Nocturnal Graves – Titan (2018)

Nocturnal Graves‘ move to Season Of Mist and their subsequent change of style to a more sinister and restrained blackened death might make many cautious. A scroll down the label’s current roster reveals genre epithets like “post”, “sludge”, “progressive”, and “grindcore”; not exactly the most reassuring of havens for a band that made a name for themselves previously at those bastions of bestiality and a good time, Nuclear War Now! and Hell’s Headbangers. Even past worthies like Gorguts, Morbid Angel, and Destroyer 666 didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory after relocating here, so what chances that Nocturnal Graves could beat the odds and make this change for the better?

Opener ‘Resistance‘, palpably intended to be the showpiece of the band’s new approach, also inadvertently demonstrates the flaws that it can be prone to. Two notes separated by half a step are alternately and descendingly picked in drawn out manner – as opposed to a band like Immolation bending a note up or down the same interval in their storied outros – to suggest portent, but the song then develops independently of this theme until it is picked up again as an afterthought and as a bookend and an epilogue. The riffsets in between aren’t parts of an organic whole either but instead are self-contained, living and dying in the time that they exist, imparting no energy to the next part. To make matters even more inaccessible, the serrated, up-down nature of notes from which these riffsets are composed leaves the song without any hint of a naturally building crescendo or resolution.

Somewhat improbably, however, the band then course-corrects, primarily by reverting to type; a more ravaging, up-tempo breed of black/death, a healthy amount of groove, and the atmospheric lead guitar contributions of Shrapnel, formerly of Destroyer 666, all help to make the remainder of the album a little more tight-knit. Willfully, Nocturnal Graves rein in variation for the sake of variation, in favor of the phrasal-cyclical development of Morbid Angel and Angelcorpse and the utility of the lead guitar as a mood-setting device. The result eschews linear narrative for the form of a serpent swallowing its own tail, but unlike the clunky attempts at closure heard on the first song, there is a veritable loop-like logic to the music; Titan can now be enjoyed on its own terms, in the tonally restricted space that it exists, perhaps as a more varied cousin of Diocletian‘s Gesundrian.

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Morgengrau – Blood Oracle (2018)

Morgengrau – Blood Oracle

Morgengrau play a scene-setting brand of death metal on Blood Oracle; here premises are introduced, developed, and concluded with logic and visceral intent. Debut Extrinsic Pathway was held back by frequent recourse to speed metal technique and populist maneuvers, but Blood Oracle, whilst not entirely free of those charges, boasts a far more composed and seething attitude. The pair of these albums can prove a fine case study in why death metal just had to part ways in no uncertain manner with speed metal in order to realize its progressive aspirations. The chug in its very essence is static and filler, and serves no purpose in furthering the narrative. By tempering that propensity to a large degree on Blood Oracle, Morgengrau have opened up the whole of the musical space available to them; they are now impelled, consciously or otherwise, to impregnate it with context, subtext, and overall continuity.

Morgengrau‘s writing not being uniformly atonal allows them to embed passages with punctuations verging on the triumphant lickcraft and power chord shapes of heavy metal. Even otherwise, core note choice maintains a certain tenuous, translucent link with more conventional ideas of melody. This induces a bleed-over effect in the music, where straight forward death metal can reside without any cognitive dissonance alongside the faintest sliver of brightness. Because of their malleable note palette, Morgengrau can switch between “musical colors” with a dexterity not accessible to many bands.

Morgengrau‘s most significant achievement on Blood Oracle is to align themselves with the dwindling arts of the slow burn and the grand reveal. Much underground extreme metal has ceased to be song-oriented and has instead opted for an ambiguous impressionism dissembling itself through gratuitous violence. Memorability and death metal are no longer regarded compatible bedfellows, but which old death metal album of note was entirely without its memorable moments? Blood Oracle‘s unstated intention is to recapture some element of the genre’s traditional concern for posterity by presenting songs that stick without compromising integrity or intelligence.

