Sunday, July 31, 2011

Agalloch- Marrow of the Spirit (2010)

Over the past decade Agalloch has established itself as one of the most important bands in extreme metal. Agalloch have achieved this status for many reasons: their willingness to fuse different genres, their constant reinvention, and their insistence on quality over quantity. Most importantly, Agalloch have the rare skill of creating albums that are holistic and unified works of art. An Agalloch album is an event. The artwork, the lyrics and music all explore the mysterious and strained relationship of humanity and nature. Each Agalloch record confronts this theme from a new perspective, allowing the band to constantly explore new sounds and styles, but yet maintain a thematic and aesthetic cohesiveness throughout their discography.

“Marrow of the Spirit,” the Oregonian quartet’s fourth full length release, is their darkest, coldest record to date. Vocalist John Haughm all but eliminates the use of clean vocals. There are far more sharp black metal riffs and drumming than on the last two albums. The production is raw in comparison to previous recordings, accentuating the primitive spirit of the album. Still, the production is full enough that all the instruments are clearly audible. This is crucial, because the composition is complex, with numerous layers of guitar. Most of the music contains three layers of guitar: sharp black metal riffs, lush acoustic guitar and melodious lead guitar. The leads deserve special praise. Don Anderson has developed into quite the guitarist, with a seemingly endless array awe inspiring leads and solos. 

Agalloch do a phenomenal job of drawing all these sounds together to replicate the sounds of a vast, wild forest. The black metal riffs sound like frigid gusts of wind, the lead guitars sound like birdsongs, the tribal percussion like a stag walking through the snow. This naturalistic sound is accompanied by John Haughm’s image-laden lyrics. Written in the Carpathian Mountains in Romania, the lyrics poetically interweave tales of ghosts with vivid descriptions of natural landscapes. The culminating sense is a solemn and reverent awe at the depth and complexity of the natural world. 

The album contains five long metal songs, as well as an intro track—a mournful solo piece for cello. Each of the five metal tracks explores and masters a completely different sound and mood. It is like traveling through a forest, seeing it from the mountaintop, the valley floor and through the thick of the woods. Each perspective is distinct, yet the forest maintains its identity. 

While every track is phenomenal, the 18 minute centerpiece, “Black Lake Nidstang” stands out. In Viking folklore, nidstangs are poles on which curses have been carved and a horse skull has been placed atop. When set into the earth, the nidstang disperses the spirits from the surrounding area, leaving a spiritual void. The first half of the song takes place in a funeral doom pace, with tribal percussion and trance inducing guitar. Haughm takes on two different voices. First, he takes on the voice of the dead, through a cold, thin whisper. Second, he reads the nidstang through a sharp hollow scream, similar to those found on early In the Woods recordings, cursing the lake in which the dead spirits dwell.  In the second half of the song, the music shifts into a series of dissonant ambient passages before bursting out into a series of epic tremolo riffs and wailing guitar leads. The listener can practically feel the ghosts frantically dispersing in every which way, leaving a dead and empty landscape. The song captures the essence of Agalloch: it integrates so many genres—folk, funeral doom, ambient, black metal, post rock—but ultimately it sounds like nothing else.  

Black and folk metal have long legacy of musically recreating natural landscapes. Certainly there have been some amazing accomplishments, from Ulver’s “Bergtatt” to Empyrium’s “Songs of Moors and Misty Fields” to Wolves in the Throne Room’s “Diadem of Twelve Stars”. However, “Marrow of the Spirit” surpasses those albums. Never before has a metal album achieved such an intricate, dynamic and holistic representation of a natural place. In conjunction with the high caliber of musicianship, lyricism and innovation, “Marrow of the Spirit” stands as the benchmark for nature inspired metal.

Overall: 10/10

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Xasthur- Portal of Sorrow (2010)

If nothing else, let’s give Xasthur credit for being consistent. Xasthur has manged to get worse with each release. In 2002, Xasthur released an excellent album called “Nocturnal Poisoning”. Dense recording techniques gave the album a boxed in sound; packing guitars, keys and vocals atop one another. The culminating sensation was like being stuck in a nightmare and knowing it’s not real, but being unable to wake. A plethora of eerie melodies and unpredictable song structures drove home the otherworldly aesthetic. The album was a promising start to Xasthur's career. 

The next album, “Funeral of Being” was good, but inconsistent. The next two albums were redundant and unoriginal, though they still had their moments. The next three albums were poorly composed, full of weak melodies and uninspired. “Portal of Sorrow”, the final Xasthur album, somehow manages to reach a new low, failing in almost every respect possible. 

I assume the goal of the album is to create a dark, depressing world in which the listener is forced to face his or her ultimate and inevitable demise (that’s basically the goal of every Xasthur album). However, the album rarely comes close to achieving such a profound effect. “Portal of Sorrow” is a dull and draining tour through a series of poorly composed and even more poorly executed ambient black metal songs.

To begin, the production on the album is awful. The instruments are terribly mixed. It takes a major effort to distinguish anything other than the keyboards and the female vocals. Malefic’s screams (which can be quite powerful) are indiscernible as they are regulated to the outer limit of the recording. When you can discern the instruments, the musicianship is atrocious. The guitars are sloppy and the drums cannot even stay in rhythm. Why Malefic didn’t just opt for a drum machine is beyond me. He clearly doesn’t know how to play drums.

