Monday, 30 March 2009

Devil Sold His Soul - A Fragile Hope

Sturgeon's law is a perjorative adge which details that "90% of everything is crap". This in mind, I'm quite pleased to see that I've managed to maintain a 1:2 ratio of wheat to chaff. I like to think of myself as an optimist, albiet one who regularly uses threats of violence as descriptive writing in a review. As such, I'd like to redress the balance by recommending to you an album which is, let's not mince words, fucking sweet.

Devil Sold His Soul are a band formed from the remenants of a super-influential UK hardcore band who literally no-one has ever heard of, but who mixed hardcore with my personal favourite genre of the moment, post-metal (A highly atmospheric take on doom/sludge metal - listen to Isis "Oceanic" for the quintessential post-metal experience) which is a combination akin to peanut butter and strawberry jam, but less overdone. Indeed, the impact of metalcore may seem a rather uncomfortable juxtaposition to the meandering, artistic depth of post-metal, but apparently this worked for "Muhamodo" (yes, that was their name) so well that they've continued refining the formula to almost weaponised form (I like to think for use against Parkway Drive) in their latest project, Devil Sold His Soul.

Indeed, "A Fragile Hope", their debut LP, is not for the ninja-pitting instant gratification crowd, not for the over-pretentious types who don't want any -core in their post-rock, and certainly not for the kind of person who looked upon my Bring Me The Horizon paddling session as anything less than totally deserved. This is for those of us who still have that little bit of hope for metalcore, that one day Converge, Between The Buried and Me and Bury Your Dead will ride in on white stallions and cast anyone who thinks new Architects is better than "Ruin" era into the firey abyss to be eternally damned. Indeed, this album reminds me of a song I got on a Metal Hammer CD which was a sole piece of clear sky in the heavens of a metalcore genre more than ready to rain all over my "Metal is art" parade; "Inheritor" by a Norwegian band called Benea Reach. I've never been able to track down a copy of the album, but I have no doubt that this is better than that album could ever be. Intense, crackling ambience gathering and building, rising and falling before fulminating into scarring metalcore storms or heartfelt clean singing.  The ambient moments are perfectly pitched; simplistic drums and bass accompanied by a sparse vista of guitar music, perfectly textured and written as well as anything I've ever heard, and the hardcore/metalcore moments give a feeling of rare vulnerability that can only come from genuine emotional release. Every note has taste, meaning and necessity, every section would lessen the overall song with it's exclusion. Each moment brings an atmosphere of tragedy, sorrow and frustration, utterly ferocious and yet so beautiful in it's raw emotion that it overwhelms. It's unbelievable that such a young band could capture the gorgeousness of Isis and the heartfelt viciousness of Converge, and not just mimic it, but completely understand why it's being done.

The only problem I can think of is that I'm not sure precisely when I'm going to listen to this. If I want really pretty atmospheric sludge why am I not listening to Isis? If I want really counterintuitively pretty metalcore why am I not listening to Architects? Devil Sold His Soul aren't a halfway point I'm entirely convinced are neccesary. That said, I'm halfway to thinking that I'll listen to this twice as much as I'll listen to either of those bands; certainly these guys are dramatically better than Architects.

Indeed, "A Fragile Hope" is an album that doesn't just dabble in either metalcore or post-metal, it makes both genres work together wonderfully, while creating a unique sound which gives the best of both these genres serious competition. I can only give this album the highest possible recommendation.

Bring Me The Horizon - Suicide Season

Right, to provide context, I'm one of the few guys within the tr00 metal fraternity who gave BMTH's debut a good review (I'm also one of the few who finds it acceptable to replace letters with numbers; I suspect there's overlap). Count Your Blessings was an album that gave metalcore fangs; it didn't care about clean vocal choruses or dual harmonies to ease the tension, it cared about blast beats, guitars that sound like pitch-shifted chainsaws and the infamous Oli Sykes giving a vocal performance which must have stripped the lining from his throat. It was a near-unrelenting mass of churning riffs and the kind of crunching breakdowns which must have absolutely killed live (Of course, there's a school of thought which says that breakdowns actively detract from metal since they're from hardcore, but these people forget that they weren't so snippy about hardcore influence giving us metalheads thrash metal, so I let such self-indulgent nonces go fuck themselves). Plus those who criticise their aesthetic forget that when they started, emo was the big thing and everyone expected them to start crooning, so to hear brutal metalcore was a musical oxymoron unparalleled since Helmet; they were a band who you could not read by it's cover. Except now you can. Through the process of extensive calming-the-fuck-down, this album sounds exactly like how you'd expect a popular modern metal band to. One huge chunk of their charm is gone right from the start, and it doesn't end there.

