Garroted – Of Damnation And Abyssal Terrors EP (2018)

Roiling, churning, riff-intense progressive death metal is what Garroted play on this their second recording. The band should be praised for overcoming the distractedly frenzied nature of debut demo In The Court Of Nyarlathotep; the new songs have an equally high work-rate in riffs, but from all appearances, the band now thinks of their songs as a greater composite on the way to achieving a specific mood. Accordingly, riffs are developed as variations on an original theme and then led by the nose across the breadth of the EP through many permutations. This most certainly is not background music; like Deeds of Flesh, it demands the listener’s fullest attention lest he become inextricable from its dense riff mazes.

The payoffs are diverse, on both intellectual and visceral levels. The first two songs, ‘Otherworldly Subversions: Parts I & II’, are essentially one composition, split in two halves through clever changes in tempo and differently oriented groups of notes. The rhythm guitar technique is greatly influenced by early Morbid Angel and bands verging on death metal like Sadus, meaning it is fiercely syncopated with phrases rarely reaching the kind of extended development synonymous with black metal. Yet, just like with those bands, these songs are not without an acute melodic sense, rather so that that sense is only reflected in a shattered mirror, each shard encapsulating an insinuation in the desired direction.

That end is found in ‘Into The Shivering Forest‘, a decidedly atmospheric note to sign off on. Built on past achievements as well as nods to conventional heavy metal and black metal, this song is of a kind with the band’s extra dimensional thematic aspirations and works well in this setting. But bands like Tribulation have previously done the same before reneging entirely on their metal credentials. The test for Garroted now is to not lose touch with their identity as a death metal band and use external influences, if at all, with restraint.

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Ares Kingdom – By The Light Of Their Destruction (2019)

By The Light Of Their Destruction

On their new album, Ares Kingdom have traded the anthemic qualities of their first three albums for a deliberately spacier and obscure sound. Appropriately, the band has mined its own past for inspiration; as on Order from Chaos‘ farewell An Ending In Fire and previous side-project Vulpecula, the themes on this album are astronomical, tracing constellations and star clusters across the night sky and connecting them with their etymologies in mythology. The approach proves a natural fit for the Ares Kingdom sound which, despite its roots in speed metal, has always evoked in the abstract the rise and ruin of great endeavors. It is also a tacit acknowledgement of the deep-seated human need to balance the secular with what Robert Graves described as the mythopoetical, in the absence of which the one becomes pedantic and the other fluff.

The guitar tone on By The Light Of Their Destruction is fat in the middle and dissipates progressively towards the edges, which, to use a fitting celestial analogy, is not unlike the sun’s corona jutting out from behind a lunar occultation. The effect is decidedly ambient in the sense of a broad wash of static bleeding into the music at all times. It also signals a departure from the songwriting approach of at least the last two albums; where songs on those were structured along conventional heavy metal formats, and built around identifiable melodies, By The Light Of Their Destruction feels looser on purpose and instinctive in nature. It is a fine example of what I like to think of as “body metal”, something the Miller-Keller combine has always excelled at. Think ‘Angry Red Planet‘ or the breakdown in ‘Forsake Me This Mortal Coil‘. The cue here is to ride a groove and a riff for all its worth, not because of a shortage of ideas or as a gratuitous end in itself, but as a very real form of psychosomatic release. To enter this pocket of expression is to become a vessel and a servitor to whatever channels musical inspiration works through; to relinquish it prematurely feels like self-mutilation.

In the band’s trajectory, however, By The Light Of Their Destruction will occupy a curious place. It is mostly without the rousing highs of Incendiary or the greater melodic accessibility of The Unburiable Dead. Neither is it made to sound of a piece as a suite of songs like those albums. The straight line of progression from Return To Dust to The Unburiable Dead appears broken, but perhaps this is a mixed blessing: lamentable, because seemingly lost is the pinnacle of album-wide cohesion and narrative achieved on The Unburiable Dead; welcome, however, is the resurgence of a more feral vibe. Whether this is because, as word goes, these songs were based on ideas culled from old demos is for the band to answer, but the way forward will require a balancing act of some skill.

