Sunday, December 15, 2013

Deafheaven - Sunbather

When I first heard about Deafheaven’s Sunbather I was awfully excited. It seemed to be gathering near universal praise from critics as well as substantial support from fans. There were a few detractors, but they were often dismissed for being “close minded” or that they just didn’t get the musical genius contained within the album. I rarely find myself disagreeing with the community at large; if something is generally well thought of, I can usually enjoy it. Even better, I’d heard them compared to Alcest, which I adore (well, Écailles de lune anyways). So it’s with no small amount of disappoint I find myself after listening to Sunbather. If Deafheaven is like Alcest, they are only related in that they are somewhat similar in terms of musical style, yet leagues apart in terms of musicianship and overall quality. Just like Wonder Bread is similar to a fresh croissant, or Kraft singles are like Roquefort, or how Franzia is like champagne, or… Well, you get the picture. 

I suppose the best place to begin when describing this disappointment is the music, though they get bonus points for having one of the shittiest album arts of the year. Deafheaven plays a mixture of black metal and post rock, and throws some shoegaze into the mixture. It has plenty of blast beats and tremolo but this is most certainly not black metal. Not good black metal anyways. Imagine yourself as a newcomer to black metal and have just heard In the Nightside Eclipse. Now, assuming you aren’t suffering from a debilitating brain injury you’ll only naturally go seek out more. But then imagine that instead of checking out Immortal, Mayhem, or Darkthrone, you somehow find yourself listening to Zarach Baal Tharagh or newer Dimmu Borgir. Since we’ve already assumed you aren’t suffering from a brain tumor that ruins your ability to reason, naturally you’ll dislike this, and it might even put you off from listening to anything else. That’s kind of the experience that I’ve had after listening to Sunbather. I’m certainly no purist or kvlt master, but this album has certainly soured my views on post-rock/black metal/shoegaze combinations. “If something like this gets rave reviews, then what’s the worst of the genre like?” I find myself wondering. Indeed, if this is one of the better of the genre’s offerings I’ll likely stay away from it in the future. 

And back to the music now; like I said, this album has a large amount of black metal influence and contains a fair amount of tremolo and blast beats, but it’s just incredibly boring. The riffs are stale, shallow, repetitive, boring, etc. etc. It’s not actively terrible in the way that pop or country are, but it’s just completely pathetic, weak shit. There’s no real variation in the songs, and there are two different styles; loud black metal inspired parts, and quiet, acoustic or finger picked guitar sections. That’s it. That’s the extent of these Californians’ creativity and songwriting ability. Hard to see why they’re being praised for such an unexciting effort. On my fourth or fifth listen, I suddenly realized that I remembered exactly zero riffs or anything. The entire album is just a forgettable, misshapen, poorly-cobbled-together mishmash of genres that fails at every level. On top of the mediocre guitars and songs, the vocals are just abysmal. Sure, George Clark screams his little heart out, but it’s just poor. The vague, distant shrieks are neither wrenching or stirring, and at most conjure up mild annoyance. And to cap all of that, the lyrics are a joke, and have more in common with teenage angst ridden metalcore lyrics than actual metal lyrics. To be fair, Alcest’s lyrics might be like this too, but since I can’t speak French (I have testosterone in my body) I can’t really complain about that. 

The only thing about this album that saves it from being a complete loss is the drumming. Sure, it’s not outstanding or anything, and it certainly won’t make you forget about how terrible the rest of the album is, but it gets the job done. But that’s not something that can really get Deafheaven any praise because it was done by a session drummer. It’s most definitely not a good thing that the best performance on an album was done by a session member, especially when it’s not done by a well-known musician (i.e. Hellhammer, who will apparently do drums for a six pack of Heineken, so I don’t know why they didn’t hire him). The mix might be helping me view the drumming in a more positive light than it deserves though. Everything is thrown together and compressed to the same depth within the songs, and it all blends together. Perhaps Deafheaven realized how weak the guitars and vocals were so they simply make the decent drumming louder in an attempt to mask this.

As far as failures go, this is definitely not the worst they can get. Sunbather isn’t the worst album of the year or anything quite so drastic. It’s quite a disappointment to be sure, but to rank it as the worst album of 2013 would give it more attention than it deserves. Indeed, this is one of those releases that should be allowed to die a quiet death. It’s too forgettable and boring to do anything else. It’s not something that will make you rage at how terrible it is. No, it’s more like one of those releases you check out on YouTube, listen to for a minute or two, shake your head, and move on to something more enjoyable.  


