Prosanctus Inferi – Hypnotic Blood Art (2020)

The last Prosanctus Inferi album, Noctambulant Jaws Within Sempiternal Night, was a masterpiece of dark, blasphemous, and intricate black/death metal. But it’s been seven years since, and as was hinted by the Pulpit Sycophants demo from last year, the new album Hypnotic Blood Art is a considerably different beast. Far more streamlined and almost entirely without the juxtaposition of contrasting voices that made previous work such a twisted listen, Hypnotic Blood Art initially can throw fans of the band for a loop. The core sound is still present, make no mistake; texturally, this is as revulsive as metal gets, a legitimate musical defecation on any wishy-washy notion of morality one cares to define. Moreover, Prosanctus Inferi continue proudly holding the standard for songwriting in the old metal tradition, restoring the riff to its preeminent position and sparing not one moment for the atmospheric bloat that has plagued the underground for so long.

Still, it is surprising to discover that what, on the Pulpit Sycophants demo, appeared to be only a rough draft of things to come, has in fact turned out to be the complete sound, sealed and delivered, on the new album. A bit of a curve ball, this, to revert to origins at this stage, considering how the band has been on an outward trajectory, technically and theatrically, for the last decade. The intention here is to douse the listener, minus all distractions, in a concentrated bath of the most basic elements that make up Prosanctus Inferi. This has induced what I think of as the taffy effect, where the essence of the music hasn’t really changed, but it’s all just that much more stretched out and operating at three-fourths speed. The side-effect of this is a sameness of rhythms, a criticism that could never be leveled at the previous album and its organically chopped-up nature, making the longer running time here a somewhat blurred affair. Most sorely missed, however, is the unpredictability, and the tension-release dynamic emerging from it, that made Noctambulant Jaws Within Sempiternal Night so exhilarating. Hypnotic Blood Art is still worth owning for the student of this particular sound, especially so, perhaps, in light of the above caveats; the band’s integrity and genre awareness remain beyond reproach as usual, but as a follow-up to the last album, it leaves something to be desired.

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Incantation – Sect of Vile Divinities (2020)

On Sect of Vile Divinities, Incantation continue the trend of borrowing influences from contemporaries they started out with many years ago. Autopsy and Mortician have already been referenced on Primordial Domination and Profane Nexus, namely in the use of a brighter, more sickening tone of doom than the industrial-grade sludge that is the band’s wont, and the murderous groove of an album like Zombie Apocalypse. Added to these, on the new album, are the kind of exotic flourishes one might associate with Nile, the barre chord hyperactivity of ‘A Skull Full of Maggots‘, and the verse-chorus patterns of an Asphyx-lite project like Hail of Bullets.

The traditional scaling up and down the dissonant register – think the opening to ‘Golgotha‘ – still prevails on the faster songs, but elsewhere Sect of Vile Divinities carries a more extroverted melodic flavoring than what one normally expects from Incantation, so much so that vast stretches of this album resemble a different band altogether. Initial premises aren’t as extensively developed as one would hope, with songs frequently recycling motifs either harmonically or through change in tempo. Momentum is constantly arrested, too: much more preferable was the earlier tactic of including doom workouts as independent songs instead of having these sections creep into the overall body of the album.

The trade-off here then is between memorability and songwriting intricacy. The relationship between these two aspects is inversely proportional at the best of times but even more so considering Incantation‘s musically attritional aesthetic. The band have obviously favored the first attribute on this album, making it a less challenging and a less dark experience than usual. But Incantation are a band far too steeped in the tradition to write a poor death metal album, and Sect of Vile Divinities can still conceivably serve as an introduction to the band with the disclaimer that their best work lies in the past and in a form considerably different from the present.

