A retrospective by Maximus
2016 was a great year for music; but it was not a year of great music. It has now infact been several years since anything really powerful and enduring has been released in the metal genre (2013’s Old Morning’s Dawn and The White Goddess), meaning that this style of music continues to be deprived of the genius it possessed when it was still in the underground more than twenty years ago. There is nevertheless a burgeoning underground movement that continues to churn out quality releases; 2016 has been very productive for the United States in particular, as their penchant for raw black metal is experiencing a renaissance at the moment, with bands like Orgy of Carrion, Void Meditation Cult, Profanatica, Recluse, and newcomer Bastard of Majesty Sin bearing the torch of antinomian, blasphemous music in the land of the megachurch. The Americans have also made progress in the field of bestial war metal, as Nyogthaeblisz, Intolitarian, and Ritual Genocide all completed tours of duty. Its neighbor to the north has had a successful year as well, with bands like Forteresse and A.M.S.G. leading the way in their respective Quebecois and Western Canadian styles, with Sorciers des Glaces, Chthe’ilist, and Death Worship forming an auxiliary support. Europe has been relatively quiet in terms of its elite, with Antaeus’s Condemnation, while by no means bad or mediocre, being something of a disappointment all the same; the bulk of its songs tend to run into one another without a memorable identity coming to the fore. Poland, however, continue to go strong, with new Cultes des Ghoules, Bestial Raids, and Dark Fury albums in addition to an interesting Graveland split keeping our attention there for another turn round the sun.
So much for metal. While we have something more in-depth planned in terms of coverage, the internet fad ‘vapourwave’ actually produced something of real consideration this year, namely 2814’s Rain Temple, which moves beyond the cheap gimmicks, repetitive sampling, and juvenile compositions into genuine songwriting that doesn’t look out of place in the rich history of electronic ambient. Dark Americana folk music and Goth Rock also had a busy year, with King Dude releasing a quick follow-up to 2015’s Songs of Flesh and Blood being the main event, but releases from Wovenhand, The Handsome Family, Lera Lynn among others demonstrate that there is still a lush musical tradition along those lines. Rome, Derniere Volonte, and Ordo Rosarius Equilibrio unveiled albums in their unique blends of neo-folk, pop, and military industrial to greater or lesser degrees of success. Finally, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds released a stirring album themselves this year, but it deserves greater attention than we can presently give it, so its own review will be published in the near future.
So here are fourteen of the best albums of 2016, and a few other things too. In order to cover them all I have tried to concentrate on the locus on every album, explicating its most inner identity without being too concerned about all its constituents. I hope that the reader can therefore get a sense of every record’s most primal nature, but doubtless my success in this is dependent on his insight to compensate for my own obfuscations and lack of vision. At any rate, they have all been a joy to write, and I pray that they are half as interesting to read.
Crystal Castles – Amnesty (I)
Finally reinforced with a new vocalist after the departure of the inimitable Alice Glass, Crystal Castles have adjusted accordingly to suit the different style of her replacement, Edith Frances. Certainly the shrill, inchoate banshee cries remain in the vocal lexicon, which are most pronounced on tracks like ‘Fleece’ and ‘Frail,’ but coming to the fore is a silky, ethereal, and more conventionally feminine voice that adds a different quality of creepiness to the mix; the effect is a reminiscence of a haunting, a haunted soul lost in its own body, its own home. The percussion injects a voluminous velocity, conjuring with pulsing off-beats a dark energy that underscores the angst and violence of tracks such as ‘Concrete.’ There is nevertheless a sweet, melancholic melodiousness that pervades the entire album, which bequeaths that clearly defined sense of sadness which is amplified in the vocals. Albeit hiding beneath a veneer of objective abrasion and aimless spite, there is a deep and obvious emotive presence subsisting at the roots of this record; it emerges like repressed impulses of a troubled adolescent, attacking something for a reason she does not know, and distracts herself from knowing. The pain and hurt assume the shape of something malignant, but all that those who love her see is a distortion of whom they love. They don’t see her hate and anger; they only see her sadness.
Rome – Coriolan
After the phenomenal release of A Passage to Rhodesia, which exemplified the essential Rome endeavor to marry art to history ministered by a paramount reverence for human values, the next album was bound to be met with an eagerness to see where they would go from there. In one sense, the mini-CD Coriolan fulfilled these expectations in a natural way, seeing as it dealt with a Shakespearean tragedy in which the question of a man’s own interests and his self-righteous furor versus the duty he owes his country and its interests takes the most prominent position. The old and familiar theme of the overarching struggle making way for the interior quarrels of individual man and his intimates once again appears: where Shakespeare romanticizes and emphasizes patriotic duty Rome shifts the perceptual angle to the duty one owes to oneself. Rome also released an LP in 2016, but The Hyperion Machine falls well short of its predecessor in two ways: it lacks this conceptual unity which is present in all of their best albums; and it lacks the instrumental unity that makes that conceptual one alive to the listener. Hyperion still possesses, to be sure, staples of the Rome sound, namely the smooth, easy rhythms, profound, provocative lyrics, and the anthemic sing-a-long choruses, but it loses the definitive staple of the band: its thematic coherence that is grounded on something more than historical themes, that is, on the transcendent truths that allow those historical themes to convey their meaning. It therefore shares more than just a similar instrumental disposition with, for example, the earlier album Hell Money; it shares its lack of organizing ethos, which is why that album does not match up to other records either.
