Thursday, December 20, 2012

Cerebral Blackness Worldwide, Part II

In our last instalment, we took an overview of the black metal coming out of North America in 2012. Let's continue our look with the some western European countries. One release of note that I will not be covering here is Blut Aus Nord's final piece of their 777 trilogy, Cosmosophy. I want to address the three 777 albums together, and so will be leaving that out.

Location: Birmingham, England
Band: Anaal Nathrakh
Album: Vanitas
 Oh. My. God. I wasn't ready for this. It's arguable that one is never ready for the assault upon the senses and emotions that is Anaal Nathrakh, but I ought to at least have a year to recover between albums. Last year, they put out Passion, an album that I described as aural Stockholm Syndrome. I loved it. Now, just a year later, they're back with Vanitas, and I'm loving it just as much. It's different than Passion, undoubtedly. It has a swagger to it that we haven't heard from the band before. Just the sheer weight of the guitar tone is unparalleled in the band's back-catalogue. The use of electronic modifications is also higher on this album, with some electric drums, slicing effects, and digital noise. That alone isn't anything ground breaking for the band, but the way they put it all together is so skilful that you will swear you've never heard anything like it before. From the 30-second scream that ends "Forging Towards the Sunset" to the stuttering guitars of "Todos Somos Humanos" to the dusty organ of "A Metaphor for the Dead," this album is full of nothing but highlights. Can they ever top this?

Location: Leeds, England
Band: A Forest of Stars
Album: A Shadowplay for Yesterdays
 Things get weird with A Forest of Stars. With stage names like "Mister Curse" and "Sir Gastrix Grimshaw" as well as period costumes, these Brits seem like something from a demented Dickens novel. They spin the bizarre and macabre tale of a madman named Carrion, the rape-born child of Miss Crow. There are a lot of lyrics, and you pretty much have to read them all to understand the tale. I find the vocals to be the weak point of the album, especially at the beginning, but by the time you make it through the first third of the album, Mister Curse has grown on you. The music is definitely on the psychedelic side, containing great swaths of electronic wiggling and nonsense (reminiscent of The Mars Volta, honestly), but it's not bizarre like Unexpect or Sigh. For the most part, it sounds like down-tempo black metal with an extreme carnival-barker for a vocalist. At least, that's the impression that I get. I've not heard any of A Forest of Stars' back-catalogue, but I'll have to look into it now.

Location: Sunderland, England
Band: Wodensthrone
Album: Curse
I did not know until writing this article that Wodensthrone was from England. I honestly thought they were Scandinavian. That ought to tell you something about the quality of the music that they produce. The songs are long and flowing, the drums are rapid and varied, the guitars chug and churn. A healthy dose of reverb on the vocals makes them quite expansive, and they hover over the music like an evil spirit on the hill. Wodensthrone does an excellent job of integrating synths into their sound, a la Emperor. Most of the time, you won't even notice they're there, unless you're trying to pick out the component elements of the music. This is how it should be. The songs themselves have a remarkably triumphalist feeling to them, with "Battle Lines" being my favourite. Honestly, all the songs are long—the shortest (not counting the intro) is six minutes, and the next shortest is seven. But Wodensthrone never feels drawn out or overplayed. Rather, each movement and each song flows from part to part. This is Wodensthrone's second album, and has a much sharper, more insistent tone to it than their début, Loss. I trust that this band has nowhere to go but up.

Location: Ipswich, England
Band: Cradle of Filth
Album: The Manticore (And Other Horrors)
Cradle has been around for a long time now. You've probably heard them and formed your own opinion long ago. If you hate Cradle with a passion, this album will do nothing to change your mind. On the other hand, if you enjoy them, this is a good release. It's somewhat less immediate than 2010's Darkly, Darkly, Venus Aversa, which had such a crushed-black-velvet-jacket charm to it, but musically more fulfilling than anything else the band has done recently. Dani tries really hard, and hits all the shrieks—take a listen to "Manticore" for an example. He hasn't sounded this fresh in quite a few years. That said, he is getting older, and just doesn't have that out-of-control madness to his voice that he managed pre-Midian. The riffage is much more punk and thrash influenced than black metal, and blast beats are few and far between. Honestly, there aren't really any black metal elements left in Cradle, aside from Dani's vocals. The female vocals are well-done, and the synths and strings all mix well. After three listens, though, nothing stands out like "Lilith Immaculate" did last time around. Nothing is horrible, but nothing is grand either.

