Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Daxma - The Head Which Becomes the Skull

Daxma’s debut album The Head Which Becomes the Skull is a solemn post-metal/doom album that responds to the idea of human mortality with a feeling of resignation and inevitability. One part of the band’s approach that really fits in with this overall mood is how the vocals are relatively low in the mix, enhancing the buried and distant feel. While many bands that explore post-metal style à la late-era Isis end up with an unpleasant contrast between gruff vocals and relatively relaxed guitar work, Daxma’s vocals are stark cleans (male and female) that are in harmony with the rest of the band’s instrumentation, which also includes a violin. The vocals are a really critical piece of what make this release work so well, and surprisingly for a band with three members providing vocals we don’t hear any until about a quarter of a way into the release.

When you think of the release’s theme, the song structures and album’s pacing make a lot of sense. It’s a slow march with few diversions along the way, each song melds well into the next one just as the vocals, guitars, and occasional violin meld into another. The narrative isn’t difficult to parse starting with “Birth” and ending with “The Head Which Becomes the Skull,” but this simple theme is probed with a philosophical eye. Without going off on too much of a tangent,  band’s promo materials note that they draw influence from Marxism, so it’s interesting to consider how the band’s song “Aufheben” fits their into a Marxist rather than Hegelian dialectic - to roughly quote the lyrics “There is no space, there is no time, all is death, which shapes our life.” Despite the oppressive theme and homogenous structure, the music is rich enough to make the slow pacing a laid back but engaging listen. 

Basically, Daxma’s approach to spicing up their songwriting is to expand “vertically” by adding harmonic textures to the main melody without deviating too far from it. For example, on “Our Lives Will be Erased by the Shifting Sands of the Desert” even some of the most melodically free violin work tracks close to the guitars and bass. Daxma’s harmonic focus is so strong that the smooth changes between male and female vocals also add detail to the mood without altering the release’s atmosphere. Everything mixes so well that the band doesn’t need much in terms of melody or counterpoint to be successful. With so much of the music consisting of instruments and voices acting in unison it also helps to thicken the sound to the heavier end of post-metal. So while the overall vocal style is more on par with a band like Jesu, the release’s atmosphere is more on the doom metal side. The band’s use of harmony is super cool and you can hear it most powerfully towards the end of “The Head Which Becomes the Skull” where you have harmonized violin, guitars, and vocals. It’s a killer finale to the band’s promising debut album, but it also makes you wish the band played to this strength more often.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Methadrone - Better Living (Through Chemistry)

Craig Pillard is best known for his vocals on Incantation's seminal debut album, Onward To Golgotha, his work with Disma, and - according to some people - some controversial past statements on varying subjects. To me, he's the former two individuals. He's also the guy who complimented me on my jacket in the local bagel store several years back and so I currently have a positive view of the individual. Methadrone is his ambient/electronic project which he's been involved with for some time. Better Living (Through Chemistry) is the most recent release from the project but, having been pressed into it's oversized cardboard layout sleeve roughly eight years ago, it's definitely not a new album by any means.

While all the music was written and recorded by Pillard, the album is also heavily a work by Thierry Arnal, who supplies a large contingent of vocals, some instrumentation at times, and also put together the layout for the release. Collectively, the collaboration on this effort results in something which is much richer than an individual effort. Arnal's soothing and breathy vocals give the release a much lighter overall aesthetic, while the music drones on in a more melodramatic, soundscapely manner. Arnal's shoegaze influence is either causal or effectual: causal in that it lends the work it's airy frivolity at times, and effectual in that the music composed by Pillard perhaps requires such vocal attachment.

The material can be quite evocative at times, giving off uneasy and nebulous waves of sound that sooth, but form an inquisitive and meditative state of mind; the thematic content, fitting nicely with this, is echoed in Arnal's grey rippled cloud cover art, invoking flight as well as uncertainty. It would easy, however, for many to put this off into the category of post-rock or shoegaze, a genre which at the moment carries a negative denotation from the very people which would perhaps be interested in Pillard's other work. Methadrone would, then, get much more love from fans of Arnal's experimental shoegaze and post-rock projects.

It would be hard to choose one track that best summarizes the entire release in a nutshell. Were it not for the importance of Arnal's vocals in setting the overall tone of the release, "Buprenorphene" would be an easy pick, with it's endless slow ultra-low tuned bass rumbling beneath the other wise bright and spacious reverb laden twang of guitar and droning keys. The track oscillates both literally and figuratively as its genesis is bitter melody that turns sweet (as in the flavor profile and not the "yeah dude, totally, high-fivin' sweet") in the bridge/chorus selection.