Now, we have not ranked Coriolan in this list merely to critique The Hyperion Machine, which, taken on its own, is also a very good album; we merely wish to illustrate that the former, in spite of its brevity and sometimes inferior songwriting on a basis isolated from the whole, in possessing the formal structure of previous Rome masterpieces does more for the artistic raison d’être of the band than the more straightforward LP. Truly, the more accessible, post-punk direction that Hyperion takes is not to be attacked for its part (though we must note the lack of musical engineering that added so much to albums like Flowers From Exile); it is only that it has not been able to express the same range of ideas and thematic continuity that a more developed, more constructive, and more intricate pattern of songwriting has already been proven capable of. While it is too short and too marginalized in terms of the greater focus given to the year’s later album for us to call it another ‘masterpiece,’ Coriolan yet offers a tantalizing glimpse into the identity and the eidos of Rome with its capacity to show tragedy in the full spectrum of human nature; it ensnares the essence of personal grief and failings, measures them in the context of broader social struggles that assume a too great importance, and then expresses it on the wide horizon of poetic diction in order to bring it back to the personal, relatable level. As small and full of potential as this MCD is, it still communicates that sacred sense of belonging that is the property of all art that shows us where we are unified rather than where we are divided, which is what makes it is as true of Rome as it is of Shakespeare.
Bastard of Majesty Sin – Bastard of Majesty Sin
We debated sliding Orgy of Carrion’s Obscured Ceremonies Under Hell Moon into this list, but
in the end demurred, for the simple reason that it is weaker than Bastard of Majesty Sin’s self-titled debut. Both are fine instances of raw American black metal, with Bastard winning out in the end by virtue of its more convincing rawness. This album is indeed a maniacal construction, a damnable monstrosity that eclipses most others in savagery and the nebulous ‘evil factor.’ It lasts hardly more than twenty minutes, and it blitzes by in a few instants, as though time itself were pummelled forward by the frenetic chaos spewing out of bleak, barbarous, bastardized leads and a disgusting array of shrieks and howls. This is merciless music, seemingly formed from the acoustics of a submarine bed-cell, but it has a design: the crystallization of demonic energy that inhabits the realms beyond our conscious and conscientious superstructure. Wild thoughts and formless entities gather outside the walls of our spiritual labour, threatening to bash down the barriers we have erected against the evil both in ourselves and that which would like to release it; cacophonous errors of hellish derision sound forth into mental space, triggering alarms in the safety of our mind. In one way this album reminds one of Batushka’s Litourgiya, in which the Polish band employ the kind of Church Slavonic chanting that you find in Eastern Orthodox liturgies. In this case Bastard of Majesty Sin use piano melodies that derive from hymns used in Protestant services, such as ‘Amazing Grace’ at the end of ‘Piss Salvation.’ Whereas Batushka incorporate the choirs into their blend of orthodox black metal, there can be no such ecumenism in Bastard’s case: there is a hymn played on a piano, and then there is a vitriolic fury consisting of hollowed out percussion, indecipherable and distorted wailing, and terrifying solos that randomly escape their shackles in the mix. This divide between the hymn and the hate highlights that between the comforts of our petty and delusional daily life and the terrors capriciously exiled beyond it, a divide which Bastard of Majesty Sin would just as well destroy – and seemingly does destroy, as the album fades out in a more vague and blurred picture than hitherto wrought, leaving the peaceful piano keys a distant memory.
