Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Negative Plane- Stained Glass Revelations (2011)

Have you ever wondered what it would sound like if Dick Dale played black metal? Me neither… that is, at least until I heard Negative Plane’s sophomore release “Stained Glass Revelations”.  Certainly, black metal has been yoked with a lot of different styles: prog, crust punk, jazz, shoegaze and folk from just about every nook of Europe. For better or worse, someone always seems to find black metal a new bride. Still, I can honestly say I never would have envisioned an album like “Stained Glass Revleations.” Negative Plane plays an avant garde brand of black metal that is accentuated through a wealth of surfer rock and psychedelic rock sensibilities.

Perhaps that sounds like a recipe for kitsch album, but Negative Plane pull it off in a tasteful way. It’s not as if they’re playing witty little two minute black n’ roll ditties; this is a serious album full of intricate musicianship and powerful aesthetic. The guitar playing is really elaborate. The album is overloaded with quick, slippery leads that race up and down the fret board, recalling 60’s surfer rock sounds. While the lead guitar fires off colorful notes like a disco ball, the rest of the band provide an entrapping backdrop.  The bass has a really cool hollow sound, as if it were some homemade wooden instrument. The eerie and quirky organs add more psyched out sensibilities, sounding inspired by Ray Manzarek of the Doors. 

“So, where’s the black metal?” you might asking.  Well, the rock elements certainly do not stop “Stained Glass Revelations” from having a very occult feeling to it. The production is vast echoic, making the record sound as if it were recorded in some old cobblestone church. NV’s husky shouts sound like some alchemist reading an ancient spell. The artwork, lyrics and horror house interludes all add to the album’s ghostly spirit. Aesthetics is where the album really succeeds. Everything comes together to make the listener feel like they’re chasing some troublesome apparition through an abandoned chapel. 

Unfortunately, the album depends on style to take it the distance. While the musicianship is stellar and the style is unique, the songs themselves are not especially notable pieces of songwriting and on the whole, the album feels fairly redundant.  After the first three tracks, the band’s whole bag of tricks has been exhausted. From there on out, the album is basically about rearranging those elements. Yet, the songwriting fails to engage. These are long tracks, ranging from seven to twelve minutes, but they feel bloated. Negative Plane fails to pull the listener to the edge of their seat, waiting for an especially enticing moment or memorable track. The songs themselves aren’t that distinct. While the clean parts, such as the clean guitar intros and magical organ passages stand out, the actual metal passages all sound pretty similar.

Without much in the way of songwriting, “Stained Glass Revelations” runs out of gas before the finish line. Though the band has a cool sound, their music comes up short on substance and range and consequently becomes innocuous by the last few tracks. Still, Negative Plane deserves praise for an imaginative take on black metal and impressive musicianship.  Definitely worth a listen for those who are interested in new and different sounds in the realm of black metal and especially for those black metal fans who are also fond of 60’s rock.

Overall: 7/10

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Burzum- Det Som Engang Var (1993)

A few months after recording the impressive but somewhat erratic but nonetheless impressive debut album “Burzum,” a more focused Varg Vikernes returned to the studios to record “Det Som Engang Var.” Taking the positives of the debut and building upon them, Burzum’s sophomore release is an absolute masterwork of black metal. 

What is interesting is that the songs for “Burzum,” “Det Som Engang Var” and “Aske” were mostly written within a year—and not in the order that they were released. So some of the material on “Det Som…” is actually older than the material on the debut. However, it does appear as if experience in the studio did Varg some good, as “Det Som…” displays much more craft in arrangement and layering than its predecessor.
The production remains raw, the riffs remain razor sharp and Varg’s screams are still the sound of unbridled madness. However, plenty of new details have been added giving “Det Som…” a much more textured sound. To begin, the production is a little deeper, meaning there is even more room for the riffs to buzz and resonate within the recording. Vocally, Varg supplements his powerful screeches with soft, gentile chants eerie spoken word passages. For a love of melody this album is a treat, as Varg churns out one imperious melody after another. 