Sunday, December 8, 2013

Yfel - The Depths of Hell

It’s somewhat refreshing to hear a release like The Depths of Hell. With so many bands playing atmospheric/folky/shoe-gazey/whatevery black metal (yeah, I’m looking at you Wolves in the Throne Room, Agalloch, Deafheaven, and the like), coming across an album like this feels new and exciting, despite it being unabashedly old school. There’s nothing wrong with expanding and stretching the boundaries of a genre when done with good taste, but sometimes it’s nice to listen to something that says, “Fuck all that nonsense, I’m going to play black metal!” – and that’s exactly what Armon, Yfel’s sole member, has done with this release.

Yfel. The very name means evil in Old English, and in that respect The Depths of Hell doesn’t disappoint. In addition to some decidedly evily titled tracks like “Baptized in Demon’s Blood” and “The Depths of Hell”, the album artwork depicts people being cast into hell; perfect for a filthy, evil sounding band like Yfel. Apart from the brief piano intro to “The Might of Lucifer” and the slower instrumental “A Cold, Dark Fog”, the album assaults your ears with pure, aggressive, orthodox black metal blasphemy with some resemblance to the Greek scene. Armon puts emphasis on the rather bass heavy, almost thrashy at times, riffs in The Depths of Hell and for good reason; the riffs carry the album and create for some very memorable tracks like “The Might of Lucifer” and “The Power of Understanding”. The atypically high in the mix bass adds depth to these riffs and is another of the albums strengths. It, combined with the already solid guitar work, make the chorus of “The Might of Lucifer” irresistible to headbang to and for likely the best part of the album. It’s refreshing to hear bass in black metal, especially when it’s done well. 

That said, The Depths of Hell does have some weaknesses that prevent the album from reaching its true potential, namely the vocals and drums. Yfel makes use of a drum machine, which is fairly common in one man projects. It’s programmed well enough to prevent it from being a serious liability to the overall sound. Still, the addition of a drummer could only do good for Yfel. The other thing that holds the album back is the vocals. Armon’s vitriolic, throaty rasps are far from bad and do a fine if unassuming job, but when compared to the guitars there’s a clear difference in quality. Additionally, there’s no real variation in the vocals, a definite letdown given the album’s other strengths. 

Complains aside, The Depths of Hell’s other strong points are the songwriting and mixing. The album flows well and the short, punchy tracks keep the pace going quickly. Indeed, save for the final track, none of them reach six minutes in length. This furthers the epic nature of the closer, “The Black Seas of Infinity”. The addition of the slower “A Cold, Dark Fog” keeps the album from running out of steam too quickly from the other, faster tracks. The mix is clear, despite the somewhat rawer guitars, without becoming sterile and losing the album’s atmosphere. It’s somewhat of a surprise, albeit a welcome one, given that it’s Yfel’s first album and was self-released. Indeed, I have nothing against raw production, but this would likely have been a hindrance given the quality of the guitar playing.

When it comes down to it, The Depths of Hell achieves what it sets out to do, and the aggressive black metal takes its listener on a journey to the depths of hell. The tracks catapult riff after riff at you and force you to submit to their power. It isn’t new or adventurous or anything like that, but due to the sheer power and strength of its riffs it succeeds. It does have a couple noticeable flaws, but its strong points far outweigh the weaker ones and makes for a greatly satisfying and pure black metal experience.


Friday, December 6, 2013

Amiensus & Oak Pantheon - Gathering

When I first heard of the then upcoming split between Amiensus and Oak Pantheon I was more than a bit excited. Needless to say I preordered the album right away, even forgoing the chance to listen to the album digitally so I could get the full experience from a proper speaker. It’s all too easy to be disappointed, especially with expectations as high as mine were. I’m immensely pleased to report that my expectations were met and even surpassed.

As much as I loved Amiensus’s debut album, Restoration, it suffered slightly from the transitions from blacker sections to softer, Agallochy, folk influenced ones. They seem to have rectified this on their half of the split, a single song titled “Arise”. For those unfamiliar with Amiensus’s sound, they combine a number of elements to form beautiful walls of metal interspersed with acoustic and folk passages. Acoustic guitar, melodic lead guitar, heavier rhythm guitar, synths, harsh vocals, clean vocals, bass, and drums are all used, and occasionally all at the same time. This may sound eclectic and like it wouldn’t work, but in reality, everything comes together perfectly and creates moments of pure beauty. “Arise” is quiet like the material on Restoration, but perhaps better written and more mature. As I said previously, on their debut album there were moments where the transitions from metal to folk weren’t done very well. “Arise” has none of those moments, and transitions from metal to folk perfectly and integrates both seamlessly. It’s a fantastic song and likely the band’s best at this point.