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Norman Mailer’s The Naked And The Dead

Published in 1948, Norman Mailer’s debut novel The Naked And The Dead remains an incisive depiction of the soldier’s state of mind. The book is set on an island in the Pacific theater, as the United States tried to roll back the Japanese threat in the final stages of the Second World War, and thrusts the reader into the trenches alongside members of a platoon. The plot, consisting chiefly of the American effort to take control of the island, is thin, and little more than a backdrop against which we get to know the platoon and the motivations that drive the military chain of command. In this, Mailer is remarkably successful, and by the end we are intimates with the motley bunch, privy to their hopes and fears. Some characters emerge in a more sympathetic light than others, but not one is unequivocally evil. Mailer seems to be saying that their actions, heroic or cowardly, cannot be judged in isolation, that the way they react in the face of adversity is a composite of their experiences in combat but also from their lives before the war, and that the strength of their survival instinct is in direct proportion to the optimism with which they regard a future after the war.

Throughout, the rigors of military life on the island are interrupted with vignettes from each character’s past. The most detailed of these belong to Lieutenant Hearn and General Cummings; Hearn comes from an aristocratic family but has wandered off to become the stereotypical bourgeois liberal, idealistic, insubordinate, and flirting with communism. Cummings, on the other hand, is an authoritarian, brutal in his assessment of human nature,  and philosophical over the nature of conflict. In one passage, he draws a Spenglerian analogy between the parabolic arc of the mortar shell as it travels from out of the cannon towards its target, and the life-and-death cycle of civilizations and that of the individual human being himself. At another time, in what today reads as a prescient analysis of future world-power dynamics, he describes how war is essentially a tool for converting a nation’s inherent potential energy into real and concerted action. German expansionism during World War Two owed chiefly to this latent potential, her excesses no more a result of a moral vacuum than that of the limited physical resources at her disposal. Cummings predicts that the next hundred years or more will belong to America, on account of the sheer energies, both material and political, unleashed in the service of the war. He postulates that America will become increasingly convinced of her “manifest destiny” as a global hegemon, and orient all of her institutions towards that end with the ambition and ruthlessness befitting of a true empire.

The exchanges between Hearn and Cummings crackle with homosexual tension and comprise the intellectual heft of the book. It is the other members of the platoon, however, the average grunts in foxholes, that humanize this narrative. Collected from across the breadth of American life, they are in many ways postcards from that country’s experience; the frontier mentality, respect for hard graft, casual racism, and beatnik irreverence, all find expression in their banter and reminiscences. Some of them are wizened veterans of several campaigns, convinced after witnessing so much senseless death that the bullet with their name on it must not be long in coming. Others are young men newly drafted with dreams of moving up the army hierarchy but quickly robbed of those illusions. Nerves taut and bodies broken, most of them verge on giving up at one time or another, but the one note of optimism that emerges from their precarious condition is that men, despite all their prejudice, forge a brotherhood in the face of shared tribulations, to lend some of their reserves of strength to those who have none left.

Two passages of special note stand out, and both revolve around the premise of death, in the abstract and as a real thing. In the first, Gallagher’s wife dies on the mainland during childbirth. In a sequence of events that feels macabre at first but eventually achieves a poignant climax, he continues receiving the letters she wrote him leading up to her labor. The post, however, delivers on a slow and sporadic schedule, often a long time after the letters were written. Gallagher receives news of his wife’s death from the chaplain and goes numb, only to be greeted with fresh dispatches from her not long after. As time goes on, he synchronizes the post’s time table with her letters, until the day comes when he knows that the letter in his hands would have to be the last one she ever wrote. He avoids opening it to delay acknowledgement of what has already happened, knowing full well that he won’t put his wife to rest until he has read her last words.

The other account is a vivid and protracted description of what a slow death by degrees might feel like. Shot in the stomach during an ambush, Wilson alternately hallucinates and lapses into agony; his physical world achieves strange dimensions and his fevered mind scrambles his memories. His litter-bearers are tormented by his pain, flinching at his screams as if his wound were their own. Exhausted as they are, they deliberate whether it would be better to give him up for lost, but they are called to see within themselves and realize they are made of nobler stuff than they thought before. These men, the salt of the earth, may be too coarse to articulate their impressions in the manner of a Hearn or a Cummings, but they receive those impressions all the same, more or less as a mist that works its way into their subconscious unbeknownst to them to evoke an equally powerful emotional response.

