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Posts Tagged ‘Gorguts’

I approached fellow blogger Josh Haun (of That’s How Kids Die infamy) a while back because I knew from conversations on Twitter that he and I would likely have drastically different opinions on the new Liturgy record.  I didn’t really care enough about the record either way to do a full-on review, but I still thought there were a lot of issues circulating throughout the metal scene on which it might be interesting to get a dual perspective.  So, obviously this isn’t quite the case of a real, knock-down, drag-out smackdown.  We haven’t called each other names or made rude suggestions regarding the bovine origins of the other’s parents; we’re just two guys with too many opinions about music.

In case you’re not too clear on what we’re talking about in terms of the widespread accusations of hipsterism that get thrown around with this band, may we kindly suggest you watch as much of this interview with the “band” from Scion Rock Fest as you can stomach:

Now you see what we’re up against, right?

I asked Josh to give the album a listen and pass along his immediate reactions as something of an opening statement.  What follows is therefore Josh’s opening thoughts, followed by my opening thoughts, after which point he and I traded emails back and forth to engage in a rather far-flung conversation that touches on everything from Darkthrone to Deathspell Omega, Moby to Beck, negativity to positivity to doofuses to hipsters to jasmine rice…and beyond.  Thanks for reading, and please do let us know where you come down on any and all of these issues.

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Opening thoughts on Liturgy’s Aesthetica:

Josh Haun:  Listening to Liturgy’s Aesthetica after being woefully turned off by the few tracks I’d already heard prior to “obtaining” a copy.  I recently saw a video interview where the singer could barely string a coherent sentence together (it went something like: “Like… um… like, philosophy 101-level bullshit… like, um, um, bullshit attempt to intellectualize black metal… like, um…) [Ed.: See above], so no surprise then that this appears to be black metal written by someone who doesn’t have the first clue about how to structure a song, much less play their instrument competently.  Liturgy fans seem to have it in their head that the only reason anyone could possibly hate this band is because they’re “hipsters” (whatever the fuck that means), or because of how they look, dress, talk etc.  I hate this band because I think the music is complete garbage and I don’t care whether the band is comprised of hipsters or Al Qaeda operatives.  The manifestos and sorry excuses for interviews are just turd icing on a shit cake.

I’m on track three at the moment, and I’m getting images of preschoolers in corpsepaint banging away on Fisher Price instruments.  Actually, preschool black metal would probably be more entertaining than this has been so far.  Oh hang on a second, track 4 sounds like they’re trying something different. This track sounds like crappy, under-produced Meshuggah or something, which isn’t saying much since I don’t really care for Meshuggah.  At least the obnoxious singer seems to have decided to shut the fuck up for this jam.  This track appears to be two minutes and thirty seconds worth of ideas stretched out over seven minutes.  Liturgy aren’t the only band that has this problem though, a lot of newer bands for some reason think a song has to drag on forever.  This is not trance-inducing, this is boring – you can go ahead and end any time now, track 4… shit there’s still like a minute and thirty left.  Well, at least the singer didn’t open his mouth for that entire time.

Aaaaaand we’re back to a piss poor black metal impression after that weird detour into djent-ville.  Track 5 sounds exactly like tracks 1 through 3.  I know this is my first time listening to the album and everything, but it probably isn’t good that I can’t tell the difference between tracks 1,2,3,5 and 6 so far, except on track 6 they added this effect where it sounds like the band is playing down the hall with the door closed for part of it.  Does this band have a bass player?  Do their guitars only have the 3 high strings on them?  Does their singer have testicles?  Track 6 is another one that goes on forever.

Track 7 seems to be from the soundtrack to the world’s most annoying Atari game.  Do you fucking remember Atari?  Did those games even have music?  If they did, it would sound like this steaming pile of pointlessness.  I guess the band threw in these little “curveballs” to break up the monotony of their utterly faceless treble assault.  Wait, what’s this?  Track 9 is actually piquing my interest.  I’m getting a bit of a sludgy, Sabbathy vibe here.  But alas, they don’t seem to be able to take it anywhere and my iTunes tells me they’re gonna drag it out to just shy of 8 minutes.  This band simply does not understand the fundamentals of compelling songwriting.  I know whoever’s reading this probably thinks I came into it already with a chip on my shoulder, but when Dan approached me about doing a hipster black metal throwdown, I really was willing to give Liturgy the benefit of the doubt, in spite of all the nonsense.  Had they blown me away, I would have readily admitted defeat… people who know me and follow THKD know that I’m willing to admit when I’m wrong about something (see: Kvelertak, Ghost, etc).

Track 11 is a chorus of people saying “hey” over and over again.  WHAT IN THE FUCKING FUCK IS THE POINT OF THIS?!?!  I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall when this record was being finished: “Man, this is awesome!”  Man, this is some pretentious horseshit!  3:30 of people saying “hey”.  This must be what people mean by suicidal black metal, because this track is making me want to hang myself.  What a surprise, they end the album with another track that sounds exactly like tracks 1,2,3,5,6,8 and 10.  Playskool’s My First Black Metal Band.  Thankfully, this is over.

Dan Obstkrieg: In preparing these preliminary notes for squaring off with Mr. Haun, I was trying very purposefully to keep my commentary to the music itself, knowing that our subsequent conversations would likely touch on all the extraneous cultural factors relevant to the debate over Liturgy and the potentially broader accusations of hipsters (or whatever) having infiltrated black metal.

Well, first things first: The album is definitely too long.  That having been said, the pacing and sequencing are very well done, with a mid-album break and the occasional odd intro or outro that gives a breather before diving back into the smash-and-burn.  Also on the negative side, those layered vocal-only sections are intensely annoying – the vocals work much better when restricted to a sort of white-out howl whipping around the outskirts of the instrumental maelstrom.  All of this means, of course, that the Krallice comparisons are inevitable.  In fact, if I didn’t have such an aversion to reading or seeing any interviews done by the band’s insufferable mouthpiece, I’d be interested to see if anyone has asked him point-blank about the undeniable Krallice influence.

