Where dead angels lie

Destiny calls
To leave these walls
For only the fleece
Can bring us peace

I am to rule
A king not a fool
The prophecy I will defend
And sail to the worlds end

[Chorus]
Fear the children slain of the hydra
For they will seek to kill upon command
None can escape the teeth of the hydra
From the teeth of the hydra
Come the children of the Damned

Many have tried
And many have died
So it is told
In search of the ram of gold

And guarding the prize
With death in its eyes
Lies a seven-headed serpent
In shadows awaiting the bold

We, have not come here to kill
But for the fleece
Be it the gods will
We, same as the legend
The prophecy will be fulfilled in the end

Our battle has come
And I fear to run
But with my blade of steel
The serpent is done

From his teeth on the ground
With an evil sound
Grow skeletons of death
Wanting my soul

– Omen, ‘Teeth of the Hydra’

\m/

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Do Skonu – Hell (2016)

What is it that one means when they use a geographical association to describe a piece of music? North American death metal and its subsets, Norwegian black metal as opposed to Finnish black metal, and then further beyond that ambit, South American black metal. And so on. Regional denominations are a convenient way of bracketing styles within the greater genre. Originators react to their environment and their inner impulse, and lay down a template which, for better or worse, is adhered to with diligence by successors. Over time, whole regions come to be represented by a peculiar sound, and the relationship between the material and the immaterial becomes ossified. Naturally, there are outliers during this process, personalities incapable of conforming to what everyone else around them is doing, but even so, these islands of individuality and protest lie few and far between. And even they can’t help betraying to some minor degree the artifacts of the place they come from.

There is something palpably Slavic about Do Skonu‘s Hell, what with regular black metal tropes frequently tailing off into slivers from the Eastern folk tradition. The foregoing postulation in this case would imply this band’s sound to be influenced by regional torchbearers like Root, Master’s Hammer, Graveland, and Nokturnal Mortum. Tempos are uniformly magisterial, not dissimilar to what countrymen Khors achieved on their first two albums. Thematically rich, single lines of melody dance against an insinuative wash of rhythm, dramatized with the kind of showmanship which has long been the hallmark of Root. Savagery as generally understood may be in scarce supply here, but a certain narrative calculation and coldness certainly isn’t. Do Skonu achieve a lot in a short running time, and it is a testament to their composing prowess that their unassuming template presents and develops ideas with such clarity, conviction, and consistency.

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Iron Maiden and plagiarism

Mark my words my soul lives on
Please don’t worry cause I’ve have gone
I’ve gone beyond to see the truth
When your time is close at hand
Maybe then you’ll understand
Life down there is just a strange illusion

– Beckett, ‘Life’s Shadow’ (1974)

The greatest heavy metal band of all time is currently embroiled in a plagiarism dispute with Mr. Brian Quinn of 70s progressive rock band Beckett. Iron Maiden, for those who come in late, lifted lyrics and an entire instrumental section from the Beckett song ‘Life’s Shadow‘,  co-written by Quinn and one Bob Barton, and put them to fine use on classics ‘Hallowed Be Thy Name‘ – in my opinion, the greatest heavy metal song ever – and ‘Nomad‘, respectively. Nothing remotely subtle about this act of skulduggery; as much as it hurts to admit, Maiden committed outright theft and should be rightfully held to task by their fans and the law. The gory details can be read here.

This blog has previously dealt with the topic of plagiarism in heavy metal, and how much is too much to be pardoned. For what it’s worth, the song ‘Life’s Shadow‘ is a fine workout after the manner of the 70s. It is eerie to hear words and motifs that have been a mainstay for so many years suddenly inhabited, and legitimately at that, inside another skin. It is a different song than ‘Nomad‘ too, exchanging Maiden‘s in-your-face orientalisms for a far more understated delivery.

Trust is a frail commodity which once disturbed sleeks away diffidently into the shadows. I don’t believe Iron Maiden have become as big as they have by perpetually stealing ideas from other people; that would be disingenuous conspiracy-mongering. But never having had much interest in trivia, this disclosure comes as revelation to me. My gut tells me that Harris & Co. were simply offering tribute to an influence from their formative years, but thought themselves too big, and Beckett too obscure, to care about such small fry as permissions and credits. The band has since then come to a settlement with the other half of the song’s creators, Bob Barton, but poor Quinn has been left in the lurch despite professing to be the dominant contributor.

