Home > Music > Music Review: Ephel Duath – Phormula

Music Review: Ephel Duath – Phormula

NOTE: This is reposted from Encyclopedia Metallum with minor modifications. If the last post didn’t clue you in, let it be known that I enjoy heavy metal music.  Also, in the time between the original post and now, I’ve listened to Limbonic Art, and hear some of the similarities in musical style.

It's red and black and white all over! Must be a low-budget slasher film.

Not on the typical metalhead’s list, eh?

When talking about Phormula, I could offer a splattering of metaphors trying to describe each and every single guitar note, every drum beat, every chord on the keyboards; uttering bizarre stuff like, “A million fanboys could fap for a million years and still not relieve their massive passions for this.”. Or, I could just try to talk about the album in terms of music theory, which I can probably do better.

Seems that black metal splintered and mutated a lot in the late ’90s. I’m guessing this is due to its loss of popularity (I mean notoriety) after the Norwegians stopped burning and killing like Vikings, but I wouldn’t know. In the early Norwegian days, we got minimalistic, intentionally poorly produced semi-ambient music, and early symphonic dabbling. After the scene imploded, apart from a few clinging to the old ways, like cvlty Darkthrone, the big bands in the scene tried new things, new bands added their own ideas, etc. Emperor worked on their hyperromanticism and generally looked to early 20th century classical music for inspiration, Burzum released two “Dark Ambient” recordings, as Varg apparently had no access to guitars in prison, Mayhem released Grand Declaration of War which had more technical songs, TONS of spoken word, and a John Cage impression. Then there’s Arcturus, Aborym, Zyklon, Behemoth, Melechesh, a lot of names that I can rattle off, and only a few which I can describe the sound of. But it goes to prove that when the media stopped staring at them, they pulled some interesting tricks out.

This brings us to Ephel Duath itself. They’re better known for their jazz-metal work, but here on Phormula, we have symphonic black metal of a sort. Most people will tell you about the mid/late-period Emperor influence; if you’re familiar with Emperor, you won’t have trouble seeing what this band is trying to do. They add enough into the basic phormula (sorry), and come up with an interesting, well performed slab of black metal. I’m going to start with the bad points – they’re very minor, but hold the album back from the pinnacle of metallic perfection. For starters, the production, while quite good, could afford to be clearer in certain places, mainly keyboard driven ones (later tracks seem to suffer primarily). Guitars, while prominent, should be more so. The clean vocals, which are well handled, are buried in the mix, leaving them indecipherable. It’s a very dense, aggressive album, so I’m not sure how much clarity would help, but sometimes I feel like I’m missing some cool phrases. Of course, in relation to Painter’s Palette, which is much more spacious, there wasn’t much room to improve in production, so a minor flaw really is a minor flaw. The bass, which really isn’t essential, does provide nice harmonic reinforcement, if you can hear it; it’s there, but just barely.

As for the actual music, this album is a gusher. The guitar work is full of fills, but not really riff based – the keyboards hold the album’s basic song structure together. Example: Track 4, “A Flickering Warmth”; when the song begins properly at 0:40, the keyboards play the basic chord pattern of the song, while the guitars alternate between providing fills and leads – this is NOT a riff based metal album. You won’t hear huge memorable riffs a la Bathory or even Emperor (who, while being as I say similar, put the guitars as the base and tend to put synthesizers in a more melodic position.), but you will hear awesome leads. Due to the keyboards, the guitar can focus on these impressive leads without turning the song into a meandering technical orgy. The drums are programmed, but the patterns they use are fairly complex, fast paced of course. Drums are not my specialty, so I can’t say much about the drum patterns programmed (a drum machine was used on Phormula), except that while they’re not very organic, they aren’t horribly mechanical in a way that hurts this kind of music, and they’re complex enough to be interesting on their own.

Speaking of song structure, these are fairly thorough composed, i.e. you don’t see lots of verses, choruses, bridges, etc strung together in standard patterns or unconventional ones. Going back to “A Flickering Warmth”, the song starts off with a synthesizer intro intended to sound ominous (the notes work at least, but your mileage may vary on the instrumentation), while the main theme is introduced at 0:40. Other sections are introduced and played, but at 2:28, the song goes off on a tangent that takes us through some bass beats and a new section, before returning to one of the main themes at 4:05. The song nearly disappears at 5:00, but returns for some more, the ending on the first theme introduced way back at 0:40. Convoluted, right? It’s supposed to be. A lot of more technical metal/rock bands use a theme-development-restatement of theme-coda based form in their songs; i.e they take a musical motif, phrase, riff, or a few, then build on it/them, playing variants of such, etc, before returning to the base; which is an idea literally ripped out of most classical music. Ephel Duath develops their music in maddening, unpredictable ways.

Like many other black metal albums (Yes, even Transylvanian Hunger and such), this album’s very melodic. The melodies go all over the place, but outside tritones, there’s lots of modulation through harmonious intervals like fifths, fourths, etc. There are some traces of dissonance, but compared to similar albums, like Emperor’s latter two, it’s generally resolved quickly, as opposed to incorporated as one of the central elements of a song (An Elegy of Icaros on IX Equilibrium) or, for all purposes, the entire point of the song (The Eruption on Prometheus). Don’t get me wrong, I like some dissonance, but the melodies are… well.. melodious and well constructed.

As it is, if you like your music to have punk-like levels of directness, you won’t find it here; go listen to Discharge or such for that. The way to enjoy Ephel Duath is to listen to it repeatedly, absorb every bit of it, gain an understanding of it, as you continue, you’ll find more and more to like about it. However, being that this is a very good album, you’ll start liking this from the beginning if you’re into complex music, and enjoy it even more after having listened to it a couple times. It’s definitely worth the effort; it’s also somewhat accessible for black metal, due to its good production, great melodies, and occasional clean vocals. There’s also a serene instrumental track called “Myriad”, which while abandoning all traces of metal entirely, still fits the mood of the album.

Trust me, this is an album worth hunting for. Personally, I suggest looking for Rephormula, which not only has these tracks (although a few names are changed), but the “Opera” demo, and some remixes of some songs, although your mileage may vary with those.

SUGGESTION AND EXPERIMENT: Try playing this album beginning in the middle, starting with “Myriad” and ending with “A Flickering Warmth”. At the end of the final track, there are a few seconds of the first track, and track 4 ends with more resolution than track 8. It’s not the way the composers intended it, as far as I know, but it works decently.

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