The chugging, Meshuggah-lite sections are a nice touch, but they can drag on too long – the prime offender here being “Generation,” which has no business being as long as it is.  This technique adds a lot to “High Gold,” and in general, I dig the abrupt starts and stops of many of the songs.  The band is less effective when they try to do more traditional black metal tremolo riffing that isn’t simultaneously supported by their trademark jittery blast and crash.  See the opening of “Sun Of Light,” for example – those melodies are just plain uneventful.  “Veins Of God,” on the other hand, slows things down nicely, but again, there’s absolutely no reason it should go on for eight minutes.  And yeah, seriously, “Glass Earth” is straight-up obnoxious.  Almost painfully so, especially given that I’m already so favorably disposed to this band by this point in the album.  What could possibly compel them to think that this was a good idea?

All of these criticisms and somewhat backhanded compliments aside, I do actually really like this album.  Even though the ’90s alternative rock (play the start of “Tragic Laurel,” and then play the start of Beck’s “Jack-Ass”…) and new school American black metal influences (or ripoffs, depending on your persuasion) are quite clear, it still feels like Liturgy have found an individual approach, and it’s an approach that I find enjoyable.  “Glory Bronze” is honestly one of the best songs I’ve heard all year, full of a legitimately affecting sense of yearning.  Maybe the cardinal sin of Liturgy is that the main dude has tried to actively claim black metal, and therefore in the process repudiated or denigrated what many of us black metal fiends identify as the true, untainted spirit of the form.

Does God hate them all?

The Debate:

Josh Haun:I have absolutely no problem with bands bringing aspects of other genres to black metal.  Just look at bands like Blut Aus Nord and Deathspell Omega.  These bands incorporate tons of outside influences, but they are black metal beyond question and I love them for it.  I guess I just don’t see how this Liturgy is adding anything to black metal, unwanted or otherwise.  The tracks that incorporate other influences, the Meshuggah-esque track and doomy track, for instance, don’t really incorporate any of the black metal influences found throughout the rest of the album.  Relegating them to separate tracks tells me they don’t know how to blend their influences into a cohesive whole, which makes me wonder how they’re two album deep into their career and not still in the demo stage.  Furthermore, the black metal tracks are completely stock, I don’t hear anything even remotely interesting in them, nothing whatsoever that draws you into Liturgy’s world.  Certainly nothing that makes me want to hail them as vanguards or liken them to Bad Brains and David Bowie, as the d-bag that reviewed the album for Pitchfork did.

I don’t understand how anyone with a decent heavy metal knowledge base could find anything of real value in this band.  How is noisy, underproduced black metal innovative in any way whatsoever in 2011?  It’s been done before and done better by the likes of Darkthrone, Ulver, Ildjarn, VON, hell, there’s any number of bands that have made lo-fi black metal more engaging than Liturgy.  You see, the thing about an album like Transilvanian Hunger or Satanic Blood(okay, technically a demo…) is that it creates a world and drags you into it.  It actively engages the listener, pulls you into a world of seething, filthy, brittle distortion and real emotions, real negative energy.  I don’t get that when I hear Liturgy.  I don’t hear someone creating a world.  I hear someone that has studied a particular sound from afar and recreated it without fully immersing themselves in it.  It’s like a bad college thesis on black metal or something, totally dry and academic.Dan, from reading your opening statements, I almost get the feeling you had to convince yourself to like this album.  Was that the case or am I way off base?

Why do you think Liturgy have gotten the level of attention that they have?  Is it all about this ridiculous “hipster” stuff that the media and message board jockeys came up with or does the music really hold that much merit?

Dan Obstkrieg:I can see how you would get the impression that I had to talk myself into enjoying this, but I think that has less to do with the music itself, and more with the self-conscious reflexivity I feel compelled to use when discussing the band due to the intense level of shit-flinging going on all around the Internet.  The fact that I feel compelled to qualify my enjoyment of the music so heavily is frustrating, and I know to some extent that’s just my own issue.  Still, I always get the sense that even when I’m trying to talk with someone about Liturgy’s music, there’s always that nagging irritation of all the non-musical aspects of the band’s existence just lurking unannounced in the background.  Plus, thank God I haven’t read that Pitchfork review – sounds obnoxious as all hell (not that this is surprising, but still…).

So, let me be a bit more straightforward about it: I really like this record, and I really liked the last record, too.  I think this one is more interesting, but will definitely be more polarizing, both because of the heightened profile of the band, and because the band’s sound has become a bit more diversified.  That being said, I definitely don’t think Liturgy are the saviors of metal.  You and I both know metal doesn’t need saving, but more than that, I halfway agree with you that they don’t represent anything paradigmatically new.  Where I disagree with you, though, is in assessing what it is that they are doing.  When I listen to these records, I don’t hear them through the filter of raw, underproduced black metal albums from the likes of Ildjarn, Von, etc.  I hear this album much more through the lens of much more recent developments in U.S. black metal – Weakling, Wolves in the Throne Room, Krallice, though obviously Liturgy only really sounds like the last of those three.  Where you seem to hear raw, underproduction, I hear a different approach to noise – the spindly, occasionally indie-esque guitar tone makes for a much brighter, almost white-hot noise, instead of the murky, bleak darkness of what we might call “real” black metal (whatever the fuck that means).  Apart from that, though, the more I listen to these albums, especially Aesthetica, the more I hear it as a real showcase for the drumming, which has such a fantastic, sprightly, almost jazz/fusion freak-out quality to it.