Better Living (Through Chemistry), and Methadrone in general, are interesting asides in Pillard's storied career. The project offers insight into another side of the death metal icon's musical interests. The curiosity factor of the release readily gives way to the product here, a product that has more depth than the typical fare in this style.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Todesstoß - Ebne Graun

Todesstoß is a super weird band, which is worth mentioning just in case the cover art featuring a colorfully illuminated Charon-like figure standing over a cellophane wrapped body wasn’t a clear enough hint. When it comes to spotting a black metal band’s influences, the usual points of reference are Darkthrone, Burzum, Mayhem, Emperor, or Immortal. With Todesstoß though, the music is best thought of as exploring a more esoteric branch of black metal that was initially developed by a fellow German band: Bethlehem.

Quick history lesson. Bethlehem’s unique debut full-length Dark Metal was released in 1994, the same year as Darkthrone’s Transilvanian Hunger. Naturally it wasn’t a release that simply copied other black metal bands, because it was still a nascent genre at the time and the concept of black metal hadn’t quite coalesced. As time went on though, Bethlehem became progressively weirder, with their 1996 release Dictius Te Necare and then Sardonischer Untergang im Zeichen irreligiöser Darbietung (aka S.U.I.Z.I.D.) in 1998. This is important because S.U.I.Z.I.D. is an excellent starting point for understanding what Todesstoß sounds like: massive warm bass, mid to slow tempo riffs, and pained wailing vocals that make you question the singer’s mental health. In other words, absolutely nothing like your typical icy Norwegian tremolo-picked black metal.

‘Ebne Graun’ is a single 46 minute long song, and it works out just great. After a ponderously slow introduction, the song moodily meanders around a recurring four chord theme. While the tempo never seems to vary, we still get a lot of variation, and some sections are played in double-time. In fact, the song has such a strong narrative feel, that you never really get a sense that Todesstoß is meditating on the main theme, and the repetition isn’t immediately obvious. The progression is merely the framework for the song’s structure, and with all of the empty space left by the slow pacing you are able to seep into each section’s unique flavor. ‘Ebne Graun’ draws you in slowly, piece by piece, and the downside of this strength is that you can’t really just sit and listen to one part of the album in the same way you don’t open a book and just read chapter 23.

The album starts off by establishing a mournful kind of discomfort using a dissonant ghostly organ melody that creates an overbearing and uncomfortable atmosphere. What makes things extremely weird is the medieval-styled flute. It feels really out of place until you start to recognize that periodically the flute jumps into some ridiculously high note and awkwardly lingers there for a moment. This weird mix combined with the off key notes really accents the unsettling introduction. Slowly the layers of typical instrumentation pop in, we don’t even have guitar and bass at the same time until about seven minutes in. So, not only is the tempo slow, but the song development itself is a gradual process, creating a languorous mood.

The features that most obviously distinguish the album are the vocals and the bass. To a lesser extent, the unique guitar work colors the overall feel, particularly with its high gain and less distorted than usual tone. This helps to set the mood because of how frequently notes will ring out for quite some time. More unusually, the bass takes an extremely active role as it sits high in the mix, has a larger presence than the lead guitar, and there isn’t even a rhythm guitar parroting it. Similarly, the drums take a light touch, often playing in half-time on what is already a meandering album. When the occasional chain rattling pops into the mix you can’t help but feel that you are slowly being ferried into the afterlife. Aside from quirky snare hits and some nice rolling fills, the percussion sits somewhat in the background. By placing snare hits off of the main beat Todesstoß throws off your sense of order without losing the album’s dirgey atmosphere. Fortunately the bass keeps the rhythm together fantastically. It serves as a point of clarity in comparison to the wild drums and distant guitars.

Vocals are pained howls that sound like the pathetic cries of someone having a breakdown. This is a huge contrast to how most metal vocalists go for the “demented” sound because typically singers are more focused on fitting into some kind of metal tough guy aesthetic. It’s also a different vocal style than the affected depressive (i.e. histrionic) black metal movement that Bethlehem has also influenced (e.g. trash like Shining). Drawn out moans like the one at around 24 minutes sound like a burn ward patient whose morphine drip just ran dry. Each vocal line has a dissociated feel as the lyrics are delivered in wildly varying pitches and levels of intensity, as if a madman started to explain his life story to you. You don’t understand what’s going on, there’s intermittent screaming, and things seem to shift from neutral, to sad, to angry without any regard to the story’s emotional context.

