Sunday, September 29, 2013

Gorguts - Colored Sands

After flirting with a continuation of their chaotic sound in Negativa, Luc Lemay decided to part ways with Steeve Hurdle (RIP) and work under the Gorguts name again. I remember listening to that Negativa EP when I was maybe 17 or 18 and being so excited at the prospect of a full length album from Lemay and Hurdle at some point in the future. Unfortunately this never really came to pass, and Negativa became Steeve's project exclusively whereas Luc returned to Gorguts. It has been five years since Luc decided to leave Negativa, six years since the Negativa EP, twelve years since the last Gorguts album, and fifteen years since what most consider their crowning achievement in "Obscura". I'm going to get this out of the way right now - in terms of extreme metal 'comeback albums' which have become strangely popular in the last five years, from Autopsy's twisted and suitable raunchy "Macabre Eternal", to Pestilence's bland and underwhelming "Resurrection Macabre", to Carcass's latest "Surgical Steel", "Colored Sands" is by far the greatest of these kind of albums. Not only does it do the best job of pleasing the band's older fans, but it also sounds like the band has actually evolved in a logical and appropriate direction. Rather than sounding like a homage to the past, a bland cashgrab or an awful -core or groove metal inflected "experiment", "Colored Sands" stands on its own and it stands well above almost everything else in the genre in 2013.

For the historically erudite readers, the easiest way to describe what "Colored Sands" is as an album in terms of Gorguts is to say it is a fusion between the best aspects of "From Wisdom to Hate" and "Obscura" with a much better production job than either of those albums got. There's no denying the absence of Steeve Hurdle is apparent - many of the strange guitar noises and completely atonal melodies that characterized "Obscura" just aren't present on "Colored Sands", for better or worse. "Colored Sands" is not the revolutionary genre-redefining landmark that "Obscura" was, but it is a more polished (don't confuse this adjective with "compromising") album in terms of songwriting and production than any of the band's previous efforts.

So what does Gorguts really sound like? Good question, even a really experienced reviewer would have a difficult time building a description of their sound from scratch. Imagine aliens playing death metal underwater. Yeah, that's kind of what it sounds like. The music and production has an explosive and resonant quality that really highlights the album's dynamic qualities in a flattering way. As far as what "aliens" implies, I simply mean the instrumentation on this album is far, far outside of the death metal norm though it's not purely experimental in the same sense Negativa was, or Obscura was for its time. Gorguts is one of those many metal bands with a name that doesn't really reflect their music at all (apart from their first two albums). "Colored Sands" certainly doesn't sound "sick" or "gory" or "evil" in the traditional way death metal often aspires to sound. Instead it sounds foreboding, monolithic, chaotic, apocalyptic, agonizing and alien.

Each song on "Colored Sands" does a good job of sounding relatively unique without being disjointed. There are slower songs like "Ocean of Wisdom" and "Absconders" that hearken back to tracks like "Clouded" (while being more enjoyable to listen to), there are faster, more chaotic numbers like "Enemies of Compassion" and "Forgotten Arrows", and there are songs that rely primarily on percussive force and a certain rhythmic pulse to drive forward, such as "Le Toit du Monde" and "Reduced to Silence". For an album that is over an hour in length (I tend to think the ideal length for a typical death metal record is about a half hour), "Colored Sands" offers enough variation that it is never monotonous, boring or pedantic, but all of the songs have a readily identifiable genetic identity suggesting they stem from the same source, that they are all pieces of the same puzzle, that they are all different facets of the same overarching and unifying idea. This album-wide synergy between the songs is something I've always placed a lot of importance on and "Colored Sands" does a great job of being a huge, epic and otherworldly experience as a whole. "The Battle of Chamdo" deserves praise not just for its careful placement in the very middle of the album, effectively separating the album into two acts, but also for its production value. Gorguts' earlier orchestral pieces were held back by their recordings - probably done with VSTs, MIDIs or keyboards of some sort - whereas on "Colored Sands", Lemay was able to hire and properly record a string quintet, and bring just enough of his classical influence into the album to give it a great sense of separation and serve as a beautiful counterpoint to the music surrounding each side of the track.