All of this, I think, is why one of the major problems with the band is, as I suggested earlier, that they are trying to actively claim black metal.  If they weren’t saying, “Ah, we’ve listened to all this black metal, and we’ve decided here’s what’s wrong with it, so now we’re producing a completely new kind of black metal, which is just what the world needs,” it would be much easier to just say either, “Yeah, I dig these songs,” or “Nah, this doesn’t do much for me.”  As for why exactly the band has gotten so much attention, man, it fucking beats me.  I like the music a lot, but if I were trying to give the new album a score, I’d probably call it a 7 or so out of 10.  So, I dig it, but right now it’s not doing much to aim for year-end list status.  I honestly think the fact that they’re from New York has a lot to do with it, given how much more intense scrutiny tends to be focused on whatever explosion of sub-sub-sub-genre is currently happening there.  Beyond that, honestly a lot of it is probably down to the relentless self-aggrandizing nonsense constantly spewing out of Mr. Front Dude’s mouth.

What do you think is the reason for all this focus?  Do you think there’s any legitimate connection between this band and any other more recent not-quite-“real”-for-whatever-reason black metal acts, like Deafheaven, Fell Voices, Ash Borer, etc.?

Also, do you think you would feel any differently about this music if it wasn’t presented as “black metal”?

Hey, you damn kids better get off our lawn(?)

Josh Haun: You make a good point about Liturgy being more in line with the likes of WITTR, Krallice and Weakling than with some of the lo-fi black metal practitioners I named.  In fact I think you can pretty easily draw a line from Weakling to Krallice to Liturgy.  I think Weakling and WITTR can be directly traced back to Burzum, but they each sort of took that sound and did their own thing with it, Americanized it, if you will.  I have a similar problem with Krallice as I do with Liturgy though, to be honest.  Sure, they’re obviously gifted musicians, but I don’t find their music particularly engaging.  To me, a Krallice album is like the musical equivalent of an abstract sculpture or piece of art that you just kind of stare at from afar in a museum whilst stroking your chin, and don’t really have any meaningful interaction with.  Mick Barr has made an entire career out of making music like that.  That said, why is Weakling engaging, but not Krallice or Liturgy?  The short answer is: riffs.  Dead as Dreams is chock full of cool ideas that actual warrant the lengthy songs.

Also, some of our differing perspective undoubtedly comes from differing frames of reference.  I don’t listen to much indie rock, with the exception of some occasional Low, Xiu Xiu and Deerhoof (do those bands even count?), so I wouldn’t have the first clue about any of those influences on Liturgy’s sound.  I will agree with you that their sound is somehow “brighter”, for lack of a better term, than your typical lo-fi black metal.  Unfortunately I stopped being able to take the drumming seriously when I heard the term “burst beat” being thrown around.  Sometimes you can’t help but let the external bullshit get to you.With that said, this band probably wouldn’t even be on my radar if it was presented as anything other than black metal.  I can’t see them being categorized as any other type of metal, and if they had started out on Thrill Jockey and been marketed as indie rock of some sort, I probably never would have heard of Liturgy.  I had never heard of Thrill Jockey until the metal websites lit up with news of this band signing with them.  Obviously, I’m totally ignorant when it comes to that scene. I’ve had some friends/colleagues/etc. who listened to that stuff and tried to turn me on to it, but to me most indie rock sounds like children’s music.  But yeah, the fact that they claim black metal, that the singer wrote a manifesto proclaiming black metal as dead and that his band has created this superior new form of black metal in its wake, it’s just too fucking ridiculous to take.  It’s typical pompous American behavior, though.  Who the fuck is this guy to tell us black metal is dead?  He’s obviously never heard the more recent works of Deathspell Omega, Blut Aus Nord, Inquisition, Aosoth, etc.

I can’t help but feel that Liturgy, Deafheaven, Ash Borer, etc., do have a similar set of influences, namely Weakling and Wolves in the Throne Room.  But I think a band like Deafheaven brings a lot more to the table by incorporating a hefty British shoegaze influence  and Ash Borer is a bit darker and more raw.  In fact, Deafheaven is one of the first bands to combine black metal and shoegaze in a way that I find appealing.  It probably just has to do with the fact that they write dynamic, interesting songs and that they manage to keep things pretty visceral in spite of incorporating those outside influences. [Ed.: Check out Josh’s review of Deafheaven’s Roads to Judah here.]

Do you consider Liturgy a black metal band?  Do you have any set parameters as to what black metal is/should be?  I’m only asking because a lot people (myself included at times) have some pretty narrow ideas about black metal and think that is a big part of why Liturgy and some of these other bands are getting the attention that they are.

Dan Obstkrieg: On your first point, I’m a bit split in my opinion.  Part of me wants to say: Who are you to say that admiring something from an intellectual distance doesn’t count as “meaningful interaction”?  I mean, I listen to plenty of stuff that doesn’t force my body into an immediate bout of relentless headbanging.  Shit, my goddamn neck would be wrecked if I listened to nothing but Celtic Frost all day, y’know?  But then, another part of me agrees: I can’t fucking stand listening to Orthrelm.  So, in that case, I guess the point of contention would be where you and I draw the line differently between acceptably and unacceptably intellectualized (or non-visceral-ized, if I can make up such an abominable term) metal.  On that count, I’m definitely on the side of finding both Krallice and Liturgy striking the right note of direct, physical engagement as well as more abstract, “Hey, fuckers, look what we can do” appreciation.

