No Holds Barred Deathmatches of Note: US vs UK edition

 

David Byrne vs David Cameron

The combatants: Try to picture David Byrne in boxing gloves or a karate gi. You can’t: the two mental images, of “martial arts” and “the guy from Talking Heads”, are mutually incompatible. Byrne has never fought a day in his life. Even at school, when the other boys surely must have been bewildered by or outright contemptuous of his otherworldly ways, he probably would have reached for a guitar or a zen koan to resolve disputes instead of resorting to his fists. In an ideal world, we’d all do similarly. But in the real world, where semi-organised combat between partners matched up in the most arbitrary fashion possible dominates the airwaves, it’s a quick way to end up as a stain on the floor.

It’s not like Byrne’s up against that fearsome an opponent, though. It’s all but a cliche at this point to bring up David Cameron’s Eton upbringing, the class-based entitlement and casual, “this is for your own good” cruelty such a life has engendered in him. It’s still true, and he only gets depicted as a condom-headed grotesque in political cartoons because that’s genuinely what he looks like. The point is, Cameron’s not a man who gets his own hands dirty if he doesn’t have to. Being forced to fight his own battle might end up being a humbling experience for him, assuming he doesn’t find a way to wriggle out of it.

The result: The bell rings, and for a good few seconds David and David lock eyes, each approximating a boxer’s stance. They try to take it seriously. But it’s no time at all before they both break down laughing. This isn’t who they are, and they know it. Cameron enthuses about how much Remain in Light means to him, and Byrne almost believes him. He has the sense he should be a bit sterner with his opponent; he read an article the other day about families being priced out of London. In the end, he settles for suggesting how the city’s cycling lanes might be made safer and more appealing for commuters. At the end of their chat, Cameron refuses to settle for just a handshake, suggesting a blokey hug instead.

As they exit the clinch, Byrne collapses and is rushed to hospital, with Cameron declared the winner by default. The rumors fly. Concealed stiletto blade or fast-acting poison injection? The chief surgeon has his story, Cameron has his.

 

Michael Gira vs Michael Gove

The combatants: There’s more similarities between these two than you might think. Both have been through some shit. Gira was a drifter, a drug dealer and a prison inmate all before his 16th birthday, and toiled in obscurity for years before Swans became critical darlings. Gove’s life has been far less dramatic, but being an orphan can’t have been any fun, especially as a young Conservative adopted by Labour-supporting Scots. And there’s only so much insulation that MP’s expenses can provide against all those snide, ideologically-motivated critics questioning your innocent desire to return the UK education system to the Victorian era.

Both Michaels are motivated men, passionately dedicated to achieving their goals in the face of an often hostile public. For Gira, that means making uncompromisingly personal music and working, working, working for decades until your art gets the recognition it deserves. For Gove, it means drastically reconfiguring a country’s school system to both thwart the desires of those Marxist teachers’ unions, and to make sure that a generation of children come to see the world in the right way. Neither man enjoys a fight, but if they have to in order to achieve their dreams, then fight they will.

The result: It’s over before it even begins. Gira stands, arms folded, glaring at his opponent from beneath his cowboy hat. Gove steels his nerves, remembering all those he’s bested in the past. The pen is mightier than the sword. But no one has ever given him such a look before, and Michael Gove is a man who’s used to getting looks from people. In the end it’s too much for him to bear, and he throws in the towel.

Gira goes on to play a six hour set with Swans that night: the band is loud enough that they can be heard from passing aeroplanes. Gove goes back to the Justice ministry and cuts public defence solicitors’ salaries again, while Sarah Vine writes a Daily Mail column on the leftist bias inherent in combat sports.

 

Nicki Minaj vs Nicky Morgan

The combatants: Nicki Minaj certainly doesn’t take any prisoners, as any of her guest verses can tell you. That doesn’t mean she’ll brawl with just anyone, though. If she doesn’t think it’s worth her while, it’s not going to happen, and making Taylor Swift upset on Twitter is not enough of a challenge to count as a fight. She’s had bodyguards for years now precisely so she can keep this sort of bullshit out of her life. But once in the ring with someone like Nicky Morgan, it’s not implausible that she’d settle things swiftly and decisively, just so she can get back to whatever it is she’d rather be doing as soon as possible.

