Thursday, June 30, 2011

Blut Aus Nord- MoRT (2006)

In 2003, Blut Aus Nord released “The Work Which Transformed God.” The album integrated industrial beats, dissonant riffs and sweeping melodies into an alien atmosphere, creating one of the most haunting and original black metal albums of the last decade. Blut Aus Nord appeared to be at the edge of a new frontier within black metal. After three years of anticipation, Blut Aus Nord finally released the follow up, “MoRT” (the French word for death). Unfortunately, the name is all too accurate. All the brilliant elements that composed “The Work…” have died and all that is left is a dull, industrial corpse. 

“MoRT” is a painfully monochromatic album, always grounded in uneven industrial drum beats played at mid tempo. The beats are overlaid with herky-jerky dissonant guitar noodling. The same perfunctory progressions are repeated, seemingly forever, before freezing—like an obsolete machine struggling to shift gears—and then falling into a new riff, repeated with the same leaden character. Vocalist Vindvsal employs a wide range of vocals throughout the work, shifting between growls, chants and whispers. Regardless of the type of vocals, they are always heavily processed with hyperbolic electronic overtones. Consequently, the vocals sound sloppy and muddy and are often completely indistinguishable within the mix. Other random electronic noises swirl around from time to time, failing to add any effect. The overall experience is like being on shrooms inside an automobile factory.

That basically describes every song on the album. It is worth mentioning the creepy sounds in between songs (i.e. slow church bells, people screaming, inaudible words spoken by a monstrous voice) which are fairly dark sounding. However, a little atmosphere between songs doesn’t get you very far when the actual music so robotic. 

It is not uncommon for bands to fail to live up to expectations after a masterwork and there are countless examples of disappointing follow ups, but “MoRT” is more than a mere disappointment; it is an historic bust. Instead of developing upon the sound of “The Work”, Blut Aus Nord isolated its dissonant and industrial elements. "The Work" harnessed dissonant and industrial elements that functioned brilliantly as part of a greater whole, but when isolated these same components are intolerable. In its attempt to discover the stripped-down epicenter of black metal, “MoRT” falls flat on its face, onto a conveyor belt leading straight to the bargain bin. 

Overall: 2/10

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Krallice- Diotima (2011)

There are two things I really like about Krallice’s “Diotima”. The first is the quality of the musicians. The album is full of intricate, interweaving passages that require precision and discipline from the performers. The band always stays in sync, even through shifts in and out of odd time signatures.  They also pull off some tricky transitions. For example, in the midst of a technical passage, the bassist will suddenly take over lead and the guitars will control the rhythm. The second thing I like about the album is the phenomenal cover. A sharp, mountainous landscape covered in mist reaches into oblivion. In the left hand corner, a single tree sneaks into the picture. The viewer is placed directly within the landscape—you can taste the mist and feel the cool night air.

Unfortunately, the album cover is a better work of art than any of the songs on “Diotima”. For all their technical skills Krallice are incapable of writing a good song. “Diotima” is full of songs that lack emotion, personality or dynamics. I am honestly not sure what sort of mood Krallice is going for (dark, eerie, somber, what’s going on here?); the spirit of the album is utterly ambiguous. The riffs are similar to those of early Satyricon, but they lack melodic quality found on those albums. There is not a single memorable melody on the whole album. Nor is “Diotima” a tour-de-force of dissonance or controlled chaos. The album is just a long series of watery riffs that stir no emotion or aesthetic interest.

To make matters worse, the songs are 6-13 minutes long and the album is almost 70 minutes! Listening to the whole album is an utterly innocuous. The songs don’t really build toward anything—they just wade through their own mediocrity, throwing in a technical twist here and there, before unceremoniously ending. Each song is like listening to your grandpa telling you an extremely intricate story about going to the barber shop, the grocery store or waiting for the bus.

The blandness is further complicated by poor mixing. The guitars lack edge, which exasperates their lack of punch.  Sometimes the sound of the instruments start to bleed into each other and the music breaks down into a muddled mess (i.e. the 12:00 mark of “Litany of Regrets”).

Ultimately technical skill does not get a band very far without songwriting. "Diotima" is full of poorly written songs, which lack melody and aesthetic; no amount of technicality can redeem these inadequacies. Like a long journey through an ugly landscape, “Diotima” is dull, laborious and tiring.

Overall: 3.5/10

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Deathspell Omega- Mass Grave Aesthetics (2005)

Since 2004 Deathspell Omega has put together a series of stunning works. With magnum opuses such as the blistering, sardonic “Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice” and the controlled chaos of “Fas - Ite, Maledicti, In Ignem Aeturnum” it is easy to overlook the trio of twenty minute songs they have released piecemeal. However, these songs are essential moments in the development of Deathspell Omega. 

