Morbid Angel – Kingdoms Disdained (2017)

Kingdoms Disdained is the harshest, most unmusical album Morbid Angel have ever done. For those inclined towards construing that description as somewhat interesting, Kingdoms Disdained also isn’t very good. Where once Morbid Angel soared with imagination, today they plod and toil over an unremarkable patch of fallow earth; the ill-advised experimentation of the last album is replaced with the groove from F, G, and H, but with not a fraction of the writing and memorability so painfully salvaged from even those works. Faster sections recall the tremolo-picked, linear curves of Covenant, but what would even that album have been without the finely articulated swamps of violence that engulfed those passages?

Whether Morbid Angel have chanced upon an unholy confluence of brown notes is for other minds to discern, but the only impression to be gathered from Kingdoms Disdained is just how unpleasant it is to hear. Where is the seductive, serpentine, liquid grace that one came to reasonably expect from the rhythm guitar on even the most underwhelming of Morbid Angel albums? How can a self-respecting metal head and longtime Morbid Angel fan abide by something as banally obvious as ‘The Pillars Are Crumbling‘? Was the disavowal of the last album a farce so that the band could revisit Destructos Vs Earth: The Sequel (‘Declaring New Law‘) on a gullible audience?

What a fucking chore to sit through. Remember the classic, chorded intro to ‘Day Of Suffering‘? Imagine that being played again and again at a reduced pitch, over an intervallic-space tighter than an asshole; that is the absolute entirety of the rhythm guitar movement on this album. With the higher scalar frequencies all but forsaken, the concept of riff-identity becomes a non-starter; the drums stay triggered as tradition dictates; Azagthoth solos like a wisp of his former self, disembodied, dissociated, and ultimately unconcerned with goings-on around him. Steve Tucker, bless him, rails and rages about the Elder Gods descending and treating their puny underlings with contempt; the tragicomic irony to be found here is that the Elder Gods themselves have not so much as descended but been evicted, fucking ejected wholesale from their erstwhile supernal essences. They dwell among us now and so are henceforth tainted.

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Pagan Altar – The Room of Shadows (2017)

It seems like a thousand years
Since I let you go
In a world so full of greed I didn’t know
But now I’m on death’s door we’ll be together
And I’ll be with you then and after forever

– Pagan Altar, After Forever

The Room of Shadows brings one of the most remarkable underdog stories in heavy metal to a satisfying end. Released two years after singer Terry Jones’ passing, this album, like all preceding music from this band, is sure to appeal to lovers of finely-crafted guitar heavy rock and old metal. The beauty of Pagan Altar is not to be found in analysis but rather in letting this music of conventionally tasteful increments and embellishments wash over you like the first fumes of a newly opened bottle of bourbon. And if perchance you, dear reader, are open to that notion of guileless vulnerability, Pagan Altar will be your guide on journeys of rare mystery and magic.

That vulnerability I speak of is a two-directional dynamic between both artist and audience. A discussion I often have with a friend is how newer retro metal bands have their hearts in the right place and nail down old sounds with some conviction; and yet, for all that, when was the last time you ever heard a newer band break into the kind of dark ballad which was an unmissable part of the elder generation’s repertoire? The point here isn’t to debate the virtues or lack thereof of the ballad in metal, but rather to remark upon how unprepossessed older bands were of wearing their hearts on their sleeves, of revealing some element of their humanity.

Pagan Altar were of course one of those hoary bands, who only got a new lease on life in the twilight of their careers; and still, through that long stretch of inactivity and disillusion, they kept alive some flicker of that vulnerability, drastically changed though the world around them may have become. It is a quality not lost on the acute connoisseur of metal; he appreciates it and fiercely protects it for the most precious of treasures that it is. What is it that he fights the world for, what is it on account of which his conscience continues to throb like some restless cyst? Truth, what else? Ugly truth, inconvenient truth, the beautiful truth. Pagan Altar spoke it and we kindle it hereafter.

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The Chasm – A Conscious Creation From The Isolated Domain: Phase I (2017)

The most pertinent conjecture in the lead-up to this fully instrumental The Chasm album was how freedom from the vocal straitjacket would affect songwriting. Surely, not having to make provision for vocal spots would, or ought to, give songs more room to breathe and to evolve in their own time? While all metal is constrained by a somewhat rigid adherence to repeating bars and measures, and though death metal in particular goes some distance in escaping the verse-chorus norms dictated by vocal considerations, it remained to be seen what an underground metal album written without the “distraction” of a singer’s ego would sound like.

In many ways, The Chasm are the ideal band to attempt this venture because of how panoramic and wide-canvased their sound is. Impressionistically and structurally, by necessity even of meeting their lofty cosmic themes, this music occupies the higher musical registers; unafraid of treating solemn, minor key melody as the core stylistic device, The Chasm play riffs in chiefly two flavors: in a syncopated, speed metal manner, and as twin guitar harmony. Regular interplay between these two attributes and the choice in note and phrasing so peculiar unto this band make this album full of detail for the listener. But is all of it relevant?