Compositionally, “Det Som Engang Var” constantly offers the listener something new while maintaining a telos. The album starts from the darkest depths, with haunting and subdued ambient piece followed by the vicious “Key to the Gate,” which bursts onto the stage with venomous hatred.  After several waves of terrifying riffs and annihilating vocals, the song sinks down into a slow, doomy middle section. Varg builds the tension with brilliant craft, setting the scene for stunning moment when the song takes a complete 180 and bursts out an absolutely glorious guitar solo and majestic riff. 

The next 20 minutes are overloaded with magisterial sounds that summon images of pristine Nordic landscapes. On “En Ring Til Aa Herske” Varg takes his time, slowly developing a trance-inducing tunes toward its ecstatic peak. “Lost Wisdom” is the catchiest song, with a rock-like rhythm and folk leads. The album winds down with the dark, somber and eerie “Snu Mikrokosmos Tegn,” whose longer, interweaving structure recalls “My Journey to the Stars,” but is even more ominous. As if dragged down to the depths from where it came, “Det Som Engang Var” ends as disturbingly as it starts.

“Det Som Engang Var” also contains some of Varg’s first ambient pieces. The closer “Svarte Troner” is extremely disturbing, with soft, off-putting moans hiding behind spooky melodies and waves of white noise. “Han Som Reiste” consists of an excellent medieval melody—the kind of tune Summoning has made a living off of.

“Det Som Engang Var” is the closest one can get to the “other planes” of existence Varg speaks of in “Lost Wisdom.” It’s as if the listener is pulled out of his or her modern life and brought to a mystical, arcane world. Yet, like all dreams, the journey has to end and the listener is drawn back into the bleak reality of modern civilization once again. “No bear, no wolf, no troll. Breathless.” The beautiful dream of “Det Som Engang Var” comes to an end and only an ideal remains—an ideal totally disconnected from the modern world. What once was is lost.

Overall: 10/10

Burzum- Burzum (1992)

1992 is the year that the second wave of black metal began to take shape. While Quorthon had already laid the foundation with the first three Bathory albums and Mayhem had been revving up for a while, it was the trio of Darkthrone’s “A Blaze in the Northern Sky,” Immortal’s “Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism” and Burzum’s self-titled debut that really kick started golden age of black metal. These albums are dark, raw, evil and chilling. Burzum’s debut is no doubt the most extreme of these albums.

Structurally and conceptually ambitious, “Burzum” already gives a peak into the complex artistic vision of Varg Vikernes. At the same time, this is an album that is as raw as they come. Varg takes Bathory’s buzzing guitar sound and sharpens it to an absolutely piercing pitch. Keen as these riffs are, they still fill a lot of space through resonation and humming feedback. The minimalist production does not stop these riffs from sounding big and full. This creates the perfect landscape for Varg’s maddening screams. Varg’s vocals on the first three albums are simply without peer. He sounds like a crow that just returned to its nest to find its eggs missing and is pissed the fuck off.

Conceptually, the album swings high, but it doesn’t always hit the mark. The album is split into two sides: “Side War” and “Side Winter.” Beyond being a fairly asymmetrical pairing, the two sides do not really fit the bill. For example, the dreamy ambient piece “Channeling the Power of Souls into a New God” appears on “Side War” while the thrashy headbanger “War” appears on “Side Winter”. More problematic, the album doesn’t have the greatest flow. Unlike some of the masterfully arranged albums that Varg would produce in the upcoming years, the debut is somewhat of a grab bag. There are three longer, emotionally complex tracks and there are three shorter, visceral tracks. While these differing types of tracks could conceivably be interwoven, Varg doesn’t actually manage to achieve that here. 

Varg really shows his brilliance as a songwriter on the two closing epics, “A Lost Forgotten Sad Spirit” and “My Journey to the Stars”. These two songs do feel like side winter with sweeping melodies buzzing around like gusts of ice cold wind. The tracks interweave between fast, pulsating rhythms and slow, tribal beats, constantly bringing new sounds into their web. Actually, the headbangers are damn good too. “War” is a great tribute to the Bathory song of the same name and “Spell of Destruction” is absolutely riveting. Varg’s devastated, retaliatory wails on the later track are some of the most beautiful and horrifying vocals in the history of black metal.