Right, let's start at the top. Bring Me The Horizon have been touring extensively with Brighton hardcore mob Architects, and it seems to have rubbed off because Oli's new main vocal style is a weedy hardcore yelp not entirely dissimilar to Sam Carter's new vocal style (which has also mellowed from a more abrasive, and thus better, style, but that's a review for another time). This unfortunately makes the saccharine b-grade emo lyrics a hell of a lot harder to digest than when he sounded like he was trying to project his own blood onto the listener. Sure it's more accessible but one of the great points about this band was that they were unexpectedly inaccessible. Likewise, the superb guitar tone of CYB is absent, and filling in is a guitar tone which sounds like a synthesiser. Seriously, these guitars, combined with a new-found love of sampling and electronica, makes this sound like if Pendulum tried to make modern hardcore and failed miserably; the riffs' weight is GONE, the breakdowns' weight is GONE. Indeed, the riffs are gone; the guitars do nothing interesting throughout the entire album except try pathetically hard to mimic Bury Your Dead. That the drumming is equally insipid shows through one of the album's main flaws; Frederik Nordstrom has done an uncharacteristically horrible production job, particularly regarding the thin, baseless mixing (and that annoying problem with crash cymbals that sounds like you're listening to them through a cardboard tube).

However, maybe we need to adjust our expectations; even the band acknowledges that this is not a continuation of what they were doing before they smelt the wafting scent of faux-disaffected teens' money and vaginal juices. Maybe we should evaluate the album's purpose; if CYB was about screaming every bit of hurt back in the face of your ex and then punching her until all movement stopped, this is about making the alternative music equivalent of dance music. This is not deathcore; indeed, it was never ment to be. This is music purpose-built for stick-thin, immaculately groomed teens to ninja-pit to, and as such it's scarily effective. Though the horrible mix doesn't help, the songs are catchy as fuck, and every riff could pass enough for dance music that it achieves that metal's near constant failing of being genuinely danceable. On top of this, and I say this with bitter resentment, it grows on you like poison ivy, in my case about as welcomely as the analogy suggests (there's nothing more annoying to a snob such as myself as when something patently rubbish becomes enjoyable). It's made to entertain BMTH's target audience to the maximum degree, and bends over backwards to please the listeners. And that's where it fails more than anything.

You see, alternative music is there to fulfil the artist. All the great metal bands played the music that they wanted to hear, not what they thought other people wanted to hear. That's the difference between art and entertainment, and if you want to make musical entertainment, MAKE POP MUSIC. This CD was made to please the fans and as such feels distinctly lacking in the passion and energy of the debut. CYB have the impression that the band were hurling themselves round the recording space, whereas Suicide Season, in all its consummate professionalism, sounds like a band who aren't giving anything of themselves to the album. Bring Me The Horizon have become the elitist-perpetuated stereotype of themselves - a musical mess with the gaps usually containing conviction and passion filled with breakdowns and hairspray - and in doing so have both endeared the scenesters and alienated the more metal-orientated listeners who stuck to a derided but genuinely good metal band. The horrible - and uniquely genuine - mainstream-pandering that this album offers makes it the only time I've ever considered using the term "mallcore"; this is indeed both no longer metal and unabashedly commercially aimed. There's not the ignitive spark, the tangible fury of the debut, but even on it's own merits, it comes across as lifeless. Indeed, the best track is the suitably vicious "No Need for Introductions, I've Read About Girls Like You on the Backs of Toilet Doors", a grindcore-length burst of brutality which was purpose built as an outlet for Oli (concerning recent assault allegations), like they didn't want such feeling in their other songs. Maybe if this kind of explosive passion was still there, they could have made a much better album.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Sunn O))) - Black One

Okay; first of all, if you don't have an open mind with music then I can guarantee that you will hate Sunn O))); hell, I listen to all kinds of shit and still assumed right off the bat that I wouldn't get the point of this album. Sunn O))) have a reputation for being as impenetrable as a T-90 heavy tank and about as capable of making the ground shake; their weapons of choice are minimalist composition (read "the same bass rhythm for 12 minutes"), droning bass and electronic noises, faint black metal riffs and growling feedback. However, their "White" series are considered avant-garde opuses and the "Black One" features both Wrest, of Leviathan, Lurker of Chalice and Twilight and Malefic, the misanthropic mastermind of black metal night-terrors Xasthur, as  guest vocalists (I heartily recommend all the aforementioned bands), so I thought I'd give it a go.