Shit, I had completely forgotten about that “burst beat” gibberish.  See, this is exactly the problem: Why in the hell is there this need to come up with a new name for something that is not appreciably new?  I just got done praising Liturgy’s drummer for some notably frantic (yet still jazz-inflected, at least every now and again) playing, but I definitely don’t mean to suggest that the dude has, like, invented some brand new technique.  That’s just obnoxious.  Let me compliment it in peace, you consistently bothersome mouth-openers…  But as far as the being influenced by indie or not, and what one’s frame of reference is, I don’t think that should matter too much.  I mean, if we’re on the subject of Deafheaven, I couldn’t really give a shit if I hear more My Bloody Valentine or Rites Of Spring in their sound.  Same goes for Liturgy: it doesn’t much matter to me if they sound like they ate up Sonic Youth and Darkthrone at the same time, so long as what they’re doing in the present speaks to me somehow, which it does.  In fact, earlier this week I was listening to the latest Moby album, Destroyed, and thinking that there was something similar going on with Liturgy.  Here’s what I mean: I know that when I listen to Moby, I’m essentially being toyed with.  For whatever reason, the dude just knows the chord progressions, the synth timbres, or whatever else that tug at the heart strings in just the right, desperate, over-earnest (and therefore cloyingly obnoxious to many) way.  I think that Liturgy ends up doing the same thing a lot of the time, so while I can recognize that melodies and progressions are arranged in such a way to lead to these triumphant meta-musical-narratives, I can’t help but be swept along by them.  Maybe that’s an argument against what I was saying earlier, that I can appreciate an intellectualized take on a particular metal sub-genre.

Here’s a thorny issue, though: You and I are both are jumping up this dude’s ass for trying to actively claim black metal, tell us it’s dead, and that he’s single-handedly saving us from ourselves or fucking whatever.  But isn’t that just the kind of oppositional ethos that a lot of what you and I would both call “real” black metal bands have striven for over the years?  What is it that makes us both recoil from this Silverchair-frontman-look-alike-dipstick, but not necessarily (though we haven’t spoken about this, and my own feelings are a bit conflicted on it) Ihsahn or Fenriz?

But as for your trickier question about whether I consider Liturgy a black metal band, or more broadly, how I conceive of the genre as a whole, again I’m of two minds.  I think that most of the stylistic touches that make up Liturgy’s sound can be linked more closely to black metal than any other of metal’s sub-genres, so yeah, I guess if you forced me to pin them in a genre, I’d call them black metal.  The whole thing about genre tags, though, is that they never name anything other than an imagined community (to make a completely pretentious and inappropriate reference to Benedict Anderson – am I becoming what we both hate?).  What I mean is, genres can be a useful shorthand, but to the extent that they take on a dogmatic life of their own beyond that, they are primarily a detriment.  That being said, some of the artists that I enjoy the most are those that are clearly pushing the boundaries of their respective genres.  Thus, without that shorthand that we carry with us (as listeners just as much as critics), departures from a genre’s standards wouldn’t exactly register as unique.

Beyond that, while I can recognize the value of genre standards as much as the limitations, I don’t find that listening to Liturgy does anything to diminish Venom, Hellhammer, Bathory, Darkthrone, Mayhem, and any and every other foundational black metal band.  Do you see a band like Liturgy actively damaging the legacy of black metal?  If so, what makes them any different from a more widely respected band like Ulver, or Arcturus, or anyone else who abandoned a more traditional black metal beginning for wild experimentation?  What about Dødheimsgard, for example, whose 666 InternationalI know is a very important record to the both of us?

What in the hell does this masterpiece have to do with anything, right?

Josh Haun: I think maybe the problem is that when I listen to metal, I want headbanging, fist raising and thoughts of totally destroying my surroundings, or at the very least a head-nod while I’m doing other more constructive things.  I don’t just want to listen to metal and go “Oh, that’s nice!” or “Wow! These guys sure can play!”  I want the music to involve me physically and/or emotionally.  Certainly there are bands that are good at involving the listener on a more cerebral level, such as Gorguts circa Obscura, but they also know how to tap into those more primal feelings.  Even a band like Sunn O))) manages to draw me in: not in a headbanging way, obviously, but they have have that primitive, gut-level thing going on that comes from the drone, which is one of the oldest musical traditions.  I just don’t get any of these things when I listen to Liturgy.  I think Krallice is getting there though, and Diotimais easily the most engaging thing they’ve ever done. For the most part though I think metal should be a kick in teeth, it should elicit some kind of extreme visceral reaction, not chin-stroking or navel-gazing.You bring up Ulver, Arcturus and Dødheimsgard and I agree with you that these are important black metal bands that took wildly adventurous turns into experimental/progressive territory.  However, I don’t hear anything in Liturgy that puts them in the same category as those bands.  I will concede that Liturgy have made alterations to the the traditional black metal sound, but to say that their body of work is as radical as something like 666 International is ludicrous.  I don’t know if those bands displayed the same kind of bravado/pretentiousness that Liturgy’s frontman has when their respective groundbreaking albums were released, but if they did, then they were certainly able to back it up musically, because albums like 666 International and La Masquerade Infernale are undeniable game changers.  Another part of it is that those bands worked to earn some respect and hone their craft prior to making these dramatic stylistic shifts.  Liturgy on the other hand came right out of the gate claiming that what they were doing was the dawn of a new age, but in reality they sound like should still be making demos in a basement somewhere and getting their shit together.  I do think there is something to be said for challenging the status quo, but I don’t think that a demo-level re-imagining of Nattens Madrigal with occasional left turns into other metal subgenres is the way to go about it.  If you’re going to claim to be inventing a new type of black metal, you better have the chops to back it up, and Liturgy just doesn’t have them.