Still, when it’s all said and done “Burzum” mostly feels like a collection of innovative songs from an excited and inspired young artist, but it doesn’t quite feel like an album. The structure is too erratic and the songs sometimes clash. While this doesn’t make the songs themselves any less excellent, it does put Burzum’s debut a notch or two below its sequels.   

Overall: 8.5/10

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Liturgy- Aesthetica (2011)

It is almost impossible disentangle Liturgy’s sophomore release, “Aesthetica” from vocalist/guitarist Hunter Hunt Hendrix’s “Transcendental Black Metal Manifesto.” In the manifesto, Hendrix suggests that Liturgy and their brand of “transcendental black metal” are the necessary teleological consequence of black metal. Since black metal is the teleological endpoint of all prior metal, it follows that Liturgy are some sort of dialectical culmination of everything in the history of metal up to today.

To be straight forward, the manifesto is fucking annoying. Hendrix throws around “it words” from continental philosophy and music theory, and then blends them with some goofy metaphors about the atrophied “hyperborean” realm (read: Norway) and the “transcendental apocalyptic” realm (read: America)—all of which is a longwinded way of Hendrix explaining that he thinks his band is awesome. Ultimately the manifesto comes off as a desperate attempt to place Liturgy as the “next great thing” in the history of black metal, as he presents their music as an "overcoming" of Darkthrone’s “Transylvanian Hunger”.

The sad part is that the music itself is actually quite praiseworthy—no manifesto was necessary. While the album sometimes becomes swamped in Liturgy’s uncontrolled pretentiousness, most of the album is imaginative fusion of new sounds and ideas into the black metal framework. At its core, “Aesthetica” is a black metal album; thin tremolo chords, pulsating percussion and standard high pitched screeches.   However, Liturgy does a number of things differently. First, the riffs are fluttery and melodic, swirling around the listener like the string section of an orchestra. This is highly Romantic music; at its best, it recalls the powerful melodies of Brucker and Mahler symphonies.

The band also has a strong djent influence. There are long stretches of mechanistic gyrations, but Liturgy bring life to the machine, building up to intense climaxes and that spill over, like a sprinter crossing the finish line. Liturgy’s ability to shift between these romantic and mechanic passages with such effortlessness is one of the highlights of “Aesthetica.” The band plays with such phenomenal synchronicity that they are able to split off into differing tempos and melodies and come back together without ever missing a beat.

Liturgy is also not afraid to integrate brighter, more celebratory melodies into the black metal sound. Certainly, they are not the first to do it (though they probably [i]think[/i] they are) but they are in the minority. The results are mixed. While the grandstanding opener “High Gold” is awe inspiring, “Sun of Light” sounds like an anime soundtrack. For the most part, Liturgy maintains their emotional integrity throughout—traversing the tragic “True Will”, the monumental “Veins of Gold” and the cathartic “Harmonia”.

The members of Liturgy have often been accused of not being true metal heads. I find that charge ironic; the metal on “Aesthetica” is mostly of a high quality, while all the non-metal parts are absolutely terrible. The a capella passages are literally the worst I have ever heard in my life. I kid not, these are the type of nasal vocals that incite mass violence. Hunter Hunt Hendrix strained moans like a castrated sheep being sodomized. The keyboard passages are also terrible.  The synth piece “Helix Skull” sounds like shit. Seriously, kids fucking around on a piano do a better job than this. Unfortunately these crap keyboard and a capella passages are often interspersed at the beginnings of otherwise stellar tracks, which means it’s not so easy to just skip them. These passages highlight that Liturgy are not quite “there” yet. They’re still too caught up in doing “transcendental black metal” to transcend their own inabilities, like lack of singing ability.

In the end “Aesthetica” is an impressive though sometimes frustrating album. While there are plenty of standout moments, it also has its share of absolutely terrible moments. At its core, this band has an original and exciting sound. While they’ve taken the liberty of putting themselves in conversation with Darkthrone, I would say their sound is closer to the neo-classical sounds of Emperor's swansong "Prometheus". Liturgy’s great innovation is removing the synths and creating the symphonic sound through nothing but bass, drums and guitar. Still, if this band is ever going to reach their full potential, they need to get their nauseatingly large egos under check.

