Undersave – Sadistic Iterations…Tales of Mental Rearrangement (2018)

Undersave play Anxiety Inducing Death Metal. There is no such thing of course, but if a death metal band was to make a feast of transcribing what someone in the middle of a panic attack feels like, then this would be a more than decent attempt. When the chain of cause and effect breaks down and perspective loses all meaning, the mind becomes a recluse from the light, hounded by demons of negativity and unreason. Contrasting the anguish of the present with the happiness of the past becomes near impossible, because the present becomes all-consuming and pervades every last inch of awareness. This mind now is as a wounded animal, surrounding itself with veritable barbed wire entanglements, skulking and inconsolable but also ready to lash out at shadows. It hardly knows what it does, it is without real agency even, and draws succor from indulging its torment until exhaustion thankfully takes over like a blanket of mercy.

Undersave‘s death metal is far from illogical or unheeding of cause and effect, but the wall of sound they create through jagged harmonies, repetition, and sheer note-density is distinctly psychological. Tension and release are integral aspects of any music of substance; the one promotes suspense and serves to hold the listener’s attention, the other gives him resolution. Tension by definition is ambiguous and a sentiment of uncertainty and portent. Release, however, is what leads to catharsis and in the grand telling allows the listener to appraise the emotional resonance of a piece of music.

It seems that tension and release function on at least two levels: at the level of dialogue between individual motifs, dialogue which then cumulatively and recursively breeds a mirrored bubble of tension and release at the level of the greater song. Often, the first is only subliminally heard by the casual listener, until it finally achieves a proportion that intrudes on his active consciousness. This is the Eureka! moment when the listener realizes he is experiencing something of emotional importance.

Imagine then if you will a lopsided version of this tension and release dynamic, where the buildup is incessant and respite near-nonexistent. Like a body flooded with stress hormones, on the verge of imploding upon itself, Undersave make their songs microcosms of explosive negative energy with no real escape valve. Only the band can answer how much of this approach is intentional, and only real, intensive analysis can ascertain how much of this impression is musically warranted, but that they achieve this net effect without resorting to the tonal manipulation or somnolent tempos favored by explicitly “depressive” bands suggests that there is at least a subconscious grasp of such notions at play.

 

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Retrospective: Afterlife – Surreality (1992)

Afterlife was yet another in a slew of death metal bands from the American Midwest of the early 90s specializing in an eccentric, DIY aesthetic. In stark contrast with the more renowned and professional sounding music from the coasts, these farm belt bands blurred the still-evolving edges between death metal and various other underground offshoots to create an idiosyncratic and evocative style triumphing over its obvious technical limitations. Afterlife released Surreality in 1992 and disappeared right after, leaving posterity to unearth thirty minutes of grimy death metal perennially on the verge of disintegration but somehow enduring and even thriving like the very salt of the earth from which they came.

The standout feature of albums of this kind is the absence of external input in the songwriting process. On more professionally recorded albums, where bands recruit the services of knowledgeable producers, songs have a more rounded nature; excesses and missteps that may not be immediately evident to musicians are pointed out, and modifications, repeat takes, or better alternatives suggested. This sort of interference is palpably missing from Surreality, resulting in a startling array of songwriting textures; textures not always of the tonal variety, but in the sense of raw, unhinged instrumental performance. It is a jam-like, stream-of-consciousness approach to songwriting, where the ensemble sifts, even improvises, through its arsenal of ideas and on chancing upon a particularly appealing sequence throws caution to the wind and plays the heck out of it.

Out of such free-spirited gestures then we get a death metal notoriously difficult to pigeon-hole but which remains surprisingly whole despite its many influences. Drummer Dave Ross drives these songs with an extroverted performance, routinely insinuating himself into situations where another drummer might hold back, imparting the sort of hypercaffeinated percussive kick one otherwise expects from Suffocation-style brutal death metal. Suffocation circa-Reincremated and Human Waste is not an inconsiderable influence, actually, heard most commonly in the lurk n prowl and grinding syncopation of the guitars, but as becomes increasingly felt through the entirety of Surreality, this was not a band content to worship at the feet of known gods, straining to strike out with ambition in more unchartered directions.