This in no way dilutes my enjoyment of the music of Iron Maiden, but it does leave room for a small nagging seed to be planted in insidious soil. How does one ever really wash clean the stench of perfidy? If they could have done it here once, and so unabashedly, they might have done it elsewhere again. It is a truly vast body of work that Maiden carries with them; for a band which has always been about the single, distinctive thread of melody among standard chord progressions, the possibility of further unsavory discoveries suddenly doesn’t seem as outlandish as it once may have.

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Horn – Turm am Hang (2017)

At this point in time, Horn is an identity unto itself, heedless of whatever genre constraints one wants to impose on it. Unabashedly melodic but in all the right ways, unafraid to refer to styles on the peripheries of black metal proper like punk/RAC and new wave, this project when on song succeeds brilliantly in evoking the musty detritus of eras past. Far too often is it said by the callous and the flippant that metal is all about being free and doing as you please. It may be that too within certain non-negotiable parameters which escape this crowd, but what Horn demonstrates so stalwartly is that regardless of technique, there is only one true insurmountable feeling common to all real metal, and that is the feeling of being in the presence of something ineffably awesome and humbling, even when you are in fact in the midst of the depressing urban sprawl. No other modern, popular form of music concerns itself so obsessively with subjects that reach across and beyond the meager dominion of human comprehension. Horn, and all real metal, at least try, and in that lies the great spiritual philosophy of our music.

Turm am Hang sees Nerrath refine the songwriting style which he has been developing since Konflikt. Where earlier albums represented an abstract take on the beauty found in the untamed wild , the material since Konflikt has been far more cohesive in vision and execution. History, by all appearances, has taken the place of impersonal nature in Nerrath’s affections; the change of theme has been accompanied with a more direct and interactive style of delivery. The listener is no longer insulated from the goings-on; the curtain between artist and audience is lifted and the latter is now an active agent in the lush images painted by the music; at one time a soldier bedraggled, at another a serf returning home after the day’s toil, the effect is palpable and ripe with a sad kind of empathy.

Like previous albums, Turm am Hang initially feels too straightforward to a listening sensibility used to more extreme music. Neoclassical and folk implements, upbeat changes in tempo, and clean singing are liberally used, but if the listener persists, he can’t fail to realize the iron-bound writing logic underlying these “accessible” maneuvers. As mentioned in earlier reviews, Nerrath is a singer-songwriter at heart, albeit working within the metal paradigm. The label may raise a few eyebrows, but it is the truest, purest description of Horn‘s music that I can make.

 

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Clandestine Blaze – City of Slaughter (2017)

Mikko Aspa’s Clandestine Blaze remains one of the more undersung projects in black metal. On initial listens little more than a homage to Darkthrone‘s trilogy of classics, there is a gravitas and a seriousness which emanates from all of this band’s recorded output. It is hard to put a finger on just what it is that Aspa does differently; City of Slaughter has a more pronounced melodic slant compared with its immediate predecessors, varying with subtlety between the long-chain, tremolo-focused battery of Transilvanian Hunger and the Hellhammer-isms of A Blaze in the Northern Sky. Increasing notice is now also taken of Aspa’s other, far more renowned project, Deathspell Omega; City of Slaughter goes back to the last conventional album released by that band, Si Monumentum Requiris Circumspice, and incorporates its penchant for well-articulated melodic phrases into the fold. The result, however, isn’t mired in the orthodox eschatology that preoccupies DsO. Aspa’s work in Clandestine Blaze is not only potent and emotional but it is also unremittingly dark, of tone and theme, and a direct extension in musical form of a genre connoisseur’s perspective on life, death, and the things we build around and in between these bookends.