The songwriting is also poor. The songs basically are composed of one or two spooky melodies repeated for 2-5 minutes. With the exception of “Stream of Subconscious” the songs lack any sort of development and fail to create any tensions that might captivate the listener. Furthermore, the melodies are either terribly corny or flat out dull. At least the former are good for a laugh. The cheesy piano line in “Broken Glass Christening” and the goofy bass line in aptly named “Shrine of Failure” conjure images of buck-toothed vampires and toilet paper mummies getting ready to do the monster mash. I must admit, seeing an artist fail so profoundly to achieve his pretentious goal is quite entertaining. Unfortunately, the comically cheesy moments are greatly outweighed by innocuous passages of uninspired ambiance. 

It is only fair to mention the one song that is actually quite moving. The aforementioned “Stream of Subconscious” is a dynamic song, in which a hopeful desire for transcendence is contrasted with somber sense of resignation at one's own finite nature. The melody is hymn like, and the synths and female vocals create sense unquenchable yearning.  That said one song simply is not enough to redeem an otherwise terrible album. 

Thus ends the long and painful descent of Xasthur. When I first heard “Nocturnal Poisoning” in 2002 I never would have guessed the Xasthur would become such a complete and utter laughing stock. Somehow Malefic has managed to regress not only as a songwriter (that isn’t too uncommon) but also as a musician! Like a person who has spent years suffering from an illness that should have killed them long ago, Xasthur needed to end. With Malefic’s obsession self-destruction and suicide, it’s too bad he didn’t euthanize Xasthur years ago. 

Overall: 1.5/10

Monday, July 25, 2011

Altar of Plagues- Mammal (2011)

Altar of Plagues made a name for themselves with 2009’s post-black metal opus “White Tomb”. The album told the tale of environmental collapse through a series of monumental peaks and nerve-racking valleys. It was a massive piece of music whose presence grasped the listener from the get go. The Irish trio’s second full length, “Mammal”, takes a more introverted but nonetheless explosive approach. Instead of vast sonic soundscapes that create an entire world, “Mammal” explores the interworking of tight-knit compositions within hollow atmospheres. The result is quite different from the debut, though equally effective.

On “Mammal”, Altar of Plagues reduces both the post-rock and black metal dimensions of their music, while increasing the amount of progressive sludge, à la Neurosis and Isis. The band sounds quite natural playing in this style. The slow tempo plus the heavy echo on the bass and guitar compliment the sludgy, atmospheric riffs. The vocals are already a cross between a hardcore grunt and a black metal scream, so they easily suit the shift in sound. No one benefits from the shift to a sludgier sound more than drummer Johnny King. “Mammal” marks a major improvement in King’s drumming, as he creates a phenomenal series of looping tribal patterns reminiscent of Neurosis records such as “Enemy of the Sun” and “Through Silver in Blood”. 

Like “White Tomb”, “Mammal” consists of four long songs, ranging from 8-18 minutes. The songs bleed into each other giving the album a theatrical arc. The outer tracks are more moody and straight forward. The album opens with the dark and anxious “Neptune is Dead” and closes with tragic, dirge-like “All Life Converges to Some Center”. The middle two tracks are far more experimental and emotionally obtuse.  “Feather and Bone” is a feverish piece, full of pulsating build ups, hypnotizing drum patterns and burning climaxes. “When the Sun Drowns in the Ocean” begins and ends with the sound of an old Irish woman keening (singing a Gaelic song for the dead). Between the keening passages is a mix of arrhythmic percussion and dissonant guitar progressions played at increasingly loud volumes. Overall the album feels like falling in and out of a deep trance.

In addition to impressive music, Altar of Plagues express a powerful message. "White Tomb" and "Mammal" each present us with chilling and honest depictions of the modern condition and its ultimate consequences. “White Tomb” portrays the staggering conclusion of our current lifestyle through intense depictions of social decay and environmental collapse. “Mammal” explores this same processes at the level of the individual. Ultimately, the two albums complement each other—two perspectives on the same story, two challenges to the comfort of our everyday worldview.

Overall: 8.5/ 10

Friday, July 22, 2011

Wistful- Wistful (2011)

Genre fusion is kind of like an organ transplant. If the organ is not right for the body, it will be rejected, the transplant will fail and the organism will die.  Portugal’s Wistful are the latest in a growing number of post-rock/ black metal fusion bands. Unlike many of their counterparts, Wistful have not found the right blend of the two genres and the transplant is failing. While most post-black metal bands take their inspiration from the darker, more somber post rock acts like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Explosions in the Sky, Wistful displays more of an influence from the lighter, calmer acts such as Tortoise and Do Make Say Think. That style of play simply does not blend with black metal.

Wistful’s self-titled debut sounds like a bunch of talented musicians jamming together but being on totally different pages (what’s so strange about it is that this is a one man band). The music is composed of a crisp, clean rhythm section a wall of fuzzy black metal guitar. The later simply does not fit in with the former. The bass and guitar especially clash. The bass is effervescent, poppy and up front. It might be the least compatible style of bass playing for black metal riffs imaginable. Similarly, the black metal vocals often sound completely out of place in such sunny music.