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The death of the heavy metal hero

As the people who created the music we love reach the end of their lifespans, we are left to ponder: will we ever see their like again? There are aspects of their lives and careers that are part of the lore we grew up embracing as metalheads, our own private mythologies populated with metal heroes and events to rival any from past pantheons. Their origins and incipient struggles, convergences with other associates, the period of their flowering, conflicts, vendettas and the new legends birthed thereon, the loss of creative inspiration and, for the fortunate few, late-career renaissances, all these and more were signposts by which we navigated a large and meaningful portion of the world. And while these people may have been strangers to us, it isn’t inconceivable that unbeknownst to them they played a hand in shaping our lives also. After all, the energy we’ve invested into the music they made is bound to manifest itself in some form or another, and who among us hasn’t sensed this in the way we perceive the world and our reactions to the accidents it subjects us to? Heavy metal has been the soundtrack to our lives for so long that it is easy at times to overlook the fact that the very manner in which we think has been influenced by it, too. We might think ourselves fully-formed this hour and day, but nevertheless we were someone else a long time ago. The crucible in which this lump of clay was then given form was indeed made of heavy metal.

I regard the passing of these giants as the death of heavy metal’s conscience. While they were around, as past their prime or as “compromised” as they may have had become, they were a living link to a time when the genre was pure and creatively unfettered, a voice of authority, a lodestone of gravitas that demanded your complete attention even when you disagreed with what they had to say. No doubt a cult of personality grew up around these attributes, much as it does around any figure of magnetic potential, but what I allude to instead is the force of personality they possessed, the kind that acts through achievements and the awareness and confidence it breeds, but also because of whatever intangibles conspire to create a unique and powerful individual. This quality is irreplaceable, and as much as the genre mines the past for inspiration, time unfortunately moves in only one direction, collecting along the way the detritus of the present while polluting the lessons of the past.

That present being what it is, it is impossible to see a new generation of like figures emerging to inspire young metalheads ten years from now. This is why every death in heavy metal – and they occur with depressing frequency now – leaves a palpably heaving void in the discourse around the genre. Once the last relevant progenitor goes, the gates will be thrown open to the opinion-shapers who even now are busy stripping the totems of yesteryear of their aura and installing in their place hollow proxies lacking all virtue other than adhering to the trending party line. The dedicated metalhead of the future, if such an organism could exist in the unfavorable climate of the time, will have the unenviable task of seeing back through ever-denser revisionist overlay to get at the kernel of what this music means.

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Retrospective: Saracen – Heroes, Saints, and Fools (1981)

One wonders whether the NWOBHM can be tied down to a specific style of playing or if it is more a statement of attitude and energy that separates it from run-of-the-mill rock ‘n roll. More likely than any such clear-cut distinction is that both aspects informed the genre’s sound: the intricacy and ambition of progressive rock attenuated through the attack of punk, stripped of fat, focused for maximal musical-adrenal impact. The genre’s fondness for a rousing lyric and a good time also meant that it was never altogether averse to falling on the other side of metal’s increasing self-seriousness; flights of maudlin sentimentality, jarring under most conditions of sobriety, were commonplace, but a healthy dose of retrospective teaches one to appreciate if not enjoy this for what it is: that bands from this era were utterly unafraid of wearing their hearts on their sleeves, heedless of what might or mightn’t be interpreted as cool by some panhandling critic, meant that the same bouts of emotional excess, stars aligning, could also lead to the kind of panoramic grandeur that heavy metal simply hadn’t known till then.

Forty years on from the release of Saracen‘s Heroes, Saints, and Fools, it is hard to find the same strut and swagger on a modern record; this despite heavy metal revival becoming such a lucrative industry in the last ten years. Bands excel at parceling out singular aspects of various original bands and creating the mirage of a sound around them, but the composite spirit of the past is the one thing they cannot quite reproduce. A writer views the world as words and the musician hears it as song, and neither form of apprehension can be faked, at least not to any meaningful extent beyond a faithful replica of the original. Even the most devoted copy is only life lived through another’s senses, and while it can be appreciated as a token of genuine admiration, it is missing the individuality that makes any piece of art truly human.