And let’s be realistic: Morgan’s not a fighter, in any sense. Having seen Michael Gove’s defeat from ringside, she feels a sense of duty to put in a good showing for her predecessor as Education Secretary, but her heart’s not really in it. If it were up to her, she’d prefer to go on a nice run with Minaj, maybe grab a coffee afterwards. Get to know each other, talk things out. Maybe explain that she only opposed the same-sex marriage bill because she thought that’s what her constituents wanted. She’s not one of those Conservatives.

The result: After a minute or two of bobbing and weaving and light jabs here and there, Morgan calls for time out. Isn’t there any other way to settle this? Minaj is willing to listen, at first. She nods through Morgan’s Rocky IV speech, keeping her polite face on. They’re both agreed on the importance of kids staying in school, and are almost warming up to each other personally. Until Morgan gets to the part about how “I think you could be a really good role model for girls, if you weren’t so sexual all the time”. With that, it’s all over. Minaj rolls her eyes ostentatiously before fixing them in a “really, though?” stare, then walks out of the ring. This isn’t even deserving of a meme-worthy putdown. She hops in the limo and drives off, in search of something more worthy of her time. Newspaper columnists across the country declare Morgan the winner, and praise her civility in the face of such an uncouth opponent.

 

Danny Glover vs Danny Dyer

The combatants: An interesting study in contrasts, this one. Based on his more action-oriented performances, it’s easy to think of Danny Glover as a man who’s taken some knocks, who’s fought his share of battles. He dealt with a Predator about as well as Arnie did, after all. But in the real world, violence is clearly not his thing. Throughout his life his political activism, whether in support of Occupy Oakland or in opposition to the Iraq war, has been entirely peaceful. He’s a revolutionary, but not a soldier. He can probably take care of himself if he has to, but it’s hard to imagine he’d be enthusiastic about it.

And then there’s Danny Dyer. No one on this list would be more eager to take part in a quasi-celebrity deathmatch, nor as certain of their fighting prowess. All that time he’s spent profiling London hard cases for Sky documentaries and playing wide boy rogues must have rubbed off, surely? It’s in the bag, ain’t it. Given how much of his life has been spent building his personal brand as the Pearly King of England, he shouldn’t have any trouble winning a fight or two. He pretty much has to win. If he doesn’t, all that time will have been completely wasted.

The result: Almost before the bell’s been rung, Dyer leaps out of the corner and presses his opponent, jabbing wildly and keeping a steady stream of patter flowing. In his mind, he’s the Cockney Muhammad Ali. For Glover, it’s like watching the episode of Some Mothers Do ‘Ave Em where Frank becomes a boxer. He’s not certain if that episode was ever made, but he feels like it should have been.

Dyer owns the show at first, forcing his foe on the defensive. But he can’t keep his mouth and his fists running for long, and his persistent remarks about the quality of Lethal Weapon 3 enrage Glover. He’s soon reeling from a barrage of Predator-felling haymakers, and before long Eastenders’ finest son falls, spent, to the floor. Glover dedicates his victory to the Kurdish PKK, igniting a mild outcry from Fox News. Upon awakening Dyer is confused and angry, but decides to be the bigger man and congratulate Glover nonetheless. He loved him in The Color Purple, after all.

 

Next week’s US-UK card will feature: 

George Clinton vs George Osborne

Annie Clark vs Anne Widdecombe

Frank Zappa vs Frank Butcher

Captain Beefheart vs Captain Birdseye

An indoor child’s dream jobs circa 2015

 

1) Japanese-English Translator

2) Music Writer

3) Darkroom Assistant

4) Singer In The Club Style

5) Radio Man

6) Lover Man

7) Jungle Man

8) Gentleman Boxer

9) Gentleman Thief

10) Absent-Minded Professor

11) Country Parson, But For Atheists

12) Exorcist of Demons Both Literal And Psychosexual

13) Travelling Quack

14) Givin’ Em What They Love

15) CEO and Chief Promoter For Underground Sensation Shit Hot Records

16) New York Apartment Manager (Surly And/Or Balding)

17) One Scene Wonder In Cult Film

18) Animal Cafe Proprietor (Cats, Dogs And/Or Owls)

19) Tortoise Caretaker

20) Raconteur

21) Barstool Philosopher

22) Reincarnation of One’s Own Grandfather (Who Is Very Much Still Alive)

