Friday, November 30, 2012

Ragnarok - Malediction (2012)

Ragnarok have been steady underdogs in the Norwegian black metal scene for years now, having surfaced in the mid-90’s and steadily plugging away since then with a number of strong, if somewhat indistinct releases. Not that one could ever accuse the group of lacking for passion or talent, mind you, but their brand of vitriol has never been one to stray far from the core of the blackened flock. Malediction, in primal essence, does not betray this faithful adherence to archetype, and continues to focus on refinement over reinvention. Thus, your opinion of it will largely depend on what you’re looking for. Innovation is not a key characteristic of Malediction, but if you’re fine with a well-produced storm of savagery and don’t shy away from strong incorporation of vibrant, if still patently evil and unrepentantly punishing melody, this will be right up your alley. I’m reminded strongly of the militaristic pacing of 1349 circa Hellfire, with equal emanations of Dark Funeral in reference to integration of said melodies, and perhaps a touch of Gaahl-era Gorgoroth to the sheer madness of it all, a variety of influences which I enjoy quite a bit. Indeed, the core ideas here can all be traced back to myriad groups within the blackened dominion, but what matters is application, and in this respect Ragnarok continue to strive ever forward, inspired and hateful, if rarely surprising.

Despite being almost constantly in attack mode, there are subtle undercurrents of plodding heavy metal beats and swinging, carnal grooves that offset what would otherwise be a non-stop downpour of blast-beats. The word subtle in this context, however, is of the utmost importance, as Malediction is a truly forceful record. The natural structure of the riffing, though universally diabolical in essence, lends itself well to memory, as there are clear-cut lines in typical verse-chorus format.  Not so much that it feels cut-and-paste, but enough so that the subsections feel distinct in the context of each song, and the chosen progressions flow well into each other, lending favorable imagery of apocalyptic tornadoes, blood-splattered warriors, and the obligatory rolling of Christian heads. I find this makes the songs easy to comprehend, though the distinctions start blurring as one gets deeper into the record, and a sense of sameness begins to invade a portion of the material. If you’re not accustomed to such frenetic pacing, it can feel a bit overbearing to sit through 45 minutes of this, but such a circumstance is hardly the fault of the band. Indeed, they have their target audience pinned perfectly, and though there is admittedly a pretty wide selection of bands that fit within this niche, Ragnarok provide a pretty forceful, compelling experience here. It might be worth noting that Ragnarok have had a pretty significant restructuring of late, with only drummer Jontho remaining from the original line-up, and indeed the only member pre-2008. I’ve not delved too deeply into the past chronicles of Ragnarok (though I do possess them), just a spin or two each, but this might be interesting for more hardcore fans of the band to contrast and compare.

Did I mention the sound here is fantastic? Well it is. The instrumental balance here is perfect, and even though the spindly, clanging bass tone of also-singer DezeptiCunt , whose serpentine snarls add a favorable flavor of hatred, could have been a bit more full and resonant, it remains audible and impressive, sometimes even tangential in its wanderings. I was also suitably flattened by the performance of Jontho himself, who proves his experience with an attention to detail and propensity for fills that belies the often break-neck pacing. He finds a way to provide covert additions to even the most straight-forward of beats, and I found focusing on his performance very satisfying. The real star, however, is the riffing, the injection of fire that gives life to the storm. While not all riffs are created equal here on Malediction, there are few, if any, that could be considered lacking, and they make good use of spacing between notes. This is not solely a tremolo hatefuck, though that aspect is certainly prevalent. My favorite parts were the more spacious, vibrant melodies, as they just imbue more feeling than the blasting, but taken together, it’s a complimentary dichotomy. It must be noted that there are some rare moments of genius here, where the fibrous, tenebrous rancor of the riffing pounds out a tower that surpasses the rest of the material. These manifest in some truly memorable, exciting tracks such as Necromantic Summoning Ritual and The Elevenfold Seal, but crop up in numerous other excursions, imbuing some extra excitement throughout. Though not incredibly prevalent, these moments lead me to believe that Ragnarok could create something truly immortal, given the right collection of cosmic circumstances.