Soundwise, Heroes, Saints, and Fools lies somewhere roughly between early Iron Maiden and Saxon, and the John Lawton/Peter Goalby-fronted Uriah Heep albums. Throw in rather more than a dash of Pilgrimage/Argus-era Wishbone Ash, and you begin to get an idea of what to expect here: narratively rich songs in the old storytelling tradition, immersed in a sea of classy hooks, celebrating life and young attitude but also rife with the kind of unrestrained emotional expression that gets labeled gauche by the passage of time. There’s poetry here to bring a spring to the stodgiest step and a lump to the throat of the most reckless heart and, truth be told, a traversal through a range of moods almost completely lost to heavy metal after the ’70s. No texture is left unturned in achieving this, the synthesizer in particular contributing many supporting as well as defining motifs, but as strong an ensemble work as Heroes, Saints, and Fools is, ultimately the name on the marquee belongs to guitarist Rob Bendelow. A master craftsman at heavy guitar, fit to be ranked alongside any you care to name, Bendelow provides a clinic on restraint, inflection, and absolutely tearing up the fretboard when the opportunity comes. But this isn’t just base shredding, you see; it is a cathedral of pentatonic architecture after the style of another great, Buck Dharma, raised on hallowed ground where mindfulness meets naked intuition to lead the listener in the pews through genuine out-of-body revelation.

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Auroch – Mute Books (2016)

Auroch on Mute Books remind me of an updated rendition of Hellwitch, minus the speed metal infusions, but with much the same penchant for crafting lingering melody out of incredibly dense guitar playing. Other references can include Nile and Absu in the way the technical and the hyperactive segue into passages of heightened mysticism. Lofty comparisons, perhaps, but unlike retro bands content to merely reproduce old sounds, Auroch embrace the past while still very much remaining a band of the present; this latter attribute manifests in the stress on building atmosphere as an element outside the relevant body of a song, but the contracted nature of the music combines with fine rhythmic coloring to make this a lesser deterrent than is normally perceived.

There is a liquid quality about Mute Books, resulting primarily from what at first appears to be the lack of a percussive component to the rhythm guitar. Trey Azagthoth at his best possessed this too, a technique where the riff is drained of all insistent punctuation and is seemingly written in one fell swoop as an extensive “legato” movement. In reality, a subtle awareness of groove is involved, groove that helps to round out the edges and create the impression of continuous motion. That the actual drumming under it all is content to provide a steady jackhammer beat and never resorts to showboating only accentuates this effect. There is genuine metal alchemy in such transformations and Auroch, on Mute Books, are the rare modern occult-themed band that do justice to their pretensions.

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Into Oblivion – Winds of Serpentine Ascension EP (2020)

Winds of serpentine ascension
Rend these ashen clouds
That mar the visage of our days
And make our linens as shrouds

The zealot casts asunder
Our Gods graven in stone
Words that once sanctified
Are to our lips forsworned

Our grain is not ours to eat
Our bulls for tribute are yoked
Our mothers look with despair
On hearths that go unstoked

A cold bed greets our wives
With the ghost of a memory
That sighs its empty breath
Into dreams not meant to be

Our children’s faces in the murk
Are limned with fear and dust
And grow old before our eyes
As the sun fades in the dusk

The sun may rise elsewhere
To flay terrors of the night
But these ashen clouds above
Keep from us its light

Winds of serpentine ascension
Carry us in your train
Make us the sword you wield
To sever the enemy in twain

(*’The Shattering Ascent’ and ‘Eagle of the Serpent Sun’ are likely to be re-recordings)

The above is inspired from the name of the latest Into Oblivion EP, and while it isn’t after the free-verse, esoteric nature of the band’s lyrics, the sound of the new EP immediately evoked many of the same themes. Winds of Serpentine Ascension is both the most accessible and the most stirring effort yet from this band. The accessibility doesn’t mean the band has forgone long song lengths; the EP is still three songs and runs over thirty-four minutes, with the deliberate narrative development that one has come to expect from Into Oblivion.

