Depth – Memento Mori [EP] – 4.5/5
I long since burned myself out on Melodic Death Metal, well beyond the point that now I rarely find myself listening to old favourites let alone looking for new material. It's quite fortunate that I stumbled across these guys before I found the genre tag as I'd otherwise I'd hardly expect much to emerge from the small nation of Kuwait; a country that in my mind last made news when Saddam Hussain tried to conquer it (and apparently only really rolled tanks through desert and small villages who wondered what the hell was going on according to my old Kuwaiti friend), which seeing as this occurred in the 90's is a pretty damn long time ago. And yet here we are, enjoying what could well be the finest up and coming band to emerge from the region.
But first let me clarify precisely what I mean by “Melodic Death Metal:” this isn't a band like the sort you'd find around in the West nowadays, recycling 'At the Gates' riffs whilst rasping, forgetting that the genre contains the term “Death Metal” for a damn good reason. Remember Disillusion's “Back to Times of Splendour?” Well remember it again; this Death Metal that just happens to have a strong melodic focus (and more than a touch of prog); that just happens to think that the guitar is too fine an instrument to NOT have a solo or two in each track; that dropping in soft Opeth-like interludes between the guttural growls can lend a sense of contrast to the track, and being the Middle East it would be blasphemy not to have a couple of regional feeling lines in the proceedings. And if all that wasn't enough, they start throwing around other genre influences like some sort of genre stew which would probably annoy you if the end result wasn't so damn tasty.
They have a keyboard player. He plays solo instrumental work in one track. There are Death/Doom overtones at certain times, psychedelic tones at other times and in “Necropolis” some distinctly groove-laden riffs. Sometimes they use tremolo picking and sometimes nothing beats a good neo-classical shred. In just five tracks there's more versatility and creativity than I've heard come from the genre in the last five years. Even the production is startlingly well done, made all the more impressive when you realise it's all been done by a man named “Sarj” (who contributes guest vocals on the final track) and I wouldn't be surprised to discover really consists of a small home recording studio in his parents garage (I still can't imagine recording studio's exactly being plentiful over there). If you play in a Melodic Death Metal band that isn't “Depth,” now is the time you should probably be hanging your heads in shame.
Highlights: Necropolis, Crimson Goddess
Over the years this has grown into my own personal project, reviewing the artists that I discover and interest me. If you wish to see more of my work, particularly my more metal-orientated material, you can find me as a regular contributor for the online magazine
Shangren – Warriors of Devastation [EP] – 2/5
I always thought it a great shame that so much folk metal seemed to concentrate on the realm of Celtic or Nordic folk, though since this is where metal is most predominant is not all that surprising. It's why when I first heard of a band combining traditional Chinese Folk with Metal that my ears pricked up; Chinese Folk is one of those styles I've always wished I knew more about but information and artists always seem scarce. China's feudal years and turbulent history of discovery, invention, and in recent years their communist ideology ostracising them from much of the world (a situation not helped by the Chinese government's strict regulation on the media) has always seemed a perfect playground for Metal music; their folk often dealing with stories of battles or the strife within the many warlords ranks; of sorrow or great bravery displayed by legends. It has aggression, emotion, passion and historical stories all ready to be used by the first person with the initiative; it's a progressive metal musicians wet dream, which is why the fact that they play Death Metal was the first hint that I should be concerned.
But not one to be deterred I ploughed on head first well aware that they may well come up with something unique, being the first band – to my knowledge – to fuse two such styles of music, but a little unsure what to really make of the output I strike upon my second point of worry; the fact that they are Australian. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if he had little knowledge of Chinese Folk music at all; the two most prominent instruments employed being the Dizu, often used to great effect designed to mimic the range of a human voice and display a powerful sense of emotion here is instead played like a standard keyboard (which is less surprising when you realise that it actually is just a keyboard mimicking its sound), and the pipa, a sort of Chinese banjo which doesn't exactly fare much better. At it's best it lends a gimmicky slant to the tone of the track at hand, at it's worst it comes across as racist, like some short passage “South Park” would use, and is offensive to the style of Folk it tries to employ.
