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Archive for the ‘Folk Metal’ Category

One can hardly crack open any corner of the internet lately without being subjected to the annual rite of Wistfully Realizing That Summer Is Nearly Over.  That fact, coupled with the release this week of Iron Maiden’s latest album The Final Frontier (itself a potential wistfulness-fest in its own right), which seems to have been one of the more high-profile and highly anticipated metal releases of the year, has left me with that vague twinge.

You know, that “Ah, shit, 2010, it was nice to know you, but I guess you’re off to stay at that farm upstate where you’ll have all the room to run and play that we couldn’t offer you here at home” sort of twinge.

So, as a bit of a patch on this collective maudlin tendency, I thought I’d tally up some of the albums which are still slated to be released in this humble Year Of Our Narcissism 2010 for which I’m most excited.  This is by no means intended to be an exhaustive (or even particularly informative) list; this is just the stuff that I’m keeping tabs on, all sweaty palmed and fidgeting in my seat.
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– Blind Guardian, At The Edge Of Time.  The full-page ad I keep seeing in the magazines has a quote describing this as something like “ethnic and pure.”  Sounds a bit dodgy, but I’m just hoping “ethnic” is a poorly-chosen synonym for “folk-ish.”  A Twist In The Myth was a little dull for my tastes, so here’s hoping they spice things up.

– Venetian Snares, My So-Called Life.  Not metal, sure, but Aaron Funk has consistently put out some of the most intense electronic music of the past decade or so.  Plus, Detrimentalist was the fucking shit.

– Christian Mistress, Agony & Opium.  Classic NWOBHM tunes fronted by a Björk-esque singer?  Hell yeah.  Bring it on, 20 Buck Spin.

– Infernaeon, Genesis To Nemesis. Their debut from a few years back was more than a little shaky, but I’m hopeful for this one.  Sure, this is unlikely to be the second coming of Nocturnus’ The Key, but hell, there’s a lot more room in death metal for keyboard experimentation than in black metal.

– Cephalic Carnage, Misled By Certainty.  Cephalic Carnage have always seemed like the quintessential Relapse band to me.  I know they didn’t pioneer the stuff, but their widdly death/grind/tech/whatever whirlwind tends to satisfy like lemonade on a sweltering summer’s day.

– Black Anvil, Triumvirate.  Pretty psyched for this, and you should be, too, if you’re looking for an updated take on Darkthrone’s mid-period crust-covered Celtic Frost-isms.

– Unearthly Trance, V.  The upward trajectory of this band has been astonishing over their past four albums.  Electrocution was a pitch-perfect distillation of what it seems like they’d been working toward all-along, so who knows where they’re going next?

– Melechesh, The Epigenesis.  Melechesh have lately been everything Absu quit being a while back.

– Drudkh, Handful Of Stars.  Drudkh’s form has changed deceptively little over the years, leading some to interpret that as stagnation.  Listen carefully to the last few records, though, and you’ll hear the results of slight tinkering to an entirely unique sound.  The prominence of bass on Microcosmos alone should have signaled that no matter how hateful the forests these Ukrainians haunt, they’re deadly serious.

– Salome, [Title Still Unknown].  Profound Lore has been dropping some tasty hint-morsels lately about this album.  Vocalist Kat added the third prong to Agoraphobic Nosebleed’s triple vocal attack on lats year’s Agorapocalypse, but hearing her vocals attached to scathingly crippled sludge is another thing altogether.

– Torche, Songs For Singles.  Rumor is, the record’s too short, and maybe also too awesome.  Blown off as pop metal by plenty of those who don’t realize that Torche combine some of the best attributes of pop and metal, meaning maybe the epithet’s actually a back-handed compliment.

– Enslaved, Axioma Ethica Odini.  The title seems like a Latinized version of “The Ethical Axioms of Odin.”  Presumably that gives just as little clue to the musical contents as the Latin version, though.  This is one of my most feverishly anticipated records, though; Enslaved have been completely unstoppable to this point.