I have a very difficult time finding anything wrong with or poor about this album. Perhaps it is not as daring or revolutionary as "Obscura" was, and it certainly doesn't follow the path of instrumental experimentation that Steeve Hurdle was pursuing with Negativa, but it succeeds in every aspect that could have reasonably been expected from the efforts of Lemay and co. In fact, if we take off the rose-colored glasses through which we often revere "Obscura" and look at it from the perspective of someone who isn't a death metal historian or particularly enthralled by the bouncy, atonal and sometimes unintentionally silly-sounding guitarwork on the album, we might even conclude something more blasphemous than all of Incantation's albums combined: That "Colored Sands" is actually the best all-around album Gorguts has done in their entire career. I can see the keyboard inquisitors foaming at their mouths right now, formulating the logistics of my crucifixion at the stake of death metal doctrine - for how can something released in 2013 actually be better than an album fifteen years its senior with an untouchable reputation in the subculture? And yet that's exactly what I think Gorguts has done here, not on the same terms of course, but in terms of pure listenability; if we accept that the time for genre-redefining, earth-shattering experiments has largely passed and that our current age in death metal is largely characterized by the pursuit of some nebulous concept of musical perfection, then "Colored Sands" is the best album Gorguts has done.

Grade: A+

Monday, July 15, 2013

On Venetian Snares

"To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also." - Igor Stravinsky

Venetian Snare is one of my favorite artists not just because of the technical brilliance of his music and the awesome time signatures, but also the wide variety of styles and aesthetics he has explored over the course of his discography.
In this blog I list and explain in brief terms some of my favorite albums/eps he has done. These are listed in chronological order of release:

printf("shiver in eternal darkness/n"); - 2001 full length

"I am punishing the atoms. I am making an example of them. An object lesson. A thing."

Fellow computer science nerds will quickly note that "/n" is not how you tell printf (in any language I know of) to print a newline, but instead "\n". Anyway, this early full length release from Snares is a dark one, as the title would suggest, but it is not as focused as something like "Doll Doll Doll" which would come later or as experimental as "Songs About My Cats". "printf" is one of my favorite snares albums, largely because of the combination of its dark mood and brilliant samples - there are so many memorable moments on this album without it being as difficult to process as some of his denser work. Songs like Salt are some of the most rhythmically abrasive he has ever done, yet this is on the same disc as one of the most straight forward songs he has ever done in Intense Demonic Attacks. "printf" covers the widest spectrum of the aesthetics of darkness of any of his albums, and can be both challenging and relatively easy to listen to.

Favorite Songs: Cruel Whole, Punishing the Atoms, Salt, Intense Demonic Attacks

Songs About My Cats - 2001 full length

SAMC was one of the first Snares albums I listened to after my introduction to Rossz Csillag Alatt Született and I was immediately captivated by just how strange it sounded. It's difficult to describe, but overall SAMC sounds extremely abstract, like you are listening to things humans do not normally hear, but that exist in the audial perception of animals - namely cats. My impression of SAMC was that it was composed from the perspective that the resulting music was either for cats and not for people, or that the music represented the stream of consciousness of a cat. That's how alien this entire album sounds. I would describe the mood of SAMC as mostly playful, but not in an easily comprehensible way. It doesn't sound excessively negative or positive; it just sounds weird. SAMC is one of my favorite Snares album - perhaps my favorite - because of how endlessly interesting, challenging, and alien it is. The image above is actually the last track "Look". You can see that the song is actually noise that ends up being pictures of the artist's cats when ran through a spectrogram.

Favorite Songs:  Chinaski, Fluff Master, Neptalactone

Doll Doll Doll - 2001 full length

"Spirit of poison. Howling spirit. Killing spirit that walks. Spirit creature not wearing the shape of a man."