Malediction is just what you might expect from Ragnarok, for better or worse. It’s celeritous, stormy, and violent, shining with audible clarity and thirsting for religious blood, and a certain portion of the black metal populace will eat this up. One could argue, and with a degree of truth, that there are a great many bands who cater to this demographic, but to be fair, Ragnarok precede most of them. And that experience shows here, despite the relative youth of some of its members, in an all-around professional release. There is absolutely nothing experimental or revolutionary about Malediction, but that’s not its aim, and it packs a satisfying, blazingly vitriolic punch that carries out its intended mission with passion and fury. Not every song here is a home run of memorability, but they grow on you through repeated exposure, and when sitting in the eye of these whirling, necrotic melodies and basking in the raw talent of this cadre of corpse-painted killers, it’s hard not to appreciate the forces at work here.

7.75 / 10 - The Scourge of Your Belief

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Forgotten Tomb - ...and Don't Deliver Us from Evil (2012)

Though they’ve been steadily gaining steam in the Italian scene since the turn of the century, …and Don’t Deliver Us from Evil is my first exposure to this odd musical conglomeration. I gather that once upon a time Forgotten Tomb were rooted in the more basic aesthetics of black metal, but that tendency seems to have shifted, along with the years, into a weighty mish-mash of melodic black, death, and doom, having as much in common with the hefty, sweeping sorrow of Insomnium as the icy winds of Dissection, when all is said and done. There are also numerous sections that feel spiritually linked to NWOBHM, lending fitting comparisons to the newer work from groups like Satyricon or Darkthrone. So, though the album maintains a consistently overcast tone for its near 53 minute running time, there is a lot of variety in the methods of delivery innate to each track, which does a lot to keep one’s attention, an important caveat when considering the track lengths are universally quite long (6 to 9 minutes).

These myriad styles are integrated nicely throughout, playing on their unique strengths at different times, but basting whichever is most prominent with drippings from the others. For example, even when the band are brooding out in doom mode, one can hear the blackened tendencies shining through in the riffing style, and so forth. This lends a stylistic cohesion to the pieces, even though they tend to shift focus many times throughout. Many will see this as an inability to pick a style and stick with it, but I feel as though they pulled off this complex aesthetic marriage quite well, even if some selections were more successful than others. A big part of this is also the production, which hoists the main-sail bass lines up through the misty riffing to act as a bulbous, nocturnal beacon the other instruments can build off of. It’s one of the better bass tones I’ve heard this year, actually, and bears particular mention for how satisfying a sound like this can be. In fact, every tone here feels great, from the frosty sheen of the dual-guitar layers to the punchy, crisp drumming. The venomous vocals of Ferdinando Marchisio, though not displaying anything one could consider new to the style, work well in whatever musical context he accompanies. His full-bodied, spiteful rasp lends a satisfying reptilian anger to the blackened rocking. The riffing itself, while not always grabbing me by the balls, must be lauded for carrying these various styles simultaneously without so much as a stumble, and sometimes carry an addictive black n’ roll quality, like in the excellent Let’s Torture Each Other. Another favorite is the gloomy Adrift, with its vibrant, melancholy melodies and defeated clean choruses, imparting a bittersweet aura of stormy sadness that I find quite delectable.

