An old issue of Sadistic Metal Reviews once contained some interesting commentary on the subject of Agalloch – drop the “metal pretense” and possibly see album sales soar. The counterpoint is that there’s always an audience for rock music disguised as some sort of metal, but if Prisoner of Sunlight (Austaras’ first full length album after an allegedly post-black metal inspired debut EP in 2011) is to be believed, there’s also an audience for rock albums that don’t bother with the deception. As a mopey, vaguely depressive, pseudo-artsy post rock album that’s presumably been done a million times before, Prisoner of Sunlight is unsurprisingly less offensive than the halfway approach of a Deafheaven or a Myrkur or whatever the kids are forgetting about these days, but that’s not quite enough to make it worthwhile.
Above all else, Prisoner of Sunlight is a flat and directionless experience. The band builds their songs out of short chord progressions and brief guitar leads with little in the way of heavy metal styled riffing. They promptly do little to develop or elaborate on their musical ideas beyond the occasional break in for slow acoustic passages. Vocals are notably entirely clean sung, and stylistically they’re pretty much the standard Mikael Åkerfeldt for better or worse. I suppose you could say the technique needs some work to really shine, but they’re otherwise competent and perhaps stylistically appropriate. Any ambitions the vocalist has, though, are stamped on by the sheer flatness of the songwriting. Other elements fail to add any real interest to this – occasional synthesizer lines and generic rhythmic backing aren’t quite the selling point I would hope for. On the other hand, the album does nothing particularly wrong – no particularly jarring moments of randomness or especially obvious pandering to youth demographics, but the sense that Austuras focuses on texture and ‘ambiance’ above all else, while not necessarily a flaw (since some musicians can pull it off effectively), is a dealbreaker.
Ultimately, Prisoner of Sunlight is not a good album, but it isn’t even a bad enough album to laugh at. You might get the impression that more popular post-metal bands would sound like this if they too stripped all the metal from their approach. Perhaps they would; the lesson here is that you need a better understanding of how to vary your music if you’re going to write “atmospheric” metal. That’s more difficult than it would appear on first glance.
Since the early 1970s, the music industry and the social scene behind it — comprised of those who use external appearance to signal social success — has been trying to find some way to counter the authenticity of metal. While rock and blues stars appeared to be rebels, the truth emerged over time that most were very conventional in their outlook except for hedonism.
Heavy metal on the other hand rejected the founding myths of our society since the intellectual shift so-called “The Enlightenment,” in which people decided that social pressure to enable the individual to be “equal” whether right or wrong, good or bad, was more important than social standards. Heavy metal pointed out that our perceived enemies are scapegoats, and the real problem is that the enemy is us, and that people are delusional and happy hippie flower power is another variety of the bourgeois deliberate ignorance of reality that promotes social decay.
In recent years, the same people who were hippies back in the 1960s — the conformity of appearance non-conformist and then going to work at a bank and retiring as a fat Baby Boomer — have returned as “social justice workers,” or SJWs. These people, together with an industry that realizes it can sell more re-branded indie rock than it can discover compelling metal bands, have created a new style that culturally appropriates the appearance of black metal while injecting it with the same messages of self-indulgence, self-pity, victimhood and pacifism that the hippies bleated about back in the day.
Enter “blackgaze”, the buzz term for a new school of bands taking black metal out of the shadows and melding its blast beats, dungeon wailing and razorwire guitars with the more reflective melodies of post-rock, shoegaze and post-hardcore. It’s a geographically loose scene and its bands have been embraced by the indie media, which means you’re now as likely to hear black metal at ATP as in the Carpathian mountains.
Alert readers may note the “post-rock, shoegaze and post-hardcore” attribution, which Death Metal Underground has long identified as being the origins of this material. In other words, it is not black metal, but indie rock playing “dress up” as black metal. The quest of the industry for a safe rebellion goes on.
Despite claims to being some sort of doom death with black metal influences, Creeping’s music is a progressive sort of rock music with little trace of the influence of metal apart from the most superficial traits. These traits can be briefly summarized in distorted guitars and vox, and rock and metal drum techniques. Creeping’s music in Revenant could be described as being through-composed with a minimalist touch to them. Once you remove this from sight and you look through them, it is evident this is not metal music. In general, their work here displays a very keen sense on smooth transitions and mood-capturing that only the most sensitive musicians are able to put together. What Creeping seems to be at a loss for is an organizing agent that condensates these living shapes into meaningful statements with heads and tails or at least a direction. As it stands, Revenant is only a sequence of related vague feelings without enough organization to convey a concrete meaning — a direct consequence of both being mostly empty of musical formations and missing the point that music and art in general are communication.
