Argus – From Fields of Fire (2017)

They say swans are some of the only creatures to choose a lifelong partner and that when one among them dies, the other doesn’t live long after. How does either member of a couple that has grown old together cope when the other passes? Accustomed to each other’s living rhythms, presaging each other’s thoughts, even taking on the other’s physical appearance as years reduce features that were once sharp to so much moldable putty, two individuals that through shared experience have for all intents and purposes become as one, but now at the very end, that union is rent asunder, and only one is left behind to deal with the profound silence that has stolen into the dusk of his life. Friends, relations, and routine, if he is so lucky to have these entertainments, distract for a time, but every man goes to sleep alone at night, and what manner of shapes must haunt his moments of solitude then? Memories come unbidden, and not just those touched with guilt and regret, but even joyful recollections, now marred with sorrow because of the fresh dent next to him in bed, give way to the cruel necessity of choking those reminiscences so as to preserve in them some semblance of the purity they do and should represent, to cleanse them of the grief they otherwise would become irrecoverably polluted with. To be a man that once reckoned himself stoic, resilient and self-sufficient, who now has to endure this slow wasting away by degrees, must be an experience humbling enough to render him as helpless and disoriented as an infant. The physical infirmities of dotage bring along their own pile of humiliations anyway, but a man’s frailties are shored up to a great extent while he still feels responsible towards another, while that another still makes him feel worth a whole. The sudden extinguishing of that sense of duty, which really is a rock in the storm of his dwindling, must challenge the very foundation upon which he views himself as a man.

Argus‘ fourth album may not be about the perfect man, but it is about the man of conscience. It is about taking stock in the wake of past mistakes and it is about possessing the courage to look into one’s inmost recesses, which is where the self-known truth usually resides. It is about love and loss, too, and having the grace to let go without requital or recrimination. This classy American heavy metal band, modeled after Thin Lizzy, Solitude Aeternus, and Slough Feg, has no particular calling card, but as has been the case on previous efforts, From Fields of Fire grows exponentially in power and atmosphere once it gets into its stride. Appropriately, the opening to the album is more defiant in tone and tempo, as befitting the state of mind in which previous transgresses have only just registered but their repercussions have not as yet made themselves felt, when one can almost delude himself into thinking that things can still be set aright. But fortunate are those to whom such allowances are made, and Butch Balich’s simple yet powerful voice conveys the despair in finally realizing the injustices visited on those we wouldn’t otherwise wish ill upon. The backing instruments regularly build up to a crescendo and an open space for him to deliver his most potent choruses, but Balich does more than simply following the chords underneath; chords in heavy metal insinuate, but the fine heavy metal singer molds that insinuation to his will through minor inflection and embellishment and sheer conviction, and thus completes the song. The final quarter of From Fields of Fire aptly retreats from the use of precocious NWOBHM rhythms and other exotic motifs to contemplate greatly on singly-plucked notes, unambiguous progressions, and Balich’s direction of theatre. This is doom, then, in the best sense, more human and more intimate than any other form of metal, yet completely separate and unique in intensity from mainstream expressions of the more pensive side of life.

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A Sinister trek through the last fifteen years

One of the most rhythmically expressive of all death metal bands, Sinister‘s career trajectory is widely assumed to have flatlined after classics like Cross the Styx, Diabolical Summoning, and Hate in the 90s. Frequent line-up changes, to the extent that ex-drummer Adrie Kloosterwaard remains the sole original member and on vocals at that, have prevented the band from evolving or even settling on a consistent sound. Fans unanimously dismiss the two albums fronted by Rachel Heyzer, but how does their work stack up since?

Afterburner (2005): Afterburner upon release was widely heralded as Sinister‘s rebirth following the uninspired Creative Killings and Savage or Grace, but the passing of time makes one see it in a different light. The first album to see Aad Kloosterwaard relinquishing drums for vocal duties, and Alex Paul playing all guitars, Afterburner is partly a welcome return of the malevolent air so pervasive of the band’s recordings up to Hate, but at times it is also brighter-sounding than anything the band has done through its use of heavy metal tones. Interestingly, the band uses devices both new and antique to in their pursuits: while a clinkingly insipid “post” influence inveigles its way into at least two songs, the experiment is thankfully discarded post-haste elsewhere for the labyrinthine ‘Presage of the Mindless‘, essentially a recapitulation of the strengths of the classic ‘Awaiting the Absu‘. Opener ‘Grey Massacre‘ reaches even farther back in time for inspiration, culminating quite seamlessly in the dirge of the Dies Irae played as a slow tremolo-picked melody. Afterburner is certainly theatrical – and death metal can be a legitimately theatrical genre, an appellation not normally applied to it but there is real drama in its many tinkerings of the musical register at the micro level – but its mix of influences does not capture the imagination of the experienced metal listener who knows where to find what he seeks without resorting to a hodgepodge of unrelated sounds.

The Silent Howling (2008): The worst album in the Sinister discography, The Silent Howling panders to a mainstream crowd, and therefore by association reneges on the dark complexity that first earned the band their bread. In fact, aggressive percussion notwithstanding, it is incorrect to even call this album death metal; the notes that once evolved through steady ferment into an intimidating architecture housed with devils from an alien dimension are fully substituted with the blockheaded speed metal charge of bands like In Flames and Soilwork. Even more egregious are mewling stabs at atmosphere harking to dilutory tendencies like shoegaze, postrock, and sludge that have proved a bane to extreme metal in the last twenty years. There are no redeeming qualities to The Silent Howling; it is a truly bad album, both artistically and integrity-wise, and by all rights should have buried Sinister under a rubble of their own fickleheadedness.