I like what Forgotten Tomb have going here, if slightly more in overall stylistic tendency than actual compositional delivery.  Though there is a wide selection of strong material here, only the rare moment had me truly excited, or cried out for immediate repetition. Nevertheless, its unflinching solidity should ingratiate …and Don’t Deliver Us from Evil to a good variety of metalheads, and I’d recommend anybody interested in its constituent genres to give them a listen. Be your poison black, doom, or even rainy, majestic melodeath, there’s a little something here for everybody. It doesn’t attempt to redefine these distinct flavors, but rarely are experiments concerning infusion of all three successful, or even prevalent, so I’m sure they’ll find a fan base for this. And though I can’t say Forgotten Tomb have fully enraptured me with their latest offering, I’m just enamored enough to be genuinely curious to see what they can do from here, and perhaps explore their back catalogue, if I can someday find the time. Beyond any perceived faults here, though, it should be telling that I’m still rather curious about this record, and feel like there is a bit more to be gleaned from its sorrowful depths, and so it won’t leave my rotation just yet, a huge compliment given the huge number of quality releases currently demanding my attention. Indeed, if you do pick it up, give it a few listens to sink its hooks in, as an album this dense only reveals its true self after a couple exposures.

To reiterate, I’d like to see a follow up to this, perhaps going even further with the melodic death and/or raw rocking sections, which I felt were the more interesting elements by a mile. When Forgotten Tomb focus in on sad, blazing melodies, they transcend and outshine the rest of their material, and though this may betray the blackened roots they cling to, this is the part of Forgotten Tomb I loved. But that’s the strength here, I suppose, an ability to cater to different palettes, and a more focused experience might destroy that balance. So, what can we expect from here? I don’t know, and even though this experience has come a bit shy of perfection for me, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intrigued.

7.5 / 10 - Embracing Impurity

Friday, November 23, 2012

Wintersun - Time I (2012)

As the dust settles, and the invariable weight of many an opinion ring resonantly in the rear-view mirror of my mind, I find a persistent, nagging curiosity towards exploring my own opinion of this phenomena entitled Time I. Both maligned and revered to astronomical proportions, what Jari Maenpaa’s long anticipated return to recorded music seems to have garnered, in the end, is a universal sense of baffled incredulity. Indeed, 3 (admittedly strong) songs and 2 intros do not feel like whatever I myself was waiting for, and for all their splendorous trappings, I can’t help but feel dissatisfaction. I understand that this is just the proposed half of Wintersun’s epic return, but when the other half is not in hand, that sentiment rings hollow. After all, I have only what is in front of me to experience, and while there is certainly a plethora of quality and uniqueness to this pittance of epic bombast, it is still, at length, a pittance.

To begin, yes, I am among the many rabid supporters of the original self-titled Wintersun, and continue to hold it aloft as a king among princes in the melodic metal spheres. It is, in point of fact, one of my favorite records of all time, a sentiment many of you share, and an equal number of you seem to disdain more than a banquet of liver and AIDS. So, this heightened sense of expectation, bordering on pure, unrestrained exhilaration, at finally obtaining another window into Jari’s fantastical musical universe, can be counted as prime influence for Time I coming up a bit short. Unlike many, however, I let the album sink in across both myriad repetitions and a suitably lengthy period of time, before setting my opinion in outraged or rabidly slobbering stone. Part of the trouble with critiquing music, I find, is that one tends to make up their mind hastily in order to put thoughts to pen, and then allow this cursory, surface perspective to forever dominate their thought process concerning the music in question. So, I took my time here, allowing my opinion to breathe and fluctuate, as the way I perceive something in an immediate sense is much different than the viewpoint gained by repeated exposures. And so I must, with finality, state that I do certainly like Time I, but with the caveat that it is also something of a disappointment, as it just does not feel complete.

To Jari and company’s credit, the material here truly is majestic. Some sections more than others, given, but the plateau of quality is universally high, and in terms of pure musicality, the word ‘masterpiece’ isn’t too far-fetched, particularly for Sons of Winter and Stars, which approaches a near-classical beauty for much of its almost 14 minute running time. The titular closer Time is close behind, and though I’m not as intensely drawn to the bloated middle track, Land of Snow and Sorrow, it’s certainly nothing painful. The general focus on Time I is far more synthetic (read: symphonic) here than we’ve come to expect of the band, with seemingly limitless layers of interweaving keyboard lines making up the lion’s share of any given melody. This is one of the reasons this supposedly took 8 years to develop, and it must be stated, it is indeed quite grand. The guitars do not do nearly as many cool tricks and solos as on the original record, but the compositional focus here is pretty different overall. There’s not a lot of immediate hooking or punchy gratification, as there’s a monstrously inflated sense of bombast that encompasses every corner of this audible world.