DDD is Snares' densest and sickest album. As someone who came from a background of extreme metal where no subject is taboo, I was immediately interested to hear what this album sounded like, considering I had been told the concept of the album revolved around torturing and murdering children which even for extreme metal is something that is never written about seriously - used only for gimmicky shock value. I suppose DDD can sound like it's about whatever kind of violence and sadism you want, but the influences are clearly there, from the samples of Fallout's "childkiller" dialogue to the Jonbenet Ramsey tip hotline. Like printf, the mood here is dark, but it's more than just dark: It is violent, sadistic, and oppressive. Some may find DDD difficult to listen to just because of its subject matter, but even beyond that it's actually a really difficult and abrasive album to listen to; it took me the better part of a year to really get into the harsher tracks. "Pressure Torture" sounds pretty much like the title sounds - you could probably torture people with it because of how violent it is. Imagine Merzbow on every methamphetamine known to man and you're halfway there. DDD is kind of unique in the sense that I find the last half of the album is a lot better than the first half, considering most artists are eager to load up the first half of their albums with the best tracks to capture the listener's interest. The whole album is strong, but the epic and terrifying 9 minute closing track "All The Children Are Dead" might be the greatest song Snares has done in his entire career. One of my favorite Snares albums for its uncompromising sickness and the immense challenge it provides a listener with.

Favorite Songs: Dollmaker, Befriend A Childkiller, Pressure Torture, All The Children Are Dead

Find Candace - 2003 EP

"I remember when I was a kid... And seeing a dying dog, you know, one of those old dogs that comes to die under the porch of the house. And at the last moment it yelps in terror... As if it has seen something real."

Find Candace is Snares' brief continuation of DDD. It has that same sense of sadism and sickness, though it is not as violent, dense, or overall as difficult to listen to as the album which it succeeds. It is a less visceral experience, though perhaps more reflective. Mercy Funk is an amazing track not just because of its samples but because of its simultaneous rhythmic unpredictability and cohesiveness. This release also features Snares really experimenting with strings and more classical instruments on tracks like Bind Candace which are more ambient in nature than being proper breakcore songs. A very worthwhile release if you enjoyed the evilness of DDD.

Favorite Songs: Mercy Funk, Children's Limbo

The Chocolate Wheelchair Album - 2003 full length

"It's about time, it's about space, about strange people in the strangest place"

In sharp contrast to the preceding releases of  Doll Doll Doll and Find Candace on this list, Chocolate Wheelchair - as the title suggests - is one of the most playful and lighthearted releases in the whole Venetian Snares catalog. That's not to say this album can't be interesting just because it is "fun" in nature - some of the tracks are quite challenging and aggressive, like the closer "Herbie Goes Ballistic" which basically sounds like someone's descent into insanity. There's a memorable moment on "Herbie Goes Ballistic" where a sample sounding like someone's grandmother asks "Herbie aren't you ashamed of-" but before she can finish her sentence, the song itself representing Herbie's consciousness goes completely ballistic and cuts her off. This level of richness of perspective is certainly part of what makes Venetian Snares' music so great, and that greatness is definitely present on Chocolate Wheelchair, although it's being expressed in less grim and serious tones than on his earlier albums.

Favorite Songs: Abomination Street, Einstein-Rosen Bridge, Epidermis, Herbie Goes Ballistic

Rossz Csillag Alatt Született - 2005 full length

"Why am I frightened so easily? Pigeon, why can you scare me? Am I not a part of your life anymore? Am I not welcome anymore? Am I not part of your life?"

Already in his career Snares had experimented with Noise (SAMC), Jazz (DDD and Find Candace), Funk and Rock (Chocolate Wheelchair), but what will probably be considered his greatest experiment happened on this album, and it was an experiment with classical music. RCAS sounds, in a single word, grandiose. The classical samples on this album carry the music some of the time, especially during the rising actions and calmer parts of the album, while the electronic and notoriously schizophrenic breakcore that defines the artist is played in accompaniment and takes center stage when the music is at a climax. RCAS is accessible in a way that no other Venetian Snares album (with the possible exception of My Downfall) is. If I'm recommending VS to someone who I'm not sure will enjoy the darkness of printf, or the evilness of DDD, or the weirdness of SAMC, I recommend RCAS first and foremost. Even someone who is not really into breakcore or remotely difficult music usually respects RCAS because of how consummate, polished and beautiful it sounds. This album is by far the best way to get into VS if you are interested. It goes from gorgeous to ugly and back again, from relaxing to violently neurotic, and - well you get the idea. Hajnal is really the centerpiece of the album, containing a really definitive string melody that sets the stage for the song, in addition to some jazz and one of the most memorable and iconic breakcore passages in the genre's history. RCAS is extravagant, grandiose, vain, and vulnerable. An enchanting album about disenchantment.