A.M.S.G. – Hostis Universi Generis
Hailing from Edmonton, a city renowned for its contributions to Canadian black metal, A.M.S.G. represent an evolutionary development from the names more solidly established there. Building on the foundation of bands like Sacramentary Abolishment and Rites of Thy Degringolade, A.M.S.G. likewise make use of complex song structures, implementing a precise and refined technique that surprises in its intelligence, in its multidimensional layers and patterns; the songwriting is ambitious, strictly controlled, and highly dynamic. Where A.M.S.G. evolve, then (to say nothing of the saxophone solos), and especially on Hostis Universi Generis (HUG), is in slowing itself down somewhat, first in the actual tempo and then in the course of revealing itself, which marks a progression away from the blinding speed and technical power of the other bands and towards a more complete presentation of its content. This is not to say that it is slow, or anything near slow; while it would be hard indeed to rival the aforementioned bands in terms of speed and technicality, A.M.S.G., especially in the first half of HUG, nevertheless frequently remind the listener of their countrymen. The emphasis, however, is no longer on the brute force of what they are creating, regardless of how intricately or sublimely it is put together; the emphasis is on the space formed from their long, elaborate, cyclic song structures, which allow new kinds of ideas to be conveyed. Repetition of motifs and fuller, more informed phrasing populate each track, elongating an idea, making it persist throughout the narrative. The result is a marriage between musical form and thematic content that perhaps makes one think of a black metal’s version of The Chasm’s Farseeing the Paranormal Abysm, considering at once the similar styles of structural songwriting and the ‘stellar’ nature of the lyrical imagery. A.M.S.G. are for all that still a black metal band, and accordingly subjugate the cosmos to the omniscient law of death and the primordial force of chaos (‘solar titan devouring the sun’). The planets engage their stars with mathematical precision and orbit them for millennia upon millennia, but even this vast expanse is subject to time; the planetary heavens will inevitably lose their mask of eternity to the real eternity – the time which consumes all space. It is for this reason that the old black metal prayer is invoked again, as its Manichean masters long to break with mortal existence and join with transcendent reality, with the only thing that is real: ‘To claw at the noose about my neck, to defile the sanctity of life, to break the chains of this cursed flesh, to become one with death.’ There is no alternative in eluding ‘the cosmic tyrants’; to escape death one must become death.
Cultes des Ghoules – Coven, or Evil Ways Instead of Love
As though their 2013 album Henbane were not theatrical enough, Cultes des Ghoules went and made an epic Gesamtkunstwerk in their two-disc black metal opera, Coven, or Evil Ways Instead of Love. All the things that made that earlier album special are present again on this one, the twisted, curling riffs that settle into mesmerizing hooks, the warlock spellcaster vocals, the extensive and more or less linear song structures; the same basic ingredients are all thrown into the cauldron once more. This time, however, it is a bigger potion, and it is being brewed for a more specific purpose: the enactment of a play in which a respectable maiden about to be married is seduced by Gypsies and abandons her husband and wholesome society for the man the peasants call the Devil (Old George). She gives in to the lust she has inside of her, allowing it to overpower her flailing reason (she didn’t seem to have much to begin with). While this would obviously be cast in some kind of tragic light if it were a normal drama, in the context of black metal it becomes a farce, a comedy, which complements the somewhat lighthearted, half-serious atmosphere that the band generate. There is truly sinister and frightening music in this genre, but Cultes des Ghoules are far too playful to fulfil that role, instead contenting themselves to bequeath us music that is infectious, pompous, and purposely comical; this is an album which could very well be construed as a kind of ironic slight against black metal as a whole, but on its own it’s simply a piece of highly enjoyable, well-written theatrical music. At nearly 100 minutes long, however, it is not something you can just play at your leisure; it requires a dedicated effort and a sizable portion of time. This is not unlike the music of the original master of the Gesamtkunstwerk, Richard Wagner, whose Der Ring des Nibelungen spans several nights of playing time at the opera. In that spirit, then, it might be more worthwhile to listen to Coven scene by scene – but only after first listening to the whole drama through.
Forteresse – Themes pour la rebellion
2016 also saw the release of Nokturnal Mortum’s split with Graveland, in which the former’s side of the tape revealed an embarrassing devolution from what they achieved in The Voice of Steel. This happened because the band’s political side became kitschy, aloof from the music, as though the music existed merely to serve their nationalistic politics rather than serving itself. Fortunately, in Themes pour la rebellion, the Quebec nationalists Forteresse have stepped in to show us once again how to properly integrate an extra-musical theme into a black metal that stays loyal to its own nature. They manage this by going back in time to the ‘la Guerre des patriotes’ of 1837-38 in which the French Canadiens of Lower Canada rebelled against the British colonial powers, and, in exploring ‘The Spirit of 1837,’ they clearly insinuate that the same fundamental issues are present today (see the song ‘Spectre de la rébellion’), and that another rebellion might be called for. The music is neither propagandistic nor ideological; it focuses on the human element, the blood spilled, the ideal of a beloved country worth dying for, even the supra-political truth that in the end it’s living, breathing, bleeding people killing one another: ‘Ennemi ou allié, le sang a toujours la même odeur.’ Dispensing with a lot of the folksier aspects of past albums, Forteresse instead flatten the pedal and take off, powering ahead with classic tremolo picking over a pacey, crusading rhythm section; the agony and passion of battle can be clearly discerned in burning, anguished melodies and in the solemn cries of the vocalist. This is what makes it real to the listener. This is second wave black metal that is still fresh, still ripe, and as committed to a conviction as it ever was. Instead of dumbing their music down and pandering to a bunch of mediocre-minded nationalist brutes, Forteresse use their patriotic passion to elevate their music. What gives this album its vitality and its virility is not the nationalistic ideal behind it or whatever truth there is in it; what gives this album life is the men who believe so much in it.