Overall: 7.5/ 10

Monday, September 12, 2011

Moving over to DeafSparrow

I am excited to announce that I have begun writing reviews for http://www.deafsparrow.com/. The website specializes in all sorts of experimental and extreme music. I will continue to write reviews of new black metal releases, as well as adding in some post-rock and other experimental genres.

You can check out my first two reviews here:

Deafheaven- Roads to Judah

Efrim Manuel Menuck- Plays High Gospel

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Burzum- Belus (2010)

After a decade in prison, Varg Vikernes's return to black metal was an extremely anticipated event. Putting aside the absurd amount of social and political hype that surround Varg’s first post-prison album, there was also a ton of musical pressure. Before being imprisoned, Burzum released a pair of masterworks that defined and redefined the genre of black metal; “Hvis Lyset Tar Oss” and “Filosofem”. Most of the past decade’s best black metal releases owe a great deal to those albums. Fair or not, Varg was expected to release a similar masterpiece in his first go-round after incarceration. Astonishingly, Varg was up to the challenge, releasing both the heaviest and most diverse album of his career. At the same time, the composition is intricate and the mood is complex, cultivating a dynamic presence that remains throughout the album. 

“Belus” packs a punch. Gone are the keyboards, which had always given Burzum’s sound a gentler dimension. However, the increased presence of soft, clean vocals both preserves and transforms Burzum’s softer side. The guitars are big, sharp and heavy. They stand well in the forefront, grasping the listener with forceful moods and emotions. Still, every note of the bass is audible and drums are clear. The vocals—far raspier than on previous recordings—are also easily discernible. The production leaves plenty of open space in which the riffs bounce and echo, making for a full-bodied sound. The result is an album that grabs the listener with the pure force of the sound, and then enraptures them with the interplay of melodies. 

And boy is this album enrapturing! As the glorious cover art implies, this is an album of contrasts and tensions. There are two central elements at play on “Belus”. First, there is the somber, reverent and reflective spirit, similar to the songs “Det Som Engang En Var” and “En Ring Til Aa Herske”. Second, there is the dark, attacking spirit, similar to “Jesus Dod” and “War”. The way these sounds come together and split apart over the course of the album is nothing short of brilliant. 

For example, “Glemselens Elv” contrasts two folk melodies—a blistering guitar melody and a groovy, Germanic bass line. The two melodies dance around each other, from time to time coming together in a series of solemn bridges before breaking apart again. The contrast of clean and growled vocals further plays off the dark/ light theme.

“Kaimadalthas Nedstigning,” one of the most beautiful Burzum songs to date, plays off the theme in a more direct manner. The verse is sharp, frantic and biting, while the chorus is meditative, delicate and venerable. The precise, militant march of the verse naturally slides into the somber and reverent chorus. The soulful clean vocals and tragic guitar solo make the second half of this song splendorous. 

Another landmark is the closing pair of tracks “Morgenroede” and “Tilbakekomst (Konklusjon),” which really feel like a single song. These songs cultivate the same trance inducing mood as the ambient tracks “Tomhet” and “Rundgang um die Transzendentale Säule der Singularität”. However, these tracks do so metallically. The shimmering riffs and pulsating bass entrap the listener amidst webs of repetitive patterns—which through only the slightest bits of variation, build toward profound emotional apexes. Like “Tomhet” and “Rundgang…,” “Morgenroede” and “Tilbakekomst” have a soothing and cleansing effect that stands as the perfect palate cleanser after the emotional intensity that characterizes the rest of the album. 

The profundity and originality of these highlights, along with the brilliantly executed light/ dark theme, make “Belus” a classic. As usual, Varg does not settle for the status quo. While countless copy cats have spent the past decade trying to replicate the sounds of “Hvis…” and “Filosofem”, “Belus” shows that Burzum is not stuck in the past. Rather than dampening his artistic impulse, it seems Varg’s time in prison has led him to traverse stunning vistas previously unexplored in black metal. 