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Mefitis – Widdrim Hymn (2018)

Mefitis – Widdrim Hymn

This short EP from black-death band Mefitis reinjects the potency of narrative sorely gone missing from modern black metal, calling to mind the emotionally layered tapestries of such classics as Dissection and Dawn. Where your garden-variety “orthodox” band today uses pseudo-scriptural mumbo jumbo and overt yet ultimately redundant dissonance in a misguided attempt at appearing substantial and evil, Mefitis, along with other contemporaries like Beithioch, Uruk, and Into Oblivion, are actually telling stories through music. The medium of expression may differ, but all of them grasp an elementary truth, that the language of music is fundamentally different from the language framed by words. There can be subliminal overlap between the two, and such overlap can even enhance the experience in the final reckoning, but the manipulation of musical tones when considered in isolation shades the consciousness in an entirely unique manner. As the English empiricists were wont to pronounce, this in essence is the distinction between impression and idea. Music lends to impression and figure, and leaves the listener to his predilections when it comes to the filling-in part. Words, then, necessarily follow in the wake of those initial impressions,  and are in fact the intellectual faculty’s attempt at bringing the raw sentiment of impression into tangible form.

Mefitis, and all good metal, understand this order of precedence instinctively: music comes first and therefore is purest, while words and images only supplement. The band’s hold on tone and harmonic interplay holds great promise for the future, but equally impressive is their sculpting of musical space. Not solely from a production or acoustics standpoint either, but in the sense of the song as a palpably geographical-topographical unit. Classical music achieves this detailing best, so does the best black metal, where each individual voice constitutes an indispensable feature of the landscape. Mefitis choose to make that landscape overwhelmingly saturated with sulphur and ash as befits their genre, but as is true for natural geography, however foreboding, their music is never without a gradually accumulated internal logic.

 

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Vocal lines are no longer memorable in death metal

Virtually every death metal band from the first wave had its share of infectious vocal lines. From Deicide to Dismember, death metal fans grew up memorizing and screaming morbid lyrics in much the same way their baby boomer parents may once have creamed their pants to The Beatles. Now, there is a school of thought that considers vocals and lyrics in death metal as somewhat superfluous to the actual music; while one can certainly enjoy death metal on instrumental terms alone, vocals when done right can be a useful percussive instrument, and when combined with evocative lyrics can enhance the band’s themes, perhaps just as much as the music itself.

This is not intended to be the usual “metal is dead, woe is us” screed; for all our frustration with hipster, manic-depressive attention whores co-opting our music, death metal continues to be in relatively rude health. But more to the point, just how many memorable vocal lines have we heard in death metal these last fifteen years? Forget being compelled to learn all of ‘Immortal Rites‘ by heart, can those reared on today’s death metal even think of something as succinct yet so legendary as a ‘Confront me!‘ or an ‘I’ll find peace when I’m God!‘ For all the tributes, both sincere and trendy, to old school death metal, it is curious that this one aspect seems to have flown entirely under the radar of new death metal musicians.

Perhaps vocalists aren’t considering themselves singers and lyricists anymore. Older bands came from a milieu that much closer to more traditional rock n roll where the singer’s participation in those twin roles was as important as the underlying instrumental arrangements. However, with the advent of Suffocation‘s syncopation-driven grinding and Incantation‘s chromatically-intense death metal, both styles that have since come to dominate the genre, vocal space that was once exclusively reserved came to be at a premium. Vocals slipped obscurely into the background as a mere coloring drone, and lyrics, not required to conform to set vocal niches anymore, became far more stream-of-consciousness, at times tediously abstruse. Neither development was favorable to presenting songs in the erstwhile “macabre parable” format. In some ways, severing that last association with accessibility was an inevitable progression for a music that takes pride in being extreme, but also lost in the process was a certain individuality and a once-vital tool for connecting with the listener.

