Immortal – Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism (1992)

So we’ve been on a bit of a formative black/death spree lately; a throwaway remark can set off weird stuff like that. Like Darkthrone in the last review, Immortal wasn’t quite done purging their obvious death metal roots on their debut. If we’re going to bring up big obvious antecedents like Bathory, it becomes reasonable to suggest Immortal was more interested in that band’s epic “Viking” albums than their earlier raw ones. Entire genres of writing could be spawned from the idea that different people take different ideas from the same sources, and while I don’t think we’ll be doing that today, I’d recommend you take Immortal’s musical ancestors into mind when listening to Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticum if you are in any way familiar with them.

In general, this album ends up combining elaborate compositions with fairly rudimentary (even sloppy) instrumental technique; the latter would improve significantly over Immortal’s next few albums, but songs would become brief until 1999 or so, with the release of At The Heart of Winter. It’s hard to describe the effect with overusing words synonymous with “transition”, but that’s a small price to pay for accurately describing this. The songs here are often quite melodic and even consonant at times, but the bassy mixing occasionally makes me want to throw this in with formative melodeath like At the Gates or Sentenced. However, Immortal rather frequently drops this in favor of dissonant, chaotic material like the majority of “Unholy Forces of Evil”; a technique possibly borrowed from the common musical ancestry of the Norwegian scene. I’m not going to go out and say the band hadn’t forged their own identity, as even Pure Holocaust in 1993 was a major paradigm shift, and the aforementioned At The Heart of Winter often resembles a more disciplined and refined variant on the ideas of this debut.

Because of this, early Immortal ends up with some odd strengths and weaknesses compared to their contemporaries. The push for good arrangements is perhaps not so odd, since even the rawest, filthiest, and most shocking of Immortal’s contemporaries emphasized their song structures. The songwriting here is strangely orderly, though, assisted by the consistent aesthetic and frequently midpaced tempoes. The flaws in instrumental technique actually come in handy for differentiating things – seemingly awkward transitions and messy, pitchy guitar solos that wouldn’t fit the songs if performed with more skill. To my understanding, that’s one of the things that draws people to black metal, although it occasionally results in a swarm of shoddy imitators. That Immortal managed to play such a large role in influencing others even before they had really found themselves is a sign of aptitude on their part.

Highlights: “The Call of the Wintermoon”, “Cryptic Winterstorms”, “A Perfect Vision of The Rising Northland”

Darkthrone – A Blaze In The Northern Sky (1992)

folderThis is one of those reviews that kept getting delayed for various reasons, including “Hey, I could’ve sworn I wrote about this!” and “Is that band playing BURP METAL?” It’s a shame, really, because A Blaze In The Northern Sky was the ultimate grower for me – something I could not appreciate at all when I first heard it (compare to, Mayhem, for instance, which I ‘got’ quicker) and furthermore, something which I could not really penetrate until I learned the joys of its successors. These days, it is indispensable, and while you will hear similar sentiments across the internet, the choirs always have room for one more preacher.

If you ask me, what distinguishes this album from the Darkthrone surrounding it (on both ends) is an elevated sense of pomp and melodrama. A Blaze In The Northern Sky is full of extended compositions, but furthermore explores more moods than the monotone creepiness of Soulside Journey or Under A Funeral Moon. The compositions contain great variety of tempo and even dynamics, as the acoustic interlude of “In The Shadow of the Horns” may forcibly make you aware, but ironically the band may owe much of this to their scrabble for the growing Norwegian black metal movement. The title track, for instance, first took shape during the abandoned Goatlord sessions (which are worthy of discussion and will probably come up in about 5-10 years, once I get around to actually listening) as a midpaced death metal track before being retrofitted with blasts and newly screamed vocals. The other songs may have slightly more recent origins, but the point still stands that, at least in places, Darkthrone had a long way to go before their roots were rendered unrecognizable. Darkthrone’s front end, though, was a simple task to swap out, as possibly evidenced by the fact they did it again on every following album for some time. Immediately trebley and abrasive where Soulside Journey was bassy and occasionally anemic, A Blaze In The Northern Sky is hardly high fidelity, and is probably a good early example of black metal production being calculated towards such unfriendly ends as opposed to simply arising naturally from lack of budget and studio resources. Shades of early (pre-Viking) Bathory and Tormentor, really; Darkthrone’s influences may be fairly obvious early European underground metal, but they’re worthy of mention, especially here where the distance between the band and earlier bands had yet to really reveal itself.