Pure heavy metal has always been an outstanding influence in the band’s music, inextricably weaved into even the most belligerent sections, but even so there is a pronounced sylvan spirit to these songs, alternatingly light and dark, building on the epic romantic tendencies of 90s doom metal. The long cascading-like-a-river guitar solo on ‘Shattering Ascent‘ brings to mind an even more hallowed forebear in Mark Shelton (R.I.P.), while the twenty-minute long ‘Eagle of the Serpent Sun‘ might quite simply be the finest metal song heard this year. Every bit as grandiose as the title suggests, this is a case-study in how to play contained yet intensely harmonic heavy metal. The electric guitars play only slightly divergent melodies, offsetting rhythm with lead, but what emerges after contributions from bows, strings, and choirs is a supercharged molotov cocktail of feeling that approaches genre landmarks like ‘Into Glory Ride‘, ‘One Rode to Asa Bay‘, ‘The Red in the Sky is Ours‘, and ‘Lone Wolf Winter‘.

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Ara – Jurisprudence (2020)

Ara play technical death metal that exists somewhere in the gap between old adepts like Gorguts and Atrocity, Suffocation on Breeding The Spawn, and the hyperactive California-style favored by the likes of later-day Deeds of Flesh. Ara, however, almost entirely eschew the cloying higher frequencies of that latter style for a more suffocating approach drained of nearly all emotional color. As contemporaries go, Zealotry reside in the same rhythmic space, where percussion, over and above shadowing the riff and insinuating changes of tempo, is a distinct tool of expression in its own right, at times even usurping the primacy of the guitar in heavy metal tradition. In Jurisprudence‘s case, it makes for an interesting exercise to observe just when such extroverted percussive articulation occurs; as a (very) general rule, drums are content to supply a steady beat to tremolo runs and moments of staccato emphasis, in other words, moments of straight-ahead aggression when room for embellishment is at a premium. This music being as granulated (i.e. containing many moving parts) as it is, however, transitions and tempo changes abound, and each of these segments provides full creative license for more ambidextrous techniques to take hold.

This granulated approach of tech-death songwriting is not without its pitfalls. Paradoxical as it may sound, detail does not equal definition. The tech-death riff, when split into numerous subdivisions, no longer feels like a key, identifying part of the song, dictating where the rest of the song goes. Unceasing reductionism means that it has steadily lost substance to a degree where it barely holds together as a recognizable motif in the song’s sequence of patterns. It exists as an end in itself, adrift in a moving sea of others of its ilk, with only the rare whisper exchanged among them.

Jurisprudence runs less afoul of these caveats than its predecessor, its application of more conventional writing forms means that it operates one layer of coherence above stream-of-consciousness rambling. The album could do without the more obvious post-rock overtures (unless one thinks all modern tech-death should be relabeled post-death, which leads us down a whole different rabbit-hole): to these ears, static dissonant overwashes, jazz-inflections in the lead guitar, and obligatory slowing of tempos, have always felt like attempts at manufacturing atmosphere, and do naught but impede momentum. Outside about fifteen minutes of this extraneous fat conceivably exists an EP of solid death metal, one that would function just fine without contentious qualifiers like tech-death. But to extricate that material and make a self-sufficient album from it would necessarily make a new band of Ara altogether.

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Retrospective: Alice Cooper’s Love It To Death (1971)

Love It To Death saw the original Alice Cooper band emerging from the psychedelic haze of their first two albums. Under the stewardship of soon-to-be-famed producer Bob Ezrin, the band reined in their free-form tendencies in favor of a sharper, more concise sound, notable exception being the hypnagogic voodoo of ‘Black Juju‘. Elsewhere though, the group began consolidating their macabre yet arena-friendly brand of shock rock. More musical than contemporaries like The MC5 and The Stooges, but sharing the same wild spirit and certainly no less noisome to critics and the cultured masses at large, Alice Cooper came to symbolize young, rebel-without-a-cause energy better than any rock band hitherto.