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Howie Bentley’s mastery of heavy metal

Rarely has a heavy metal songwriter working in different genre paradigms been as masterful over both expressions as  primary songwriter Howie Bentley of Cauldron Born and Briton Rites. The first project is neoclassical, swords and sorcery power metal and the second Hammer Horror-styled southern-fried speed/doom, but common to both is Bentley’s utmost command over the language of heavy metal itself. Where other bands may give the impression of conforming to set genre templates, Bentley appears to actually think in this music’s syntax the same way one’s thoughts first arise inside the mind in a shape closely approximating the language one is most familiar with. To Bentley, that native language is heavy metal, and everything he transforms from mind to materiel nothing less than molten steel.

For a long time, critics of traditional heavy metal have regarded its lack of structural ambition as the one litmus test by which to hold it inferior compared to intricate styles like death metal. It is an unfair standard by which to judge heavy metal, for this music’s aim first and foremost lies in rousing the spirit to arms, and not always through an exhibition of structural brilliance. Rather, what structure exists is there mostly to usher in and enhance those moments of punch-drunk invincibility. This again devolves to the distinction between hearing and listening, where listening involves conscious attention and dissection as opposed to hearing which is a more supine, intuitive experience, a “byproduct of existing” if you will. Heavy metal for the largest part ought to be heard than listened to; it shuns the overly critical ear but lays its treasures bare to those still capable of suspending cynical disbelief.

Cauldron Born‘s Born of the Cauldron, a classic in the true metal underground, however succeeds at both aspects, marrying progressive cohesion that can satisfy the most punctilious eye with slivers of traditional, riding-the-wind heavy metal bombast. Bentley’s playing is virtuosic and aggressive, Shawn Kascak’s bass alive and writhing like one Geezer Butler, the two combining to send these songs in myriad directions on the turn of a dime, now theatrical like Geoff Tate and early Queensryche, at another time indulging in heavy metal righteousness after the best fashion of USPM classics like Jag Panzer and Agent Steel, at home with the technical dalliances of a Mekong Delta, and still yet not averse to the quasi-exotic stylings of an Adramelch. For those in the know, these are impeccable references, the tonal richness of Born of the Cauldron bearing it out in the fullest; Bentley can and does shred like a bumblebee, but it is the consummate skill with which he weaves the many disparate threads into fist-shaking unison that cements this album’s legendary status.

But, paradoxically, Howie Bentley’s talents are fully appreciated only after hearing the more primitive but equally fascinating For Mircalla, his other project Briton Rites‘ debut released some thirteen years after Born of the Cauldron. The building blocks here are immense monolithic: Black Sabbath, Pentagram, Witchfinder General, and the classically-tinged sludge of Sonic Excess-era Crowbar, but out of these incipient foundations, Bentley finds a way of superseding them all – yes, even Black Sabbath – in terms of sheer narrative development and potential listener participation. Sticking to the tried and tested blues scale for the main meat of these songs, his control over rhythm, tempo change, and accompanying chord progression is so absolute that not once does Briton Rites sound like just another stoner band going through the motions; for instance, hear ‘Vampire Hunter, 1600‘  – finally my sword pierced his black heart, the vampire met his end. It was not just the sword of steel, but my faith that helped me drive it in – for how seamlessly he marries the tonnage of Master of Reality with the twinkling athleticism of prime NWOBHM. Phil Swanson’s strained voice, derided in some circles, and his penchant for the cleverly inflected phrase actually imbues these Satanic tales with an authenticity reminiscent of a once similarly ridiculed Ozzy Osbourne. The duo’s chemistry is undeniable and creates an atmosphere authentic yet fun, and reminiscent of the on-a-budget crypts and castles that were once the haunts of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.

