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

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Fen- Epoch (2011)

Every post black metal band seems to have their own take on how these genres come together. On their sophomore release “Epoch”, Fen takes a notably mellow approach to the style. While there are some black metal riffs (mostly inspired by Enslaved's more progressive albums) and screeched vocals, there is no real black metal spirit to this album. Fen is just too even keeled to dive into the dark depths of black metal. They are also too mellow to reach the cathartic heights of post rock. Their aesthetic is derived much more from the dense, reflective sounds of fellow Northern Islanders such as The Cure and My Bloody Valentine. This music is heavily inspired by the dense, grey atmosphere of the region—thick and heavy, like a calm and steady flow of rain. 

Unfortunately, Fen lacks what make those other bands so special. There is a real lack of direction in the songwriting and little punch in the melodies. While the songwriting is far from the conventional pop song structure, it fails to captivate. The transitions pass by, virtually unnoticed, like one grey cloud followed by another. This is actually quite amazing, since the transitions can be pretty vast. Fen often shifts from a soft passage with clean vocals into a metal passage with screamed vocals, but oddly enough, the transitions make little impact. The band seems emotionally stuck in neutral, so whether it’s heavy, soft or something in between it has the same plain feeling.

Melodically, the album ranges from pleasant to monotonous. Throughout the album there are scattered some nice clean vocal passages, such as those in “Ghosts of the Flood” and “Half-Light Eternal.” These soft passages are what Fen does best. The heavy passages just are not their forte. They all blend into one another, failing to make an emotional impact. Fen simply lacks the attitude and fire needed to making moving metal.

The album starts stronger than it finishes. The opener contains a nice series somber post rock riffs with looping percussion a la Godspeed You! Black Emperor. “The Gibbet Elms” consists of a slithering guitar line and interplay of raspy growls and Pink Floyd style vocal harmonies. Unfortunately the last few songs are long and uneventful. The album becomes burdensome, wearing out its welcome.

When it’s all said and done, Fen do not have a lot going for them other than atmosphere and a few decent melodies. The musicianship is good, but not great. The metal riffs are derivative and lack the right attitude.  The clean passages are nice, but honestly nothing you cannot live without hearing. Like a being stuck inside on rainy day with nothing to do, “Epoch” is a fairly forgettable experience.

Overall: 4.5/10

Monday, August 1, 2011

Ludicra Break Up

I am sad to say that the Oakland based black metal band Ludicra has broken up. Ludicra have been a signature act within the Bay Area metal scene for the past decade. Over the past few years they have finally began to gain wider recognition for their high caliber albums and performances. Ludicra played a style of melodic black metal inspired by acts such as Darkthrone, Satyricon and Dissection. However, they were never afraid to let their other influences shine through. Aspects of doom, heavy metal and hardcore were all tastefully integrated into their sound. The members continually progressed as musicians, improving leaps and bounds with regards to the technicality of their performances. Most notably, Laurie Sue Shanaman has one of the most intense and dynamic voices within black metal. Her voice ranged from the spine shivering banshee howls to deep, guttural growls. 

Ludicra were also a rare instance of gender equality in metal. Women in metal are rare enough to begin with. When women are in bands, too often they only get spots as clean vocalists. While I have no problem with a good female singer in a metal band (there have obviously been some praise worthy results) Ludirca proved that women could do extreme metal and that men and women could come together to create kick ass metal. When you listened to a Ludicra album or concert, you’d didn’t think about the band members’ gender, you thought about their power and force of their music. 

The band members were also class acts. When I was 19 I wanted to go to one of their shows, but it was at a bar. On a longshot, I emailed guitarist Christy Cather, who like me, also lived in Santa Cruz. To my surprise, she was more than happy to give me a ride to San Francisco, let me pose as a roadie and get into the bar, no questions asked. All the band members were always humble and conversational, willing to talk about their music, the metal world in general or whatever else.
I saw Ludicra perform four times and on each occasion they put on an intense and powerful performance. Many friends of mine who had never been to a black metal concert said it was much better than they imagined. Their energy and passion really captivated crowds—whether or not they were fans of extreme metal or not. 

For those who haven’t heard Ludicra before I highly recommend their albums “Hallow Psalms” and “Fex Urbis Lex Orbis” for intense and visceral black metal performances. Their swansong “The Tennant” is also very good and shows the band at a more mature stage. Though this is the end of Ludicra, I hope to see the members continue performing. Drummer Aesop Dekker is already making excellent contributions to Agalloch. Here’s hoping that the other members find new bands or projects. Otherwise, we are left with memories of great albums and some great cuts of black metal.