Friday, August 28, 2020

Thecodontion - Supercontinent

Millions of years ago, sea creatures first stepped onto the alien surface of land, shed their fins, grew appendages suited for the fathomless depths, and took steps towards the infinity of land creatures which now grace our suburban yards, concrete jungles, and whatever sliver of untouched nature which still remains. Thecodontion is that moment in time, that first step towards a new world. It is not totally unheard of to have bass only projects in the black metal realms, such as the excellent Loudun La Maudite by Arphaxat from 2008, but it's not common enough to be taken as a serious long-term arrangement format. Thecodontion are proving that a bass only project can be as dynamic, artistic, and sonically encompassing as a traditional arrangement. Their newest album, Supercontinent, is what it's name implies: a massive chunk of matter to inspect, explore, and analyze. This isn't unexpected, as the two Italians behind Thecodontion are keen to admit that they've never shied away from intellectualizing this ancient sounding format which they are revealing for us.

"The idea of having those ancestral, prehistoric lyrical themes was connected to the idea of making guitarless extreme metal. Those things have been developed simultaneously," states vocalist and rhythmist Giuseppe Emanuele Frison, aka G.E.F. Rhythmist? "Basically I write the rhythm parts (main bass, drums), then G.D. writes the other bass parts and leads/solos. When G.D. writes lyrics, I talk to him about the metrics and the parts where I would sing, so he adapts his lyrics to these needs. These are some guidelines, sometimes we also use old riffs we have put aside or old ideas. Anyway, having a good organization when it comes to songwriting is pretty important, it makes it easier." I dig deeper into the forces at play when the vocalist doesn't pen the lyrical content, "I'm aware it's pretty unusual haha, generally lyrics are written by the vocalist. Anyway, we always used this method - even if it's a bit unusual, as I said - and we didn't have issues or problems of any kind. Generally I suggest the parts where I want to sing and G.D. adapts his lyrics to my needs, but it's not too complicated. When I have the full lyrics I decide the metrics: sometimes it can happen that some verses are a bit too long and I have to modify my way of singing, but again, it's not an actual issue."

The album for me is a departure from demo Thecodontia and EP Jurassic both of which tilt heavily towards the more extreme, death metal bordering on grind end of the spectrum. Jurassic, itself a major advancement overall in showcasing the possibilities for a bass and drums extreme metal band, really impressed me with it's sharpness, brutality, and overall tonal design. It was Giuseppe D'Adiutorio, aka G.D., who first contacted me with the possibility of a review and sent me an early dubbed copy of Supercontinent, which spurred me to have everything they've released shipped to my house haste. But in listening through Thecodontion's short - but impressive - discography what stood out was that even though the material for Jurassic and Supercontinent was written during the same period, the content is strikingly well placed. A track such as "Rhamphorhynchus Muensteri (Wingset)" would not fit on Supercontinent and a track such as "Nuna" or "Kenorland" the two most extreme tracks on their full length, are too slow, rumbling, and melodic to fit on Jurassic. For me, the grind element has largely lapsed on the LP, while the death metal elements have been pressed to new extremes.

Many reviews have categorized the band as war metal. G.D confronts this categorization while explaining the shifting atmospheres at play in their discography. "The demo and EP maybe have some elements of that, the music being a mix of black/death and grindcore with blistering solos, but yes, I think "Supercontinent" is much more on the death metal side of things, or the more complex/atmospheric side of black/death metal like Antediluvian or Mitochondrion at times. Probably calling the band war metal might even discourage some people which dislike the style, not that I'm that a big fan of war metal myself, actually, and I don't think we have that much in common with the bands you mentioned (Bestial Warlust / Revenge), our influences are rather different...but it's just a music genre tag in the end and it doesn't matter much, I think."

G.D further muses on the experimentation at play now and to be further explored: "We wanted to do something rather different than "Thecodontia" or "Jurassic", something which reflected our real influences more - both inside and outside extreme metal (like prog rock or ambient, even hip-hop if you listen to "Panthalassa") - and which sounded like a natural step forward. We managed to do what we had in mind, luckily, I'd even say the final result surpassed our expectations. At the same time, I feel it's important to always move the creative goal forward and that's what we are going to do for future material... We are definitely going to experiment further. The album is just the first step in a certain direction, some stylistic foundations are very likely to stay, but they will for sure be expanded further. I don't like to stagnate musically and we are always evolving. "Supercontinent" is indeed the real musical idea behind the band...but it's not the only! We have some more we would like to explore."