The most revealing moment when listening to Creeping is when one reaches the ending of a song and everything is put into perspective. Endings are reached uneventfully. They simply just end. The finishing sections as a group are indistinguishable from those at the beginning. In fact, they could be interchanged and it would make little difference as they do not carry any connotation. Not only are true endings missing but what we would physically try to locate as development sections of any sort (not necessarily Beethovenian) are also flat-out indistinguishable from sections at the beginning or ending. The clue here is not to look at the sections or groups of sections themselves only but also in relation to one another. How is the idea carried forward? What changed from this moment to two minutes in the future? How and why is the idea left behind towards the end? Is the idea actually changed towards the end? There is no answer to this questions in the context of this album, because none of that seems to ever have been in the mind of Creeping when writing these songs. Each section is a progression of chords with “powerful” drum beats. They took care that adjacent sections were related in character and texture (all the album uses the same texture and album) but nothing else. The album is a homogeneous creeping mass sliding down a hill like lava from an erupting mountain. It is an event, it is motion, but it is without life or purpose.
Creeping’s Revenant is one of those albums that will carry the flag of the mainstream in their incursions to try and conquer the underground by taking a depressive-sounding rock outfit and trying to make it look and sound like a convincing metal act. The fastest and most obvious way of doing this is by copying the traits that help identify underground metal through its superficial appearances. This is the second issue we take this album: that of pretending to be metal. Somewhat resembling post-metal, Creeping distinguishes itself from metal music in that it builds its music following chord progressions mainly, not phrases. What tells us that Creeping is rock music and not post-metal, though, is that it constantly follows actually-moving chord circles, effectively creating movement through that most basic device in Western music derived from the Common Practice Period classical music. Post-metal, on the other hand tends to stagnate in one harmony and try to play it in many different ways and with different decorations, usually ceding the task of promoting movement in the music solely to the drums. While there are parts where a melody can be heard, this is often just a decoration for an implied chord progression. The music in Creeping’s Revenant is utterly dependent on them, something underground metal distinguished itself from through years of rethinking itself and distancing itself from rock music in order to attain greater power of expression.
Given the way the songs in Revenant evolve and the atmosphere they seem to want to evoke in part as per the claims made that this band’s music adds a hint of black metal to their music, a comparison to Burzum’s Hvis Lyset Tar Oss is appropriate in order to dispel the former’s false claims and to put into perspective their more limited ability for communication. Creeping’s work and procedures have been described in some detail earlier here, so let’s proceed to take a look at Burzum. At a glance, there are many similarities between both. Songs in Hvis Lyset Tar Oss emphasize a smoothness of transition between sections whose borders are blurred out, except when there are major breaks in the music. Texture also consists of drums that change slightly independently of the rest of the music while still working with it, a strong bass, chord-strumming guitar and a rasping/growling vocal. Burzum’s music is further clarified by the use of a synth and another guitar that may outline melodies, phrases and themes. And themes are the key to Burzum’s music in this period (or any other, for that matter…). The discerning listener will notice that chords and progressions in the Norwegian’s music are only harmonic filling-outs of motifs in the bass line, oftentimes enhanced by a slight deviation in the soprano line. Chords are subsumed under motifs. Songs are defined by themes. In addition to that, and addressing the issue of whole-song structure and purpose, the first three songs in Burzum’s album do the same thing with visibly different approaches: present an idea, condense it into a solid and clear expression, introduce development, extend and come to an affirming closing idea smoothed through repetition rather than asserted in vainglorious expression typical of traditional metal. As a whole, and as a reflection of a cosmos that is contained in its smallest particles, Hvis Lyset Tar Oss follows that same pattern as an album. From its slowly building opening track, “Det Som Engang Var” to the more menacing and alienating expressions of the title track and the first half of “Inn in Slottet Fra Drømmen” which marks the climax of the album in frenetic expression only to dissipate into its second half, leading to the crystal-clear conclusion that is the ambient track, “Tomhet”.
In conclusion, Revenant ends up sounding like the indecipherable ramblings of an illuminated idiot. You can hear that there is, perhaps, a wisdom behind the sequence of misty phrases and bursts of adjective-noun pairs blurted out as if in poetic rapture, but there is not enough involvement of a conscience to even start to make sense of these. This is an album for the moment-oriented, people with short attention spans looking for prolonged sequences of singular atmospheric pictures, fans of masturbatory emotional neediness looking only for a cold shower of pleasure with no significance.
Vod is the one-man project of bassist Dave Trembley. Announced as an indescribable anomaly, a blend of interesting ideas in astounding ways, this is a actually a fairly clear mixture of influences that never coalesces into an original voice. Dancing and jumping between general ambient, post rock, and the break-down metal of Meshuggah (mostly in derivative and simplified Djentish manner, for groove more than for percussion wankery). The whole album is nonetheless covered by a recognizable blanket, although it is not a distinct expression but only a consistency in the use of the same collection of styles.