It’s still Wintersun, of course, utilizing a potent and delicious mix of melodic blackened aggression and vibrant wintry aesthetics, somewhere between black and power metal in overall feeling, but more unique than that in delivery. When combined with Jari’s strong growls and soulful warrior cleans, these forces work wonderfully together, and use the founding styles we all know so well to branch off into some very compelling new territory, experimenting with a lot of interlocking and flowing Japanese melodies, among others, strung together with a generally strong sense of narrative structure, lending true meaning to the term epic. While a record made up entirely of vast compositional vistas is not in and of itself a negative or positive, I felt that the album could have used some more diversity, perhaps in the form of some shorter, slicker numbers to balance it out. The lyrics and song titles are also interchangeable and rather meaningless, but the vague tropes of ice and snow and warriors and sorrow are just the level of cheese I expect out of the group, so I wouldn’t call it so much an issue as an innate trapping. It’s Wintersun, after all, in all its glory, and the things you either love or hate about them are generally magnified here.

In truth, Time I is quite conflicting for me, particularly as a critic. I really enjoy most all of it, and from that standpoint, it should achieve a very good score. However, I must jump back to a prevailing, rather pervasive issue with this album: it does not feel like an ‘album’. For all the marks Time gets for its musical achievement, I feel that Wintersun really shot themselves in the foot here, and missed the opportunity to make a better mark on history. I understand and sympathize with the concept of staying ‘relevant’ for longer, or wanting to fit a bit over 80 minutes into your work, but as history looks back upon this, I don’t know if it will be seen as the bountiful epic it could have been. One amazing, complete album is far preferable to two strong, incomplete ones, and this is just icing on the cake of the problems caused by anticipation. To lay it bluntly: I have waited for this for eight years, and I simply do not feel satisfied with the result. It’s simply not enough. The level of content, all of it undeniably great, is still paltry, in both its running time, and the innate overall pacing. 3 epic songs, though epic they may be, are still just 3 epic songs. All of them play upon the same emotions and compositional tricks, thus feeling more like a bloated EP than a vast, adventurous masterwork of a record. Wintersun’s debut succeeded not only on the strength of its material, but on its incredible pacing, working its way towards the more grandiose material, and even then, it struck a good balance. Time I is all epic, all the time, which naturally lessens the impact this kind of material might have had if it fit into a more dynamic structural shell. For all the incredible quality of the individual tracks, Wintersun have hobbled themselves when it comes to presentation, which when it comes right down to it, is an incredibly important aspect of an album. 

I love Wintersun, and I desperately want to love Time I. In some ways, I do, as the sense of exhilaration and adventure is very profound at times, and songs are richly layered worlds that reveal more secrets with each listen. There’s a beauty here that transcends metal and delves into classical, with distinct melodies dancing around each other, swirling into magnificent patterns that are very impressive and transfixing. Only 2 of the 3 songs really fully grab me, sure, but these two are of immeasurably immaculate quality. These fantastic qualities make the problems all the more debilitating, however. Imagine as though you’ve been waiting for a bountiful feast for months, or years. You’re absolutely starving, and when the food finally comes, it’s unbelievably delicious, but they only allow you to fill your belly but a fraction of the way. Despite the inherently savory nature, you are left dissatisfied, and so it is with the new Wintersun. Making me wait 8 years for 3 songs, only 2 of which I really feel like repeating endlessly, is unbelievably irritating. Where did all the effort go, one is inclined to ask? Of an already succinct running time, does it really need such immense padding? Of the 40 minutes here, I’d say only about 25 of it really feels absolutely essential. This is 2 incredible songs, after 8 years of effort. It’s a very hard thing for me to compute, particularly as one of the Wintersun faithful. While making music is, above all, a very selfish thing (and if an artist creates not for the self, but for the opinion of others, he is not really an artist), is it wrong for a fan to expect more than this? I think not.