As for the “are they black metal?” question, I felt like it had to be brought up, because I think a big chunk of why Liturgy are so “controversial” (for lack of a better term) is because a lot of people have such a narrow idea of what black metal is.  I don’t think my own ideas about the genre are particularly closed-minded, but there are certain key aspects I look for in black metal, the main one being negativity.  Dødheimsgard, Deathspell Omega and Blut Aus Nord are all bands that push the boundaries of the genre, all three bands sound nothing alike, and yet all three are unequivocally black metal.  To me, this is because all three create music that is positively crackling with negative energy.  You might argue that all heavy music harnesses negativity to some degree, but there is something different about the way black metal does so, something that is difficult to put a finger on.  I think it has to do with the level of conviction.  There is almost a religious reverence for negativity in black metal that to me is inherent to the genre.  I’m pretty sure I read something where the Liturgy vocalist said something about rejecting black metal’s negativity (please correct me if I’m wrong [Ed.: I would, except I can’t be bothered to track down every damn fool thing that this guy says…] ), but how can you claim black metal if you’re rejecting the very thing that is at the core/heart of the genre?  Black metal started in opposition to death metal, so there is definitely an “oppositional ethos” to the genre’s beginnings, as you said, but I think that ethos began and ended with the original Scandinavian second wave.  Black metal now is just as much a commodity as any other metal subgenre and the people that still ascribe this imagined preciousness to it are just hopelessly out of touch.  If Liturgy wants to “save” black metal or its fans, I’d say they’re about a decade too late.

Dan Obstkrieg: I don’t know, man, when I crank this new Liturgy record up, I sure as hell feel like I’m getting kicked in the teeth.  But again, I’ve got Aura Noir for when I need to get down-and-dirty thrashed, y’know?  Regardless of which camp we put Liturgy in, I’m perfectly happy with metal that invokes aesthetic appreciation rather than compulsory headbanging.  Ideally, though, it does both.  And you’re absolutely right: Liturgy is nowhere near the brilliance of Ulver, Arcturus, or Dødheimsgard.  I only brought them up to stress the point that experimentation with black metal doesn’t diminish what black metal “is,” if it is anything specific in the first place.

As for black metal being about negativity, I’m again half-sympathetic, half-skeptical.  I guess for the most part I find it difficult to take most any type of metal band’s outward aesthetic presentation seriously.  So, yes, of course much of what characterizes black metal is an aesthetic obsession with negativity and darkness – DarkSatanBlackWolfMoonHate.  And sure, maybe what the music’s creators intend to do is usher in a world of pure darkness and negativism, but for the most part I just don’t buy that.  I don’t believe that most of these musicians, even in such extremely serious and fantastic bands as Blut Aus Nord and Deathspell Omega, are honestly lurking around in caves at night thinking constant deep thoughts about the apocalypse and the beast in man.  I think they’re drinking some beers, living in decently-appointed apartments, cooking up a nice shrimp stir-fry with jasmine rice every now and again.  And I’m perfectly fine with that contradiction between the image and the reality, so long as we don’t think that the image imbues the music with some immutable substance that the revelation of a more mundane reality would subsequently destroy.

I’m looking for music that makes me feel empowered, and the very best black metal does that, even though it is, as you say, ruthlessly negative.  Sometimes music does this through the fantastic anthems about metal itself that populated so much of classic 80s metal, sometimes it does so through making me think, “Shit, things may be bad, but at least I don’t feel as bad as Eyehategod sounds like they feel…,” and sometimes it does so by blasting away with minor-keyed melodies and a bunch of skinny white dudes howling about Satan.  If we both agree that black metal is a commodity, then I suppose it’s all down to each of us as consumers to separate the bullshit from the kick-ass, and if we come down on opposite sides of that fence with Liturgy, I’m cool with that.  Plus, I’m pretty sure we can both agree that the dude should just zip his damn mouth and let the music speak for itself.
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If you’re still with us, mazel tov!  Special thanks to Josh for being such a good sport throughout this long-winded back and forth.  If you still haven’t had your fill of Liturgy-related jaw-flapping, my colleagues Jordan Campbell and Jim Brandon did a head-to-head review of Aesthetica over at MetalReview a few weeks ago.  In case you’re in need of a refreshing black punch in the jaw, why don’t we close out the proceedings with what I (not so humbly) determined a while back to be the Greatest Song In All Of Black Metal:

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Pyrrhon, An Excellent Servant But A Terrible Master (2011)

Which is worse: Never being rocked, or always being not rocked?

Full disclosure: I approached this review with a fair amount of trepidation, because Doug Moore, Pyrrhon’s vocalist and lyricist, is not only a fellow staff writer over at Metal Review, but is also an all-around Good Dude.  Still, it would take an overweening amount of Good Dude-ness to make me overlook shitty music, of which I am happy to report Pyrrhon delivers precisely zero.

You and I and your grandmother all know that overly technical metal follows the law of diminishing returns: the first squiggly insane bit blows one’s mind, but keep it up for too long, and squiggly insane bits number two through x will assuredly fall on tired ears.  Thus, New York’s own Pyrrhon succeeds where a lot of ultra-technical death metal acts fail by actually allowing the listener to get her rhythmic bearings before going off on a fret-abusing tear (see “Glossolalian” for a prime example of this at work).  Too many of the glitchy meth-or-Red-Bull-heads in tech death bands start by writing frantically technical parts, then attempt to wedge them into loosely recognizable songs.  Pyrrhon’s approach is the opposite: creating a solid frame of a song, which is then adorned with and debased by flights of sheer heart attack (see “Correcting a Mistake,” where the bass-only opening is not simply a solo spot, but actually previews the skewed melodic riffing of the guitars).

This is technical death metal not on the model of Decrepit Birth, Obscura, or any of that other relentlessly modern fare, but more on the queasy, churning darkness of Ulcerate.  Or, perhaps, imagine if Gorguts had written an album halfway between the styles of The Erosion Of Sanity and Obscura.  All of which is a roundabout way of saying, Pyrrhon is technical as all shit, but the guitars aren’t just senselessly puking up pinches and squeals and taps – when they do appear, they function as effective rhythmic landmarks (see the opening of “Flesh Isolation Chamber,” for example).  Just as one’s senses are ruthlessly toyed with, jerked half a beat this way before being yanked entirely in another direction, there are always little footstools of solidity, fleeting though they may be.