The Carnage Ending (2012): The Carnage Ending is an instant improvement on The Silent Howling which while not something worth shouting about from the rafters certainly paved the way for the incrementally better albums to follow. ‘Gates of Bloodshed‘ opens much like ‘Carnificina Scelesta‘ once did, and what ensues at least restores some semblance of the band’s once-fierce dignity as  a death metal classic. Succumbing somewhat to the Stillborn-syndrome, a reference to the Malevolent Creation album with the infamously muffled drums and down-with-flu production, robs these songs of some of their power, but also dresses them in an obscure mysticism reminiscent of the genre’s heyday and not just in the regular caverncore sense. Unfortunately, the album loses steam midway through, the Gateways To Annihilation-styled midpaced stomp of ‘Oath of Rebirth‘ ushering in an unimaginative slog through predictable chromatic progressions and equally obvious changes in tempo. In hindsight, one can level the blame for the misguided experimentation of the previous two albums at the departed Alex Paul’s feet. The Carnage Ending sees the introduction of a guitar duo whose resume includes bands like Supreme Pain and Fondlecorpse, bands that at least remained firmly girdled against the genre’s underbelly. Accordingly, this album carries, perhaps unconsciously, the ethos of both those projects, but at least it is without the cringe factor of The Silent Howling, and therefore can now be viewed against the backdrop of new members finding their feet amid the Sinister sound.

The Post-Apocalyptic Servant (2014): The Sinister sound has always been part Deicide, part atonal brutality like Suffocation, combined with an individual flair for dark melody. The chief influences remain on The Post Apocalyptic Servant, but those influences are now referenced in slightly different contexts. The change-on-a-dime syncopation of Legion is replaced with Serpents of the Light-styled tremolo runs, while the grinding detonations of Despise the Sun have come to be almost ubiquitous. The application of that dark melody, however, is admirably subtle and creeps up on the listener just when he begins to surmise that there has been a cumulative loss of identity, thus saving The Post-Apocalyptic Servant from being one among countless other brutal death metal albums. Sinister have always registered as unremittingly violent death metal, in reality and in the genre fan’s subconscious; this album, while not breaking the mold, sees them reoccupying that niche after a long time.

Syncretism (2017): This album sees the most deliberate that Sinister have ever been. By introducing synthesizers as a key songwriting tool, the band revamp their entire approach to writing death metal. Working in disparate harmony with the guitars, yet also of necessity imposing a tempering influence on them, the synthesizer has opened a far wider melodic space than has ever been available to the band. The occasional homage to Deicide still peeks through, but overwhelmingly riffs that once developed in discrete, claustrophobically assorted clusters now have a distinctly “hummed” aspect to them; which shouldn’t be taken to mean something as crude as Aad Kloosterwaard actually singing out melodies for his guitarists – maybe he does for all we know – but rather that writing intense metal riffs can be approached in either a quasi-involuntary, “love of lava” fashion, or as a slow-burning act of pensive execution. Syncretism tips the scales decisively in favor of the second, the rabid syncopation of yesteryear often organically making way for long-chained passages in the Necrophobic vein of blackened death metal. More importantly, this album hints at a band trying to revive some of the dark musical mythology of their most vital work; the mechanics are different, but the Gothic spirit that once lurked in the shadows now assumes the spotlight without resorting to kitsch, thus proving that an old hand can seemingly deviate from tradition on the surface while remaining true to it in essence.

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Distant calling and the musical soul

A feeling, more a sense of awe-struck bewilderment, that I have never been able to shake off while listening to some of my favorite metal is just how can such an abrasive form of music be at times so innocent and absent of guile. The people who made this music often lived rough lives; frequently their opinions did not dovetail neatly with our own, to the point where there now has arisen a concerted movement to shame and blacklist them. And yet through their music, they revealed what I can only think of as the soul in its purest element. It is not conceivable for me to imagine that at that precise point of expression, the forces framing that expression could have been capable of malice, however vehement the mode of expression itself may have been. How we respond to music may be fiercely subjective, but the fact that music can elicit a spontaneous and visceral reaction in the listener implies that a mirror image, the one original, true cause, of that reaction must have necessarily existed to a lesser or greater degree once in the music’s creator also. I know what I feel, when I listen to metal, to be happily lacking in all ulterior, materialistic motive, therefore he who created this music must have partaken in that same selfless communion at one time, too, however diluted his subsequent endeavors may have become.

Mark Shelton once said that love of life gives us metal and so it has remained ever since. Beauty, at its fount, always springs from the noblest that humankind has to offer. An ugly soul cannot make beautiful things, because it has lost the ability to truly marvel at the magic of existence. Levity and bitterness are handed out in a relatively proportionate manner to all lives, even though the latter because of its inherent intensity always seems to weigh down far more oppressively on us than light-winged happiness. The difference, however, between the good and the ugly soul is to what extent each allows the bitterness to overwhelm and mar that which still holds promise and good cheer.

