Ancient Empire – Other World (2016)

The New Wave Of True Heavy Metal (NWOTHM) rages on with California’s Ancient Empire. The movement has now lasted for far too long and with far too much sincerity to be pigeonholed with other retro-themed metal subgenres. Big chords, rousing choruses, and aesthetically pleasing guitar lines; on the surface, a fairly insipid description, but the magic of this style exists both despite and because of those attributes. Is it only something as simple as nostalgia? A yearning for a bygone era, reminiscence of an innocence lost?

Maybe there’s a little of that, but purity is the overwhelming reason why this style still holds such appeal. An abstract concept, but as much as great extreme metal, great heavy metal retains an ideological/musical homogeneity about it. A strange idea to digest, again, because of how different the means they employ for achieving their musical aspirations are; extreme metal shuns melody, heavy metal embraces it; extreme metal is often implicitly progressive, heavy metal can be progressive but at great risk of losing its spontaneity and original character; but when you’ve removed these periphera and isolated the cause and effect of that one true stirring of blood, how different really are the two forms?

Other World is this band’s second album, expertly modeled in part after Iron Maiden‘s legendary run from Powerslave onwards in the 80s. Many a band have paid obeisance at that altar but posterity will rank this album among the finest from that oeuvre. The other inspirations – and I use the term cautiously, seeing how these are veteran musicians who experienced the scene first hand – are German speed/heavy metal classics like Accept, Helloween, and early Blind Guardian. Those associations automatically imply a bevy of twin harmonies, solos and double bass rolls, all reminiscent of Pharaoh/High Spirit‘s Chris Black, all helmed by a wonderful vocalist/guitarist in Joe Liszt; setting up stall in a broad and resonant but also surprisingly youthful middle register, he occupies these songs with a rare passion; it isn’t the performance of a virtuoso, but it is virtuous all the same.

Perhaps the one quality that sets Ancient Empire apart from the pack is their talent at coloring their rhythmic progressions; heavy metal is an inherently straightforward form of music, relying chiefly upon chord shapes to introduce and develop mood and narrative. It is a credit to Ancient Empire that they can operate at about the same speeds and still maneuver song trajectory with aptitude in any one of exuberant, aggressive, or melancholic directions, and often within the same song.

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Spirit animals, spirit bands

Do you know that internet algorithm that computes your spirit animal? Silly, I know, how a world so out of touch with the earth gladly embraces the concept of totem animal from a people that prided themselves on being guardians of that earth. But be that as it may, I tend to believe there is a very real thing such as a spirit band, a band whose basic sound has become such a part of your living, feeling soul that you become incapable of harboring ill sentiment against its newer music. Maybe you understand on some unsaid level that the band is operating at a lower percentage than it used to, maybe you are even honest enough to admit to the world that, yes, your favorite band is only a pale shadow of its old self; but the thing is, given enough time, even this less-than-optimal new material begins growing on you, arouses that need to be reaffirmed in your faith. And all this not as any consciously thought out process but as a helplessness despite yourself, innocent and without guile. It’s a little like being in love; you can’t help who you fall for; flaws that were once hidden under the giddiness of new glamour may come to the fore; we duly acknowledge them and then proceed to relegate them to the background; in time, we may even come to treat them as indispensable parts of the larger personality with whom we are so taken.

A spirit band is not quite a guilty pleasure. A guilty pleasure would insinuate a degree of alienation and abashedness; it arises when all our conditioned reason suggests that we’re indulging in a cheap simulacrum of what we’ve previously enjoyed in far better form; yet like an itch on the back begging to be scratched, we reach around and give in to the moment at the risk of incurring strained intercostals.

A spirit band, however, is nothing so base as that. For a particular sound to become so positively intertwined with your emotional identity necessarily means that its creators, at some point in the past, practiced their craft with utmost integrity. Time may have chipped away at the instant arrestability of their newer output, but this post wouldn’t exist if trace elements and more of that past prowess didn’t still remain. Such a spirit band’s music carries the hoary venerability of old age; and as we cherish our elders, as we humor them their increasingly frequent inadequacies and foibles for the erstwhile wisdom they’ve bestowed on us, so we think of a spirit band with affection and good cheer. Not with knives out for thinning blood, but with a keen understanding of where we come from and to whom we owe a debt of gratitude for being who we are.