I might have been able to forgive such haphazard and thoughtless consideration for the musical style they're trying to incorporate if the rest of their compositional abilities were able to compensate, but even in getting the basics right they seem to fall short. The drums sound flat and sterile, which would only be more frustrating if it ever sounded like they were doing anything interesting but as it is they're relegated to the back of the mix for what I can only assume was for a good reason. The rest of music consists of plodding, chord sequences atop mediocre growls, often lacking in a sense of aggression or power so sound far too breathy, at their best when sporting their deepest tones yet at their worst when he forgets that he's not meant to singing cleanly (that was just plain awful). Worse than all of this is the lack of consistency; it's like a bad and uninspired death metal band that occasionally remembered mid-song that that they had a keyboard that could mimic a couple of Chinese instruments. That the tracks shift between suddenly containing “folk” melodies and not is the final nail in this bands coffin. I still think mixing Chinese Folk with Metal could create some fascinating material, but not like this.
Beyond the Bridge – The Old Man and the Spirit – 5/5
January 2nd. Two days. That's how long into the year we got before we received what wouldn't surprise me if it became the must have album of the year. Just two days into the year and a debut album from a band you probably haven't heard of, despite first existing over a decade ago; forming in '99, disbanding, reforming in '05 and then after more than 6 years of planning, devising, forming and perfecting – and make no mistake, they have indeed created something challenging the very notion of perfection – have emerged triumphant with a concept album so simple, poetic, beautiful, emotional and philosophically contemplative yet offering plenty of room for personal interpretation. Comparisons to the likes of Kalisia, Ayreon and Avantasia are easy to make, and certainly from a instrumental point of view there can be no doubt that it falls very much into the progressive metal / rock opera mould but where these artists created elaborate and complex concept pieces, the fact that this remains such a simplistic story means a greater focus can be held on the finer details, a notion that they take full advantage of.
Telling the tale of an old man as he reaches the final stages of his life, he looks back on all the memories that has forged it; the tragedies, fears, loves and hopes he has for when his clock finally runs out. Despite having lived as any man could have hoped for, holding a wealth of experiences in his wizened old age, he still desperately longs to know the meaning behind his own existence, crying out to the heavens to offer the answers he seeks. Hearing these cries, the spirit descends upon him and not bound by mortal knowledge, she holds all the answers to the meaning behind life, but she too longs for answers. Despite her immortal and all knowing benevolence, she is incapable of feeling human emotions. It is such that she offers a trade; all the knowledge her limitless years have given to her in exchange for all the emotion he has felt throughout his, but for that she'll need all his memories.
As you might expect, the lyrics remain an integral part of the music, detailing the events as they unfold with a film-like precision, including the occasional spoken passage to further clarify the tale being told, but with such weight on the lyrical content also comes an importance on the production values and clarity of speech, an issue that they've dealt with deftly; save for a handful of high octane passages where the two engage in a verbal sparring match, it's all been very carefully balanced. The volume of the vocals is always just enough that the words can be discerned but not too loud that it feels dominative; the guitar lines and layers of keyboards have been blended into a single harmony whilst both retaining enough of a raw edge to lend impact, but enough clarity to make out every little detail, each listen allowing you to pick up on some new nuance previously missed. Even the vocal performances themselves stray just enough from the usual 'dream theater-esque' style and into 'musical theatre' territory, placing great emphasis on the words being sung and the emotions behind them, rather than merely the tone the words make when sung in a particular way.
But this is only one small part of the work that they've created. The instrumentation – and don't fear, there is ample time in this release for a plethora of solo's and instrumental passages – is used in such a way that it adds emphasis to that particular passage and the atmosphere at each point in the story, shifting in style as the other vocalist emerges and enhancing the emotions of each particular section. It's an ambitious idea that could easily have gone wrong, sporadically hopping between styles in a dissonant manner, and if it all wasn't blended so seamlessly, transitioning with such a sense of fluidity that never feels jarring, or indeed anything but perfectly natural, it probably would have. The music may never feel too complicated, and if you're looking for virtuoso performances you might be better off looking elsewhere, as everything is designed with the sole intention of furthering and enhancing the atmosphere.