One of the aspects of the project which stands out across all three and which hasn't changed at all, is the incredibly in depth researched lyrical content. My perspective is that the lyrical content is almost militantly scientific in nature. I pose the question to G.D whether such intricately researched scientific lyrical content is meant to be perceived to be a greater attack at the anti-science religious factions than the done-to-death Satanic imagery. "I don't think so, I don't wish to write neither aggressive or offensive lyrics and there is no presumption of holding the absolute truth about creation within them. I'm not a religious person, but I don't judge anyone for being so. I just don't like when it's used as an instrument of oppression and control, but science has sometimes been used for the same purposes as well, yet I won't say that all religion and all science are bad. I think both could co-exist, there is no need to have a perpetual ideological war between these two worlds and the attempt of the one to completely overcome the other." When asked if we can learn anything from our ancient ancestors G.E.F adds, "I don't think that the modern world should learn something specific from our ancient ancestors: our concepts and lyrics try to convey a certain atmosphere, there wasn't an intention to suggest a sort of disgust towards the modern world. I'd say that our lyric and aesthetic aim is purely narrative and it's strictly linked to the music."

Thecodontion note that their lyrical content has had a strange unforeseen casualty - the ears of academia: "There has been some interest indeed: we received a paper from a museum in Germany about a pterosaur similar to the one on the "Jurassic" EP artwork, they even bought a copy of the 7"! We have also been mentioned by an Italian paleontologist on his blog and I'm currently doing an interview with the "Prehistoric Times" zines about the rise of this unusual subject within extreme metal. I'm happy there has been praise for our detailed lyrics, it means I probably didn't screw anything up while writing them!"

If there's a single auditory theme running through Supercontinent, it's that the album is best viewed as a cinematic, expressive whole. Listening to only "Kenorland" will not effect the same emotions which "Tethys" will. The album sweeps through numerous landscapes and topographic representations as bass and drum cacophonies. G.E.F. is dismissive in this regard, "I don't know if "Supercontinent" is more artistic and expressive: we just had a different aim, so we had a different approach. For sure it's a more complex album compared to our past releases..." For me, this is selling the band short; Supercontinent is the grandiose expressive monument to prehistoric geography that the band knows it is, and is proud of.

As far as complexity goes, that seems to be inevitable based on the influences which the band draws from: "Our influences are pretty much various. For the rhythm parts I recognize some influences from the Canadian black/death metal scene (stuff like Antediluvian, Auroch, Mitochondrion), but when I was writing "Supercontinent" I listened to a lot of some experimental death metal stuff (especially Chaos Echoes and Oksennus), and I think this is pretty clear if you listen to the album. We also like the intricate riffs by Krallice and the lead parts/solos in Mithras. We also try to get ideas from the stuff we like, even if that music can be far from metal. For example one of our favorite artists is Franco Battiato (an Italian singer-songwriter) and we'd love to make a cover of one of his songs. Let's see if this will come to fruition."

No modern coverage is ever complete without some further prodding. The band has released all three of it's releases on physical formats. Jurassic and especially Supercontinent are beautiful vinyl releases by Repose Records. Supercontinent requires the large presentation in order to see the intricate cover art details such as the tiny thin ripples surrounding the artistic representation of the supercontinent which fills the front pane. A full color insert with lyrics is included as well. How important is the physical element for Thecodontion? Is it as important as the physical fossils which inform our understanding of the past or the solid drilled cores explaining the shifting earth beneath our feet? "The aesthetic and physical aspects of our music are extremely important for us, we do collect music as well (in all formats). Also, our releases have some additive illustrations and this can add something to the record. As human beings, we have five senses, so it's important satisfy not only the hearing - even in music. For sure listening to music on physical format is different, it's almost cathartic and in this way you can comprehend better the atmosphere of an album: it's almost a "ritual". By the way I have to admit that I'm not a total enemy of digital formats, it can be comfortable if you are not at home for example."

I necessarily inquire as to what is in the pipeline for Thecodontion as far as upcoming releases. Having alluded to upcoming split releases in several recent interviews, I pester for more information. " One split is with the UK one man black metal/noise band Vessel of Iniquity, a project we released in the past on our personal label Xenoglossy Productions. Our side has been recorded during the Supercontinent sessions and the split is probably coming out in early 2021. I can't tell much about the other two splits, the songs are finished but we still have to record them, maybe in late 2020 or early 2021. I love the split format, especially when there is a coherent theme behind, either musical or conceptual. My favorite is when there is a similar concept but kind of different musical style between the bands involved."