 The presentation of the disk is very nice, if coming across as clinging to the coat-tails of the left-field black metal scene; the cover art is as ominous as it is nonsensical, but could easily be made for Blut Aus Nord, or Leviathan, or Krallice, or anyone else for that matter. A quick peek at the lyrics follow the same trend; I almost hope Wrest and Malefic wrote the lyrics themselves as I was kind of hoping such a strange band would be less generic.

 Having never experienced them before, I had no idea going into the experience whether this was their experimental album - Wikipedia seems to define all their albums as such - but the slow, murky trickle of ambient noise instantly unnerved me. Distorted drum beats and what sounds like low groaning opens the album's intro, "Sin Nanna" are probably how I should be describing the sounds produced but I can guarantee that what you're imagining is not what this sounds like; Gregory Anderson and Stephen O'Malley have created something unlike certainly anything I've ever heard before. This aural collage goes on for about two minutes before the first proper track starts; slow black metal guitars layered over the most intense bass I've ever come across in music; one long, droning sequence played again and again, hypnotically rhythmic and high enough in the mix that even with my bass speaker turned down I could feel the air around me pulsing. Wrest's vocal performance is nothing less than extraordinary, as can be expected from the leader of underground US black metal. The track is surprisingly easy to listen to thanks to the prominence of the guitars giving a recognisable focal point; indeed, it seems like drumless, slowed down black metal, which is not a bad thing.

 Following track "Cursed Realms (Of the Winterdemons)", a cover of the notorious Immortal takes this idea and runs with it, becoming almost farcically "kvlt". Malefic's on vocals this time round, at first screeching amidst literal arctic winds (they actually sent a crew to Antarctica to get the recording, though sadly they did NOT make Malefic himself howl away there) before bass and industrial distortion takes over again. To reiterate, they have Malefic, who is black metal incarnate, howling Immortal lyrics amid ACTUAL ARCTIC FUCKING WINDS. Soon the track becomes a more "normal" Sunn O))) track, complete with thundering bass and guitars. And oh! the guitars in this album. An approach which in unique in my experience, Sunn O))) play guitar not for the note, but for the sound of it fading and feeding back into a shrill whine. The effect achieved is nothing less than superb, fading in and out of thick distortion and culminating in simple, yet consumingly atmospheric riffs. Eventually the static of the track overwhelms the speakers and the track ends.

 The rest of the tracks are largely "typical" Sunn O))), with ominous doom riffs at least half as slow as they should be and the usual intense bass. But there is one more highlight; closer "Bathory Erzsebet", named after both notorious cannibal/faux vampire Elizabeth Bathory and black metal band Bathory (this song is in fact a reimagining of the aforementioned band's "A Fine Day To Die"). Until 7:03 this song is just computer- manipulated bass but it suddenly erupts into the unusually dissonant guitars and the centrepiece of the album; the claustrophobic Malefic, locked inside a coffin for recording, delivering vocals that are part black metal screech and part terrified cries - a microphone inside the coffin even lets us hear his panicked breathing. This pure, distilled terror makes for one of the most uncomfortable vocal performances ever recorded - the man deserves a Grammy (that'll be taken by some posing musical harlot whose "genuine" musical performance will net millions while one man performing enraptured in true, utter horror goes unappreciated). 

Then, the album ends, and at this point if you'd asked me my opinion I wouldn't be able to give you one. About a minute after my first listen I just kind of continued browsing the internet, before suddenly feeling perplexed; if only for the feel of having the air around me vibrate, the music on Black One created a truly astonishing ambience. The utter coldness of ambience no black metal record has ever properly achieved, the stunning vocal performances and the bass that fills the room effortlessly, the wonderful production that makes for a perfectly defined wall of sound and the sheer, unparalleled uniqueness of it. I tried listening to other music but Black One's being designed for a heavy bass speaker means that despite overpowering bass the production holds, leaving everything else sounding tinny and unsatisfying (you know something wrong when Isis just doesn't sound deep enough).  This album isn't like other avant-garde music because this band isn't just rebelling against the musical rulebook; they have every intention that their aural collages will replace it. Their vision of what they want their music to be is completely formed, and it couldn't sound any better.

A lot of people won't like this; in fact, the vast, vast, VAST majority won't. I loved it. Find a good audio system, (with a good subwoofer) give it a try, and if you get it, it will be an addition to your collection unlike any you'll ever hear, and more satisfying than almost anything.