In metal, I catch a glimpse of that embattled soul still striving to break through life’s troubles to breathe freely once more, like how it must have before experience assumed graver undercurrents. Not rarely have I found myself overwhelmed with emotion in the middle of a song, not because the band obsequiously tugged at the heart strings like a common mendicant, but because real beauty, found in the unlikeliest of circumstances though it may be, above all else always wants to communicate and make itself be known. In that moment of rapturous congress, I can suspend all peripheral judgement and soak in the realization that a thing so precious can even exist, becoming in itself an unceasing cause for celebration and a spur to continue putting one foot in front of the other.

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Am I evil? Are you good?

Someone somewhere said to his flock in perfectly self-serious tones that bad folks aren’t taking a break from making the world a worse place, therefore neither should they, implication naturally being that they and only they are good and on the right side of history. But didn’t someone else across the undulating stream of time once say let he who is without sin cast the first stone? I wonder to myself, then, what kind of man, if not inexperienced or an utter fool, deals in simple moral binaries? Who doesn’t have enough dirt in their closet to not do a double take before making grandiose assertions of their moral probity? And how dull an existence must it be to reduce everything to a convenient division of black and white?

It is a cunning social maneuver alright. You set yourself up as a paragon of virtue from the very beginning by appealing to mass sentimentality, you make your stance unassailable by dint of sheer noise, so that you now have the moral higher ground to vilify your opponents and their views as something less than human. Once you have gained this stronghold, you feel at rights visiting the same abuses on your opponents that you once accused them of. The tables keep turning, the roles keep getting reassigned, but the only constant that remains is the quest for power. Power like wealth – and wealth is power, too – is without color and knows no ideology; all it cares for is preservation and perpetuation.

If you fall outside the pale of these machinations and are any kind of individual, it is but natural to be intimidated by the tide of public opinion bearing down on you, to even catch yourself doubting the very sanctity of your convictions. The trick is to see through what’s at play, to not let yourself be cowed or swayed by childish appeals to whatever passes for the moral standard of the day, especially when those appeals become steadily more vitriolic in tone in the face of dissent; to realize, in fact, that this situation is not the same as a natural and personal inspection and reevaluation of values, but rather a petty power-play that considers with great cynicism, and paternalism, even the subjects it claims to be fighting for as little more than pawns without real agency, pawns that have to be animated and imbued with a purpose from outside. There is nothing noble in any of this and the person not hankering after power should see the ruse for what it is and continue to follow his own mind’s calling.

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Consume The Forsaken, a tour de force of brutality

Having talked about brutal death metal in less than glowing terms previously, I am now about to plump for what is widely considered as the quintessential brutal death metal band. Disgorge from California pushed the Suffocation template to its extreme, stripping away whatever melody may have been concealed in the interstices of that pioneering band’s music and doubling down on grinding brutality. Liberally thrown in, at least on the assortment of demos known as Cranial Impalement and then to a lesser extent on the She Lay Gutted full-length, were the sort of elephantine grooves that have come to be the hallmark of much American brutal death and especially its bastard derivative slam. These sections in Disgorge music however never seemed like a piss-take geared towards the dancing, half-peeled banana man regularly witnessed at Obscene Extreme; much like Suffocation themselves, Disgorge simply happened upon these irruptions in rhythm in the course of writing riffs rather than making them the centerpiece of the song. That same riff-writing ethos otherwise shared far more in common with dark American death metal, abidingly violent and transgressive, and an experiment in just how rhythmically expressive death metal can possibly be.

Consume The Forsaken, the band’s third album, generally sees a divided fanbase. There are those who lament the departure of Matti Way and his impossibly low take on the death metal belch; nor is this camp overly enthused with the less catchy nature of Consume The Forsaken. Gone is any obvious allusion to the crushing groove that made the band its name; Consume the Forsaken is almost impenetrable upon first encounter, such is its densely clustered mien and that at near-constant blasting tempos. But that same inaccessibility also makes this album something of an apotheosis for abstract, instinctive, hyperaggressive death metal. Few records seem more apt for repeat listening than this, and by that I mean really concentrated, obsessive listening; which is curious indeed considering the almost total absence of identifiable songwriting tropes and the overwhelming brutality on offer. And yet, through that mist of violence, Consume The Forsaken initially tantalizes and eventually mesmerizes, subliminally hinting at something a little more substantial at play under its uncompromising exterior, compelling the listener to return time and again, and giving up its secrets under only the most willing submission.

This strange dance of opposites goes further. A.J. Magana’s vocal delivery is a percussive instrument in its own right, but it is not designed for clear enunciation of the deviously blasphemous lyrics written by Ricky Myers for Consume The Forsaken. By chance, the listener reads the lyrics sheet and discovers a concept of sorts: “I have no son and no mortal being shall ever be worshipped by the theft of my name“. The jealous God of the Old Testament concocts a plan to arrogate all privilege over creation to Himself, by destroying His own misbegotten son, usurper to Godhood and middle link of the Holy Trinity. He turns Christ’s apostles against their savior, nay, not turns but plants them in his presence from the beginning as veritable cat’s paws, convincing them that they are doing the bidding of an imagined adversary, when in fact He who is the store of all potentialities, from whom both good and evil arise, who has indeed created blasphemy, now actively orchestrates it.