While perhaps time will look favorably on, well, Time more so than I expect, at this juncture it is both questionable and lacking. It’s a testament to just how incredible the existing content is that this will still receive a good score, but if Wintersun had just trimmed the fat a bit and released a full, well-rounded record, or even a double-album, I’d reckon the vaguely empty feeling I have upon completing this journey would be a whole lot warmer. Perhaps it would have been best to wait for part 2, and rate them together, but as Wintersun have seen fit to release this as a full record, by itself, that is the standard by which it shall be judged, as will its successor. I really wanted to avoid this style of review, so over-utilized in critiquing this record, but at length, it’s just so absolutely dominant in my thoughts. It feels, on a deep level, wrong to chastise a record for what it’s not, rather than what it is, and based on expectations that I, perhaps unfairly, foisted upon it. Surely, in another universe, where Wintersun put this out as an EP between albums, it likely would score much higher, and it’s oddly unsettling that circumstance colors my opinions so drastically. By all rights, I should judge this based solely on its own merits, and nothing else, but at length the dominant feeling I get from Time is one of incompletion, and so it cannot be ignored. The quality of music should theoretically never, ever be compromised by the method through which it is delivered, but Time has proven otherwise. If anything, I hope we can take this as a learning experience, as even though piecemeal content may seem like a good idea, it will inevitably corrupt the purity of the original artistic vision, and that is simply not a fair trade-off for any self-respecting artist. I still love you, Wintersun, and will still listen to sections of this miniscule album for ages to come, but please, please don’t ever do anything like this again.

7.75 / 10 - Beautifully Baffling

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Hyperial - Industry (2012)

To many of us, music is all about atmosphere. This is particularly true in an art form as abstract and volatile as extreme metal tends to be, but the more you listen, the more you realize just how hard it is to conjure a unique flavor. Often, we take the overarching feeling of a style for granted to a degree that it has a tendency to become a caricature, as is evidenced by a lot of incestuous black, death, and power metal. As the lines blur, however, we’re seeing more and more bands attempt to redefine just what we think of as genre, or reconfigure established tropes into new and exciting ways. While of course derivation is, and always will be prevalent, persisting mainly today in the insultingly shallow realm of metalcore, some bands have even built entirely new universes to play in, such as Gojira, Enslaved, or Ihsahn. Poland’s Hyperial, however, have crafted a stellar EP here that harvests aesthetics from a host of sources, re-configuring them to work in sync in a very compelling, often unique way, making these 23 minutes both a lot of fun, and an interesting statement concerning the prospect of future material. They’ve got a good thing going here, and I would be quite intrigued to see this hybridization develop further.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, am I not? What is this coagulation? To which previously defined styles and templates do Hyperial owe allegiance? Well, the answers are many, and may seem conflicting at a glance, but bear with me. Industry stirs emanations of Behemoth, Meshuggah, Rotting Christ, Septicflesh, and even a tinge of Gothenburg-inspired keyboard backdrops, lightly akin to something like Soilwork, into a compression chamber of its own diabolical design, and extracts the most fitting elements to construct its own doomsday serum. The frame for this portrait of mechanistic damnation is the groove-carving, pummeling slabs of death metal chords, clearly inspired by Meshuggah, or perhaps their countrymen Decapitated, but in no way succumbing to the weighty moniker of ‘djent’, and indeed, this aspect is only skeletal. From there, Hyperial lays on a host of weighty, hellish chords that feel both searing and flowing, drawing the favorable comparisons to their better-known colleagues in Behemoth. For added atmosphere, the keys provide a shifting, pseudo-industrial cloak, which garbs the songs in the more embellished elements of the over-arching thematic attire. The Greek exceptions above mainly play into the sense of pomp and grandiosity in the innate structuring of these 6 dynamic tracks.

