Saturday, August 1, 2015

Ramlord Interview

Met up with New Hampshire's Ramlord for an quick interview after an excellent show in the very lovely Somerville, Massachusetts. The lineup was intense, the weather was sweltering, and the interview took place inside of a car (because I was worried about wind ruining the audio and apparently enjoy making people endure the heat.)

Listen to what Ben, Jan, and Mike have to say about how the band formed, what makes rams different from goats,  legal troubles, nature, and d-beats. These guys put on a hell of a live show and the interview felt like something you'd read in The Grimoire of Exalted Deeds. Enjoy:

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Chronicles Zine Issue 1 (2015)

Zines are out there and alive in the underground. It's interesting the quality differences between them not in terms of layout but in terms of actual quality of content. Chronicles, out of Norway, for me, really just destroys the whole idea that "everything can be found on the internet." The content available in this zine is huge in a small, quick to read issue. I applaud Steinar on his efforts here. This first issue is a must have for those looking to delve deep into the histories of the bands present: Ares Kingdom, Pentagram (Chile), Patrons of the Rotting Gate, Blood Mortized, Sol Negro, and Audiopain. There's a lot of other neat things in here though which round out the issue in a way only a fanzine would allow.

The interviews elicit responses from the artists through usage of defined and specific questions that indicate a high level of familiarity on the part of Steinar. For example, asking Chuck Keller specific questions on his relationship with Quorthorn or in depth questions on the themes and imagery of Pentagram's newest release. It all creates an aura of reading something set aside for those that are seeking out more than what you will find in press releases, interviews in mainstream zines, or online in forums.

Also scattered through the zines are quotations about random subjects from older zines. Steinar is clearly an aficionado of the fanzine world. These appear under the title "Truth Be Told." There are a lot of good quotes some that stand out to me: "Black Metal is not really supposed to be a very deep and intellectual form of music..." or "Poland is not too big of a country so too many churches couldn't be burnt." There are also scans of older advertisements and classified ads such as Celtic Frost looking for a drummer, the hilarious Moon Rites interview from a 1997 Norwegian zine, and also some interesting excerpts from a Metallica interview circa 1984-ish.

This is a fanzine fan's zine mostly and for fans of the bands present... it's a must-own. It delivers in the interviews and in the additional filler content. I sincerely hope that Steinar is on his way to finishing up a second issue because this first issue of Chronicles is gold.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Signaling Theory: Judging Bands on Visual Aesthetics

Why does a band's image matter? Well, why does a peacock have enormous feathers?

The answer to both questions can be found in signaling theory. Signaling theory is an idea often used in economics and biology, but we can borrow it for a bit to take a deeper peek into music. Basically, the idea is that we live in a world with imperfect (or asymmetrical) information and misinformation. Which stocks should I buy? Who should I pursue romantically? Which one of these animals should I try to eat? What bands should I listen to? Each of these decisions are based on signals you receive, which may or may not be true, but always influence decision-making.

A key part of signalling theory is how much the signal costs the sender. Cost means any cost, not just money. Some examples: the healthier a person is, the more attractive they seem; a really conspicuous looking peacock is probably really good at avoiding predators; and an unopened bottle of water with recognizable logo is safer to pick up off the ground and drink than one that has "Dave's Water" crudely scribbled on the side. All of these signals cost the sender something, either biologically or economically, and each communicates information.

Everyone has different musical tastes, but these principles still hold true. Bands signal potential listeners (economically, sellers and buyers.) Individuals recognize non-musical signals that communicate information about music. Every aspect of an artist or band's aesthetics, from the name, to album art, and down to the style of the logo tells you something. All of these things cost the band the time of designing them or paying someone else to. To make things simple, assume economical rational behavior:  bands want to maximize their sales and buyers want to listen to the best music possible.

"But I only care about the music, man." 

Don't care about image?
Great. Now drink this.
Music is one of the most subjective experiences out there, but music listeners still make choices that can be explained through signaling theory. Many people will think that an economic or biological look at aesthetics is ripping the artistry out of it -  it isn't. Even for those who want to care only about the music, there is still the question of what music to listen to. No one (not even Autothrall) can hear everything. The types that like to appear open minded will claim image doesn't matter, but get all cagey when asked about how they find new music.

