got rid of the vestigial underground baggage to embrace commercialization.

inquisition-obscure_verses_for_the_multiverseInquisition – Obscure Verses for the Multiverse

Inquisition has been a constant within the American metal scene for over a decade, churning out albums that differ little in quality from one another, though with still enough distinction to be recognizably different. The band’s latest release, Obscure Verses for the Multiverse, is a continuation of the band’s recognizable style.

On this album, the band further perfects its rendition of the rock-influenced black metal genre, with many similarities to bands such as Satyricon or Marduk. Rather than a connected narration binding each song together, tracks are riff composites that sacrifice atmosphere for chaos and disorder. In compensation, riffs utilize ornamentation such as harmonics, bends, and minor chord strums in order to retain interest as drums blast away incessantly. This succeeds for approximately 30 seconds before the listener realizes that he could derive the same effect by shaking a glass container of marbles as a phone rings in the distance, simultaneously entertaining and a source of exercise.

However, this author has no desire to be unjust: the album undoubtedly will be praised by many a Wacken attendee and provide each an hour of entertainment, and truly; that is the goal of metal. After all, it certainly couldn’t be art!

sheol-sepulchral_ruins_below_the_templeSheol – Sepulchral Ruins Below the Temple

This is a really good effort but ultimately isn’t distinctive enough, and it’s not a matter of style. The style applied here is mid-period death metal hybridized with the latest trend, which has been Incantation/Demoncy worship by people who love linear riffs that internally counterbalance themselves with extended chromatic fills that crush melodic tension. Sheol have put a lot of thought into the amount of variation in each song, the coherence of the style, and in adding distinctive elements like intros, melodic accents and rhythmic breaks. However, ultimately this is a churning stampede of riffs that are relatively similar in approach and thus form, and the result is that it feels like listening to the wind while riding a train with the window open.

harm_wulf-theres_honey_in_the_soil_so_we_wait_for_the_tillHarm Wülf – There’s Honey In The Soil So We Wait For The Till

I had a grandfather who traveled the country as a journalist, interviewing union leaders. This generally happened on Greyhoud buses, because if you were a man of the people back then, you wanted to be seen in the common man’s transportation. During a disproportionate number of these interviews, someone was softly playing a guitar in the background and singing. It sounds exactly like Harm Wülf. Despite the cute somewhat edgy name and the aura of mysterious darkness, Harm Wülf is a fifteenth-generation copy of a copy from four generations ago. Soft guitar playing uses only about three strum patterns and gently loops over a verse and chorus while the half-whispered, half-sung vocals are the real focus. This is how college weenies have been getting laid since 4,000 B.C. It seems deep on the surface, but it’s really a pile of cliches, starting with the awkward and obviously imitative title. It wants to emulate a well-known post-Neurosis project, but that’s actually good. This is just rehash, reheated and disguised behind a single sprig of parsley.

ayreon-the_theory_of_everythingAyreon – The Theory of Everything

Oddly, this band merges 1970s prog rock sounds with 1980s pop and ends up mixing in a number of diverse influences that, per the nature of ambitious merges, default to a common ancestor. Thus this album ends up being ambitious AOR with periodic metal riffs, a lot of keyboards, and a lot of cheesy vocals. If you like walking turds like Helloween’s Keeper of the Seven Keys this cheese-fest will delight you. It is not as pretentious as the 1970s progressive rock that defined the genre, but it’s also uncannily pop which makes it hard for an experienced listener to tolerate. Musically, it is better than average, other than a lack of melodic development or use of harmony and key as we’d expect from a prog band. Aesthetically, it’s the contemporary equivalent of Boston or Asia or any of those other prog-soundalikes that never crossed that line to got full-on hardcore.

deathbreed-your_stigmataDeathbreed – Your Stigmata

Fairly standard deathcore, Deathbreed sounds death but doesn’t feel deathy. That is, there’s a lot of quoting of classic motifs from death metal, but they don’t get developed, and the band has no agenda so they end up at a musical LCD that’s basically rock made like a punk band would if using metal riffs. The result is predictable, but that’s not its problem. What kills it is that it has nothing to express. Even teenagers bleating out predictable platitudes about their trivial problems would be more realistic than this photocopy of a photocopy (with added jump-beats for the slower kids).

ulcerate-vermisUlcerate – Vermis

On Vermis, Ulcerate once again fool the gullible into thinking that “if it’s needlessly discordant and has growls on it, it’s the NEW and EVOLVED death metal,” only it’s not that apt. Underneath all the wankery, you’ll discover the songs never really go anywhere beyond the idea established in the beginning. All the superficially chaotic sounds render a meta-atmosphere of insanity through discordance, but the one fixed mode of expression this dwells in makes it all very obvious by the first track’s conclusion.