Overall: 9.5/ 10

Manierisme- The Past and Sorrow (2010)

For black metal, the one man band has been both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it has allowed some brilliant moments of individual composition and performance (i.e. Burzum and Graveland). However, it has also produced one too many half-baked albums on which one or more of the instruments are sub-par (see the majority of DSBM albums). The Japanese one man band Manierisme is such a case of frustrating inadequacy. While the debut full-length, "The Past and Sorrow" contains some very excellent riffs and melodies, they are wasted because of Jekyll’s (the man behind Manierisme) inability to adequately perform vocals, drums or properly mix the album.

Jekell has an excellent taste for riffs. Obviously he is very influenced by the first two Mütiilation albums. While many bands have copied Mütiilation’s raw, vicious spirit, few bands have caught on to their excellent melody style. Much of Mütiilation’s success was due to their extremely catchy, borderline pop melodies that are twisted into the absolute antithesis of that genre. Manierisme runs with this, taking poppy melodies and twisting them in all sorts of screwed up ways that are almost dizzying to hear. While Mütiilation aimed for the darkest possible sound, Manierisme’s riffs sound much more lunatical. These riffs lay the foundation for a very good album.

However, Jackall shows himself to be incompetent in all other areas of the recording. The vocals are extremely obnoxious. Less of scream and more of a nasal gulp directly into the microphone, the vocals sound like something from some kids' cartoon. However, the vocals are pretty far back in the mix, so they can mostly be ignored. The drums, on the other hand are impossible to ignore. They are just awful. Often, it literally sounds like someone is dropping a drum kit down a flight of stairs. The rest of the time it sounds like he’s just hitting things without any rhyme or reason. He also fails to keep a steady rhythm, which disjoints the songs. The icing on the cake is that the drums are really high in the mix, especially the cymbals which wash everything out every time they are hit.

In the end, a bunch of stellar riffs go to waste. It’s impossible to ignore all the album’s flaws and focus on the riffs. Songs like “The Insect in the Head” and “The Photograph Which Faded” could be something special with solid percussion, vocals and production. If these pieces were added, Manierisme could be a stand out band. However, as a one man band, Manierisme has a long way to go. Unfortunately, too many black metal bands pass off their flaws as being part of their “screwed up” aesthetic. That’s a sorry excuse to not put in the time and effort to perfect their craft. "Raw" should not imply "half assed". Hopefully, Jackall will recognize this flaw and find musicians who can help him bring his vision to fruition (or spend hours working on his drumming if he is determined to do it by himself). If not, Manierisme will remain a case of what might have been.

Overall: 3.5/10

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Blut Aus Nord- 777 Sect(s)

Blut Aus Nord is a band that has climbed to great heights and sunk to equally great depths. Their first four albums are all praiseworthy in their own right. From the lush, melodic sounds of “Ultima Thulee” and “Memoria Vestusta I” to the raw, biting edge of “The Mystical Best of Rebellion” and “The Work Which Transforms God,” the French act with the German name proved to be masters of innovation and  transformation. Blut Aus Nord appeared to be an unstoppable force.

And then came the downfall. 2005’s “MoRT” was a dull and dysfunctional mess, lacking structure, coherence and personality. The drop in quality was so severe that it did not appear Blut Aus Nord would ever return to form. The one-dimensional, plodding “Odinist” seemed to confirm this suspicion. A number of mediocre EPs further suggested Blut Aus Nord was past expiration date. However, the majestic “Memoria Vestusta II” was somewhat of a return to form—consisting of a ton of beautiful melodies and excellent atmosphere. Still, nothing suggested that Blut Aus Nord would return to the heights of old. Lo and behold, “777 Sect(s)” is indeed such a return to glory. 

Musically, the album picks up where “The Work…” left off, consisting of dark, dissonant riffs and disjointed electric drums. However, “777 Sect(s)” explores larger, more complex song structures and a wider range of tempos. “777 Sect(s)” returns to Blut Aus Nord’s roots, but allows those roots to spread in new directions. What dissonant albums like “MoRT” and “Odinist” lacked was a living, visceral force behind the wall of industrial rhythms. “777 Sect(s)” rectifies this flaw. The dissonant riffs swirl aggressively through the soundscape like a swarm of furious wasps. These are contrasted by melodic leads and solos that hook the listener with odd but entrapping melodies. The industrial beats are full of devious energy, crawling unpredictably in one direction and then another. Eerie keys, wails and whispers create haunting backdrops.

