Friday, January 30, 2009

Countess- Heilig Vuur

This is a one-man old-school black metal band from Holland. I heard about them ~7 years ago, reading the old LARM metal reviews website, and they (he) have gained a cult following with a self-proclaimed "Orthodox Black Metal" style. In what does this consist? Well, like label-mates Megiddo, the entire (and noble) aim is at the second and third Bathory albums. The production is obviously "cheap" and shitty but not "raw"--which is clever; while this production does not SOUND like the second and third Bathory albums, to fetishistically recreate that sound would be to misinterpret Bathory in a superficial "kult" way. Thankfully, Countess is smarter than that.

Unfortunately, the entire pleasure of Bathory's career arc--"Wow, this guy is surprisingly musical, even within his limitations!"--is negated by Countess's total lack of musicality. Listen closely: it is HORRIBLE. Weirdly, I like this record better than a lot of other stuff, because it is intellectually commendable, and also has a very "punk" quality that I can get behind--but even as tone-deaf and non-knowledgeable about music as I am, something is not quite right here. Like a highly-functional illiterate, Countess is good at hiding this lack of musicality, but it comes out especially in the painfully bad guitar solos.

The best metal bands--Judas Priest, Metallica, Burzum--are shockingly musical: their imaginations paint in melodies and harmonies that are astonishing and illuminating. Countess is just BAD. There's a lot to admire here, in terms of "the problem of nowadays black metal," but once you realize that music is really not a "first language" for Countess, it just sucks. Sorry.

Score: 1 star/ 5 (*)
Best songs: these songs when they were on "The Return..." and "Under the Sign..."

Thursday, January 15, 2009

At the Gates- Gardens of Grief

Obviously At the Gates are most famous (now) for their album Slaughter of the Soul, but in 2009, we can begin to rewrite history, and assign value to what is lasting, rather than ephemeral and commercial/disposable. The point being here, not that Slaughter of the Soul is a "sell-out" album which is "too poppy," but that only a few of the songs are memorable, that the "trick" gets tiresome fairly quickly, and that the style is indeed a trick and not brilliance.

But the band begins here, on the Gardens of Grief EP, which is unrecognizable as the same group, although an initial listen will try to find the later band within the earlier sound, automatically. However that may be, what you get here is more or less a very "artsy" Entombed, very complicated, not at all immediate, and wildly inventive: basically the opposite of Slaughter of the Soul, which is (whatever else it may be) NOT a dumbed-down version of *this*.

The difference between Entombed and this, though, is the real absence of any hardcore (Discharge) influence--ironic because two members of At the Gates would later play in Discharge-worship band Skitsystem. Rather, the music is very start/stop, jazzy, and never propulsive over an unchanging beat like Entombed or Discharge. To say the least, there are a TON of "parts" here, and it is obvious even on this first record that the band would be a leader in the Swedish death metal scene, since they take the Entombed heaviness and take it in three thousand different directions in these four songs. It's almost close to Demilich or Atheist, in some ways. 

These songs don't sear themselves into your memory, and the band's full-lengths are the real place to go, but this is a neat little disc that repays all the time put into it.

Score: 3 stars/5 (***)
Best songs: "City of Screaming Statues," "At the Gates"

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Veles- Black Hateful Metal

Was having a conversation with a friend earlier, in which I declared that I was not going to buy records below a certain level in any given genre. For metal, the dividing line is probably Dismember's Like an Ever Flowing Stream. If every metal record I buy is better than Like an Ever Flowing Stream, I'll be happy. If an album is worse than that, it doesn't mean it is "bad," but it will eventually be superfluous.

Demonstration: for hundreds of years, Roman literature was the greatest in the world, and yet only one great Latin epic is still read: Virgil's Aeneid. Hardly anyone reads Lucan's Pharsalia (The Civil War), a verse epic of Caesar's war with Pompey. Posterity has an immense flattening effect. But Lucan, I assure you, is not "overlooked." It's just that, none of us are friends with Lucan, no one is going to get laid by reading Lucan on the subway, etc. It's in the public domain, and not "rare." 