Industry is perhaps a very fitting name for this short yet exquisite audible feast, as the prevailing flavor is one of twisted industrial carnage, wrought by the interlocking, subterranean grooves of the core instrumentation, and the vibrant juxtaposition of constant electronics. Topping off this equation, the raw, strained rage of the vocals paint an agonized portrait of life trapped in some cyborg dystopia, as the songs both glide and grind through myriad structural and tonal changes. It’s nothing incredibly jarring or overly dramatic, but the sensation of discovery is always enough to keep the record feeling fresh for its short duration. The individual players here should be commended for not only their prowess in pure physical skill, as this record contains some strong, semi-technical force, but in the cohesion in writing and vision, which conveys their imagined world as much through aesthetic as it does through notation.

An atmosphere as realized as the one on Industry is not easy to accomplish, and this, as much as musical appreciation, has colored my opinion of Hyperial entirely positive. Industry is no masterpiece, granted, it does not redefine my love for metal or cry out for infinite repetition, but what it has done is cement Hyperial in my consciousness as a band with serious potential. As a statement of intended mission and a show of conceivable force, this EP is pretty much limitless, and very exciting. If any of this at all has piqued your interest, please give these Poles a fighting chance, as their form of expression in the metal world is very creative. This undeniable spark of vision, however, when combined with the bands obvious (yet, excitingly, still developing) skills as intriguing songwriters, willing and able to utilize existing techniques and ideas and mutate them for both experimentation and application, is a hallmark of some of the best artists in our medium. I’m not attributing this distinction to Hyperial just yet, mind you, but I find their blend of extremity extremely palatable, and I feel they deserve the chance to bring their aspirations to fruition.

8.5 / 10 - Eloquent Atmospherics

Sunday, November 4, 2012

40 Watt Sun - The Inside Room (2011)

40 Watt Sun are an extremely melancholic, melodic London doom outfit that do their appreciable best to embody an essence of regretful sadness. This is achieved through a very basic, primal shifting of crawling riffing textures, slow, deliberate pacing, and the spectral, quivering, regretfully nostalgic vocals of one Patrick Walker, whom some of you may recognize from his work in Warning . On a basic level, this works incredibly well, at least for a while, and even though I felt some variety could have done wonders for The Inside Room, it’s rainy atmospherics are quite compelling if one has the patience and mood to drown in such a sluggish, dense river, an experience almost like drowning in smoke and molasses.

There are no fancy guitar tricks here, just loose progressions of heavily distorted, ghostly chords, played in a very open style. This lends a very flowing nature to these 5 songs, as each wave of bright, obscure notation flows into the next quite effortlessly, and with feeling. These, along with the vocals, will primarily dictate the enjoyment you will have with 40 Watt Sun, as they truly do crawl along, never attempting to do anything dynamic outside of the spiritually rotting core they initially set up. However, this assists in maintaining cohesion amidst the pieces, a sort of mildly haunted thematic glue that will enrapture some, and drive others absolutely nuts in its seeming inability to evolve. Indeed, these 5 tracks are very, very similar, as is the burdensome crooning from Pat, rising above the conjured fog as a lone, regretful figure. Lyrically, this is about as emo as one can find, dealing with failed relationships and so forth. It’s dealt with in a more mature context than your average screamo band, though, and is emo in the right way, if you will, more like My Dying Bride or Katatonia than cringingly whiny metalcore. These two elements, supported by an extremely restrained (but undeniably effective) rhythm section, shift only slightly across the incredibly lengthy compositions, and it can be very involving and hypnotic, or brutally samey, depending on your natural perceptions. As usual, I reside somewhere in the middle of this equation, sympathizing with both viewpoints rather equally. What 40 Watt Sun are capable of is very good, terrific even, but as The Inside Room grows longer in the tooth, I find myself more and more at odds with it.