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Pseudogod – Deathwomb Catechesis (2012)

[Condemner main songwriter Paul Bacque has an alternate take on Pseudogod’s notorious debut full length ‘Deathwomb Catechesis’]

There’s a certain class of album that has to appear simplistic and off the cuff, even if it really isn’t, in order to fulfill its artistic goals. Dethrone the Son of God is a prime example of this — you’ll never see it talked about as a particularly technical album, although if you try to transcribe its guitar or drum parts, you’ll see it was certainly not played by slouches.  At a compositional level, Pseudogod’s Deathwomb Catachesis is another example of this — incorporating the best aspect of “war metal”, its fervent masculinity, required Pseudogod to use an “extreme” production, drenched in reverb and with the mid-range of the guitar heavily scooped, but underneath this obscuring layer is an album tied surprisingly tightly to ‘80s extreme metal fundamentals in riff structuring and melody, with a striking resemblance in particular to Under the Sign of the Black Mark, beaten into ambient effect with percussive techniques borrowed from Beherit and Demoncy.

The central riffing technique here, borrowed from Bathory, is the usage of short progressions as fragments to create sub-structures within a riff  — with three short progressions A, B, and C, you’d end up with a riff structured like AAABCC, as opposed to the entire riff being a single linear melody or a melody with two resolutions reflected against each other as is more common in metal.  The strength of this composition technique is in the ability to re-use these progressions to create unity between disparate riffs (for a simple example, think of the final higher-pitched descending pair of gallops in the verse riff of Bathory’s Massacre getting re-used in the chorus, fusing the two musical ideas together as parts of a whole), and it’s a strength that Pseudogod expands upon by using modulations when progressions are re-introduced into new riffs, making more dramatic forward motion natural and logical.  Percussion, again echoing Bathory on Under the Sign of the Black Mark, remains linear and straight-ahead even when when the riffs beneath take on galloping or swinging slide-power-chord rhythms, and frequently acts to direct dynamics, changing the intensity of the beat even when no rhythmic change happens in the riff beneath, bringing another dimension to the compositions. Vocals are the typical Pillard-inspired roar, mainly a textural accompaniment to the proceedings.

The question that will always surround this release is “why obscure the ‘80s backbone beneath the layers of scooped guitar tone, reverb, and linear vocal and percussive rhythms?”  The answer lies in metal’s dual nature as a Dionysian art with Apollonian aims. Metal is Dionysian in that its methodology is the same as Dionysian rituals — overwhelm the senses such that the illusion of the self vanishes — but the aim of this isn’t a hippie-rock style “be happy and prosper!” ethos, but a masculine, warlike, and severe ethos that seeks to pit the self against the trials of privation and death to seek the form behind matter, the spirit beyond the dust of a creator “god”.  It is in unifying these three strains, physical, warlike, spiritual, that Pseudogod excels — first one is immediately overwhelmed by the clattering wall of sound, then roused by the warlike march-beats, but once one has allowed themselves to be submerged into these layers to see what lies within, they find an album that sings with the same structural and melodic language that heavy metal always has, with a spirit and will to see past all illusions.

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Is metal unique to a specific culture?

One of the chief thrusts of Oswald Spengler’s magisterial Decline Of The West is that all cultures are unique entities unto themselves, representative of the equally unique, racial constitution of the individuals comprising those cultures. This uniqueness is seen in all endeavors undertaken by members of that parent culture, across arts, architecture, philosophy, mathematics, and even politics. To the man belonging to a different culture with its own signs and signifiers, the true potency of a foreign culture remains closed at a fundamental level. He might come to recognize and appreciate its outer aspect, but he can never replicate the soul consciousness and putative chain of cause and effect that led to the founding and flowering of the original culture.

One can see how Spengler’s idea can be considered dangerous in a world operating on the currency of multiculturalism. But Spengler, despite his obvious bias for Western man’s “vision and perpetual quest for the infinite”, as opposed to, say, the ancient Hellene’s lack of it or the classical Indian’s retiring introspection, wasn’t in favor of creating cultural hierarchies. Rather, he advocated approaching all cultures in a spirit of understanding, treating them on their own terms, and refraining as much as possible from a judgement of the alien through superimposition of that which is only personally known. The latter, for instance, is evident in much Western scholarship on the Orient, where it is not uncommon to see Freudian psychosexual theory crudely grafted onto ancient forms of worship essentially sequestered from Western models of comprehension and interpretation.