This is how all subsequent music that is not, let's say, The Beatles, will look in 500 years. Miles Davis, Black Sabbath, and Philip Glass will all be Lucans to the Beatles' Virgil. Conclusion: there is no need to be sentimental about what is TRULY mediocre, namely the stuff that is far below The Beatles, far below Black Sabbath, far below Morbid Angel, the truly 10th-tier music that we spend most of our time listening to, recommending, and watching live. If you like Morbid Angel, obviously you should check out Deicide, and if you like Deicide, there's an entire rabbit-hole to go down...  But there needs to be a line drawn long *ahead* of concepts like "proficiency" or "good for the style"--if we are to have any time or money or headspace for truly worthy art. 


Veles' Black Hateful Metal is definitely on the other side of that line. This is a very curious album, but far from essential.  At one point in time, I would have praised it for being "raw," "avant-garde," "unique," "truly innovative," "a worthy successor to Graveland's Following the Voice of Blood, a personal favorite of mine," and "a step in the right direction for black metal." It IS all of those things, to be sure, but it is also unlistenable, which trumps all other argument. And, it can't really be considered a metal record, since virtually any electric rock or blues record is "heavier" than Black Hateful Metal.

This is extremely simple black metal, very fuzzed-out, and Graveland-influenced. The melodies are very pretty and there is no attempt at technicality or an "epic" vibe. The drums are almost inaudible, and I don't think they could swing a bass-player for this session. Seemingly no attention has been paid to sequencing, after the first song (an instrumental by Graveland's Darken). Songs stop for no reason to allow pointless instrumental meandering, and then start up again mid-blastbeat. There is a true sub-demo quality, almost like a rehearsal tape, that leaves one thinking, "This would be cool if they entered the studio and put this down properly." Sadly, in the pretentious KVLT delirium of the black metal scene, that did not happen, and so Veles are poorly represented--their own fault. 

Everything that a fanboy would say about this record: avant-garde, astonishingly raw, path-breaking, etc., all of that is true, and black metal would have done much better to have pursued this highly-melodic path, with no idea of aggressiveness or spooky satanic sounds... but the same point is made on Graveland's stellar Following the Voice of Blood. This album is a neat artifact, and certainly not generic, but in a genre over-given to excessive and pretentious "raw" recordings, this is an ugly extreme.

On a brighter side, the CD of Black Hateful Metal also contains a superbly-recorded demo, The Triumph of Pagan Beliefs. For sequencing purposes, this has the unfortunate consequence that you have to listen to a superfluous ambient OUTRO to the album, and then a superfluous ambient INTRO to the demo, but... once it starts, it is superb, really great black metal in the style of early Emperor. The difference between these recordings is jarring, because the riffs are not *so very* different, but everything (even a bass!) is audible... the channels are even separated. For fans of early Emperor or Graveland's The Celtic Winter.

In summary, this is an interesting document of a cool Polish metal group going off the deep-end, while somehow never leaving the Graveland playing-grounds. They earn points with me for taking their musical vision to its extremes, but the result is a complete wreck. One would do better to buy this CD than virtually any nowadays kvlt black metal, but that advice will go overlooked by teenagers everywhere out for image & parent-offending noize foremost over the strange pleasures afforded here.

Score: 2 stars/ 5 (**)
Best songs: "The Dawn of New Empire," "The Majesty of War" (Demo)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Behemoth- Demigod

So, I saw this band live once, opening for Danzig, and they were just horrible... embarrassing makeup and costumes, ludicrous "spooky" music playing before they came onstage, and drums triggered as much as drums can possibly be triggered. If they had been lip-syncing, it really wouldn't have made much of a difference. It sucked. But that is true of most every big death metal band I've seen (especially Morbid Angel).

So, on one hand, Behemoth are about as cool and "real" to me as Cradle of Filth--viz., not at all. On the other hand, their sound is instantly recognizable, which makes no sense, because all death metal bands sound the same. Well, for some reason, Behemoth really have their own thing going, a unique style they keep up even at the fastest speeds, and without wussing-out ever. (Nile might also be said to have a unique death metal style, but... that seems mostly to consist in flutes and gongs. I'll have a Nile review up soon.)

