Category Archives: Reviews

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.

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Sigh- Graveward

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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.

Napalm Death- Apex Predator – Easy Meat

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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.

Mortals- Cursed to See the Future

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Back in the earliest days of heavy music, little or no attention was paid to exact genre classification. “Heavy metal” wasn’t really self-applied as a descriptor by bands until well into the 70s; the terms was used more or less interchangeably with “hard rock” and others to describe a wide variety of groups from Bad Company to Black Sabbath. In an era of intense internet debates over whether a group plays blackened death metal or deathened black metal, this application of blanket terminology seems quaint. And yet, five decades in, the rich, divergent history of metal subgenres is being amalgamated and hybridised, with previously impermeable lines of classification being blurred. More and more groups take influence from so many different areas of the metal map that precise classification seems pointless; it’s easier to throw up your hands and say “it’s just metal“.

Into this category I would place the New York trio Mortals, whose second full-length Cursed to See the Future boils down decades of metal history into a potent, distilled form. An easy, if somewhat lazy, description of the band might be as a kind of black metal version of High on Fire, where that group’s blend of sludgy, Celtic Frost-inspired riffs is augmented by the addition of blastbeats, tremolo picking and shrieked vocals. But that undersells the wide variety of terrain their latest release covers. The majority of these songs stretch out to eight or nine minutes, packing in innumerable riffs but pacing them with space to breathe as well. “Epochryphal Gloom” is a prime example, building slowly from deliberately-paced, portentous bass, the tempo and intensity climbing gradually until all hell breaks loose. Here and on other jams, the breakneck sprints are separated with lurching doom stomps and swinging half-time breaks, the pace constantly shifting but always remaining under masterful control. Drummer Caryn Havlik skilfully alternates between blastbeats and patterns which almost recall hardcore. Singer/bassist Lesley Wolf’s playing isn’t particularly prominent in the mix, but her hoarse, rasping vocals are delivered with 100% conviction, and fit their musical backdrop perfectly. Guitarist Elizabeth Cline steers clear of flashy soloing in order to instead punctuate the riffage with melodic leads- the outro of final track “Anchored in Time”, in particular, brings to mind a swaggering 80s metal riff filtered through the Mortals lens. It’s not exactly a triumphant, soaring finale, but it does offer a brief respite from the otherwise dark mood of the rest of the record, piercing the gloom with a ray of light.

You could argue, not inaccurately, that Mortals aren’t really doing anything new here. It takes skill and effort to blend so many influences into a coherent whole, and to perform the result with energy and passion, but it’s not exactly the same thing as creating something entirely original. This seems like nit-picking, though, when this innovation deficit is felt throughout the metal world, and when the band’s output is this much fun to listen to. Cursed to See the Future might not going to change your world, but it’s near-impossible to listen to without banging your head, throwing the horns and offering the invisible oranges to the gods.

Cursed to See the Future is released on the 8th of July through Relapse Records. Check out Mortals’ Bandcamp here, or listen to the album’s first track “View From a Tower” below.


Gridlink- Longhena

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The lyrical prowess of former Discordance Axis vocalist Jon Chang has rightly been heralded in articles by various publications. But the interesting thing about this talent is what Chang claims as his main inspiration– anime and videogames, specifically the “bullet hell” microgenre of shoot ’em ups that maintains a niche level of popularity despite its unforgiving difficulty. His grindcore project Gridlink, sadly disbanded after recording its third and final album, has essentially acted as the aural equivalent of these games- the music’s frenetic, desperate sound evokes the hopeless situation of piloting a poorly armed spaceship against impossible odds, while the lyrics obliquely reference the resigned, fatalistic air of these media’s protagonists and tie them to themes of interpersonal conflict and the horrors of war. (There are more direct parallels as well- the album’s name comes from the classic arcade shooter Dodonpachi, which itself serves as one of the song titles.) As powerful and emotive as the band’s prior releases have been, though, their swansong effort Longhena is on a higher level altogether. Whether or not they knew that this recording would be their last, the group used this last stand, like the doomed pilot wading into certain death, to break through their previous limits.

There had already been an evolution in sound in between the raw, bass-free grind of Gridlink’s debut Amber Grey and the technical gymnastics displayed on its followup Orphan. This development continues even further on Longhena, being most immediately apparent in the extended song lengths. While those previous releases each clocked in at around twelve minutes, with no song exceeding the 1:30 mark, this album is nearly twice that length, with certain numbers stretching out over a leisurely two or even three minutes. The general tendency is still for blink-and-you’ll-miss-it ragers, but for the first time there are also variations on that core grind template. This is apparent from the very beginning, with the initial guitar bursts on opener “Constant Autumn” somewhat recalling pop-noise experimentalists Melt Banana, before a characteristic light-speed run is unleashed. The most obvious departure, though, comes in “Thirst Watcher”, which eschews blastbeats and Chang’s piercing scream in favour of layers of clean guitar and strings, summoning a resigned, melancholic counterpart to the bitter despair around it. This additional breathing space only enhances the effect of the band’s signature clinical freneticism.