I have often heard it expressed that heavy metal is Western music, one of the last sincere groans emanating from the crumbling edifice that is late order Western civilization or, more accurately and less euphemistically, a white man’s music. But is it even possible to assign proprietorship of heavy metal to a single culture in a time when cross-pollination of influences has become the norm? After all, the genre’s history is replete with musicians of diverse colors and cultural backgrounds. Heavy metal does not exist, relatively speaking, in an artistically isolated and culturally, politically, and religiously homogeneous climate like the baroque music or gothic architecture of medieval-late Renaissance Europe; for better or worse, it has come to fruition in a time when strange people and stranger traditions are in our faces more than ever before. How can one then definitely say which cultural group is heavy metal’s sole owner and steward?

The only forms of heavy metal worthy of the name and worth discussing are traditional heavy metal, black metal, and death metal. Ethnic strains that incorporate native sounds are only building atop a pre-existing structure and therefore are mostly cosmetic. But even restricting the discussion to just these three sub-genres forces us to consider several fringe contributing styles like Western classical at large, progressive rock, punk, blues, and jazz. Each of these styles has been dominated, at least during the time of their definitive canons, by either (a) a certain demographic (Western Classical, progressive rock by “Northerners”, blues and jazz by African-Americans), or (b) a certain state of social-political-cultural conditions (as in the case of punk which came about on either side of the Atlantic as reaction to the bloat of progressive rock, or a disenfranchised youth rebelling against an economy in free fall and the aggressive capitalism pursued in its wake by Thatcherite Great Britain).

This melting pot of influences should come as no surprise; no modern artform can be expected to evolve in a cocoon of its own weaving. For it to be vital and relevant, it has to be reactionary in the context of the milieu that it occupies. As surface markers of the foundation on which heavy metal is built go, traditional heavy metal retains the format of popular music, but elongates the narrative and sharpens the definition of the individual motif or riff. The more melodic variant of black metal is greatly influenced by the diatonic scale of Western classical music, whereas abrasive death metal and minimalist black metal share much in common, simultaneously or by turns, with the ferocity of hardcore punk, the classicist ambition and developmental variation of progressive rock, and the quasi-deconstructionism of off-time, atonal jazz and other avant-garde music.

But we do metal as philosophy and ideology and even as just music disservice by simply reducing it to its constituent elements. What is the grand narrative of heavy metal, what is its overarching theme? To me, the greatest heavy metal has always signified the notion of large orders of magnitude. In its different aspects, from the comically grandiose to the intellectually questing, from its celebration of beauty to its apotheosis of the darker currents of human life, from its reverence for the distant past to its fascination with mythology standing outside of phenomenal time, great heavy metal is exploratory in spirit. No other contemporary music focuses as intensely, as consistently, and as diversely on freeing man from his mental trammels. The theme of metal is motion itself, in terms of the movement which we refer to while describing a piece of music, but also as that eternal roving and striving that makes life worth living.

To those familiar with Spengler’s exhaustive analyses of Western culture versus that with which it is most popularly, and mistakenly, compared i.e. that of the Greeks, with their obsession with all things unitary and parochial, the above would appear to be telltale signs of heavy metal’s true cultural provenance. Without question, a vast majority of bands crucial to the music’s origins and subsequent development have originated in bastions of Western culture and have accordingly shaped heavy metal in the graded traditions of their lands. That heavy metal has come of age in a time when there is far greater freedom of physical and intellectual movement has only meant that it has assimilated with an organic sincerity certain peripheral influences into its overall scope. But at its indivisible philosophical core, heavy metal remains a form of Western expression.

As a brown man of Indian descent owing no cultural allegiance to any of these genres, but sharing the same thrill as other hessians in hearing and living metal, I feel no sense of loss at this conclusion. The world we live in is what it is; people like me grew up under the dominant paradigm of the time, and our souls have quite naturally been tuned to its frequencies. Belatedly, but not a second too late perhaps, we take heed, with pride, of what is truly our own, but that by no means precludes an appreciation of where our formative influences come from, for they make us who we are, too, and without which we would be lesser men undoubtedly. Weak, puling talk of cultural beggary and cultural appropriation belongs to they who never heard the call in the first place.