The most instantly-appreciable aspect of any extreme metal album is its production, and Behemoth depart from most death metal in not turning their guitar sound into the sound of a garbage-truck passing by in the night (Entombed), or the logical next step, turning the entire record into that sound (Nile). On one hand, I appreciate that Behemoth don't try to accomplish the entire effect of their album with the production--here it is audible, clear, unintimidating--but on the other hand, having grown accustomed to metal production, I think this could be heavier... In any case, nothing about the production lets the music "jump out," and it may be over-polished while allowing everything to be heard. But don't be ridiculous: in the finest tradition of metal, of course you can't hear the bassist!

I've listened to this album more than most nowadays death metal that comes my way, and there is some negative praise to lavish upon it: "thankfully devoid of metalcore," "not too long," "the embarrassing art and image don't contaminate the music," etc. But that is not the goal of this blog! 

What is "mood" in death metal? Usually this only comes out in intros, solos, and other parts reserved especially for melody. Mood can exist outside of melody--irrational and angry moods--but our idea of mood in music is some combination of tempo, harmony, melody, and tone. All of black metal is arguably an exercise in mood. Death metal is not a "moody" genre, but Behemoth HAVE a mood: austere mystery; aloofness. This is not an "image," it truly comes out in the music, which has an antiquarian, studious quality. But this is not an INTERESTING or even engaging mood. Sadness, joy, plaintiveness, ecstasy: Behemoth doesn't trade in any of these. Instead there is 40 minutes of sterile contempt. 

There is a lot of talk about classical music in metal. Mood is perhaps the one thing that classical music does best, and in order to truly grasp the essence of the great music of the past, theory and proficiency are not enough--there is the human element, mood, which Behemoth have carefully avoided in making this impressively robotic album.

Score: 2.5/5 stars (** 1/2)
Best songs: "Before the Acons Came," "Conquer All"

Monday, January 12, 2009

Deicide- Stench of Redemption

This is a weird album, because the style is not so different from 1995's Once Upon the Cross: i.e. dumbed-down, simplistic, repetitive death metal--i.e. decidedly not "technical" and almost punk in its song structure--but with an important lineup change, which brings two incredible guitarists into the band. The effect is not unlike that of early G.I.S.M., meaning you really listen only for the guitar solos, which don't have so very much to do with the retardo songs on which the solos happen to be pasted.

No, that's not fair: while none of these riffs will go down as classics, the songs (incredibly!) stand apart from each other, and there is a kind of linebacker approach to aggression which makes these songs hard-hitting, even though the band is far less "brutal" than the rest of the death metal pack, at this point. It's almost quaint, but at the same time, very effective. Suffocation or Nile blow this away, in terms of being-heavy, but it achieves "total heaviosity" all the same. Perhaps because Deicide relies on 4 or 5 riffs per song, instead of... 80?

Yes, it's redundant and low-IQ, but it's a Deicide record! What makes this a mandatory Deicide record is the Van Halen solos that crop up in every song, a propos of nothing, courtesy of ex-Obituary and Iced Earth guitarists--these guys are amazing! It's a jarring stylistic pairing, since death metal solos are usually following from the Slayer/Celtic Frost atonal school, and the solos here are highly consonant and Guitar Magazine-friendly, but... it works, sort of.

As you can tell, this is a completely needless record which is massive fun. You still only are required to buy the self-titled Deicide and Legion, but *this* is the goofy, self-parodic death metal album kids SHOULD buy to get into death metal, instead of Cannibal Corpse. It's silly, but I can also imagine having some of these songs as my ring-tone.

Score: 3.5 /5 stars (*** 1/2)
Best songs: "Crucified for the Innocence," "The Stench of Redemption," "Desecration" (the entire first side, really)

Immortal- Damned in Black

I'm a huge fan of Immortal's later period, following the loss of their guitarist (to metal-induced tendonitis): Sons of Northern Darkness and At the Heart of Winter are real highlights of their discography--while Damned in Black, the record under discussion here, has never really caught fire with me. While not *very* different in sound from, say, Blizzard Beasts or Sons of Northern Darkness, this is much much cleaner and has much more reasonable tempos than earlier classics Pure Holocaust or Battles in the North. 

To the attuned metal ear, Blizzard Beasts is more Morbid Angel-influenced, while the albums from At the Heart of Winter onwards are more like 1980s Metallica. And Damned in Black has that very huge "arena" sound as well, while still being very no-frills. 