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Deceased – Ghostly White (2018)

In classic heavy metal manner, Deceased make evocative songs centered around instantly identifiable melodies. The band has ever been at pains to distance itself from all death metal references, at least as they are conventionally understood, and Ghostly White only reaffirms that strange reclusive mindset. More apt instead to consider Deceased a heavy metal band with an overwhelming fascination for death itself, in allegorical, mythological, literary and literal senses, always presented through the band’s distinctively traditional and classy take on horror. Band founder King Fowley experienced serious health troubles in the time between Supernatural Addiction and As The Weird Travel On; intentionally or not, a palpably tragic tonality entered the band’s songwriting at about the same time. Lyrics, always underrated with this band but a cut above average too, began embracing a more stoical view of life and death. The outcome has been surprisingly layered and poignant and a treat for heavy metal fans.

As ever, Voivod‘s first three albums remain an integral part of the Deceased DNA on Ghostly White in the way they make use of dissonant chords and punk/grind rhythms to advance those chord progressions. The perfect fifth of the rock power chord is used only at the onset of a blatant melodic motif, but the meat of these songs is composed almost entirely of clanging note combinations. Like Immolation but in a completely different context, Deceased find a way of giving shapeless dissonance shape; the band’s approach, unique in heavy metal, is to disregard that they are in fact using atonal sounds by making phrases out of them as one would from more harmonious elements. An isolated dissonant chord by its own makes little musical sense, but by ringing a number of them into viable formations, Deceased enforce their own peculiar logic on the listener.

The narrative development on Ghostly White is atmospheric rather than structural. It is an important distinction, perhaps best summed up by the difference between hearing and listening. While listening entails conscious attention, hearing simply happens as a byproduct of existing. Deceased in my opinion are better heard than listened, an observation that might subject the band to accusations of inertia and fans of being happily passive in their appraisal of music. But there need not be any disrepute in this; yes, Deceased use many speed metal tropes inherently containing a certain amount of filler, but the way to develop an appreciation for this band is by letting those same tropes wash over you as tension-building devices while anticipating the one moment of delicious dread that creeps in from the fringes of awareness.

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Ruin – Plague Transmissions Vol. I (2017)

Ruin from California released one demo back in 1991 before disbanding. This compilation contains recordings of those tracks as well as new music released by the band on various splits since reforming in 2015. The style here is death/doom but don’t let that by-now prosaic description chase you away: the two components are perfect counterparts on these songs, the death metal grinding in irreverent Impetigo fashion while the doom straddles the chest with claws around the throat. This is truly punishing extreme metal, at home in the rumbling low end, with each motion carrying the bite and spite of the flagellant’s whip.

There is a refreshing unambiguity about these songs. Chord changes traverse discrete intervals across the spectrum yet retain consistency of dark, dissonant tone throughout. Never shy of breaking into an impromptu skank beat when the muse calls, Ruin hearken back to the the early 90s when bands like Impetigo, Hideous Mangleus, Phantasm, and Hemdale bled the edges between death metal and punk to present a specifically gruesome vision. Liberal use of audio clips from macabre horror and 911 telephone calls might make the overly serious listener dismiss the band as parody, but to the vast majority of the underground that came of age with horror cinema and metal as constant companions, these flourishes are joyous relics of a time our music has unfortunately forgotten about and genuinely add to the depraved atmosphere Ruin strive for.

It never ceases to amuse me when newer, politically “woke” listeners try to drag extreme metal into the realm of social conscience by equating it with ethical notions like justice. Singing pro-this and anti-that lyrics over randomly distorted music that only tenuously borrows tropes from death metal and black metal does not make it so. Through all the years of listening to this music, I can honestly say that not once have I associated extreme metal with issues of social import. I have been empowered by it, certainly, but at no time has it made me feel like extending that empowerment to others or taking up cudgels on behalf of those that are “oppressed”. I have considered it an intensely private and individualistic music, advanced by an unremittingly bleak view of mass humanity that is almost Darwinist in tone. The virtues I have detected and interpreted in it have been founded on contempt for others’ existential turpitude. One might say that I am merely feeding my own personal misanthropy into the music and drawing false inferences, but I turn that observation around at the musicians in Ruin and the many other true death metal and black metal bands of history, and ask: is that not really so?