An opinion I’ve heard voiced is that the band have gone overboard in terms of transitions and general textural density. It is a fair criticism; this album misses the focused development of earlier works and in particular the binding, bookending memorability of Farseeing The Paranormal Abysm. It raises an interesting question, too: does metal then actually need vocals as a form of anchoring force, without which even the best intentions are liable to lose themselves in a dance of excess? Was the intention behind the instrumental nature of this album simply to be rid of an encumbrance, or was writing itself to be altered, at least as visualized in the mind?

On present evidence, the writing has indeed changed, but not as longtime fans would’ve hoped. Far worse, however, is that while instantly identifiable as The Chasm, A Conscious Creation From The Isolated Domain carries little of the abstract, mystical air that have made this band’s music a thing of almost sacred virtue in the underground; redoubtable of integrity and ideal though The Chasm remain, this will still be acknowledged as the band’s most tired-sounding album.

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Pending resolutions

Aside from a musician’s technical-theoretical knowledge, the notes he chooses to play also reveal information about his motives and general mental character. Music of a populist nature opts for more instantaneously gratifying note choices; meaning any micro-movement, be it a lick, a phrase, or a riff, will settle into a resolution or something resembling thereof as soon as possible. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the artist has lesser goals in mind; often, an easy resolution is the only means amenable to conveying a message, usually relayed through a vocal medium, and that is a perfectly honorable ideal of itself, too. But even in that is a subtle takeaway: the message assumes responsibility and ownership over the music; in other words, the artist, albeit unconsciously perhaps, believes his music to not be potent enough to be the sole and overwhelming narrator in the arrangement. It has to be fattened on a diet of overt suggestion to make itself known to the audience.

Complex music, however, on inspection almost always reveals a deliberate putting off of convenient note resolution. Think about it in the musical abstract; would it be easier to create a progressive narrative by neatly wrapping up each individual section and beginning anew at every such point of closure? Or would it make more sense to leave that resolution pending, perhaps by circling back to the general vicinity of the root note, hinting at something a little divergent, a little differently fleshed out in the near future? The first would lead to severances in the musical fabric, making the song a collection of discrete moments; metal, of course, is replete with incidences of such ruptures which if anything end up adding to the memorability and spontaneity of the song. While that is well and good, it shouldn’t be forgotten that that memorability in this case is owed to the melodic prowess of the individual riff played during that rupture, and not to the narrative “wholeness” of the song. The first moments of an out-of-nowhere fresh idea still jar the sensibility; it is only subsequent conditioning that realigns us with the song, until it is time to come out of the breach, and back into the main body of the arrangement, which is when the disconnect makes itself felt all over again.

But the bootstrapping style of songwriting – where “riffends” are not really so much ends as augurs – is necessarily predicated upon a wider field of vision, one that stretches beyond a gratuitous immersion in the moment. In the artist it reveals a perpetual search, a seeker’s odyssey of sorts; his goals aren’t delineated at the outset; instead they evolve with him over the course of the arrangement, not in a haphazard, impromptu manner, but as contingent on a living, breathing chain of cause and effect. By extrapolation, this style of songwriting also imitates life; technology continuously strains to provide us answers to experiences we’ve never had; Google Assistant detects the song and artist playing in the background, but is this any substitute for actually having gone through the paces yourself? Definitive answers to the questions of life may not exist but the only true coin remains living life itself.

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Cannibal Corpse – Red Before Black (2017)

For all the gainsaying that Cannibal Corpse have been liable to over the years – and justifiably so, too – one can never deny that they remain the only band from their peerage to have stayed consistent to their original vision. That initial impetus may have been lost and regained and lost again, but despite their unbelievable success, the band still shreds as furiously as ever, still goes on about chainsaws and serial killers with tongue-in-cheek glee, and still puts on a live show as intense as any available. Those bemused at their longevity need only take heed of these facts; for better or worse, Cannibal Corpse are the global face of death metal, but all things considered, who would you realistically, knowing the ways of the marketplace and the collective mind, have take their place?

All Cannibal Corpse music since George Fisher took over vocal duties can be broadly classified into three tropes: (1) rapid-fire hammer-ons and pull-offs that act analogous to the low E chug of speed metal, serving as rafts to get from one point to another, (2) a breakdown technique that comes in two flavors, one presided by a happily punkish beat to which a friend once broke into an impromptu garbha jig when the band performed here (garbha being the effete danceform in vogue in the Western part of India during the festival of Navratri), the other being a more standard alternate-picked thrash maneuver, and (3) Fisher, himself, with a style of vocal delivery lacking in nuance or sense of placement. Not infrequently do guitar lines reduce to plain-vanilla, open string picking to let him get his breathless words in. A percussive and rhythmic vocalist, yes, but certainly not a musical one.