With this sort of clash, something has to give, and in this case it’s the black metal dimension. There is no one thing black metal has to be, but there is spectrum of moods and emotions it is capable of capturing. Wistful’s debut falls wholly outside that spectrum. This has to be the least intense, least moody, brightest black metal album I have ever heard. The album is totally void of every dimension of the black metal aesthetic. 

On the positive side, this debut does show a very talented and multifaceted musician (whoever the man behind Wistful is) at work. Along with drums, bass and guitar, “Wistful” contains some quality performances on cello and piano. But will this talented musician waste his career fusing discordant styles? 

Since his attitude and aesthetic are more inclined toward the post-rock style, I hope he decides to drop the black metal riffs and vocals and just play post rock. There are actually some nice moments of post rock on the album, (i.e. the opening passage of “Ego”) but inevitably they are interrupted with awkward fusions with black metal. If Wistful ever decide to simplify their formula they could probably release a real good album. Until then, this awkward fusion of mellow, clean post rock and black metal is just too uneven and clashing to enjoy. 

Overall 3.5/10

Countess- Burning Scriptures (2010)

“Burning Scriptures” stands as the 12th full length release by the Dutch madman known as Orlok and his one man band Countess. Countess is one of those bands where you basically know what you’re going to get: epic cuts of traditional black metal infused with strong doses of heavy metal and thrash—and it's done right.

The music is epic, attacking, and catchy. The lead guitar is intrepid, like an ancient call to arms, but at the same time playful and almost childlike. The bass (Orlok’s original instrument) is solid, bouncy and fully audible. Then, of course, there are Orlok’s vocals—sharp, high pitched and cracking—like a crow maniacally cawing. You either love them or hate them. Personally I think they are awesome. The one major addition to “Burning Scriptures” is the welcome return of the synth, which had been absent from the past few albums. The synth adds some body to the music and gives it a theatric dimension, which works well with the descriptive, image laden lyrics. 

While Orlok doesn’t write much bad material, he isn’t the most dynamic songwriter in the world. There are the fast, aggressive, thrash inspired tracks and there are the slower, epic, heavy metal inspired tracks. That’s about it. Thus, the album, which is 72 minutes long, drags. This is a bad habit of Orlok’s—his albums tend to wear out their welcome. The album does contain a Manowar cover, and two rerecordings of older tracks. The Manowar cover is pretty cool, but the rerecordings are unnecessary. If these tracks were left out, the album would be a lot more palatable.

The other problem with “Burning Scriptures” is that it simply lacks innovation. Yes, the reintroduction of the synths is a nice touch, but otherwise this album doesn’t explore new territory. Orlok demonstrated that he is capable of highly original (and strange) recordings with “Book of the Heretic” and “The Shining Swords of Hate”, easily his best two works. So why is Countess becoming so redundant? 

Nonetheless, even if Orlok opts for the beaten path, there are plenty of kick ass tracks that make this album worthwhile. For the faster, more biting tracks, “Poets Perry” stands out with its scorching, hateful verse and its headbanging chorus. The best of the slower tracks is “A Curse upon the King”, an anti-Christian anthem whose chorus will be stuck in your head all day. 

If you enjoyed Countess’s last few releases, then you will like “Burning Scriptures”. While Countess has become stuck in somewhat of a rut with regards to style, it’s certainly a style Orlok does well. When it’s all said and done, this is another fun, entertaining, though somewhat exorbitant release from Countess.

Overall: 7/10

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Lantlôs- .Neon (2010)

Black metal/ post rock hybrids are popping up all around the world. Considering the variety within both genres (Tortoise is as different from Godspeed You! Black Emperor as Darkthrone is from Emperor) it is exciting to see the wide array of fusions that are emerging. Thus far, Lantlôs have reached the greatest heights in this young subgenre. Lantlôs fuse post rock/ metal in the vein of The Red Sparrowes and early Pelican with a heavy dose of jazz, a touch of shivering tremolo and sharp, screeched vocals. The elements fuse together with complete and utter ease. One never stops to say, “Oh, here is a black metal passage! Now here comes a post rock part”. The elements hold together as if they were never apart in the first place.

For “.Neon”, Lantlôs’s second release, the band is composed of Herbst, who plays all instruments, and Neige (of Alcest fame) contributing vocals. Herbst is obviously an extremely talented musician and probably has been professionally trained in jazz. His drumming is just gorgeous, grounding the music in a series of lavish jazz patterns, only breaking into pulsating blast beats during the more intense moments of the album. The guitars, bass and piano are all full and lush, giving body to the intense emotions of the songs. For the most part, the riffs are post rock/ metal but the main riffs of songs like “These Nights Were Ours” and “Neige de Mars” clearly have their origin in black metal. 

Neige’s vocals really put the album over the top. His impassioned screeches are much less muted on “.Neon” than they were on the previous Alcest album, “Écailles de Lune”. Neige also contributes clean vocals to the song “Pulse/ Surreal” and I must say this is the best clean vocal performance of his career. His voice is robust and sullen, hitting each note to perfection and capturing the somber spirit of the lyrics.  

