Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Dustbin of Demos: Vol XI

Beware, there's dust in the dustbin, literally and figuratively. Dust, dirt, and mold. I spent a bit too much time sorting through old boxes of audio and video tapes this week and found myself with a nasty cold, yet no nasty, cold black metal. 

Burnt Offering - Demo
Black metal from Germany

Basement demo-quality black metal which seems based on rough approximations and poor interpretations of prominent works. This band has absolutely no idea of the function of each part in the flow of each song - they jump from samples to brooding noodling to blast beats to mid-paced stuff constantly. They borrow the first riff from Mayhem's "Funeral Fog" but change the notes slightly so it doesn't have the eerie tension to it, just sloppy crap. There's a Celtic Frost "UGH!" in the same song out of nowhere, but the song is lost at that point and continues wandering without even getting into a proper homage with an intense moment which would follow Fischer's grunt. The band's drummer was Nargaroth, which simply underlines the point that this is a mediocre imitation of black metal.

Scythian Fall - Demo
Sludge/doom metal from Germany

Lots of lame breakdowns that seem to just be thick tone-basking, because they hardly have a place within the song, nor are they groovy on their own. There are two decent riffs on the demo, yet no concept of placement, building around the riffs in time nor instrumentation. Find a riff, wear it out, and eventually devolve into a breakdown. One hook to catch attention, then drag it out to bask in the aesthetic before going to a breakdown because it isn't headed anywhere. Dragging an aesthetic nowhere, because they have nothing to say. Puzzlingly boring stuff.

Fiendlord - Dust on the Chamber Floor
Symphonic black metal from Salt Lake City, Utah, USA

Black metal predominantly driven by keyboards, though the guitars work in some tension in the chord patterns beneath that. Though the keys and guitars, mostly the latter, manage to find their way to the lead at times, it seems like it takes the first two thirds of each song to get to a bridge section where all of the instrumentation finally resolves and meets before splitting off again. The drums are mostly a timekeeper and the vocals little more than a minor accompaniment, though there are some decent clean vocals on one song. There are some interesting quirks to the instrumentation, but large portions of it are entirely uninteresting, thus this demo is lackluster.

Elegiac - Demo 2014
Black metal from San Diego, California, USA

Comfortably atmospheric, somewhat dark through a relatively clean production, but it also feels uncomfortably clean and tame. The riffs hint at a certain feeling, but they just don't fully materialize anything, and the song structures don't really progress at all to shape the music. There are stretches where long melodies start to shape a story, but they soon dissolve into poor transitions, including several sections of feedback as a song ending or transition. I suppose this demo achieves marginal success by imitation, rather than demonstrating the ability to write a song about something, as the fragmented writing seems to suggest.

Cryptic Rising - Demo II
Post-black metal from Nashville, Tennessee, USA

Lo-fi garage rock meets bedroom black metal. Sloppy three-chord rock with a warm, harsh sound - a contrast to the cold sound of most black metal. There's a lovey-dovey shoegaze sound similar to Lonesummer, a proudly obnoxious moping feeling of mop-top-rock. Sheer existential affirmation with few merits - a kid with a guitar, a high-gain amp, and no idea how to record. Perhaps this aims for a campy lo-fi rock vibe like Pavement mixed with the ethereal howl of black metal, but it fails at both. Terrible bedroom music.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Phobonoid - Orbita

Industrial black metal isn't exactly the most crowded subgenre around. But when you think about the usual bands associated with that label, it’s obvious how competitive the field is. With that in mind, it’s impressive just how tall Phobonoid’s debut EP Orbita stands among its peers. Stylistically similar to a blend of Blut Aus Nord and Thorns, this 20 minute release comes close to matching the very high standards set by these well established acts. Just in case the title, band name, and cover art failed to make it obvious enough - this release also has a strongly spacey vibe to it. This vibe, coupled with cold tones and mechanical percussion, makes the EP nestle right into a niche that begs to be filled.

Orbita almost seems to be spilling over with more ideas than the solo project can manage effectively. This is a great problem to have, and even though some of the songs come across more like patches of musical vignettes, the overall mood is never interrupted. Overcoming this issue and establishing stronger senses of individual songs or recurring motifs would go a long way toward propelling Phobonoid well into the top-tier. In part, the issue is that Phobonoid doesn’t have much in terms of a high end melody to direct the songs. If used in moderation, this missing piece would help further the mechanical feel, but the high end’s absence goes a bit too far here. “Deimos,” the closing track, is a great contrast for this, showing exactly what was missing elsewhere. Although the soaring guitar melody only starts at around 1:40, it still congeals the song together in a profoundly compelling way. While the subdued and sparse vocal style can’t really fill the lead melody role, Phobonoid obviously has another tool available. 