As “Arise” fades out and the rush turns to a lead guitar over bass, we come to the Oak Pantheon half of the split, “A Gathering”. Oak Pantheon began as a very Agalloch influenced band with their EP, The Void, but began to find a more unique sound with their debut full-length, From a Whisper, as they incorporated more black metal and post-metal into their sound. “A Gathering” contains no folk, a healthy amount of post-metal, and just a bit of black metal. It’s very lead guitar focused and the riffs are more post-metal than black metal, and if it weren’t for the vocals, I’d be hesitant to call it black metal at all; only the end of the song sounds wholly black metal with its tremolo riffs and blast beats. In spite of Sati’s deranged breathy shrieks, the purer black metal section sounds very uplifting and joyous, and is very fitting with respect to the rest of the songs. And yet again, the band's best song to date. 

This split will hardly appeal to metal purists, mostly because of the Amiensus part of the split, but that’s certainly not the goal of either Amiensus or Oak Pantheon, given this split and their previous works. For more open-minded listeners, however, Gathering is likely to become a late year favorite. The harmonious chaos and beauty of “Arise” and the pure infectiousness of “A Gathering” are sure to please, and they leave the listener wanting more from both bands. For now though, we’ll have to be content with leaving this on repeat. 


Monday, December 2, 2013

Altars of Sin - Servant of Evil

For the most part, the saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover” doesn’t apply to metal. Sure, there are some very deceptive albums covers out there (Depresy’s A Grand Magnificence, anyone?), but for the most part, metal albums proudly wear their genres and themes on their sleeves. Colorful artwork with disembowelments and zombies and gore for death metal; black and white forests, demons, and pentagrams are common in black metal; vikings, ravens, and runes are hallmarks of folk metal; etc etc.  

Altars of Sin’s Servant of Evil gives further weight to this claim. You’d be daft to expect anything other than filthy black metal of an album with black and white artwork of a virgin being sodomized with an inverted cross by the horned one on an altar. Further, you’d expect that it’s not going to be fancy, symphonic, folky, or anything like that. It’s going to be pure satanic black metal. Well, as it turns out that’s not quite what Servant of Evil is, but not far off at all. Altars of Sin plays some old school blackened thrash. That works both ways here in that it’s part of the albums charm, but also part of why it’s really nothing special. 

Like I said, Servant of Evil contains fairly typical black/thrash metal, but nothing more than that. The low, bass heavy guitar work is very thrashy and is only rarely tremolo. It isn’t especially good, and other than the riffs on “The Bloody Stench of War”, it’s pretty forgettable. The bass generally accompanies the guitars and goes about its business unassumingly. The drumming is also pretty average. There are plenty of blast beats, double bass, crashing cymbals, and the occasional fill, but it never surprises or impresses. Kakorot’s vocals are the only part of the album that stand out on their own. I wasn’t a fan of the deranged shrieks at first, but they grew on me with subsequent listens. The sound quality is somewhat dirty, but not particularly raw or abrasive.

Twenty plus years after black/thrash’s founding, it takes something truly special to stand out amongst the thousands of releases. What Servant of Evil is lacking is that something special. It’s not lacking quality instrumental work or vocals or the addition of keys or anything like that; there are plenty of simplistic yet fantastic albums out there. What’s lacking is the emotional response that all good metal is supposed to give its listener. Whether it’s hatred, melancholy, or joy doesn’t matter, just that it evokes emotion. Servant of Evil certainly isn’t lacking emotion, that’s for sure. The vocals, frenzied guitars, and drums are full of hate and energy, but something is lost in translation from speakers to ears. Altars of Sin have plenty of emotion, but it just doesn’t quite reach the listener. 

Perhaps I’m being a bit unfair with my description of the music so far. It’s largely forgettable but gets the job done. There’s nothing in the twenty minutes of this release that will offend or anger you, and there are a few times where everything comes together and works quite well like the riffs of “The Bloody Stench of War” and the disconcerting ending of “Hail Goat Lord” with female groaning and gasping along with bleating goats over guitar feedback. But these moments are uncommon and for the most part, Servant of Evil doesn’t excite. If it had been released twentysome years ago it would likely have become a cult classic. But sadly this is not the late eighties/early nineties. In 2013 this just comes off as uninspired. Perhaps a few more memorable riffs would have saved it. Perhaps more adventurous songwriting. As it is, Servant of Evil is pretty lackluster.