Thematically, the album tackles issues of alienation and dehumanization in modern society. The music, vocals and lyrics come together to capture this modern dilemma and to a small degree, overcome it. Each song reveals the perspective of an observant human recognizing the degeneracy and absurdity of modern society. In recognizing this degeneracy and absurdity one transcends it, insofar as he or she no longer sees it as an inherent and irreducible dimension of who he or she is. However, this is not overly romantic music in which the human spirit tears off the chains of a crippled society and flies to great heights. “.Neon” expresses a much more controlled, restrained and realistic epiphanies. 

The first song, “Minusmensch” (“Minus Man”) captures this style perfectly. The lyrics describe a drug infested, industrial city full of dispirited faces. The music shifts back and forth between reflective, jazzy passages and swelling moments of post-black metal. When the music finally breaks out into a sweeping post-rock crescendo, it is notably restrained. A single layer of guitar, bass and drums play out the peak—there are no layers of wailing guitars, blazing horns or wild fanfare. “Minusmensch” ends with a restrained, and thus a believably profound moment. 

It is obvious from first listen that Lantlôs have created an exceptional fusion of post rock and black metal. However, I think the conceptual theme of “.Neon” is where the fusion reaches its highest point. Black metal and post-rock have both fought against the normative view of the human being. Post rock has embraced intense, neo-romantic emotions that run against the grain of the modern ideal of the controled and reserved human being. Black metal is attacks Judeo-Christian notion of the human being by embracing the darker, more primal dimensions of humanity. “.Neon” captures this shared thirst for a richer human experience and explores moments of overcoming the limited, modern notion of humanity through simultaneously dark and ecstatic waves of emotion. While many other bands have fused the sounds of black metal and post rock, Lantlôs has done so at both a musically and conceptually higher level.

Overall: 9.5/10

Monday, July 18, 2011

Ludicra- The Tenant (2010)

Ludicra have never been a band to repeat the same album twice. Each release involves new dimensions, song structures and production techniques.  “The Tenant” continues this trend, differing quite significantly from its predecessor, “Fex Urbis Lex Orbis”. While “Fex…” was a spontaneous, emotional roller-coaster, “The Tenant” takes a much more reflective attitude. If “Fex…” is an explosive and exhausting burst of fury, then “The Tenant” is the solemn reflection upon the event the following day. Appropriately, “The Tenant” is generally slower (mostly staying in mid tempo), less biting and more composed.  The songwriting is very focused, ordered and directed. The album seamlessly interweaves differing elements: heavy metal with black metal, clean vocals with growled vocals, acoustic passages with electric passages.

In addition to the shift in songwriting, “The Tenant” includes several other key changes. First, there is a major increase in Christy Cather’s clean vocals. Cather’s voice is flat, monotone and somewhat disconnected, which fits well with the controlled, reflective attitude of the album. Second, “The Tenant” has much more of a heavy metal influence than previous albums. There are numerous crunchy, head banging riffs throughout the album, as well as other heavy metal signatures, such as the dueling guitar solo at the end of “Clean White Void”. Third, the musicianship is much improved over previous albums. Cather’s lead guitar has especially progressed and this album contains the best solos of her career. 

On the downside, the somber, reflective attitude of the album does not draw out the best from lead vocalist Laurie Sue Shanaman. Shanaman is one of the best vocalists in contemporary black metal scene, deploying a wide spectrum of sounds ranging from banshee like howls to snarling grunts. Shanaman was in top form on the wild and unrestrained "Fex...". Unfortunately, Shanaman is much more reserved on “The Tenant”. While a more reserved vocal style does fit the overall attitude of the album, those who know Shanaman’s full capacities will be left wanting more. 

Nonetheless, “The Tenant” is a highly consistent album with all seven tracks offering something different. My personal favorites are the first two songs. “Stagnant Pond” captures the melancholy mood of the album through slowly swaying melodic riffs that patiently build toward a blistering solo and choirs of soft, clean vocals. “A Larger Silence” involves Shanaman’s most intense vocal performance and layers of anxious, paper thin tremolo. 

On the whole, “The Tenant” is a solid, well rounded and mature release. While it lacks the fire that drove albums like “Fex…” and “Hallow Psalms”, it does contain excellent composition, songwriting and musicianship. This is certainly not the place to start with Ludicra (go for “Fex…"), but is highly recommended for fans of the band. 

Overall: 8/10

Clair Cassis- Clair Cassis (2010)

In 2004-2005 Velvet Cacoon made a name for themselves by lying about their history and stealing other musicians’ music. Some considered their antics postmodern genius; others, shameless ploys for attention. Either way, everyone had an opinion about them. Velvet Cacoon also released an astounding work of black metal in “Genevieve”, the only album that achieves a cold, haunting “neither-dead-or-alive” atmosphere comparable to Darkthrone’s “Transylvanian Hunger”.  

Between the rumors, hype and misinformation on one hand, and the expectations of following up “Genevieve” on the other, Velvet Cacoon was under a great deal of pressure. When they finally released on “P aa Opal Poere Pr. 33” in 2009, Velvet Cacoon sounded like a band caving under the pressure. While the atmosphere was extraordinary, much of the songwriting was sub-par. It was as if the band had spent the last five years suffering from a severe case of writer’s block. 