It bears to remember that Alice Cooper, for the entirety of its creative peak, was an ensemble, and not the name of an individual, as popular consciousness has come to assume. The band unanimously allowed the Alice persona to evolve in the body of singer Vincent Furnier, but undergirding it always was the same group of five misfits from an Arizona high school. That chemistry forged in fearless youth is evident in all of the original band’s work but especially so on the string of releases beginning from Love It To Death; it is an organic interplay of ideas between people on the same wavelength on account of age and circumstance, who appreciate what they have in common enough to accommodate each other’s creative quirks, to the point where what emerges is an indivisible whole, a seamless composite of their individual psychological energies.

On Love It To Death, pop sensibility exists at ease with progressive ambition, come-what-may derring-do lives next door to melancholy and regret. An anecdote: I once picked up a slightly eccentric friend from the bus stand; he didn’t say but the most perfunctory greeting on our way back on my motorcycle, but once we reached home, the first thing he said was, “You and I, we are old souls“. Cheesy as that sounds, and blazed as he must have been, I suppose there is something to be said for the idea of old souls, especially when they are trapped in young bodies, and this perhaps is the central conceit behind Love It To Death. For every explosion of reckless hedonism that characterized the 70s, Love It To Death also contains a pearl of piercing wisdom. Take the evergreen ‘I’m Eighteen‘, for instance: ‘Lines form on my face and hands / Lines form from the ups and downs / I’m in the middle without any plans / I’m a boy and I’m a man’. Who among us metalheads hasn’t lived these words, to our alternating joy and chagrin? Who hasn’t – or more pointedly, doesn’t – exist in that limbo between the memories of an exciting and volatile past, and the onset of responsible and mature decrepitude? Who doesn’t dread climbing down the other side of that rise, not because of what we stand to gain, but for what we might lose behind us, and that for ever?

Out of nowhere, in the middle of the relaxed, blues-infused first half of the album, comes ‘Black Juju‘, a tense, nine-minute tribal-giallo drum-and-bass workout that wouldn’t have been out of place on 1988’s The Serpent And The Rainbow. It is also the first hint of the group’s theatrical aspirations, easily lending itself to vaudeville interpretations and naturally playing into the repertoire that the band would develop over the next five years. ‘Is It My Body‘ has premonitive punk swagger, not dissimilar to the Dead Boys debut, only ahead by a mere six years. The best part of Love It To Death, however, is the closing trilogy, a plummet into insanity that starts with an inability to laugh at oneself and a propensity to take too seriously things beyond one’s immediate control. Perhaps that is too liberal a take, granted, yet all the more pitiful that it stands up to scrutiny in our current climate. Musically, this three-part suite – ‘Second Coming‘, ‘The Ballad of Dwight Frye‘, and ‘Sun Arise‘ – is impeccable in demonstrating, via perfectly accessible techniques, mind, what a mental breakdown might sound like. Dwight Frye was the actor who played Renfield in the classic Dracula from 1931; imagine what an achievement to bring something of his essence to life in 1971, and to have it linger to and be empathized with in the present day.

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Retrospective: Abigor – Opus IV (1996)

A stylistic example of shredding, ripping, lacerating 90s black metal, Abigor‘s Opus IV is a descent into veritable snowblinded madness. A challenging listen not in the sense of later Abigor works where threads of narrative development get arrogantly upended just because they can be, but due to its overwhelmingly suggestive musicality, redolent of a wide variety of moods and sensibilities, from the pastoral to the virulently hateful, and frequently in the same breath, too. It is some irony that T.T., the more outspoken of this duo, has in recent times plumped in favor of black metal breaking away from the cliche Norwegian sound. And with good reason, too, for anything that becomes a by-rote representation of an artform – especially in the mainstream – to a degree that it obscures all other expressions of that artform, rings, unbeknownst to it, the death knell for the genre. Black metal is dead, has been for a long time, so goes a particular school of opinion, mine included; the likes of Abigor in recent times, however, have taken that assertion as a challenge to diversify, to bring in influences from outside the original ambit of black metal, nay, heavy metal itself, while retaining the darkness that distinguished it in the first place.