Check out the guitars at around the three-minute mark of “New Parasite” and the clean guitar section in “Gamma Knife” for some excellently woozy pitch-bending, sounding like some alien deep space radar, quietly pinging out the dead oceans of time.  Dylan DeLilla’s solo sections are wonderfully psychedelic, and very atypical for this kind of death metal – see especially the midsection of “The Architect Confesses,” with Erik Malave’s thick, purling bass backing an otherworldly spaghetti Western Hendrix.  Alex Cohen’s drumming alternately blasts and breathes, smoothly cocooning the broken shard guitar riffing.  “Idiot Circles” is a fine example of the monomaniacal dismantling of the tenuous border fences between the great bruising beatdowns of hardcore and the harrowing land of avant-garde death metal, throwing in some Suffocation influence to complement the skronky dissonance of Deathspell Omega and the jerky time-stretch fuckery of Gorguts and Ulcerate that prevail throughout An Excellent Servant…

Moore’s vocals are a hugely versatile instrument used to great effect throughout the album.  “Gamma Knife” in particular is a great vocal showcase, featuring a huge range of techniques: spacey effects, deep, throaty bellows, and mid-range snarls.  The overwhelming effect, though, is that the vocals are always nervily focused on throttling intensity of delivery rather than dry perfection of techniques.  You may also find yourself quite the paranoiac, constantly stealing glances over your shoulder during the spooky clean section of “Flesh Isolation Chamber,” which shows off the clean enunciation of Moore’s dangerously-unhinged vocals.  The song, in fact, is probably the best one on the album, as it displays the full range of Pyrrhon’s stylistic touches, plus the way it keeps lurching and threatening to come apart at the seams toward the end is a nice effect.

Since I’ve made a right fuss about Moore’s expressive vocal delivery, it certainly doesn’t hurt that the man’s lyrics are a masterful blend of evocative imagery and forceful economy, one that finds a certain apocalyptic resonance not in the overwrought violence of world wars or collapsing cities, but rather in the quotidian tyranny of alienation and disaffection.  The lyrics to “Gamma Knife” read like a Kafka-esque version of Tom Waits’s “Alice”:

“A great, silent heart
Sprouting vein-trees and capillary branches
Rendered obsolete
and spinning lonely through the ice.”

The lyrics also invoke a blighted urbanism, rather like a resigned instead of revolutionary version of Alan Averill’s fanatical protagonist on Blood Revolt’s Indoctrine.  One of the absolute finest phrases in this style comes from “Flesh Isolation Chamber”:

“Which is worse:
Always being watched
Or never being seen?”

Moore’s lyrics are most clearly distinguished at the most crucial point, the last lines of the album: “I don’t give a fuck what happens to me / All I want is to go to sleep.”  What follows that final exhortation is yet another twisted guitar solo section, singing for all the damned world a demented lullaby.  An Excellent Servant But A Terrible Master is delightfully entropic; or, at the very least, its musical text can be read as a dialectic between order and chaos, surging, heaving, lunging onward to respite or ruin.  But tending – as always, with everything – to entropy.

This is a remarkable debut from a confident and talented band, and there is absolutely no reason that Pyrrhon should still be without a label.  Willowtip, Crucial Blast, Relapse, Profound Lore, somebody: get on this shit now.

Overall rating: 85%.

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StarGazer, A Great Work Of Ages / A Work Of Great Ages (2010)

Burrows its way into your mind like it was always already there

First things first: A band so bold as to share their name with one of the greatest songs in heavy metal’s vast pantheon to feature the unimpeachable lungs of steel of Ronnie James Dio had better have some fucking chops to back up such chutzpah.  On this count, however, Australia’s purveyors of twisted progressive death metal StarGazer come out smelling of roses.  A Great Work Of Ages / A Work Of Great Ages is a seething, lurching, yet surprisingly sprightly beast of a musical journey that assaults the unsuspecting passer-by with dauntingly technical instrumentation that nevertheless resolves into a measured, artfully-meted out accounting of chaos.

The cover art displays crustacean shells, out of which emerge Doré-esque dragons.  The focal point of the image is another of these shells, which may also be a staircase spiraling into the slow decay of madness, or a doorway found only at the bottom of the ocean.  They ask if you will follow, these mortals, but in their beckoning you swear you hear a fractured echo – it’s your own voice, too.  You are Odysseus, journeying to the underworld, borne on these waves not just out but also down.  Down, from whence no Ithacan return is assured.

The most artful of aesthetics, however, don’t mean shit unless the music puts one in the same mind.  Thankfully, the endeavor is a success, in that the cover art mirrors the looping, sinusoidal death metal shamanism to such great effect that recurrent image to this listener was that of the titular house in Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves.  This is the novel which features, arguably, as its main character a house in which the interior dimensions are found to exceed the exterior dimensions, leading the home’s owners on a nightmarish exploration of the unfathomable and constantly mutating depths of a physically impossible space; this house, a brilliant narrative device (despite Danielewski’s myriad of other distracting typeset games) that reads like the polyglot ecstasy and narrative disregard of Finnegan’s Wake made demented architectural flesh.

The overall flavor of the album is musty and dense, a performance at a museum by candlelight.  Your ears can already hear its soundings by imagining the dementedly labyrinthine occult death metal of Portal (unsurprising, given the previous overlap in membership with StarGazer) being stricken with the same progressive inspiration that produced so many of our bona fide early tech/death masterpieces, from Pestilence and Cynic to Human and Individual Thought Patterns-era Death to early Gorguts and, particularly, Atheist circa Unquestionable Presence.

