Friday, January 29, 2016

Mastery - VALIS

Sometimes with music that’s on the “different” side, it’s easy to get distracted by those differences and fail to see what’s really going on. Mastery’s VALIS is a good example of this problem, because at the surface this album is a chaotic mess of adult ADHD, the Las Vegas Strip of metal. When you get past VALIS’ superficially dazzling lights however, you have what is fundamentally a metal album, no matter how noisy or chaotic it may seem. More importantly, this is a fairly good album if you aren’t disgusted by things out of far left field. Generally speaking, the release is in the same ballpark as music you may hear from a Mories project (imagine De Magia Veterum reinterpreting Reign in Blood) because of how the low strumming noisy bits are often broken up with light speed digital trills and massive melodic jumps into high-pitched dissonant intervals or chords.

Unlike a lot of music that dips its toes into chaos, VALIS has a huge amount of metal riffs. However, they’re delivered like an unrelenting artillery assault. One explosive melody blasts after another so quickly that you almost can’t discern any particular moment, due to the stunning afterglow of each riff. This is the key to what makes the whole album such a spectacle, the sheer speed of the delivery of every instrument rather than any one moment standing out. Despite taking obvious musical cues from black/noise, there is also quite a warm low-end, and when you factor in the speed, it makes the chaos all the more global. All of this makes sense too, given that this 2015 release is Mastery’s first full-length while the project’s first demo was in 2005! VALIS is clearly the result of a well refined vision.

There are a fair amount of breathers throughout the album that make it easier to appreciate the tumultuous cascade of notes elsewhere. In these calmer moments, you can also better appreciate the evenness of the throaty dry vocals; and the breaks are the only times where the drum’s pancakes compression is particularly noticeable. Structurally, the album is broken up by two ambient pieces, their short length contrasting the massive other three tracks (one is 17:53.) But, since the longer tracks already have breaks built in, the ambient tracks seem a tad gratuitous. Especially with L.O.R.E.S.E.E.K.E.R. in the center of the album’s run time. It’s relatively tame tempo changes and controlled melodic jumps (by Mastery’s standards at least) obviate the need for other interludes. It also makes some sense to think of the album as one song, but the main tracks are still self contained and defined enough to not rely on one another entirely.

Sometimes really experimental stuff can feel like the entire creation was done by an outsider to metal, who is co-opting only the genre’s most superficial aspects. Despite what could be described as mathcore inclinations, Mastery comes across as authentic because of its riffiness and you can also hear blatant traditional Norwegian influences bleeding through (e.g., the second half of S.T.A.R.S.E.E.K.E.R., where one riff feels familiar enough to have been from a classic album.) It’s a good indicator of how VALIS’ insanity is often reigned in and contrasted with normal bits that seem to make it even crazier, instead of just a forgettable wash of nonsense. After all, pure chaos eventually becomes white noise. The percussion helps a great deal in this regard because the walls of blast beats provide a comfortingly consistent aspect to the mix.

In all of the hyperspeed riffing punctuated by frenzied high pitched flourishes, you almost lose the sense that the guitar here is a physical instrument rather than something programmed (and maybe it is programmed.) The digital tone is part of this, but it’s really the performance that makes it seem outside of the instrument’s typical confines. Not necessarily better or worse than how guitar is usually used, but when you have slides punching in from nowhere and all sorts of pitches used in rapid sequence it feels like an aggregation of samples instead of a human performance. It all works though. For example, how can you not love the nice twangy slides towards the end of L.O.R.E.S.E.E.K.E.R. as the drums switch from half-time to double-time? It’s high quality songwriting and even when you cut through all of the flash and novelty, VALIS is still a really solid output.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Spektr - The Art to Disappear

Spektr’s latest and better-than-excellent release, The Art to Disappear, may be devoid of lyrics, but the overall emotional pallet can be summed up by the following sample: “We have seen illusion and reality begin to overlap, and fuse.” Using varied audio clips from sources like Twin Peaks, The Animatrix, Mondo Keyhole, and Taxi Driver; Spektr paints a mystifying and fuzzy picture of the album’s reality blurring themes. This ambiguity is remarkably apt because of how the amazing album transcends the usual trappings of industrial black metal. The Art to Disappear isn’t the kind of constant interstellar-mechanical-pummeling that you may hear in bands like Mysticum or even Thorns; the atmosphere is comparatively laid back. There’s an eerie lounge vibe that makes you feel like you are listening to a 50’s nuclear PSA from an alternate reality, and it’s incredibly compelling. Having said that, the album is still rife with fantastically heavy moments, and the ambient sections never make you feel like you are stuck in listening to a monotonous radioplay. (The Axis of Perdition’s Urfe is the best example of this kind of a pitfall.)