Of these songs, “Mass Grave Aesthetics” is both musically and philosophically the richest. Originally released in 2005 as part of the “From Entrails to the Dirt” compliation, “Mass Grave Aesthetics” stands at the turning point between the more conventional black metal sound of “Si Monumentum…” and the avant garde style of “Fas…”. Here, the two styles blend into a single astonishing work. The music is mostly composed of classic black metal riffs played with the same scorching hot intensity found on “Si Monumentum…”. However, the relatively formulaic song structures of “Si Monumentum…” are replaced by a complex web of inverting, reversing and twisting progressions that engulf and disorient the listener. Progressions are repeated at varying tempos and with contrasting degrees of layering. Thus, motifs reemerge throughout the song, but rarely in the same manner as before. 

There is also a deepening of the sound through an increased complexity in the rhythm section and a heavy presence of synth. The bassist holds some absolutely astounding rhythms (for example, check out the bass line at the 12:00 mark) and the drummer opts for intricate, jazzy patterns over the blast beats prevalent on “Si Monumentum…”. The synths tend to hold one tone, adding an almost unbearable overflow of tension. Thus, “Mass Grave Aesthetics” displays many of the avant garde elements of “Fas…”, but maintains more conventional black metal riffs, ultimately leading to a more fluid sound than the unrelenting chaos of “Fas…”. 

Conceptually, the song poses the most taboo philosophical question: why not kill human beings if it leads to self-affirmation? The first portion of the song describes the existential process of self-affirmation through murder from a 1st person perspective. The second portion of the song proposes that the propagation of a faith is contingent on murder and genocide. If this is true (and quite a bit of historical evidence suggests Deathspell Omega are correct), then mass grave aesthetics are the driving force behind the appropriation of religion. 

Most religious traditions use music as tool of self-transcendence and movement toward the divine. Deathspell Omega bastardize this legacy, creating music that glorifies self-affirmation through murder.  The violent and twisted melodies are simultaneously disturbing and delicious. “Mass Grave Aesthetics” is composed of sounds that paint the destruction of human life, but also pleasure and catharsis in doing so. It captures a fundamental interplay between destruction and creation at the most personal level—the threshold of life and death.

Overall: 10/10

Friday, June 24, 2011

Oranssi Pazuzu- Muukalainen Puhuu (2009)

Oranssi Pazuzu is one of the strangest, most original and quirky black metal bands I have ever heard. All the basic elements of black metal are present—tremolo riffs, lush synth, raspy screams—but they have been transformed into something totally alien. The frigid atmosphere of classic black metal is replaced with an aesthetic more suited to (as the cover suggests) deep space. 

Oranssi Pazuzu integrates many psychedelic elements (think early Pink Floyd— such as jangly guitars, trippy synths and stretches of dissonant ambience—into their metallic foundation. They also integrate many elements of jazz—and not only the avant garde stuff that we are used to seeing infused with black metal, but also more standard jazz. Indeed, there are a few songs that are basically bar room jazz tunes with black metal vocals! Elements of surfer rock and dub round out the odd concoction that is Oranssi Pazuzu.

These fusions are as strange as they sound and certainly take some time to get used to. It is especially odd to hear a black metal rhythm section that is so groove oriented. However, having such funky rhythm section gives the songs an especially addictive quality. The album is full of rhythms that stick in your head and draw you back for another listen. In addition to extremely unique and imaginative music, the vocals are quite noteworthy. Jun-His’s dry, lizard-like growl is the perfect accompaniment to the strange music.

While “Muukalainen Puhuh” contains many experimental moments, the first and last tracks show that Oranssi Pazuzu can produce more straight forward metal song s that are as addictive as their experimental counterparts. The opener “Korppi” is an orgy of infectious tremolo riffs and spooky synths grounded in a visceral, pulsating rhythm. “Kerettilainen Vuohi”, the closer, centers on a slow, devious, Sabbath style riff engulfed in shimmering keys, which loops and loops before decaying into a sea of ambient noise. 

With “Muukalainen Puhuh,” Oranssi Pazuzu strikes an excellent balance between challenging and indulging its audience. It is extremely melodious, but at the same time intricate and complex. It is original, while giving a nod to the past.  It is diverse, yet has a unified aesthetic. Like putting together a great puzzle, putting the pieces of “Muukalainen Puhuh” together over numerous listens is simultaneously a challenging and pleasurable experience. 

Overall: 9/10

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Burzum- Fallen (2011)

Whatever your opinion of Burzum or Varg Varkines may be, there is no denying that Burzum albums never settle for the status quo. In spite of the success and praise each of his pre-prison albums received (not to mention the herds of copy cats), Varg continued to explore new song structures, production techniques and vocalizations, displaying a fearlessness of the new. Varg also gets a nod for being one of the few black metal musicians to consistently accomplish masterworks in and out. Each of his (non-keyboard) albums has achieved a degree of greatness.  “Fallen,” the 8th full length Burzum album, continues former trend—experimenting with crystal clear production and significant increase in clean vocals. However, the experimentation does not come together in the astounding way previous releases have. While “Fallen” contains five good songs (the intro and outro fail to impress), moments of profound inspiration or brilliance are scarce and the overall work fails to reach the heights of its predecessors.