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Desultory – Through Aching Aeons (2017)

Many bands from the classic era of death metal suffered ignominious and often self-inflicted downswings in fortune. The mood that once prevailed to inspire an entire generation of metalheads changed into something altogether base and material in aspect. Following the precedent set by Metallica, a previously noble band like At The Gates streamlined their sound to the point of banality and struck gold. Others strove likewise only to see their legacies tarnished beyond the point of no return. For Desultory, that nadir arrived with 1998’s Swallow The Snake, an assortment of Pantera and Korn cliches that to all appearances embarrassed the band into an early retirement.

A friend suggests that age and maturity grant at least the more percipient among musicians with a wider perspective on the transgressions of their past. So would seem to be the case with Desultory‘s staggered rebirth over the last ten years. Over and above the obvious rediscovery of the sound which made them a band to be reckoned with in the first place, the overwhelming feeling on Through Aching Aeons is that of an ensemble trying to atone for previous sins, not to whatever fans might be left, but, crucially and as would befit a true repentance, to themselves.

The Desultory sound is one part chainsaw Swedish death metal and the rest exquisitely catchy melody. A cursory listen may make Through Aching Aeons seem little different from any other band flaunting these stripes, but where once-contemporaries like Autumn Leaves and In Flames resorted to blatantly mainstream maneuvers, Desultory‘s melodic accessibility on this album does not come at the cost of songwriting integrity. What might initially sound like a made-to-order speed metal riff, bouncing and chugging away to redundancy, is invariably built on and extended with painfully acute harmonic sense; in the greater reckoning, these feverish exertions create intricately textured songs with very real identities and a vague wistfulness.

That melancholy is the defining characteristic of Through Aching Aeons and great European death metal at large. Not given to despair, rather it is the strange bottom-heavy feeling one experiences while reminiscing over a special time of life. The lot in the present might be perfectly satisfactory, but knowing that that time and the situations and actors involved in it are gone forever breeds a certain restlessness of spirit and the realization that you just might be less than you once were. Through Aching Aeons is one of the most sincere expositions of such subjective notions in recent years and a fine way for the band to bow out.

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Harsh noise

Under the right circumstances, possibly at the right time of day, listening to harsh noise can be a meditative experience; if per chance you are involved in an activity demanding mental concentration, it can even provide the kind of unemotional, unprejudiced, and unmusical background that drowns out distractions and spurs productivity. It seems counter-intuitive to use noise so, especially to those of us in developing parts of the world, where noise factors into every waking, and sleeping, moment of life: unregulated construction, chaotic modes of transport, above all the dense, omnipresent press of human beings and the veritable Tower of Babel that rises from their interactions, make us treasure the rare instants when things are calm and tranquil. To despoil those moments by listening to something like harsh noise, as entertainment no less, seems like an act of sadomasochism.

But a recent month-long stint working nights led to quite the opposite realization. Staying up through the night at first disturbs and then rewires the body’s diurnal rhythms. From the overstimulated trappings of daytime living, the individual is thrown into the almost physical stillness of night and therefore in some way must come to be psychosomatically altered. Given such a reconstitution of mind-body makeup, music that holds one’s attention during the day may conceivably lose that appeal into the small hours of the night, too. Its structure feels oppressively restricting and its emotional resonance becomes cloying; in other words, the qualities which drew one to it in the first place can now only engender indifference. This music feels out of place in the social vacuum that now envelopes the individual subject, its virtues of past now like so many distant and petty machinations incapable of piercing through to that alienated mental sanctum.

Harsh noise, however, is different in that it is not music but rather an auditory – but all too often also a surprisingly physical – experience. It does not play to the same gambits that anything remotely construable as music does; instead, it discards all putative judgement through musical tone and immerses the listener in an ocean of shifting pitches. Patterns manifest themselves in an impersonal and mechanistic fashion, as brief spikes standing out in relief against the greater wall of noise. Do they have real existence in the design of this noisescape, or are they something conjured up by an overwhelmed mind grasping, desperately hoping, for something familiar to orient itself around? In all events, what is incredibly abrasive initially slowly ascends through degrees of intensity until the listener reaches a plateau of equanimity beyond which no further heightening of sensation can happen. At this stage, the noise is no longer on the peripheries of the listener’s consciousness but has actively embedded itself into his perception of being. He has become indivisible from it, and it from him, in an intermingling as elemental as the pressure of wind beating against the eardrum and the flow of blood through the vein. By the time he reemerges out from this bath of hiss and hum, his listening palate and mental space at large are thoroughly cleansed and the purest of silences rushes in from all corners with healing motive.