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What makes Incantation unique

[Incantation have come to be the preeminent death metal band to be borrowed from, but how much do the new adherents really have in common with the legends? Condemner guitarist P.B. contributes this analysis on the subject]

I suppose that I have to start this by admitting confusion on how Blaspherian made it into the list of “bands that sound like Incantation” — to my ears they’re not even close.  Maybe it’s because my introduction to them was with “Allegiance to the Will of Damnation”, but the combination of percussive palm-muted riffs (seriously, just listen to that first riff on “Allegiance…”!), Chris Reifert-influenced drumming, and even the solid-state distortion source (Wes Weaver favors a Boss Metal Zone as his distortion source, instead of using a boost or overdrive in front of a tube amp) makes them sound absolutely nothing like Incantation to my ears.  Honestly, I wouldn’t say they “sound like” anyone; maybe Baphomet comes closest?  They’ve very much got their own voice while sounding immediately familiar, which is, of course, a part of why they’re so loved.

As far as other bands go… well, to talk about that, we have to first go into what separates Incantation from their contemporaries.  Incantation was certainly not the only band of their time to focus on using a stream of tremolo picked melody to create riffs — Necrovore did it with aplomb on “Divus De Mortuus”, and we see it in many European death metal bands of the era (just listen to the first riff of “Drowned”!).  They’re also far from the only death metal band of the era to incorporate slower sections in their songs.  What is different, however, is their use of dynamics to create “meta-rhytmic” grooves and the more chromatic approach to the tremolo picked riffs that also features a speed-metal influenced tendency to jump huge intervals between consecutive notes — frequently over an octave.

No matter how revolutionary a band is, it has influences, and, Germany aside, speed metal was much more of a “thing” in the United States than it was in Europe; traditional heavy metal and D-beat punk were much more of “things” in Europe than they were in the United States.  Heavy metal and D-beat punk both take a traditional “stringed instrument” view of melody, where you mostly move up or down the notes of the chosen scale in order, occasionally jumping a bit to add interest.  That first riff of “Drowned” is instructive again; it starts on the second immediately moves down to the root, but its motion is mostly “upwards to the next note”, and it never jumps beyond the next note up or down in the major diminished* scale (*note that while this is technically strictly within the diminished scale, since it stays below the perfect fifth, it would be easy to interpret this riff as being in natural minor with a tritone added for color).  Meanwhile, speed metal took an approach to melody more akin to the approach of a keyboard instrument; use the open E string as a pedal point, and play the rest of the melody on the A and D strings, frequently in the next octave up.  Incantation took their cues from this approach, but opened it up even more, not always simply relying on the open string acting as a pedal point to create the possibility for large jumps, but by using either dextrous string-skips or by using pinch harmonics to negate the need to make a big move on the fretboard.

The way Incantation used dynamics to create grooves on top of their rhythms is another example of their speed metal influence, and one that’s easier to explain by feel rather than through raw analysis, so have a few drinks to loosen up, crank “Golgotha” at ear-damaging volumes (or, better still, play it on guitar if you know how), and notice how that first slow riff, the one before the “So as said/thy feeble savior/is to return” chorus makes you want to move — it’s not quite in direct relation to the beat.  The legato playing techniques they intersperse into the slow riffs — those trills and slides — naturally have a lower volume than actually picking a note, and the volume jumps and decays create a secondary rhythm overlaid on the main beat which creates a kind of slithering groove.  Contrast that with the first riff of “The Rack” or “Pilgrimage From Darkness”.  You’ll find that the latter avoids having such grooves, and the effect is entirely different.  Incantation’s slow parts are subversive and slithery; the slow parts of most European death metal bands of the era were simultaneously majestic and crushing.  

Again, one listen to Cruciamentum, Hellvetron, or Maveth will make it clear which school most modern “Incantation-like” bands are more like.

As mentioned before, every band has influences, and builds (or doesn’t, as may be the case for the hordes of derivative bands out there…) upon what previous bands have done.  When a band becomes as iconic as Incantation, what they did that was different from what came before is going to be what they’re known for, regardless of whether that’s an incomplete picture.  In the United States, at least, Incantation marks the point where death metal finalized its break from speed metal’s rhythmic sense, and, as such, the elements that are taken from speed metal are going to go somewhat ignored in the band’s legacy.  It’s telling that the band in this style that you label as playing closest to the Incantation mold — Father Befouled — is the one that claims “Altars of Madness” (which is, of course, very speed metal influenced) as a primary influence.  A new band that’s influenced by Incantation is going to come at some point in history where Incantation’s break from the palm-muted percussive aesthetics has already been made, and as such, they’re not likely to share the same speed metal influences underpinning Incantation. Furthermore, a new band in this style is coming from a world where black metal is widely known.  The importance of this cannot be understated; many of Incantation’s contributions to metal’s lexicon are very close to the contributions of Mayhem, Immortal, and Emperor.  Necros Christos (who, despite being unbelievably boring, are the band that kicked off the revival of this style) were originally more associated with the black metal scene than the death metal scene.  Many of the bands that currently play this style have a guitar tone more akin to the slicing treble of “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas” than the bassy rush of “Onward to Golgotha”; this isn’t a coincidence, but rather a clear statement of influence and intent.  Speaking for my own works, what you hear on “Omens of Perdition” is a black metal guitarist who cut his teeth on early Mayhem, Darkthrone (including “Soulside Journey”), and Emperor and had a revelation about the potential of the more violent side of American death metal after seeing Imprecation live for the first time in 2009.  I highly doubt that I’m alone in this — reunification of death and black metal has been one of the most common themes in twenty-first century metal, seen in bands ranging from Averse Sefira to Vorum (well, at least until they totally lost the plot on that last EP…), and the resurgence of the un-muted tremolo picked death metal is another expression of this, a merging of death metal’s physical violence to black metal’s spiritual side, in an attempt to create a more complete expression and vision.