Overall ‘Ebne Graun’ is your gradual ferry ride into to hell. The deathbed suffering of someone contemplating all of their mistakes in life, every moment of remorse congealed into a single experience just before death. While this is a really solid album, keep in mind that you have to listen to the whole thing. While a huge number of metal bands relish long songs, ‘Ebne Graun’ is more than a closely related grouping of melodies - it’s one song and one experience. Unless you have 46 minutes to focus on one piece of music, you aren’t getting a real sense of the album. The slow build up, the engaging variations, and the inevitable ending are all moments that mean less when taken in isolation.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Excoriate - Of The Ghastly Stench

Excoriate's ...Of The Ghastly Stench drips and dangles it's murk into your brain with dangerous effectiveness. This death doom mixture is the result of over ten years of refinement in their trade. There is a lot here that reminds me of other South American death metal such as Mystifier or Headhunter DC, but also there is a twisting usage of melody akin to the Dutch scene. There is also something nostalgic about the presentation overall; the raw and unrefined guitar tone, the black and white cassette j-card, the improper capitalization of song titles, and the overwhelmingly swampy sound of the four tracks.

The pacing on this release is spot on. "Teofisto", an instrumental introductory track sets the stage for the expertly twisting "Oh! Peaceful Derketa", which slithers and never truly clicks into a predictable rhythmic pattern or style. It's something which Excoriate do particularly well which befuddles other bands. What could be construed as the chorus in the track is an instantly memorable riff which drops at all the right moments of the track. Midway through the six minute long song-arc, Excoriate borrow some rhythmic influence from Celtic Frost in transition to a slowish section with creepy bass melodies which further morphs into something not unlike the iconic - iconic to me, at least - "Osculum Obsenum" from Mystifier's Wicca.

Where "Oh! Peaceful Derketa" is a slower, brooding track, the pace picks up with "Black Streams on the Ground of Cruelty," but the unconventional riffs and melodies are retained at the quicker tempo. Francisco Rojas experiments heavily with guitar leads and noisy tremolo runs to cast a demonic and evil cloud across final track, and one of the best song titles I've heard in a while, "Ghostly Stench of Mortal Remains." It's the better of the two faster tracks for me, with a seemingly non-repeating main riff full of shifting power chords under flowing tremolo patterns. The song writhes under the serpentine tremolo riffs. Drummer Lino Contreras and Vocalist Fernando Olivares somehow manage to know where the song is going, and while I find it hard to follow from a structure standpoint, it's engaging regardless, and never gives the impression that the band is also lost.

Excoriate take a death metal foundation and finding a way to give it an identity they can call their own style. It's easy to appreciate a band that offers something fresh in each song, never rests on tropes or a stereotypical stamping and pasting of barely nuanced riffs. ...Of The Ghastly Stench is moist, dark, brooding, and definitively creepy. If you've ever claimed there's no good death metal coming out in the early 90's vein, Excoriate stands to correct your assumptions. Nihilistic Holocaust did right by putting this tape out because it deserves some recognition. I'm off to find Excoriate's earlier demos and material.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Montly Blast: September 2017

Cinderella - Night Songs (1986)

Don't knock it 'til you try it. Cinderella would be easy to cast off as 'one of those empty-souled glam bands' but there are some tracks here which hold their own against some of the heavier hard rock and heavy metal that crossed over from this arena such as Dokken or W.A.S.P. "Night Songs" is a tough opener, with a great chugging and catchy bridge. Eric Brittingham's vocals are a cut between Axl Rose and Brian Johnson. Bon Jovi either is the reason why "Nobody's Fool" sucks or he has poor taste as to what songs to sing on as a guest. Tom Keifer shines across the album with some exceptional lead work, particularly in "Nothin' for Nothin'" where he shreds up a slightly extended solo section. "Hell On Wheels" and "Back Home Again" round out the album's best songs on the B-side. Expectedly, none of the best songs from this album were promoted and the band got the raw end of the deal being lumped in with the glam artists perhaps erroneously, but Night Songs can still tug a bit at the nostalgia roused up by 80's Heavy Metal. (Orion)

Elizabeth Shaw - I (2017)

