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+