23) Consoler Of The Lonely

24) Copywriter, Amanuensis For More Talented Younger Siblings

25) Simple Man

26) Complicated Man Disguised As Simple Man With Moustache And Retro Haircut

27) Hobo Name Generator

28) Producer of Suffolk-set Trailer Park Boys Remake (Working Title: Tractor Boys)

29) Student Of Action Cinema

30) Doctor of Metal Gear Solid Studies

31) Session Musician

32) Leader Of Swans Tribute Band

33)  Token Straight White Man In Riot Grrl Band

34) Sleep Tape Narrator

35) Ghostwriter Of Comedy Lists For More Famous Comedian

Reviews that time forgot: Gorguts- Colored Sands

Gorguts-ColoredSands

I initially wrote this review of Gorguts’ 2013 comeback album around the time of its release, but sat on it for some reason and eventually forgot about it. In the spirit of #throwbackthursday, I’ve decided to finally put it up here with some minor edits. It’s a tad effusive in its praise, but overall I stand by my initial opinion: Colored Sands was a fantastic record when it was released and it’s still fantastic two years later.

It’s rare to come across such a disconnect between a band’s name and its music as in the case of Canadian death metal pioneers Gorguts. The moniker suggests gore-soaked horror movie clichés of the kind exhibited by any number of groups in the genre’s early 90s heyday. And indeed, that’s basically what you find on their first two albums, Considered Dead (1991) and The Erosion of Sanity (1993). Both provide solid, technically sound brutality that fits neatly into established tech-death parameters, with lyrics about mortality and sickened, rotting flesh. Next to the output of scene-defining titans like Death or oddballs like Demilich, though, they can’t help but feel like entertaining but ultimately unnecessary genre exercises.

But when the band’s founder Luc Lemay unveiled a reconstituted Gorguts with all-new members on Obscura (1998), an entirely unique take on death metal was unleashed. Even for those accustomed to aural extremity, it’s still a “difficult” album. The sound is dense, teeming with complex song structures, abrasive textures and atonal solos owing more to avant-garde modernist composers than to Cannibal Corpse. The recording itself is mastered at such a loud volume that it can be literally painful to listen to. The lyrical focus on the body- vulnerable, subject to illness and decay- is not entirely abandoned, but spiritual and mental themes take precedence, thrown into relief by the transient state of corporeal existence. By comparison, the 2001 follow-up From Wisdom To Hate was almost accessible. Still bracingly experimental, but more firmly rooted in the death metal tradition of the band’s early days, the release was slightly easier for headbangers to digest, but no less essential.

The suicide of drummer Steve MacDonald in 2002 led to the band’s breakup, and the years since have been quiet. (Former guitarist Steeve Hurdle also passed on in 2012). A reunion was announced in 2009, and live dates followed, but promises of new material seemed unlikely to be met. Yet four years since that initial announcement, and bolstered by the addition of some of metal’s most talented players, the latest incarnation of Gorguts has released an album that may prove to be as much of a game-changer as Obscura was fifteen years ago.

Putting it simply, Colored Sands is ridiculously, obscenely heavy. But with tremendous skill and thought having been put into its composition and performance, it achieves almost transcendental heights. There’s still a recognisable link to the band’s earlier work, particularly in Lemay’s distinctive growl, little changed from earlier releases. But the dizzying, head-spinning guitarwork of Obscura has been welded to greater control of dynamics and expansive, inventive songwriting. The new players- drummer John Longstreth and guitar wizards Kevin Hufnagel and Colin Marston on lead and bass, respectively- are metal titans in their own right, and fully contribute to this progression. Skill, finesse and power inform every gnarled and twisted riff, every shift from jazzy shuffle to raging blastbeat. Marston doesn’t quite get to display the flash he brings to Krallice and Behold the Arctopus, but more than makes up for it with his songwriting contribution, the track “Forgotten Arrows”. One of the more immediate songs on the album despite its shifting tempos, its crushing coda in particular sets a new standard for heaviness. Hufnagel brings the similarly accomplished “Absconders” to the table, with a calm bridge bookended by psych-metal terror at either end.