Routinely accused of harboring national socialist and anti-semitic leanings, Aspa’s apparent riposte to his prosecutors – and this is only my interpretation of his words, on this album and in the odd interview I’ve read – is a resounding “Yes! And so what?” The man of intelligence and conviction – and isn’t it a shame how often the two aren’t naturally allied? – measures the depth of his audience and responds accordingly. What value then in attempting to save face before one’s intellectual inferiors? If the rabble would make a devil of you, then so be it: be the devil, spread your wings, and take flight. No thinking man is beholden to subscribe blindly to the fashions and dogmas of his age; by this I don’t mean a blanket rejection of tradition, which after all is yet another dogma of the present age. Tradition accumulates over large stretches of time through trial-and-error of what works for “us” as a people, while what passes as de rigeur today is usually fickle, ill-reasoned of nature, and frequently not without something of the manipulative in it. As Aspa alludes to in this fine interview, common sense is not that common, not even in circles which we believe ourselves closely associated with, so why waste time and risk frustration searching for it in places where it never took root to begin with?

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Speed Metal or Thrash Metal? Relic or relevant?

A gradual and systematic initiation into various metal styles – by circumstance more than intention – has ensured that I have never lost affection for older, simpler stylings. That affection doesn’t quite extend to newer bands attempting those old forms; despite sincerest motives, new retro bands by their very mission statement can’t help being self-conscious to a fault of the bracket of time and sound which they try slinging themselves into. But time moves forward in linear increments and its nature mandates a subject grounded in the “there and then”, acting in response to what he sees around himself in that “there and then”. Thus the inherent caveat which all retro metal bands carry: time-travel of the sort they attempt may be possible in science fiction but in reality, in a world unmeasurably different from the original, can only lead to appetites less than whetted and more often than not prematurely dulled.

There has been some debate among the metal community over what constitutes speed metal and thrash metal. According to the Dark Legions Archives, thrash was originally used to denominate hardcore-infused metal (see DRI and Corrosion of Conformity), while speed was reserved primarily for NWOBHM-driven bands like Metallica and Overkill. The bands that played pivotal roles in the formative scenes themselves don’t strictly abide by this classification; for what it’s worth, I have always viewed the sub-genre through a slightly different lens; to me, bands with a significant heavy metal component expressed through greater melodicity and thematic ambition have always “felt” like speed metal (Megadeth, Blind Guardian, Holy Terror, Angel Dust, Scanner, Artillery, Destruction, etc). On the other hand, bands with pronounced chug n’ groove, breakdowns, and just more unmitigated violence have appeared closely-related to the spillover from punk and hardcore, and therefore more deserving of the “thrash” sobriquet (Dark Angel, Vio-lence, Demolition Hammer, Morbid Saint, Exodus, etc). This might only be so much grasping at straws but words after all are powerful signifiers for the events they represent, and this nomenclature provides a serviceable contrast between the understated elegance and the overt brutality of the two cousin strains.

The criticism traditionally leveled at speed metal (and thrash metal, if you will) has been that by comprising large swathes of the song with loose-floating, rudderless riffsets, this style of metal gives short shrift to the real stuff of thematic movement and progression. This is so, too; speed metal in the hands of lesser bands exists for the sole purpose of travelling from point A to point B, and everything in between is frequently so much gratuitous release. Since ‘Paranoid‘, there has been something of the darkly seductive about the lone guitarslinger’s right wrist caught in a metronomically convulsive flutter, but far too many bands forget that the blurringly fast strum by itself, be it downpicked or alternately picked, is only a static part of the song’s riffset. Good speed metal bands have always found a way of integrating this picking style with the narrative-melodic superstructure of the song by remaining overwhelmingly heavy metal in sound and spirit. The approach may not stand up to the kind of deconstructionist scrutiny which structurally cohesive death metal does, but neither does it sacrifice emotion and feeling for the sake of excess.

The brutal end of the speed/thrash spectrum is a dead end today for many of the same reasons that have rendered brutal death metal obsolete. But traditional heavy metal continues to enjoy a meaningful revival across the globe because, as touched on so many times on this blog, a good song, warts and all, never really goes out of fashion. If speed metal bands are to remain relevant, they need to temper their approach by returning to base camp as it were and by subordinating the riff to the song.

 

 

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Death Metal Battle Royale Round 2: Format

For Round 2 battles, I’m tweaking the format a little. Head-to-head comparisons between albums will now be made based on a series of objective/subjective criteria. Depending on how the albums fare against each other in this regard, a point will be added or deducted from their score. In case of indecision, both albums will be awarded one point each; in case of a tie, the result of the poll will be honored.