There are thousands of people out in the world who have written on Darkthrone, and all of the points I’ve made here have been trodden to death, brought back to a cruel imitation of life, and beaten again, even my suggestion of possible redundancy. Still, without this album, the rawer and filthier sides of black metal would perhaps remain denied to me.

Highlights: “Kathaarian Life Code”, “Paragon Belial”, “Where Cold Winds Blow”

Angelcorpse – Exterminate (1998)

folderIs this the peak in Angelcorpse’s discography? Maybe. Angelcorpse is apparently notable for being one of the first extreme metal bands to fuse death and black metal tropes in a way that wasn’t simply “We’re evolving into a black metal band”. There’s always Immortal’s debut album if you like that sort of thing. The usual comparison here seems to be Morbid Angel, particularly on Covenant, but Angelcorpse is generally a simpler, faster, more consonant affair. It’s occasionally reminiscent of the minimalist black metal preceding it, but it’s also as far from the more rhythmically complex sort of death metal (read: Suffocation) as it is from Darkthrone.

If there’s in fact any direct ancestor besides Morbid Angel, it’s probably someone from the early ‘war metal’ movement, which in the timeline I’m relying on probably means either Blasphemy (the one from Vancouver, since 99% of all metal bands are named Blasphemy) or Beherit (from Finland, although that band later evolved into something far stranger). Hints of this ancestry appear in the muddy, bassy production, although yet again Angelcorpse tends towards tighter, more regimented instrumentation and isn’t nearly as unintelligible and chaotic as those bands were. To be fair, even if my hypothesis turns out to be true, Angelcorpse is separated from a Dawn of Satan’s Millennium or a Fallen Angel of Doom by almost a decade on Exterminate, which leaves plenty of time for massive sonic evolution and divergence, at least on the timescale that death metal has operated upon.

So Angelcorpse (like most of the bands I write about here) are writing and performing in a style, even if it’s more like an ungainly fusion of established ones than something particularly original. I’m not sure whether this album should be lower fidelity in order to amp up the chaotic and imcomprehensible factor, or the opposite for the sake of aggression and emphasizing the occasional embellishments. I do, however, get the feeling that raising the question isn’t the greatest of signs. The very fact that this album doesn’t go full minimalist/primitive leaves it in an awkward spot where it isn’t quite nuanced enough to effectively compete with its buddies. On the other hand, it’s still an consistently intense death metal recording, and while by virtue of release in 1998 it has certainly been outintensed, it can still serve as a fairly accurate barometer of what the genre was up to at that point, just as internet advances were making the genre more accessible than what major label records were willing to do…

So if it sounds like I’m not too impressed, I’m not.

Highlights: “Wartorn”, “Into the Storm of Steel”, “That Which Lies Upon”

Whourkr – 4247 Snare Drums (2012)

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Very fast, very violent, very French. 4247 Snare Drums is allegedly the amount of snare drum hits on this album’s 35 minutes and 22 seconds. When you do the math, it doesn’t sound like that much (in fact, it only averages about 2 a second), but when you factor in the occasional spaces and what this album actually sounds like… well, it’s a fairly intense work of experimental electronic flavored deathcore/grindcore, so I’m sure you’ll find something to like in it.

This may be more of a “core” album than a metal album when you consider how both the metal and electronic music industries co-opted the word “hardcore”. 4247 relies pretty heavily on sampling (and to be honest the sample choices sometimes reach penguin of d00m levels of random), but perhaps more on sound convolution, as listeners can expect all sorts of pitch shifting, frequency gating, and stuttering over the metallic content. If you’re familiar with main frontman Gautier Serre (Igorrr)’s other work, you’ll probably recognize these techniques, although he usually doesn’t dip as deep into the extreme metal pool. Rounding out the sounds are the deep squeals typical of actually typical deathcore recordings; definitely not to be confused with more intelligible growls, or the higher pitched distorted screams of Whourkr’s previous full-length, Concrete. I’d go as far to say that this is slightly more normal by metal standards than Concrete, although I’m sure there are people in my reading audience who’d like to debate that.