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Profile: Codex Obscurum editor Kevin Ord

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Photo: Aaron Pepelis.

There’s a seismic disturbance in the metal world. As the power of the internet winds up, the flood of information has increased to the point where people are searching for ways to reduce the data overload. As a result, they’re turning back toward zines, reviews and edited sites and away from crowd-sourced data and social media.

On the forefront of this change is Codex Obscurum, a formerly small but rising zine from the eastern coast of the United States. Staffed by volunteers, run on a non-profit basis, and dedicated to old school underground metal as well as contemporary developments, Codex Obscurum has won over its share of devotees.

We were fortunate to be able to catch a few words with Editor Kevin Ord, who has taken over the helm. He gave us the lowdown on changes at the zine and its future direction, as well as (at our interviewer’s insistence) some speculation on why zines are surging forward as the rest of media swarms and retreats in confusion.

Can you tell us a little about yourself, and how you got involved in underground metal?

I’m from Worcester, Massachusetts. I have a wife and three cats and I’m a paint contractor during the day and zine publisher at night. Like most kids in the 80s I got into metal through other kids in school with bands like Slayer and Metallica. I can pretty much thank Headbangers Ball for introducing me to underground metal. It was appointment television on Saturday nights. I also remember getting a copy of Pit Magazine in the early 90s and being obsessed with hearing what all of the bands in there sounded like. I was already a huge fan of horror movies so the art grabbed me right away.

I like to be able to hold something physical. I think a lot of people do. I want something that a kid might find in a shoebox in 10 years and say “I remember this; I’m going to reread it.”

What made you want to work with underground zines? Have you been a zine reader for long?

I wanted to work on an underground zine because I was sick of just bitching about stuff on the internet. I wanted to actually create something instead of always just tearing stuff apart. I’ve bought zines randomly for at least the last 20 years. Reading the Slayer Diaries book definitely motivated me to make Codex Obscurum better.

To you, what defines an excellent zine? Were there any favorites of yours from the past that you still turn to as examples of underground metal zine greatness?

I think variety defines an excellent zine. We have 12 different writers for Codex Obscurum and I think that variety of opinions and tastes makes it something everyone can learn something new from. I find out about things from my own zine I didn’t know about just because we have so many writers from different backgrounds. I still turn to the Slayer Diaries like I said. He had the advantage of being in the right time and place. But I think it’s an excellent record of a specific time in metal. Maybe one day Codex will also be a good record of metal in 2013. Who knows?

Are there advantages to the zine format that newfangled ways like Twitter and blogs do not offer?

You can read Codex Obscurum on the toilet a lot easier. I like to be able to hold something physical. I think a lot of people do. I want something that a kid might find in a shoebox in 10 years and say “I remember this; I’m going to reread it.” Stuff like blogs just seem so disposable.

What has changed in the three issues of Codex Obscurum? Have you and your team altered your approach based on this learning?

Our original editor had a substance abuse problem that we weren’t aware was as bad as it was. So he is now in treatment and will not be returning to the zine. So Steve and I have taken over formatting and printing Codex Obscurum. We got a lot of feedback on issue #1 and #2 and changed the zine a lot based on this feedback. The top priority was making the zine a lot more legible and easier to read. I think we achieved that with issue #3. I also wanted to make the zine less random and more focused on music. We tried to pack as much music content into #3 as possible. Getting support from artists like Mark Riddick and podcasts like Hellcast has also motivated us to make the zine better.

The top priority was making the zine a lot more legible and easier to read. I think we achieved that with issue #3. I also wanted to make the zine less random and more focused on music.

What’s the best way for someone to get ahold of Issue #3 of Codex Obscurum? What about for them to support the zine in intangible ways?

If someone wants to get ahold of the zine they can go to codexobscurum.bigcartel.com. The zine is $3 + S/h. If someone wants to submit their album or demo for review the can contact me at codexobscurumzine@gmail.com. If someone wants to support the zine just tell a friend. We like it to be done DIY.

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