Zhrine – Unortheta
In recent years, ever since the monumental Dead Congregation debut, there have been legions of Incantation copycats (mostly from Finland it seems), all churning out the same crunching, massive-sounding black/death metal hybrid, with only a few doing anything creative with it (English bands Cruciamentum and Grave Miasma, who formed before Graves of the Archangels was released, and Irkallian Oracle, for example). The emphasis was clearly on the death metal elements, with huge, dominant riffs forming a battering ram that charge through the rhythm section, gathering momentum, slamming into every verse, effecting a brutal and menacing atmosphere. Zhrine’s Unortheta, on the other hand, takes the opposite approach. While retaining those hard-hitting, elephantine aspects of the rhythm, they are presently subordinated to a diminished role; they still propel the narrative through its stages, electrified and enlivened, but they do so with a greater purpose, beneath an overarching sense of balance. The typical path for each track, especially on the first half of the album, seems to be a swift ascent into a raging, furious storm of energy, which then slowly, deliberately subsides into a reflective aftermath. Zhrine do not just show us the destructive force of the maelstrom; they survey also the ruins it leaves in its wake, inspiring images of loss and bewilderment as we try to comprehend what’s happened. It is this second, contemplative quality, which consists particularly of creeping melodies that intersect and grow into the atmosphere, that comprises the real substance of this record; in these fine, silvery, haunting melodies we have found the leader of the dance. The chilling and icy soundscape chokes us of our breath, strikes us to our knees, and compels us to witness these wonderful, cruel northern lights; the brutality of the rhythm bruises and batters, but afterwards we see the splendour above it. For this is the essential difference between the other technique of blending black into death metal and Zhrine’s technique of blending death into black metal: the focus is no longer on the blood and gore and hate, on horror and the dwelling on death, but on the beauty of the killer, the beauty of the naturalness of it all. The cheetah hunts down the antelope as the orca rips into the seal – they are both lawful, beautiful actions. We are tormented regularly by a live-and-let-die animal mentality, surrounded by ugliness, pettiness, selfishness, but in the sky above us and the earth below there is and always will be the eternal drama of the cosmos.
Blood Incantation – Starspawn
While nobody can complain about the love that old-school death metal is getting these days, with bands like Serpent Ascending, Interment, and Chthe’ilist releasing fine work just this year, there remains in the style potential for new directions and fresh outlooks. This is where Blood Incantation come in. While not exactly reinventing the wheel, far from it infact, there is nevertheless a bold, rejuvenating streak in Starspawn. This comes first of all from the sheer strength in the riffing; with a frenzied but disciplined attitude, one ripping lead runs into another, giving each track a striking, armoured momentum that is yet able to slow itself down when the form calls for it. This leads to the second reason for this album’s freshness, which is its ability to craft an atmosphere. Rather than simply collecting an assortment of thrilling, technical guitar lines, throwing them all together one after the other and calling it a day, Blood Incantation show an awareness that in a great piece of music the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, which is why the songwriting is organized around the emanation of a dark, ghastly, gruesome ambiance; the riffs, regardless of how central they are to the instrumentation here, compel something else to take shape, something like a towering, massive superstructure of blood and fear. The thematic substance of Starspawn is the presentation of something unknown, a great, unholy Other; we can sense it, we can smell it, we can perhaps even see it, and yet we cannot know it. We are reminded of the scene in Alien where the intruder has ripped itself out of its host’s body and the team has to spread out and hunt it down. They are mystified as to what happened, hardly know what they are looking for, and have not a clue as to how to kill it – but they do know their fear. Blood Incantation’s Starspawn enters the scene like a malevolent, undefinable fiend, composed of various organisms, and prepared to feed. Neither juvenile nor overripe, this is an album that shows remarkable maturity, especially in how tightly all the pieces fall in together (the opener and the finale are particularly impressive in this respect) while remaining committed to the narrative’s framework, allowing the technicality of the players to dutifully contribute to a higher vision; we can only hope that this is a model for future technically-minded death metal acts.