Despite the cold and mechanical mood, the sonic quality here is lush enough to deserve many repeat listens. Take for example the swelling intro to “Vuoto,” which is cracked open with a cymbal hit echoing into the infinity of space. What’s also really nice about this is how the guitar tone isn’t taken to the digital extreme because it fleshes-out and enriches the mix. Perhaps as importantly, Orbita strikes a thoughtful balance between the rhythmic pummeling of industrial and the wall-of-sound guitars that form the basis of black metal. In short, it’s an extra layer of heaviness, not an unwelcome injection of dance music. Even in the absence of individual songs or even strong moments to hit you over the head with the EP’s quality, Orbita is a forceful introduction to Phobonoid. For anyone into industrial black metal this is absolutely a band to pay close attention to.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Dustbin of Demos: Vol X

Most of the demos swept into the dustbin this week are highly derivative - their influences are overt, and their success seems to reflect their ability to find their own voice through the loudness of their influences. Some great bands found their own voice through the exploration of styles very similar to their influences - Judas Iscariot, for example, wasn't much of a stylistic departure from predecessors, but Akhenaten's works were unmistakably his, rife in European musical and philosophical influences, yet prounounced through a distinct and disgusted American view of them. Derivative bands can find recognition too, often if they soften up their idols sound enough to strip it of the original meaning. However, one band below certainly finds their own voice while owning a few pronounced influences. 

Tridentsplit - War Metal
Heavy/black/speed metal from Saint Petersburg, Russia

From the new-Darkthrone school of old heavy metal worship. A mix of heavy/black/speed/punk which basically amounts to rough heavy metal with gruff vocals and nods to everything that took a step towards extreme metal while not being all the way there. Despite some cool riffs, it feels like they trudge through half of each song in the shadow of the style, with unadorned, unfinished metal. The band has an idea of the aesthetic they aim to emulate yet lacks the conviction and drive which shapes whole songs. Only the title track lays down their purpose from their outset and builds on it, though it drags a bit at times. Sorry guys, you don't get points for trying, this deserves to be swept into the dustbin.

Trenchgrinder - Demo 2015
Crust/death/thrash metal from Brooklyn, NYC, USA

Dirty, crushingly forceful death/thrash which mixes early Bolt Thrower with more recent crust/thrash like After the Bombs. Heavy death metal riffs rip with the aggression of rough, punkish energy. They find slower, deathy paces whose buildup is as important as the malevolent churn of the faster sections. Crust meets extreme thrash and the only way to offer the onslaught is death metal. Their delivery is reminiscent of how Repulsion turned death/thrash into a more monstrous beast through their dirty, morbid delivery, though this doesn't manage to take it quite that far. A bit less furious than Repulsion, yet much rougher than most others. Though there is no overarching structure to this three-song demo, this style seems built for the 12 minute burst of aggressive brutality here.

Call Forth the Hordes - Moving Onward
Black metal from Westbury, New York, USA

Well, at least it's a bit different from most bedroom black metal. A melancholy melodic movement begins it, but doesn't convincingly set the tone nor build much of a mood before anything it had going is negated by an overly loud, unforgivably mechanical drum machine drowning out the guitar. Even though slower melodic parts sound alright, the weakness and volume of the riffing under any faster drumming is completely lost. The vocals are coherent, but monotonous and nearly expressionless. Instrumental versions of both tracks are added on, as it if the music wasn't bare enough already The weakness of the production outshines the weakness of the music, and this simply isn't worth the time.

Goatflesh - ...Of Pure Rape and Blasphemy
Death/black metal from Ukraine

War metal. Members with ritual names inspired by Blasphemy. Blackdeathrash nuclearwarcore - need I cite influences? Goatflesh lean a bit more towards death metal, reaching to their toolbox for angular tremolo riffs and some nice deathy grooves, emphasized by production with a full low-end more like Imprecation's "Satanae..." than most war metal, though perhaps the more orthodox citation would be Angelcorpse, as this simply stands out from the archetypal war metal blasting. There's a Blasphemophagher cover in the middle that doesn't even stand out - the band adapts it slightly, but it blends into the rest very well. This is a case, like most war metal bands, where they wear so many influences on their sleeves that they fill up the whole jacket and leave nothing but a stern expression on their face to identify them by. Give it a listen if you're really into war metal, otherwise you can't tell it apart from the next band

Satanic Prophecy - Nocturnal Murders
Bedroom black metal from USA

The raw sound of a corpsepainted fellow moping through the forest. Grim, harsh, primitive. What's that rattle? It's off-time drumming. Tinny tremolo guitars aplenty. Sharp rasps with microphone distortion soaked in reverb. If you've ever heard a black metal, you know all too well what this is, it's a failed attempt to capture the sound of the grimmest black metal, and it certainly has none of the substance. The guitar work is constant tremolo with some melodies which seem to emulate the tremolo parts of the first two Gorgoroth albums - but only that one sliver of Gorgoroth's style - and the pseudo-triumphant melodies of Satanic Warmaster, themselves an emulation of Moonblood and Judas Iscariot, whose works finally trace the lineage to Darkthrone, Immortal, et al. While listening to this is an exercise in estimating the exact influences, that's the content of the review because it is archetypically terrible bedroom black metal.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Abigor - Leytmotif Luzifer (The VII Temptations of Man)

