Why *not* take metal seriously?

In Hindu esoteric thought, Avishkara – a word which in regular parlance indicates invention – is used to describe the process through which a spirit, be it deity or another form of ethereal being, takes up residence inside a foreign object. The foreign object most commonly used is the idol of Hindu temples; however, it is not the idol in its base form that is worshipped; that by itself is mere hunk of stone. Rather, by intensely concentrating on and projecting a certain aspect of divinity onto inanimate matter, through fervent prayer, desire, and mantra, the idol itself becomes a loci for that divine aspect to enter the material plane and interact with those that have summoned it. A yet more extreme type of Avishkara is that in which the human body itself becomes a vessel for spirits trapped in the karmic cycle of birth and rebirth; a trained sadhu strikes a spiritual bargain with such a spirit and then cajoles it to enter the individual person of his choosing. Preparing an appropriate environment for the spirit to feel comfortable in is an integral part of this process: how he dressed while alive, what he ate and drank, the manner of address he was accustomed to, the music he listened to, all go a long way in simulating the conditions the spirit may have been used to during his time inside mortal flesh. If there is an audience gathered for consultation with the spirit, it is imperative that they buy into the phenomenon in play, because any loss of faith or skepticism on their part is liable to induce existential disorientation in the spirit.

Whether this is to be taken literally or as a manifestation of various psychological archetypes or indeed a mysterious confluence of both simultaneously is up to the individual practitioner, and truly known only by the wise adept. The present however is a time of constant scientific deconstruction, where incredulity is the norm, and empiricism and its instruments alone dictate what is real and what is delusion. Recently, Minnesota-based black metal band Teratism offered their justification for not playing a show with a joke band; in the main, Teratism‘s position was that their performance would only attain full potency in a setting positively orientated towards the themes in their music. To share the stage with a joke band, knowing beforehand the dubious standard of audience said joke band would bring in, would inevitably compromise the effectiveness of their delivery. In line with esoteric traditions around the world and certainly with every significant black metal band that has come before, Teratism earnestly believe their music to be a conduit to usher in a particular state of mind in performer and listener. To take a principled stand to preserve the sanctity of that vision is a noble endeavor and one that every metal band worth a damn should undertake.

No one has to scream this from the rooftops. We who are steeped in this music’s – our music’s – lore accept it as self-evident truth. We willingly submit to the anachronistic demands implicit in it, despite all our conditioning to the contrary, because time and again it has raised us out of the mundane into the sublime. This much “seriousness” and gravitas we expect of ourselves, of those who claim to love metal, and those that claim to play it before us with sincerity. Hence why to see Teratism lambasted and ridiculed for their grasp of this innate truism by people who support the joke band – whose founder incidentally is of the opinion that black metal is little more than “dorky entertainment” – and claim to love black metal in the same breath, ought to enrage any metalhead with half a pint of hot blood in his veins.

Why they do it is simple enough to understand. There has to be some festering ugliness at the center of these people’s lives for them to chime in one after the other, like so many lemmings jumping off a cliff, with their memes and their irreverence, to bring down someone expressing a greater sentiment. A coward hates nothing more than a mirror shone upon his inadequacies and a hipster can’t stand to be excluded from the very thing he has co-opted to compensate for his lack of identity, but still, what self-defeating fatalism to sabotage the very foundation on which you try to build your credibility! To not take what you claim to love seriously is to not take yourself seriously. Even worse, it is to actively hate yourself; your disfigured ego chides you for persisting in a charade, it curses you for this dissonance you’ve contrived inside the mind; the object of your affection – which really is only a ticket to the validation you crave every living minute (ha! ha! clever boy made a funny caption, see how he walks that edge all day long, well done, move along now, that’s a good lad!) – reveals itself to be something more than what *you* need it to be. So, like some fungus rotting wood out from the inside, you react against it with spite and irony and do your best to tear the whole edifice down. It is truly dysfunctional behavior, and unsurprisingly complemented with a panoply of neuroses (gender disphoria, body dysmorphia, morbid obesity, take your pick), as even a casual look through the comments section on the Teratism page would attest to.

Yet, a fatuous “battle of the bands” mentality persists: Teratism are consistently asked to play regardless and blow all comers off stage and in the process win new converts over to their side. Converts, indeed! Any metalhead worth his salt would rather spend the evening with a congregation of lepers than fraternize with this crowd. No, Teratism‘s stand is solid through and through; if anything, they could’ve been far more dismissive, as should every metalhead whose misfortune it is to deal with these rodents. And perchance they accuse you of harboring whatever political tendencies happen to be their bugbear at that moment, as they invariably will, then bear that coat of arms proudly too. On the sliding scale of preferences, declare in no uncertain terms just how repulsive you find them and their incessant machinations, and that you will always side with whatever breeds exclusivity and quality over quantity.

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Thy Feeble Saviour – And Darkness Fell (2018)

Texan death metal represents the most uncompromising face of the genre today. Dark, gritty, and relentlessly confrontational, this is not music for those perpetually seeking new thrills or those satisfied with shapelessness masquerading as innovation. Rather, a band like Thy Feeble Saviour chooses a small palette of tones influenced by Incantation, Profanatica/Havohej, and Imprecation, but within that restricted range develops themes more expansively and expressively than heard in bands with a more explicitly progressive agenda. Far too often, mood and impression are elevated above structure, but for metal to be metal, mood always has to arise from structure. Texan bands over time have grasped this subtle balance, that composition has to achieve complete primacy when note choices are viewed with extreme asceticism, not to bolster some mealy-mouthed claim to minimalism, but to serve with tunnel vision the higher ideal of violent death metal. 

Those that don’t understand this higher ideal will be liable to mock it, scoff at it, and move on to something else, but for the rest of us, Thy Feeble Saviour‘s style of death metal mirrors a very peculiar psychological constitution we find in ourselves. In its presence, we feel safe, even obliged on behalf of sacred duty, to shed the skin of pretense we otherwise wear in daily life, and to present ourselves as we are, naked and unrestrained. Convictions become even more sharply defined to the point where we could almost kill or die on their account. It is a psychic transformation, berzerker-like in its ferocity, that I have experienced on many an occasion, and I always marvel, and not without a little trepidation, at its potency in the aftermath. It is no simple case of an adrenaline overdrive either; there is that, obviously, but more pertinently I believe this style of death metal to be a receptacle and a crucible for our values – or more accurately, whatever is the raw soup from which values coalesce – in their most primal element, unshaped and completely wild.

Like Finnish band Sickness, Thy Feeble Saviour capture this essence of violence in pocket-sized songs never greater than three minutes in length. But where Sickness play Altars of Madness styled ripping death metal, Thy Feeble Saviour‘s oeuvre traditionally revolves around an interplay between tempos; that the band eschews the outright dirges of mid-latter period Incantation without resorting to the stripped-down ethos of a Profanatica, and still comes away with organically alive songs is to their credit. This awareness alone sets them apart from the many Incantation clones, but by reaching back even further into the great band’s catalog for inspiration, by taking the lessons of Onward to Golgotha no less to heart, Thy Feeble Saviour establish themselves among the elite pursuing this style of death metal today.

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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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