Elizabeth Shaw is a black metal duo from Gothenburg Sweden that is inspired by the movie Prometheus. Surprisingly, their debut EP release, I, is much less spacey sounding than I had expected, and the music has more of a repetitive/droning feel than anything. While the repetition isn’t in Burzum-fuzz style, it’s also not quite the enveloping wall of sound you’d get from a band like Darkspace or the majesty of a band like Mare Cognitum. This is a bit of an issue because the repetition really needs more atmosphere to underpin it, particularly in the first song. The twelve and a half minutes on “Ellie” leave too much space in the mix. Drums are in half time, the soft pads are fairly straightforward, and the guitars kinda slowly lurk from one chord to another. It’s not a bad release by any means, but the band could really flesh out their minimalist approach. This means more layering rather than more moments like the blasting on “Fate of the Engineers” or the upbeat folky lead guitars on “The Covenant.” Bass and vocals would be a nice start, but you can kinda hear in the release how more synth pads could really work well for the band. (Apteronotus)

Gordon Lightfoot - If You Could Read My Mind (1970)

Originally titled Sit Down Young Stranger, Lightfoot's sixth album is best known for it's title track and it's shift towards more orchestration in the tracks, yet for me, the best moments of this album are the tracks which have the least orchestration and retain Lightfoot's true folk-roots such as "Baby It's Allright," and his rendition of "Me and Bobby McGee". It takes time to get to these tracks, though. Opener "Minstrel of the Dawn" sets the stage for a rather dull overall listen and with some darker melodies doing their best to poke through in the opening track, it's easy to get the feeling that Lightfoot never had a chance to fully explore the scope of his moods as he did on some other albums which hold up better in time. There's a heavy dosage of upbeat melodies and transitions away from anything heavier. In my opinion, "Cobwebs and Dust" is a somber track yet gives off an island-vibe for some reason and, therefore, reminds me of Jimmy Buffet which immediately creates resentment. I'd come back to this for a couple of the tracks but overall there's not enough consistency here for me to want to roll with the whole album.(Orion)

Interment - Still Not Dead (2013)

Several incarnations of Interments exist... this happens to be the US conglomerate from Texas' only full length and contains all but one of the group's songs from their earlier demos (omitting "Afterbirth"). The rundown? Style: Death Metal. Predictability: Extreme. Vocals: Pretty damn close to a wild hog. Guitars: Chugga-chugga-womp-womp. You get the idea. Interment's focus is on big chunky rhythms and slick calculated tremolo layers. Simplify Cannibal Corpse's Gore Obsessed into it's bare necessity structures and you could easily take those tracks and put Interment's name on them. Perhaps it's my aversion to this style of death metal which offers nothing subtle or transcendent, but I don't see this as much of anything to go seeking out; no signature standout songs, nothing that speaks to that miniscule part of me which yearns for scorching death metal, - a miniscule component of my being which exists and is extremely unhappy almost all of the time - and with nothing new or unique... nothing at all which would invigorate a seasoned listener of death metal... Interment leave nothing on the table in the midst of a seeming death metal renaissance that is currently under way in the US. Still Not Dead is merely another name in the death metal yellow pages. (Orion)

Licrest - Nothing (2015)

Frequenter of this blog, Licrest has been covered in depth. A quick review of this history, debut Devoid of Meaning hit some excellent high points with a solemnity usually lacking in this dryer style of death/doom. Follow up Misery was lacking. Nothing appeared a couple years ago, sent to me by Armon, and I could never quite decide on it's place within the band's albums. It's a short full length, at just over thirty minutes but Armon has incorporated a lot of what made the first album so enjoyable. Particularly the pummeling chugging riffs and nuanced hints of melodic movements. Opener "Broken Inside" is a fine start to the record with a myriad of techniques and riffs including some clean vocals, big drumming riffs, and even a piano interlude towards the ending of the song. "Nothing" is a highlight track within the band's discography and is reminiscent of "As The Night Goes On" with it's long drawn out melodic guitar lines which bookend the track and passionate mixed clean and harsh vocal performance. Armon's raspy vocals are dry and painful and his clean vocals are surprisingly beautiful and pristine if perhaps too youthful for this style. "What Ends in Pain" is notable for it's extended solo. The production on Misery is more powerful than that of Nothing, yet the material here is far superior and for that, Nothing has my vote as Armon's best work to date with this project. (Orion)

Mandatory - Adrift Beyond (2010)