And that’s the kicker. Only a very particular mindset will be hypnotized by material as deliberate and sluggish as this, and the rest will be bored silly. In such an admitted specialization, it’s admirable that 40 Watt stick to their guns and attempt to reinforce this chosen oozing sound as much as possible, but to reinstate an inaugurating point, variety could have opened this thing up by miles. I feel and enjoy what the group is trying to do, and they do it quite well, but I simply do not have the patience or willingness to listen to what amounts to the exact same song, with minor pattern changes, for 47 minutes. I like what they’re doing, but they really need to do something else to compliment or punctuate it, as droning emotional sadness only carries weight for so long when it endlessly marches at the same pace, and by the end my viewpoint has shifted from contemplative awe to grudging impatience.

I know a good amount of you, however, will find an opposing perspective to my own, as The Inside Room has received a staggering number of positive reviews, so take my criticism as both a bolstering and a warning, depending on who you are. If you have a high tolerance for bloated doom and drone, and the natural beauty of melancholy touches your blue, broken soul like a kiss, then by all means, plumb these depths, and I truly hope you find them fulfilling. But if you naturally reside on the more extreme side of the metallic lexicon, and your doom metal tendencies lean toward the crushing, approach this one with caution, if at all. The Inside Room has a very poignant natural beauty to it, and indeed is quite special in its own haunted way, but alas it just doesn’t fully enrapture me, unfortunately due to the same innate repetition that has ingratiated them into so many other darkened minds.

Despite how much these perceived flaws really destroyed my initial love, however, I’d recommend anyone with a bit of feeling in their hearts to at least give the band a shot, as I feel they have a lot to offer select forms of consciousness. I want to like this much more than I do, to be sure, and enjoy it much more in 1 or 2 song chunks, when the rare mood strikes, than the entirety of the album. The Inside Room could have been amazing, but at length it’s just too heavily crushed under the weight of continuous familiarity as it drones onward towards its conclusion. The ambience and atmosphere are beautiful, surely enough for many people to eat it up, and that first bite sure is tasty, but when the realization sinks in that this one flavor is all the meal consists of, even the best food gets a little bland.

7 / 10 - Enter the Sluggish Mists

Friday, November 2, 2012

Xul - Malignance (2012)

Malignance, the first record from unsigned Canadian blackened death act Xul, is one of the most impressive debut’s I’ve heard in a very long time. Rarely are the similar artists mentioned in press kits an entirely accurate estimation of the soundscapes to be found within an album proper, but I find the examples of Behemoth and Dissection are quite fitting in this case, as the band excels at weaving the brutality of the former with the epic melodious propensity of the latter, not to mention the grandiosity inherent to both, into a rich and exciting tapestry of extremity. It’s not quite to the same mind-melting level of quality inherent to those titans, but these B.C. boys have bred and mutated this beast of a sound to an appreciably distinct and compelling degree, one that transcends and downright flattens the thousands of other hollow attempts at prostrating at the feet of such majesty. Of late, Behemoth in particular have gathered admirers to the point that many bands take them as seemingly sole influence, and while their touch is quite clear and prevalent in Malignance, Xul just do so many other things, and do them so damn well, that where might have existed derivation, instead lies naught but inspiration.

Malignance truly stirs a large pot of ideas here, from groove-carving, semi-technical stomping, wintry tremolo magic tricks, and fluttering plasmatic melodies spiraling off into the desecrated skyline. In whatever scenario, Xul exhibit immense skill in crafting and building, upon and around, strong riffing ideas that are not only compelling in their separate subsections, but flow together to create a crushingly powerful audible narrative. Each of the 8 songs on Malignance feel pleasingly distinct and equally as poignant due to the simple quality of strong songwriting, a lost art for many underground acts, thanks to genre acceptability of soulless technical wizardry. However, Xul are more in the realm of Behemoth and Belphegor than Brain Drill, striving for spiritually blackened aesthetics whilst providing curdling emanations of ancient, royal hatred. This album feels unerringly tight and precise, but the artful, subtly woven layers of icy, majestic riffing lend a favorable credence to the term ‘blackened death metal.’ This record sounds chilly and evil, but it won’t hesitate to take the direct route and batter you lifeless if it feels the impetus to do so.