There is a curious intimacy to these parts and they are written with delicacy. And yet, for all the existential issues it deals with, and despite its 700-pages length, The Naked And The Dead is a surprisingly breezy read. Mailer uses a lot of dialogue in the vernacular to speed things up, but even his scene-setting and military set-pieces, of which there are copious quantities, are not without a certain rhythm. Some have accused this novel of clunky character development; that complaint may have some basis, seeing as how Mailer tries to distribute time more or less equally among a large ensemble. It may be helpful, however, to view these characters as archetypes and receptacles for experiences shared by all participants to conflict through time. Faces change and contexts vary, but the humanity underneath stays the same. Seen in that light, the experience itself becomes an overarching character in its own right.

 

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Randy Rhoads and the Diary of a Madman

Ozzy Osbourne’s first four albums, and especially the two with Randy Rhoads, present a strange dilemma for metalheads. While they resuscitated Osbourne’s flagging career after being dumped from Black Sabbath, and though they are fondly remembered for Rhoads’ contributions to heavy metal guitar, they have generally been consigned to an ever-receding smudge – nostalgic, if slightly redundant, but no more – in the rear-view mirror. Most metalheads might even recoil at calling these albums “metal”; which is unfortunate, really, and a case of not judging the past on its own terms and worse, judging it based on the present. Metal sensibilities may have been coarsened beyond recognition over time, but for 1980 and 1981 – 1980 and 1981! – parts of Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman feel like a veritable revolution for heavy metal, and not just in any conciliatory, mealy-mouthed “heavy for its time” way.

The lines between hard rock and heavy metal, especially in our music’s incipient stage, were frequently blurred, but even from that nascent, coalescing slop, the things that stand out as metal, if only sporadically, are ambition, aggression, and a heaviness, of both sound and soul: ambition, to aim for the stars despite every possibility of falling flat on one’s face; aggression, in how one attacks life; and heaviness, like a weight that settles ponderously into the fabric of perception and subsequently colors one’s outlook towards that life. Music being emotion filtered into co-harmonious frequencies, the best metal bands found a way of transferring these abstract ideas to their instruments; hence the inherent drawback in analyzing heavy metal along purely analytical lines.The stuff of nobleness is frequently found beneath the surface, in the interstices, of a true metal song, and it is from there, like a slow-spreading dye, that it proliferates to inform our sentiment about the music.

It is often seen that people who acquire even a cursory, first-hand knowledge of that which they once admired as simple fans turn around to rubbish the legitimacy of those same past achievements. So is observed in the case of Randy Rhoads, who is derided for post-humous popularity as in the case of others that died young, for bad guitar tone, for unnecessarily busy playing. He is compared with greats that went before, Ritchie Blackmore, Uli Jon Roth, Eddie Van Halen; sometimes he is even compared with those that followed in his footsteps, and, in both cases, found wanting in taste and sensibility.

Someone else may be better qualified to comment on those criticisms; Rhoads undeniably built on the blueprint laid by those exemplars, but that is par for the course for all history; evolution occurs on the shoulders of giants past, after all. But Rhoads’ unique creativity took flight every now and then in the midst of these albums’ more populist overtures, and in those moments, the fault-lines between hard rock and heavy metal loom almost as large as chasms. Attacking the guitar with a young vitality that was almost unheard of previously – perhaps people like Michael Schenker and Glenn Tipton captured some of the same crunch and energy – Rhoads’ playing was the kind that has made successive generations of metalheads bunch their fists and tense their muscles into rigid knots; empowering and not a little confrontational in its choice of notes, phrasing and punctuation, and just all-around hustle.

That constitutes aggression, but what of ambition and heaviness? Paeans have been written to Rhoads’ study of classical guitar, how he transplanted those influences onto a heavy metal aesthetic, thus inspiring, alongside the other guitarists mentioned, every shredder to come along in his wake, and how, in Ozzy’s hilariously inebriated recollections, he was planning on using “chords with embedded notes” on their third album. But in all seriousness, Rhoads was also a composer and a song-writer par excellence who, despite the proactive nature of his playing, somehow managed to arrange his parts with delicate economy. No better example of this exists than the eponymous ‘Diary of a Madman‘, a song perhaps inspired by Black Sabbath‘s ‘Supertzar’, but unlike that next of kin, it betrays its operatic aspirations long before operatic accoutrements make themselves felt,  and then proceeds to make several devastating dents in the emotional continuum. From its manipulation of meter to control over how and when to transform the pastoral into the visceral, this song is a classic whose semi-balladic format has inspired every heavy metal band since, often with equally poignant results.