Magana does not make any of this lucid through his efforts, but he doesn’t have to, you see; once the listener has grasped the delicious irony in Myers’ perversion of the Bible story, everything – Magana’s grunts, the brutal symphony accompanying it, and lyrics – comes together to achieve a gestalt effect, and Consume The Forsaken transforms verily into every bit the oppressive equal of more noted anti-Christian genre landmarks like Dawn of Possession, Legion, and Onward to Golgotha. Of course, this runs counter to the notion of absolute metal; music should not have to depend on the written word and vice versa, but once done isn’t to be shunned, and who can be curmudgeon enough to detract in the name of misplaced idealism from an altogether more potent experience?

Guitarist Diego Sanchez has some of the most malleable wrists in death metal; his transitions are breathtakingly fast, but more pertinently have this vaguely fluid quality where riffs practically fall into one another, seemingly speeding up at the fag end in self-immolating anticipation of the next change around the corner. Illusion or not, this I reckon can be thought of as the guitarist’s version of the drummer’s swing, and therefore has an innate understanding of rhythm built into it, but it becomes even more impressive considering the intensely syncopated and offbeat nature of this music. Then again, syncopation might be integral to this playing technique; a spinning coin inevitably loses energy and slows down because of friction, but it appears to gather an illusory momentum all the same in its death spiral to the horizontal. Taking the analogy further, what then is syncopation if not friction, induced by both picking and fretting hand, when juxtaposed against conventionally smoother tremolo picking?

Dave Mustaine used to claim proprietorship over the spider chord technique that allowed him to transition between closely grouped power chords seamlessly at fast speeds. In addition to conventional power chord fingering, the spider chord also calls into service the middle finger and pinky. With the requisite dexterity, the two fingerings can be alternated to play power chord movements with next to no “drag”. One wonders whether Sanchez uses something similar, because it is inconceivable that power chords have ever segued into each other in such a blaze, or in such intricate combinations, before or since. He goes over and above the role of the power chord as placeholder in death metal; to him it is that but also virtually anything else he can will it to be. To the extent of exercising that free will, broken riff sequences as first heard on Legion are found in abundance; this means that any two successive bars of a riff have equal likelihood of mutating in texture or playing technique from the previous run. The result is restless and palpitating but not without a sly logic of its own after the manner of the best percussive, structural death metal.

Consume The Forsaken is brutal death metal alright, hence sometimes automatically consigned to being called dated. This niche sub-genre gradually took a turn towards a direction that while being no less fast certainly became less nihilistic and lost itself in technical-melodic excess and frivolous party-grind. Consume The Forsaken, however, still works because it reminds us of what death metal, above every other impulse to intellectual masturbation, should have always been: dark and terrorizing, and complete with internal quality checks to keep at bay the kind of crowd now ruining metal at large.

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Death Metal Battle Royale Round 2: Sinister’s Cross The Styx vs Deicide’s Legion

 

This Round 2 battle pitches two albums similarly intense in death metal rhythm guitar playing. Sinister, and Dutch death metal in general, were inspired by genre developments in North america, and perhaps in no small portion by Deicide themselves. However, where Sinister would go on to release albums of similar or, as considered in certain quarters, even better quality, Legion is Deicide‘s indisputable pinnacle never rivaled again in the genre. How do these death metal cousins fare against each other?

1. Riff Logic and Cohesion
Cross The Styx:
A bass string in perpetual motion provides the backdrop against which Sinister play out much of their heavily syncopated dark death metal. Cross The Styx is an album of riffs tightly stitched together: an automaton-like picking hand shatters with tremendous violence any semblance of a longer narrative into finely delineated staccato phrases that drift through a groove part Suffocation and part ‘Sacrificial Suicide‘. Then, with equal calculation and instinct, like a rock climber looking for the next foothold from which to stage his ascent, the band mutates each isolated phrase into a slightly skewed variant on its predecessor. Songs themselves are recursive, composed neatly of two or three cycles of the same set of riffs, with occasional provision for lead guitar and symphonic overtures, but this predictable writing style of evolution by micro-increments, done in a tonal palette empty of all optimism and levity, otherwise fosters a persistent tension and atmosphere throughout Cross The Styx. (Points awarded: +1)

Legion: Legion gives lie to the dogmatic assertion that death metal has to be completely absent of verse chorus structure and speed metal influence to be considered effective. Both are a big part of what makes this album such a force of nature, thus proving that more so than actual techniques themselves, it is their intelligent application that makes for memorable metal. The Hoffmans harmonize almost exclusively in jagged half phrases, but also in their arsenal is a method that has never been replicated in the genre to the best of my knowledge: when not playing the same riff, one guitar frequently switches to a black metal-like tremolo picked melody supplementing the palm muted staccato phrases coming out of the other channel. Thus, short-form, atonal explosiveness is simultaneously leavened with a dark, Gothic musicality (for the kind of melody I’m referring to, hear ‘Revocate The Agitator‘ and play C2-C#2-D#2-C2 on this tool), a brilliantly intuitive writing trope not nearly enough attributed to the band or explored within the genre at large. (Points awarded: +1)