All aesthetics matter though. How do we know that Kidz Bop - 23 isn't the best metal album ever, what about 24? If only the music matters then how come no one in the metal has even bothered to address these two specific and highly advertised albums? The answer is that the words "Kidz" and "Bop" are telling us something about the music style without us even having to listen to it. In the same way that you probably don't know what a poison dart frog tastes like but know not to eat it, you know you won't listen to these two albums. Aesthetics matter to everyone on one level or another, even if some people won't admit it.

Signaling Music Style

Walk into a record shop and what do you see people doing? They are flipping through material left and right to see what is there. They filter through the materials and visual cues tell them what might be interesting. There are also contextual clues like word-of-mouth or music showing up on some cool website. But even then, the information about a band had to initially come from somewhere. You can argue that in the digital age, people can sample everything, but no one actually samples everything. There is too much out there, and the first things we usually learn about music is are context, the title, artwork, or musician name. These all indicate what kind of music you may end up hearing.

So back to the theoretical record shop. If someone walked in, put a gun to your head and said "put all of the metal music in this burlap sack" are you going to reply "sorry man, I haven't heard every album in here and can't just a band just by their image?" No, you are going to do your best and make the best guesses you can based on your experience. While no one is holding a gun to your head to find metal, the setup is similar (but less dramatic). You want to find new good music and won't do a perfect job at that. As part of that process, aesthetic signals can point you towards metal or a sub-style of metal. It's almost a waste of time so say it, because inevitably someone will misunderstand the nuance, but imperfect signals are all part of the theory.

Below are four relatively obscure bands and the only information I'm providing about them is album art with a logo, the band name, and the title of the work.

Guess the genre:

Top Row: Mortido - I: Kvlt ov Hate; Rampage - Demo MMIX
Bottom Row: Anexxe Unsung Hero?; Fluid Mind - Demo 1
The contextual cue here is that this is metal oriented website, so I'm probably not getting into the finer points of polka music. You can guess that they are metal bands but, if I make it a matching game you can do better than that. Which is the progressive heavy metal band? Black metal? Traditional heavy metal? The thrash band? If you hate black metal are you going to check out all of these bands?

Signals About Quality

Let's take this out of theory for a moment and see how things work in the real world. Record labels probably have the most at stake when listening to and finding new music. This isn't just the money that can be made by finding the next great upcoming band, but the cost of listening to a boatload of music submissions. As a metal fan, you also have costs associated with music: a limited amount of time to listen to it, and limited money to purchase it.

Have you ever read what record labels look for in submissions? Rules often include:  competent logo, no CD-Rs, a band biography, band photo, and press-kits. These rules exist in part because these are high-cost signals. When a band has professional aesthetics it tells the record labels that the band put in a lot of time or money into the project. This doesn't necessarily make the music good, but the cost of the signal shows devotion and seriousness. The hope is that bands that show more devotion and seriousness will be better bands. Even though what's "good" is subjective, it's not a huge logical leap.

Image matters so much, that three major metal records labels all suggest including band photos with demo submissions:

Let's get even more concrete. Here are some examples how of aesthetic signals influenced Orion, who runs the Contaminated Tones Label, in some reviews:

Antistasis - Ritual of Ancients Demo Review
"As I am apt to criticize, CDr demos are usually poor representations of a band and, for just a little more money and effort, can be improved significantly. At least Antistasis made an attempt here to give some sort of artwork with the release - a sticker stuck on the case acts as a front cover and another decal on the disc offers some artwork there. It's a small effort but at least shows a band trying in some sort. A lack of any information on the song titles or band members or general additional information hurts though."
Metal Law - Lawbreaker
"The album cover is basically all you need to see to know precisely what the album is going to sound like."

Dishonest Signals

Have you ever seen one of those flies with the yellow and black stripes on them? From an evolutionary standpoint, other animals are supposed to think they are bees because they look like bees. If they live around you, you'll notice that they also act like bees. The problem is though, they're fakes. In biology this is called Batesian mimicry, some weak animal pretending to be a dangerous one.
On the left we have a very venomous Coral Snake, On the right, a harmless Milk Snake

Red touch yellow, you're a dead fellow. Red touch black, pat it on the back. (Don't actually pet it. It can still bite and most wild animals don't take kindly to unsolicited affection.)

Does music have Batesian mimicry? This is basically what people believe posers to be, taking metal's imagery and aesthetics but not having any of the venom to back it up. Because strengths and weaknesses are largely subjective and based on experiences, people will often get the gut feeling that some band is pretending to be something it isn't.