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Incantation – Profane Nexus (2017)

Perhaps the most significant thing about Profane Nexus is the presence of ‘The Rites of the Locust‘. Here, Incantation take aim at the global pestilence of Islam, thus becoming one of the few established underground bands to avoid the honey trap of political correctness. Never a band for sensationalist haranguing outside of their distaste for Christendom, Incantation seem to have realized that the world today is a vastly different place from that of thirty years ago. Europe is mired in policies which pay scant heed to the tide of history; but why only Europe? even my country of birth, with its almost millennium-long record of persecution under the scimitar, contains a class only too happy to sidestep reality, instead choosing to sing paeans to Urdu and the tandoori kabab. The wolf has been welcomed to the hearth, his depredations patronized with a strange mixture of guilt, ignorance, and self-mutilating sophistry. Any awakening to come, if it comes at all, will in all likelihood have come much too late. May these charlatans’ womenfolk be the first to be made to don the niqab when that glorious day arrives.

How does Profane Nexus fare as a new Incantation album in 2017? The question is a loaded one, because of how hard it is for this band to diversify with purpose at this late date. With due fairness, they try; they have been trying ever since Primordial Domination with its shorter song forms and subtle references to Autopsy. Goreaphobia‘s Alex Bouks brought a heightened speed metal aesthetic and a very real sense of melody to Vanquish In Vengeance; these developments found even more pronounced space on Dirges of Elysium, the band’s most conscious attempt at innovation since their 90s heyday. The experiment wasn’t always consistent, but as a work in progress it could be treated on its own terms.

Profane Nexus occupies a niche between Vanquish in Vengeance and Dirges of Elysium. Bouks has departed since, but his lessons haven’t been forgotten; rather Profane Nexus integrates those techniques within its fold whilst reasserting a more trenchant identity. On either side of the tempo spectrum, this album contains some of the most extreme music the band has ever written; that is not a comment on quality, simply an observation. Incantation‘s slow parts have always verged on sludgy, Esoteric-style funeral doom and that tendency is taken to its conclusion here; on the other hand, a couple of songs in the middle bring to mind the simple-minded bludgeoning ferocity of death/grind like Embalmer. The band has ever teetered on such precipices; Profane Nexus is a culmination of those violent tendencies.

The primary complaints leveled against modern Incantation are an overt dependency on speed metal-style chugging between chords, and a general rambling shapelessness that has crept into the songwriting. The latter still manifests itself during the dedicated slow songs; however, the speed metal aspect, if one is inclined to view it as a negative, is reined in greatly. At all events, there is more than enough evidence here to suggest neither of these issues are chronic in nature; Incantation still retain the bulk of their angularity and harmonic intricacy, features that set them apart from virtually every other band plying these waters.

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Death Metal Battle Royale Round 2: Demigod’s Slumber of Sullen Eyes vs The Chasm’s Deathcult for Eternity: The Triumph

   

The first match of Round 2 pairs the death metal connoisseur’s ultimate album in Slumber of Sullen Eyes from 1992 against The Chasm‘s Deathcult for Eternity from 1998. The following list of criteria are used to evaluate them:

1. Riff Logic and Cohesion
Slumber of Sullen Eyes: An album containing some of the most sublime yet succulent interplay between note intervals, Slumber of Sullen Eyes lives inside the interstices of the song. The riff here is a fully-realized microcosm, not revealing its hand until the desired level of roundedness and resolution have been achieved. A riff is mistakenly assumed to be any free-floating phrase, but Demigod give lie to this fallacy. A riff in their hands is not only split into a call-answer aesthetic – where the first half poses a question and the second palpably responds – but it also goes on for multiple iterations, frequently with subtle harmonic displacement, till the listener’s musical senses are at first aroused and then well sated. (Points awarded: +1)