But even on Longhena‘s most ferocious tracks, guitarist Takafumi Matsubara reaches dizzying new heights of technicality without sacrificing an ounce of emotive power. When this many of your songs last less than seventy or even sixty seconds, there can be no wasted space. Standouts such as “Island Sun” and “Look to Windward” use their (relatively) lengthier running times to pack the theatrics of an entire power metal album into one track. Rather than coming off as cheesy, though, the dramatic, even histrionic playing summons feelings of genuine sadness at the same time as it induces headbanging. If it’s exhausting, it’s not just because of the sheer speed and power of the music; the feelings of despair and hopelessness Chang picked up on in his favourite games and anime are successfully conveyed through both his lyrics, screamed into the void at 100 miles an hour, and Takafumi’s brutal yet melodic playing. Drummer Bryan Fajardo also deserves praise here- simply being able to play as fast as he does, as consistently as he does, is impressive. That he can inject passion and flair while performing at this speed is doubly so.

It’s obviously a massive shame that one of the most accomplished, inventive groups in grindcore decided to call it a day after a mere three albums, leaving us with not even an hour of recorded material to remember them by. But maybe it’s better this way. Rather than allowing the possibility of their legacy being spoiled with a disappointing misfire or a slow descent into mediocrity, Gridlink elected to go out with a bang, with this final statement representing the strongest moment of any of its members’ careers. Their discography was already a near-perfect encapsulation of this particular brand of extreme music, but Longhena might well become a high-water mark for the entire genre, the one to try and beat. It would have been incredibly difficult for the group themselves to top this; what hope do others have?

Longhena is released on February 19th on Handshake Inc.

Sunn O))) and Ulver- Terrestrials

396133Breaking the month-long dry spell this blog’s been through comes my first review piece of the year. For the purposes of transparency I’ll say from the off that I’m not familiar with Ulver’s previous work, and will largely be treating the band’s collaboration with Sunn O))) in the context of the latter group’s music. It’s entirely probable this will lead me to ignore how Ulver contributed to this recording, and I apologise in advance.

In the history of Western classical and pop music, melody has tended to be the compositional element that composers have paid the most attention to. Heavy metal, by contrast, distinguished itself by largely (though not entirely) eschewing melody in favour of repeated riffs, and perhaps more importantly, focusing on texture as a key feature. In spite of the large and obvious variance in subgenres of metal, the presence of loud, distorted guitars is ubiquitous to the point that it’s essentially the music’s defining characteristic. Obviously certain chord progressions, scales and harmonies sound more “metal” than others- the diabolus in musica tritone at the centre of Black Sabbath’s eponymous song is perhaps the most obvious example. But you could almost argue that how your guitar sounds is more important to being metal than what you’re playing.

Even the most experimental of metal groups have largely stayed within the genre’s textural boundaries, rarely if ever abandoning the use of guitar distortion entirely. US drone masters Sunn O))), for example, distinguished themselves by building on the drone metal template established by Earth’s Dylan Carlson, adding more and more non-standard instrumentation and elements from outside the heavy music wheelhouse, but still retaining a foundation of extended, drumless guitar drones. Even on releases like 2009’s Monoliths and Dimensions or their 2006 collaboration with Boris, Altar, which featured “softer” textures on certain tracks, the sonic template of metal was largely retained. However, Terrestrials, the group’s collaboration with experimental Norwegian band Ulver, is their first release (as far as I am aware) to entirely abandon the customary miasma of distortion*. In its place is an almost orchestral take on the drone metal form; sharing the same structure, but arriving at a different musical landscape altogether.

Opener “Let There Be Light” slowly builds up from quiet, crystalline ambience into a subdued yet swelling ebb and flow of guitar. It somewhat echoes “Alice”, the closing track of the aforementioned Monoliths, in its jazz-influenced supplementing instrumentation- in particular, the washes of trumpet in the background closely recall mid-period Miles Davis. Nearly eight and a half minutes pass before tribal drums kick in, but they occupy background space in the mix and never overpower the other elements. The expected approach might be to have the drums kick in to signal an increase in volume or energy, but nothing so pedestrian happens here. Certainly, their arrival coincides with the intensity of the performances rising, but not in a way that reflects the power we tend to expect from metal. Even at over 10 minutes total, the track feels as though it ends abruptly, just as it was emerging from its long buildup into something more majestic.