Personally, I like to assume people usually have genuine motives. Rather than metal fans being elitists or plagued by frauds, I view these sentiments as the direct result of asymmetrical information and imperfect signaling rather than getting into morality. Still, if you are an eagle with a taste for snake meat, you probably don't like the Milk Snake making things harder for you.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Daemonarchia - Nocturnal Lust

Daemonarchia’s debut EP Nocturnal Lust is seriously addicting because it has that wonderfully riffy Finnish black metal sound. The Horna cover makes it obvious that the band isn’t shy with their influences, but the well structured mid-tempo songs show that Daemonarchia isn’t just a shadow of past bands. Still, the music is fairly straightforward - tremolo picked rhythm guitar, sometimes with a slightly sugary lead on top, and songs interspersed with bursts of heavier rhythmic riffing. No surprises, nothing fancy, just good old-fashioned black metal.

Cliched name aside, the band immediately shows off their talent and good sense. A tastefully quick intro track leads into the eponymous track “Nocturnal Lust,” which together with “Lycanthropic Rites” make for the EP’s high points. These songs are especially interesting because of how exceptionally dynamic they feel. Daemonarchia’s strength is being able to repeat riffs in a song by introducing an idea, developing it, and ultimately returning back to it. Although half the tracks follow this pattern and the other half aren’t far off, the fact that so many of the songs are so memorable is proof enough that the band isn’t using the structure as a crutch.

Daemonarchia are contenders, using a narrow tool set to achieve a wide range (“My Inner Realm” even channels a hint of Emperor.) This is easily a top EP for the year 2015. In keeping with the music as a whole, the drums and vocals don’t jump out at you - but both are clear in the mix and you wouldn’t call them anything less than good. They sway with musical changes like corks on waves. With only 24 minutes of original music, the EP feels complete, but you’ll still end up empathizing with the menacing figure in the artwork and lust for more.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Akhlys - The Dreaming I

This album has black metal guitar and vocal tones absolutely nailed down. Akhlys’ strengths on The Dreaming I, should be familiar to anyone familiar with Nightbringer (Naas Alcameth does vocals and guitars for both bands) but the approach here feels more methodical and has a stronger emphasis on ambient sections that add a dark and palatial atmosphere. A really important part of the riffing style is how the full range of the guitar is utilized so well. It’s to the point where on The Dreaming I, Akhlys makes other bands look like they all use five string guitars.

As much as it’s fun to be a champion for the idea that all bands have a unique identity, you can’t quite escape the impression that Akhlys and Nightbringer’s share the same orbit. Sure, there is a swing towards ambiance, but if you were to compare it to how 1349’s Hellfire measures up against 1349’s Demonoir (or between Carpathian Forest and Nattefrost), it would easily be less than half the difference. Obviously Akhlys’ style leans more towards the symphonic side of black metal. But the synths have such a feather light touch that it ends up not being a huge point of difference.

It all works in Akhlys’ favor though because the hard-edged vocals and guitars stay in focus, while the synths and drums tactfully garnish them. Ambient sections are used to control pacing rather than just being filler. The percussion in particular is a great part of the album, even without ever jumping too much into the foreground. Devoid of any ostentation but not stripped down to essentials, there is plenty of rhythmic presence to keep things moving along. Imagine a big burly bartender ejecting a drunk while never laying a hand on anyone or causing a scene - effective and strong, but discreet.

At the album’s heart are the guitars and vocals. The guitar tone sounds like the strings are made out of diamond-infused platinum and dipped in icy spring water that feeds into the fountain of youth. Just listen to “Consummation.” The simple high-register melody there is perhaps the strongest part of the album, due in large part to the incredible tone. Vocals here are also extremely intense, and they have ridiculous sustain. Naas Alcamet shoves more air across his vocal cords than ought to be possible. In fact, if you were to cut open his thoracic cavity you’d find that instead of a normal set of organs that everything was just lungs. What's also really great about these vocals is how despite their often high pitch, they lack that irritating squeaking overtone that often creeps into high pitch black metal.

For anyone that shies away from symphonic black metal for being too soft, The Dreaming I is a great workaround. It shows that you can simultaneously have a ton of atmosphere without taming any heaviness or violence. Tonally though, this is absolutely top of the line.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Myrkur - Myrkur

Part two in a series covering the unexceptional metal of failed indie rockers of uncertain origins. 