Overall though, this is clearly Lemay’s show. Already one of death metal’s most thoughtful and reflective writers, Colored Sands represents new compositional heights for this scene veteran; the twelve years between albums have clearly not been spent idle. The lyrical focus on Tibet and its experience of being assimilated by China in 1950 pervades the album and provides a genuinely interesting context. But even if you can’t follow Lemay’s growled delivery of lines like “Onward to reach the wheel of time/A path of solitude/Embraced humbly”, the music itself has more than enough depth to keep you listening. His classical training and background on violin are channeled most directly on the album’s most radical departure, a palette-cleansing instrumental piece for string quartet. Gorguts riffs are already orchestral in their complexity and expressive nature; “The Battle of Chamdo” runs with this, playing with dynamics and tension rather than crushing the listener flat. It wouldn’t sound out of place scoring a film, or even an interpretive dance performance.

Coming midway through the album, this brief breather is about the only period of respite the band offers the listener. Thanks to the production and mastering prowess of Marston, Colored Sands is less stressful on the ears than Obscura. Unlike many modern metal albums, it doesn’t attempt to be as loud as possible, instead recording this brutal-sounding music in an almost gentle manner. Even so, much like Obscura, listening to the whole thing can be an exhausting experience. The tracks are tightly arranged yet epic in scope (song lengths are greatly extended compared to previous releases), to the extent that they become overwhelming, too much to fully process in one, or even ten listens. If you play it on crappy headphones through your phone, you’ll miss most of the magic. You either listen to Gorguts with your attention fully focused, or you don’t really hear it at all.

But for this reviewer at least, an overabundance of inspiration is preferable to a dearth of it. And it’s refreshing for a band that now qualifies as “retro” to embrace an old-school album listening experience, while still pushing their music forward. Like any of the band’s releases, Colored Sands does not reveal itself all at once, and in the many times I’ve listened to it already I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface. Even if it takes years to fully get to grips with, though, it will be time well spent.

Videogame metal

My recent review of Sigh’s latest album Graveward got me thinking. In it, I jokingly described the band’s music as “videogame metal” because its songwriting and blend of intricate guitar leads and synth melodies remind me of the songs featured in the games I loved in my youth. I’m certain one can still find those as kinds of songs in more modern games, of course. But as videogames’ budgets and cultural cachet grow ever bigger, it’s easier and easier for them to license previously recorded music from major-label artists, or recruit composers from the film world. At least in games from major studios, it seems I hear less and less of the cheesy, hair- and power-metal derived scores that used to be much more common.

I honestly think that’s a bit of shame. It’s not that the soundtracks I’m referring to were good, exactly. Many were no doubt the result of one or two overworked composers, using inferior MIDI instruments and completely ignoring notions of restraint or taste. But the best videogame metal tracks had charm in spite of their limitations: they were camp in the sense that they strived so hard to excite audiences, get them to rock out. They might have had numerous failings in terms of recording quality or songwriting, but in terms of being silly, goofy entertainment, they succeeded admirably.

I’ve compiled a few of my favourite hard-rocking tracks from 90s and oos videogames below. There’s no attempt to rank them in terms of which is “best”, or to argue that these selections are objectively better than any others. This is solely based on the game soundtracks I was feeling most nostalgic for at the time of writing.

 

Final Fantasy VII- Fight On!

 

I can fully recognise that it’s mainly nostalgia preserving my affection for Final Fantasy VII. So many of my childhood memories are tied up with memories of this game- my emotional investment in the plot, the immense satisfaction I felt when I finally felled Emerald and Ruby Weapon. (As you can probably tell, I did not go outside much.) And the game’s music is a huge aspect of that nostalgia. As a twelve year old, I didn’t care about the objectively poor quality of the synth instruments the badass boss music was performed on, it was the awesomest, most rocking riff I’d ever heard in a game. Even with the benefit of hindsight, I don’t care- the tinny, “videogamey” sound is all part of the charm.

 

Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne- Fierce Battle

 

Summer, 2005. My closest friends and I spent far too much of that golden season indoors with the curtains drawn, getting sucked into the dark, devilish world of Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (or Lucifer’s Call, as it was subtitled in the UK). As we journeyed deeper into the game’s post-apocalyptic setting, where demons and surviving humans struggle to determine what kind of new world will arise from the ashes of the old, a strange ritual emerged among us. As soon as a boss battle started, and the Fierce Battle theme kicked in, a palpable excitement would overtake us. For the first twenty seconds, as the guitars, snare and keys built up, we would silently prepare ourselves for what was to come. Then, it would happen. The drums kicked in, signalling an infectiously boneheaded riff, and we would all headbang in unison, lost in the music. Often we wouldn’t even touch the controller for a good minute or two, rocking out for as long as we liked before trying to salvage the damage our inattention had wrought on our character’s party. I don’t think we ever did finish Nocturne’s story- its unforgiving difficulty meant we lost interest when school started again and we could no longer devote an entire afternoon to trying to best its various dungeons and dragons. But to this day, I still find myself humming the Fierce Battle music from time to time. If no one’s around, I might even headbang away, and suddenly feel like a teenager again.