Favorite Songs: Szerencsétlen, Hajnal, Második Galamb, Szamár Madár

I am considering adding Hospitality (2006) and My So Called Life (2010) to this list but I need to relisten to his 2007-2009 releases a bit more first.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Best of 2012 in Death Metal

This last year I really got back into death metal and caught up on many of the happenings of the past couple years as far as the old school scene goes. After listening to probably 50 albums over the course of the year within the subgenre of OSDM, I've decided to organize my judgments of those releases into a "best of" list.

I will not rank releases relative to each other with any kind of rating system, I will just identify which albums were essential listens in my mind and which were valiant efforts that deserve an honorable mention but fell short for one reason or another.

Essential Releases:

Horrendous - The Chills

This was an awesome melding of Swedish death with Dutch death that resulted in something sounding quite unlike anything released before it. If the cover art can't convince you this is going to be an imaginative take on OSDM, then you suck. Horrendous' music is very melodic, about as melodic as death metal can get without treading into that vacuous and cliched genre known as Melodic Death Metal. This album explores a wide range of the genre's spectrum of expression without varying too wildly in songwriting style between tracks - a sign of mature songwriting. The Chills offers a massive amount of variety and straight up fun over nine tracks, complete with some shorter and extremely catchy songs (Fleshrot), a nice interlude (Sleep Sickness), and an epic closer (The Eye of Madness). This is an album with a consciously designed structure that never ceased to enthrall me and which makes it extremely listenable. Everything comes together beautifully on this album while treading some new ground in the genre. A future classic.

 Necrovation - Necrovation

I know I just praised Horrendous' cover art for their album, but Necrovation's cover art is easily the cover art of the year in my mind. Not only is it beautiful but it is perfectly suited to Necrovation's new sound - a remote oceanic storm under a grey smoking sky hanging over the nearly lifeless husk of a world. This band's first album was a landmark in OSDM when it was released back in 2008 when this scene was still picking up speed. "Breed Deadness Blood" didn't tread any new ground on a purely musical level, but it was a consummate effort that captured and brought out the best aspects of combining old-school songwriting with new production methods and technologies. "Necrovation" on the other hand is a completely different album that stands in a class of its own. The band still plays "death metal" but that's about where the similarities to the first album end. This self titled effort is a step forward in death metal songwriting and forges its own sound within the confines of the genre - an impressive feat. There are strange riffs and even stranger combinations of riffs happening on this album, with some extremely imaginative transitions that ooze confidence and keep the listener's ears peeled for the next development. The vocals are probably my least favorite aspect of the record, but they can be overlooked (if you can't overlook vocals then you haven't listened to extreme music) in light of all the interesting things going on here. Like Horrendous' release, "Necrovation" is an album crafted and designed to be listened to in full. It is certainly darker and more monochromatic music than what is on "The Chills", and combined with the inherent complexity of certain aspects of the songs I think it is far less accessible and so has been largely underrated by many reviewers in the metal world who were anticipating "Breed Deadness Blood" part 2. In time people will come to see this as a classic and an emphatic step forward.