Deathcult for Eternity: The Triumph: As often as not, The Chasm don’t write riffs in the conventional sense; they compose passages which may or may not have the instant resolution one expects, but instead are always arranged with an eye towards future developments inside the song. It is an ambitious and fundamentally different approach to songwriting, more discursive and dialectical than call-answer, but it also means that every now and then a premise falls through the cracks without being duly acknowledged, and therefore has to be considered lost potential.
(Points awarded: 0)

2. Melodic Contiguity
Slumber of Sullen Eyes: Death metal’s great achievement was to break free from the tonal shackles of preceding speed metal. Demigod‘s exclusive dependence on the chromatic scale to form the stuff of their riffwork brings the entirety of musical space into play, making the band masters of their own whim and logic. And still, within this atonal architecture lies buried discipline as well as great and pensive melody, realized chiefly through the twin implements of: (1) singly-plucked, minor key excursions, used as both lead break and oblique harmony, and (2) a lingering deliberation on the contrast offered by couplet notes separated by half a step. This expert balancing of clashing musical philosophies ensures that Slumber of Sullen Eyes drips with portent and gravitas, with no jarring inconsistencies in sight.

The relevance of this criterion is to judge what the song’s contour would be like if one were to sever any given fiber from its total tapestry; and the answer in this case should be unequivocal: the songs on Slumber of Sullen Eyes are consummate, living, breathing wholes, chopping which would amount to little less than musical murder.
(Points awarded: +1)

Deathcult for Eternity: The Triumph: At their best, The Chasm make tonally-harmonically unique and consistent death metal. Melodies revolve around the natural minor scale to which foreign notes from the immediate vicinity are added for the purposes of continuity and/or tension. The Chasm center their sound around the arpeggio; arranged in inverted configuration and encompassing multiple octave spans, this device conveys a  melancholy peculiar to this band.

On Deathcult for Eternity, The Chasm write riffs that individually far surpass anything Demigod do; but as poignant and stirring as many of these motifs are – and it must be stressed that the band wrote their most war-like material here – the album still betrays an occasionally disjointed nature when it transitions from its idiosyncratic take on melody to a faster death metal by the numbers. The Chasm are influenced by German speed metal and first wave death metal in equal parts. Speed metal by nature is a music of islands, where the bridge to get from one melodic landmass to another is necessarily nondescript. First wave death metal like Possessed, Master, and Death, may have gone some way towards making the music less discrete and more phrasal, but there still is a sense of gratuitous waste about it. The Chasm on occasion drift without purpose, seemingly lost in the beauty and violence of the sounds they’ve conjured; it is a tendency which they would repair on future albums, albeit at the price of some of the urgency found here, but such is the give-and-take that all artists have to consider.
(Points awarded: 0)

3. Role of percussion
Slumber of Sullen Eyes: European death metal was not renowned for particularly innovative drumming, and Slumber of Sullen Eyes is no exception. Drums do what is needed with competence, but are predominantly restricted to mirroring the tendencies of the riff.
(Points awarded: 0)

Deathcult for Eternity: The Triumph: In some ways, the drummer in metal is bound to the riff and can only be subject to its direction. Original member Antonio Leon is provided with a wide, almost panoramic, musical canvas to embellish; he does so with taste, never overbearing but supplementing this music of emotion with deft work on the rides and controlled double bass, a textbook showcase of virile speed/death drumming.
(Points awarded: +1)

4. Progressive aspiration
Slumber of Sullen Eyes: There is nothing remotely approaching a standard verse-chorus structure on Slumber of Sullen Eyes. As time has gone by, most of the true underground has come to regard this album as the one pinnacle of progressive songwriting in the old death metal mold. Demigod righteously own the phrase “developmental variation” coined by Arnold Schoenberg; and what coincidence that Demigod subscribe to the composer’s ideas on atonality, if not in theory then at least in spirit. Slumber of Sullen Eyes is progressive in the most elegant and understated manner, but without compromising a whit of its death metal ferocity.
(Points awarded: +1)

Deathcult for Eternity: The Triumph: The Chasm approach progression from a slightly different perspective; like Demigod, they enhance a premise, but theirs is a narrative and textural progression. The small field of notes available to Demigod by necessity makes them a structurally conscious band, constantly, painstakingly, tinkering around with note relationships like one would with the beads of an ABACUS scale; but The Chasm don’t shun melody or use it only as contrasting device; they embrace it wholeheartedly and therefore can populate their music with a diverse set of characters in the manner of the best progressive rock.
(Points awarded: +1)

5. Success as an album of songs
Slumber of Sullen Eyes: The real hallmark of a great album is how it hangs together as a suite of songs. It doesn’t have to be  anything as pretentious as a “concept album”. The binding concept if any is to be found inside the music itself, and it is here that Slumber of Sullen Eyes excels as grand musical vision. Admittedly, its tonal ambiguity plays in its favor, but this is by no means a flavorless album; the more blatantly consonant parts help with identity, to be sure, but still it is no mean feat to sustain an album from start to finish with an undisturbed musical language.
(Points awarded: +1)

