Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Isle of the Cross - Excelsis

Isle of the Cross's Excelsis is the newborn of seemingly bemused singer, songwriter, artisan, enlightenment personality, and multi-instrumentalist Je Schneider. The richly textured album displays the product of what could only be expected from someone of Schneider's background. "I grew up playing drums and piano - following in the footsteps of my Dad. I was introduced to a lot of great musicians of various genres from prog-rock to classical to new age to jazz to metal to folk to Latin to soundtracks/plays etc... it was always a diverse and inspiring collage." Excelsis is too a diverse and inspiring depiction. It veers from big loud dark moments a la Meshuggah or Gojira to soft candid piano interludes and classical motifs. Minimalism is something apparently Je never quite studied. There are absolutely moments which can sound jumbled and claustrophobic but they are not as common as I expected. How did Je ensure that for the most part the album steered clear of these common hiccups? "I actually didn't take any caution which has been noted by quite a few!" He also knows that the complexity present has its disadvantages. "I agree with most that it isn't an easy listen."

It's this composite of influences which can be found on Excelsis, yet the album as a whole is nevertheless coherent and rewarding on a purely textural level; an atmosphere captured seemingly for a purpose and with a definitive goal in mind. Schneider, however, is more keen to pin this on luck, even when given the opportunity to elaborate if he had a specific atmosphere, soundscape, or sound design in mind when making the record. "The honest answer is no. I was throwing a lot of everything into the album and enjoying a bit of the freedom as it was clearly an experimental album." The album sounds like standing in an oasis deep in an arid land - there is a dry wind carried through in heavier songs like "Tartarus", opener "Sacrifice", or "Empyrean" and yet at the same time, a lush overgrowth of melody and rhythmic layering; it's all very modern in sound and ancient in atmosphere; Babylonian. I didn't press Je on this atmosphere further and I was disappointed by the rather wishy-washy response; an album with such a poignant ambience purposefully and carefully crafted would elevate Excelsis. Apparently this spectacular aura was the result of simple luck. For me, there isn't much that I would call experimental about the album sonically, but in terms of Je's individual experience in terms of creation, I can see why he would feel a sense of experimentation coursing through.

I found the album completely coherent, especially once I delved into the thematic content. Lyrically, I found two halves of the record, with songs after fourth track, "The Wolf, Pt. II. Sanctuary," more inwardly focused and the opening four tracks a passionate plea against a larger societal force. Spirituality, and Religion are key themes, tempered by a call for Love as a replacement for heaven. Je was more responsive regarding the lyrical content. "Most of that was based on the loose theme of the album where two are trying to reunite somewhere in the great beyond - as they have now both died on Earth and seek to honor their vow of eternal love. 'The Wolf Pt. I and II' were pointed directly at a specific church, yet also contains some universal thoughts for those who promote / teach religion bondage. The final words of 'Sanctuary' (some of my favorite lyrics personally - Orion) are really to allegorically challenge all those who lay their hope in a specific church building or Sanctuary; to cut off this reliance and rather, more importantly, do what's right and make amends with those they have hurt through their religious fanaticism." A strange subject for a progressive death metal album... but the intricate concept blends well with the previously described spontaneously manifested auditory environment.

But is it a progressive death metal album? It is being promoted as such by the label. There are some elements of death metal, but in truth, to call Excelsis a death metal album is like calling a taco a sandwich. Even Je's 'death metal' vocals aren't really growls or gurgles, but more like jets of heavy whisper propelled from a larynx much more apt to sing a ballad like "Stars", which exists also as a music video more befitting of a Singaporean boy band than an LA based progressive death metal band. Other "official videos" exist of the heavier songs, but they are essentially karaoke, and so I consider "Stars," the only official video I've seen. It's not winning over any metalhead I know, depicting Je singing in front of a background of stars and nebulae. In truth... the genre doesn't apply at all and Rockshots is doing Schneider a disservice by miscategorizing it, causing it likely to be maligned by the wrong audience. Excelsis is a progressive hard rock / modern metal album far removed from the extreme ends of metal. Je agreed in a, now expected, abbreviated clarification: "Probably moreso ‘Progressive Metal’ alone vs Prog Death...Excelsis has some death’ish elements". I asked Je about the two guest singers on the album, expecting him to explain how he was so impressed with Diane Lee's vocals (her vocals on "Inferno" are a highlight for me) that he had to get in contact, or that he was floored when he originally heard Eric Castiglia on this song or that album. "I just contacted them by email and the rest was history." Well OK then.