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Amorphia – Arms To Death (2018)

Arms To Death

On their debut, Amorphia play thrash metal, influenced in equal parts by early Slayer, Kreator, and Sodom. Many bands from the fledgling Indian metal scene have attempted to play speed/thrash but have as a rule succumbed to instrumental flashiness and all-around cluelessness. You see, in the aspiring Indian metal guitarist’s consciousness, palm-muted downpicking is enshrined not as mere technique, but as motif and developmental device also. As such, it isn’t uncommon to find Indian speed metal albums, small though their number might be, littered with vast swathes of meaningless, chugging static. To the Indian mind, unconcerned with structure in metal, this leftover from hardcore equals riff equals headbanging, and therefore is a good thing; bands are forced to hone their chops in pathetic college competitions before equally pathetic judges and quite naturally come to see the cheap mosh break and the reaction it elicits as a validation of their songcraft.

Arms To Death bolts out of the door using ‘Chemical Warfare‘ as template, and then keeps using it intermittently for the remainder of its length. The hallmark of that classic is a relentlessly sustained apocalyptic narrative. Sparse of arrangement in terms of core note density, the song relies on melodic memorability in an atonal context, slight sideways variations on themes previously introduced, clever use of reiteration, and, above all, intensity. Amorphia have studied the texture of ‘Chemical Warfare‘, but other than the sincere exuberance of youth, they show little awareness of what made Slayer‘s song great. As has been stressed on these pages, some of their failings are a natural caveat of thrash metal, but even so, slightly jarring shifts in tempo and tone and a steadfast refusal to explore greater melodic space renders this debut as little more than gratuitous release.

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Rapture – Paroxysm Of Hatred (2018)

Is retro thrashing death the next trend to be pilfered in the underground? Rapture‘s second album is an accurate replica of this style from the tailend of the 80s: the songwriting of speed/thrash crossed with the dissonant textures of the then-nascent death metal scene creating an extremely breathless and confrontational hybrid. Rapture come from Greece, a region on the metal map not known for doing things half-heartedly; therefore, Paroxysm Of Hatred is very convincing at what it does, but how much of it is relevant?

Like compatriots Suicidal Angels, Rapture retain the shouted vocals of traditional thrash , but dial down the downpicked syncopation and bounce of that style for equal emphasis on the longer phrases of death metal (see: Demolition Hammer, Protector, Incubus etc). The hallmark here is songwriting that only teases at the more expansive ambition of death metal, but soon enough retreats into the familiar comforts offered by a curb stomping. This unwillingness to look much farther than the tip of one’s nose induces a certain discreteness to the music; with such tunnel-vision is also accompanied a perpetual recapitulation of prior motifs, effectively leaving songs spinning their proverbial wheels and depending to an inordinate degree on the occasional breakdown and attractive lick.

This is accepted as the flaw native to thrash metal and what has rendered it an evolutionary dead end among heavy metal strains. The style’s primary movers of melody are simple chord shapes derived from the hardcore punk playbook, spaces between which are occupied with material signifying no progression or narrative. When Rapture escape these self-imposed chains and embrace the crossover into death metal, however fleeting it might be, they hint at something a little more promising; it is not altogether inconceivable that the band might reappear in the future with just such a realigned approach. For now, Paroxysm Of Hatred is a flag of the band’s spirit, competent in realizing its limited goals, but not something that will withstand the test of time.