Perhaps it was just the pressure of living up to the name “Velvet Cacoon” that was causing the writer’s block; less than a year after the release of “P aa Opal Poere Pr. 33” Velvet Cacoon ended and Clair Cassis began with the release of their self-titled debut. Clair Cassis is composed of the members of Velvet Cacoon –Josh and Angela—plus drummer D. Martin. Musically Clair Cassis’s debut is similar to “P aa Opal Poere Pr. 33” but lighter and fresher. It is as if the change of name lifted a weight off the band’s shoulders, allowing them to once again write excellent atmospheric black metal.

Like Velvet Cacoon, Clair Cassis plays slow to mid-tempo atmospheric black metal with a distinctly oceanic sound. The main difference between the two bands is that Clair Cassis is nowhere near as dense as Velvet Cacoon. Velvet Cacoon sounds like black metal recorded at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. The music is heavily textured, with echoic guitar, bass and keys reaching to the very limits of the recording. The sound is vast, yet wholly consuming; there is no “clear space” in Velvet Cacoon recordings. In contrast, Clair Cassis sounds like it was recorded at the ocean’s surface. While layers of guitar and bass still create an oceanic atmosphere, their reach is not as vast. The high end of the recording is left open, allowing the band to add light, catchy melodies atop the thick waves of fuzz.
The results are impressive. Songs like “Hazelhearted in the Seaparlour” employ beautiful acoustic leads that sound like raindrops gently falling into the ocean.  Other songs (i.e. “Pearls & Pinesmoke”) involve phenomenal inversion of bass and guitar. The guitar holds a wave-like back and forth rhythm while gorgeous bass-line melodies dance every which way, like whale calls arriving from the distance.  Thus the album is composed of a consistent foundation that sets the tone and a series of leads that add variety and character to the songs. 

Overall, this is a very consistent record. The running length is only 33 minutes and there are only seven songs, but there is absolutely no filler. Each song has its own identity and its unique aspects that captivate the listener, yet the album is very cohesive. My only real criticism of the album would be that it is perhaps too consistent—everything is good, but nothing is great. However, that might be exactly what Clair Cassis is about. Instead trying to live up the absurdly high standard set by “Genevieve”, the band members can focus on creating beautiful, oceanic music. Insofar as that is goal, Clair Cassis’s debut is a success. 

Overall: 8/10

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Dispirit- Rehearsal at Oboroten (2010)

Guitarist/vocalist John Gossard has had success in both black and doom metal. His black metal band Weakling released only one album, “Dead as Dreams”, but to this day it stands as one of the high points in the history of American black metal. His funeral doom band Asunder never reached such heights, but did release two very good albums. Dispirit seems like the natural next step for Gossard; blackened doom metal. The first cut to emerge from Dispirit is the two track, thirty minute, “Rehearsal at Oboroten”. While the production is shoddy, the demo still reveals a band with haunting atmosphere and grandiose composition. 

Dispirit play dark and haunting melodies that slowly crawl toward the listener, like a horrible demon in a nightmare from which one cannot awake. The melodies manage a tightrope walk between dissonant and melodious. The mixture recalls early Xasthur albums, where lullaby-like tunes are twisted into dark, demonic melodies. Single melodies are stretched out over long passages, allowing Gossard to explore inner workings of the melody through a series of sweeping leads and solos. The nightmarish melodies are accompanied by a variety of black metal howls (which also recall early Xasthur) and deep chants (similar to those found on Asunder albums). Both songs are well written, taking their time to play out all the dimensions of each passage before moving from one haunting melody to another. While the songs remain in slow to mid tempo throughout, there are enough shifts and buildups to keep the listener engaged throughout.

The weakness of the demo is the production, which is very gritty and muddy. On one hand, the grittiness of the production does help build the dark, dreamlike atmosphere Dispirit are going for.  On the other hand, much of the musicianship—especially the bass and drums—is washed away and one really can’t hear what’s going on.  Sometimes the melodies even get washed out (i.e. 2:00 to 3:40 in “Bitumen Amnii”). While Dispirit are not a band in need of crystal clear production, a little more balance in the mix would make all the details of the performance shine brighter. Of course, this is a demo, so poor production is not exactly a surprise. 

Dispirit are certainly a band to look forward to in the future. They have discovered a great formula—thin, black metal lead guitar backed by a thick, doomy rhythm section, creating a deep atmosphere and a disquieting presence. Considering that the blackened doom sub-genre has thus far mostly produced busts, there is certainly a place in the currant metal landscape for Dispirit. I am eagerly looking forward to hearing what they sound like with cleaner production and over the length of an entire album. In the meantime, “Rehearsal at Oboroten” is a tasty appetizer that will hold fans over. 

Overall: 7/10

Peste Noire- L'Ordure à l'état Pur (2011)

Peste Noire’s discography is full of odd and quirky moments you never thought you would hear in a black metal recording. Front man and songwriter DJ Famine is like a cook that is willing to throw anything into the stew at least once just to see the look on the customer’s face. Surprisingly, this technique has often led to original and entertaining songs. With “L'ordure À L'état Pur” Peste Noire push their eccentricity to the limit, overloading the album with everything from accordions to electro beats to medieval madrigals and everything in between. However, little time seems to have been spent on considering how to put all these pieces together. The vast array of elements is whimsically tossed together in massive songs ranging from 8-20 minutes, leading to an erratic and disjointed album.