Trevor Something – Soulless Computer Boy and the Eternal Render
Most of the ‘NewRetroWave’ bands tend to collapse upon themselves. After establishing a suave and dripping with internet irony a e s t h e t i c, copy-and-pasting John Carpenter synthlines over bland and discouraging beats, and generally pretending that it is still 1987, the average ‘synthwave’ band has nowhere to go. Trevor Something is far from average (another far-from-average exception is FM-84, whose 2016 album Atlas is a fine piece of real 80’s pop worship). In this project, which has hardly missed a step since his first LP Synthetic Love, there is a deeper purpose than merely 80’s nostalgia and vape clouds; the songs go places, the beat is danceable, and the synths do not merely ‘sound cool,’ but actually contribute to a tangible atmosphere. There is, in a word, an ambition to create more than just simple pop ditty’s or video game soundtracks. This starts with the vocals, which at times have R&B stylings, making them move along easily with the deeply grooved and relaxed rhythms; the narrative is sensual, impassioned, and yet quietly confident, like a pick-up artist at his trade. The lyrics, too, correspond with this sultrier romance, indicating forceful expressions of desire, love, and lust- everything is oriented around the physical. Soulless Computer Boy and the Eternal Render is certainly no different that way, with the first half of the album focussed on driving, pulsing music loaded with sexual connotations; it makes for vivid and multicolour imagery, with digitally distorted vocals rhyming over compelling beats and creative, dynamic melodies. The second half of the album, however, shifts into an ambient gear, slowing down to emit long, interesting synthlines that might not go anywhere but altogether leave a lasting peaceful effect; the mood is spectral, otherworldly, which leads us to wonder with the vocalist, ‘Is this real life?’ If the first half of the album represents the thrill of the chase, the joys and pains of wanting to possess something beautiful, the second half of the album represents the time after, when the torrents of desire make way for contentedness; in terms of the music, it is the mutual enjoyment of an electric sunrise. In any case, Soulless Computer Boy is romantic all the way through, and says more about the human condition than a thousand other computer jockeys waxing on about Corvettes and Cadillacs.
Recluse – Stillbirth in Bethlehem
It is rumoured that Phil McSorley, former guitarist and vocalist for Cobalt, has PTSD from his time served in Iraq with the US Army. It is also rumoured that this was behind his ‘homophobic’ and ‘misogynistic’ Twitter attack on the conformist metal community, which was what led to his being kicked out of Cobalt. Whatever the case, we can be thankful for this development, as Phil, leaving Cobalt in the still capable hands of Erik Wunder (their new album Slow Forever picks up just where Gin left off, even if it doesn’t have quite the same venom), has turned his attention to his side project, picking up Wlad of Vlad Tepes fame to help him on vocals. As Stillbirth in Bethlehem shows, the malice Phil expressed on Twitter is clearly still in charge: this is an uncompromising and vengeful piece of music. The production is suitably blurred and tainted, generating a hazy, contorted, and wicked sound; the vocals are very high in the mix a la Blasphemy, with the rhythm section forming a low backdrop, producing a distant, broken effect that impresses the listener with the image of a wireless report calling in for artillery under fire. Phil does not slouch on his abilities on the guitar either, creating riffs that fight their way into the track, adding to the impact of a broiling, stewing rancor (the track ‘Semen and Blood’ is especially notable for its incisive guitar work). This is raw, blasphemous black metal, something that Americans tend to be particularly good at (perhaps due to the pervasive evangelical and Baptist presence), as 2016 alone evinces: Orgy of Carrion, Profanatica, Void Meditation Cult, and Bastard of Majesty Sin are just a few of the outstanding acts in this field. Recluse, however, with an embittered Army trooper at the helm, have trod their own path, which is diminished not in the slightest by the staleness of its thematic content; the music is fresh and explosive, making its lyrical imagery merely an appropriate vehicle for its ire. Demons, rape, torture, genital mutilation, an attack on the ‘deformed faggot of Bethlehem,’ these are but the pertinent images for a music that is itself no less than abominable; Recluse have taken up the flag of hate, invoked the infernal spirits, and march to the doom of paradise.