Location: Alicante, Spain
Band: Gothmog
Album: Aeons of Deception
This is Gothmog's second album, and I am glad to say that it sees them much improved from their début, A Step In the Dark. Gothmog play a bombastic style of symphonic black metal that has more in common with Dimmu Borgir than Emperor, but they do it well. Most of the songs crank along at high tempo, with flailing tremolo riffs and blasting beats, but the band slows it down with interesting tempo changes in songs like "The Bargain Struck." The vocal delivery definitely reminds me of Dimmu Borgir, with howled main vocals and occasional power-metal inspired clean chants. The band strengthened the entire vocal department for this album though, and I never found myself cringing like I occasionally did on A Step In the Dark. Overall, the whole album feels very "crushed velvet jacket" to me. The lyrics contain flowery and dramatic depictions of "darkness" and "hopelessness" and such things. I suppose it all feels distinctly Spanish in a way that the Norwegian bands never can, and I believe that attitude suits this style of black metal quite well. Gothmog have yet to write a truly memorable album, but if they continue to improve at this rate, they aren't too far off.

Location: Mondeville, France
Band: Blut Aus Nord
Album: What Once Was... Liber II
Black metal masters Blut Aus Nord have been busy again this year. In addition to completing their 777 trilogy with Cosmosophy (which I will review separately), they released the second of their What Once Was EPs. Like Part one, this EP is available only on twelve inch vinyl, which makes it über-KVLT, if somewhat frustrating in this age of Bandcamp. The entire thing it technically a single song, although since it's two sides of vinyl, it's in two parts. The song features that tremendously expansive guitar tone that BAN is known for at this point. The riffs harken back to Sect(s) and earlier work more than the recent work we've heard out of the band. The swirling riffs seem to slowly slide down an M.C. Escher-esque spiral, always going downhill but never getting anywhere. Half of the vocals are indistinguishable guttural growls, the other half are indistinguishable echoing voices. The heavy use of spring reverb and analogue delays gives the entire project an extremely unearthly sound. And at nearly twenty-nine minutes, the EP is quite a substantial length. One could only wish the band would make it available on Bandcamp so it could be more widely enjoyed.

Location: Poitiers, France
Band: Deathspell Omega
Album: Drought
Blut Aus Nord are not the only French experimental black metal band to release an EP in 2012. Also having recently completed a black metal trilogy, Deathspell Omega are back with something completely different. The opener track, "Salowe Vision" (at 3:42, you can't really call it an "intro," even though it's instrumental and segues cleanly into "Fiery Serpents") reminds me of a spaghetti western, with twangy guitars and loose drums. The black metal fury is unleashed in "Fiery Serpents," though, with blast beats and howled fury. The overall sound is much less convoluted than Paracletus, their last full-length, and has a frenetic, surging energy to it that few other black metal bands can muster. Unlike BAN's expansive sound, the guitars are immediate, not hidden in reverb. The bass has growl and presence, and the drums are remarkably clean so you can make out all of the complicated cymbal work that goes into these tracks. I definitely recommend taking a spin through this EP with a focus specifically on the drums. Clocking in at about twenty-one minutes with six songs, this album feels more like an EP than BAN's 2012 offering. I'm definitely excited to hear more from the band, as this work shows them alive and well and full of ideas.

