Retrospective: Deeds Of Flesh’s Reduced To Ashes

Like forebears Suffocation, Deeds of Flesh made their name on the back of unremitting structural soundness. The lack of palpable emotional content in their oeuvre, coupled with an unerring, almost mechanical consistency in delivery, has robbed them of their position in the loftier echelons of genre history; indeed, this is a music of few exclamations, wasting little time in establishing and pursuing its brutal agenda, and yet, in stubborn adherence to that agenda, it finds room to develop ideas in ways not available to most bands consigned to the brutal death metal label.

Reduced To Ashes is perhaps the best example of what set this band apart from its peers. Built from the same staccato-dominant, percussively tight-knit blocks that lent albums like Pierced From Within and Erosion Of Sanity their violent credentials, Reduced to Ashes went a step further and borrowed something of the rounded, cyclical, free-flowing tendencies of second-wave black metal, thus offsetting and interspersing its choppier textures with a liquid grace. The result, however, doesn’t in any manner approach the grand romanticism desired by black metal bands; this is still very much music mired in a system of unbelief, heedless of notions of good and bad, eager to reduce existence to a blank slate. Not because a blank slate might herald a new beginning; rather so it may insinuate a cleansing and a state free of values and the ambiguities they breed. In this, too, the meaning of death metal at large may be inferred: while at least some strains of black metal are a hopeful recapitulation of events past, death metal cannot and should not be enslaved to political ends. There are no extra-musical homilies to be discerned in it; the music because of its abstract nature is a music aloof; it seeks to upend, this much we can tell by its obvious aggression, but it doesn’t give us a template for what is to follow in the ensuing void.

Reduced To Ashes, in classic Deeds Of Flesh fashion up to that point, is entirely shorn of showmanship. All hands are instead turned towards weaving a linear yet complicated narrative, a statement which might seem like contradiction at first, but old Deeds Of Flesh brooked no outstanding deviation from the original line of thought. There are no allusions to delicate musical or theatrical devices on Reduced To Ashes; what the listener is confronted with instead is a vision honed to the edge of a razor. It isn’t so much developmental variation as an incremental development; again, linear rather than lateral, where inspiration is found within the constitution of the body proper, not outside of it only to be tied back in in the aftermath. Outwardly bland because of its aesthetic of self-denial, Reduced To Ashes represents the building tissue of death metal brought to fully self-contained fruition; a paradox, too, that the manner in which those blocks are arranged also makes it one of the most esoteric of all death metal albums.

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Why Destroyer 666’s Wildfire disappoints

With acute understanding of heavy metal rage and melancholy, Destroyer 666 went on to become in many ways the archetypal metal band of their generation. Deriving their elemental sound and technique from the neoclassical flair of Destruction‘s Sentence of Death, driving it through the epicness befitting of Homeric poetry, consistently espousing the image of the man of pride, yet managing to remain true to the law of the street, Destroyer 666, to one small pocket of metal listeners, became the embodiment of all that is great in our music.

To call ourselves, those that are fans of this music, depressed outcasts would be a caricaturish oversimplification; that is the mainstream’s lazy reading of the metalhead with a bad upbringing and no chance at life. But our essential unease eludes such convenient pigeon-holing; on the one hand, we acknowledge that there are others in far direr straits than us; our sense of pride – the same sense of pride that Destroyer 666 so strongly evoke – wouldn’t let us pretend otherwise, wouldn’t let us wallow in a pool of self-pity. No, our discomfiture arises from the lack of a truly meaningful purpose to work towards in this life; we have built a superstructure of ideals in our minds but the very first engagement with the world as it exists betrays the impracticality inherent in our idealism. We lash out in impotence, we try to circumscribe our interaction with that world, so that we don’t sully ourselves too much with its machinations; but it is an uphill struggle with our conscience all the same, leading to the occasional taint of corruption and the bouts of self-recrimination that inevitably follow. To fans, Destroyer 666 provided the soundtrack to this internal drama, both hapless and heroic by equal turn.

The impetus gathered leading into 02’s Cold Steel…For An Iron Age was tremendous, the band having lighted upon the same wellspring of inspiration responsible for the classic eras of more lauded names. But for whatever reason, the next two full-lengths were released over lengthy gaps of seven years apiece, arresting much of the momentum from the band’s younger years. Defiance, on the surface, retained the approach from the first three albums, that of a blackened speed metal filtered through a melodic sense which could only be likened to a traditionalism of the soul. But something felt lacking; be it a deterioration of that melodic sense, now used as embellishment rather than warp and woof of the composition, or an increased tendency towards atonal note progressions, Defiance, illogically, seemed less than the sum of its parts; it wasn’t quite the sound of a band running through the motions; rather, to pilfer a lyric from Kreator‘s shunned era, Defiance was a case of “the spirit willing but the flesh being too weak“. Or was it the other way around?