“Western Horn” opens with an extended didgeridoo note, again hinting at the form of drone metal without recreating it texturally. Guitar, piano, and paranoid-sounding strings are gradually layered upon each other, each element adding background texture to the drone in centre stage. The result is a sinister mood, reminiscent of earlier Sunn O))) work in terms of what is being played- the chord progression could easily have appeared on ØØ Void– but approached from a very different angle. Rather than the band’s previous minimalist focus on feedback-drenched guitars, a thick blanket of sound is constructed here from the intermingling timbres of myriad instruments, rather than sheer volume. By contrast, the third and final track, “Eternal Return”, is more elegy than dirge, summoning a more contemplative mood compared to its ominous predecessors. Huge, echoing guitars mix with meditative minor-key patterns on piano; 70s-style synths creep in at about seven mins, their warmth and analogue quality sounding otherworldly rather than cheesy. Following close behind come the only vocals on the album, a subdued oration of poetry abundant with imagery relating to ancient Egypt. The lyrics’ intended meaning is unclear, but they undoubtedly contribute to the overall elegaic mood.

As Sunn O))) releases go, Terrestrials is quite short, with three tracks measuring at just over half an hour. It might have been nice to hear the collective performers stretch out on another ten or fifteen minutes of material; but on the other hand, it’s refreshing when listening to this kind of slow, meditative music to be left wanting more, rather than beginning to lose patience by the end of its running time (I’ve sometimes felt exhausted attempting to listen to the Altar collaboration with Boris in its entirety, for example.) Fans of experimental, ambient or soundtrack projects will likely find something to enjoy in this release, as might adventurous metalheads accustomed to the far-out tendencies of the bands responsible. Given that the textural qualities of guitar distortion have become so closely associated with heavy music, there’s a debate to be had about whether, by essentially abandoning it, this music even counts as metal, even if it retains the same structure of the drone subgenre. Nonetheless, no matter how you choose to categorise it, Terrestrials is still a carefully constructed musical endeavour that remains deeply affecting.

Terrestrials is released on Tuesday (February 4th) on Southern Lord.

                                           

* The album was initially recorded in summer 2008, at an improvised session in Ulver’s Crystal Canyon studio. Additional overdubs were recorded infrequently in the years since, hence the long wait for its release.

Dawa Drolma- XI MMXIII

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As I mentioned in my last post, most of my prior reviews here have focused on fairly mainstream releases (as much as there is a “mainstream” in extreme metal). I thought I’d start to redress that balance by highlighting the latest, extremely limited release from an artist I’ve had the good fortune to become acquainted with in recent weeks: Portland, Oregon musician Zareen Katherine Price.

Working under the pseudonym Dawa Drolma, Price has unleashed a slew of splits, demos and EPs over the past year. Mostly released on extremely small runs of cassette tapes (though also available via Bandcamp), these projects have covered a wide swath of the extreme musical spectrum, while also incorporating more reflective, melodic influences; the pensive acoustic collection Chasms, under the project name Complin, is one of my favourites in the latter vein.

With the latest entry in her MMXIII series of cassettes, though, Price focuses more on crushing listeners under foot. XI showcases one song each by her heavy projects Gulag (death metal or “war metal”, a genre tag I’m still unsure as to the meaning of) and Cronesmoon (avant-garde black metal). These divergent strands of extremity allow Price to show off her versatility and musical prowess to the fullest (she performs everything bar drums on both pieces). The vocals for each song are perhaps the biggest point of difference: the bottom-of-the-throat growls on Gulag’s “Icosahedral Keys to the Fleshly Gate” and the howling rasp of Cronesmoon’s “Sister Tongues of Rain” are both deployed with equal aplomb. The former employs halting, stop-start dynamics, building up a head of steam through barrelling riffs only to come to a sudden halt, to ratchet up the listener’s unease and tension. Cronesmoon employs similar dynamics when switching between passages, but the focus here is more on high-register tremolo-picked figures, separated by an anxious-sounding bridge about a minute and a half in.

There’s continuity, though, in the lo-fi production on both pieces, which enhances the menacing, dark feeling without descending into unlistenability. The Cronesmoon song is particularly well-done, with raw and stripped-down guitars that are nonetheless much fuller than the thin, needling sound often associated with underground black metal. The elliptical lyrics Price wrote for each song also share the same poetic sensibility. Nothing is spelled out, and nothing needs to be- the point is to draw your own conclusions from enigmatic metaphors like “My word is erased/with spit and stone/Hollowed and cleaned/like an egg emptied of yolk” (“Icosahedral”) and “the sky speaks to me through the earth/rolling her tongues across my skin” (“Sister Tongues of Rain”). As fun as Death Metal English can be at times, it’s refreshing to hear words that revel in ambiguity welded to musical extremity.

XI is just one of the many strong, forward-thinking releases put out under the Dawa Drolma name this year. Even if you’re unable to obtain one of the extremely limited physical copies of this series, I’d urge my readers to at least check it out in digital form, and consider supporting an underground artist who deserves much, much more attention.

Check out the XI MMXIII release here, or visit the Dawa Drolma Bandcamp page to listen to more of Zareen’s work.