Origin of pride

Pride, integrity, and self-respect are qualities that have nothing to do with one’s intelligence quotient. I have seen simple men act with the virtue of lions and by the same token I have witnessed those of exceptional intelligence behave little better than slugs squirming in the slime. The latter condone their behavior under the sobriquet of social etiquette, impelled as they are by the need to go along to get along. But look closely and you will note with what great cunning they choose their lieges. These are the same people who will regularly express outrage on a variety of subjects…as long as those subjects are sufficiently distanced from their immediate circle of intimates. Self-righteousness is convenient when the object of your ire has no bearing on your personal relations or estimation within that circle; but if the vile influence of that object perchance emanates from the center of that circle, then that same outrage tucks its tail between its legs and changes into subservience.

It is a repulsive spectacle. To the proud and sensitive man, it immediately indicates that further engagement with such forms of life on any level is futile, that the only possible counter to such hypocrisy lies in it being crushed under the heel of the boot. But the rules of civilized society prevent us from pursuing this course of action, and therefore we view an agonizingly latent indifference as our only alternative. Sometimes, out of naivete, we ascribe pride to a person that eventually proves undeserving of such faith, and it is then that we realize a basic truism: pride cannot be learned through persuasion or command.

This pride I speak of is constituted in the essence of a person. It is very different from the pride one has in their work or the achievements of their kin. External factors matter little to it; instead, it is a soliloquy with the self. The lay term for this might be conscience, but even that doesn’t do it justice, because this kind of pride is not a mere moral agency; there is nothing of the right or wrong about it, nor is it a universally mandated code of conduct. It is molded, like so many other facets of life, by the deportment of those under whose aegis we live out our formative years; but ultimately pride comes into its own only through the willing embrace of the introversion that rests inside the individual’s soul. From this arises the ability to truly observe and introspect, upon the actions of others or those of our own, and the motives governing them. These actions don’t exist in a vacuum; they always strike a chord, jarring or pleasant. Pride develops when we remain attuned to those notes and the reactions they elicit in us.

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Suffocation discography overview: post-reunion

Suffocation‘s albums since their reunion in 2003 have seen the band rein in the speed of their youth for a more simmering style. Mike Smith returned and then left again, while Guy Marchais and Derek Boyer consolidated their positions on guitar and bass over the decade that was to follow. The impact of these changes on the band’s sound has been felt acutely; described as stodgy and uninspired by the once-loyal, the new albums can’t possibly compare favorably with the classics, but do they have anything of value to offer to the increasingly cynical old fan?

Souls To Deny (2004)
Souls to Deny, Suffocation‘s first album after reuniting, and very first recording minus Doug Cerrito, sees the band attempting a consolidation of the gains of yesteryear whilst adding a few novel touches to their sound. At this time, the field had been swamped with bands influenced by Suffocation; stakes in both technicality and brutality had been raised to near-breaking point (see: Deeds Of FleshBeheaded, Internal Suffering, Ingurgitating Oblivion, etc). Wisely, Suffocation refused to engage all-out with the younger generation, instead opting to sharpen a melodic sensibility more than ever before. The introduction of melody is tastefully done, and never amounts to more than a flavoring agent, but it is a double-edged sword all the same: while songs now have distinct hooks, the same also pose a temptation for the band to revisit touchstones best left behind, a temptation they don’t always avoid. A preponderance of repetitive, middle-tempo parts with not nearly enough internal movement also hints at greater vocal indulgence on Frank Mullen’s behalf. These factors in concert have caused many to peremptorily dismiss new Suffocation as boring, but closer listens reveal Souls To Deny to be an album of decent, honest ideas that could have done with more judicious editing during composition.

Suffocation – Suffocation (2006)
Part A -> Part B – > Part A -> Part C -> Part A. What sticks in the craw with latter day Suffocation is the obvious repetition of Part A throughout the body of the song. Repetition previously existed as a riff stacked atop itself but once that sequence was exhausted, the band would quite organically move on to the next part. On Suffocation, however, riffsets are reintroduced time and again; what’s worse is that many of these riffsets are inherently static, serving in no discernible way future movement within the song; hearing ‘Redemption‘, for instance, makes it hard to interpret this phenomenon as anything other than a chance for Frank Mullen to superimpose words over music. Did the band have populist aspirations with such a maneuver? Or was this a case of experimentation in tempos and general delivery? One surmises the truth lies somewhere in between, but the irony is that despite such possible goals, Suffocation remains the most abrasive album in the band’s discography, its conflicting mix of shambling dissonant chords and blasting making for an experience as thick, unpleasant, and inextricable from as tar.