Certainly there is versatility in their playing; the ethereal and almost middle-eastern mixture of fear of the unknown, an adrenaline rush of guitar-induced energy preceding the spirit's first appearance; the deep aggressive crunch as the man fully comes to realise the gravity of the offer being given to him and the outrage at being asked to give up his memories, leading to jazz-laden passages of chaos; the gentle piano melodies and “Pink Floyd-like” guitar tones representing the Spirit as she explains the beauty to her knowledge of the world; even the melancholy of silence as the two speak free from backing entirely. There's no question there's a wealth of talent on show here but it's used in such a precise way, layered with such intricate thought gone behind each sound that it never feels anything less than using their musical knowledge to further the story.
And yet through all the elaborate instrumental creations, slowly reaching crescendo's from the gentlest of passages, it is the phenomenal vocal work that makes this such a breathtaking piece of art. With no offence to the more than capable Dilenya Mar singing the role of the spirit in her perfectly suited 'breathy' voice, it is the emotional capabilities of Herbie Langhans (Seventh Avenue, Sinbreed) that demonstrate abilities reserved for the highest echelons of vocalists. Half Prog/Power Powerhouse and half Broadway superstar, he transitions between a bitter depression; a guttural rasped aggression, to melancholy and sadness with what seems like effortless precision. Each track retains it's sense of individuality, telling the story in bite-size chunks, but it is when the piece is put together as a whole that it truly shines. This is one to treat like a film; don't just listen to it in the background as you do other music but just sit back and devote your full attention to it's depths. There's more than enough here to keep the most inattentive on the edge of their seats, contemplating the question that is being posed in all the aspects explored. Is knowledge of how the beauty of the natural world; how the birds fly, the rivers flow, even the very reason for our existence; is it worth trading for all a man's emotions and memories; of love and loss, hope and fear, the very fabrication of what defines you. This is the question they pose but it's up to the listener to find the answer. Next up, Beyond The Bridge: The Broadway Show?
Trollfest - En Kvest For Den Hellige Gral – 3.5/5
Trollfest are a band I'd long since known about, liked, but then largely ignored as in many sense they are a band that never really should have been, seeming to rely more on gimmicks than their music; offering barbecue at some gigs only to arrive too drunk to really play for example. More than that is the question of their music, and if a less serious band exists on this planet someone tell me, but given that this band of Norwegians came up with the concept of Trollfest whilst heavily drunk and listening to Finntroll (what they consider “drinking music,” though I think Finntroll might think of their music a little more highly), intentionally copying another artist's style hardly seems like a great start. Since then in their alcohol fuelled states they've come up with the concept of “Trollspråk;” a hodgepodge of German words and Norwegian with all the grammatical accuracy of – actually there is no grammar – the language of Trolls, singing about their exploits which I have a sneaking suspicion usually consist of “we were going to do this, but then this dude right here brought the mead, and it kinda all went downhill from there.” And somehow on their last release a duck dressed as a gimp got mixed up in it all. It's perhaps a good thing the lyrics are nonsensical as I'm not sure I want to know what they were planning on doing to that bondage duck.
But what drew me into this release is the new additions to the line-up; an accordion/banjo player in particular, adding a greater emphasis on the Balkan folk influences their sound derives from, the only Folk Metal band to my knowledge that takes influences from this particular style (though it certainly does share many similarities to “Sevdah,” as used by Emir Hot). These flavourings are sprinkled on top of a rather basic blackened format; rough and hoarse growls drunkenly slur and bark their nonsensical lines whilst the drums play the same repeated beat pattern (often repeated between tracks) and the guitars crunch away at their chords. When you look past the banjo's and accordion lines it's often not that impressive, largely chugging and fairly bland, but what it does succeed in doing is keeping things simple. It never gets too complicated for a drunken mind and maintains a boisterous atmosphere that is suited to partying and getting drunk. With this release it finally feels as though Trollfest are beginning to step into their own, their differing folk influences allowing them to create a tone that can finally be said to sound somewhat distinct from their Finnish brethren. They wanted to create music you can drink to, and they've succeeded in doing that. Just try not to listen to carefully else you might realise that in many other respects, it's not particularly good. Here's to hoping they continue to use their folk instruments more in future releases.