Ataraxy - Revelations of the Ethereal

More awesome cover art, though it bears a striking resemblance to Horrendous' cover art at least in terms of color choices. "Revelations of the Ethereal" is a beautifully produced album that takes cues from the Finnish scene; a gargantuan slab of churning death metal encased in an oppressive and enthralling atmosphere carrying the winds of an abstract but not alien sense of melody that gives (a very strange) life to the music. The lead and clean guitars on this album are what give it so much character. We've seen the same sort of judicious layering innovated by classic bands like Disembowelment, but it still sounds quite different on this album because the production is so different from those old albums. The pace and feel of the rhythm section is much more like the Finnish legends of Rippikoulu, Abhorrence and even Convulse; and it does travel all the way across that spectrum and back. From the plodding doom of Rippikoulu to the chainsaw crushing of Convulse. This immaculate set of influences is expressed through satisfying songwriting and a production job perfectly suited to give the band as tall and wide a sound as possible. It is important to note the distinction between the expression of modernized Finndeath on this album and what other great bands like Funebrarum have done. "Revelations of the Ethereal" is more content to bask in its atmosphere and shroud the listener in its odd sense of melody and doom than Funebrarum's "Beneath the Columns of Abandoned Gods", which is more akin to peering down into a bottomless pit and hearing the ancient echoes of foreboding and doom emanating upwards, or their last album "The Sleep of Morbid Dreams" which is more like being dropped into that pit, hitting the bottom and being the unfortunate visceral witness of that prophetic chaos. Ataraxy's music is less morbid, but no less interesting on its own terms. A unique and excellent expression of Finnish influences that will be a landmark from the perspective of the future.

There were certainly other cool releases in 2012 like Drawn and Quartered - Feeding Hell's Furnace, Desolate Shrine - The Sanctum of Human Darkness, Ignivomous - Contragenesis, Wrathprayer - The Sun of Moloch, among others, but I think these were the absolute best and the releases that will leave the largest marks on the genre moving forward.

Also there were some great releases outside the narrow confines of OSDM; in terms of hip-hop El-P's Cancer 4 Cure was an album I thoroughly enjoyed all year. Check that shit out.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Chapel of Disease - Summoning Black Gods

Chapel of Disease is an old-school death metal band from Germany who released their first full length album last year called "Summoning Black Gods". Perhaps it is only coincidence that "Summoning Black Gods" is "SBG" in acronym form, but considering the thrash influences in this piece of death metal, it is entirely possible the name itself is a reference to Death's "Scream Bloody Gore"; THE "SBG" in death metal. I was recommended this album by a friend who swore it was better than Horrendous' "The Chills", and while I'm going to disagree personally, I do think that Chapel of Disease's "SBG" achieves a similar level of excellence categorically speaking.

SBG takes a lot of what made early death metal so appealing to the thrash fans of that era and executes those elements really well to form an album that can be described as early Florida-ish death metal; before death metal had really separated itself from thrash. I hope you like Pestilence and Martin Van Drunen, because the vocals here are done in the great tradition of Van Drunen with very little variance, but achieving plenty of effect, particularly if you like that vocal style - high pitched but extremely throaty and just unclean sounding with weird inflections. The guy's voice sounds like phlegm covered in AIDS splattering against a greasy wall... With lots of reverb. Personally I'm quite a fan of this kind of vocalist, although I will say he doesn't have the moments that Van Drunen had in some of the early Pestilence material or on Asphyx's "The Rack", so in terms of songwriting I think he could have been utilized better.

The guitars more or less dominate this album, as they should in a death-thrash metal hybrid. The tone is very raw and really does not sound dissimilar from the kind of guitar tone bands like Asphyx and Atheist had on their debut albums. The distortion is clearly cranked all the way up and it sounds like you are in the band's rehearsal space for better or worse. I do think the raw style mostly helps, because it emphasizes the best part about this album: It's absolutely full of energy and enthusiasm. SBG is constantly changing tempos and making very primitive and unsubtle transitions between really fast thrash riffs, but what makes it fun to listen to is the way it's simultaneously comprehensible (in a way that say, the Slaughterlord demos were not) and genuine-sounding. An exclusively forward thinking critic might suggest there's no use in playing this kind of barbaric thrash-based protodeath that lacks so much songwriting maturity, but they're clearly missing the whole point of the genre. Much of what enthusiasts find so compelling about the older albums of underground metal's past was precisely the lack of caution or even skill in songwriting that is so prevalent here.