Blood Oath (2009)
Mike Smith is on record expressing the band’s desire to appeal to a new generation of listeners, one perhaps not as enthused with the labyrinthine chaos of the early albums. This intention dovetails with the caveats of the previous two albums; but Blood Oath, despite being a mostly mid-tempo affair, is again anything but accessible. In many ways, this is the most complicated album the band has written since Breeding The Spawn, but where that album saw only the beginnings of syncopation, here the  soundscape is dominated by a staggered, eighth-note, palm-muted chug with minimal lateral motion, from which the occasional stab of melody arises to provide orientation. Add to that a production that almost entirely cuts the mids out of that chug, and there remain but the faintest vestiges of what might be going on underneath. One may be tempted to call this slam, but is slam without groove even slam? Instead, one gets the feeling that Suffocation genuinely try writing in a new paradigm, but there is such a thing as digging a hole too deep to extract oneself from.

Pinnacle Of Bedlam (2013)
Pinnacle Of Bedlam is the showiest album Suffocation have ever written; harmonically brighter textures, not unlike those practised by the California school of techdeath bands (Odious Mortem, post-Crown Of Souls Deeds Of Flesh, etc), threaten to overwhelm it at various points. The returning Dave Culross injects much-needed momentum into the songs, and a charging speed metal technique, sorely missed since the 90s, responds favorably, too. The inescapable fact here, however, is that the blockily staccato guitar strum has come to be a permanent feature of the band’s sound, and not just as a brief aside. In the process, much of the phrasal fluidity of the past – the spontaneous bleeding of one idea into another at high intensity – is lost, perhaps irretrievably. It is a strange trap bands walk into, and willfully by all accounts; a similar fate befell Krisiun once they incorporated stuttered time signatures, presumably to convey a martial effect, on Works Of Carnage. For lack of a better analogy, it is almost tantamount to an obsessive-compulsive physical reaction, like a twitching eye: harmless as long as it remains involuntary, conscious acknowledgement, instead of bringing it to heel, only seems to exacerbate it further. We as observers and listeners are witness to it, but the bands themselves appear incapable of controlling the habit.

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Suffocation discography overview: Pre-split

Of all the foundational death metal bands, Suffocation have perhaps managed to preserve their dignity best. Although the newest album Of The Dark Light doesn’t seem too encouraging on first inspection, the band’s run up to Pinnacle Of Bedlam isn’t without its highlights, and deserves to be looked at in greater detail. But as in all other aspects of life, understanding the present implicitly entails an appreciation of the past. With an eye then towards a more respectful analysis of this legendary band’s contributions, the following is a summary of their music through the 90s:

Human Waste (1991)
So commences the career of one of the four pillars of American death metal. Mike Smith brings percussion ideologically influenced by the sonic terrorists in Siege/Repulsion/Napalm death, but far more advanced technically and endurance-wise and suited to the progressive nature of nascent death metal. Flurries of  extreme drum rolls add emphasis to a predominantly multisyllabic tremolo picked riffing style; present also in abundance is the palm-muted flutter of speed metal with highlighted root notes. Which goes to show that Suffocation, consigned to the brutal death metal label as they are, had as much in common with, say, Monstrosity, as they were to with their descendants.  One would be amiss, of course, to omit the advent of the soon-to-be-maligned “slam”; Suffocation, for better or worse, are the inventors of the technique as it pertains to death metal, but in their hands, on Human Waste and beyond, it is less crowd-pleasing filler and more an instrument of oppression. Never ones to linger, Suffocation merely touch upon the slam as a breathing point before moving on to more adventurous pursuits.

Effigy Of The Forgotten (1991)
Suffocation never use open chords as primary melodic device; the main source of movement are individual notes, but chords when used are relegated to a somewhat ambiguous, free-floating role, either as chugging slam or as a micro-adjustment between bouts of frenetic activity. Like Cannibal Corpse, but with far more dexterity, Suffocation regularly climax their tremolo runs with flourishing embellishments viz. hammer ons, pulls offs, trills, etc. The effect is decidedly breathless, but never ornamental; despite the many permutations and combinations of notes existing inside these songs, Suffocation, somehow, manage to introduce sufficient color and variation into their compositions; these songs evolve and recapitulate ideas in a way that belies the strictly atonal framework within which they operate. There might be little of the emotionally tangible in Effigy Of The Forgotten, but this is structural death metal in the truest sense, existing in isolation as logic. And logic, inherently, is brutal.

Breeding The Spawn (1993)
Paper-thin drums and overall dry production conceal the most progressive structures the band ever wrote. Released in the same year as Gorgut‘s seminal Erosion Of Sanity, Breeding The Spawn has a similarly contorting riff ethos supplemented by ambitious and more diverse time signatures, and a twanging bass frequently leading the charge. Erstwhile long-chained tremolo picking gives way to more pronounced syncopation; combined with a greater presence of groove, in both fluid and leaden-footed slam form, these two elements herald the true birth of the sub-style called brutal death metal. Unfortunately, most brutal death metal falls short of Suffocation‘s twin virtues of motific potency and thematic reiteration, and instead becomes a display of either sterile, whimsical physical-technical prowess or bone-headed simplicity. Breeding The Spawn is neither and both at the same time, but as mandated by song, not template, and therein lies the triumph of originators over imitators.