Fyrnask – Forn
With the swing-and-a-miss of Urfaust’s Empty Space Meditations album, the dreamier, keyboard-centred stylistic shift of Midnight Odyssey’s 2015 record, and the continuing failure of Drudkh to create anything worthwhile, a void is opening up where ambient black metal with teeth used to be, a void into which the one-man German project Fyrnask has stepped. Where the aforementioned bands have incorporated more ambient aspects and less metal aspects with greater or lesser degrees of success, Fyrnask has gone in the opposite direction, not only retaining the intensity but increasing it, building off of his excellent Eldir Nott album. Rather than simply creating long, ambiguous, and hollow soundscapes that may or may not go anywhere like other ambient bands, who are sure to employ a litany of string and wind instruments, Fyrnask creates its ambiance through the traditional metal aspects, leaving the folksier aspects to have their own segments and interludes; the use of a synthesizer, even though prominent, is bound up with the swelling orchestration, interwoven with the narrative’s dynamics, meaning that it is never overbearing, never even really noticeable insofar as it only makes itself felt when the rest of the instrumentation is climactically throbbing. It is this ebb and flow and the patient construction of a motif that imbue whichever track with its haunted climate; it is the structural technique that allows Forn to convey its deepest, most ambient qualities. The charging, relentless riffs, the wretched snarls, the blasting, punishing percussion, while hardly conducive to ambiance in themselves, can become so when professionally mastered into synchronicity with the progression of the whole. It is at this point, both during and after the crescendo of what has been building up, that the listener realizes that he has been sucked into a wearying, oppressive space; drawn into it by its versatile and swiftly evolving structure, we are prisoners of a mood that Fyrnask has created. The spirited, sorrowful melodies and the wailing, semi-clean, Urfaust-esque vocals epitomize the substance of Forn, its honest testimony to an older, more natural country. The atmosphere is informed above all by memories, sad, ritualistic prayers, and ghosts of the past, whose spirits we feel in the darkness, their voices calling out through the mist. Ambiance is not something made with empty space; it’s what you fill it with that counts. In Forn, an album composed with the temper of the new in service to the old, Fyrnask has created an ambiance that is filled both with the spectres of ancient Germany and an enchanting demonstration of rousing, hyperactive black metal; in Forn the space has been filled.
City Calm Down – In a Restless House
Confession: this album actually came out in November 2015. It did not, however, come to our attention until early 2016, and we think that this album is good enough to merit a late, retrospective look. The band spent three years making In a Restless House, it only seems fair for it to be talked about for a little longer. Fusing post-punk, new-wave, and synthpop elements into a healthy, congruent style of their own, City Calm Down base their music off of easy, swaying, syncopated rock rhythms, building simple structures into anthemic pop songs. In terms of a framework, then, there is not much you would not find in any other radio band: 4/4 time signatures, verse-chorus-verse songwriting, and steady dynamics. The execution, however, is outstanding, with addictive hooks and comely melodies (from both guitar and organ) laying the base for the vocalist’s baritone to carry the day, and it is his performance that distinguishes above all else the captivating quality of whatever song; his vocal melodies in ‘Border on Control,’ for example, are nothing short of mesmerizing. He seems to grip the course of a track and never lets go, holding it down and making it go where he wants it to. The direction he sends it is always towards the deep end, towards the hard questions, the things closest to our hearts and minds. As the lyrics indicate, this is not childish pop music; this is music for adults philosophizing their way through urban, modern life. Calling to mind the ennui and personal fragmentation of the city, the endless shifts working a nonsense job, the merry-go-round of Tinder romance, the afternoons sleeping a hangover away, In a Restless House comes face to face with the absurdity of the city. With an attractive, superficial appearance, this album is profound in its centre, immersed in an existential gravity that wants to relate with the listener. And yet it is also lighthearted, taking a mildly ironic perspective of reality, as we all must do who want to come to terms with life and all its perplexity; its words of wisdom are perhaps best summed up in the lines, ‘Until I get by, it’s easier to drink.’ In a Restless House helps us get by as well, matching our bemusement at life with fraternal, amiable tones that remind us we are all in this together.
Tarot – Reflections
Ol’ Rusty Vintage Wizard Master, AKA Will, is almost single-handedly responsible for classic doom metal in Australia. Coming off of The Wizar’d’s 2013 opus Ancient Tome of Arcane Knowledge, he returns with his Tarot project to release an even more interesting record. Calling himself The Hermit now, Will has also changed things up stylistically. Where The Wizar’d is a more conventional endeavour in its straightforward 80’s NWOBHM worship, paying tribute especially to the doomier bands like Pagan Altar and Witchfinder General, Tarot, while still deeply depending on bands like these, goes further back and finds inspiration in 70s rock music. The likes of Rainbow and the first Judas Priest album, to name two examples, come immediately to mind firstly for their similar tones, but also for their patient, modest, dignified songwriting oriented around creating epic, storytelling songs. With traditional, restrained, rhythmic riffs that would rather hint at something than show it, and frequent solos that are used purely to enliven the narrative and connect it with an ever-ascending atmosphere, Tarot inherit this style graciously, crafting powerful, doom-tinged music highly educated in the old-school. The vocals are likewise elegantly poised, rising through the song with a growing power that feeds back into the tension of the narrative. Like the village elder reciting the ancient legends of his people, The Hermit conveys mythic, occult stories bearing a depthless history with the cracked and faded but no less compelling voice of an old man.