All three attributes are in safe attendance on Red Before Black. Admittedly, the band is far distanced from the tangibly verse-chorus forms of the Chris Barnes era; while certain patterns make themselves repeatedly felt, and notwithstanding the inclusion of cheesy single ‘Code of the Slashers‘, there is a certain progression to these songs. Riffs are not static, and the band attempts some novel things with dissonance and black metal phrasings (‘Shedding of Human Skin‘) but as always with Cannibal Corpse that is not the chief point of contention; the dissent arises over whether those riffs mean anything at an individual level or in the context of the song. One can only judge a band on what they purport to do and Cannibal Corpse have been nothing if not unabashed about their one-note agenda; while that is admirable and has its queer, gratuitous appeal, Red Before Black is grievously short on lateral motion, meaning the band never truly emerges out of its comfort zone, of tempos and melodic voicings. As a result, to an audience exposed to the wide expanse of classic death metal, this album will be emotionally lacking and dead on arrival.

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Cadaveric Incubator – Sermons of the Devouring Dead (2017)

I retain more than a passing affinity for early Cannibal Corpse and goregrind at large; make of that as you will, but Finland’s Cadaveric Incubator proudly revive the diametric opposite of today’s self-serious and frankly ridiculous war metal; meaning, at its most frenzied, Sermons of the Devouring Dead grinds like a motherfucker, but not without a sense of structure and mood. Melody is never as overt as on, say, Lymphatic Phlegm‘s classic Pathogenesis Infest Phlegmsepsia, but, like clockwork, through cloudbursts of low-end assault emerges a lead or a harmony to lend humanity, psychotic as it may be, to this ruckus. The term may have been hijacked for moralistic purposes, but for the sake of sanity, for the sake of avoiding disillusion, “humanity” remains better thought of as a colorless and odorless quantity, as encapsulation rather than exaltation of what it means to be human.

In all ways, this album harks back to developments that occurred in this niche until the turn of the millennium; political incorrectness may not be its calling card, but isn’t it a sad indictment of what the metal underground has become that one even thinks of using political incorrectness as a parameter for judging a band’s sincerity and extremeness? It wasn’t always like this; bands were evaluated on whatever they evoked in the abstract, in the there and then, and that was usually the end of it. Were all of us simply insensitive jerks fetishizing of raping our female friends in the ass?

I don’t think so, and I very much suspect Cadaveric Incubator belong to the same school, of not giving a fuck nor assuming responsibility for an entire milieu’s conscience-farming. Prepare a bill containing them, Embalmer, and Cardiac Arrest, and I can virtually guarantee them attracting for the most part only the most dyed-in-the-wool and disenchanted of metal listeners; not through any great claim to narrative prowess or innovation but by sheer dint of a sonic force and aggression unfashionable to the herd mind because it has nothing of the extraneous about it.

Like the most memorable grindcore, Cadaveric Incubator write songs with distinctive bookends. In between lies furious activity; short-length riffs arranged in iterative formation which in toto add up to something a little more than Scum but a little less than Harmony Corruption. In other words, like the Nasum demos, Cadaveric Incubator straddle the breadth of an early death/grind underground, influenced equally by Cannibal Corpse and Death, by Earache’s brutality, and by altogether more extreme references in European goregrind like Xysma, Regurgitate, and Haemorrhage.

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Blasphemer – Blasphemer (2017)

Following in the wake of Dr. Shrinker‘s ode to riff-dense old school death metal, Blasphemer serve yet another timely reminder that things morbid can and should arise from purest metal principles and not misplaced faith in theatrics and gratuitous violence. Death metal has moved progressively away from its roots in speed metal; accordingly the role of the spastic wrist in death metal riff-writing has grown restricted. This is not intended to devolve into a discussion on the pros and cons of speed metal as a style, but to illustrate a simple point; old death metal thrived in equal parts between a tremolo-picking technique which freed the song from rhythmic shackles, AND an intense syncopation between right and left hands, in lock step with that same rhythm section.

Over time, the first of these techniques has come to dominate death metal song-writing; the lessons of Slayer and descendants like Deicide and Sinister have been largely forgotten by younger bands, and so it falls to veterans like Blasphemer to keep the flame burning: death metal is not punk, it is a fast, switchback form of music where progression is achieved through the idea of the riff-as-virus, twisting, mutating, infecting all that surrounds it. By happenstance, this style of songwriting is also the reason why counterpoint is pariah to true death metal and far more agreeable with the free flowing, relatively stable melodies of black metal. Death metal is intensely granulated, with a multitude of notes framed against a general backdrop of atonality; conventional counterpoint would be surplus to need and aim in such a setting.

Along with an intense awareness of such things, this Blasphemer album also carries a fine neoclassical flair after the manner of Necrophobic and Luciferion. The result is a richly varied album that occupies a pocket of existence more concerned with nailing a specific aesthetic, ideology, and attitude, than losing itself in rudderless delusions of innovation.


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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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