The album doesn’t sound particularly heavy, although the songwriting itself is obviously quite full and weighty.  The smoothness of the sound is primarily due the production, which is exceedingly rounded-off, revealing no jagged edges of sound or texture.  Though the sounds are quite distinct, you might yet think about how nimble and airy Obscura’s Cosmogenesis sounded by way of comparison with the sonic impact of this record.  Music this technical generally needs to be given the production space to flex its manifold tentacles, and although the sound here is somewhat muddy – especially in the guitar tone – each instrument nevertheless carves out an auditory niche, even during the most chaotic of sections.

Occasionally the interaction of the dense picking style and the generally busy drumming creates an awkward shuffling effect, which veers here to the side of intentionally off-putting and avant-garde, and there to the side of muddying the occult-thrashed waters.  The guitars churn and snort their way through unsettling passages of elaborate and serpentine riff-figures, stitched together then ripped apart and reassembled with consummate ease.  Special mention, of course, must necessarily go to the tremendous bass playing throughout this album, which is fittingly given a gloriously prominent spot in the mix.  The gorgeousness is particularly evident on “Pypes of Psychosomatis,” which eventually leads the rest of the band into a fist-clenched galloping section.

Vocals are, so far as one will notice them, a low, hoarse, wind-tunnel affair.  The moody introductory section of “Hue-Mn-King” is a nice change of pace, and the later sections of the song feature some of the highest-impact vocalizing of the entire album, with a nice echo effect on the grizzled snarling.  (It’s still nothing to Vomitor’s recent paean to all that is OTT, “Neutron HAMMER-AMMER-ammer-ammer…”, but that’s rather beside the point.)  The last track features a bit of chanting in the vocal department.

The unorthodox-sounding movements of these dense compositions do demonstrate some regularity and reason over repeated listens.  “Refractice Convex Continuum,” for example, succeeds by having one of the more recognizable song structures, with an excellent repeated melodic theme that recurs in slightly different rhythmic forms – now truncated, now stretched and contorted.  The opening of “Chase for the Serpentsong” carries the listener into a subtle trance, like a slow-motion samba played on tabla drums.  The last track of the album just kind of fizzles out, with its clean guitar strumming that is likely meant to seem profound and valedictory, but seems more like an afterthought.  Still, this is one of the only real missteps to these ears.

Throughout A Great Work Of Ages, the lyrics aim at portentous, Lovecraftian menace, but end up coming off as more or less ludicrously daft, which, frankly, is fine by me.  A masterclass in avant-garde extreme metal rarely gets the textual support for which one might nevertheless yearn.  This is from ex-members of Portal, which is not exactly a band notable for its cogent philosophical missives (viz., “Seepia accord thee / Stygian obsequious antipodes / Drear they larder, paradoor thy quay,” from “Black Houses”).  Fuck it.  When I hear something as jawdropping as the chiming, ringing arpeggios about midway through “The Morbid Slither…” which are then doubled and echoed by the bass, I’m willing to ignore lyrics that translate Max Weber into Sanskrit.

All things told, this would be a fantastic album to throw on while you lose yourself inside the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentine writer of short stories that were equally enthralled by gauchos as they were by labyrinths physical and figural.  There are standout moments, of course, as I’ve tried to highlight, but this isn’t really an album that one listens to for those standout moments.  This is an album for simply following along in wonder – gazing out at the stars, if you will – as the band moves you from one moment to the next, until the next moment is the last moment and your brain still keens for the next next moment.

Imagine navigating the maze of a library in Umberto Eco’s famed novel The Name of the Rose as it burns down around your shoulders.  This profound disorientation is a thread that runs all the way through StarGazer’s excellent sophomore album, and yet, just as the labyrinthine library, one never shakes the feeling that there is a secret order to the superficial madness, and that if one could only grasp it, no matter how partially, there might be found yet a way home.  To Enlightenment.  To Ithaca.  To wherever it is you first began.

Overall rating: 85%.  We built a tower of stone / With our flesh and bone.

A Great Work Of Ages / A Work Of Great Ages is out now on Profound Lore Records, and available here.

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The Dead, Ritual Executions (2010)

Claustrophobic avant-sludge doom/death with jaunts into funk? Yes, please.

Australia’s The Dead self-released their sophomore album Ritual Executions last year.  2010, however, sees them freshly signed to India’s newly-launched Diabolical Conquest Records, with Ritual Executions getting a remastering job, updated artwork, and seeing a proper label release.  A murky hybrid and death metal and doom is the order of business for this Australian trio, but we’re not talking the doom/death of early Peaceville mopesters Anathema, Katatonia, Paradise Lost et al; instead, this is more like the dank, doomy, crypt-like death metal of early Incantation, or the quicker moments of legendary gut-wrenchers Disembowelment (though, in all fairness, if Incantation worship is your cup of righteous tea, the new Father Befouled album out on Relapse ought to be destination one).

The album starts off with a slow dirge of a song in “Burn Your Dead,” with a pleasantly thick, skull-rattling bass tone on the arpeggio riffs.  Vocalist Mike Yee demonstrates some abominably deep, guttural death tones, which are mixed in such a way as not to overpower the music, but still somewhat higher in the mix than many similarly-pitched vocalists, in a manner which verges on the comprehensible.  The closing sections of “Burn Your Dead” utilize an effective rhythmic compositional style to drone out with – a measure of 4/4 time followed by a measure of 3/4 time.  It’s a fairly simple tool, but it demonstrates that some deliberate thought has gone into the crafting of these tomes of death.

If you’ve picked up on that, though, later track “Centurian” is a bit of a let-down, since it, too, boasts that same meter (though in a somewhat more straight-forward 7/4 attack) for pretty much its entire duration.  The vocals also become somewhat monotonous as the album wears on, although not so much that they detract terribly from the masterful display of grooving, doom-tinged death metal.

