Saturday, 30 May 2009

Two Weird, Brilliant CDs

Right, a double review today.

Isis - Wavering Radiant

The thing I like most about alternative music is it's aversion to orthodoxy; unoriginality is condemned and innovation is championed in equal measure. As a result, my favourite bands in any given genre will usually be those who strive for something greater than what their compatriots are doing; one of the most notable bands to be doing this is Isis. Ten years ago, the former sludge metal band broke away from the mould set by Down, Crowbar and Eyehategod and attempted to follow in the footsteps of the superlative Neurosis by making progressive, meandering atmospheric metal focused on walls of distorted, yet delicate, sound crashing like waves in a storm and soft, sparse guitars reminiscent of gentle tides. The product was the classic Oceanic. With this one album, both indie rock lovers and metalheads had an art-metal standard to wave above their heads victoriously. Everything that has followed within the post-metal canon has followed this template with admirable determination - Cult Of Luna, Pelican, The Ocean Collective and more owe their success to the popularisation of their genre that Aaron Turner et all managed to achieve. However, as of late there has been a rather sludgy rate of progress in the genre of progressive sludge, which it would seem has apparently not gone unnoticed. Isis have once again swooped in and altered their style; whether it's an improvement, however, is questionable.

The most noticeable thing is the complete change of the mix; the atmosphere of post-metal was always helped be the production and the sound as much as the music. Whereas before Aaron Turner's voice had been buried in the mix, here it has been lifted with to the forefront; it was similar with their last release, In the Absence of Truth, but here it's taken to a far greater extent. And while this may seem like a good thing to someone who hasn't listened to them, the atmospheric value of a lone howl amongst crashing guitars was one of their great assets - indeed, it was this which first made me like them at the beginning of their song So Did We. Without this, the instruments seem less expansive than they were before, and this is a BIG problem; sound so all-consuming that it even blots out the vocals in one of Isis' defining features. However, the problems with the production, no matter how jarring to older fans, can't hide the fact that, as ever, the songwriting is brilliant.

One of the best comments I heard about this album was that Isis' motivation for their music is to make such intelligent, arty metal that it undoes the damage caused by Limp Bizkit's attracting all the frat boys; this album continues the trend of being both arty and intelligent. Imagine a fusion of Opeth's soft parts and Mastodon's heavy parts, and inject a whole load of wistful melancholy and you've got this album down. An exercise in taste, elegance and power, Isis have this extraordinary ability to write songs that are long and meandering and still be interesting. They still maintain their minimalist writing style of the same riff played over and over again, changing and evolving, before suddenly morphing into something entirely new. Every song, and with one exception, the shortest is 7:05, progresses naturally and in a mesmerising fashion. Isis have utilised a more accessible sound to really re-approach their signature sound, and they've done alright. It's no Oceanic or Panopticon, but it's good.

Wolves in the Throne Room - Black Cascade

I mentioned earlier how I prize imagination in music; this has kept me interested in no genre more than black metal. Yes, those familiar with the kvlt image peddled by most of the Norwegian lot are often far too willing to forget the experimental side of the genre, but since the beginning, we've had bands like Ulver or Shining messing with the genre to their own ends. Indeed, the modern scene is one as branched as can be seen in metal; nowhere is this more explored than the vibrant US black metal scene. Here, we have the prevalence of the Ambient Black Metal scene. Largely cribbing from the notes of Burzum and Shining, even this subgenre of black metal has it's own subgenres; Xasthur, Niflheim and Leviathan cover the Depressive Black Metal genre, that I've mentioned I'm a fan of, and Atmospheric Black Metal, which borrows from the post-metal and folk genres to devastating effect; played by bands such as Velvet Cacoon and Summoning. And the best of this genre is the almighty Wolves in the Throne Room.

The story of Wolves in the Throne Room is far-fetched even by black metal standards; and in a genre with the recluse Malefic or the gay woodsman Gaahl, that's saying something. Two brothers and a friend, the whole band live on a self-sufficient commune with their respective families. The only exposure to electricity they get is when they're playing music; the only time they eat food they didn't grow themselves is when they're on tour. They're like the Amish only awesome. Their previous two albums, in particular their sophomore effort Two Hunters (my favourite black metal album) are some of the best things black metal has produced to date. A new album from them is a big deal.

This is one occasion where "more of the same" is no bad thing. Every element of the creation of the album - music, performance, vocals, tempo, production, mixing - is perfectly done to encapsulate the synthesis of Burzum-inspired black metal, gorgeous post-metal and atmospheric folk that WITTR do better than anyone. Slow, echoing and mournful, the music on this album achieves what every great piece of great black metal does; it created intense beauty out of raw, complex music. Each song essentially uses the same components, but approaches them in different ways. The great thing about this band is the dynamic nature of their music; it's constantly changing and evolving, becoming more brilliant each second a track is playing. It's a testament to the amazing writing ability of WITTR that their style is so much more original and fascinating than it should be; these wonderful pieces of music undoubtedly draw on Burzum and Isis, but it's still unique and unmistakably within the style that the band has created. A great album from the best band in black metal.

P.S. I've promised myself that I won't review the same band twice unless it's notable, but I'd just like to say that the new Sunn is awesome, and continues the band's efforts to utterly destroy people's preconceptions of music with even greater reaches of experimentation, a continued trend for superb guest contributions (Atilla Csihar and superb soprano Jessika Kinney, as well as the efforts of avant-garde composer Eyvind Kang, and legend that is Dylan Carlson) and that special Sunn O))) ability to utterly overwhelm the listener with sheer sonic power. Go experimental drone doom!

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