2. Melodic Contiguity
Cross The Styx:
Cross The Styx occupies a niche in the midst of speed metal, purely structural death metal (Deeds of Flesh, Suffocation), and melodically ambitious European death metal. The latter of these attributes is sometimes overwhelmed by the ever-present percussive bludgeoning, but it is a subtle component in the band’s craft, shifting songs almost imperceptibly on their axis, as if by power of suggestion. Also, despite using abundant speed metal techniques, Sinister avoid the major caveat of all speed metal, the preponderance of static filler: there is neither shortage of chugging grooves on Cross The Styx, nor does the band shy away from the occasional sharp break in chord/color progression, atonal as it may be, but it never translates to wasted energy; a consistently pendulating musical drama infiltrates these songs, a constant resizing up and down the dark musical register, and yet more proof that death metal can be a theatrically explosive genre in the purest sense, without resorting to conventionally theatrical bells and whistles. (Points awarded: +1)

Legion: On Legion, melodic contiguity, or the indispensability of any one section, however small, of a song, is intimately tied to the rhythms played by Steve Asheim. Therefore, any two successive parts, even when they don’t appear to share a logical melodic relationship, may actually share a rhythmic relationship instead, bolstering the other’s momentum and overall impact. Hear how, for example, on ‘In Hell I Burn‘, the tremolo picked melody feeds into the Iron Maiden-on-speed gallop for no outwardly discernible reason; in reality, however, the tremolo-picked melody does a few dry runs at first, always interrupted by Asheim’s fills at the very end, until finally it launches into the chorus. Under the hood, there is delayed release of tension and a building of momentum at play, an example of broken-riff sequences frequently heard on the album. (Points awarded: +1)

3. Role of percussion
Cross The Styx: Sinister drumming is some of the most pulverizing in all death metal, swinging wildly between red hot blastbeats, riding the groove, and a thrashier battery. Admittedly, it does not vary at all outside of these techniques, and is somewhat reactive to the riff as dog-whistle, but Cross The Styx is not the sort of death metal album of large spaces to call for inventive drumming; it is tightly-knit, fast and violent, and the drumming lives up to that end of the bargain. (Points awarded: +1)

Legion: Steve Asheim was officially disclosed as the main songwriter in Deicide long after their seminal work, but in the light of that revelation, his performance on Legion assumes even greater significance. Unlike Aad Kloosterwad on Cross The Styx, mostly content to follow the lead of the guitars in predictable patterns, Asheim conducts these songs on a granular level, with extreme stamina and ambidexterity, “timing each drum hit to the guitar strum” in a deluge of offbeat time signatures, and perhaps even solving the perennial conundrum of the drummer-songwriter in death metal: when riffs are of a chopped and percussive nature, and the drumming underneath a near mirror image, it is more than likely that the drummer has a pivotal say in overall musical direction. (Points awarded: +1)

4. Progressive aspiration
Cross The Styx: What is progression? Is it the riff constantly evolving to form a song of diverse parts working in harmony? Is it static-monolithic riff sets that work in tandem to create a narrative? Or is musical progression a non-analytical quality that leaves the listener in a different mental space from where he began? The riffs on Cross The Styx are anything but static-monolithic, but as mentioned earlier, and not without a sense of irony, these riffs, virulently alive though they may be, are boxed together, in the same order, into two or three neatly parceled cycles. The result is a bit of an antinomy: Cross The Styx is progressive at a lower level, but songs ultimately only recapitulate previous highs.

Edit: I’m generally undecided on this, and seeing as how my personal bias won out in favor of Legion in a similar situation, I will give Cross The Styx a bye too. (Points awarded: 1)

Legion: Legion is guided by Glen Benton’s massive roar and as with the debut actively uses choruses to sink its hooks in. At times, there are breakaway sections as bridge or to end a song, but despite the brutality on offer here, Deicide were very consciously making death metal anthems. Is that enough to label Legion not progressive? By my own definition, probably, and yet there is such perfect balance to this instrumental cacophony, such spontaneous yet visionary mixing of harsh and not-as-harsh (but still fucking harsh!) textures that I cannot begrudge it its progressive stripes. (Points awarded: +1)

5. Success as an album of songs
Cross The Styx: There are few albums in death metal as consistently punishing or just plain hellish as Cross The Styx. It is more expressive in a lateral sense than Legion, with higher tuned guitars and a wider range of tones. One could even say that Cross The Styx is a more scenic album than Legion; scenes of ash and brimstone, granted, but which even the occasional glimpse of speed metal influence cannot detract from. (Points awarded: +1)

Legion: Legion belongs to a cadre of early death metal albums written explicitly to be memorable and song-oriented. Which should not be construed as pandering in any way, but rather that these musicians grew up with vastly different music than what they ended up playing, and that they were able to translate the accessibility – to a certain attuned mindset, obviously – and musicality of those styles into an almost incomprehensibly brutal paradigm. Legion is chock full of death metal classics singable in an almost vulgarly-gratifying way, and yet there is not a second to cause cognitive dissonance in the listener. This truly is serious death metal for the serious death metal fan. (Points awarded: +1)

6. Ideological/Philosophical significance as death metal
Cross The Styx: A demonic album in sound and word, the very musical depiction of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood and The Hellbound Heart/Hellraiser in particular, Cross The Styx makes one wonder what prompts young people in the prime of life to make music so obsessed with pain and suffering, so empty of even the vaguest compassion. Young rebellion, sure; a desire to exceed the standard of brutality expected of the genre, definitely. But can that be the catch-all reasoning to explain the spiteful and unequivocal rejection of mass anodyne culture on display here? No whiff of political grandstanding, no maudlin sentimentality, nothing but lovingly detailed tableaus of tormented flesh from some interdimensional nightmare, and still as powerfully captivating and intimidating as upon release. Has death metal ever needed to be anything else? (Points awarded: +1)