Location: Paris, France
Band: Alcest
Album: Les Voyages De L'Âme 
Alcest combine black metal stylings with "shoegaze" post-metal musical compositions. In theory, this results in melencholy, beautiful music with an edge of sharpness that you wouldn't find from bands like Sigur Ros or Explosions In the Sky. I highly enjoyed their last release, 2010's Écailles de Lune (which has one of the most beautiful album covers that I have ever seen). That album helped me pull through my last finals week in my senior year in college. Unfortunately, 2012 sees Alcest stripped of nearly all their black metal touches. Yes, the music is "pretty," with sparkling clean guitars and crooned French lyrics, but where are the howls and the blast beats? Not until the fifth track, after twenty-seven minutes of "le sigh" do we hear a blast beat and tremolo picked riff break through an angelic choir, and while I enjoy that track ("Beings of Light"), the majority of the album is, frankly, boring. Even in that song, the howls that I thnk are there are mixed so low bellow the "aaahh, ooohhhh" of the choir that I'm only guessing at their existence. The next song, "Faiseurs De Mondes," is much more satisfying, showcasing the full gamut of howls, tremolos, blasts, croons, choirs, and clean guitars that make up the Alcest sound, but that's it. Fourteen minutes out of a fifty minute album is quite disappointing.

Location: Tilburg, Netherlands
Band: Dodecahedron
Album: Dodecahedron
On the other hand, these Dutch maniacs do not disappoint. Their self-titled début explodes from the gates with the highly dissonant "Allfather." The madness doesn't let up for fifty-two minutes. The fact that a piece of music as jarring as this one can hold your attention for as long as that is a testament to how well it is composed. The album contains five songs, the last of which is the three-part opus "View From Hverfell." This final epic is my favourite part of the album, moving through traditional black metal riffs, electronic noise and manipulation, vast echoing clean guitar arpeggios, and random bizarre percussion sounds. The final three-minute build and descent out of "Inside Omnipotent Chaos" is a mesmerising study in sound architecture. The production of the album is surprisingly stark, and even the guitars are not overly gain saturated, allowing much of the distortion to come from dissonant choice of notes, instead. The horn-like tones of fretless bass occasionally poke through the mix, although I'm not sure if a fretless bass was used for the entire album, or just for "View From Hverfell." This five-piece band has created some fantastically cacophonous music with just the right amount of melody shining through to keep you locked to it. I can't wait to see what they produce next.

That's about all for now. I know that there's more black metal from these countries that I haven't heard yet, including a new release from Enthroned which I hope to hear before the year is out, but this is all I've had time to listen to so far. We'll leave Germany for another post. In my next instalment, we'll explore some of the black metal from the homeland, Norway, along with the rest of Scandinavia.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Cerebral Blackness Worldwide, Part I

As I've mentioned, I've enjoyed a lot of black metal this year. Since I haven't had a chance to put together any full-length reviews, I want to do a quick sweeping overview where I point out quite a few albums that you ought to be listening to from all over the world. Ready? Let's start in the west, and go roughly east (although I'm going to group by country, so there might be a bit of back tracking when moving from south to north and vice versa).

Location: Arcata, California
Band: Ash Borer
Album: Cold of Ages
When I think of cold, bleak metal, I don't generally think of California. I suppose I ought to alter my perceptions, as five-piece band Ash Borer takes the 4-track, 15 minute average song length album format common of "4th wave" and knocks one out of the park. This album has all the reverby goodness that you would expect from this kind of thing. Howling screeches that are absolutely indistinguishable, raw guitar tones, blasting drums. Check, check, check. I've listened to a surprising amount of Ash Borer this year, because I find that it puts me in a very trance-like state. If that's what you're looking for in your black metal, I highly recommend it. They're a young band, and I hope to see them grow in their sound. At this point, I definitely like the band, and think they have great potential, but I couldn't tell you what exactly sets them apart from the other west-coast US black metal bands.

Location: Los Angeles, California
Band: Abigail Williams
Album: Becoming
Unlike many of my metal friends, I actually enjoyed Abigail Williams last album, even though it was derivative and lacked some cohesion. It was catchy and I listened to it quite a bit. The problem is, instead of continuing in that vein, and trying to craft a more unique take on an old sound, the band has once again changed styles, and is now tackling the "4th Wave" black metal sound of Wolves In the Throne Room and similar bands. Frankly, they ought to have stuck to "3rd Wave." Three major style shifts in three albums is just too many. No matter what they do, they sound like a band copying a style, because that's what they are. Abigail Williams needs to settle down and try something more than once. Considering the drama that we've seen from them this past year with members leaving and re-entering the band and breakups and reformings, that seems less and less likely. It's a shame. I'll just have to keep In the Absence of Light on my guilty pleasure list knowing it will never get better.