 

Resident Evil 2- Scenario B Ending Theme

 

There are huge gaps in my videogame knowledge. My first Resident Evil game, for example, was RE4, which represented a high point for the series in terms of being fun to play, but somewhat neglected the original focus on creating a creepy horror-movie atmosphere. I’ve still yet to play the first three games on the original Playstation, but I recently came across this track from RE2, which plays after you complete a character’s alternate game scenario and see the game’s true ending. I can only imagine that after finishing two full playthroughs and fending off all manner of zombies and mutant fiends, hearing this bizarre 90s shit-rock classic defuses a lot of the tension built up over the course of the game. It’s completely incongruous with the game’s horror aesthetic; it’s like listening to Joe Satriani wail away over a preset “funk-rock”  loop from a Casio keyboard. But that’s why I love it. It’s not quite as majestic as the infamous version of the Mansion Basement theme found in the Dual Shock re-release of the first Resident Evil, but it’s pretty stirring all the same.

 

Final Fantasy X- Otherworld

 

It would be very easy to populate this list solely with songs from Final Fantasy games. Nobuo Uematsu, the composer chiefly responsible for most of the series’ music, has crafted a variety of fantastic songs in all manner of genres, but the best of them are often rockers like this one. My first exposure to Otherworld was the first time I’d heard a Final Fantasy song with vocals, and the first time where the production values and songwriting were pretty much the same as the “actual” songs I heard on rock radio. Certainly it comes off well compared to much of the crappy nu-metal that was on the airwaves at the time the game was released. Perhaps it’s held up because of how the game utilised the track. First being played as a giant monster destroys the protagonist’s hometown, it only returns at the very end, playing in one of the final boss fights with that same monster. Where it first heralds your helpless inability to stop the destruction being wrought around you, it comes to represent the strength your party has gained over their journey, their conviction to change things for the better. Or maybe it’s just a sweet riff, bro.

 

Guilty Gear X2- Everything

 

There is no videogame series more metal than Guilty Gear. That fact is largely down to the efforts of one man: Daisuke Ishiwatari, who designs all the of series’ characters and composes all its music. His enthusiasm for all things metal is evident not only in his soundtracks, but throughout the game’s story and lore: almost every character and special move references a band or song from the metal and rock canon. But the important thing is that every soundtrack he creates, Guilty Gear X2’s in particular, is chock full of cheesy goodness. I don’t even like the neoclassical, symphonic and power metal subgenres that the game tends to borrow most heavily from, but somehow when those musical tropes are welded to an utterly ridiculous fighting game they become infectious, campy fun. It’s too difficult for me to cull a single favourite from the soundtrack, so I present the whole lot for your perusal. I guarantee there is at least one jam in here that will make you want to cut your hair into a mullet, dress up like a dayglo anime nightmare and fling snooker balls, yo-yos and giant whales at your opponents.

 

And now, dear readers, I open up the floor to you. What are some of your favourite examples of the fine art of ridiculous, over-the-top videogame metal? Share your links and descriptions in the comments, or send a tweet to @analgender if that’s your bag. 

Sigh- Graveward

 a0684091223_10

I recently came across a Youtube video that helped me to articulate why it is that, ten years after its release, Metal Gear Solid 3 is still one of my favourite videogames ever, not just because it’s fun to play but because of its story and how it’s told. In it, the host explains how the game is a great example of camp entertainment, which earnestly attempts to convey an emotionally complex narrative and provoke thought about political questions, but also embraces the conventions of cheesy 60s spy flicks, and pits you against a man who shoots bees out of his mouth. It avoids the sometimes po-faced air of its predecessors, but the realistic and the ridiculous aspects are both presented equally straight-faced. We go in expecting mindless fun, and we get that in spades, but the game’s emotional moments are also more affecting because of the contrast with its sillier moments, and especially because the latter are treated with the same care, attention and seriousness as the former, not just tossed off as little “aren’t we clever” jokes.