Deathcult for Eternity: The Triumph: The Chasm‘s unique melodic palette, along with their integrity as musicians, ensures that songs on any album retain a binding character. The inconsistencies in cohesion and transition don’t manage to damage this aspect on Deathcult for Eternity; certain themes reappear through the running length; that it is never entirely evident whether those themes are heard on the same song or at another point on the album is a telltale sign of a deeper thread at work.
(Points awarded: +1)

6. Ideological/Philosophical significance as death metal
Slumber of Sullen Eyes: A celebration of Nietzschean nihilism and the death of God (as we are shadows in this dismal mist/we shall hear the moan of our gods/cloak of darkness, the lord of all/upon this valley of utter nothingness), a paean to the anti-hero of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and a vehement assertion of self in the face of social stigma, Slumber of Sullen Eyes touches on all the themes that have fascinated death metal bands through time. That it renounces life for death should not be taken to imply an act of surrender; renunciation as Demigod see it isn’t accompanied by self-pity, but is rather brought on by a distaste for the status quo. By favoring the next life over this one, Demigod seek to correct the wrongs of the present time whilst serving due recompense to those who have made it such a den of iniquity.
(Points awarded: +1)

Deathcult for Eternity: The Triumph: Daniel Corchado’s lyrical themes have always revolved around true grit: grace and power in the wake of personal and civilizational tragedy, evinced not just through the nature of this somber music but in how the band have conducted themselves over two decades. As death metal musicians and as metalheads, The Chasm prove specimens par excellence and an ideal for the underground to embrace.
(Points awarded: +1)

7. Emotional resonance
Slumber of Sullen Eyes: It is a futile exercise to elaborate on what emotional resonance is, for it means different things to different people, but this much can be said about Slumber of Sullen Eyes: it is hugely admirable for its integrity and its intelligence, but its cold beauty seems incapable of fostering a truly personal connection with the listener.  (Points awarded: 0)

Deathcult for Eternity: The Triumph: The Chasm are far more overt in how they express; explicit melody undoubtedly makes communication easier, but The Chasm‘s use of it is anything but bawdy; though cosmic and ascetic like Slumber of Sullen Eyes, The Chasm‘s style is just a lot more human, privy to all the failings attributed to humanity but in rare moments of insight also capable of taking breathtaking flight.
(Points awarded: +1)

Final score:
Demigod’s Slumber of Sullen Eyes: 5
The Chasm’s Deathcult for Eternity: 5

Verdict: An honorable tied result between two albums that are more alike than initially apparent, using strikingly different techniques to achieve similarly expansive ambitions. I was leaning towards Slumber of Sullen Eyes despite my bias for The Chasm. The poll agrees, Demigod go through.

Current tournament bracket

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Blue Öyster Cult: The early albums

Rarely does one find dyed-in-the-wool metalheads making concessions in the direction of Blue Öyster Cult as a seminal proto-metal band. Their reluctance is understandable; beyond the radio hits (‘Don’t Fear The Reaper‘, ‘Burnin For You‘, and maybe a few songs off Spectres and Fire Of Unknown Origin), the Cult’s early catalog remains largely neglected among hardcore metal circles. And if one looks outside of those first three albums, then the band’s output becomes a little too saccharine, a little too 80s – if not without a certain delicious sense of dread – for ears reared on more caustic fare. Buck Dharma is patronized as a terrific guitar player, instead of being held as one of the most tasteful musicians in rock n roll history, the band is routinely saddled with platitudes like “the thinking man’s rock ensemble”, and there it usually ends.

But it oughtn’t be so. The self-titled debut, Tyranny And Mutation, and Secret Treaties, represent some of the most adventurous, humorous, poignant, and, yes, intense, encapsulations of rock verging on metal for the time. That two classic songs from this era have been covered by bands as pivotal as the Minutemen (‘The Red And The Black‘) and Metallica (‘Astronomy‘) in ways both frenzied and epic, as befitting the originals, should make curious minds curiouser; this was a musicians’ band, utterly unique, and far from deserving of the dinosaur rock gallery that posterity has unfortunately consigned it to.