The primary reason the songs on “Fallen” never reach such heights is the production. “Fallen” is a victim of the “loudness wars.” The sound is extremely clean and excessively condensed. On the positive side every riff is bright, clear and sharp. The bass and drums are also fully audible. The flip side is that the production has no depth, no room for substance or resonance. Consequently, “Fallen” sometimes feels like Burzum without the soul—very good melodies and songwriting, but simply not enough presence. The best example would be “Vanvidd”, an aggressive track, which like “Black Spell of Destruction,” from Burzum's debut, builds toward a crescendo of piercing growls and screams. However, the production takes the edge off the screams. What could have been a spine tingling passage ends up sounding flat. There simply isn’t enough sonic space in the recording to allow the layers of vocals to consume the listener in the way they should. 

The other major change is the heavy presence of clean vocals. The first Burzum song to display prevalent clean vocals was the stunning “Kaimadalthas Nedstining” on 2010’s “Belus”. The soft and somber clean vocals posed a powerful counterpoint to biting growls. Obviously Varg was satisfied with the results, using clean vocals on all five metal tracks of “Fallen.” While none of the tracks on “Fallen” match the compositional eloquence of “Kaimadalthas Nedstining” the integration of clean vocals into Burzum is a success. The transitions between clean vocals and growls given “Fallen” a dynamic, theatric sensibility. Varg does a very good job selecting appropriate riffs for the clean and growled passages. There are also a number of spoken and whispered passages, which further add to the albums dynamism.
On the whole the songwriting is solid. There are plenty of good melodies and dramatic shifts, keeping the listener engaged. The highlight is “Valen,” which contains beautiful clean passages, a blistering guitar crescendo and layers of rippling tremolo in the background, which give the song depth that the other tracks lack. The low point the obnoxious outro, composed of dull percussion passages and mindless noodling on acoustic guitar. The rest of the songs are good, but not great additions to the Burzum cannon.

“Fallen” may turn out to be transition album for Burzum. I certainly see potential in the addition to clean vocals to the Burzum sound and enjoy the mood shifts it adds to the sound. There is plenty left for Varg to explore in this domain. I feel less confident that the new production techniques will consistently work with Burzum’s sound, though “Valen” shows that with enough layers, it can work. However, while “Fallen” may foreshadow better things to come, in itself it does not stand up to the other Burzum (non-keyboard) albums. “Fallen” is a solid release, but ultimately a hill amongst mountains within the Burzum landscape. 

Overall: 7.5/10

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Alcest- Écailles de Lune (2010)

Écailles de Lune is a dramatic and dynamic album that integrates music from a wide variety of genres into an original, cohesive aesthetic. The album fuses sounds from genres such as shoegaze (My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins), post rock (Mono, Godspeed You! Black Emperor) and black metal (In the Woods, early Ulver). As diverse as these genres are, they all share a deep, reflective sensibility that lends to fluid blending. The culminating sound is very reflective—the soundtrack to the emergence of long lost memories and imaginings. Layers of regret and nostalgia clash with the sharper emotions of the present (i.e. hope, strength, and sorrow). The production creates a wide, hollow space where past and present emotions clash off each other like tides pulling in and out of a cove.  

Singer/ songwriter Neige preforms excellent vocals throughout. The clean vocals are soulful and choir-like- imagine blending the vocals from Sigur Ros and Ulver’s Bergtatt. The growled vocals are high-pitched and sharp, like those on early In the Woods records. However, the depth of the production softens their edge, making them more suitable for such a reflective work. The riffs are mostly a hybrid of shoegaze and post-rock. The best riffs are big, full and monumental, reaching cathartic peaks. There are also a number of black metal riffs with a post rock edge. For example, the final riff of the first track is a classic black metal riff, yet the melody loops and swirls in a way that in more reminiscent of Godspeed than any black metal band.

The strength of the album is the first three tracks. These songs travel through mazes of mood and melody. There is little repetition, as the music moves steadily in one direction and then another. Nonetheless, these songs don’t feel disjointed, but rather sound fully thought out. The highlight is part 2 of the title track. The song travels through sweeping, epic black metal, soft, somber clean passages and a powerful post-rock climax. It also contains Neige’s best vocal performance of the album. However, the second half of the album is a bit of a step down. The final two tracks lack the dynamics of the others- in part because the black metal dimension is removed and it part because the pace is slowed. The consequence is songs that flounder, sticking with tunes for too long and at times bordering on trite.

In spite of two weaker tracks, the first three tracks show Alcest to be an original and innovative band. Niege has the capacity to capture the power of memory, reflection, imagination and the other mysterious processes of the mind and manifest them in musical form. In sum, a strong release and a band with a lot of promise.

Overall: 8/10