Abigor’s “Leytmotif Luzifer” is a sprawling and ornate cathedral of riffs, dedicated to worshiping the glory of Lucifer. Energetic and passionate by any standard, this album dispels all notions that these characteristic are only in young bands, especially considering the fact that Abigor’s pedigree stretches over twenty years. The guitars, which have been refined and mastered through those years of experience, are the powerful center point of the album. Solos and quick melodic flourishes are peppered into the songs with such elegance that it’s obvious that guitarists P.K. and T.T. play their instruments as naturally as other musicians breath. As a result, the composition is wonderfully free flowing and natural. Every riff and every solo is filled with momentum rather than serving to aggrandize the musician’s egos. Throughout “Leytmotif Luzifer,” that momentum conveys a mood of genuine and regal adoration. Thankfully the casual expertise of the guitars also introduce a kind of playfulness to the album that keeps it from becoming comically serious.

For those unfamiliar with the band, Abigor’s main riffing style uses expanses of tremolo picked notes building off of shifting chord progressions to create a layered melody. In the most general terms possible, think of Emperor. On “Leytmotif Luzifer,” though this often includes bursts of high note runs, mini-solos that guide the songs from one riff to the next much like a drum fill. Overall, this makes for a more vicious album than Abigor’s “Natchymnen.” While the band’s characteristic guitar counterpoint is still at play, the mix is now so well rounded that the band feels comfortable occasionally leaving the rhythm entirely in the hands of the bass. Structurally, the songs are strongly linear. Although there is less repetition, each track maintains a coherent narrative - balancing the sleazy, casual, and aristocratic hedonism with the fanatic and reverent adoration of Lucifer. This balance is vital because at one extreme the album would be a stuffy sermon (about a minor character from an ancient fantasy novel) and at the other a bacchanalia. With the album’s subtitle “The VII Temptations of Man” and song titles like “Excessus” and “Indulgence” it almost invites a Marquis de Sade comparison.

Putting the dazzling guitars aside for a moment, every other instrument is stunning. It’s also worth noting how a fair share of the album’s palatial grandeur comes from the vivid and dynamic vocals. Since this happens most spectacularly with the clean vocals in the fantastic climax at the end of “Excessus,” it’s possible to gloss over entire album’s vocal variety. Take “Indulgence” for example starting with the clean line “So let me rise” and how the abrasive background howls reinforce the line before savagely entering the foreground. That style itself is a prelude to double tracked gurgles that are then followed by the standard black metal fare. Incredibly, all of that variation is still secondary to the guitar’s narrative. In the same vein, the drumming and bass are top notch and vary in intensity to match album’s flow but the real focal point is in the guitars. P.K. and T.T. apparently shared bass duty, and with T.T. also handling the drums, you end up with the liberated direction and purpose of a solo project while still having the complete sound of a full band.

Returning to the guitar’s casual precision, you can hear this in the deliberately muted lead notes, feedback, free time notes, and numerous pick scrapes. If it weren’t for the rigid precision elsewhere, these things would appear sloppy, but instead it’s like watching a 250kg tiger play with its kill before eating it. Relaxed in the way only a seasoned predator can accomplish. Again, this all well balanced against the noble atmosphere that it helps to complement. Abigor’s movement along this axis is a major source for the album’s impetus, but not the most important. When building off of the chord progressions, the lead melody has a habit of feeling like it was interpolated between the existing notes while simultaneously also paradoxically deciding the following notes. The amount of energy behind this is incredible, placing the album at the same intensity level as you might ask for from bands like 1349 or Marduk but without falling into the constant blasting trap or “norsecore” label.

“Leytmotif Luzifer” is instantly enjoyable and still extremely replayable. At around 42 minutes, the album wastes no time, and even with the linear song structures has no shortage of intriguing ideas. A good benchmark for how well crafted the album’s architecture are its last handful of minutes. “Excessus’” ending is a microcosm for the entire album and perfect (yes perfect) way to end an album. At about halfway through the 11 minute song you start to get a real sense of approaching finality. Keep in mind that even in the context of a few start-stop moments, that the multi-layered explosion of sound at around 5:30 ecstatically begins wrapping things up. Now, while other bands would cheaply milk that moment, Abigor moves on immediately while still ringing out lead notes to carefully remind you of what they just did. At about 8 minutes in the clean vocals again rise in prominence without resolving the melody; that is until the soaring vocals a half minute later “All earth does worship thee!” the album’s climax. Cue the majestic slow down, fake ending, and subtle reprisal. Wow. Beautifully heavy and conclusive without any hint of melodrama.

This is what architecture sounds like, and “Leytmotif Luzifer” is a palace.