Blue Öyster Cult history is the stuff of legend and can be read on many a dedicated website. Formed in New York as Soft White Underbelly by chemical engineering students Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser and Albert Bouchard on drums, the band line-up eventually consolidated into its most stable and well known version with the advent of Joe Bouchard on bass, Allen Lanier on keyboards, and Eric Bloom on vocals. In the background lurked manager, poet-lyricist, rock-critic and producer Sandy Pearlman, assisted duly in his acid-fueled outre musings by Richard Meltzer. From Pearlman’s fantasy writings entitled The Soft Doctrines Of Imaginos came the band’s name and many a lyrical shard scattered throughout these albums. In the pipeline were also plans to make a full-fledged trilogy based on the Imaginos concept, only one-third of which plan was ever realized, through Albert Bouchard’s demo tapes and then their eventual, “official” reworking after Bouchard’s departure by Roeser and Bloom in ’88, but more on the minutiae of that convoluted transaction at a later date.

The band’s trajectory on the first three albums charts from the bluesy, boogeying West coast psychedelia of the debut, through the spastic speed-drenched terrain of Tyranny And Mutation, finally coming to settle at the completely self-assured tempo of Secret Treaties. The persistent references to older forms of rock n roll in the chord and choral voicings may be distracting for the modern listener of heavy metal; there is a jauntiness to these songs so typical of the 60s, but that seeming “naivete” isn’t naivete at all, for it exists in an uneasy truce with the maliciousness of a quirky nature, borne out in both wordplay and actual riffcraft. Black Sabbath may have been suffocatingly dark (though not without frequent excursions into flowery, God-fearing orthodoxy), Led Zeppelin overbearingly pompous imitations of ancient bluesmen, and Deep Purple streetsmart Romeos with classical predilections, but none, save Frank Zappa, perhaps, matched the sheer playful twistedness of the Blue Öyster Cult of this time.

And it is a progressive twistedness at that. Most impressions of progressive rock from the 70s make allowances for lush, expansive, ambient soundscapes, where songs are led by the nose through a gamut of developmental variations and interactions. This is the natural and proper definition of the term “progressive”, too, but Blue Öyster Cult achieved this effect on a smaller scale, at almost-always breakneck speeds, in much the same manner as speed metal bands in the 80s; intricate, focused bursts of activity – not always within conventional metal parameters – where progression is evident more on a component-by-component level, where individual riffsets build with deliberation to a crescendo before ushering in the next big movement within the song, where narrative and musical lyricism are married in near-perfect union; these are trademarks of the first three albums, markers that most heavy metal fans can identify with, if not always in sound, then certainly in spirit.

But early Blue Öyster Cult can be enjoyed well enough without making tenuous connections to heavy metal, too. Truth be told, it is indeed hard rock captured in its purest, most thrilling essence; and what of it? It carries much the same attitude and spirit as The Stooges and roadhouse-era Motörhead, evoking a gruff biker ethos and the seedy alleyways where it thrives; under that swagger simultaneously lies concealed a consummate intelligence; wit, sarcasm, and innuendo abound, gently kissed by a higher sentimentality that would find greater space in ensuing works.

But the careful planning and more erudite story-telling of those albums, all too enjoyable in its own right, would have to wait. These first albums are fevered, with hardly a stagger in the sound spectrum, where angular phrases are caught constantly jostling with and over each other for equal representation in a schizoid dance of harmony. Shepherded by Dharma’s virtuoso guitar and the Bouchards’ bustling rhythm section, they are timeless instances of American rock craftsmanship, explosive in how they gratify yet replete with a wealth of relevant musical information.

 

 

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Music is amoral in essence

The debate over the musician’s social responsibility is moot. Music is an aesthetic phenomenon and should be judged on that ground alone. To pollute the experience with political consideration is to bring it just that much farther out of the transcendental sphere that is its rightful station. A creator may be inspired by certain causes; he may channel the reasoning behind those causes into the framework of musical expression of his choosing (metal, punk, pop, etc); but the transfer from idea to expression isn’t without a certain amount of redaction, intentional or otherwise; by the time the original impetus has found physical form in the manner of a riff, a movement, a song, it has lost much of its definition. For example, a band denounced as racist may start the composition process with clearly delineated extra-musical ideas, but the translation of those ideas into actual music necessarily erodes away at the sheer virulent detail of the original “grand” idea. How could it not? The process of actual composition is far more dependent on actual musicianship and adherence to genre norms than any political prejudice; the latter may be an inspiration in the beginning and perhaps even throughout the process of composition and arrangement, but it remains in the background, a far and away second to the musical event itself.

To overcome this inevitable erosion of the original premise, musicians supplement their music with words and images. Music remains open to interpretation, but words are a rigid formulation of the first principle that has become obscured over the process of composition. They allow musicians to convey to the listener that which may not be self-evident in the music as finished article. In fact, a case can be made that words are an afterthought and an embellishment, shoehorned on to the music yet entirely separate from it, in order to ease the listener’s navigation; this indeed is the case for the many metal bands where the singer is not necessarily an integral part of the songwriting, and comes into his own only to lay down a lyric and sing it out.