So ultimately, I have mixed emotions regarding Excelsis and Isle of the Cross. In one pocket, we have a deep sack of unique influences and interesting motifs, shuffled around by Schneider who proves his musical background to be stalwart as his guitar playing and leads are as exceptionally performed as his piano parts, seemingly held together by just enough left over lint to keep the album taught and tied in such a knot that each part seems inseparable. In the other pocket, I can barely squeeze my hand in to grasp any of what should be really interesting music because Schneider, even with poking and prodding, is keen to vaporize his own rich musical background and efforts by explaining away purpose and artistry with the same aloofness Diderot attributed to Rameau's nephew in his (1805) posthumously published satire. Diderot attempts to portray Rameau as a free-spirited debutante with little concern for the world around him and even less morality but Rameau's nephew proved to actually be an intellectual adept capable of long-winded and varied conversation worthy of an entire manuscript. Je Schneider is the antagonist Diderot failed to ultimately portray. From Rameau's nephew, the irony of one of his claims comes to mind: "I would not like to guarantee that a good speaker will sing well, but I should be surprised if a good singer could not speak well. Believe all I say on this score, for it is the truth." Oh is it?

It's interesting how my opinion of the album changed based on Je's responses regarding his creative process and sonic goals in it's creation; originally impressed and intrigued and now ambivalent. Je was quick in returning answers for my questions, which was great, but I've never sent questions to someone who was so keen to not want to extrapolate on their own music. Apparently he's done other interviews for the album, so it's possible he was simply tired of answering questions, but even in other interviews, at least to me, he comes across as curt. Nonetheless, I could see plenty of people enjoying this, just not fans of death metal. I think Excelsis is best suited to listeners of more modern progressive metal like Dream Theater's most recent albums, Orphaned Land, and other heavier European symphonic heavy metal. The best song on the album for me is either "Tartarus" or "The 9th Circle. Pt. III - Inferno," which is a truly impressive work, especially considering it was written entirely experimentally, with all thought and purpose thrown to the wind, and reliant entirely on luck.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Chronicles of Hate - The Birth of Hate

Chronicles of Hate's The Birth of Hate could be construed to have checked most of the right boxes to jump on the heap of average melodic death metal albums. They are also approximately twenty years too late to their chosen genre's golden years. In truth, the band on their website claim "the intent is to merge the sound of death metal's old school with the groove and violence of most modern metalcore"*. To me, this sounds a lot like melodic death metal. This simple summary could be a more than adequate ultimatum on their debut release too. It's important, however, to not fall victim to the falsehood that just because something has been done before - and done ten thousand times before - it is necessarily worthless to try again. Something can be said regarding the age and maturity of a genre and how refinement in extreme metal, especially in genres such as black metal and death metal, has resulted in exceptionally well-crafted modern takes on genres which are often perceived as being overinflated. Unfortunately, Chronicles of Hate do not do much, if anything at all, to raise themselves above or beyond the status quo. The Birth of Hate proves to be merely a serviceable record for passerby listening.

Initial impressions of The Birth of Hate are positive. The album starts off with a moody intro track before falling headlong into "Devastation... Rise!". The production quality appears on point. The guitar partnership of Riccardo D' Angelo and Roberto Simonetti is tight with a full bodied tone. The album is recorded live, apparently, and this helps the performances feel natural and not mechanical. "The Better Way" follows, and is more aggressive and hard-hitting. Opening with a violent guitar tremolo melody from the left guitar, it is one of the tracks on the album which stands out, in my opinion. During the breakdown sections, it is easy to hear Mirko Pinoli standing out as he pummels accent notes out of his bass and into the mix. "Bet on Tragedy" begins with a slower, heavy, groovy riff that adds some variety to the record even at this early point. The song becomes the catchiest of the album with a streamlined verse which is more melodic than the previous opening tracks. "Bet on Tragedy" for me, is the album highlight. Lyrically, it also is the most commanding, expanding on the concept that world leaders view war as a game, and ignore the value of the human lives that fight and die. The band put together a music video for the song with, what looks like, edited scenes from Call of Duty or some other video game with the lyrics overlaid; for me, I'll do without the video.