Location: Portland, Oregon
Band: Agalloch
Album: Faustian Echoes
 Agalloch is known for their folk-tinged metal, and they have some seriously essential albums to their name, from The Mantle to (my personal favourite) Ashes Against the Grain to Marrow of the Spirit. This is the first of their five EPs that I have picked up. Featuring lyrics taken directly from Goethe's Faust, the EP is a real concept piece. To my ears, it's quite a bit darker than what Agalloch has produced in the past, with much more emphasis on the black than the folk. "Faustian Echoes" is the only song on the EP, but at 21:35, it's certainly a lot of music for your money, and the band uses film samples to transition the track through its various movements. The guitars are particularly strong on this album, just dripping with great organic tone.

Location: Black Hills, South Dakota
Band: Woman Is The Earth
Album: This Place That Contains My Spirit
Like Ash Borer, here's an American black metal band producing a 4-track album. The average song length is a little bit less here, but I tend to think of them in the same category. This trio uses synthesizers heavily in order to create the atmosphere they are aiming for, and need them to fill out the bottom end, as their guitars are very treble-happy. The drums are also amazingly sloppy, at times almost to a painful degree. Still, the enthusiasm with which Jarrod Hattervig pounds the skins is undeniable, and this attitude what pushes it forward. The band is currently unsigned, which makes it very hard to find their material, and I'm a bit surprised. I would think that a band with this kind of pagan sound would be highly sought after in today's metal scene. Then again, what do I know about the industry? I can see this band making big strides in the future, so it's one to keep an eye on. In the mean time, if you're looking for some raw, home-grown sounding metal from a town with "Black" in its very name, you can't go wrong with Woman Is the Earth.

Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Band: Oak Pantheon
Album: From A Whisper
Oh, here's the folk/black sound that I expect to hear from Agalloch. How did it end up over here? Oak Pantheon may wear its influences on its sleeve, but you can't fault this talented duo, because the music is absolutely fantastic. Opening track "Descend Into Winter" brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it. I'm not sure what more I need to say than that. The music is rich and layered, with expertly mixed drums. The band uses pianos, bells, and synthesisers occasionally to add to the musical cloud, but these elements never seem like a crutch or an afterthought. Both members of the band sing, and both play guitars and bass, and I believe this inner unity is reflected in the organic sound of the music. It never sounds "rehearsed," but rather that it's flowing directly from the soul. It's good to hear that the Minneapolis metal scene is alive and well.

Location: DeKalb, Illinois
Band: Nachtmystium
Album: Silencing Machine
 The last album sounded organic and rich, like soil, trees, and leaves. This album sounds like a tesla coil exploding. This is obviously intentional, as it's a result not only of the music, but the production style. I'm not sure if it's a phasing effect on the amps, or if they're running some sort of ultra-gritty synthesisers in the background. But there's this constant electrical buzz that at first sounds like a mistake, but within 30 seconds has become so integrated into the music that you barely notice it. The vocals sound like they're being shouted through a child's megaphone. Again, at first it seems wrong. And then you realize that it's all part of the machine. The album features a surprisingly strong bass performance—something that's easy to miss on your first listen through. After a disappointing last album or two, it's good to hear Nachtmystium exploding again.

Location: Louisville, Kentucky
Band: Panopticon
Album: Kentucky
 Here's something very strange. At first, you think you're listening to a bluegrass album. You start tapping your foot and maybe doing a little dance. Then the second track begins, and holy shit blast beats. Yeah, blast beats and penny whistles. The album is a conceptual exploration of the oppression of the coal miner in Kentucky, a point they push home with vocal samples from old news footage, as well as bluegrass interludes. The black metal is actually quite well performed. The tremolo guitars are relentless, and the drums have an almost sloppy fervour to them. There is a surprising amount of lead guitar playing for a black metal album, and these lead pieces have a very bluesy/bluegrass twang to them. It's definitely a unique sound; one that could only come from America. One thing that I would like to hear, though is a bit more integration of the black and the bluegrass, instead of mainly contrasting them in the interludes. Taake used a banjo solo in a song. I don't see why Panopticon shouldn't play a mandolin over blast beats. After all, it is a tremolo instrument.