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Undersave – Now…Submit To The Master’s Imagination (2012)

An album title and intro that evokes images of Montag The Magnificent from The Wizard Of Gore, Undersave‘s debut is suitably splattery like Mexigorge‘s Chronic Corpora Infest, brutal like Embalmer‘s There Was Blood Everywhere, and twisted like Mortal Decay‘s Forensic. Like a solitary string in vibration, disturbed from its path of oscillation by strategically advised interference from outside, a component of Undersave‘s riffing relies on melodic blooms atop a consistently undulating bass string. This technique is akin to speed metal’s chug-and-stab, but the writing here, and the band’s influences in general, is far more wide-ranging; in addition to the sore-ridden underbelly of the bands already mentioned, certain tech-death mannerisms – primarily, the rapid turnover of notes under a suggestive melodic space – also make their presence felt. However, unlike the self-obsessed soliloquy of the many nameless tech-death bands out there, this hyperactivity takes place under something resembling the call-response aesthetic of more traditional death metal, a feature of the writing that keeps songs from flying entirely off the handle.

Like the underrated Prosanctus Inferi, Undersave excel at writing broken motifs, long-chained riffs, and delayed pay-offs. A broken motif is a previously expressed “whole” melodic notion which at a later date in the body of the song reappears but as broken into shards, the space between which shards is occupied with flurries of noncommittal activity. Long-chained riffs involve phrases that keep building and building, often encountering multiple junctures where they seem on the verge of imploding, but are somehow kept progressing until their eventual climax. A delayed pay-off is subjective by nature; it is the product of the two prior concepts, and usually occurs as a real “event” when both hands have been revealed, when the listener begins to grasp the bigger picture.

Interesting ideas, all, which are far too rarely utilized by death metal bands. Admittedly, they require just the right knowledge of theme, sound, and modus operandi of previous genre strains. Undersave showcase these facets in fine balance on this forgotten album.

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Hearing metal without the baggage

A side-effect of these politically-divided times is how inured we as metal fans have become to hearing newer music unless the bands espouse an ideology running in sync with our private convictions. Undoubtedly, dwindling interest in what new bands have to say can be attributed to many causes: the steady decline in quality of metal, the jadedness that naturally comes with years of listening, and the shapeless suspicion that nothing new of note can possibly be done with this form of music. All of these are legitimate concerns in their own right, but there is also an unsaid condemnation lurking in the shadows, that emotional-compositional prowess is no longer enough to capture our attention, that metal bands have to be aligned with a specific system of extra-musical beliefs for them to avoid our ire or worse yet not recede into obscurity.

It shouldn’t be so and it wasn’t always so, either. Music ought to be judged on melody, structure, and emotional resonance in the abstract; the order of eminence of these criteria may vary, but their sanctity remains unimpeachable. We extracted these characteristics from the bands of our youth; somewhere along the way, the initial frisson and sense of danger that we associated with those bands grew dormant, but an appreciation of those three qualities never entirely went away. In fact, many metalheads can still summon a large chunk of that original thrill given the right state of mind, which speaks to nostalgia, yes, but also attests to the abiding quality of those works.

One tries to apply the same standard to newer bands; unfortunately, newer bands suffer the double handicap of lacking inspiration and existing in a world that like an extreme junkie always craves a little more. Structure, melody, and emotional resonance are no longer enough to satisfy the crowd; newer bands now have to also slot into the little niches that define us as Politically Aware Individuals (TM). Failing which, their best bet is to be sufficiently unthreatening, so we can bestow upon them anodyne platitudes like “sick” and “evil”, all the while subconsciously relieved that our precariously-surviving identity has had to endure no challenge to its foundation.

This is not to discount that every individual has a certain threshold of tolerance, arrived at either through social conditioning or studied introspection. Depending on this, he makes a decision on which manner of offence in the metal he listens to can be reasonably tolerated and efficiently compartmentalized, and which would induce a restless cognitive dissonance inside his mind too great to ignore and lead an honest life. If only that were to be the end of it, if only he hadn’t taken it upon himself to be the arbiter and fashioning force of outraged, popular opinion, if he hadn’t placed himself in one of two camps, a decision which by default forces him to assume a confrontational stance, if he had realized that this rigid bifurcation into left and right is in fact the underlying reason for his perennial unease, if he had embraced a more syncretic perspective on the world, if he had possibly considered metal in spirit as sound and poetry, ugly and beautiful by turn, instead of always reading a literal interpretation into it, if only, if only…well, he would perhaps then identify metal as the transcendent force for self-empowerment that it can be.