Sadly, Damned in Black is devoid of the huge moments in which other Immortal albums are superabundant. There is a cool break in "My Dimension," the first riff to the title track is huge, and the first song "Triumph" knows its way around the Bathory discography--but for the most part, the songs are same-y, and you never need to put down your nail-clippers (or what have you) in order to start headbanging. 

Most of all, Damned in Black is not a grower. At all. It is without charm, without "hits," and never distinguishes itself from their other albums in this style. It sounds cool, and I'm glad to own it, but---you know when you like a band so much, that even their lesser works get a lot of play, and they start to grow on you? Well, with Immortal, Damned in Black never really enters the rotation, it just sits there, not really demanding any re-evaluation. Which is not to say that this is not a veritable encyclopedia of riffs. But the whole is truly less than the sum of its parts in this case.

Score: 2.5 stars /5 (** 1/2)
Best songs: "The Darkness that Embrace Me," [sic] "My Dimension," "Against the Tide"

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Graveland- Dawn of Iron Blades

If Rob Darken continues releasing records at this pace, what once was distinctly mid-period Graveland will become lumped together as "early" with some very dissimilar records. Meaning, the first four albums (1994-1997) used to be a canon, and as long as the later Viking period (starting with Immortal Pride) remained decent, it was harmless enough. But now, there are SEVEN viking metal albums, which are largely interchangeable with each other, and no sign of letting up--soon the excellent early material will be only a footnote!

Which leaves me with the onerous and pedantic duty to make distinctions within the Viking-style Graveland albums. I should note, Viking Metal is an embarrassment that only came into being through the fluke of Bathory's development, and even Bathory couldn't make it interesting for more than one record. Why one needs seven (!) Graveland records in the style of "A Fine Day to Die" is a question for only the darkest wizard to conjure an answer.

Anyways, as far as the Graveland viking stuff goes, there seems to be a steady decline, and at the same time, each record is more similar to the last one. So, they get worse, but also more alike. Immortal Pride is an interesting and raw first foray into the style, while Creed of Iron could be the definitive statement of Graveland's capacities in this realm. Since mid-tempo pagan expeditions, unpunctuated by guitar solos, and cluttered with pretentious "folk" elements--Viking Metal, in short--is not my thing, and gets old fast, I would have been happy if Graveland had stopped with only these two Bathory-ish albums.

It's undeniable that the Graveland or Bathory fan will find something in all of these releases to enjoy, and I have certainly gotten a lot of play out of these mediocre albums, but from Memory and Destiny onward, they are essentially genre exercises, and not worth serious consideration. As Dawn of Iron Blades dates from 2004, it is worse than The Fire of Awakening, but better than Fire Chariots of Destruction. The melodies are too simple, the music is too repetitive, and the production has been leveled down to a muted roar. Graveland will always be worthy and capable of interesting moments, but this style (unpromising from the outset) has been tapped dry.

Score: 2 stars/5 (**)
Best songs: "Iron in the Fog," "While I Ride with the Valkyrie"

Cryptopsy- None So Vile

Extreme metal's main shortcoming is that it usually turns into a competition: to be the rawest, the fastest, the "sickest," the heaviest, the longest songs, the shortest songs, the most chaotic... etc. Meanwhile, everyone knows that the greatest metal bands--Metallica, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath-- are none of these things; they just wrote the best songs and riffs.

Now, None So Vile is not a record you can just throw on, unless you are only trying to frighten your 14-year-old cousin who listens to Melissa Etheridge. This record exemplifies this blog's viewpoint on metal: one must either pay attention to it, or leave it alone entirely (which must be the fate of thousands of Cryptopsy CDs, purchased for their "brutality" and then sitting on a shelf unplayed). The first thing that should be said about Cryptopsy is that it really makes no difference whether you consider the album to consist of eight songs (as the CD indicates), or one long song (as my parents would say), or a million little unrelated parts pasted together.