Myrkur is a post-rock/black metal crossover which relies heavily on poor production and distortion to mask a pop singer's attempts at what is little more than Sigur Ros with sloppy tremolo picking. The music has an ethereal sheen from her choirs, yet it lacks a lead vocalist, or any sort of lead instrument. The vocals are arranged like a bright, airy synth used for atmosphere, and add little more. The drum machine sounds straight out of new wave dance music. The guitar work is uninteresting and sloppy, especially the leads, and it sounds like a cheap distortion pedal with a thin tone. Despite this imbalance, they are given prominence in the mix as much as the vocals, masking the most important and only competent part of the band. In a way, that makes sense because the gimmick of this band is that it is "black metal," but it doesn't work out because the music is nothing more than the wimpy ambiance-basking that it aims to be. This isn't a powerful, charismatic lead vocalist - this is a limited vocalist whose skills are limited to sounding pleasant and hitting notes while filled out by choir-style harmonies and lots of reverb. The final track, a solo vocal piece, highlights that her voice is thin and weak, normally hidden behind distorted guitars. However this is just a post-rock crossover gimmick. A better, more distinctive vocalist would have had the presence to make this more than aural wallpaper.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Brutal Hand - Brual Hand / Unchain The World / Purgatory's Rage

I had originally written reviews for all three of Brutal Hand's albums to be posted on Contaminated Tones and, with sincere hope, guide some fans to this American Heavy Metal band. The problem was that I wrote those reviews literally a year ago after the generous donation of Jimmy Herrera sending me their two early albums. After listening over and over to all three of the albums - Metal on Metal offered Purgatory's Rage to me via download and I went ahead and bought the killer release after a few months of listening to rid myself of those god damn voice overs they were putting on their promos way back when (no longer apparently) - I've been won over not only by the material present but by the persistence of the band. Jimmy implied that though there has been little information provided as to the current situation that there will hopefully be more material coming in the future. I get the impression that there is a rumbling amongst these guys creatively that forces them to keep coming back to put material out, albeit in a slow decisive manner.

While I hope this is the case, I can't provide proof and so a rumor begins amongst the few that care for progressive underground metal where the bands don't rhyme with 'ween easier' or 'blowpeth'. I am in desperate hope, however, that the rumor proves true. Listening to the self titled debut, Brutal Hand, is a rare experience in the metal annals. With equal mixture of hard rock, heavy metal, and progressive elements, it's carries the weight of a record to be listened to over and over for a long period of time while at the same time retaining the essence of underground sensibility and local production. You could see this band at a local show, not knowing who or where they came from, and be amazed. And yet, ironically, it is true that bands such as Brutal Hand are forgotten almost as quickly as they are downloaded into the mental labyrinth of our brains and the digital structure of our hard drives. They deserve more. Brutal Hand's style may cause ennui up front so hold out on making an immediate judgement. Their brand of metal is similar to the 90's era of Fates Warning in that it skirts metal and progressive rock at many junction points. Brutal Hand is essentially a giant open-palmed hold-yer-horses type of listening experience when you get down to it.

Looking back at my hand written review (my notes essentially for this article) of Brutal Hand's Purgatory's Rage, I declared that Brutal Hand elicited the inquisitive listening experience I reserve for exactly this type of material. Is it Power Metal? Doom Metal? Could it be best described as plain ole Heavy metal? It's really somewhere between all of these and yet Brutal Hand sounds like none of these. I blame this conundrum on their penchant for hard rock mentality. In my review of Brutal Hand's debut I even claimed that the excellent "Room to Breathe" was Mr. Big-esque and I described their sound as skirting arena rock, - likely to be taken as a deterrent by many brainwashed genre-hugging metalheads - Heavy Metal, and Modern Metal. The albums are eclectic, wide open, and often subtly temporal. Whatever the facts are in regards to Brutal hand's music, the simplest characterization is that their three albums are a kick-ass rocking force. Take that for whatever you want. Prepare yourself for strong melodies, ballads with a sense of tragedy, and some unbelievable musicianship.