Rather than establish a mood and submerge the listener in it, or take us into a spiraling well of moments to build atmosphere, Vod simply gives us cool-vibe-inducing moments gathered from the aforementioned genres. Heavily relying on the most primal effects of both ambient and Djent, Tuurngait will often fall into a simple ambient drone or into the simplest and easiest to catch syncopated modern groove. Careful and smooth in taking the songs from a whisper to a full-on groove-party, this music is good conversation material as it is easy to digest.
Advertised as a black metal release, Terra contains each and every one of the traits people might identify the genre with. The raspy vocals eclipsed by the distortion of the guitars, the dominating use of tremolo or simple strumming on the guitars and the steady and smoothly changing pace of the songs, and even a folk melody or two.
A few tell-tale signs tell us this is more in the vein of post-rock with progressive pretension. The inclination towards plain major-scale melodies can be considered superficial, but more often than not does separate black metal from the foreigners who are only borrowing its tools. The alien scent is most offensive in the blatant filler of Dj-groove sections which almost bring to mind Periphery’s Matt Halpern.
The importance of dissecting Terra lies in the relevance of knowing how to separate black metal’s “atmospheric” tendencies versus post-metal and the lesser (most) ambient music whose sole point is to “create atmosphere”. Black metal creates atmosphere and that atmosphere becomes a tool to what it is saying. Terra’s music is atmosphere.
Music is not about pointing out different elements.
Music, a work of music, is about integrating all the elements.
If you are able to say “this is a very rhythmical part/this is a very emotional part/this is a very technical part/this is a very atmospheric part”, you are not making music. You are, maybe, only producing some (could be also very interesting and very beautiful) sounds.
Generic post-metal with bassier distorted power chords and doom metal pacing, Atriarch would like you to think that they are ” a living entity comprised of four parts, offering catharsis through sonic ritual. Our aim is to tear a hole in the veil that blinds us from our true selves. We are bombarded with ideals of a superficial shallow lifestyle, that we are enslaved to maintain.”
Even more, their press release states that Atriarch is “a mesmerizing death/doom metal force encompassing haunting atmospheres and droning avalanches of ritualistic sludge, a living entity comprised of four parts, offering catharsis through sonic ritual.” It then mentions their two “critically adored” previous records. Then the band adds: “Our aim is to tear a hole in the veil that blinds us from our true selves. We are bombarded with ideals of a superficial shallow lifestyle, that we are enslaved to maintain. This veil has become so powerful and overwhelming that we ignore our spirits to worship our shells, as money stokes the fires that burns our immortal souls. Greed corruption fear and hate is the true face of this Self Serving way of life that we have come to call ‘normal.’ While we believe in opening our minds and expanding our spirits we cannot forget our ability to fight. The spiritual battle for freedom of mind and body can be fought on all levels and violence is in our nature. There is no god there is no devil there is an All Encompassing force that connects all living things. Embrace the ritual and the veil will come crashing down…”
While we do not want to commmit the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, it seems that critical adoration increases the closer a band approximates the mainstream norm, which in this age is indie rock. If you take indie rock, slow it down and play it in power chords instead of open chords, then add a ton of screaming in an “emotional” way, you get something like Atriarch. While no individual part of this is offensive, the album adds up to a heap of boredom. You have heard these chord progressions before in a similar context. These rhythms you have also heard fit together in similar ways. It is just slower, bassier and with more screaming. Perhaps if they added a dying hyena it would get even more critical acclaim.
The point of indie rock was to no longer be conquest music. Ordinary rock was about getting the girl, going out there and being a big star. Indie rock was about being at home in your room, wondering where the hell the world was going.
When indie collided with rock again, they mixed in ambient elements and took out the folk, giving a sensation of pure melancholy. Building in that vein, Better Living (Through Chemistry) showcases two bass guitars weaving simple melodies around droning sounds of emptiness and desolation contrasted by somewhat upbeat vocals.
Methadrone features ex-Incantation guitarist/vocalist Craig Pillard crooning softly over heavily repetitive bass. One bass guitar tackles rhythm; the other dodges and dives around this with noise, counter-melody and sometimes pure droning sound. The result is, like Jesu, a wall of sound from which absences make more impact than additions.
While Better Living (Through Chemistry) demonstrates the melancholy of isolation that indie rock applied to great strength, evoking the lost lone voice of a person trying to find a place in a world gone mad, it underscores this with a fascination with life itself. Despite the requisite anti-hero posturing involved with using drug imagery, this is an album of self-discovery and some mastery.
Indie rock remains ambivalent for many because despite its many musical contributions it sequestered itself in a certain world outlook that while inoffensive had no particular fascination past self-pity. By hybridizing that again with a contemplative but alienated withdrawal and loneliness, Methadrone casts post-rock into a new role from which it can grow.