There is a kind of conceptual synaesthesia that Cryptopsy are completely reliant upon, but which has gone unnoticed as such: namely, why should "chaotic" and "brual" go together as a sonic pair, at all? Cryptopsy make it looks easy, but there's no natural affinity between the out-of-control or unorganized, and bludgeoning force. Grand Central Station can be "chaotic," and a trip to the dentist can be "brutal," but those experiences don't resemble each other. The genius of Cryptopsy, I think, is making extremely complicated music that is never "noodly" or meandering--though I must confess they have a tragic penchant for slap bass. At times, the songs verge on feeling edited-together ex post facto (like Miles Davis' early 1970s albums). But while a Cryptopsy song rarely *ends* well, they often begin distinctively, and one eventually finds a grip on these "songs," even if the writing and rehearsing of this music is inconceivable.

The way to listen to this record is to just follow it very intently: nothing is going to "jump out" at you if you stray in the least, while rapt attention is rewarded. The vocals are a dead-end; I recommend just paying attention to the drums for an entire listen through. The album is well-constructed, and there are countless neat parts, and it is shockingly well-paced.

i began by suggesting that None So Vile is out for a Guinness Book of World Records style of metal: most brutal, fastest, most chaotic--and it undoubtedly is (or was at the time) all of those things. This is an unhappy, very loud record. But I don't think that says anything about its appeal, which is in its constant shifting of attention and its intricacy, so that many have felt, far from being the superlative of death metal's excesses of metal-ness, that there is something avant-garde and high-concept about this release. That is perhaps in the mind of the non-metal listener, but it does suggest the basic topography here.

Score: 4 Stars/5 (****)
Best songs: "Crown of Horns," "Phobophile," "Slit Your Guts"

Friday, January 9, 2009

Vital Remains- Dechristianize

This is a blog based on the assumption that one should pay attention to music. Meaning, really sit down with and listen to your records. In a world of mp3 blogs, itunes, youtube, etc., every music-listening convenience is a deterrent from prolonged, album-length attention spans. On the other hand, never has there been such a wealth of information available: discographies, reviews, message boards, online gossip, etc. The result is that one can be very well-versed and opinionated about music, without really having put any time into the activity of listening. And, even worse, one can "like" a great deal of art without really knowing why (or "what-it-is" about this particular thing).

The blog is about metal, but it as easily could have been about rap, jazz, hardcore, reggae, or classical music. The single thesis of this author, on the topic of listening to music, is: a "good" record is one that rewards many listens. This is not a controversial thesis on first appearance, but how many times has a record been defended on OTHER grounds than this? Conversely, a bad record is one that you don't find yourself reaching for very often. I'm not into genre-exercises.

Metal asks for close listening, and this writer intends to ignore any hype or canonical status or sub-sub-genre favoritism, and just say whether a record holds up or not.

Vital Remains has a weird lineup: the drummer also plays all the lead guitar parts. I wouldn't want to be the other guy, trying to explain to my friends what exactly it is I do in this metal band. Can you imagine being the guitarist in a two-man band and *still* not being the "lead" guitarist? Also, on this record, Glenn Benton from Deicide stepped in to provide vocals.

The three things to take away from this album: 1) the new sensation that maybe Glenn from Deicide should not be a punchline any more (after famously proclaiming he would commit suicide, and then living to ruin Deicide); 2) the drumming is outrageously fast and "clicky"--even by death metal expectations! 3) all the blasting death metal parts seem to exist only to provide a framework for some beautiful, flowery guitar passages (but no solos).

The first song, after the obligatory garbage spooky intro, is the title track, which puts all the album's strengths on the table: ridiculously fast drumming, ornate and memorable "pretty" guitar work, and some vicious slow mosh parts. The band basically juggles these elements for six to ten minutes on all their songs, occasionally (as in the title track) combining the swooning technical lead guitar with slower "breakdown" rhythms. This often feels like the goal of their songs, and the basic death metal stuff can seem like just a means for getting there. But just as often, the reverse is true: the incredibly brutal, unornamented death metal is very appealing, and stopping for sigh... another woozy lead break can seem a distraction. Especially since there are very few ripping solos (one is to be found in "Infidel")--and so these stand-out parts can start to sound very similar.

At an hour of music, with only three or so tricks in the bag, Dechristianize is far too long. Neither the songs nor the album build to anything--at best, it is a collection of "neat parts." But, it's always catchy, and sometimes it is very very catchy. It's neither a "grower" nor is it dumbed down.

Score: 3 Stars/5 (***)
Best songs: "Dechristianize," "Rush of Deliverance," "Devoured Elysium"