Cutting through time to both the early 80’s when this type of music was reveling in its youth and to the pre-industrial age when these themes were not abstract but a living part of people’s existence, Tarot’s Reflections can thus be reasonably said to have a very anachronistic bent. Without arguing against that truth, we can on the other hand add that this album possesses also the quality of the essential, that is, of things that go beyond time. Merely because we have repressed the power of the epic and the legend does not mean that those things just go away and lose all meaning forever; they come back, albeit in new and unique forms. As philosophers like Eliade and Jung were to explicate at some length, the myth is a fundamental human reality, and trying to suffocate it with an arrogant, misplaced rational sense only forces it to breathe into other, more implicit channels; the world becomes disenchanted, but as humans by nature require a sense of the sacred, of enchantment, it will find its way back to those who crave it most. This album’s most meaningful identity, as its very title implies, may be its ‘reflective’ character, which is both (1) retrospective towards the past and the spirit it finds there and (2) immanent in the sense of it being alive to the present as well. Reflecting on the immense treasures we find in our memory is important, but it is the present in which we live, and that is why bands like Tarot, however ‘anachronistic,’ invariably find a place to fit in, because the power of myth never fails to reassert itself in the endless drama of time.
King Dude – Sex
No one knows the girls….
The best folk music dips deep into the history of where it comes from to find out who it really is. This seems obvious, and yet the most serious crime of the American neo-folk band is to find inspiration in some other place, namely Europe. The result is a superficial kind of musical ecumenism that sounds neither like the one thing or the other. This is a shame because, as artists from Johnny Cash to Changes to The Handsome Family have shown, the American heritage is flush with a history that inspires both in its diverse nature and peculiarly mythical character. The gods of the wilderness wage war with the vanguard of pioneer individualism, creating a haunted battleground that has spawned the mythologies of both heroic Western epics and gothic romances of the rural South. King Dude drink from the latter spring, dowsing their neo-folk post-punk hybrid with the rugged, rusty charm of forlorn Dixie; TJ Cowgill’s low, grumbling vocals kindle images of haggard old men drunk on the porch, singing to ghosts about things they no longer have. The setting is like that of a poem from Edgar Allan Poe, taking place halfway between a memory and a spirit world, with tragic characters invariably bowing to forces of the irrational. The loose, twanging guitar strumming kindles further images of swaggering villains on their way to the crossroads, that permanent altar of the South, where they might meet the Devil, God, or just some girl on the run from responsibility. King Dude revel in that journey, telling us stories from the back of an Oldsmobile about the weird things people have seen and done beyond the city limits, the dark legends of the country.
Sex is a legend of mortality, of corporeality, of glorying in the love of another’s body because your own is in decay. The undertones of that strong Christian morality inescapable in any rural Southern county persist throughout the album, making its focus on salving the conscience by exaggerating the love and joy found in the flesh. With its passionate, sensual tones, and intimate and inviting mood, the black and white of good and evil, God and the Devil, man and woman, all find expression in the soul-stirring grey of Sex. Bridging the neo-folk and Americana styles, King Dude have a personality of their own, securing themselves firmly in the patronage of their country’s spirit. Sex communicates the weariness of the dead, great Southern superstitions, and impatient existential questions surging from a rough history and indiscriminate romances.
EPS, COMPILATIONS, AND OTHER STUFF
Various Artists – Power Electronics Against Communism
The power electronics style is in some ways like a digitized black metal: it has something meaningful to say, it inserts ideological feeling into its aesthetics, and it filters its message through a distorted cacophony of noise that the listener has to dissect in order to lean anything from it. This compilation of various artists mostly from the United States is harsh and mean, presenting a nasty vitriol in response to the Bolshevized world they perceive around them. Disgusted with ‘sodomite and Zionist control,’ this is violent feedback that mixes in samples from student protests, Jewish propaganda techniques, warnings of homosexuality taken from governmental media in the 50s, and a clip of Alex Jones rising wrathfully as he raves how Stalin, Castro, and the rest took the guns of the people to assert their tyranny. This is not very serious music, but it is a serious message, and it suits the hatred and anger that persist throughout the cassette.
Death Worship – Mass Extermination
James Read and Ryan Förster reunite in their new Death Worship project, letting Conqueror retain their legendary one-album legacy. This is because Death Worship is fundamentally the work of Förster, which immediately becomes clear when you hear the music, with its strong Blasphemy overtones. As opposed to Read’s work with Revenge, which exemplify the percussive-oriented maelstrom that made War Cult Supremacy so novel and fascinating, Death Worship bring to light a slower, grislier, and more monstrous momentum that cuts closer to the essence of the Ross Bay Cult. Menacing and malign, Mass Extermination is a testament to nihilism and the necessity of death, if only in order to burn the phoenix. It is also a testament not only to the songwriting ability of Ryan Förster, but also to the indefatigable willpower of the inimitable J. Read. Superion triumphs again.
