Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Agalloch- Ashes Against the Grain

I only ever heard a couple songs off Agalloch's second album, The Mantle, so when I bought their newest CD (this) for an unbelievably cheap price from their label, I didn't "get" their new direction right away. Or, where they *were* along the line of their old direction. The band is clearly still working with their original elements, but as with any career, these have now been subjected to a more individuated creativity: most obviously, the "black metal" stylings have completely disappeared from the first album. On the other hand, the band has become MORE diffuse--instead of a concentrated blast of this "individuated creativity," what one gets is a sprawling, hour-long, meditative, slightly indulgent expression of whatever place this band is now at.

In other words, the more Agalloch become themselves, the slower and more expansive they become. Is this a good thing? It is hard to call this "metal" anymore, really--and so our criteria need to be dynamic. Stylistically, this *could* be dismissed as "metal for bro-crusters," and it IS that... but as music it is too purposive to be dismissed that way. It can be very plodding and boring--just the Agalloch "sound" stretched out, as it were--but also insanely catchy, as on "Falling Snow," which will remind careful listeners of Fripp's leads on the David Bowie song "Heroes." The lead melody just unfolds and get stuck in your head in all its different versions. Success in music is extremely hard to gauge when the piece in front of you is just ten minutes of slow chords--but when Agalloch are actively, engagingly catchy, it is easy to say, "This is working."

Not all of the album DOES work. The band is too interested in their moodiness. All the songs are 10 minutes long, which seems arbitrary and not a natural result of their creativity. They end up playing the same riff a LOT. On "Falling Snow," you are waiting around for a new musical idea for a bit too long, and when it arrives, it is only serviceable.

Note to artists: I don't need "ambient" tracks to break up the excitement. Pull a Darkthrone and put in 15 second silences in between songs, I don't care. But I can handle your profundity perfectly fine without these thought-pieces... The same thing goes for the 9 minutes of the last song, which is just intermittent guitar noise. It doesn't go anywhere, it doesn't take me anywhere. I'm not a teenager and I don't have time for this.

"Note Unlike the Winds" is very reminiscent of Bathory on the Hammerheart album, especially the clean vocals--which absolutely are effective here (not so much on "Fire Above, So Below"). A stunner.

The last 20 minutes of the album is a 3 part suite called "Our Fortress is Burning I-III" and it is unbearably pretentious. As mentioned, part III is just 7 minutes of guitar noise... part I is very quiet and mostly uneventful (no vocals)... so there is 20 minutes of music of which only about 6 is a "song."

So, there is 60 minutes of music here, of which only 45 are songs. Those are mostly successful... if a bit same-y. You get worn down a bit by the "epic" and pensive vibe crashing over you with predictable grandiose crescendos. I was disappointed by this album--the band has retreated into itself too far, and though this may appeal to "shoegaze" fans of metal, it is really just navel-gazing. A few cool parts.

Score: 2.5/5 (** 1/2) stars
Best songs: "Note unlike the Wind," "Falling Snow"

Immortal- Blizzard Beasts

This is the last Immortal album with Demonaz on guitar, and their most underrated album. In some ways obviously a continuation of Battles in the North, in other ways a stylistic dead-end which they would not continue on At the Heart of Winter, Blizzard Beasts is deeply influenced by Morbid Angel; in the words of Dark Legions, "a death metal work ethic in black metal servitude to melodic conceptual songwriting." What this means is that it is much choppier; shorter phrases, much less "melodic blasting" than on Pure Holocaust. This, however, is a good solution to the band not repeating itself: thus producing what may be black metal's most intelligent album. (Compare, for example, with Darkthrone's recent (brilliant) atavism...)

Every second of this work is interesting, even if Immortal no longer offer the bracing speed and majestic fuzziness of their best albums. They keep it short (under 30 minutes), and aside from the obligatory "howling winds" intro track (1:00), it is all riffs.

Listen to "Battlefields."

At :52, there is a beautiful riff that comments and elaborates on the much starker palm-muted verse riffs just before... and THEN we are in the midst of an incredible thrashy breakdown at 1:03. It sounds easy, but unfortunately Immortal have not been able to effortlessly reproduce such moments on later works-- Damned in Black being notably deficient here.

Of course the best song here is the much-ballyhooed "Mountains of Might," which is a monument of the genre and a true journey of the soul through song. It is hard to imagine that much thought was given to the sequencing of this album other than "the goofy intro has to go first, and Mountains of Might is the... how do you say?... centerpiece." The song feels like a preview of their later epic rock/metal, what with the flange-y interludes, the pretentious ambient opening, the foreboding mid-tempo... and it is true. THIS is probably the song that Immortal have been rewriting ever since.

The next song, however, is one of their most chaotic creations, clocking in at an outrageous 2:23, in a genre where riffs are lazily cycled out for six minutes or more on average. I think I even spot a Suffocation influence in the ending, which imaginatively continues into the next song's persistent "thud."