The production isn’t quite gritty or fuzzed-out enough to push this album into sludge territory, but some of the songwriting veers in the direction of booze-drenched misanthropy.  There are a few frustrating quirks to the drum production, though.  The hi-hat has got a weird buzz to it, and the kick drum could stand to be mixed a little higher.  Still, it’s not overly clean, and although it rings somewhat hollow, the drum production still sounds like a real person pounding away on a real kit.

The album works effectively as a whole because of the band’s strong compositional skills, and the smart sequencing of tracks to alternate between trudging epics and more in-your-face, aggressive death metal blasts.  Some of the quicker tunes like “Cannibal Abattoir” show a very sprightly, almost jittery style of drumming (particularly in the snare drum work), which is occasionally reminiscent of a slightly less-busy Brann Dailor from Mastodon’s early work (think Remission or even Lifesblood).  I’m also not sure if it’s just because I’ve been listening to too much Kylesa lately, but I swear that some of these faster moments have a similar psychedelic feeling in the riffing.  At any rate, if the prospect of this type of doomy, well-composed death metal with non-obtrusive psychedelic touches gets your blackened heart all a-flutter, then you would do well to check this album out.

The funk drumming breaks in “Born In a Grave” are a bit jarring, but ultimately provide an interesting contrast to the more standard death metal signifiers used throughout.  The latter sections of this song, however, have some great, cavernous echoing effects to match the atmosphere of patient, plodding doom, and actually turn this track into one of the album’s highlights.  The build-up and eventual release around the five-minute mark (“BOOOOOORRRRRN…IN A GRAAAAVE”) is absolutely fantastic, and leads me into a near-apoplectic fit of wanting to smash furiously anything within reach.  Hide the china.

Other excellent moments include the groovy riff and breakdown around 1:30 into the title track, which is seriously crushing.  Think of the bulldozing momentum of Bolt Thrower or Asphyx, and you’re well on your way to grasping the effect of concrete slabs dropped repeatedly on your head.  The closing track “Death Metal Suicide” is a quite interesting change of pace, offering up another set of pretty funky grooves, especially in the drumming.  Whatever else you may think of it, it’s an extremely bold choice, playing a ten-minute long, funk-influenced instrumental jam to close out one’s album in a genre as frequently myopic and orthodox as death metal.

Some of the more avant-garde moments on this disc recall queasy death metal savants Gorguts (circa Obscura, primarily) and Portal, the latter of which may be more than a coincidence, as Ritual Executions was remastered by Aphotic, one of the guitarists from Portal.  The Dead don’t ever quite reach the same level of otherness (or what-the-fuck-ness) as either of the aforementioned bands, but it’s clear that they are drinking some of the same fetid water.

In general, the mélange of styles offered on this record ends up meshing rather well into a unique death metal whole.  Fans of the already-mentioned unsettled death metal acts Portal and Gorguts may find much to enjoy here, as will fans of the more strictly deathly side of doom/death metal.  One of the primary references which continues lurching into mind is Lasse Pyykkö (of Profound Lore’s Hooded Menace, as well as Phlegethon, Vacant Coffin, Claws, etc.), fans of whose should flock to this Australian cult with morbid glee.  Diabolical Conquest Records have found themselves a real winner of an album here, and I will be eagerly following future releases from this grimly determined band.  If Tom G. Warrior is to be believed, and only death is real, then get yourself a copy of Ritual Executions for a sledgehammer dose of heavy fucking metal reality.

Overall rating: 80%.  “BOOOOOOORRRRN…IN A GRAAAAAVE!!!”  Doesn’t get much better than that, friends.

More information on Diabolical Conquest Records is available at their website, where you can also order a copy of Ritual Executions.

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I’m not going to pretend that this is a fully thought-out list.  These ten albums are not even ranked in any sort of order.  Think of this, maybe, as a bit of a status update for 2010.  It’s been a pretty good year for metal so far, and we’re not even halfway through.  I have made no effort to select albums which are particularly obscure or underground, this is just a selection of some of the new metal albums that have been welcomed warmly into my home (and ears) this year.  Chances are, I’ll get around to posting reviews of some of these at some point.

- Darkthrone, Circle the Wagons

- Ludicra, The Tenant

- Twilight, Monument to Time End

- Abigor, Time is the Sulphur in the Veins of the Saint

- The Howling Wind, Into the Cryosphere

- Nechochwen, Azimuths to the Otherworld

- Immolation, Majesty and Decay

- Orphaned Land, The Neverending Way of ORWarriOR

- Howl, Full of Hell

- 1349, Demonoir

I’m still undecided on the new albums by The Ocean, Sigh, Xasthur, and Red Sparowes.  Biggest disappointment so far is probably the new album by Blacklisted, but I suspect this isn’t because it’s a disappointing album for them, and rather that I just don’t like their style at all (well, to be fair, it was primarily the monotone hardcore vocals that turned me waaaay off).  Plenty of other great records are out already, with many more to come.  I’m particularly excited about the new Anathema, Watain, Nevermore, and Pig Destroyer albums, as well as the sophomore album from A Forest Of Stars.  I also just found out that Deepsend Records is rereleasing Gorguts’ 2001 album From Wisdom to Hate pretty soon, which is fantastic news for anyone who loves Gorguts’ other records but didn’t quite want to pony up $20-30 on eBay for a used copy (let’s not even get started on what some people are charging for the also out-of-print milestone Obscura – I had the good fortune to randomly stumble across a brand new copy of it somewhere recently [I think it was either on eBay or Half.com] which had been labeled ‘Used’ and was being sold for around $20).

Oh, shit, let’s not forget FUCKING IRON MAIDEN.  Up the irons!

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