On one level it feels pretentious to read such depth into noise, but as fans of metal we might be guilty of approaching it with a flawed perspective. We are innately suspicious of postmodernism and its constant realignment of historical boundaries. Noise in its harshest, most distilled form, however, stands even farther afield of those boundaries, and if used judiciously can legitimately contribute towards enhanced insight across various aspects of experience.

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More Fool Me

How do you engage with somebody on a point of dissent when they don’t have the required vocabulary, literal or experiential, to do so? There is great wisdom in ceding ground when one doesn’t possess that vocabulary, but there is even greater wisdom in acknowledging that dearth in the first place. The latter unfortunately is a rare quality indeed, hence the incessant ego-fueled wrangling we witness over subjects that ideally should be approached with an inquisitive mindset and not a confrontational one. But deep-seated insecurity manifests itself in just such fractious ways. The insecure individual would rather feast on his opponent’s – or should I say someone he perceives to be an opponent – frustration, and come away smirking with a misleading “ha! I showed him!“, rather than accept that the role of the learner in a conversation is not an inferior one, that mutual participation enhances both parties’ qualitative experience: the “learner” learns, obviously, and the knowledge-giver gets a chance to examine the sanctity of his opinion.

Experience and knowledge builds up cumulatively, but you don’t know that when you are busy being a vindictive viper out to guard its feeble nest. An acquaintance of mine, someone who we would call a fairweather metal fan, meaning he does not obsess over its mysteries the way the rest of us do, can’t for his life understand how I can enjoy old Immolation more than new Immolation. He has heard all the big names, and more than a few obscure ones, over the years, but in passing and not with any deal of energy or conviction. Therefore he is sincerely flummoxed over my preferences, because new Immolation has loud, shiny production and attractive melodies, and aren’t those the be all and end all of music?

I am amused and sense what’s happening here. I tell him that it’s no crime to like what you like. But he persists in his inquiry, and like a fool I take the bait and try to put into words things that should never be put into words. I talk to him about how the band no longer jams as a unit in the same location but instead overwhelmingly depends on Bob Vigna to send in ideas from whichever part of the country he is in. How this splintered songwriting process has taken a toll on the cohesiveness of the music. How parts are now written to accomodate Steve Shalaty’s staggered drumming style, but in probability the situation is the other way around. How there is overconscious development of mood instead of the spontaneous atmosphere through death metal on the old albums.

On and on I go, rummaging through my head for other points pertaining to Immolation, many of which can be found on this blog. Not to prove a point, because debates are very much not my thing, but because it really is fun to talk about metal. But I can sense his eyes glaze over; you see, he doesn’t know about such things; let knowing well alone, he hasn’t even imagined that music can be thought of in such terms. But instead of it being a revelation of sorts to him, that music can indeed be an entirely different dimension of being, he fumbles about for something with which to knock me off my tenuously preserved composure. He says, “Ah, I don’t know, man. Nothing has ever quite thrilled me as much as Immolation. Deicide, for example. Blame it on God! I always found them too funny. Never understood why you liked them so much.

Classic, isn’t it? And more fool me. With age, I find I am as likely to give someone the benefit of the doubt as I am to dismiss them outright, but the former almost invariably leaves me burnt and needlessly aggravated. How then does one engage on a point of dissent with someone lacking your literal or experiential vocabulary? Judge the spirit in which they make their approach. Gauge their body language. If they seem amenable to a healthy exchange of ideas, then by all means indulge in it yourself. If, however, they’ve come to prove a point – and they leave blatant hints to this effect throughout, you just have to not be bloody naive to see them – simply ask them to fuck off.

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