Sound and poetry; hear metal as such without the baggage we foist on it or the baggage we so masochistically accept from it to bear on our backs. Treat it like you would the confessions of a serial killer or some despised figure from history if you have to; or indeed an inheritance from distant forebears; as a scholar would, cultivate an enlightened detachment without becoming dissociated and it might just be possible to rediscover the honesty with which you heard this music for the first time.

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Mercyless – Pathetic Divinity (2016)

The first two Mercyless albums are held in high regard by death metal fans, but even those weren’t the easiest to get acclimatized with. Abrasive and bludgeoning chord choices, tempo shifts, and an understated avant-garde nature, much like Swedish band Deranged, made them a veritable minefield to navigate; what served to mitigate this effect was a sense of early 90s Euro-style melody that leavened the harsher aspects of that sound.

After the missteps of the late 90s, Mercyless returned to form with 2013’s Unholy Black Splendor, an album sitting nicely between the relatively linear debut Abject Offerings and the classic Coloured Funeral. Unlike the faceless ambient masquerading as death metal today, Mercyless seemed to retain their appreciation for sharply-defined, riff-based songwriting; death metal is inherently structuralist music, often composed with a bottom-up approach, where ideas are improvised along the way as a combination of intuition and musical acumen. Anything more high-level in perspective than the bend around the upcoming corner would necessarily compromise the spontaneous intensity so required of this music.

Pathetic Divinity still adheres to these principles – reiteration is used to emphasize individual riffs as a labor of conscious intent – but an overly quantized, clipped drum sound and just generally hyperactive playing centered around cascading fills frequently drowns out the underlying content. Groove is a new addition to the band’s sound, while the quasi-Gothic melody of Coloured Funeral now emerges rarely; where previously that sense of theatre was woven into the body of the song itself (there is no ‘Serenades‘ to be found here), here it is the lead guitar that occasionally alleviates the elephantine-dissonant footstomp of the slower sections.

This lack of color compromises Pathetic Divinity‘s memorability and makes it a difficult album to invest emotionally in. The twisted sound realized on Coloured Funeral remains in tact, but minus the sporadic epic appeal of that album, Pathetic Divinity feels like an aborted case study in the band’s idiosyncratic songwriting style.

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Necrophobic – Mark Of The Necrogram (2018)

Necrophobic have circumvented the law of diminishing returns better than many worthies of the past; ever a band in touch with the lineage of classic heavy metal, Necrophobic somehow managed to subsume their intensely melodic and syncopation-heavy writing style into a theatrically progressive narrative not dissimilar from contemporaries Unanimated, Dawn, and Sacramentum. It is a thematic tightrope that the band has walked with great skill; while the riffs have come to predominantly represent the cyclical nature of speed metal since 01’s Blood Hymns, the band preserve the undeniable dark mood and energy of their heyday. It is some feat, considering the melodic landscape they occupy, a balance that has occasionally eluded many a band: it seems a rule of thumb, especially in extreme metal, that utilizing greater harmonic space is but a precursor to ill-advised detours, but Necrophobic‘s musical and emotional maturity has steadfastly given the lie to this formulation.

It is hard to think of a modern album that has oozed more metal from its marrow than Mark Of The Necrogram. Virtually every technique worth studying and imitating on the consonant end of metal songwriting is documented here; that in turn directly implies that there are things like repeating motifs, bookends and breaks for lead guitar to be found here aplenty, all of which far from being indulgence actually grant these songs genuine identity, an endangered commodity in modern metal music.

Where a band like Dissection kept simplifying a kindred template to the point of the Youthanasia-like Reinkaos, Necrophobic remain a fundamentally ambitious band. Ideas lurch forward, then are interrupted by lateral fissures opening upon the face of composition, only to be eventually recapitulated. The strength of this band’s work has been in keeping individual minor-key phrases short, sharply-defined, and ending on points of tension, and the use of subtle dissonance as a flavoring agent to accentuate that tension. The latter is no longer as pronounced as it was on The Nocturnal Silence, still the band’s pinnacle, but neither is Mark Of The Necrogram the sound of a band short of inspiration and going quietly into the night.

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