Since Spektr isn’t focused on always using industrial black metal’s drier cliches, the album is given a remarkable breath of fresh air through absolutely beautiful percussion. Yes, it’s mechanically precise, but holy shit does it sound full and rich; everything from the drum samples to the more traditional industrial samples sounds incredible. Some of the cymbals are perhaps even better sounding than standing right next to the real thing. The real star of the mix however is the guitar’s crunchy tone, which is more satisfying than the crunch of stomping through a thin piece of ice on the ground when you were five years old. It’s a major part of how the album manages to be so convincingly heavy. You have an inherently satisfying sound, even if you were to strip the razor sharp and crushing riffs down to only the palm muted tremolo picking. This is also a clear contrast to the band’s tone on their prior album, Cypher, with its characteristic emphasis on legato slides and flanger/phaser infused guitars.

There is so much on this album that is just spectacularly executed. “Through the Darkness of Future Past” boasts a truly brilliant use of simple unisons - then the band bends them into a sharp minor-second intervals, and the band lingers on them. “From the Terrifying to the Fascinating” has the guitars drop out for the midsection to provide a break, which is kept interesting through the intricate hi-hat playing over the pulsating synthesizer. Even the way the samples are used is creative and thoughtful. I absolutely love how the band takes a really overused quote from Taxi Driver and focuses on a different part of the line. This completely reshapes the meaning behind it. On “Kill Again” the intro’s rhythmic theme is reprised, and the words “kill again” are repeated over and over as they are mixed into the earlier theme. It works, because the focus is on the rhythm rather than the words. You never get a cheesy impression from what is basically a murder chant.

All of the interludes, samples, and changes in atmosphere highlight how masterfully balanced the album is. (I say this as someone with little patience for filler, especially ambient filler.) At just under 40 minutes long, the pacing feels just right because it never drags, but it also leaves you with a sense that you’ve heard a complete album. For those reasons The Art to Disappear is easy to listen to, and the best part is that it has the depth to make it an experience well worth repeating. Along the same lines, this isn’t some kind of catchy riff-tastic album designed for you to hum along to. While the band rises above hackneyed industrial themes it’s important to keep in mind that this is, at its heart, a fundamentally alienating album. Spektr even makes this point explicit with the Animatrix sample: “Your flesh is a relic. A mere vessel.” This is one of the best albums I have heard in quite a while. Overall, The Art to Disappear lodges itself right into that precarious sweet spot, where there is a wonderful balance between creativity, heaviness, and atmosphere.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Mortalicum - Eyes Of The Demon

Finding consistent output from a band after four or five albums is like finding a diamond in a mountain of salt. The determination of what consistency really means, however, is different for everyone. Based on this year's best of lists, some people still think Slayer puts out albums worth a spot among the best of the year - whatever that means - but one band that is currently putting out content in a fashion similar to the consistency of say, late 70's - early 80's Judas Priest or 80's Manilla Road (or all Manilla Road) has been Sweden's Mortalicum. Their previous three albums have all been really powerful and memorable albums. 2010's  Progress of Doom, their debut, was a Heavy Metal album with Dio-era Sabbath styling. 2012's The Endtime Prophecy saw a shift to a more traditional doom sound and defined their passionate and thoughtful songwriting leading to 2014's Tears From The Grave which continued in that style with more killer songwriting and near-iconic riffage appearing in songs like "I Dream of Dying", "The Endless Sacrifice," and "I Am Sin."

This year's Eyes of the Demon finally managed to reach my malleus and once again I find myself witness to yet another weighty, thoughtful recording following in the consistency of their previous albums. Eyes of the Demon is more relaxed than previous albums coming across as closer to Saint Vitus' more reflective Born Too Late than something like Pentagram. While the album channels a more upbeat riff style such as can be found on the later classic album, lyrically Patrick Backlund explores austere topics, especially in a song like "The Distant Brave," or "The Lost Art Of Living." Other songs are more inward. "Beneath The Oak," is classic in it's symbolism and subject matter. The album is slanted towards a more liberal perspective, especially viewed from the American political position, however never comes across as proselytizing and - as is the case with all art - could be construed any number of ways to different listeners. Mortalicum are never heavy handed and come across as inquisitive, gently offering a private experience for listeners if they want it. Think of how Accept's Blood of the Nations leans conservative, but you don't really take note of it. 

But for everyone else there is the excellent songwriting and riffs. We get this early on in the album with "Eyes of the Demon," which invokes Pentagram or a less noodly Pagan Altar in one of the album's highlight tracks, especially during the tense double timed bridge section. "Beneath the Oak" also exhibits masterful riff phrasing on top of which Henrik Hogl croons the idyllic vision of two lovers growing old together and reuniting in death. It's beautiful and paired with instrumental "Mars," allows some settling of the first half of songs. "The Dream Goes Ever On" reinvigorates the album's pacing after the slower "Lost Art of Living," with subtle wah-pedal melodies over massive chugging riffs that 'roll like thunder'. "The Distant Brave" is another album highlight track with a quick choppy main riff and subtle drum adjustments courtesy of Andreas Haggstrom. "Onward in Time" includes the album's longest song with two quality guitar solos which I would list as some of the best in the Mortalicum discography but neither really closing in on the magic of Tears From The Grave's magical "I Dream of Dying" solo section.