What does all this have to do with veteran avant-garde metallers Sigh, then? Just like MGS3, the band’s music works as camp entertainment that is still genuinely enjoyable. They’re not deliberately trying to make you laugh with their over-the-top symphonic arrangements, or think “what the fuck is this?” when they take a bizarre detour into some unexpected genre, but for all their technical skill and conviction, their latest album Graveward does all of those things. Like other great metal bands, though, the camp factor is not a drawback, but a virtue. Whether you can take it seriously or not, the album sweeps you along for a ride that combines all the extremity of death and black metal with a strong melodic centre*. For all the occasionally comical vocal deliveries, its thematic obsession with death and the terror it inspires draws the listener in to actually listen to the lyrics and consider what they mean. For someone like me, who generally focuses more on metal’s wicked sick riffs than its often unintelligible vocals, that’s no mean feat. I would argue that, similarly to MGS3, Sigh use camp not to make audiences laugh, but to disarm their expectations about what heavy metal is and should sound like, so that the emotional and thematic content they want to convey has more of an impact.

Of course, labelling this music “camp” carries the implication of incompetence on some level, which is neither fair nor accurate. Sigh have always been tremendously skilled musicians, and ringleader Mirai Kawashima in particular has a gift for composition that few in extreme metal can match. I normally can’t stand power metal or the symphonic end of black metal at all, and yet when Sigh fold these influences into their sound it’s somehow irresistible. It’s not that the band make these touchstones sound less cheesy or ridiculous- they still are those things, they’re just welded to such strong melodies that they sound exuberant rather than pompous or laboured. Across the album Kawashima crafts songs that take you on a journey from dizzying symphonic highs to quiet, contemplative lows, the latter giving you space to breathe and prepare for the next burst of activity. The bridge halfway through the title track is a great example, building up from soft, spooky synths and somehow making subtle use of double-bass drumming before guitars come in to drag us back into the fray.

Speaking of guitars, special mention should be made of recent recruit You Oshima. Any wariness fans might have felt about some upstart replacing founding guitarist Shinichi Ishikawa has thankfully been proven unnecessary; Oshima fits perfectly into the Sigh milieu. From the very start of opener “Kaedit Non Pestis”, his shredding ability is on full display, and he proves equally adept at the melodic leads and chunky riffs littering every track, branching out beyond archetypal metal guitar sounds with a variety of tones to keep things fresh. More important than mere ability, however, is that he plays like he’s on a Sigh album, serving the needs of the song as opposed to just showing off. It’ll be interesting to see how his role in the band develops on future albums, but he’s definitely off to an assured start here.

Regardless of the band’s enviable pool of talent, Sigh has always been Mirai Kawashima’s baby: like any good bandleader, he knows how to make best use of his players, but the group’s vision is unquestionably his own. And what a gloomy vision it is. Sigh albums have long been fixated on death, but beginning with its title, Graveward seems especially so. If metal subgenres were defined by lyrical focus rather than increasingly rigid sonic identifiers, his work would be death metal through and through, and far more evocative of the terror of dying than a thousand gore-obsessed tryhards. Which is not to suggest that he treats the subject with more subtlety than others. “The Forlorn” is an especially morbid tale, with the narrator’s increasingly panicked proclamations that “I am not dead” attempting to deny an obvious truth as much as convince those around him. The track’s howls, wails and sobs are only the hammiest of many hammy vocal deliveries, and yet this camp treatment of the subject is, again, more affecting than death metal clichés of zombies, dismemberment or full-scale armageddon. The theatrics might suggest that we’re in parody territory, but this first-person horror is delivered without irony, no wink to the audience; the juxtaposition of seriousness and silliness is what makes it work so well. And while it might be Kawashima’s show, he’s not the only voice on display. Across the album, he’s offset by an increased use of vocalist/saxophonist Dr Mikannibal’s quasi-operatic singing, handling the high notes while he growls away. Her delivery might be something of an acquired taste, but it certainly fits the orchestral surroundings, and helps contrast Kawashima’s somewhat more typically metal vocals.