Mandatory are well known to readers of this blog. Several of their releases have been covered, notably their Where They Bleed EP from 2007. That EP is still their best overall listen, by my reckoning, however Adrift Beyond is  linked to this and other earlier releases. Adrift Beyond contains the first album version recording of Mandatory standards (mandatory Mandatory?) "Crypta Crawler"and "Exelution". There are some newer tracks here which make themselves felt as well. "Into Eternal Sleep" and "Enter The Crematorium" are noteworthy for their tricky yet memorable main riffs. The musicianship is excellent throughout however where Adrift Beyond falls short is in pacing. A full hour of intense death metal that borrows melodically from the Swedish scene and technically from the Dutch scene is not for the faint of heart or for those with the focusing ability of a goldfish - which occasionally I admit I suffer from. That said, this is an enjoyable compendium of material from one of the more stable German death metal bands of the modern era. Worth the purchase for fans of Horrendous, Gorguts' first two albums, Entombed, Grave, and Asphyx. (Orion)

Pawns In Chess - The Blood Of Martyrs Demo (2014)

I was not expecting such a quality release with Pawns In Chess, and yet, this trio from Ohio absolutely obliterates a large swath of other projects skirting the thrash and death metal border. This is not a surprise when I came to learn that Pawns In Chess were formed from the ashes of Descend, a little known death metal band from the mid 90's who I happened to come across after acquiring their 1995 demo at least ten years ago on a vacation pawn shop crawl. The six tracks perfectly emphasize the best parts of this instrumental group while never provoking the listener to wonder 'where are the vocals?' or 'this would be a great chorus.' The reality behind effectively performing extreme metal in an instrumental capacity is in fact simple: riffs, movement, composition. With Pawns In Chess, the tracks are not just a lengthy guitar solo, or texture experiments. There is subtlety wrapped into the riffs which fall outside the commonplace riff-tropes. For me, having written thrash instrumentally in my first band, I can tell that these tracks were written with vocals potentially in mind, yet they simply never materialized, which is unfortunate, as those vocals would have made this release an immediately top-tier and spreadable underground release. Instead, the band added a vocalist and changed names to Curse of Daniel. These tracks will appeal to fans of Flotsam and Jetsam, Heathen, and other more progressive-minded thrash bands. Top track for me is the opening track, Juggernaut. (Orion)

Sdviparg - To Torment The Men (2017)

Spaniards Sdviparg have released their first effort, To Torment The Men, this year and if you've never heard of them, it is easy to understand why. Spain is not necessarily known for it's black metal, and while To Torment The Men isn't a bad album, it won't put the country on the radar by itself. The material here is consistently operatic with grand melodies, dynamic changes, and incorporation of many different arrangement possibilities. Drumming is quite interesting at times with different syncopation and highlighting flourishes. Vocally, we get very dry and harsh vocals throughout reminding me of the early Countess albums. Initially the fifteen track length gave me a fright, but with six or seven tracks which are effectively intros (palette cleansers likely to some) and a run time of forty-five minutes, a listen or two is manageable. The tracks don't truly live up to the press' declaration of 'pulsating bass and thunderous drums' because the lower registers have been effectively dropped entirely out of the mix, but the claim that the guitars are 'meritorious' is an apt description of the melodies. Sdviparg do have some interesting moments here, however. "The Grace of God" has a combined harsh and clean vocal section and "June 2nd 1348" has a strangely Iron Maiden-ish central section with low growled vocals. Occasionally, I feel as if some songs pass too quickly, such as "Dead Path." Put this on in the background a few times and it may grow on you. It grew on me and I'd be very interested to see what Volundr and Funedeim come up with next. I'll be giving this more listens, as it's depth is quite a surprise. (Orion)

Tribunal - Horrors Obscure To The Dove (2017)

For any musicians out there that think good songwriting ability is all you need, Tribunal’s debut self-titled EP is a lesson to the contrary. To sum things up quickly, this is basically a GuitarPro file export that later in the release turns into a glorified MIDI file of what is an impressive Emperor In the Nightside Eclipse styled composition. No vocals, no bass, flat drumming, cheesy synths, and muddy guitars carrying much more weight than they ought to have to. Sometimes it’s fair to downgrade a band’s EP and call it a demo, but this is more like a scratch track or outline than a properly finished release. What’s tough to swallow is that it’s extremely promising. The riffs are solid, the pacing is well above par, and it even manages to convey a lot of atmosphere while being so incomplete. Aside from being unfinished, the “EP” is intriguing although hopefully in the future more will be done to give the music a unique identity and step out of the shadows of its influences. (Apteronotus)