Legion: Legion is more anti-God than pro-Satan, and though Glen Benton’s ire is almost exclusively directed at Christian dogma, it is impossible to listen to this album without being stirred in a similarly adversarial spirit, regardless of religious denomination. It is a spectre that has haunted extreme metal for the longest time, a whisper rising from dark corners to mock viciously at whatever compartmentalization allows one to enjoy this music at one time yet kneel in supplication, for reasons of faith or political expediency, before some deity at another. It is perhaps inevitable that the thinking individual becomes more conservative with age, but I admit to being not a little confused when I see some metalheads aligning themselves with orthodox religion in their fight to preserve the culture of their lands. Their position itself is perfectly tenable from the perspective of nationalist politics; after all, religion shares a strong anthropological connection with culture. But at least I, as yet, have been unable to reconcile this convenient, mealy-mouthed dichotomy with the fiercely individualist quality of a Legion. It does not even matter whether the religion is Semitic or of the Orient; there might be more chaff to eliminate in one belief system than another, but there’s generally some wisdom to be gleaned from all. But once you move out beyond academic-ontological curiosity or any other cynical use you may have for religion, you are confronted with the reductionist dilemma of God, a consciousness fundamentally and immeasurably greater than you, and sentient in an all-encompassing way too, and this formulation and the necessary subservience that comes with it is inherently at odds with Legion‘s philosophy. Is this materialist thinking? Perhaps, at the very apex, but I prefer to think of it as a form of positive egoism perfectly in sync with the metalhead’s lot to be caught between spaces, to willingly enter the slipstream, to test the waters, and then wanting nothing more than to swim against it and out of it. (Points awarded: +1)

7. Emotional resonance
Cross The Styx: Keeping this album’s hateful stature in mind, then, how can one consider it in terms of emotional resonance? Assuming musical quality of a high order and a general theme are already established, the best way to do this is to let the music paint mental pictures for you. Drawing from your repository of experience and memory, without resorting to blatant nostalgia, goes a long way in fleshing out initially obscure outlines and bringing these pictures to life. Christian doctrine informs us that the difference between purgatory and hell is the same as that between the light at the end of the tunnel, and complete and utter resignation. If this be so, then Cross The Styx most vehemently takes place in a hell carrying none of the romantic notions attached to Satan as tragic antihero. Here, whips crack, flames rise, and flesh sizzles, in what can only be a condemnation of man’s fundamentally irredeemable nature. (Points awarded: +1)

Legion: An alternate reading of what this album means to me can be found on the Round 1 post. Legion can never be anything but a personal record to me and so deciphering it in sterile language feels insincere. But words are only so much wasted breath, and therefore I will simply say that in its presence I can still transform into someone I may not always want to be, but someone I am most comfortable being. (Points awarded: +1))

Verdict: Cross The Styx is one of the true great death metal albums, but it is its bad luck to be paired against what might be the greatest. Maybe hearing it before Legion was a bad choice, because there are few records that can open for that album and stand their ground. In any case, the voting seems to overwhelmingly agree in favour of Legion. Legion goes through.

Current tournament bracket

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Ugra Karma – Mountain Grinders (2015)

Ugra Karma – Mountain Grinders

This brief EP from foundational Nepalese death metal band Ugra Karma is so elementary as to seem out of place in the current time. That might read like an inconsistent statement; after all, a good chunk of death metal bands today make it their lives’ calling to be retro. But the accustomed ear can invariably detect a thread of self-referentialism in these attempts, where the entire reasoning behind the music is to be a faithful rendition of something else. Through this, a constant comparative relationship is established between new and old; the new justifies its existence based on the old but in the process also loses nearly all semblance of meaning and expression for itself.

Ugra Karma come from a time in Southeast Asia when death metal was still a frightful apparition, subversive and alluring to those already on the fringes of the musical counterculture. Since the internet had not yet become ubiquitous, a standard platter of speed metal and death metal – with a near-fanatical devotion to Slayer and Cannibal Corpse – became sacrosanct to the most intrepid fans; however, unlike the West, where so much of this music developed organically as a natural response to what had gone before, where fans had had time to absorb and process the many textures seeped into their awareness and then tentatively build a new musical philosophy around themselves, there was no real gestation period in these parts. Budding listeners were hurled overnight as it were from Guns N’ Roses to Iron Maiden to Deicide, and this sudden shock to an insular mindset shows in the first attempts at writing original music by death metal bands from this time. Subtlety and narrative heft are rarely found, but a sentiment to be as brutal as possible pervades all.