The Algorithm – CRITICAL.ERROR – 3.5/5
Djentstep. Let me just give you a moment to swallow back down the vomit that slowly rose in the back of your throat; a catchy name that sounds like one of the biggest abominations to music since Brokencyde coined the genre “Crunkcore;” a combination of the detestable mind-numbing cyclical repetition of Dubstep and the repeated syncopated open notes that defines Djent. It barely sounds like there's enough actual substance here to make more than one song, and yet this mad Frenchman has managed to create an entire experimental album that sounds, if anything, just a little bit too batshit insane for it's own good. Take a dollop of Venetian Snares “2370894,” undeniably a touch of Genghis Tron's “Board up the House” and the catchy back beats from an Aphex Twin album, shaken all up with plenty of samples ranging from saxophones to Eminem, albeit I can't pick out the track sampled (“The Way I Am” perhaps?), and you probably have a better idea of what to expect.
There can be no denying that this album is treading into uncharted waters; the idea of Djent as a guitar tone has only really caught in the past few years so for someone to already be taking it into alien territory is a sign of how quickly it's finding new uses. The entire album is made using computers, and unlike some electronica he makes no attempt to disguise that fact. It's crisp and clean to the point that it induces a sci-fi like tone to it, and that goes for MIDI sampling used throughout; more than just the drums but the guitars and choral passages are recreated through samples, complementing the more conventional dubstep backdrop.
It's fascinating material and listening to it feels as though I'm stepping into the unknown, poking a stick at a Frankenstein-like experiment to create a monster that was never meant to be and then jumping back when he does something unexpected like asking how he could ever find love if his own creator can't bear the sight of him, not that I think this particular architect has this problem. In fact, if Frankenstein involved a doctor-experiment sex scene the whole book would probably reach a whole new pinnacle of nasty, yet that is the closest metaphor my mind can come up with. The problem arises when you listen to it a few times, you start to get to know the beast – I'm still running with this metaphor – and realise he's not some detestable monster but a living and breathing creation, you stop looking up at it in awe and fear for what it represents and start to see the cracks. “The Algorithm's” fundamental flaw is in actually trying to create Djentstep. It genuinely is a musical atrocity on its own and with too much reliance on these two highly repetitive musical styles, the mere fact he's managed to make something quite impressive feels like a miracle in itself. If these elements became downplayed in future releases, as it does for his magnum opus “Kernal,” where he finally lets the insanity out, then Dr. Strange might have found a new host. Until then, it's best we leave this experiment alone until the good doctor works out the kinks.
Alcest – Les Voyages de l'Âme - 4/5
With my MP3 player not fully updated – guess by the last two artists just how much of my music collection managed to be transferred before I finally got around to doing it properly – my attention found it's way to Alcest, a band I knew of but never really paid much attention to, and I don't entirely know why I had a copy of their latest at all, but I'm rather glad I did. See, they – or indeed 'he,' given that this is a one man project after all – are often referred to as a 'Post-Black Metal' or “Blackgaze” band as the genre is oft called, but it seems curious that the artists I'm mostly inclined to compare it to play different genres entirely; Carved in Stone (Folk) and their gentle acoustic guitar work; Agalloch's (Folk/Dark Metal) use of simple lines and thick, slowly shifting backing work to carve weave their atmospheric magic; even the recently reviewed Thy Catafalque (Avant-Garde Metal) shares many similarities. I don't deny the genre fits, there are after all many of the staples that you would expect from a combination of the two genres; a strong atmosphere, the odd growl, occasional tremolo picking and psychedelic lines, but the way it's all been pieced together, well it's the last thing I would have expected, and the term seems merely 'what fits best.'