This is a strong album, worth it's weight in a valuable commodity. The songs are somewhat redundant at times, and some additional variation and some more riffs would have added more complexity. There are some stretches in songs where not a lot is happening to maintain my interest. There are probably some riffs and possibly entire songs here which didn't make the cut for Tears from the Grave or weren't ready yet. I wouldn't claim these are flaws, however. Eyes of the Demon is still quality doom metal of a high caliber. I originally described Mortalicum as having "the vibe of a hardworking garage band that plays local bars" but they've shaken this working class description off with their past two albums. The increasingly topical lyrics, longer songs, and polished tone portends future albums to be more 'thinking man' albums. The band definitely has the ability to make this transition seamless and successful. I'd like to see the band take two or three years after this to really write something that will be timeless. So far all of the band's albums have had at least three or four standout tracks so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that they will release one of those must own albums in the next few years which is front to back diamonds encrusted doom hymns.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Onirik - Casket Dream Veneration

Onirik’s Casket Dream Veneration is a true gem of a black metal album. This fantastically quirky release explores and experiments with combinations of old school melodicism with modern dissonant trends. That said, the project isn’t limited to any particular kind of sound or style. It’s as if everything was on the table before all of the ideas were seamlessly molded into a coherent album; it’s gestalt black metal. Some moments are triumphantly filled with expansive and engrossing melodies, others upbeat, and many are just plain weird. Everything on here is pretty damn interesting; yet it’s clear that Onirik values quality over novelty because the dazzling album is never overbearingly experimental.

The experimentation isn’t the only part of the music that’s carefully measured and blended into the mix. Gonius Rex, the master craftsman behind the project, repeatedly demonstrates his complete lack of ego when it comes to songwriting because of how subtly he uses his own considerable talents. On guitar, many of the more technical leads are almost buried by the rhythm section’s progressions (e.g. midway through the title track). Rather than placing these melodies’ beauty and sophistication on an obvious pedestal, Onirik’s solos worm through and fertilize the mix. The vocals too are just another part of Casket Dream Veneration’s grave soil. Gonius Rex has a vast collection of styles; but all of the rasps, moans, and off kilter cleans exists only to enhance the album’s atmosphere.

It’s unfair to single out the guitars and vocals without also mentioning how the high-quality bass sets the foundation for the sprawling melodies. The steady delivery keeps even the most dissonant of the tracks (like the opener) from delving into chaotic mush. It’s an absolutely vital link in the chain between melody and rhythm, and adds plenty of worthwhile moments on its own. Take for example how the bass changes from the third and fourth minutes into “Reverent To The Flames.” It goes from using tremolo notes that complement the blast beats and then shifts to playing a more florid melodic role when the drumming simmers down. This change is really cool because it lets the medieval arpeggio-type melody shine without becoming stale or thin as the song goes on.

In a way, this album is magical because of how it straddles the line between tradition and experimentation so effectively. It’s obviously and unquestionably black metal and weird at the same time. Really weird, but unobtrusively weird. A remarkable example of this balance is in “I Am Him But He Is Not Me.” The last minute and a half of the song has such a ridiculously odd interplay between melodies and rhythms that it will bewilder even the most hardened music listeners. It’s the kind of overly technical mix that absolutely shouldn’t work, but at the same time it sounds remarkable and you could listen to it forever. Such a rare experience in music. Meanwhile, the track still retains its black metal atmosphere. See? Magic.

Despite the album’s abundance of soaring melodies (sometimes reminiscent of Abigor) and grand structures, the closing track has an oddly anticlimactic ending. It feels like the final melody was accidentally cut short. But we’re dealing with Onirik, so we know that it’s an intentional middle finger to cliched endings. The ending is also a sobering reminder of the album’s earlier idiosyncrasies and its weirdness: slow slides on dissonant chords, off kilter moaning vocals, and ornate counterpoint. A reminder is helpful, because all of the album’s unusual elements are incorporated into the songs so smoothly. While countless predictable bands are choking on their own influences in dissonant, traditional, or even experimental black metal; Onirik has welded the styles together (probably better than any other band has) and has created something greater than the sum of its influences.

Friday, January 1, 2016

CTP-029-I: Vile Desecration - 2015 Demo

Vile Desecration - Demo 2015

Old school black death for fans of Beherit, Blasphemy, Varathron.

$4 preorders until 1/14/16. $6 afterwards.

Coinciding with pre-order is a 20% discount on all distro stock. As always, buy three items and get free shipping in the USA or discounted shipping overseas.