– Krieg, The Isolationist.  Okay, so I really dug The Black House, but thought Blue Miasma was uninspired and dull.  Adding Leviathan’s Wrest to the band (on bass) is more than sufficient to pique my interest, though.

– Cradle Of Filth, Darkly Darkly Venus Aversa.  Wow.  This may actually be a worse album title than the new Enslaved.  Plus, it’s Cradle Of Filth, so any credibility I may have had is likely a shredded mass of bloody pulp by now.  But you know?  I still kind of dig Cradle Of Filth, and Godspeed On The Devil’s Thunder was light years better than most of their recent tripe.  So, y’know: Fuck off.

– Therion, Sitra Ahra.  Here’s to hoping that bringing things back to a single-disc release can bring slightly more focus than recent efforts.  Sure, Sirius B / Lemuria worked well in tandem, but given how good just the right amount of Therion is, too much Therion is a headache-inducing proposition.

– October Tide, A Thin Shell.  More gloominess, please.

– Sailors With Wax Wings, Sailors With Wax Wings.  Pyramids side-project with tons of unexpected participants and collaborators from throughout the metal world?  Excellent.

– Kylesa, Spiral ShadowStatic Tensions was one of my favorites from last year, so I’m pretty psyched that they’ve already got a new album coming out late October.

– Vulture Industries, The Malefactor’s Bloody Register.  Slightly off-the-wall black metal from a who’s-who of mainstream underground (it’s a fine, confusing line) Norwegian black metal.  Not for the ‘true’, likely, but true for the rest.

– Virus, The Agent That Shapes The Desert.  I did a little plug for this upcoming album a little while back.  I’m hoping the band can get enough pre-order support from all you good folks out there in Awesome Metal Appreciation Land to make this a 2010 release.  Fingers crossed, then…

– Aborym, Psychogrotesque.  Completely fucking no joke, a few days ago I was posting on Twitter about how I was hoping to see some new music from Aborym someday soon.  Lo and behold, maybe the very next day or so comes through the news item that they’ve got a new album coming out this year.  Shit!  Generator trimmed back on some of the detrimental excess of With No Human Intervention and cranked out some seriously deranged black/industrial anthems.  That title’s a bit shit, but still my soul hungers for the bleakness.

These last few are already out in Europe, to be fair, but I’d really love to see them picked up by a U.S. distributor rather than paying import prices:

– Ondskapt, Arisen From The Ashes.  Last one was a beast.  Make this one beast-ier?

– Kvelertak, Kvelertak.  Everything I’ve read about this band has made me want to drink some beers and crank the record.  And yet, if I am forced to pay import prices for it, I will have no money with which to drink some beers.  An existential conundrum if ever there was one.

– Winterfylleth, The Mercian Sphere.  Their debut full-length The Ghost of Heritage was quite impressive, but had a few too-ragged edges.  Here’s to hoping they’ve smoothed out in all the right places.  Still, these guys and Wodensthrone are making an awfully compelling case for an English black metal renaissance.
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So, as you can see, friends, it looks like there’s still plenty to be looking forward to this year.  And that’s just counting the ones that I’m actively looking forward to; who knows how much metallic gold remains to be mined with everything I’m sure I’ve forgotten or overlooked?  Embarrass me with the breadth and exquisite sheen of your “Most Looked Forward To’s”

Oh, and I know I can’t include them here, but Devin Townsend has been hinting that the last two albums of the…quadrilogy (?) will both be released in March.  So, sorry, Ghost and Deconstruction, but I can’t put you on 2010’s list, even though I am milliseconds away from pissing myself with glee as I type.

Plus, I keep hearing random whispers about expecting a new Pig Destroyer one of these days, but nothing definite yet.  I mean, I keep prowling all over the damn yard, looking for something new with which to terrify my phantom limb.