First, let’s look at the good news. The opening track, “Casse, Pêches, Fractures et Traditions” is easily one of the best songs Peste Noire has ever recorded. It is the only song on the album that is aesthetically and musically coherent, but more importantly, it is just a lot of fun. Black metal is fused with punk rock and French street music (accordion and trumpet included) to create a wild, playful and spirited song. If Gogol Bordello decided to go metal, it would probably sound a lot like this.

Unfortunately, the other tracks lack the songwriting and coherence of the opener, wondering from one style to the next, often without rhyme or reason. Take the twenty minute “J’avais Rêvé du Nord”. The first three minutes are composed of a dull, plodding riff peppered with sounds of sirens and guns. Then out of nowhere, the music turns into a beautiful acoustic folk with Audrey Sylvain’s excellent soprano vocals. What follows is about a ten minutes of epic, dramatic music that fluidly shifts between acoustic and metallic passages. However, instead of ending, the song continues with six minutes of dark, militant black metal, which is quite good, but in no way fits in with what came before. In sum, “J’avais Rêvé du Nord” is like three totally different songs mushed together.

Even more problematic than the composition is the fluctuation in the quality of the riffs. When Peste Noire isn’t surprising the listener with musical oddities, one often finds uninspired passages of metal. For example, the core riffs of “Cochon Carotte et Les Sœurs Crotte” and “Sale Famine Von Valfoutre” are quite innocuous. No matter how many horns, electro beats and audio samples Peste Noire throw on their albums, they are still a metal band; if the riffs are not up to par then all the oddities are reduced to smoke and mirrors hiding subpar black metal. 

In general, long songs do not accentuate Peste Noire’s strengths. It takes a very good songwriter to make songs of this length work. While DJ Famine can piece together a few solid riffs into a kick ass cut of black metal, he lacks the craft and subtly to write the kinds of epics attempted on “L'Ordure à l'état Pur”. Still, there are enough interesting moments scattered throughout the album that any Peste Noire fan should give it a listen. Just don’t be shy to press the fast forward button. 

Overall: 6/10

Monday, July 11, 2011

Deathspell Omega- Paracletus (2010)

After releasing the phenomenal “Fas - Ite, Maledicti, in Ignem Aeternum”, Deathspell Omega faced the impossible task of creating a worthy follow up. Astonishingly enough, they have created an album of equal quality. “Paracletus” is composed of the same elements as “Fas…”, yet it deploys them in a completely different manner. The core of the album is still a maelstrom of hybrid technical death/ black metal riffs played at a relentless pace. These are still contrasted with a number of softer, melodic passages. Again, there is nothing resembling a verse or a chorus (though there are a few motifs) anywhere on the album. However, whereas “Fas…” was an album of sharp contrast and tension, “Paracletus” is a tightknit and cohesive work.

“Fas…” is a big and sprawling album. Lyrically it is oriented from a first person perspective. The music reflects this, building tension through the unexpected, constantly arriving at shocking moments. In contrast, the lyrics of “Paracletus” take the omnipotent third person perspective. Appropriately, the music is of a controlled, directed and focused nature. From the opening moment, “Paracletus” grabs the listener and drags them into its scorching world, not letting go until the final note. 

In the past, Deathspell Omega have shown interest in creating long, fluid pieces of music, writing twenty minute epics like “Mass Grave Aesthetics” and “Chaining the Katechon”. “Paracletus” stands as their most daring and awesome work of this sort; the ten tracks flow into each other with ease, ultimately becoming a single, epic piece of music. Like any great epic, “Paracletus” is full of ups and downs. Blistering blackened death passages build to feverish heights, until climaxing in hellish bursts of fury. These passages are followed by a wide array of clean, melodious passages. The clean passages contain some of the most addictive, dare I say catchy melodies Deathspell Omega have ever written. Having already perfected the art of controlled chaos, Deathspell Omega is now growing by leaps and bounds in their capacity for melody. 

Another highlight of the album is Mikko Aspa’s vocals. Mikko deploys everything from guttural growls to hollow chants to howling shrieks. He effectively uses three languages: French, English and Latin. The French passages are especially enjoyable. Mikko capitalizes on the sophisticated, fluid sound of the language to great effect in the spoken passage of “Dearth”. Elsewhere, French intonations make his reptilian growls sound extra sinister.

It is unfair to pick a highlight from an album that is so powerful from start to finish, but the closing piece, “Apokatastasis Pantôn”, especially captures Deathspell Omega’s unique metaphysical perspective. The song starts by repeating a sorrowful motif from “Epiklesis II”. The lyrics condemn all hope for an afterlife; death is nothing more than silence. However, what follows is not a moment of darkness, but rather a moment of catharsis. The motif bursts into an ocean of ecstatic shimmering guitars reaching visceral peaks, one after another.  It is this stunning moment of inversion that reveals the great wonder of Deahtspell Omega. The darkest truths are also the most powerful.