Thecodontion's Supercontinent is sure to land on the best-of lists at years end. One listen to "Pangea" is sure to draw in anyone with discerning ears for unique, harsh, and brutal death metal. G.E.F's screams are visceral bloody rasps and screeches scarring the wax across the album's best track. Massive looming drums and walloping clunking bass strings rattle across the track like the teeth of some giant herbivore on long-extinct oversized leaves. The vast swampy mass that was every inch of land that existed on the Earth at the time stretching out into burgundy and crimson dusk. The ability to venture across the entirety of the world unimpeded by oceans but opposed at every lumbering step by yet larger and more vicious creatures. Supercontinent taps into the brutality and the beauty of prehistory and presents it to us in a unique configuration which is equally extreme and serene.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

La Torture Des Tenebres - Memoirs of a Machine Girl

It's impossible not to envision Huxleyan and Orwellian themes when focusing on La Torture Des Tenebres' album art which consistently depicts the kinds of futurist dystopian scenes and landscapes crafted in works such as 1984, Brave New World, 12 Monkeys, or Forbidden Planet. Many reviews have pointed to the classic Metropolis, by Fritz Lang, however it would easy to point to other early noir films with angular aesthetics such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as visual simulacrums for La Torture Des Tenebres' futurist direction. More than any others except Orwell, however, the author who stands out most is Gordon R. Dickson, and his Dorsai series for it's equal parts dystopian romanticism and futuristic nihilism. Musically, however, this aesthetic doesn't seem to stand out to me, which is particularly disappointing, because the lyrical content strongly draws upon this bygone era's dystopian style; an era when science fiction still managed to knock at deeper emotional doors than what we often see in our current special effects-focused sci-fi films. The lack of musical effectiveness is truly what hurts my enjoyment of what otherwise is a well intellectualized social commentary.

Sole proprietor of this little corner stand of techno-horror is Jessica Kinney, who I applaud for the seeming ideological perspectives which she espoused in an interview with Mithratemplezine. As someone concerned over how generations of humans are allowing their individuality to be placed under duress without their consent, it gives me pleasure to find these concerns in others. I think underground metal fans - and extreme music fans at large - are more deeply aware of the importance of separation from social constructs which mold thought and habit, even if they are equally capable of self-destructing their own identities in the name of image. Kinney agrees that "a world in which genuine human connection is entirely replaced by social conventions and unbending self-interest" is a nightmare which must be confronted. In this context, the preoccupation with loneliness and depressed states of mind evidenced in her lyrics, falls in lockstep with the themes. Was not the entirety of 1984 a tragic love story? Was not Winston betrayed by the social constructs around him? Have we all not been betrayed by the social constructs around us? 

Memoirs of a Machine Girl is first and foremost a slab of audio experimentation beyond typical genre boundaries and so, for me, it is easiest to classify it as textural in nature. Were there more electronic elements - elements which would potentially aid the futurist vibes the album lacks - it would fall easily into the harsh electronic realm. The lack of electronic textures, and dominance of static and overlays of field and borrowed samples create a wall of white noise which can only be described as harsh ambient. The thematic content, magnified in topics such as loneliness, existential crisis, and depression - Kinney herself has explained that La Torture Des Tenebres "was started as a form of audio-psychotropic for the treatment of psychotic and depressive illness" - add a depressive element which can't help but pigeonhole the project into some sort of Depressive Harsh Ambient category. It's this depressive connotation which would appeal to fans of black metal. Otherwise, I find little in common with the genre as far as music alone is concerned.

Songs are long drawn out blocks of mashed up samples. A wall of static often blurs distinct sounds into incomprehensible mud. Occasionally melodic phrases fight their way through the morass for short bursts of clearance amidst the unsettling clamor. There isn't enough focus on these melodic passages - they become merely a dark cloud in polluted skies forgotten about as they pass. For something so outrageously layered and claustrophobic sounding, I'm amazed when moments fall into place and stand out such as the expansive screaming in the tail end of "Love Pumps Through My Veins as Quickly as you Kiss Me Goodbye" or the children and voices which occupy the interlude in "Somerwhere in Brockville, In a Restroom Stall." There are some excellent choices of sound design present, such as the bombastic and tense ending of "Staring at the Stars to the Sound of Trucks Revving In The Distance," the opening track, where under-water sounding spoken words are paired with horns or alarms sounding in the distance. Kinney's inability to highlight her purposeful choices of sampling and texture are my biggest concern with the project. I'd like more space, without the loss of the harshness and wall-of-sound. 

As alluded to earlier, at no point in the tracks do I feel like I am in a futurist setting. More rigid and angular rhythmic elements would help press this atmospheric form. I also question the usage of the drums or percussive elements which don't add anything to the imagery I view as La Torture Des Tenebres' goal. I really like the potential behind this project. It's one of the more interesting harsh noise / ambient tapes I've heard in a while. I'd like a more concerted effort to capture the retro-future imagery in the overall sound design, since the project relies so heavily on that aesthetic. Instead of being swept into a post-apocalyptic future world of broken machines, vacuum-tube adorned processors, and antennae arrays broadcasting mind-control signals, I feel like I've walked into a David Lynch setting. It's not a bad vibe, at all, but it doesn't complete the necessary whole to raise Memoirs of a Machine Girl to the lofty heights which others hoist it to.