Noble as that rebellious objective is, whether it has been successful is a different topic altogether. The Norwegian sound may be a cliche, susceptible to abuse in the hands of less conscious practitioners enamored simply and only by its more melodic overtures, but there is also a reason why it has gathered such traction in the hearts and minds of metalheads at large, that reason being the access to the vast reservoir of feeling that its melodically-grounded framework affords. For all its dark esoteric-cinematic pretensions, modern black metal struggles to musically identify with the human element at the center of existence. For an age as herd-minded and robotic as this, that may yet be its ultimate triumph, but what is black metal if not the almost-imperceptible shifting of the senses from the phenomenal (i.e. the musical, the melodic) into the numinous and the supranatural, an ascent, or a descent, through degrees towards the dwarfing realization of our insignificance in the face of…what? The mind, the soul, the heart, the universe, God? The treasure, as always, lies concealed in the crevices of this transition, but what treasure to seek, much less find, when the ground on which transitions arise itself is barren and singly-hued?

Opus IV, however, is replete with transitions, residing inside an ensorcelled snow globe, changing from the picturesque to the malign like only a force of nature can. Undoubtedly, there is a restless spirit at work within these songs, wanting to express as much and in as many ways as it can conceive of. Splintered is one word that comes to mind: this is an album of multiple facets, each showing itself only fleetingly, yet it is far from disjointed; it has an acute sense of contrast, of proximately orienting even the most disparate musical phrases, walking a tightrope between intuitive seeking and lusting overreach. Furious, too, in the sense of a candle burning at both ends, drinking in the oxygen of life to the limit, while exuding an inspirational ideal, to live, to live well, to live to the fullest.

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Abhomine – Proselyte Parasite Plague (2020)

Pete Helmkamp continues to snarl and rave on the latest Abhomine. His interests have always veered towards more minimalistic expressions of brutality compared to his former bandmate in Order From Chaos, Chuck Keller. Accordingly, Proselyte Parasite Plague shares the fuzzed-out guitar tone of that project, but musically is stripped of all speed metal vestiges, and stays more aligned with the insistent, badgering rhythms of first wave war metal like Beherit. No secret either that Helmkamp uses his projects to flesh out his personal take-no-prisoners philosophy; in that, this latest album is hurt to the extent that dual vocals make it occasionally difficult to decipher what’s being said. In the absence of a lyrics sheet, some of the more salient ideas read like a withering commentary on social engineering and the preponderance of the left-right paradigm in popular discourse. These are legitimate enough worries in a time when powerful media conglomerates corral opinion in intellectual concentration camps and individuals define themselves increasingly by monolithic labels. But a lie repeated loudly enough and often enough eventually comes to resemble the truth; the majority that chooses to call itself left or right also chooses to ally itself with no great discernment to specific positions traditionally grouped under either wing (a more insidious – or is it pragmatic? – reading would be that at least some of them have that discernment but decide to suppress their convictions on an expedient basis). Their subscription to said position in turn elicits response from those in charge, all of which has real, qualitative effects on our environment. A syncretistic, cherry-picked approach to policy may be wise, but it is also a leisure that only the conscientious individualist can afford; it has no real bearing on the wider state of affairs because the mob and its handlers have already drawn the battle lines, and to stand outside of them and expect change is a fool’s errand. The business of deciding the larger destiny of strangers is one of entanglements and filth, and unless one is prepared to sully himself trying, real wisdom probably exists in retracting your field of concerns, living “off the grid” mentally, if not physically, and fending for yourself and the persons that truly matter in your life.

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