"The Better Way" truly brings vocalist Francesco Macchi into the spotlight, where he will stay for the rest of the album. Macchi's vocals are quite searing, especially towards the end of the track, where he is unrestrained and animalistic, holding one vocal syllable for a full eleven seconds. He shifts between a hardcore style of vocals, lower growled death metal vocals, and some higher range screeches and snarls. Macchi makes great use of these different voices to lend passion and emotion to songs which could easily sound tired and expressionless without solid leadership in his thematic role.  It's not that the rest of the band are not acceptable musicians, they just don't stand out the way Macchi makes himself stand out. Part of this is the live production. Solos are performed in-take, being panned left or right (mostly left) with the rest of the rhythm tracks. Instead of sounding like stand-out solos, they come across as simply leads. A lead such as that which closes out "Away From Reality" would sound so much better center panned, with some minor effects added in post, with both rhythm tracks underneath.

 The album begins to slip for me at "The Beast Within." The main riff which the song returns to several times just does me in; it jumps back and forth between two or three notes for what seems forever before finding a place to rest in a been-there heard-it-before filler riff. Then it does this three or four more times throughout the song. It also emphasizes one of the album's biggest flaws, in my opinion. The material has very little dynamic movement. Songs are always all guns blazing, regardless of which speed they are going at. There isn't a single point, for example, where session drummer Antonion Inserillo and Pinoli have moments to themselves, or where either guitarist is singularly highlighted (a five second clean guitar intro to "The Beast Within" doesn't count either). "Hope Kills" starts with a riff which sounds similar to other riffs that are heard in earlier songs... having either of the guitarists perform it on it's own would add some compositional and arrangement variety to the second side of the album. This scar of monodynamism needs to be addressed in future material for Chronicles of Hate to move beyond formative.

Final track, "Away from Reality" was the biggest surprise for me. It's elevated initial melodicism was not as exceptional as that found on something like The Jester Race or Natural Born Chaos, however it did sound like something you'd find on a sub-par track from Clayman. I'd like to see more of this by Chronicles of Hate, if not as intricate. Some carefully chosen locations of heightened melodic movement would help the band craft  melodic death metal which is less stagnant, more memorable, and dynamic as a song like "Bet On Tragedy" proved the band can do well. The album art for this release is tame. It doesn't stand out at all and wouldn't exactly draw my interest if the album sat on racks with other releases, hell even if the CD was a few bucks in a used bin I don't think the artwork would catch my eye. The melodic death metal genre is so stuffed, that a band like Chronicles of Hate need to separate themselves either by doing something original or by writing perfect songs; neither of which they do on The Birth Of Hate, which is, at least, not entirely worthless thanks to the performance of Macchi.


Monday, April 13, 2020

CarnageSlumber - Sadistic Mechanical Evolution

There are infinite different purposes behind the art which bands create. Artists aim to express reverence for nature, induce mosh pits and headbanging, invoke a sense of brotherhood, convey the deep-rooted philosophy of individualism, spit blasphemy, or any number of other artistic and ideological goals good and bad. The key to successfully portraying their goal, in music as with any medium, is a unification of the medium and the purpose. With CarnageSlumber and Sadistic Mechanical Evolution, pinpointing a purpose for their art is difficult. The album doesn't truly highlight any specific elements. The lack of melodic separation between the tracks, the constant muted tremolo picking, the singularity of overall tone, and the artificiality of the drum tone points to something assembled for a reason but missing parts. Sadistic Mechanical Evolution is a piece of equipment without gauges to read, without a user manual, without input or output; it's an engine idling and producing little. The moments where the album succeeds, songs such as "Mitochondria" and "Vibrating Dead Tongues", to a lesser degree, offer just enough to hint at something underneath. Two songs which come ever so close to marrying the medium and the message.

The tone of Sadistic Mechanical Evolution is modern and urban, yet also past-prime. Guitarist Salvo Di Marco summons Morbid Angel who found and honed a similar springy, murky guitar tone on Heretic and, to a lesser degree, Gateways to Annihilation, but where those albums offered something purposefully old, swampy, and dank, CarnageSlumber mix this laden tone with the crisp snapping artificiality of mid-2000's era death metal drums found on Krisiun's AssassiNation or Decapitated's Nihility. CarnageSlumber also exaggerate their spongy guitar tone to a degree of magnitude where singular notes higher on the register would be more at home at a ten-year-old's birthday party in the bouncy-castle. Lower registers have a boomy upfront presence which is resounding yet truncated. It's a unique choice of textures to process and, at least to my sensibilities, a mystery. The tone never seems to engage me the way similar tones have, such as on Golem's Dreamweaver, which is similarly unique but better mixed and supported. Lorenzo Reina is, tone aside, excellent on drums, especially in his grand finale drum solo closing out the album on "Sideral White Creator."