One of the keys to Brutal Hand's material which appears across all three albums is the penchant for not sitting on riffs when they don't have to and riding riffs perfectly when they can. "Focus" off their debut is a perfect example. The verses combine a steady bass-guitar beat with strong memorable vocals. The same vibe appears on Purgatory's Rage in highlight track "Dying Sun,"  and it was here when I started to hear Hagar era Van Halen influences which made me reexamine at the entirety of the material again. Initially it was Freddy Ferell's vocals which drew this comparison but I started to hear more similarities over the listening span. While Brutal Hand's material doesn't offer the killer production of 5150, the quality is just as top-notch writing wise. "Best of Both Worlds" is similar to the previously mentioned  "Room to Breathe." The ability to ride strong riffs is further emphasized with "Darkness" off Unchain The World in which the introductory bass riff repeates for most of a minute, and in which the verse is precisely monitored and breaks into a killer keyboard-led bridge after thirty second segments. The comparison really indicates a single noteworthy characteristic: maturity.

Unchain The World and Brutal Hand are the rarer of the trio of records and, in my opinion, contain better individual songs. Brutal Hand leads off with the doomy "March of the Condemned," a sluggish trek to the gallows. While the early songs on the release are strong - "1314" has moments and The Tenant" as well and fourth track "Brutal Hands" is, as previously mentioned, killer material, it's at seventh track that the trio of "Brutal Hands", "Red Lightning", and "To Hell In A Limousine" leave the largest impact, especially for those looking for those lost Heavy Fucking Metal tracks to throw a loop in so called connoisseurs claims they know everything out there. "Brutal Hands" is the gateway track to the album for me as I picked up on it first, and it leaves the feeling of gritty southern rock and hard rock. Brad Bowles' vocals are awesome and after the mediocre "In The Heart of the Young," he runs rampant on "Red Lightning," which is the fastest track here. It's a let-loose Heavy Metal track. The same could be said for "To Hell in a Limousine," one of the more evocative images I've seen in a song title in quite a while, which borrows a lot of stylings from Judas Priest's Stained Class era to my ears. Final track "Focus" has great moments, such as the Maidenesque chorus section, mizzled throughout an otherwise dull culmination.

Unchain The World, though, was a huge step forward for Brutal Hand in terms of writing and overall sound. The production on the debut was amateurish compared to the mixing of Unchain The World. It's immediate from the first rung of the ladder that Unchain The World is a different beast. The overall vibe is somehow darker and there is a fine atmosphere lingering beneath Joe Hendrick's bass-heavy rhtyhms and Ed Herrera's guitar playing. It's difficult to pinpoint but it's the combination of distantly mixed drums provided by JImmy Herrera and wispy keyboard flourishes that open a tap of unique fluidity that floods the tracks. Starting with "Heart of Stone," the album starts off strong but the first glimpse of the power weilded is "Darkness," which yields a driving and persistent mass. "Out of Time" would fit well on Crimson Thunder if Hammerfall were just slightly more downtrodden and, well... not Hammerfall. "Burning Sea" is another powerful ballad with Ferrell mimicking Bruce Dickinson's proclamatory vocal style rather well. The top track here though is the title track, "Unchain The World," which is about as anthemic as Manowar riding horses made of sewn-together parts of random deathcore musicians into heaven to do battle with God.

Purgatory's Rage is a different beast of a record compared to the previous two aided by the strength of Metal on Metal records and the experience of the two previous records. As usual, excellent artwork from Jowita Kaminska and well presented booklet compared to the foldout design of Unchain the World and Brutal Hand. Once again there is a paradox with this record. The loudest instrument is the bass - which is fine with me as a bassist, especially considering the really great playing of Joe Hendricks - which provides most of the driving force of the record compared to a rather oppressed guitar tone. The keys often end up with a similar timbre to the crash and splash cymbals which on poor speakers and systems could be a confusing jumble. Listening on headphones here is ideal, as separations in mixing become more noticeable. Purgatory's Rage is a very consistent album, more-so than the eponymous record and Unchain The World. The middle run of tracks is very strong in it's pacing beginning with "Dying Sun" and ending with "Earth."

Front to back this is a great listening experience. "Dying Sun" as previously mentioned is definitely the highlight here for me though "Karma" is powerful as well. Even now listening back as I finish this review up I'm discovering stuff I've not noticed before such as the killer lead guitar work and Deep Purple styled keyboard flair in "Stand on It". "Sandra" acts as an excellent ballad mid-way through the album. "Blame" channels Iron Maiden with a big chugging gallop throughout the song's instrumental section. "Earth" is a super tense track and makes the best use of the dense atmosphere Brutal Hand have summoned. I'm not a big fan of "Fire Son" because of the over-zealous usage of the keyboard theme. "Metal Rules" is a fun track but nothing to gawk about.