At the moment, Deathspell Omega is at the height of its powers, having released back to back masterworks. “Fas…” is vast, subjective, tense and unpredictable. “Paracletus” is tight, controlled and omnipotent.  Collectively we have the best back to back releases in the black metal genre since Burzum’s release of “Hvis Lyset Tar Oss” and “Filosofem”. In the same way that those albums set the standard for the past generation, “Fas” and “Paracletus” have done so for the generation to come. The songwriting, composition and musicianship displayed on these two albums will be the measure by which future black metal albums are judged. Whether or not other bands (or Deathspell Omega themselves, for that matter) manage to reach such heights remains to be seen. Regardless, Deathspell Omega has provided us with two infinitely intriguing albums and a dark, harrowing and yet somehow invigorating metaphysical vision of life and death. 

Overall: 10/10

Deathspell Omega- Fas - Ite, Maledicti, in Ignem Aeternum (2007)

By 2007, Deathspell Omega had already established themselves as trailblazers within the black metal genre. Releases like the monumental, iconoclastic, “Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice” and the intricate, progressive, “Kenose” entrapped listeners in a complex web of sounds and symbolism. However, nothing could prepare audiences for “Fas - Ite, Maledicti, in Ignem Aeternum”.  An extremely dense album, “Fas…” contains virtually no repetition of passages, dramatic changes in tempo and violent mood swings. However, “Fas…” is far from a hodgepodge of unrelated riffs haphazardly thrown together. Like Hieronymus Bosch’s legendary paintings of hell, every piece of “Fas…” comes together to depict a powerful and horrifying realm.

The back cover of the album gives a hint of how to piece this difficult album together. The titles and track numbers of the songs are set up in a diamond. Tracks 2-5 make up the four corners of the diamond. In the center of the diamond is “Obombration” (tracks 1 and 6). While the word “obombration” is absent from both English and Latin dictionaries, it is clearly derived from “obumbrate”—to overshadow, cloud or hang over. The “Obombration” tracks are the foundation for the entire album. They are composed of an “om” chant—which in many traditions signifies the sound of existence. Layered atop the om is dissonant keys and chants. Each “Obombration” track sees these basic noises overthrown by dark, violent themes (a funeral march in the intro and harrowing brass fanfare in the outro)—each ending with the line “perinde ac cadaver”, meaning “…in the manner of a corpse”. Therein lies the theme of the album—the inevitable annihilation of all instances of meaningful existence.  

These sounds remain in play throughout the album, becoming explicit between songs and during quieter passages; the inevitable annihilation of life and meaning hangs over the entire album. This is manifest in the lyrics, which give a first person account of a traveler’s journey through a hellish world, in which God is conflated with perdition, death and decay. The lyrics are matched by the album’s artwork. The interior of the booklet depicts a series of images in which healthy humans fall out of a black void, only to slowly decay in the black void’s presence. 

Then, of course, there is the music. “Fas…” integrates a wide array of styles to create a horrific and complex world comparable to the hells of Bosch and Dante. The album is predominately composed of fast, chaotic passages that fuse crushing force of technical-death and the vicious sharpness of black metal. The end product sounds like knives slashing across the face of reality. The wild, disorienting blackened-death passages are contrasted with a number of heavy doom metal passages. Like being attacking by a giant beast, these passages exhibit a stunning and direct force. The heavy sections are contrasted by eerie avant garde jazz passages and a few sad, somber moments. 

The musicianship is top notch throughout—tight, technical and clean—the best I’ve heard in black metal.  However, unlike some technical bands, the visceral spirit is not drained from the music. On the contrary, the technicality only enhances the experience—the listener is confronted with a presence so intense, so overwhelming that it is beyond comprehension. This presence can be called a number of things: death, annihilation, nothingness, but the bottom line is that is simply beyond our comprehension and yet inevitable and real. Perhaps the greatest beauty of the album is that in spite of its dark theme, it is strangely energizing and empowering.

“Fas…” is an endlessly rewarding album. Each listen reveals new aspects and further layers in the mix. Each instrument, each lyric, each image comes together to depict a haunting world that is mysteriously and horrifically a part of our own. The album achieves perfection at all levels; aesthetically, conceptually and viscerally. In short, “Fas…” is high art. 

Overall: 10/10

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Clair Cassis- Luxury Absolute (2011)

Clair Cassis’s third release, “Luxury Absolute” follows in the footsteps of its predecessor, “Clair Cassis II”, falling into the exact same pitfalls. “Luxury Absolute” has eight songs, only two of which break the 2:30 mark. Clair Cassis still plays slow to mid tempo atmospheric black metal, which means that the songs simply cannot reach full fruition in under 2:30. Imagine buying a case of very expensive, fine wine. Now imagine popping those bottles and chugging them down like a bottle of two buck chuck. That’s what listening to “Luxury Absolute” is like. This album is a waste of some excellent melodies, riffs and musical passages. 

Songs like “Olive Ink Seahorse” and “Under Sleepy Grey Elms” really deserve to be stretched out into full songs. However, these melodies are never developed into true songs; we are only granted an auditory tease. There are, however, two exceptions. The opener, “Antique Sea Smoke” is three and half minutes, which means it has time to develop (though really, even this song should be longer). What emerges is a song that sounds quite different from other Clair Cassis pieces. The song is less oceanic and more ethereal, with sharp guitars and melodious pianos. It ends with an excellent acoustic passage. Another success is “Soft Castles”, an ambient piece that recalls the eerie dissociative sounds of Velvet Cacoon’s “Atropine”.  Like being dragged to the bottom of the ocean floor, the listener is taken to a wholly nonhuman environment. 