My least favorite element is the monotone gruff vocals of Paolo "Zodd" Sofia. His performance is admirable with little to complain about technically. Zodd comes across as urgent, powerful, and gritty; all things you'd want in a vocalist. Combining, however, his vocals with the other elements of the mix and things start to blend in a way which bores me. There is no bass guitar, so his lower range stands out against the guitars, but because there is a genuine lack of melody in the vocals, this low end is filled with essentially a bassist playing one note for the duration of the record at rhythmic intervals. The short songs are served well by Zodd's urgency and immediacy but his often truncated barks of vocals begin to lack variety by the third or fourth song. Were there some contrast in the vocals melodically or dynamically or tonally, it would go a long way to propel CarnageSlumber. The current style doesn't capture the vivid lyrical matter or express what I feel is a wellspring of performance inspiration.

Regarding which, I did absolutely enjoy the thematic content, as choppy English as the lyrics were. Songs mainly focus on human medical experimentation. I imagine Dr. Kevorkian rewriting Carcass lyrics in Engrish. The imagery in a song like "Termical Visions" can trace it's heritage to Italian classic Giallo films in lines such as 'No one survives to the predator, no one will deny him his trophies, more you oppose more violent will be your end'. "Vibrating Dead Tongues" captures the scene of a corpse in a suspended state, with only a tongue retaining movement, being self-aware. "Mitochondria", likely my personal favorite song on the record for the atonality which is welded to it's structure, has the most vivid lyrical content, proposing the outcome of all genetic diversity in the moment of existence's destruction contrasted against the moment once again of creation at singularity. Other songs are similarly vivid taking form as poems which open the mind to what would surely be disturbing science fiction concepts.

CarnageSlumber has work to do in terms of coalescing their sound into a unified whole and a recognizable purpose or soul. There are a lot of elements and moments which speak to their artistic capability, technical prowess, and uniqueness but none which clarify what the band is trying to say with their music. There are moments on Sadistic Mechanical Evolution which I really enjoyed, but those moments do not shine light through the shadow of monotonous textures and sapping energy. As colorful as the lyrical content is, without a matching soundtrack we are given two separated cranial hemispheres which aren't exactly communicating. I could see fans of bands like Meshuggah enjoying this, but also fans of technical death metal, because of Di Marco's rigorous guitar playing. A bass rolling underneath, supporting all this with some nuanced melodic variety would be a huge addition - especially a bass with an unconventional tone - as would some vocal refinement and variety. CarnageSlumber could produce something of genuine originality in the future if they stay the course and make some arrangement tweaks to what they are already doing. The packaging on this Extreme Metal Music release is professionally done with all the lyrics included and a memorable cover courtesy of Cristina Cammarata.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Father Befouled - Anointed In Darkness: Live In Europe

Archiving Father Befouled's first European show, Anointed in Darkness: Live In Europe, serves a singular historical purpose and is how I perceive the album first and foremost. While from an artistic perspective the recording does a good job presenting the atmosphere which Father Befouled have captured on their albums, the willingness of the band to overlook certain aspects seems to me that the band has an emotional connection to the circumstances of the captured milestone which is greater than their concern for the quality of the recording itself. I can only theorize, however I expect that a slightly better performance and recording taken from the band's third or fourth show, for example, would have as much significance to a fan as the first show from this tour. Ultimately though, there is nonetheless a special semblance carried through Anointed.., perhaps just short of imperceptible, which renders minor performance mistakes and production miscues moot. If nothing else, we can revel side-by-side with Father Befouled as they offer their subterranean craft to an audience for the first time on this virgin terra. Krucyator Productions is responsible for the release and everything appears as professional as can be expected from the French label.