At this point in time it's going to be tough to find the first two albums anywhere. I wouldn't spend a whole paycheck on them but they're worth a Jackson (while he's still on the bill) if you get the chance. Used bin prices are definitely worth spending on them and I wouldn't let either of them pass by in that situation. Purgatory's Rage is a decent addition to an order from Metal on Metal but you'd probably want to sample a few tracks previously. No one wants to find themselves up the wrong alley. This is music for seasoned listeners looking for a new and unique sounding release to dwell on. The accolades you'll reap from Brutal Hand won't be from some friend exploring your record collection and being amazed that you have them; you'll be rewarded from a more solitary listening experience with these underrated records.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Ghost Bath - Ghost Bath / Funeral / Moonlover

Ghost Bath is a post-rock band from North Dakota who gained a fair amount of attention/notoriety by pretending to be from China and playing some sort of awful depressive black metal that sounds like Deafheaven, but even worse. Spawned out of their frontman's noisecore band "I, Apparatus" it's not surprise that Ghost Bath explore concepts such as "what if Orchid songs were eight minutes long?" and "will hipsters ironically buy junk because it's Made in China?" which have earned attention from Pitchfork, Vice, and other publications that cover trends in metal. In recognition, Ghost Bath have earned an entry in the Hall of Shame.

Ghost Bath (2012)

This starts off with what sounds like a catchy, melodic post-punk/gothic rock song, but what a tease it is. It soon reveals itself to be little more than crappy post-rock with cry-yodeling over it, assembling an overall aesthetic of "depressive black metal" while avoid black metal aside from a couple faster strums with double bass. The odd-numbered tracks are this style, the even-numbered tracks are dinky piano pieces with a timid lack of dynamics, the left hand tapping a chord while the right hand plays fragments of melody over them. Poorly composed, or "minimalist" if you're trying to excuse it being crap.

Funeral (2013)

Ghost Bath mixes the post-black metal style of Deafheaven with depressive black metal style focused on lengthy atmospherics and sad-sounding non-metal interludes. Tremolo-picking, blast beats, atmospheric synths, and lots of reverb - you get the idea. The band's style is characterized by moody interludes: clean guitar in "Silence," piano in "Sorrow," and organ in "March." I could tell you about that boring shit all day long, but I'm here to make a point more concisely than this 64-minute album.

This isn't a black metal band. They lean on eight-minute songs loaded with tremolo picking and blast beats like crutches, but all of the movement within the songs - hooks and the transitions - are phrased differently, as mood-reflecting hooks. Sad, mopey stuff, with varying instrumentation to achieve one texture. Aimless hooks repeated for two minutes and presented as interludes, or surrounding Orchid-esque screamo bursts bloated into eight-minute songs - either way the music is all about the moody licks. This is an indie-rocker Joy Division/The Smiths wannabe who can't write a chorus, can't sing, but can step on a distortion pedal. Just a melancholy frame without a picture in it.

This is an aesthetic with no purpose beyond that.

Moonlover (2015)

While we've known all along (at least I have, from the initial submission on Metal Archives) that Ghost Bath isn't actually from China, that ruse might be permissible if you understand that these post-rockers' planned a couple album in advance to have an excuse for giving a song a really fucking stupid name like "Happyhouse" - what the fuck? Ridiculous Engrish is a famed hallmark of black metal - if you are a false don't entry! Stupid names and song titles are an infamous hallmark of depressive black metal, post-rock, and whatever other shit Pitchfork et al cover these days. I should probably write more about this dumb publicity stunt (a paragon of boundless self-expression) because that's the only reason anyone has paid attention to this band, but I'll try to put myself in a better place for rest of review. Do Happyhouse have open door?

The band has made two major strides since their previous full-length: First, they improved their production, which most notably buries the awful cry-yodeling vocalist a little. Second, they streamlined their songwriting and album structure, cleaning up the heavily fragmented, interlude-laden form of their previous album, or at least more neatly packaging it in seven tracks. The songs are more structured, but feel no more purposeful, just arbitrarily organized as they have been mulled over once more.