All these dimensions come together in the wild and disorienting opening track, “Epitome 1”. From the opening moment the listener is attacked by swarms of vicious, dissonant riffs, before eventually reaching a steady, groovy middle passage. Suddenly, the music shifts into a series of lightning fast, downward progressions. It’s as if the floor fell out from under you with absolutely no warning. But there is even one more surprise: the song ends with about two minutes of dark, groovy electronica. Believe it or not, the ominous electronica passage is the perfect ending to a thrilling roller coaster of a song.

The doomy “Epitome 2” takes the opposite approach, but is equally as phenomenal, sounding like the soundtrack to the procession of a noble and ruthless king. Dark, menacing melodies lie in the background; regal lead guitars and synths slowly dance across the forefront. The massive “Epitome 4” blends the two approaches, overlaying slow, punching, industrial rhythms with a wide array of twisted riffs and chants.  While the other tracks aren’t quite as astounding, they still contain many contorted riffs and addictive melodies.

After a rough stretch from 2005-8, the last two albums show that Blut Aus Nord can still produce intense, powerful and original black metal. However, while “Memoria Vestusta II” took an easier route—beautiful, sweeping, melodic songs—“777 Sect(s)” holds no bars, pushing the boundaries of black metal through intricate song structures, odd rhythms and a constant interplay of melody and dissonance. Easily their best work in eight years, “777 Sect(s)” reminds us just what Blut Aus Nord is capable of.

Overall: 9/10

Friday, August 5, 2011

Drudkh- A Handful of Stars (2010)

Drudkh’s eighth full length album “A Handful of Stars” was easily the most dividing metal album of 2010. The album sees Drudkh substitute their dense, earthy black metal riffs for crisp, clean post metal riffs. Some considered it to be an obvious sign that band had sold out and was merely jumping on the post black metal bandwagon. Others thought the change in sound was a quantum leap forward, marking a significant and beautiful epoch in Drudkh’s career. I stand somewhere in between. The change in guitar tone is not significant to me either way—since I like both black and post metal riffs. The problem I have is that “A Handful of Stars” is not as original as it initially seems. Once one gets past the change in guitar tone, it is clear Drudkh has followed the same tired formula they have used repeatedly since “Blood in Our Wells”.

Like almost every Drudkh album, “A Handful of Stars” contains six tracks: forgettable intro and outro tracks plus four long, somewhat slow metal songs. As usual Thurios provides full throated, gnarling vocals. As usual, Drudkh load the album with very good melodies. As usual, the songs travel through long, heavy passages contrasted by shorter, clean passages. As usual, all the musicians contribute sharp, clean performances.  As usual, there are some nice solos. In sum, Drudkh has released another quality album.

But that’s just the problem. We’ve all heard this album before, just with a different guitar tone. The members of Drudkh really aren’t challenging themselves. It’s easy to consistently do what you know you’re good at. Like one of those mystery writers who pumps out the same story over and over with just the subtlest of twists, Drudkh albums are becoming all too predictable. Drudkh are selling themselves and their fans short. This band has proven they can reach great heights. “Autumn Aurora” proved that black metal could be far more beautiful than anyone had ever imagined. “Blood in Our Wells” proves that nationalist metal can have depth, powerfully depicting of the resilient Ukrainian spirit, which has survived foreign invaders, genocide and famine. 

What does “A Handful of Stars” prove? That if a band changes their guitar tone everyone will think (for better or worse) you’ve done something radical and new? It’s like eating spaghetti with pesto sauce for diner after eating spaghetti with tomato sauce five nights in a row. At first bite it tastes different, but after a few more bites you realize you’re eating the same damn thing again.
So Drudkh are stuck in a rut. Yes they write good music, and “A Handful of Stars” is no exception. The four metal tracks are all quality. But envision that the riffs are a little fuzzier and you will realize that you’re listening to the same old thing. You’ve heard these song structures before, you’ve heard these melodies before. It’s the same old Drudkh, and honestly that is becoming a problem. 

Overall: 6.5/10