Instead of trying to rely on genre terms that don't quite fit, I'll point to the one link that all those artists have in common, the atmosphere. This is really what the purpose is here, the instrumentation and techniques employed are little more than a means to an end, and it is this very specific tone that he spends the best part of an hour trying to convey that takes precedence. It's certainly got an earthen, naturalistic quality to it all; that folk-like sense of being surrounded in nature in all its wild glory, but being powerless against it's laws, all that's left is to simply sit back and admire it's beauty and let what will happen happen, accepting your fate whatever comes. There is also a sense of an underlying bleak nature, but it's never a chaotic depression or to the extreme of the overwhelming darkness presented in most Black Metal. Rather it falls again on a sense of accepting the worst and hope for the future; the light shining through the trees, offering if not answers then consolation and comfort. If all this sounds a touch religious then the ethereal and choral vocals will do little to convince you otherwise, but it's certainly like no religion I've uncovered. There is often little in the way of peaks and troughs; no slow build-ups to crescendo's, though certainly as time passes the music itself subtly shifts to present a new scene to be observed. It's remarkably consistent but also monotone, and even though I know why that this is the case, it can still present itself as being problematic at times.
There is a little understanding that's required to fully appreciate what he's trying to accomplish with this project, and when you do it all makes sense. The title literally translates as “The Voyage of the Soul,” and that does a lot to start you on your way; that there is very little variation in the album is intentional. It's a piece that I still think is perhaps better suited to the term Ambient, despite the unconventional instrumentation and style, because it's an attempt of communicating an image; a very specific location that the artist has in his mind and is trying to create and convey in his work. Without realising this it's little more than a curiosity, but with this knowledge in place it all suddenly fits; the veil is lifted and you see the work for what it really is. It may never become an album I'll play on a regular basis, but every so often, when I've had a difficult day, I'll let Alcest help whisk me away to his fantasy world filled with magic and mysticism, natural beauty, serenity, and I'll float away to the sonic vibrations. If he never releases another album under this name, it wouldn't matter. With this release he's surely accomplished his goal.
Aliases – Safer than Reality - 4/5
I've been rubbing my hands together in anticipation for this one; the triumphant return of “Pin” and his new band; the guitarist from Sikth that has been granted post-humous cult icon status on a conquest to return to the music circuit and regain his throne and take a bow before the scene that has since flourished in their wake. Up until the recently announced Sikth reformation it was amongst my most awaited releases (though I will admit a lot of this is for personal nostalgia reasons), to see if in their absence, Aliases couldn't fill a gap and provide the next best thing. It feels important to note that whilst comparisons are to be expected – they do sound remarkably similar after all – there is definitely a different spin to it all; it's almost as though Sikth and Tesseract had a love child, combining the best of Sikth's syncopated technicality and frantic growls, shifting tempo and beat patterns with reckless abandon and matched it to Tesseract's love of epic clean vocal lines and deceptive simplicity. It's complex but so damn catchy.
To illustrate my point, lately I've been having difficulty sleeping. The only thing that I could thing of that I'd been doing differently was listening to this looped on my walk home, and switching to another album quickly saw me return to normal. It's complex and fast paced, but it's also able to stick in your mind; it never feels as though complexity is the sole purpose, comfortable in laying down a comfortable groove and using gentle interludes in a manner such that it never gets so overwhelming that your brain shuts off. It's constantly engaging my mind, even if it's just a brief moment when I recognise a nice guitar riff or drum fill. In fact, it's quite debilitating; I've nearly missed buses. Even as I listen to it now, it's taken me the best part of half an hour to write this sentence because I've gotten distracted and shortly afterwards forgotten what on earth I was planning to write next. The bass lines hold their groove, the drums ferociously pummel their varied lines and the guitarists layer their lines like a crack addict walking in to find his best friend in bed with his mother. At their best this short album, clocking just under half an hour, is so unashamedly engaging, so demanding of your attention and of a quality that you have to consciously fight not to give in. It's an impressive ability, even if it means I can no longer listen to it at the bus stop.
Highlights: The Reality of Belief, The Beginning Has No End, Sirens