The drums and bass are both unspectacular on SBG, but this is likely to the advantage of the album anyway. Metal, really all metal outside of the avant-garde and progressive regions, is centered on guitars. Once you get past how awesome a double-kick beat sounds, you begin to realize that it's really all about the guitars. Excessive variation and intrusive virtuosity on the part of either the bass player or the drummer confuses casual listeners who are looking for hooks built on top of the familiar and basic rhythms they've internalized since childhood. SBG knows its boundaries and stays well within them. We have already established it is not the most groundbreaking of albums, but the discipline and subtlety of the rhythm section make a lot of the songs very catchy and listenable underneath the guitars that are many degrees more unpredictable and impulsive. In this sense, the basic style of SBG's drums and bass really grounds the album and this is what allows it to be so fun to listen to.

If there is one thing that I personally dislike about SBG, it would certainly be the pentatonic styling of the guitar solos. It's definitely old school to really on pentatonic patterns for metal solos, but it almost sounds like they are trying too hard to sound like a retro band when they do this, in the same way it often sounds like Warbringer try too hard to sound like a retro band. They use this pentatonic framework for most of the lead guitar work at the precious cost of something more unique and certainly something that could sound darker. I find most of the lead guitar work on SBG regrettably cheesy.

For all the praise I've lavished on SBG, we can't ignore the fact that very little of what is here is actually original musically speaking. Despite originality not being the intent of the album, there were a few instances where I thought I heard part of an older song or a riff from an older band that was sort of plucked out of the past and woven into this album in its charmingly haphazard way. The album's greatest achievement is that yes it has that innocent, energetic and ultimately amateur style of death-thrash songwriting that has long since been smoothed over and washed away by the innumerable waves of ever more refined metal released since, but it also pulls this style off in a way that is extremely listenable and comprehensible compared to the albums it seeks to emulate.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Immortal Visions - Aquaritia

Self-released in 1993

Well I'm doing something a little different today. I will get around to reviewing more recent albums, but I'd also like to review some albums and demos of the past that never got the recognition they deserve. Immortal Visions' 1993 demo Aquaritia is one of those long forgotten, buried gems of death metal's past. At the time of writing this, Immortal Visions has a grand total of 88 alltime listeners on, and I alone account for more than 10% of the bands' plays. I'm just trying to emphasize this release really hasn't been talked about much.

Aquaritia is longer than most demos, it's about a half hour long, which is either the length of a long ep or a short full length. The lyrics are unavailable as far as I know, and if they're in English then their obscurity is probably for the best - we can only imagine their mastery of English with song titles like "The All-Seeing Hatered" and "Sometimes They Comes Back", but what Immortal Visions may have lacked in literary value they make up for musically.

The first thing I noticed about Aquaritia was the unique production job. I don't mean to say it's a technical marvel, because quite the opposite is true - whoever mixed this had no idea what they were doing. In the world of old school death metal though, being an expert in audio engineering is far from a requirement. Aquaritia sounds terrible in a great way. The guitars rumble on thirty miles thick on the low end but are distorted enough that the harmonic artifacts on the upper strings are picked up distinctly when tremolo picking happens. The drums don't have a lot of variation or dynamic range but they are loud and distorted enough to sound powerful as the songs plod along. The vocals are highly distorted and sound guttural with a unique and interesting sense of enunciation that lacks forcefulness but are compensated by their relatively high volume in the mix.

"Plodding along" is really how I would describe the pace of this demo. Immortal Visions plays a slow kind of death metal with some of the theatrical sensibilities of doom metal. The songs don't vary a lot in tempo, but they never fall back on boring or generic riffs and they offer plenty of interesting distractions like clean guitar leads and keyboards. Perhaps the single most memorable aspect of Aquaritia is its use of a clean guitar to play the defining lead melody of many songs. The distorted guitars stay on the lower end but play with consistently compulsive rhythms and a really unique and flavorful selection of melody. Underneath all of the distortion and vocals, Immortal Visions aren't playing the same kind of riffs other death/doom bands play, they're quite unique, listenable, and surprisingly suiting to the genre. There's something very exotic about the sound of band as a whole, with their uncliched eastern-sounding clean leads and cleverly brooding rhythms underneath. 

I highly recommend Aquaritia to any enthusiast interested in early to mid 90s death doom, especially the stuff that was more experimental; if you like Phlebotomized's Immense Intense Suspense or even Disembowelment's Transcendence into the Peripheral then you will probably love Aquaritia.

Grade: A