The more important evolution from that album is probably a pitch shift now that I think about it; 4247 is bassy where its predecessor was higher pitched and more grating, but otherwise not all that different. Compositions remain generally short and freely structured (read: “random”), and I’m pretty sure Igorrr is more interested in differentiating tracks here by aesthetic adornment than by dramatically shifting up his writing techniques. The vox also stick to the ‘nonsensical’ route; I forget whether it was this album or its predecessor that contained a lyric booklet full of onomatopoeic transcriptions of the electronic-assisted noises, but as far as I know, there are no hidden Magmaesque layers of meaning or narrative behind them. One song here stands out for being oddly ornate and complicated in comparison to its companions, though – “Ostina” (featuring the band’s old vocalist, who literally calls himself Öxxö Xööx) retains the breakbeats and guitar, but adds layers and dynamics in quantities the band has never before employed to my understanding. Whourkr has split up, but I wouldn’t mind hearing more in that vein from somewhere.

Before you ask, there’s no way I’m not giving this a glowing, positive review. Its specific metal/electronic music fusion is a bit niche for being on the extreme end of both its constituents, but if you wake up one day to find that you’ve become Gabe Kagan, you’ll probably end up listening to this quite a lot.

Highlights: “Gastro-Equestre”, “Ostina”, “Polygroin”

Meshuggah – Chaosphere (1998)

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Welcome to Sweden, where even the hardcore gangsta rap is metal. Chaosphere is… uh… distinctive.

Meshuggah’s output took a turn for the extra abrasive the last time we discussed them, but Chaosphere intentionally pushes the repetitive, mechanical aspects of their sound up to eleven. Where previous albums had room for dynamics and subtlety, all that disappears in favor of brute force (unless you’ve got an edition of the album which includes “Unanything”). You’d think this would be a recipe for headaches and/or crappiness, but for whatever reason, I instead find Chaosphere to be oddly compelling.

At the risk of sounding like a pretentious academia nut, or at least a Devin Townsend Project fan, I hypothesize that this album functions as a sort of deconstruction of extreme metal, although I’m not willing to go the distance and suggest that’s intentional. Everything here is, however, stripped down to a bare minimum – simplistic, monophonic guitar riffs, shouted vocals, basic song structures, an overarching emphasis on rhythmic complexity, and so forth. Meshuggah’s desire to express transhuman/futurist thoughts in a metal framework earns my focus because there’s barely anything else to focus on, but I keep getting pulled back to the sheer overwhelming force of the sound – not yet as immense as it would become on later Meshuggah albums, and yet like shining chrome where previous albums were thinner and lower budget. This is where the hip-hop comparison bares itself – the vocal delivery and otherwise simplistic backing might be far more aggressive than even the 808 comptonest gangstas on the planet, but the overall effect is weirdly similar.

Even on this harsh and uninviting album, though, Meshuggah leaves a few traces of atmosphere and variety in places. Even the least tailored of ears will hear the guitar solos and occasional sound effects that punctuate tracks here (most notably “New Millennium Cyanide Christ”, which has become one of the band’s signature songs). I can’t think of any good reason for the band to get rid of them, but were they to disappear, so would Chaosphere‘s reputation; I say this knowing that Meshuggah would never remove them from their repertoire, at least on an album this minimal and brutish. Still, for being so sparse, the occasional moment of reverb or guitar chords or breakdown is used to great effect, and for better or worse, that’s part of the appeal.

Chaosphere ends up being the antithesis of what I look for in music (although there’s a good swathe of music I listen to and enjoy that similarly works like that), and yet it like the rest of Meshuggah stays in my rotation. To be fair, I think Meshuggah peaked on their 1994 EP None, but I can at least hear the lineage here. Try tossing some tracks here into your average nightclub and see what happens.

Highlights: “New Millennium Cyanide Christ”, “Corridor of Chameleons”, “Neurotica”

Gargoyle – Aratama (1992)

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Now, Gargoyle predates Sigh by quite a bit, but on Aratama, they nonetheless Sigh up their sound in a similar fashion. While generally similar to their previous works in a way that Sigh can’t really claim, Gargoyle incorporates a greater variety of influences and even occasionally bursts into standard J-rock for a bit. I guess it’s a mark of overall musical ability that this band can not only perform in so many styles, but even manages to make their pop songs stand out amongst the highlights.

Despite expanding their sound, Gargoyle still relies mostly on their power/thrash roots here. There aren’t any tracks as skullcrushing as the blast fest that was “Djirenma” on Furebumi, but the musicians approach that point on multiple occasions. Furthermore, this album has the interesting distinction of becoming more violent and thrashy as it progresses for whatever reason. I’m not going to question the logic behind this approach, because it ultimately has little to do with this album’s quality. Most of that comes down to strong instrumentation and musicianship; Gargoyle’s specific subgenre blend lends itself well to adding melodic and even hooky content to their chosen intensity of metal.