Location: New York City, New York
Band: Krallice
Album: Years Past Matter

One year after releasing the ill-accepted Diotima (I enjoyed it, but many didn't), Krallice is back with another shard of swirling metal. Unlike Diotima, Years Past Matter has been well accepted in the metal community. I think it's their best work yet. The hypnotic patterns that I've come to expect from Krallice are all here, but unlike last time, where they felt like crystal shards that required great mental work to assemble, here they are liquid glass that glows and flows. The bass has an expansive resonance to it, and the drum performance is absolutely stellar. There are no track titles to speak of, so it's a little bit difficult to recall which songs are which. But when you listen to the album, it is memorable. And you must listen to it. Many, many times.

Location: New York City, New York
Band: The Howling Wind
Album: Of Babalon
Another black metal duo, The Howling Wind play a mid-tempo, tremolo-heavy, low-tuned variant of the style. Where some American black metal is about knife-edged fury (Nachtmystium) or mind-swirling complexity (Krallice), The Howling Wind has a surprising heaviness to it. Make no mistake, it's not death metal by any stretch of the imagination. But by tuning down and emphasising the low end with their production, they give the music a heft that some feel is lacking from the "Necro Sound." This is a dissonance-heavy record that I've found rather less than immediate. I don't believe I've ever listened to the album from start to finish in one sitting. But now and then, I feel it start to break through, and so I keep it around. I'm hoping it will be like Aosoth's III (which the album does remind me of), and eventually unlock into something incredible.

Location: Alberta, Canada
Band: Weapon
Album: Embers and Revelations
I'll admit that I've never really "gotten" Weapon. This is their third album in their black/death style, and I know they have a fairly dedicated following. I never find myself reaching for their albums, though, even though on paper it seems like I ought to love the band. The band does managed to avoid the common black metal mistake of using a tonally rich song intro that makes the rest of the track sound hollow, though, as their music is sonically rich the entire time. The speed of the tremolo-picking is also astonishing, calling to mind the arm-destroying speeds of Immortal. Perhaps I'd like Weapon better with a different vocalist. I hear a slightly rap-like swagger in the vocals that reminds me a lot of Max Cavalera-era Sepultura, and it just doesn't seem right for a black metal band. I've included it in this overview because I know a lot of other people regard it highly.

Location: Montréal, Canada
Band: Rage Nucléaire
Album: Unrelenting Fucking Hatred
Speaking of Canadian things I don't understand, Lord Worm. For those who don't know, he was the vocalist for Cryptopsy, a band I recently heard described as "death metal George Lucas." Anyway, he grunted for them, and was much beloved. Then there was drama. Now he's back with a black metal band, and he's not grunting as much as howling now. It's some pretty fast, generic sounding black metal, at that. You have songs like "Hunt With Murderworms, Sculpt With Flies" that sound like they stole Metallica riffs, and you have songs like "30 Seconds In the Killhouse," which is, sadly, 5:30 long. As I said last year when reviewing Anaal Nathrakh, if your lyrics are going to be "aaaaaaahhhhhhhhggggggg," then you'd better fucking mean it, and this band doesn't. I included it on this overview because of Lord Worm. If you're a Lord Worm fan, check it out. If you're a Metallica fan, listen to "Murderworms" from 2:00 on. Other than that, you can probably leave this one.

That about covers North America. Join me later for Part II where we move "across the pond" and see what Europe is up to.

God Seed Release New Video

You wouldn't know, since I haven't posted anything on here in a year, but 2012 has been a fantastic year for black metal, in my opinion. One of the best releases this year is the first album from  God Seed, the band that Gaahl and King Ov Hell, formerly of Gorgoroth, have formed after being denied the use of the name Gorgoroth. Their album I Begin has gotten quite a lot of spins from me, and will be appearing on my Year-End list without question.

They've just released a music video for stand-out track "Alt Liv." The track premiers today on Metal Hammer, and you should be able to view it there. The video should also be embedded in this post, although you may not be able to view it here at this point.