Still, the music is primarily fixated on simply channeling a vibe, bouncing between post-rock/metal and Deafheaven-worship to deliver little more than a vague wave of sadness. There's no narrative feel to the songs, they don't have a greater story to tell. This is like someone who sits around moping, yet can't explain why. They lack either introspection or presentation to tell a story rather than create a collage of influences. Some parts stand out, such as the melodic gothic/post-punk stylings in "Death of the Maiden" - something which kicked off their debut EP too. Perhaps they could find a comfortable way to borrow styles for entire songs in order to make a coherent statement, rather than being the black metal equivalent of the kid with eleven different bracelets around his arm.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Thantifaxath - Sacred White Noise

Prefaced with a noisy cluster of tones, Sacred White Noise greets the listener with an unbelievably striking 24-note melody that serves as an excellent introduction to the album’s queasy sound. This melody, although rigid, is far too unforgettable to be called angular. The mesmerizing main theme in “The Bright White Nothing at the End of the Tunnel” actually has three measures in 6/8 time followed by one in 3/4. Don’t worry though, even if you can barely count, every last note will be branded into your psyche. Many of the album’s riffs have a similar flavor to this, memorable despite the uncommon ways they divide up the measures before pummeling you with entrancing tremolo picking.

As a whole, Sacred White Noise successfully straddles the line between being weirdly progressive and traditionally black metal. Thantifaxath’s approach is harsh (especially the maniacal vocals), yet they maintain a strong balance by never delving into technical exercises, pure angularity, or dissonance worship. This puts the band in the same general family as later-era Enslaved, but in a dark corner of the musical map somewhere in the wide gulf between Dodecahedron and “The ConstruKction of Light” era King Crimson (and yes this means there is “bass you can hear” and it’s pure bliss)

Sacred White Noise has an incredible sense of flow. The song structures are engaging and even the segues from one song to another reveal that Thantifaxath clearly sees the big picture. Sacred White Noise is a proper album, not merely a collection of songs. Another interesting facet of the band is how much of an elegant sense of horror they have, think The Axis of Perdition but more implicit. Precise pick slides, the tinny childlike vocals on “The Bright White Nothing…,” the pale choir transition from “Where I End…” to “Gasping in Darkness,” and the mournful gypsy-esque violins - all enough to make your skin crawl. The element of fear also really helps keep the album from coming across as too sleek, despite how heavily produced it is.

While the band has a fairly heavy reliance on time signature or rhythmic shifts as the pillars of song structures, everything always comes together in a fantastic, and unexpected, way. This is because the band really overcomes metal’s tendency to slack off on the melody in favor of rhythmic (or arrhythmic) chugging. Hell, even the instrumental sections share this work ethic, having worthwhile and nuanced melodies that tie into the atmosphere without merely regurgitating the same notes. Despite the band’s weirder riffs and prog tendencies, Thantifaxath never loses sight of the overall mood and always clutches onto a powerful atmosphere. Sacred White Noise is more refreshing than sticking your head out of the window into a blizzard, listen to it. Now.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Le Complot des Lépreux - Histoires de chutes

Lepers, rats, and snakes - oh my. Le Complot des Lépreux is a band that clearly aims for visceral reactions on this EP. Between the disgust from their disease-laden imagery and the admirable raw aggression, Histoires de chutes stabs directly into black metal’s nerve center for filth. The cheat-sheet description of the band could be something along the lines of Peste Noire meets 1349 with a drum machine, but this still an embryonic release by a fledgeling band. The biggest downfall here is in the production. It isn’t that the band needs to be cleaner, but the end mix is rough to the point where you end up feeling like you’re missing out on what the music ought to sound like. The bass end in particular is weak, which makes the guitars thin and the drums similarly malnourished. The band tried to fix this by adding some boomy super-low frequencies to the kick drum sample, but your sound system will have a huge impact on how well this works.

Despite the band being in need of someone with a better ear for mixing drums (whether they be real or programmed) the drum machine is arranged quite well. Sure, there is some clickiness but it ends up being a tradeoff since the beefy double kick is clear beyond what an acoustic kit can normally offer untriggered, and the rumbling will make you want to shake until you burst a few capillaries in your eyes. But, when you think about the band’s ethos as a whole, the clinical percussion does feel a bit incongruous with the raw savagery of the vocals and the guitars. For the most part, this is really a charming quirk rather than a flaw, although some bits (like the industrial styled snare rolls) don’t really work out of context. Compare this to the delightfully uneven volume and popping vocals - you can tell just from the timbre that this is a naturally violent and loud vocal style. The relatively lucid French vocals are so intense that the band probably wouldn’t stop playing, or even notice, if the microphone stopped working. A solid way to spend 23 minutes, hopefully the band will offer more.