The ancients regarded music as the most ineffable and hallowed of art forms, the one most in touch with the harmony in nature, for precisely these reasons. Modern popular music riddled with words – political or apolitical – is stripped of this vital quality and therefore downgrades its lofty heritage to a strangely commingled one, in line with more “blatant” modes of expression like prose, poetry, painting, and sculpture. In the context of our music and the politically-vitiated climate it finds itself in, this makes the desire for an absolute metal even more pressing, a desire which will soon be realized with full effect by The Chasm. But broadly speaking, listeners ought to acknowledge to themselves that if they truly admire a piece of music, it is for its virtues as a piece of music alone and not for any external associations that may be made, through words and images, with its creators. They may choose to not support the musicians financially because they have somehow managed to trace the music back to its first principles, principles which they find sufficiently repellent to their personal beliefs, but neither should they lose sight of the large leap of regression, from the abstract now (music) to the actual then (idea), that they have just made.

It is cliche to say that music should possess and be played with conviction, but how many of us realize that this supposed conviction is a perfectly amoral, colorless quantity? Causes, both “good” and “bad”, can be invested with the same amount of conviction; fine, we can say so and so cause is good, and such and such, bad, based chiefly on the impact they have on society as a stable, functioning organism, but what testing framework are we to devise to call one expression of that same underlying conviction legitimate and another dangerous?

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Undergrind 2017 featuring Vader (September 24, Vapour Pub, Bangalore)

While every other purportedly metal concert in the country has been overrun by effete poseurs in sunglasses and patch-infested evening denim-wear, sold out by a whorish desire to appeal to the widest possible audience in chase of greater ROI, and diluted with strict rules of conduct more becoming of a Jagjit Singh ghazal evening than an underground metal show, the Undergrind remains – and has remained for more than ten years – the only gig in town worthy of the epithet “underground”. Year 2017 sees Polish death metal institution Vader descend on Vapour Pub, Bangalore City, a more intimate setting which should be conducive to the band’s crushing and muscular brand of death metal.

The Undergrind series of concerts have provided the only dedicated channel for grindcore, goregrind, and power violence in the country. Supporting Vader this year will be goregrind band Anorectal Ulceration (reviewed here), grind/mince project Nauseate, spazz-grind loons Grossty, and power-violence band xRepeatx. Audiences can expect dense cloudbursts of noise and grind, next to no melody, and limbs flying about, so if you’re one of that rare breed bringing your precious girlfriend to the gig dressed to the nines in her ball gown for a night out on the town, you’d do well to have her positioned out of harm’s way. It isn’t chauvinism, it is common fucking sense. Learn it.

Undergrind 2017 is a joint collaboration between Infinite Dreams Entertainment (of Bangalore Open Air fame) and Undergrind Productions.

Posted in Death Metal, goregrind, Grindcore, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Of Deceased and Robert Frost

“I told her to cherish the spirit
 She just sat and cried at the grave”

– Deceased, A Very Familiar Stranger

Who doesn’t love a good ghost story? Many things change as we grow older and colored by the vagaries of life; suspension of disbelief becomes increasingly harder to achieve, much like how being scandalized by extreme metal becomes a thing of wistful reminiscences. I remember reading Jay Anson’s Amityville Horror from my father’s paperback stack as a seven-year old; I was not allowed to, so I would skulk in bed with the book concealed behind an innocuous comic. There was a particular scene where the red eyes of a pig in the dark stare in through the window at one of the children. The bed on which I read the book was itself located by the window sill, behind which loomed a large banyan tree; at that fanciful age, I couldn’t help turning around every other minute to see if there were malevolent pig eyes staring intently at me, too.

But though we may lose that delicious youthful naivete with time, we compensate for it by consciously looking for craftsmanship and sincerity instead. A good ghost story is eternal because it jolts us out of the mundane and into the realm of the numinous, if only for a while. It confronts us with our species’ most primal fears, the fear of the dark and of the unknown, and to be reacquainted with that raw sentiment for even the most fleeting of moments in this mechanized and brightly-lit age is a feeling that deserves to be preserved and savored for all its worth.

W.B. Yeats once said, “The hour of the waning of love has beset us, and weary and worn are our sad souls now“. Robert Frost’s The Witch Of Coos follows in much the same spirit; it is a witty but ultimately melancholic poetry on the alienating complacency that haunts so many domestic lives. It is a ghost story at heart, heavy with metaphor, relayed through the voices of a witch and her son, and recorded for posterity by the author. On a winter night some forty years prior, while her husband sleeps in the draughty bedroom upstairs, the witch idles away in the kitchen, presumably to escape his amorous attentions. Suddenly, she hears a rustling, dragging noise coming from the cellar. She knows them to be the bones, buried bones behind whom lies a secret long buried, too.