In terms of pacing, the album is a noticeable improvement on 2012’s In Somniphobia. That album featured a couple of the most concise and exciting songs of the band’s entire career, but was somewhat dragged down by a seven-song suite that, for all its strengths, got somewhat exhausting by the end of its 40-plus minutes. Graveward is lean by comparison, with most songs staying just over or under five minutes and only one exceeding seven. The sprawl is reduced, but not the scope- there’s still a lot going on in those shorter running times, with the same amount of bombast and excess as Somniphobia compressed into a more immediate form. Rather than stacking fast-paced thrashers one after the other, the pacing is more deliberate, with slower, moodier pieces and transitions to let us catch our breath before something like “Out of the Grave” takes it away again. The aforementioned breathing space in each song is represented on a macro as well as a micro level; the flow from song to song is reflected within the songs themselves. (The only real pacing issue, and the  only place Graveward fails compared to its predecessor is the abrupt ending to final track “Dwellers in Dreams”, which closes the affair not with a bang or a whimper, but a confused “huh?”)

Every review of Graveward I’ve seen has commented on its idiosyncratic production, and it seems important to do so here as well, since it does have the potential to affect your enjoyment quite a lot depending on how much it distracts you. There’s more dynamic range on display than a metal listener might be used to when the current emphasis seems to be on making everything as loud as possible. That seems like it should be a good thing, but at times it sounds as though the volume levels on different instruments are being mixed more or less at random, and the many, many layers of synths sometimes threaten to drown out everything else. There’a a wealth of musical riches to be found here, but they might not be evident on the first, second or third listen while you acclimatise yourself to the aural landscape.

If you’re not already a fan of the band’s funhouse-mirror version of extreme metal, Graveward is not going to be the album to change your mind, particularly if the production puts you off. For those of us strangely drawn to the camp, theatrical musical world they create though, all of that is what makes them so compelling. For better or worse, no one else sounds like Sigh.

Graveward is out now on Candlelight Records. Watch the video for “Out of the Grave” below.

 

                           

* After struggling for a while to come up with an appropriate description for Sigh’s particular microgenre, I’ve ending up settling on “videogame metal”. Since bringing more and more outre elements into their original, traditionally black metal sound with every album, they now recall nothing more than the soundtrack to a Final Fantasy game from an alternate universe where that series hasn’t descended into self-parody.

Late night thoughts on black metal (Storify link)

I was honoured and slightly bewildered recently when, out of the blue, a couple of dudes approached me online asking me to participate in an upcoming symposium on black metal in Dublin, called “Colouring the Black”. Not just to attend, you understand, but to present a talk on the subject of black metal, based on the perceived strengths of this blog (which honestly I still struggle to see, a lot of the time).

I felt supremely unequipped to do this, to put it mildly. “I only started listening to this shit in 2009”, I felt like saying. “I’m the least kvlt person imaginable. I haven’t worn all black in literally years. What are you thinking?” Nevertheless, the organisers assured me they appreciated my posts here, and were looking for people to give the kind of insights I attempt to articulate. People who love the extremity of this music, but are willing to engage critically with the aspects of it they don’t like. The devotion to traditional genre signifiers that can act as an impediment to innovation. Elitist ideologies that spurn perceived outsiders and seek to exclude them from bands or audiences. The kind of low-key reactionary thought that gets more upset about people trying to make a safe space for people not traditionally represented in black metal, than the fact that far-right and white supremacist groups and fans have had that safe space more or less since the beginning.

After weeks of consideration, I eventually decided against giving a talk there. Even if the organisers think I have something to say about black metal that’s worth feeling, I still feel like a neophyte, a moderately-informed outsider at best. Surely, I thought, someone far more knowledgeable and articulate and insightful about this than me will make the points I want to make, better than I could have hoped to, and then I’ll have to go on after them and look like an absolute shitheap in comparison.

There are still things I think and feel about the music, though, that I feel might be worth sharing. A few nights ago I hammered out some thoughts on the subject via Twitter, and to my surprise the organisers of Colouring the Black asked if they might include these in a collection of writings associated with the event. To make things more convenient I’ve Storified the tweets in question, and have put a link to them in this post. Hopefully, they engender discussion and reflection, and form a small contribution to the symposium itself.

Read “Late night thoughts on black metal” here.

Colouring the Black: A Black Metal Theory Symposium will be held on Friday the 20th March at GalleryX in Dublin. Facebook page for the event is here.