These two more developed tracks make “Luxury Absolute” a bit better than “Clair Cassis II”. However, on the whole this is still an unsatisfying release. Clair Cassis has so much skill at uncovering rich, atmospheric melodies, but if they don’t piece them together into true songs (which they proved they could do on the debut) the melodies will go to waste. Hopefully the next Clair Cassis release will reemphasize the importance of songwriting and composition. If not, Clair Cassis’s relevance will be shorter than one of these songs. 

Overall: 5/10

Clair Cassis- Clair Cassis II (2010)

In 2010 Velvet Cacoon changed their name to Clair Cassis. In addition to the change in name, the music underwent a subtle yet significant change. The music lightened, layering beautiful melodies atop the nautical soundscape that was Velvet Cacoon’s signature. The result was an album similar to Velvet Cacoon’s swansong, “P aa Opal Poere Pr. 33”, but more melodious, lively and spontaneous. 

Unfortunately, on Clair Cassis’s second release, the spontaneity and lightness takes over and the songs fly away before taking full form. “Clair Cassis II” contains eight songs, seven of which time in at 2:35 or less. There are very few genres of music where one can get away with playing songs that are under two and half minutes; punk, thrash, grindcore and other genres where the music is played at a very fast tempo. Since Clair Cassis is a band that plays mid to slow tempos, writing such short songs makes no sense. These are not complete songs by any stretch of the imagination. Some even have intros (yes, intros to two minute songs), meaning the heart of the song lasts about a minute. This is especially disappointing since some of the melodies are quite good. For example, “Bronzed Ash” has a gorgeous shoegaze lead that deserves to be integrated into a full song. However, on this EP, the passage gets played for about a minute before the song ends.

“Clair Cassis II” is like the musical version of Cliff Notes. You get a sketch of what’s going on, but nothing close to the full picture. There are some very nice passages on here, and the listener can get an idea of what it would be like if they were developed into songs, but it never happens. I am not sure why Clair Cassis decided to write such short songs, but the consequence is a very frustrating album. 

Overall: 4/10

Monday, July 4, 2011

Enslaved- Axiom Ethica Odini (2010)

Enslaved have always had a taste for the progressive. Even “Vikigir Veldi”, one of the high points of the second wave of black metal, contains a sprinkling of psychedelic synths and distinctly progressive song structures. Since the addition of drummer Cato Bekkvold and singer/keyboardist Herbrand Larson in 2004, Enslaved have significantly increased the amount of progressive and psychedelic elements, with varying degrees of success. With 2008’s “Vertebrae,” the progressive, viking and black metal elements melded into a near perfect album. Much of the success of “Vertebrae” was due to the simplification of the format. The songs centered on excellent melodies, steady mid-tempo rhythms and strong yet even contrasts between growled and clean passages. This “no frills” approach lead to Enslaved’s best release since 1994’s “Frost”.

“Axiom Ethica Odini” veers away from some of the elements that made its predecessor such a great work, opting for a more varied and dramatic sound. Many passages are good, some even great. However, most the songs also contain passages or transitions that are simply lacking in one respect or another. A number of songs on “Axiom…” are hurt when Larson overreaches on the clean vocals. When Larson stays in a low pitch he sounds like the second coming of David Gilmore. However, his voice is not as strong on the high end of the scale. On songs like “Singular” and “Raidho” Larson just isn’t able to belt out the powerful vocals needed to match the big, epic melodies. Another problem on “Axiom…” is that some passages are too dissimilar; consequently the transitions sound forced.

In spite of these weaknesses, “Axiom…” still has its virtues. There are a wide variety of great riffs and melodies throughout the album. In addition to plenty of black and progressive metal passages, “Axiom…” also contains some slow, heavy, head-banging passages (i.e. the lead riff of “Waruun”) that were absent from the past few releases. There are also some soft prog rock passages (i.e. the intro and verse of “Nightside”), which add a more relaxed dimension to the album. 

Furthermore, the first and last songs of the album are just out of this world. The opener, “Ethica Ondini” contrasts an epic, fast paced verse, with a big, anthem-like chorus, building toward a glorious, soulful ending. The outro, “Lightning”, blends some catchy hooks with a dark, ominous chorus. Both songs contain a number of well-crafted twists.

Since 2004, Enslaved have explored a range of progressive styles. Albums like “Isa” and “Ruun” took influence from the more dynamic prog legends, such as Yes. “Vertebrae” slowed down the tempo, taking inspiration from the mellow sounds of mid-era Pink Floyd. “Axiom…” can be seen as a synthesis of the two styles, deploying the dynamic structures of “Isa” and “Ruun”, but infusing them with the lush, entrapping melodies found on “Vertebrae”. Overall the synthesis is interesting, but not nearly as much as the smooth, steady sound of “Vertbrae”. Ultimately “Axiom…” a solid addition to the Enslaved cannon—certainly not top tier, but still an enjoyable and engaging listen.

Overall: 7.5/10