And then, presiding over all of it, is Ozzy and his banshee’s wail of a voice. Nasal, reedy, quivering, vulnerable and yet somehow guilelessly trusting these weaknesses to the hands of those who choose to hear him. Ozzy Osbourne. A husk today of what he once was, ridiculed in all quarters for his excesses; probably – and I speak from sentiment, not fact – an unwitting participant in humiliations orchestrated by others. Ozzy Osbourne. Not fully together anymore, but still capable of moments of astoundingly naive honesty. What proves a singer’s true mettle? Virtuosity? Sense of restraint and melodic placement? Longevity? To varying degrees, yes, but surely, most importantly, it has to be to what degree he elevates his band’s music; it is incontrovertible in my opinion that any song Ozzy has ever participated in has been the richer for it. More so than turning his obvious shortcomings into strengths, those shortcomings have existed alongside his strengths, and have helped humanize him like no other singer in the genre. Ozzy Osbourne. There will only ever be the one.

 

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The obscurity sweepstakes

All metalheads want their favorite bands to be suitably obscure, hidden away from the mainstream. Deathspell Omega remain steadfastly aloof, giving a grand total of two interviews in fifteen years, both couched in arcane references; their music, as it is, is chaotic and breaks entirely with all allusions to black metal, and their lyrics are some twisted variant of Sunday school. Mgla have followed much the same path, faces masked, identities undisclosed, to purportedly do away with peripheral matters and focus all attention on the music. Countless others sell their music in limited numbers or on obsolete media with the intention of shunning the assembly line ethos of record labels, though what this means for a genre already on the fringes is anybody’s guess. Analog demo-level productions are back in vogue, aparently to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of audience quality. The motive behind all these actions is to restore underground metal to its rightful position out of the spotlight; the unsaid assumption is that these actions, sincere though they may be in conception, will also give free rein to the creative energies of metal musicians.

Yet, each of these phenomena attracts its fair share of ears and eyeballs, and not always because of the quality of music on offer. Your average lay person may not be able to tell Immolation from Intolitarian and thus be appropriately turned off by the war metal juggalo’s dedicated use of genocidal motifs, but to anyone remotely schooled in the underground, it is self-evident that deliberate attempts at manufacturing obscurity come with a dog-whistle riding its underbelly, anticipating a crowd whose tastes are aligned or worse, determined, with assertions of purity. Once the listener participates in this arrangement, he tacitly declares his allegiance to the intellectual over the musical, in whatever hue it is presented; what starts as a noble endeavor thereafter devolves into yet another race, driven by equally banal preoccupations, to outdo all others in the obscurity sweepstakes.

For the bands, it is a classic catch-22 alright, and makes me feel not a little hypocritical when I call them out as soon as they sell out but then in the same breath turn around and damn them when they show the temerity to renounce conventional avenues to fame. But it is what is, an indictment of the time we live in: people are desensitized and people are alienated. The one leads to a demand for the ever more novel while the other goads them on to become obedient little rebels in a cause which they think makes them stand out from everybody else. Metal bands, perhaps unbeknownst to them, then have chanced upon the ideal marketplace to disseminate their music through the currency of an artificial integrity.

What are they to do then? How do metal bands remain obscure without explicitly rallying to arms under the pennant of obscurity? What does obscurity even mean in the context of heavy metal and the present time when technology provides so many temptations to prostrate oneself before the wider world? Is obscurity even desirable? Surely, to avail of that same technology to sell one’s art is no crime; art does not exist in a vacuum; it is made to elicit a reaction and in what is a mutually reinforcing loop, the artist thrives on this reaction, be it positive or otherwise. Why would any self-respecting artist then willingly short-circuit the extent to which his work can be promulgated?