The aesthetic of the video certainly isn't what I expected, but I think that's what makes it good. It's not just a bunch of corpse-painted dudes with too many spikes and a bunch of pseudo-Satanic paraphernalia standing around. Make sure to check out God Seed's I Begin for some real Norwegian black metal. Hopefully I'll have a review of it up here some time soon.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

It's Been A Long Time

2012 has been a strange year for me when it comes to metal. From January until about June, I barely listened to any metal at all. As the year has rounded up, I've been getting back into the ferocious genre, but I've been enjoying an inordinately large amount of doom metal, and not really having a taste for death metal at all. Of course, my enjoyment of black metal has only increased with the years, and there have been some staggeringly good releases this year. In fact, I've even released a track of my own, which I suppose I ought to talk about here.

I will try to put together a few posts here before the year ends, so that I don't just have a Top 20 of 2012 list be my only contribution of the year. If you're interested in what I've been doing with my time, I've been recording music and writing a novel or two. You can check out my writing blog, which I do update twice a week, and sometimes more often.

Salon Auteur

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Ulcerate Comes to the USA

Anyone who's read this blog or listened to me talk about music knows that I absolutely love Ulcerate, the New Zealand death metal band that produced the masterpieces Everything Is Fire and Destroyers of All. Well, they're coming to the USA for their first mini-tour this week.

I have friends who will be at the NYC (Brooklyn) show, and I personally will be at the Boston area show this Sunday. The show is actually going to be in Allston, MA at Great Scott, and the ticket price is only $10. Ten dollars to see three of the most original and fantastic bands in extreme metal today. Don't deny yourself. If you're in the Northeast, go see this show.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Continuing the Meshuggah Trend

The fantastic Swedes have decided to share another track with us in advance of the album coming out. It contains a sweet solo and some extremely tight syncopated riffing. You can only listen to it from the Nuclear Blast website, but that small inconvenience is no reason not to hear this track, entitled "Do Not Look Down."

Here's a link for you to make it easy. Why not pre-order the album while you're there?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Meshuggah Rising

When a band like Meshuggah is approaching its twenty-fifth year of existence, you have to ask how much they can continue innovating before things either become incomprehensible (see Portal) or stale (see every band that tries to imitate Meshuggah). But with their seventh full-length release looming (their 13th, if you count EPs, live performances, and re-recordings), it appears that the band still has some unique and infectious music left in them. Check out this official first single from the Nuclear Blast label.

Meshuggah's Koloss will be out on March 26th. Be ready for it.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Best City in Metal

Is Montreal the greatest city in metal? Just take a look at the bands that have come from there:

Ion Dissonance
Despised Icon
Beneath the Massacre
The Agonist
The Plasmarifle

and over two hundred bands I've never heard listed in Plus they speak Français, which gives them at least a spiritual connection with all the French black metal bands. That's not to mention the great jazz scene in the city, or bands like The Arcade Fire and Godspeed You Black Emperor. I pretty much want to move to Montreal.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Top 20, Part 2

Unfortunately, I didn't get my album summaries finished up before spending a week in Canada (no, sadly, it wasn't for an Unexpect show, but that will be coming up). That's what happens when you don't have real deadlines. But they're up now--albums 10 through 1. Be sure to read up on them, and listen to all the ones you haven't heard. I'll be putting up a summary of some great non-metal albums I heard this year as well. Stay tuned.

Take a look here, or click the tab above.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Top 20, Part 1

So now that it's nearly February, I figured I'd share with you what I thought of 2011 as a year of music. Many of the albums on this list are not ones that I've reviewed here yet, because I kept thinking "I need to save this one for a special treatment." Of course, that never came. But these are the albums that I think you should absolutely not miss  from 2011, and since everyone else put out their list in December, I can guarantee you that I have a quite a few albums on my list that didn't make it other places. Also, although I'm publishing it now, I had my list finalized by January 1st. I just didn't have my summaries written up, and I get lazy like that sometimes.

So, albums 20-11 are up. Take a look here, or click the tab above. I should get albums 10-1 up in the next few days.