My bones quake with the sickness.

The world is a frightful place, and hope the only salve.  Heavy metal for the common good.

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If you’ve ever spent much time writing album reviews, chances are you already know how much your appreciation of a record can change across multiple listenings.  I don’t think there’s any great rule to follow about how many times one ought to listen to something before trying to say anything reasonably articulate about it, but it’s also pretty safe to say that if one bashes out a review before the album has even passed the finish line, shit ain’t right.

This isn’t a lecture, though.   Maybe what online music journalism needs, in fact, are interpretive haikus, stream of consciousness fits of creative nonfiction, and album reviews written matter-of-factly about music which either does not exist, or has not been heard by the writer.  That’s your own business.  (Actually, now that I think about it, writing Reviews Of Nonexistent Albums sounds like a possibly worthwhile undertaking…)

I’ve been wondering, though, just why it is that our first impressions often change so much in the fullness of time.  Sadly, I’m sure many times, it’s because our first impressions are later realized to be out of step with the general consensus, and so we either consciously or subconsciously alter our opinion accordingly.  Still, even the most genuinely hermetically walled-off of us have been there.  We find that we are not the stolid rocks of constancy we once thought ourselves to be, and that even We, the cosmically ordained, are not impermeable in the face of the wending shuffle of time.

I’d like to propose a little diagnostic of the various ways in which, it seems to me, our opinion of an album can change from first to later listenings.  I’ve offered a few examples of my own under each category only by way of illustration, but I’m curious to see if there isn’t something systematic about these different types of records which leads them to be first and then later impressed upon us differently.
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Type 1: “The Winner”: Albums that you love when you first hear them, and which you continue to love subsequently.

– This is a pretty straightforward category, and obviously has very little to do with changed opinions.  Still, you know the type.  You spin it once, think, “Shit, that’s awesome!”  Then, you keep spinning it, and it just gets better and better.  I suspect most folks would place most of their favorite albums in this category, although I also suspect there are some closet Type 4s lurking in there…

Examples:
– Tough category to pick examples for, then, since there are so many albums to fit the bill.
– Doomriders, Darkness Come Alive.  This is just an absolute FUCKING MONSTER of an album that just gets better every single time I play it.  Hardcore?  Rock?  Metal?  Who gives a shit: Doomriders are here to tear you apart.
– Primordial, The Gathering Wilderness.  Basically, nothing can fuck with this album.  Ever.  This is one of the most evocative pieces of music I’ve yet to encounter in the wide world of metal.  Pure class.
– Lurker Of Chalice, Lurker Of Chalice.  I dig most of the stuff that Wrest has put out under the Leviathan name, but the Lurker Of Chalice album just has an atmosphere all its own.  Haunting and haunted, and soothing without being safe.

Do not try to fuck with this.

Type 2: “The Piece Of Shit”: Albums that you hate when you first hear them, and which you continue to hate subsequently.

– This is also a pretty straightforward category.  We’ve all been there, where we play something, suggest to our friends and acquaintances that it sounds like an old dog retching violently onto a turntable playing an old Alvin & the Chipmunks record, and leave it at that.  Days or weeks later, we are subjected again to this execrable document to the miserable state of the human condition, and contemplate inflicting bodily harm on the individuals responsible.

Examples:
– Again, there must be shitloads upon shitloads of albums in this category for me.  Maybe I’ll pick a few slightly less obvious examples, then:
– Suffocation, Suffocation.  I actually like a lot of Suffocation’s other stuff, but man, something about this record just rubs me right the goddamn wrong way.
– Aethenor, Betimes Black Cloudmasses.  Son of a BITCH this record is booooooring.  And it’s not like I automatically slag off anything drone-y or ambient; this one just pissed me off.
– Novembers Doom, Into Night’s Requiem Infernal.  I’m beginning to wonder if maybe this category (Type 2) isn’t especially filled with albums that have disappointed us.  I really liked the two Novembers Doom records which preceded this one, but ugh.  Nothing about this was appealing or convincing.