In my opinion, this shouldn’t even be a matter for debate, much less something a band feels the need to bang on about. I’m only projecting, but to me metal is an introverted music, and therefore the desire to keep it obscure should be a natural-subliminal extension of the musician’s personality. This introversion I speak of is not necessarily that of the cliche skinny nerd locked up inside his bedroom; most of us are reasonably functioning members of society, if not out of choice then because of a grudging acknowledgement of its rules, but that does not preclude us from retreating from its corrosive glare at every given opportunity (and no, hipsters bandying their introversion through memes on social media do not count). As the root of the word suggests, the introvert inverts attention back upon himself and constantly struggles to modulate his behavior to keep himself honest.

Bands of course are a composite of different personalities but I find it hard to imagine that  some of my favorite bands – Deceased, The Chasm, Mortem – don’t contain at least a kernel of this disposition, however personable they might appear to be otherwise. Their obscurity is not premeditated on grandiose disavowals but manifests itself almost despite themselves. They exert the utmost effort into the most important thing of all, the act of creating music. They promote the fruits of that labor but only as something that any creator would want to genially share with like-minded souls. They do the tour cycles if they’re so lucky, they interact with the people who admire their work, and they then retire into the background until it is time to repeat the process. One might say this is the normal, old-fashioned way of doing things, but I can’t help but infer from this a sort of half-smiling, shake-of-the-head acknowledgement of the way the world works. After all, Deathspell Omega and Mgla, despite appearing content to remain in the shadows, are far more popular than The Chasm, Deceased, and Mortem, and only a rube would credit this solely to the respective quality of music.

But there is more than just resignation. There is pride there, too; pride in a job well done, confidence in letting the music speak for itself, and above all else, faith in that unsaid credo of heavy metal – you don’t find the music, it is the music that finds you.

 

 

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Prosanctus Inferi – Pulpit Sycophants (Demo, 2019)

Prosanctus Inferi return after five years with a collection of demos in anticipation of a proper full length later in the year. No other contemporary band in death metal has quite managed to capture the idea of music as blasphemy in the manner heard on Noctambulant Jaws Within Sempiternal Night; harking back, perhaps even signifying the culmination of developments first introduced by Havohej, Incantation, and Immolation, Prosanctus Inferi turn sound itself against the conception of holiness on a primal, subconscious level. Music is classically described as that which most closely approximates the essentially unquantifiable nature of God and the soul, but in the hands of this band, it becomes a weapon against those hallowed assumptions, a twisted distortion and desecration of cadences, even when heard in the light of a genre that has regularly flouted conventional harmony. That they achieve this effect while staying adamantly musical and song-oriented, without resorting to avant-garde detours or overt minimalism, makes them one of the most important death metal bands in the modern era.

The songs on Pulpit Sycophants represent the outline but no more of what can be reasonably expected on the full-length. Conspicuous by its absence is the lead guitar, such an important tool on previous recordings where it routinely squirmed all over the rhythm in myriad scrambled and inverted configurations. As such, it now becomes possible to discern just how big an influence Havohej and Dethrone The Son Of God are on the Prosanctus Inferi sound; in terms of note choice and variations in rhythm, these songs unmistakably reference the older band, whilst ironing out its slightly impulsive nature and addiction to groove. Jake Kohn’s vocals consciously mirror Paul Ledney’s larynx-shredding eruptions more than ever before, stretching out each syllable to its breaking point and quite possibly having an effect on the elongated phrasing of the underlying composition. Unlike Havohej, however, Prosanctus Inferi excel at creating more than just a quilt patchwork of  potent dissonant riffs; this is a band that is adept at surreptitiously varying the texture of the call-response aesthetic within the same bar of music, toying with listener expectations and as a subliminal consequence also making way for a vaguely hypnotic lilt in proceedings. Melody is used with understated effect but it undeniably exists and frequently gives these songs an epic-tragic flavor that belies their fundamentally chromatic nature. Like Condemner, Prosanctus Inferi stitch their riffs out of many moving parts across the chromatic register and not always in a linearly ascending/descending manner; all it then takes for a relatively stable melody to emerge from this cluster of notes is a strategic point of resolution.

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Argus – From Fields of Fire (2017)

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

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

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A Sinister trek through the last fifteen years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Distant calling and the musical soul

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

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

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

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