In this limited ambition, Mountain Grinders is distilled enough to become uncriticizable. Rhythm sections – there is no lead guitar on these songs – are carved out violently from three chief influences: the galloping near-grind of Into The Grave, the slightly more elaborate hacking of Butchered At Birth, and the apocalyptic groove of Once Upon The Cross. And yet those references are just that; the vocabulary of these musicians is too small to permit clever asides and flags in the muck proclaiming renovation of an old paradigm. That is no insult: what you hear here is what Ugra Karma understand death metal to be, primal, uncompromising, and a blow to the skull. No, Mountain Grinders, though a few decades after the fact, is the old paradigm itself, its spirit assuredly the same that inspired this music in the first place. It can’t be faked, it can’t be manufactured in a studio, it is not something to be self-consciously desired even; it is nothing less than a gift to be accepted, where and when you find it, without greed or complaint.

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Zealotry – At the Nexus of All Stillborn Worlds (2018)

Zealotry‘s first two albums are fine case studies in modern, technical death metal. The Charnel Expanse combined influences from Demilich and Immolation in groove and chord shape without being as firmly rooted in the concise song format of either band. That is, though the individual riff retained its substance, there was little by way of bookends or obvious motival suggestion, with songs for the most part writhing and evolving in entirely organic ways. The Last Witness began to chip away at the substantiality of that individual riff, so that while still in tact in outline and still greatly directing the song’s general color, it was now looser on the interior. This development naturally suited the  blown-outwards character of The Last Witness, while also giving free rein to the complex interplay of guitar voices so integral to the album’s progressive aspirations. Lost in the process was some of The Charnel Expanse‘s aggression, but this would prove to be a fair trade for the greater goal at stake here: to make a dark, concept-driven “death” metal album united in theme and texture.

With this history in mind, nobody would expect Zealotry to stop pushing the envelope on their third full length, but perhaps there is such a thing as consolidating one’s gains? The gradually thinning riff definition of the previous two albums is now near-evanescent. At the Nexus of All Stillborn Worlds is crammed with non-stop turnover of phrases, the purported intention here being representing a riff as a composite of separate voices, and yet, despite the occasional emergence of discernible melody around the edges, some of which voices have to be considered gratuitous. At any given time, one of these voices fulfills the role of mere harmonic abutment, or, when things become really hectic, a fully-fleshed out strand of expression in its own right. A side-effect of this hyperactivity is that groove as a device to alleviate tension, in the manner used by the band’s formative influences themselves, is almost completely dispensed with, thus increasing the total dissonance on offer.

There is novelty in deciphering if and how these things interact of themselves, but rarely can these effects be extrapolated to mean anything at the level of the song. For that, the band still relies on traditional swathes of big chord changes, so one is justified in wondering what purpose these abstract convulsions serve, whether they are intimately tied with the album’s theme, or if they are an end in themselves. In so much as that theme is fragmented states of consciousness, Zealotry‘s jagged, multi-faceted composition style could have a viable leg to stand on, but the latter is the rabbit hole that so many technically-skilled bands go down. To make the listener treat death metal as calculus is to deprive it of its spontaneity, and that, regardless of sincerest claims to advancing a stale genre, does not seem like a desirable outcome.

 

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Abigor – Höllenzwang: Chronicles of Perdition (2018)

On Höllenzwang, Abigor continue to dabble on the fringes of experimental dark metal while also making a conscious effort at including references to traditional black metal aesthetic. The result is an uneasy alliance and an exhausting listen, where mood and impression frequently overshadow structure. But one gets the feeling that this is a sly and willful obfuscation, and a musical microcosm of the world shifting on its axis, from the old into the new. Höllenzwang may or may not be the finished article of this vision, but it is not without a gravitas of its own, either as resurgent atavism in a post-modern context or as its purported objective declares in more blatant terms, to be hymns of devotion unto the dark adversary of the Semitic religions.

Dissonance without contrast tends to swallow a song’s identity. Abigor don’t shy away from using such as the predominant tool in their arsenal, but theirs is a polyphonic dissonance where different voices, some jarring and others of a more harmonious nature, clash together without pause. This causes very real sensory overload in the listener, not mitigated by overloud drums and underlying chord progressions resembling a vague wash of sound, but conscious effort spent on the interplay of this dark-light dichotomy in the music eventually begins to pay dividends. In all likelihood, again, this is an intentionally subliminal obscuring, for it is inconceivable that these musicians, so formidable in physical execution and grasp of harmony, can remain oblivious to such peripheral aspects of delivery and production. Höllenzwang is loaded to the gills with detail, time signatures, and different modes of articulation, some of which may seem surplus to requirement: it is easy to forgive the band this indulgence when there is even the barest insinuation of connecting melody in the background, perhaps it even points the way forward for black metal, but harder to reconcile for a more conservative mindset are extended passages of what can only be termed abstract textural experimentation.

In this, it is clear that Abigor are toying with listener expectations; they can still break into the kind of sweeping phrases synonymous with the second wave, but playing to the galleries obviously doesn’t much concern the band at this juncture. Höllenzwang carries an unquestionably composed, symphonic spirit, but it is fragmented through and through, and filtered through a lens looking outside the norm for much of the time. Perhaps the meandering musical soliloquy aspect, comprising a good chunk of the album, could be dialed down, but even that appears at one with the technical yet somehow earthy emanation that is the rest of this effort.

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Jack London’s Sea Wolf and the Luciferian spirit

Here at least
We shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy; will not drive us hence;
Here we may reign secure; and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition, though in hell:
Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.