Sunday, 15 March 2009

Waking the Cadaver - Perverse Recollections of a Necromangler

Firstly, I'm going to get some facts straight. I like deathcore. I like appropriately used breakdowns (if it's good enough for Aborted, Suffocation and Dying Fetus, it’s good enough for me). I even tolerate (again, appropriately used) pig squeals. And yet I cannot bring myself to listen to this album again. Its pathetic ineptness is altogether embarrassing, both for them and for whoever actually spent money on this. This is the most pathetic death metal release I've heard in a very long time. Fortunately, it's just the kind of thing for a good old fashioned diatribe.

Firstly, let's talk initial impressions. I borrowed this from a friend out of a kind of morbid curiosity at whether or not they would have improved since the EP, so my priorities may be different from someone buying it commercially, but I saw the cover art and groaned. It's not what you'd call subtle. The track titles are similar; the kind of thing stoned teens giggle about between eating and becoming greasier with each passing moment. 

The disk is in, and fuck knows what the common-or-garden ambient intro was actually of, because after multiple listens I still had no goddamn clue. It leaks through into first proper track "Always Unprotected" which, after the remnants of the intro have disappeared, launches off into the kind of blastbeat-riddled UBER BR00T4L section that they still fail to pull off. That said, the attempt is less pathetic that that of the EP, partially thanks to the drummer actually having the common decency to, y'know, be halfway competent this time round, rather than losing the beat every fuckmothering five seconds, which is always a nice thought.

Unfortunately, the singer still has severe psychological and emotional issues, or at least that's the only justification I can think of for his ego allowing him to actually sing like that on record. He still sounds like a toad with throat cancer, and possesses all the vocal range of Stephen fucking Hawking. If anything, he's regressed past the standard he set in the EP, which is like saying Jorge "Hurley" Garcia has regressed past his standard he set in Lost Season 1 for sex appeal. I mean it, at least in the EP he had a repertoire of burping, pig squeeeeeeeel and a weedy mix of hardcore shout and death growl, whereas here the latter is "sadly" excluded in favour of more burps. Even then, Devourment-style full-lunged floor-shakers are out, weedy back-of-throat grumbles are in, and the piggies deserve credit for how much they actually sound like a piglet squealing, which, someone has neglected to tell WTC, is not a good thing. The Whitechapel/Misericordiam-style vocal walls of noise that piggies are supposed to be are best found elsewhere. 

But what is a WTC song actually made up of? Well, breakdowns mostly, and for a lot of bands, an inventive, blood-stirring 30-second breakdown within the context of a 3-4 minute song can make a song great, especially live. However WTC don't include breakdowns within the song structure. Breakdowns ARE the song structure, occasionally punctuated with the kind of faster sections mentioned above, afterthoughts at best, and are almost deliberately dull.

Now for the interesting part. How does it compare to the EP? I'd like to take a moment to compare the two versions of "Chased through the Woods by a Rapist", a song infamous for it's astonishing ability to reduce nearby listeners and small children into fits of laughter, not least because of some truly heroic lyrical interpretations ( The documentary intro is gone, probably because on a full-length there's no need for shameless space-padding. This is a track that suffers from the deeper vocals, although the mildly better drumming invokes less unintentional hilarity on the fast part. The guitars can still charitably be called boring and uncharitably called execrable, but fortunately due to the 90% breakdowns structure of the song, they're only playing half the time.

The lowest point is the inventively titled "Interlude", which is a sound bite of the band smoking cannabis; it's like they're laughing at me for having been stupid enough to endure the album by making me listen to them having more fun than I did at any point throughout the entire CD.

However, there is a slight upside that stops it being a failure unlike any other; something must have gone right during the song writing process because these songs are catchy, albeit in the same sense that leprosy is catchy. As much as I hate it, this is evidence that it doesn't fail on all accounts.

However, this is still a terrible, TERRIBLE album. Everything that's good about death metal and deathcore is either horribly abused or missing entirely; I'd complain about the lack of solos, experimentation or variation but the album is over a lot quicker with them. It’s the kind of album that can only be attractive to horribly misinformed people with a gore fetish and no knowledge of the death metal scene. Maybe it’s for the kind of person who watches YouTube videos of pigs eating other pigs as porn, or who’s really creepily into meat tenderising; those are certainly the kind of person who make up this band. We don’t understand them, but hell, perhaps they don’t understand why we don’t enjoy rubbing raw mince on our genitals.

What this blog is going to be.

I've created this blog as a place to put the music reviews I do from time to time, which have previously only been available on my Myspace. Nothing serious, just some writing practice. But the reviews will largely be about metal or hardcore releases, since that's pretty much all I listen to.