Justin Stubbs, the main force behind Father Befouled, has said before in interviews that his main goal is to create "dirty, nasty, dissonant, atonal, ugly shit"*. Most of these terms apply to this recording and so, at least from the creator's vantage point, Anointed... is an objective success. Personally, I don't hear a huge amount of atonality in Father Befouled, nor much dissonance. The riffs are largely chromatic, but that alone doesn't equal the discomfort which atonality manifests in say, a song like "Idol Defamation," which does carry many clearly atonal moments. Father Befouled's death metal sculptures are those of chiselled saints missing limbs and upturned crosses melting into pools of hellish fire, equal parts catacombs and coffins, and creeping paranoia. Dirty, nasty, and ugly but not so much the industrialized and mechanical incapability for melody which one finds prevalent in, particularly atonal and dissonant metal. Clearly, there are no major scales, no walking bass lines, no moments for dancing; there is only a subterranean swelling of blood, bile, and blasphemy. By church standards, this is a record which would be burnt, crushed, destroyed, and it's owner sent to reformation camps and, therefore, has a rightful place in death metal halls alongside major influences like Incantation and Immolation.

From the initial seconds of guitar feedback, it's clear that the platter we are being served hasn't exactly been sanitized. After the time-honored tradition of counting off with quarter notes on the snare, death metal is thrust into our yearning minds in the form of "Sacrilegious Defilement". The most immediate thought for the listener should be "why is Rhys Spencer's bass the only thing I can hear?" It's undeniable that his low end is overwhelming. This is the case in many locations throughout the opening song, as well as through the rest of the album. This is likely a technical miscue having to do with the way in which the live audio was mixed on the soundboard in a live setting. Live sound is rarely mixed in a similar manner to studio, especially in regards to bass. The frequencies at which bass is transmitted are longer and appear to the ear less audible than the higher frequency guitar tones in a clear-sight room so bass is pushed louder so the audience can 'feel' the rumbling in their gut. The result of this mixing is that the original soundboard source material naturally is bass heavy. It's also why when you walk outside of a venue, you can often hear tons of bass and nothing else - longer frequency waves pass through material with less volume reduction than tighter guitar frequencies. It's essential in a live setting to mix this way but is recreated poorly on record. Texturally, there isn't much to warrant such a loud bass and the muted tone is too clean for my tastes - and for the sound of the band. This is the releases largest singular flaw, yet, alternatively, this loud bass is something which would never be emphasized in a studio album to this degree and gives Anointed... an elementalism, a hear-and-now quality, which is transportive, genuine, and definitively 'live'.

Underneath Rhys' thunderous bass Amos Rifkin completes the rhythmic responsibilities capably. Derick Goulding and Stubbs add the frosting to this sulfurous cake. Riffs often are phantoms of tremolo picking and guitar squeals with occasional terse doom moments. Where solos or lead moments do appear, the subtle glimpses of sad melodies add a noticeable dimension. It's one of the reasons why "Ungodly Rest" is the best track in my opinion here, even if there are a few audible performance flaws and a full minute of the solo section has been culled in their live set. The song has a couple big moments to remember: the slow undulating opening riff descending one and a half steps to a contrasting low 'B' which acts as a melodic glue for the track and the excellent, yet shortened, doom/death solo section. For me, not knowing a large portion of Father Befouled's discography for this release, it was the quickest song to take notice of. The second track that next really captured my attention was "Holy Rotten Blood," and "Idol Defamation" third due to that atonality. In some ways it reminded me of early At The Gates melodically. The set has a good mix of speeds with plenty of slow, mid, and fast paced songs to fend off boredom or monotony which speaks to Father Befouled's songwriting.

Anointed in Darkness does exactly what the band wants it to do: capture a moment in time, their first European show, and allow others to share in that experience. It presents the band as they genuinely are: a foot soldier in the American old school death metal army, willing to follow the orders of their superiors and get the job done. It fits the mentality of a workhorse band and Stubbs' humble production minded goals. Much of the physical release is really well done also. The packaging and layout, also from Stubbs who is a graphic designer by trade, is kept simple but refined with an eight page layout featuring black and red tour photos and live shots. Having said that packaging is "something he always looks for in releases+" while simultaneously acknowledging that he "doesn't overthink things... it is me kind of going 'that's good enough'*", I can see his passion represented by the former comment as well as his desire to get things done by the latter. The layout - which could have been much more lazily assembled - is stitched together with a natural feel for acceptable photo positioning, booklet layout, and the added insert explanation as to why this release is important to the Father Befouled crew. Anointed In Darkness, even though the sound is not the best, does make me want to pick up a copy of Desolate Gods after hearing the impressive "Ungodly Rest." The front cover photo from Malia Rifkin (I'm assuming drummer Amos' significant other) captures the band in a moment of subdued grandeur, entranced in blasphemy beneath an inverted crucified Christ, simple spotlights raining a pure white light onto those who on April 30th, 2019 offered their own Word to a following of willing supplicants.