-Paradise Lost, Milton

At the heart of Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf is a juxtaposition between the moral and the unmoral. Morality is commonly accepted as the individual’s internalized sense of right and wrong, some of which is inherited knowledge, the rest what he progressively carves out for himself over a lifetime of experience. But perhaps because we belong to the same species, just as how we expect one person’s interpretation of the color yellow to be near-identical to another’s, we have also come to expect a generic, one size fits all definition of morality. In doing so, we have not only implicitly violated the individual’s sovereignty but we have also conflated morality with ethics, the latter being little more than the rules of conduct without which society cannot reasonably function. Ethics, however, are an artificial construct, imposed from outside and devised through consensus, and therefore lie some ways distant from an individual’s core constitution when compared to morality which is, or ought to be anyway, developed organically. And yet we never lag in denouncing behavior falling outside the framework of this paradoxical morality instructed through convention by calling it immoral, when in fact the correct term in most cases would be unethical. Or, in the case of The Sea-Wolf‘s Wolf Larsen, unmoral.

The Sea-Wolf was written to be a bildungsroman, a coming of age story for its once-soft narrator Humphrey van Weyden. His extraordinary circumstances also provide London with the pretext for celebrating the eventual, to him inevitable, triumph of altruism and shared labour over dog-eat-dog Darwinism. Shipwrecked and rescued by a sealing ship off the coast of San Francisco, he is thrust from a sedentary life of high culture into unimaginably rough surroundings. The ship’s crew envies and jeers at him by turn, finding him unsuited for the predominantly physical work of sailing and detesting him for his privileged upbringing, but compounding matters for all concerned aboard is the presence of the captain, Larsen, a veritable force of nature, no less than any demigod, and treated with fear and loathing by all as such. He is van Weyden’s adversary and mental foil in this tale, their dialogues and verbal fencing fleshing out opposing personal philosophies in fine detail. Larsen is not a man to like, his deeds becoming increasingly difficult to justify as the narrative wears on, but he is a man to be reckoned with and one that all other men, reluctant as they may be to admit it, can’t help admiring in some dark corner of their primeval souls.

To Wolf Larsen, all life is chaos, into which we are upended without warning at birth as it were, but once alive, the greatest responsibility devolves upon us to continue living. Life is a lottery, never had before and never to be won again, and though you may share it with others, it is still your life alone and therefore to be treasured and preserved above all else as the great gift that it is. He likens it to “a ferment of yeast”, an inglorious pit of organisms constantly churning and striving against each other for survival on account of an elementary impulse to live. Van Weyden quizzes him whether that impulse is the soul and if so what of its claim to immortality, but to Larsen, there is no such thing as a soul; that impulse is consciousness itself, animating otherwise dead hunks of meat. As long as consciousness remains, thought remains and with thought, the lofty intellectual formulations such as the possibility of a soul and its immortality, but once consciousness and thought blink out, we go back into the slime without realizing our demise or that we ever existed in the first place.

Van Weyden makes the observation that the captain has devised his own code of right and wrong, ruled solely by what is in his direct interest, and lets no ulterior considerations deviate him from that path. In doing so, he is unfailingly committed to his conception of morality, and therefore he is as moral in his own way as the most upstanding and unimpeachable character in civilized society. Which but only begs the question whether society can function cohesively if each member adopted such an uncompromising, self-serving outlook towards life? Larsen’s situation is unique in that he plies his trade and lives his life on the open seas amidst coarse company, where he can be a law unto himself, where his brute strength aided to acute intelligence can settle nearly all contentious issues. How viable would such an attitude be among “refined” society with its layers of diplomacy and dissimulation? And will not those in society who view him as an outlier and a threat band together to destroy him the way they would to drive out a man-eater on the fringes of human settlement?

London certainly seems to think so. Larsen’s ship is almost always in a state of near-mutiny, and van Weyden himself consistently stands up to him despite his innate meek nature and eventually makes good his escape by working in tandem with a close companion. The author’s inference is clear, that man needs his fellow man to survive and thrive, that the bonds that join can beat the overbearing lash, and that pride always goes before the fall. As indomitable as Larsen seems on the outside, well-established and iron-clad though his convictions appear, there still is a deeply cut melancholy to him, an unsaid, perhaps even unadmitted, longing to rejoin the rest of the species and partake in their simple pleasures. But he knows it is too late for him and so he redoubles his commitment to his bleak philosophy. His end is pitiable and tragic for so great a figure, a gradual diminishing by degrees that bears mockingly accurate testimony to his view of life, that the essential impulse remains even as the cage of flesh around it wastes away. In all ways, he is the embodiment of the proud, rebellious Luciferian spirit, as van Weyden muses at another time in the book with Larsen resoundingly thundering in the foreground:

“He led a lost cause, and he was not afraid of God’s thunderbolts,” Wolf Larsen was saying.  “Hurled into hell, he was unbeaten.  A third of God’s angels he had led with him, and straightway he incited man to rebel against God, and gained for himself and hell the major portion of all the generations of man.  Why was he beaten out of heaven?  Because he was less brave than God? less proud? less aspiring?  No!  A thousand times no!  God was more powerful, as he said, Whom thunder hath made greater.  But Lucifer was a free spirit.  To serve was to suffocate.  He preferred suffering in freedom to all the happiness of a comfortable servility.  He did not care to serve God.  He cared to serve nothing.  He was no figure-head.  He stood on his own legs.  He was an individual.”

 

 

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