Hey, guys, that title? Completely meaningless nonsense.

Type 3: “The Jumped-The-Gun”: Albums that you love when you first hear them, but which you begin to hate upon subsequent examination.

– In some ways, this is the most interesting of these categories to me.  This type of reaction is for those albums that really blow you away the first time you play them, but then lose whatever vitality they seemed to have upon further listening.  It seems probable that this category is populated with albums that have some cache of novelty to spend, but seem hollow and insubstantial once that novelty has worn off.

Examples:
– Eluveitie, Slania.  I should have known better than to be impressed by this one, I suppose.  Still, the great glossy production and the superficial sheen of folk instrumentation were sufficient to distract me from the utterly subpar Gothenburg tedium that lurked within.
– Solefald, In Harmonia Universali.  I feel kind of badly about including this one.  I still really like Solefald, honest, I do, but geez, this album just wears on my nerves something awful.  It was the first record of theirs that I bought, and I was totally into it at first, what with the lyrics in like twelve different languages, and the quite off-kilter songwriting style.  The vocal style is what first started to grate on me, though, and now, every time this comes on, I just get bored and want to go fly a kite or something.  I’m much more about The Linear Scaffold these days.
– Megadeth, United Abominations.  I suppose I’m not the only one who got dragged into this.  By this point, I’m just sick of Mustaine in general, but I’ll admit it, I gobbled up this album like crazy when it came out.  I, like many of you, had been horribly burned by Megadeth in the past (Youthanasia, Cryptic Writings, and so forth), but had pretty much ignored the previous albums that been hailed as ‘returns to form’.  Don’t know why I believed that about this one, then.  I really dug it at first, because, well, you know, it was slightly fast, and had some solos and what not.  Over time, though, and especially with the release of Endgame (which is, scientifically speaking, five hundred times better than this turgid mess), I just cannot abide Mustaine’s self-righteous mumbling about the United Nations, the Middle East, and God knows what else.  Seriously, man: Rust In Peace or get the fuck out.

Not so much with the universal harmonies; sorry.

Type 4: “The Pleasant Surprise”: Albums that you hate when you first hear them, but which you begin to love upon subsequent examination.

– This is sort of the dark horse category, I think.  Every now and then, though, I’ll hear something for the first time that just sounds like absolute garbage.  I’ll shut it off, and maybe even chuck it out, in a fit of disappointed rage.  But then, some time later, it’ll come on again, and somehow I’ll hear it in a different light, and suddenly it clicks somehow.

Examples:
– Akercocke, Choronzon.  So, this is an example of how this categorization isn’t perfect.  Which is to say, I don’t think I ever straight-up hated this album, but I sure didn’t care much for it the first time through.  Over subsequent listenings, though, I came to appreciate it a lot more.  I still think the albums they’ve put out since then are superior – in particular, the magnificent Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone.
– The Ruins Of Beverast, Rain Upon The Impure.  Okay, in all fairness, this one is still my least favorite of the three Ruins of Beverast albums.  Nevertheless, given my slightly disgusting love for the Unlock the Shrine album, my disappointment the first time through this album was fucking massive.  As near as I’ve been able to figure it out, though, my problem was basically with my expectations for the production.  Rain Upon The Impure has one of quietest, most distant sounding black metal productions I’ve heard in some time, which is extremely offputting, unless (and this is a crucial unless) you crank it REALLY LOUDLY.  Doing so finally allowed me to appreciate this album as still quite excellent.
– At The Gates, Slaughter of the Soul.  This is sort of the reverse case as with Eluveitie above.  First few times I heard this album, I wrote it off as a bit dull and not particularly creative.  Maybe I lacked the necessary historical context at the time, or maybe I just hadn’t listened to this album at a sufficient volume.  I’d like to think I appreciate this album exactly the right amount now, which is that this is a complete shit-kicker of an album that destroys anything else in the style.  Unfortunately, the influence of this album has been far more malign than inspired.  Hardly their fault, though.

