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