Light of the Morning Star – Death Glow
Heavy metal with a deeply gothic sheen, the one-man act Light of the Morning Star inevitably reminds the listener of a sped-up Type O Negative, especially with the vocalist sharing Peter Steele’s rich bass-baritone. Tagged as ‘death rock,’ this little demo also reminds one of London at the end of the nineteenth century, when the likes of Jack the Ripper and Jekyll & Hyde were famous in England. It inspires images of pale figures searching through the twilight, creepy shadows beneath tombstones, and ancient mansions inhabited by ghouls and wraiths of every century; all sorts of dark tales are created by the half-light of the moon, and Cemetery Glow hints at but a few of them. The release date of this band’s debut LP is right around the corner, and, given the promising maturity and professionalism exhibited by this demo, it should be well worth investigating.
Nyogthaeblisz – Apex Satanist
While we still await this devastating band’s first album, they have released yet another batch of demos collected in the Apex Satanist compilation. Intransigently immersed in the war metal mould, Nyogthaeblisz’ technique is particularly hectic, not creating songs so much as swift, violent hurricanes of noise that swarm around in an infernal battlefield of discontent. This creates an awful atmosphere whose sound is a furious barrage of chaotic percussion and undigested riffing; it is a volcanic eruption of distortion, and from the burning pits emerge the legions of hell, spewing forth their hate for the light as they march beneath it, calling all the little and demented things of this world to their black standard. This is music that delineates the Zeitgeist in the way that black metal originally did, and like the originals of black metal it forces back the popular and the mainstream so that it may germinate an ethos for the elite in the depths within itself. As the third demo of this compilation is called, Nyogthaeblisz epitomize Esoteric Fascism.
Mystik – Kapitel (I & II)
Another compilation of unreleased music (enough to actually split it into two compilations), Mystik’s main output so far is a pleasantly-surprising work of old-school Swedish black metal in the vein of early Dissection, Sacramentum, and Dawn. This means unrelenting melodic leads, white, cold, sweeping soundscapes, and constructive compositions that like to dwell on an idea to bring it to its full fruition. Guitars drive the music forward, their melodies creating emotive moments that give life to the narrative; the wailing, authentic vocals elicit motifs of sadness and fear as keyboards haunt the background, gifting the atmosphere with qualities of distance and monumental size. Images of mountains covered with snow and eclipsed by clouds are invoked, inviting the imagination to wonder what forbidden trails or ancient halls are beneath them. While hardly reinventing the wheel here, this is an admirable performance of a style that is often confused for something sentimental or ‘symphonic.’
Death in Rome – Hitparade
Death in Rome’s YouTube videos of pop song covers have been going around for years now, delighting the listener with fashy neo-folk renditions of top 40 radio hits in the style of the bands Death in Rome are named after. These covers are naturally very loose, adapting the lyrics into a rough copy of the original song structure before adding all of the distinctive ‘neo-folk’ attributes: martial single-snare percussion, bleak, morose keyboard and acoustic leads, and lonely, melancholic vocals droning on and on. This only really works with these pop songs because, unlike most actual neo-folk bands, Death in Rome can actually sing, which allows their covers to retain that catchy element which is the whole point of pop music. The real genius of this album, however, is the irony of a staple of Western commercialism and mass democracy being reproduced in the elitist context of an anti-social and anti-modern style of music which often aims at being totally antithetical to everything that the original songs represent. It is this fascinating juxtaposition that gives these songs an extra dimension above and beyond their excellent compositions; it is also this fascinating juxtaposition that allows us to go back to the arms of neo-folk and better appreciate the work there, if only to again bemoan the fact that more of them cannot sing like Death in Rome.
Intolitarian – Suicidal Allegiance
Antichrist Kramer of the deceased Satanic Skinhead Propaganda label steps forward in his own cell of virulent, caustic music with Intolitarian, the sequel to his prior work with Deathkey. Walking the line between grindcore/war metal and power electronics, Suicidal Allegiance loses even more by way of identifiable riffs than prior releases, emitting instead a wall of distortion without any comprehensible patterns whatsoever. The drum beats, on the other hand, actually form several hooks that lure the listener in, creating a dramatic contrast between frightening the listener off and appealing to something deeper inside him. The core of the music is in the relationship between the percussion and the vocals, which storm together in a symbiotic friendship bonded by hatred and revulsion.
Compensating for organization with sheer terror, each track launches a swarm of vitriol against the listener; like a batch of grenades dropped down a well, clanging metallically against the sides before exploding in the darkness below, the soundscape is dictated by a relentless industrial energy that reverberates against itself. As if the music did not already make it transparent, the spoken word parts indicate a profound rejection of modern urbanity, calling for revolution, war, murder, rape, and a comprehensive denial of ‘Jewish control.’ Issued from the septic underground of America, dripping with pent-up rage and intellectual bile, Suicidal Allegiance is an anthem of revolt.