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Posts Tagged ‘Obscura’

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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