Pierced From Within (1995)
Pierced From Within is at once a simplification and an elaboration of previous ideas. Vocals are exhumed from the moldy confines of the crypt and sense the clarity of day for the first time. This renunciation of a once-abstract nature applies to the songwriting at large, too; melody, for one, is no longer incidental but becomes a self-conscious actor pulling strings at opportune times. While no less technically demanding, there is now greater space, less turnover of ideas, and more palpable punctuation in the body of the song. The band’s creative juices however are at an all-time high, and this increased deliberation rather than being cause for stagnation provides them with the ideal canvas to write some of the most memorable songs in this style. All Suffocation is intensely rhythmic, but Pierced From Within qualifies to the epithet of “body music” with rare distinction; it is the sound of rush of blood to the head and bludgeoning corpuscular traffic, more primal than intellectual, and a study in contrasts.

Despise The Sun (1998)
The last recording before the band went on hiatus, Despise The Sun is a good point in the band’s trajectory to take stock of how their sound changed following Doug Cerrito’s departure. This ferocious EP contains four new songs and a rerecording of ‘Catatonia‘ from Human Waste. In all ways possible, it is a rollback of the accessibility that gradually manifested itself from Breeding The Spawn onwards. The most intimidating production in genre history certainly helps; at loud volumes, Despise The Sun can cause genuine heart palpitations, in altered states, a shapeless anxiety.

While grindcore is routinely referenced in discussions pertaining to Suffocation, it is here, and perhaps no where else, that Napalm Death-style short phrase sonic detonations are legitimately heard. Also, Malevolent Creation skinsman Dave Culross gets his first exposure with the band (he would later return on Pinnacle Of Bedlam to regalvanize the band’s lagging tempos), and throws down the proverbial gauntlet; revolutionary though Mike Smith may have been, Culross brings the hyperactive, thuggish attitude of his other band to Suffocation; confrontational and technical, he, more than anything else, pushes the band’s sound through the roof. By the time the revamped ‘Catatonia‘ closes, the verdict is a brass-knuckled punch to the face: there simply wasn’t a better band in death metal in 1998.

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Distasteful use of kick and bass drum triggers in metal

 

Decrepit Birth have never been a band of songwriting delicacy. To compensate for this deficit, they have switched styles with regularity over their fifteen year old existence. Starting off as a more extreme brutal death metal band on Unique Leader, the band made a drastic turnabout on Diminishing Between Worlds with their interpretation of Death circa Human and beyond. That album may have had its melodic moments but the problem with Decrepit Birth has always been a lack of nuance and the “more is better” mentality; from awkwardly placed super-saccharine solos reminiscent in tone and phrasing of shredder Michael Angelo Batio, no exponent of moderation himself, to the more egregious offense of monotonous triggering of kick and bass drums, often even sharing equal volume with the guitars, the band’s general inability to say no is an assault on the notion of good taste.

It would be churlish to level the old charge of cheating at the use of drum triggers in metal. Rather, think of them as a production tool that, assuming expert use, affords the drummer a consistency of tone and accent beyond the pale of the acoustic drum. At its broadest, the trigger is a transducer fitted onto the rim of the drum or on the drum head itself; each time the drum is hit, the trigger transmits a signal to a sound module which then outputs a pre-programmed sound texture, at the approximate time of impact. Ironically, it is this same consistency that creates the illusion of faster speed; eliminating variations caused by human timing makes for a more predictable and sharply defined sound wave; when experienced in rapid succession, as is the case with certain death metal and power metal bands, the effect is of a drummer operating at a higher, superficially-aided level.

But drummers like Sam Paulicelli of Decrepit Birth, and his forebears in Pete Sandoval, Max Kolesne, Derek Roddy, and Tim Yeung, are fine drummers in their own right, and the primary movers behind developments in trigger technology. To accuse them of taking shortcuts is ridiculous; in any case, music is not athletics, even a music as visceral as metal. We take it as given that technology helps push the limits of athletic performance, however “clean” the sport at hand claims to be; few can therefore complain if technology can also help create a legitimately superior artform.

The argument against the incessant use of triggers as practiced especially by the above gentlemen then becomes one centered around the ideas of context and aesthetics. One can understand when a drummer uses triggers to add tone and rolling depth to his strikes, as, I believe, can be heard in the late Nick Menza’s introduction to Megadeth‘s ‘Addicted To Chaos‘. Employed in this manner, the trigger becomes an artful, almost-melodic device worth its weight in gold; but to what end does the extreme metal drummer employ his typewriter-clatter? Death metal and power metal, the two styles where the triggered bass drum is heard the most, are not the same as industrial music; bands like The Berzerker and Mortician may have used programmed drums for their peculiar brand of inhuman music but death metal of a more deliberate nature, violent as it can be, still depends on a certain a-melodic sensibility and the virtues of theme and development. It is a stretch for drummers to imagine that they can tally the mechanical nature of interminably triggered drums with that sensibility without dissent. At best, a distraction to be hopefully overcome by the quality of writing otherwise, at worst, triggers are a liability that can induce an almost physically crippling reaction in the listener.

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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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