Survey says: Better than you think!

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Thoughts?  Which albums have you completely dismissed out of hand, only to find out later that you couldn’t bear to do without them?  Or, alternately, which albums are your great shames; y’know, the ones that you loved and loved to death and couldn’t get enough of, and then, all of a sudden, you figure out, “Hey, this really fucking sucks”?

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I know we’ve all got a few of those bands kicking around in the back of our heads; you know, the bands that you absolutely love, just can’t get enough of, and you want the rest of the world to sit and glory in their music.

Allow me, then, to offer you heartiest recommendation of the Finnish band Tenhi.

As far as I’ve seen them discussed, these guys usually get grouped under the genre heading of neofolk*, which is, apart from its sometimes dubiously nationalist leanings, a completely atrocious and vague set of musical, lyrical, and even visual signifiers.  Which is to say, I don’t put too much stock in the name ‘neofolk’, but that shouldn’t prevent you from running out just as quickly as you can and buying up as much music by Tenhi as humanly possible.

The band plays a rich, deep, gorgeously melancholic sort of folk-inspired music that seems to hew perfectly to my own imaginings of the landscape of Finland.  Acoustic guitars, piano, cellos, wonderfully deep male choral vocals and surprisingly muscular (but not aggressive) drums are the key ingredients to Tenhi’s sound, but there is an odd bit of alchemy going on in the songwriting that seems to result in an entrancing sort of melodic and rhythmic magic.

The entire reason I bring this up, really, is to share with you all how excited I am for these dudes to put out their new album, entitled Saivo.  Their last studio album, Maaäet, from 2006, was probably their best yet, and although they have continually tantalized me since then, with the reissue of the much more piano-based Airut: Aamujen and the phenomenal three-disc collector’s piece Folk Aesthetic 1996-2006, I’m more than a little eager to hear new material.

A recent update on their website suggests that the new album will be completed sometime late summer or early fall, but doesn’t yet give much information as to a release date.  Take it as your assignment, in the meantime, to familiarize yourself with the wonder of this brilliant folk music.  For metalheads not quite sure if they’d like to take the plunge, Tenhi will sit quite nicely alongside Ulver’s Kveldssanger, Dornenreich, Agalloch, Empyrium, Wyrd, or any other dark/folk metal act you care to bring to mind.

If you need further convincing, here are a few videos to watch (the first an official Tenhi production, the second a YouTube user’s creation, featuring pitch-perfect photography):

So, what in the hell are you waiting for?

*For the curious, you could do much worse than checking out this astonishingly good (and wide-ranging) compilation, Looking For Europe, released a few years back on Prophecy Productions, who also handle Tenhi’s releases.  Coincidence?

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Negură Bunget, Vîrstele Pămîntului (2010)

Romanian black metal mystics, at it again

Well, as you may well know, there have been some shake-ups in the Negură Bunget camp since 2006’s magisterial Om, leaving only Negru, the drummer, of the original members to carry on under this name.  I don’t particularly care about whatever disagreements led to the split, and have already suggested elsewhere that thankfully this drama never quite reached the farcical levels of the Gorgoroth drama.  The real question, of course, is, How does this stack up next to the visionary Om?

To this humble listener, the results are a bit of a mixed bag.  The core sound and intent of the band seems relatively unchanged, inasmuch as these Romanian lads are still banging on after a rather mystical, folk-ish take on black metal, heavily incorporating various non-traditional instrumentation into their potent and heady blend of magic.  Drudkh remains a none-too-shabby point of reference, as do American stand-outs Agalloch and Wolves In The Throne Room.  This, perhaps obviously, is all for the good.