The mix here is perfect, an even balance that feels both natural and polished, allowing each instrument to breathe its purulent, noxious fumes. And believe you me, they do not hesitate to utilize their chosen ordnance with lethal efficiency. The musicians here are vibrantly impressive, not only as skilled individuals, but as a tight-knit unit, a pack of metal mercenaries toting different weapons, working together to overcome any and all situations. The core of the experience is the achingly good guitar work, as Wallace Huffman and Bill Ferguson imbue darkness and feeling to every sequence of hellishly majestic notation. Bassist Marlow Deiter supplies a refreshingly audible, tangential bubbling that hits a dazzling array of notes, complex and often divergent, unerringly adding another layer of creeping grandeur to this palatial obsidian monument, while drummer Lowell Winters is the perfect man for the job, a veritable whirlwind of a performer who adds percussive punctuation wherever it’s needed, while varying his tempos to serve the dynamic nature of the riffing and keep the listener excited.

Vocalist Levi Meyers sounds as kingly and violent as one would expect in a band of this nature, varying between rakish growls and spiteful rasps, somewhat akin to Nergal, if a bit less pronounced. He fits the music perfectly, though I can’t really comment on the lyrics. To be fair, their album has them printed, but they’re densely packed and dark gray on black, an absolute headache to read. I understand they wanted to fit with the coloring motif of the cover art, but I’m not about to subject my eyes to that again. In any event, possibly my favorite aspect here, beyond the consistently amazing riffing, is the lead work of Wallace Huffman. The man has the art of short, needling bursts of melody down to a science, and these short but consistent tangents add immensely to the already epic portraits the core of the instrumentation conveys. Utilizing a variety of techniques and unmitigated feeling, these are icing on an already delicious, wholly satisfying cake.

Extolling upon the virtues of each individual track is certainly feasible, and possibly even entertaining due to the spectacular imagery these guys conjure, but I think it suffices to say that Malignance is a constantly surprising and satisfying venture, with an ever-changing landscape of riffing monstrosities that seem to grow in power and impact the more you subject yourself to them. Xul capture both death and black metal aesthetics and twist them to fit their own conquering, violent vision, as long on feeling as it is on force. You’ll get torn apart by marauding hell-beasts one moment, and bear witness to beautiful, panoramic, darkened symphonic moments the next, like in Winter’s Reign, a song that literally took my breath away.

If there is any fault to find in Malignance, it may be that some sections, for all their innate quality, do not feel entirely unique. Certainly the Behemoth influence is mighty prevalent, and many of the aesthetics in general can be traced back to a variety of well-known acts. This is absolute knit-picking though, and really does nothing to dissuade my excited opinion. The fact that they can be, on the surface, so reminiscent of other beloved bands, and yet twist these influences into such a universally attractive package is impressive in of itself, and guarantees anyone interested in the blackened death realm will find a ton of exciting content in these 39 minutes. I did not feel like every single section was golden, admittedly, but the ones that aren’t amazing or great are still very good, and there’s no aspect of the record I can really even say is lacking. It’s short of legendary, but really, it’s just short. This is a fucking awesome, dynamic, exciting record that all black and death fans need to check out, especially mind-shattering because it’s a debut of a band hitherto unknown to me. To reiterate and bolster, Malignance is not only one of the best debut’s I’ve heard in a long time, but one of the most pleasant surprises of the year, standing tall next to the newest outing from Weapon at the top of my current blackened death stack. As far as first efforts go, this has all the elements for future legend, and if Xul can cultivate this gale into a tornado, it would be incredibly exciting. For now, this is going to stay in my rotation for a good long time, and if you give these flaying winds the chance to do the same, you’ll soon be skinless and smiling.

8.5 / 10 - Assimilating Divine Might