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Posts Tagged ‘Portal’

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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