These songs benefit greatly from the inclusion of not only some excellently non-cheesy keyboards, but also various folk instruments such as flutes (or pipes; it’s a bit hard to tell), horns, and a tasteful selection of extremely taut drums and other percussive sounds.  If you recall some of the wood-sticks-being-banged-together percussion from 2002’s ‘n Crugu Bradalui, you’re on the right track.  Negură Bunget’s take on folk-ish black metal is a highly melodic sort, with the melody typically quite wandering, and generally carried by tremelo guitar.  The core of the sound, however, is highly textured, which is most frequently accomplished by overlaying both acoustic and distorted guitars for maximum classiness.

On another positive note, the production here is generally quite clear, which allows for all the different components to be heard; you won’t really be left guessing as to when you’re hearing keyboards versus when you’re hearing “live” folk instruments, and the bass, especially, is given prominence at some key moments when it demonstrates some wonderfully deep oscillations.  The only complaint about the production, really, is that occasionally the drums sound a little off; the cymbals, especially, sound to these ears somewhat clipped, which I suppose is probably better than an overly splashy cymbal sound, but was still somewhat distracting.

One of my primary concerns in the transition to this new line-up was that the vocals of long-time mainman (and, frankly, ridiculously-named) Hupogrammos Disciple’s would be sorely missed.  Thankfully, though, the harsh vocals of new vocalist Corb are wonderful.  They are hoarse, deep, and impassioned, and recorded clearly enough that I imagine if I spoke Romanian, I’d have no trouble following the words.  At times, they remind of Sakis’ latter-day vocals in Rotting Christ.  Unfortunately, the few times that the band turns to clean vocals do not fare nearly so well.  On “Chei de Rouã,” in particular, the clean vocals are distractingly off-pitch, almost veering onto the Urfaust or Circle Of Ouroborus axis (which works with those bands, by the way, but not so much here).

I’ve mostly been positive so far, and truth be told, this is still a very good record.  Nevertheless, there are several details which keep this from reaching anywhere near the transcendent heights of Om.  My biggest complaint, really, is that the album never really gets any momentum, and when it does pick up a little bit of steam, it is arranged in such a way as to be almost self-defeating.  Too many of the songs are in the mold of a classic slow-tension-building-to-a-cathartic-outburst design.  Individually, this works very well, but because this happens again and again, listening to the album feels like the band is trying to begin the whole thing over again with each new track, rather than proceeding more organically from one song to the next.

Essentially, one of the reasons that Om came off so masterfully is that not only were the individual songs excellent, but the songs were written and the album was sequenced such that it still felt more or less like separate movements contributing to a greater whole.  On Vîrstele Pămîntului, most all the individual songs are excellent when listened to in isolation; strung together in this fashion, though, they seem far too much like brief flashes of something that could have been stitched together differently to produce a greater cumulative effect.  This leads not only to the problem of too many slow-building tracks, but also to the fact that many of the songs fade out too quickly once it seems like they’ve finally hit their stride.  This results in some rather awkward transitions.

Still, I don’t mean to give the impression that this is some sort of trainwreck.  As I’ve said, the individual songs tend to work quite well on their own terms, and the overall sound and vision of the band is still admirable, and relatively unique in the world of contemporary metal.  The two purely instrumental tracks on here, “Umbra” and “Jar,” deserve special notice for each featuring some very rich folk instrumentation and achieving an ambient effect that doesn’t also bore me to tears, death, or Nasum.  In fact, in light of these tracks, as well as the two acoustic re-imaginings included on the recent re-recorded version of their 2000 album Măiastru Sfetnic, it struck me that an all acoustic, ambient/neo-folk album by this band could be very interesting.

So, all in all, this doesn’t match up to Om (nor, to be fair, did I ever really expect it to).  What it does do, however, is to continue to weave their dark spell of meditative metal for Transylvanian forests, and I’m still quite happy to come along for the spinning of these heathen tales.

Overall rating: 78%.  Wasn’t broke, but didn’t fix.

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