Building off what I’ve mentioned before, I’d guess that Gargoyle’s greatest strength is not that they’re good metal songwriters (although they certainly are), but that they’re good pop songwriters. Admittedly, good pop songwriting is hard to quantify, but Gargoyle has put out Motorhead quantities of consistent work for some years, and managed to keep it distinctive without any huge stylistic changes that I’m aware of. Despite what the content of this blog might lead you to believe, I consider most of the metal out there to be firmly in the popular music camp; it might not sell as well as the handclap and sidechain producers out there, but 40-50+ years of constantly increasing distortion and aggression have attuned the public to some really noisy, lawn-wilting sounds. Gargoyle isn’t that crazy even by 1992 standards, but listening to some of the standard J-Rock type songs here has helped open up my mind to the musical similarities between those and Gargoyle’s primary metal output. Sure, the metal is more ornate and often more complex, but Gargoyle uses a lot of the same musical language in both.

I don’t think I’d put Aratama above Furebumi, but then again I’m not sure I’d put anything by Gargoyle above that classic (with the possible exception of Kaikoroku, an EP of rerecordings from Gargoyle’s earliest days). I would still highly recommend it, and it’s a logical place to continue your inquiry into this band.

Highlights: “Shin Ou”, “Open Sesame”, “Cogito Ergosum”, “Dogma”

Black Sabbath – Sabotage (1975)

Black Sabbath - Sabotage

I don’t know how many of my readers were around to experience the 1970s, and WordPress doesn’t care to help me figure it out, but when I started my exploration of metal and progressive rock music, I rapidly found out how much overlap between the two there was in the genre’s earliest days. Imagine my surprise when I found out that Black Sabbath, the archetypalest of the archetypal metal bands, was involved in such blatant genre mixing! Sabotage came at a point where Black Sabbath was already a veteran band, and allegedly at a point where extreme drug abuse was tearing the band apart and forcing increasingly bad business decisions. More importantly to me, it’s also the culmination of studio and songwriting experimentation that began back on Volume 4, and those things tend to make for fertile writing.

Sabotage is, to my understanding, a cleaner fusion between early heavy metal and its prog rock contemporaries than its predecessors, and a hell of a lot more coherent than Technical Ecstasy, an album with a reputation so bad I haven’t given it a chance yet. Some of the obvious metal tropes of previous albums are gone, with a cleaner and less distorted guitar tone from Iommi that belies the occasional exception (usually “Symptom of the Universe”), but a couple of obvious progisms make a departure too – fewer flashy keyboards, less varied instrumentation, etc. Sabotage gains its status here primarily by applying extended songwriting techniques to what otherwise might be similarly composed to previous Black Sabbath albums. Now, I’m aware those had their share of lengthy songs, but compared to some of the blues inflected jams of the past, these songs feel a bit tighter and more solidly constructed.

This album also gets some credit in the metal circles for giving the growing heavy metal movement a couple of prototypes for subgenres. I wouldn’t go too far along that line of thought, personally, since a couple of hard rock and other early metal bands were constantly experimenting with their share of grooves and strums and (in the particular case of one Judas Priest) similar expansions of instrumentation and song structure. The aforementioned “Symptom of the Universe”, though, is quickly labeled a prototypical speed metal song and in its especially minimal and tritone driven form, I can hear how this might’ve influenced a few generations of bands. However, due to the prog influence (and the occasional shift into nonsensical weirdness like the strangely cheerful “Am I Going Insane”), I’m ultimately going to have to suggest that most of the ideas other bands lift from Black Sabbath come from their earlier, more formative works.

After this, Black Sabbath’s discography (and lineup) turns into a rollercoaster of colossal failures, interspersed with the occasional successful reinvention; you’ll have to ask me what I think about Heaven and Hell at some point. Sabotage ends up kind of incoherent at times, but interestingly, it is most entertaining and well constructed in its lengthy, vaguely prog-fusion moments. I like it personally, but I don’t know if it’s really what the average Sabbath fan wants. Then again, I don’t actually know what the average Sabbath fan wants, so that might be a moot point.

Highlights: “Megalomania”, “Supertzar”, “The Writ”, “Blow on A Jug”