 

Napalm Death- Apex Predator – Easy Meat

Napalm-Death-Apex-Predator-Easy-Meat

A great deal of the Napalm Death album reviews I’ve read over the last several years follow a recognisable pattern. It generally starts with the obligatory nods to the band’s legendary status as early codifiers of grindcore as a genre, their relentless pace over their 30-odd year history, and the consistent quality of their releases in the 2000s and 2010s. Some writers might touch on the frequent personnel changes at the start of the group’s existence; others will note that, actually, the lineup has been largely stable since the early 90s. Amid the meaningless adjectives describing the music (“visceral”, “brutal”, “vehement” etc), there will be a proclamation that, while staying true to the hybrid of grind and death metal they’ve purveyed over the years, Napalm have introduced more experimental touches this time around- nothing outré enough to make you forget who you’re listening to, but welcome deviations from the fast-loud template nonetheless. Change a few identifying details here and there and you’ve more or less got a review of every album from The Code Is Red… Long Live The Code up to Utilitarian.

In fairness, that formula emerges because it’s not easy to write about a long-running, genre-defining band that’s been issuing good-to-great albums on a regular schedule for over a decade, tweaking a signature sound with each release rather than making sudden left turns. The fate of Napalm Death and many other extreme metal bands that got their start in the 80s has been neither to burn out nor fade away, just to keep on shining a little brighter or dimmer each time around. With that said, we shouldn’t ignore those moments of experimentation that have peppered the group’s recent work. As it happens, there are moments on their fifteenth full-length Apex Predator – Easy Meat that push a little further at the borders of the band’s sound than previously.

Things start ominously, with little more than Mark “Barney” Greenway’s chanted vocals to usher in the eponymous opening track. Before long though, the band steps into a lurching, slowed-down trudge that shows a clear influence from Swans. That homage shouldn’t be too surprising: the story goes that early Napalm drummer Mick Harris coined the term “grindcore” as a portmanteau of the grinding sound of early Swans and the ferocious speed of hardcore punk in order to describe the band’s sound. This might be the first time Napalm Death have approximated the menacing creep of Swans’ early-to-mid-80s output this directly, though. The bass pulses on the one rather than buzzing on sixteenths, drums pound away augmented by clanking metal, and the guitars are deployed sparingly, as atmosphere rather than riff machine. There’s a direct reference to the “big strong boss” of Swans’ first album in the lyrics of “Dear Slum Landlord”, and Greenway seems to model his vocals here on Michael Gira’s, after a fashion. The  initial woozy, see-sawing rhythm morphs halfway through into more recognisably grind territory- maintaining the slow tempo, but ratcheting up the volume and intensity. That Giraesque monotone makes a return at the close of the album, announcing the switch in “Adversarial/Copulating Snakes” from a rampaging collection of cobbled-together metal riffs into a drawn-out psych comedown.

Aside from these moments, where the Napalm Death attack is taken into previously unexplored avenues, the laser-speed grind they’ve honed over the last decade dominates the tracklist. Riffs sprint along before colliding into choppy grooves, the band gathering breath for a gradual return to full speed, never staying in one mode long enough to overstay their welcome. Standout moments include the crossover thrash riff introducing “Hierarchies”, which repeats itself throughout the song before giving way to a strangely triumphant bridge that almost recalls mainstream rock, complete with easily-deciphered lyrics. “How The Years Condemn” sees Greenway’s barked delivery almost at odds with long-time bassist Shane Embury’s lyrics. A surprisingly personal remembrance of lost friends that approaches sentimentality but tends more toward defiance (“For the sake of my loved ones/I will remain on this earth”), it might feel out of place juxtaposed against Napalm’s sociopolitical themes were it not delivered with the same ferocity as any of their screeds against multinational corporations or institutional power structures.

When the material on offer is as strong as it is here, it seems like nitpicking to complain about it all bleeding together, or not distinguishing itself enough from previous efforts. But for me at least, aside from the aforementioned songs that channel Swans worship into a grindcore context, a lot of Apex Predator – Easy Meat could fit on any Napalm Death album of the last ten years. It’s not a given that an entire album of more experimental tracks would be more creatively vitalising or enjoyable to listen to than this release. It might have been nice, though, to have less of a dividing line between the rampaging grind blasts and the slower, moodier material. This isn’t to disparage a perfectly fine collection of Napalm numbers, but more to suggest that, as powerful and consistent as the band has been of late, they could do even better. The fact that you can even say this about a decades-old band working within a genre that most saw as a short-lived joke upon its inception is a very encouraging sign.

Apex Predator – Easy Meat was released on January 26th through Century Media Records.