In short, this album is full of surprises, if you pay attention, and reveals the utmost perfectionism on the band's part, and although it will never be their most acclaimed or obvious work, it is the kind of album that takes a hold in your permanent rotation and always elicits a delighted conversation when another it is discovered that another fan "knows" Blizzard Beasts.

Score: 4.5/5 (**** 1/2)

Best songs: Mountains of Might, Battlefields, Blizzard Beasts, Frostdemostorm

Monday, November 16, 2009

Amorphis- The Karelian Isthmus

Amorphis were originally a Finnish death metal band, whose career progression is best summed up by this Metal Archives description of their genre: Progressive/Death/Doom Metal (early), Modern Rock/Melodic Metal (later).

The Karelian Isthmus is their first full-length, and it is in no way a "modern rock" album. And yet... Knowing what we know today, that Amorphis are wussy at heart, that they took the shortest distance between artistic integrity and the almighty dollar (or whatever the Finnish currency is), should we listen to this album differently?

The 1990s must have been a strange time for metal. In an earlier era, "selling-out" meant Celtic Frost releasing the quasi-hair metal album Cold Lake.. but at a later period bands like Opeth and Dimmu Borgir obviously felt they could "make it" while remaining within the metal underground, producing flagrantly gimmicky music. And then there are a number of bands who sit in the middle ground of this distinction. The Karelian Isthmus belongs with the first Katatonia album, Dark Funeral, At the Gates' Slaughter of the Soul, and Edge of Sanity--respectable, but hopelessly cheesy and pretentious.

The problem with any excessively "melodic" metal is that, because these people aren't Mozart, everything tends to blur together after a while. This is true with all Candlemass-influenced doom metal, with all In Flames/Dark Tranquility Swedish death metal, with Iron Maiden, with Viking Metal, with the dreaded Norsecore in Black Metal, etc. etc. It becomes impossible to place any melody within a given song. Everything just becomes one stream of vaguely hummable mid-tempo. One wager of this blog is that the best metal music is that which succeeds in being endlessly "melodic" without falling into this trap. To that end, I nominate Metallica, King Diamond, Carcass, and Emperor. Obviously a number of different things are meant by "melody" in that list. I don't have time to go into it now.

Amorphis in this respect are like a shitty Bolt Thrower. Every song works, and they are easy to follow, but why it wasn't all just one big song... or why they didn't take any lessons in narrative songwriting that would modulate the mood and take us away from the endless ambience here... who knows. One of my favorite descriptors for good metal music is "endlessly inventive." Let's just say that Amorphis are NOT.

So. This is a same-y record, but it's the best one they made, and you can listen to it all the way through.

Rating: 2.5/5 (** 1/2) stars
Best songs: All the same

Monday, November 9, 2009

Pestilence- Consuming Impulse

I've always wanted to like this album. The cover is cool, the title is smarter than a lot of death metal album titles, and it is precisely the thrashy, riffy Euro-metal that I love. It's not too far off from early Death, Possessed, Slayer, the first Morbid Angel, Massacra, etc. On the other hand, no one would confuse this with Sepultura, Deicide, Obituary, Incantation, Entombed, Gorguts...

So, this is fairly early (1989) death metal that has a lot of thrash elements, but also a lot of the progressive and technical aspects of thrash, such that even in its origin in an earlier style it is already moving beyond itself. This would be borne out on the next album, Testimony of the Ancients, which has keyboards and other such trappings of sophistication.

I say, "I've always wanted to like this album," because I hate the way it is recorded, and it has been in my collection for years collecting dust. The vocals cut across the guitar sound too much. It is hard to get used to. Contrast with the Cancer album Death Shall Rise, and you'll hear what--without too great a difference--is lost in the murkiness and flatness here.

Even after numerous listens, though, and with the songs all being familiar to me, it is hard to enter into the record, to give oneself over to it. Unlike many metal records which are intentionally odd or technical, and can feel like "exercises," Consuming Impulse is obviously attempting to popularize itself. I have a similar feeling about Incantation. Except with Incantation, I feel that there is something obvious that I am missing: either something dumb or high-concept. In the case of Pestilence, I see exactly what they are doing, but as though it is an action in which I cannot interfere or even sympathize. Perhaps you will know what I mean if you think of watching TV, and sitting through 20 or so minutes of a suspense film. You are not confused... you just don't care, since you will never know what happened in the first part of the film. No matter how good it is, you cannot enter into it.

Pestilence have an advantage over most death metal bands, and over most death metal listeners, in being obviously intelligent--something like the opposite of Obituary. Their riffs are uniquely arty without being jazzy or weak, and constitute their own trademark (along the lines of Slayer's famous riff style). This album is still growing on me, because I keep coming back to it, but I can't say yet that I understand how to enjoy it.

Score: 3.5/5 stars (*** 1/2)

Best songs: "Suspended Animation," "Out of the Body," "Reduced to Ashes"