A chicken-or-egg-first conundrum but in any case the band took a further seven years to release Wildfire. Apparently, their idea of exorcising the ghosts of Defiance was to unabashedly acknowledge, more blatantly than ever before, their influences in hook-heavy hard rock and old heavy metal. It was a development that found little favour with me previously:

in the twilight of their careers, Destroyer 666 have decided to give their more traditional influences free rein on separate, fully self-contained heavy metal songs, with just about the same awkward, disjointed effect. No one begrudged Destroyer 666 for their cross-pollination of styles for the better part of fifteen years; fans empathized with the band’s motives, appreciated that they led to a metal of heightened emotion, treasured it like no other, until it became hard to justify the bleedover into bouncy British Steel-like pap. Which is not a knock on British Steel itself! One can enjoy British Steel for what it is without ascribing unnecessarily nobler ideals to it, but a band like Destroyer 666, rising out of the underground, ought to have better awareness of the many gradations that have made them who they are.

To put Wildfire in perspective, one should hear it immediately after hearing the last great Destroyer 666 album, Cold Steel…For An Iron Age; maybe even the Terror Abraxas EP, the final stop before the wilderness that would come; gone is any aspiration to the progressive writing of that era, then informed with the structural density of an origins act like Corpse Molestation, now sadly replaced with textural imitation and a style far more accessible and rooted in straightforward speed metal. Fine, it is no crime to honor one’s roots, but then the band adds to the mix a brash, self-referential parody of themselves; it bears repeating that, simpleton allegations of Destroyer 666 being a “beer metal” band notwithstanding, there was a gravitas and a steel to their style once. This was emphatically not “fun” music; they delivered their words like hammer blows through feral yet intricately wrought riffcraft. They challenged their listeners, their songs contained inherent quality checks, for both the sanity of the song and, indirectly, the sanctity of the underground at large. What metal needed from this band today was an album that respected their own storied tradition, that sowed the fear of the devil into approximately half the population of self-professed metalheads; instead we got a tepid deconstruction of that tradition into something digestible for a crowd reared on Bolzer and the new wave of thrash metal.

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Summoning – With Doom We Come (2018)

Like certain multilayered pieces from Kansas‘ best work from the 70s, With Doom We Come is an album of many voices; as with all polyphonic music, the real test lies in isolating and evaluating the effectiveness of the individual voices, and here, Summoning, as one would expect from a band of their pedigree, are above reproach. Where one line of melody roots the composition to soil, a second embellishes fantastical landscapes, and another yet kisses this painstakingly constructed edifice like the gentlest of zephyr winds. Summoning may not play conventionally dark music any more; in truth, this is music to inspire, not enrage, to reminisce, not react to; and still, it carries with it the weight of ages, insistent in its conviction that history, poetry, and mythology among themselves form an organic, interwoven continuum, a fabric that ripples from the distant occluded past to the present day.

It is tempting to suggest that Summoning, by this time, have all but escaped the ambit of black metal; to those concerned with such qualifiers, it is perhaps best to hear their work in the company of post-punk/new wave/neoclassical artists like Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil, and Vangelis. Rhythm has long since evolved beyond rock and metal norms; in terms of beat division and variety in emphasis, it shares as much with percussive techniques found in music from the orient as it does with martial industrial patterns. Distorted guitars remain sublimated to an auxiliary role in the background, providing a suggestive wash of sound over which horn, flute, and key implements demonstrate their textural allegiance to more than just one mode of cultural expression.

On surface, With Doom We Come, and indeed much of everything Summoning have done since Minas Morgul, would appear deserving of that nefarious, multicultural, umbrella label of “world music”. However, multiculturalism is little more than forced integration for the purpose of political gerrymandering; Summoning‘s oeuvre on the other hand is causally logical, hence thoroughly natural and of a piece; it is not interested in assembling a menagerie of diverse sounds to impress its virtue on an impressionable audience; instead, it is a reflection of the exchange that happens between humanity over extended periods as a result of existential inevitability rather than transient materialistic expediency. Therein lies its true nobility.

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Morbid Angel – Kingdoms Disdained (2017)

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

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

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

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Pagan Altar – The Room of Shadows (2017)

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

– Pagan Altar, After Forever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pending resolutions

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

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

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

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Cannibal Corpse – Red Before Black (2017)

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

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

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

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Cadaveric Incubator – Sermons of the Devouring Dead (2017)

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

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

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

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

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Blasphemer – Blasphemer (2017)

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

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

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

 

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