The criteria are as follows:

  1. Internal cohesion at the level of riff
  2. Overarching logic in the context of song
  3. Melodic contiguity through the song
  4. Role of percussion
  5. Progressive aspiration
  6. Album-wide unity as a sum of the above
  7. Ideological/Philosophical significance as death metal
  8. Emotional resonance

May the best album win.

 

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Was Bölzer’s Hero inspired by Vangelis?

 

Vangelis‘ third studio album Heaven And Hell greatly contributed to popular and, as it turns out, underground consciousness; ‘Movement 3‘ is the immortal theme to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, while the liturgical ‘12 O’ Clock‘ is the introduction used by Pagan Altar on their eponymous classic. Opener ‘Bacchanale‘, however, reveals textures that are strikingly similar to what Bölzer attempted on their debut full-length Hero. The Roman Bacchanalia and its precursor the Greek Dionysia were festivals dedicated to Bacchus and Dionysus, respectively, both the same God of fertility, wine-making and revelry. Versions passed down the ages evoke images of unbridled excess and a tide to wash away the difference between slave and citizen as both came together to celebrate the amoral, animal aspect of existence.

Vangelis adeptly captured this aspect – exaggerated, apocryphal, or otherwise – on ‘Bacchanale‘. The album Heaven And Hell itself is a two-part suite, presented as Heaven and Hell individually, and with all the tonal flourishes and recessions that one would expect from such a thematic division. ‘Bacchanale‘ is a riotous assemblage of colors, centered around an exotic, Byzantine-like motif; augmented notes shadowed by mixed choirs create a musical landscape of wide, bright-sounding intervals which Vangelis escalates relentlessly to an optimistic apogee. It is a sensuous vibe and a libation to the regenerative qualities of nature, pregnant with all that is insinuated by such a premise.

I will not use this space to discuss Bölzer‘s virtues or lack thereof as a metal band, as that subject has long since stopped being of interest. But is any purported influence of Vangelis on Hero legitimate or is it a simple case of misattribution? That the cover art on Hero uses approximately the same color design as Heaven And Hell is probably a coincidence, but Hero also seems explicitly structured around the kind of augmented chord progressions and vocal cadences as ‘Bacchanale‘; being a metal band, Bölzer inject a healthy amount of dissonance and minor notes into their melodies, but the core proposition of movement heard here remains the musky, ambient component found in Vangelis‘ neoclassical repertoire.

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Death Metal Battle Royale Round 2: Demigod’s Slumber of Sullen Eyes vs The Chasm’s Deathcult for Eternity: The Triumph

  

On we march to Round 2. Slumber of Sullen Eyes continues appreciating with time, and is one of the most exquisitely written death metal albums ever. It runs into a sentimental favorite in The Chasm’s Deathcult for Eternity. Who will get one step closer to the crown?

Current tournament bracket

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Eternal Champion – Armor of Ire (2016)

A good song sung with conviction never goes out of fashion. Eternal Champion craft very good heavy metal songs indeed; in their slower moments reminiscent of post-reformation Manilla Road, as heard especially on Atlantis Rising and The Spiral Castle, in faster times perhaps doffing the hat to older Ozzy and Jake E. Lee’s work on The Ultimate Sin, it is still hard to conveniently pigeonhole Eternal Champion as being entirely derivative of this or that band.

Confusion over what constitutes hard rock and what is legitimately heavy metal arises because of the shared lineage between the two forms. Armor of Ire is replete with verse-chorus structures, and its composition, while elegant and logical, does not aspire to the progressive aspects of extreme metal. What makes it heavy metal, even at its most streamlined, is its attack, and the ambition found at the level of the individual riff and harmony and their generally taut nature; nearly-classical/folk motifs lie embedded inside the make-up of these riffs; that Eternal Champion, and heavy metal bands at large, don’t develop them in the manner of progressive bands should not be leveled as a criticism against them, because that is plainly not what music of this ilk purports to achieve. Do peasants in the field obsess over developmental variation? Do soldiers on the march give a damn about vocals shadowing riffs? No, because what they need during and after hours of back-breaking, foot-blistering toil is something to sustain and uplift the spirit, so that the day to follow can be endured with some degree of stoicism. The brain may be the driver of great things, but the heart is the seat of action in the instant.

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