They hoist themselves up to the landing behind the cellar door. Unable to resist herself, she throws the door open and sees the skeleton, “so much like a chandelier”, flames licking out from its sockets. It tries to grope her, “much like the way he did in life once”, but she escapes its grasp and runs up to her husband. Terrified, they lie waiting in bed, as the bones pull themselves up through the kitchen and on to the stairwell leading up to the bedroom. Gathering their wits, somehow, they conspire to trap it in the attic, and nail the door shut with the bed’s headrest; there the bones remain to this day, and not infrequent is the occasion when you can still hear them knocking against the attic door, befuddled at their incarceration.

Deceased‘s ‘A Very Familiar Stranger‘ off their album Supernatural Addiction is one of my very favorite metal songs, a perfect molotov cocktail of fun, aggression, and surprising poignancy. If I remember correctly, the story is based off an old episode of The Twilight Zone; it is a relatively straightforward hitchhiker ghost story, and doesn’t carry the subtext of Frost’s poem, but that doesn’t make it any less gut-wrenching, especially when in the throes of some of the most heartfelt riffs and solos the band has ever written. People like us loathe the middle ground; if you’re capable of one extreme, then it is but natural for you to be susceptible to the other, too, else you would be living an imbalanced life. This applies to everything we do, the way in which we love and the way in which he hate. Many are the times I have not been able to contain the rapid palpitation of my heart when the arpeggiated bridge to the solo begins; many are the times when I have not been able to hold back a gently-shed wetness at the corner of my eyes, either, when the final bend in that solo is sustained for just that extra second longer. It is a curious feeling and a priceless moment, that leaves you spent but also with the strongest of reaffirmation. It is why we listen to this music, after all.

Posted in Death Metal, Thoughts | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

A thought on bands using Incantation and Immolation as template

Frequent commenter neutronhammer left the following on a Phrenelith review:

I want to like this, but there is something about this album that is a bit off.
Quite a few jarring, decontextualized start-stops. Songs which resemble a pastiche of riffs and simply lacking in direction and drama. There is a lot of sameness but without any real memorability unlike the best works of incantation and immolation.

Leaving aside the merits-demerits of Desolate Endscape as a piece of music, this is an opinion that holds for much of death metal today. It also raises a question as to why so many bands rush headlong into the niche carved out by the two giants. Immolation and Incantation, between them, are responsible for at least a solid 20% of the genetic stuff of death metal, being some of the first instances of the genre isolating itself from preceding speed/thrash/punk, so it is but natural for bands to identify their surface aesthetic with what death metal is supposed to be. A long time ago when I would toy around with making death metal songs of my own, Incantation-Immolation constituted the overwhelming portion of ideas manifested; in terms of phrasing, note choices, and exclamatory punctuation, these two bands are the veritable Bible for the person interested in writing dark, imposing death metal.

In some ways, this is also so because it is just easier to sound like Incantation and Immolation (and Incantation far more more than Immolation). The kind of dissonant, atonal framework within which these bands work makes the song construction process that much more amenable to even the relative novice. Of course, this assertion is confined only to an approximation of either band’s sound; few if any modern bands have managed to approach the compositional heft of their prime work. But compare the sheer numbers of bands in the Incantation camp with, say, those that sound like Morbid Angel on Blessed Are The Sick or Atrocity on Hallucinations/Longing For Death or Gorguts on Erosion Of Sanity or Deceased on Luck Of The Corpse, and one can’t help but be convinced of this as something of a truism.

Incantoclone bands are often disparaged and rightfully so, but the reasonable part of my mind says that few bands set out with delusions of grandeur while pursuing such a harsh form of music, at least not in the initial stages. The death metal fan should have nothing innately against a band sounding like Incantation or Immolation if the song writing shows some element of craft and consideration; in fact, sounding overtly like a Demilich, or any of the above mentioned classics, reeks far more of pathetic servility to me. Here’s the thing about individuality; Incantation and Immolation were certainly fiercely idiosyncratic in their time, and it was only their complete command over the budding musical lexicon germane to death metal in the abstract that has made them so appealing to ensuing generations. But a band like Demilich is far too unique to base an entire genre musicology around; in isolation, brilliant, but dissected and adopted by every band around? Not quite as much.

The desire for novelty or originality is entirely understandable, especially as the genre proceeds into middle age and beyond but if one is to think of death metal as a medium of communication and, by relation, a way of life, that has to persist into the distant future, then it requires a sustainable language, too; Incantation and Immolation‘s great service has been, first, to realize the contours of death metal as a musical-philosophical form with greater clarity, and then, in the process, to bless it with just the language needed for its dialectic.

 

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