Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Amiensus - Restoration

I find it interesting to see how many bands Amiensus is compared to. I’ve seen them compared to Borknagar, Agalloch, Oak Pantheon, Woods of Ypres, Abigail Williams, Opeth, Dimmu Borgir, and even (quite puzzlingly, I might add) Blind Guardian. While I do understand where most of these comparisons come from, Amiensus is definitely more than just a cut-and-paste of a half dozen different bands. It’s certainly difficult to pin their sound down with any degree of exactness due to the way Amiensus has combined so many different musical stylings. If I were forced to give a succinct genre description to Restoration I would probably say progressive/melodic black metal, kind of like Borknagar meets Agalloch, with more of a thematic tendency towards the latter. However, that’s a misleading description because it leaves out the fair amount of post-metal styled riffing and even the bit of melodic death metal that appears on “Become the Fear”. It’s an eclectic mix of genres, that’s for sure, and it makes one wonder. Whenever a band uses so many different styles, asking whether the band pulls it off is a valid question. Has Amiensus succeeded in combining their various influences into one coherent album? Well, for the most part I would say yes.

I first came across Amiensus while trawling Bandcamp. It’s definitely not the best way to discover music, but sometimes you’ll stumble upon some real gems. And that’s initially what I thought Restoration was; a gem, a veritable diamond in the rough. But that’s not exactly what I think of it now. No, though I wouldn’t quite consider it a gem, it’s not too far from it. What I mean by that is, initially, everything comes across as brilliant and wonderful. The harsher yet-not-too-harsh blackened sections contrast nicely with the softer, folky parts and this really highlights the band’s ability to use two very different ideas without sounding random and haphazard. And that, besides the vocals, is the band’s main strength. For the most part, they do manage to make things work for them, especially in the album’s first half. But upon later listens, small flaws and imperfections become apparent like awkward transitions between the harsh, metallic sections and the softer ones, or the tendency to stick to a formulaic song structure.

Most of the song on Restoration follow the format of a soft, finger picked guitar or acoustic intro, followed by alternating sections of black metal parts and softer parts. These harsher sections are why Amiensus gets categorized as a black metal band. They’re usually of the heavier, slower variety than the typical, blazing tremolo streams black metal is often associated with. The harsh black metal styled vocals definitely contribute to the classification. The softer, folky sections are where the Agalloch comparisons stem from, though they often have keyboard melodies accompanying them. That’s not to say that this is the outline for the songs on Restoration, but it is noticeable and I would have enjoyed a couple more adventurous tracks. As mentioned previously, the transitions between the harsh and soft sections are sometimes lacking. Nice, calming sections of introspective acoustics and keys are occasionally brought to an abrupt and disconcerting end by the metallic ones.

Both the harsher and calmer parts are quite good when taken separately, but when Amiensus combines the two styles is where they truly stand out. Many of the harsh sections also use clean vocals, acoustics, and keys as well, and the combination of heaviness and lighter parts lends a keen sense of melody to the entire album. These sections will utilize heavier rhythm guitar, melodic guitar, acoustics, drums, harsh vocal, clean singing, bass, and keys, sometimes all at the same time. This may sound like a recipe for disaster, but Amiensus pulls it off unquestionably. Such a thing would be difficult for bands with many years of experience, so Amiensus’s success is even more impressive for that. Credit must be given to the post-production work this album received, because the mixing allows every part of the combination of sounds to shine through. Quality of recording is somewhat of a controversial topic for some people. Some claim that rawer production adds atmosphere and authenticity to a performance, while others claim that shitty recording is just shitty. In this case, having such clear production further allows each instrument to be heard, which can only be considered a plus.

Now, the album’s other main strength is certainly the vocals. Interestingly enough, every member of the band is listed as having performed vocal duties, if only for a little while. Amiensus often uses a hoarse, blackened rasp along with the black metal styled sections, and switches to multilayered cleans for choruses. As I mentioned previously, the sections where they use cleans combined with the harsher vocals is where Amiensus shines brightest. I do feel the need to mention that the weakest section vocally was Ken Sorceron’s (of Abigail Williams) harsh vocals during his guest appearance on “Millenium”. His cleans are pretty cool, but someone from Amiensus should have taken over for him on the harsher sections of the song. He did do the fantastic mixing and mastering for Restoration, so his less than stellar vocal performance is forgivable here.

Though I do mention that Amiensus is most consistently at their best when combining the harsh sections with their softer ones and layering cleans over everything, the best song on the album is “I Am”, an almost completely calmer song. From the cello intro to the constant guitar melodies and synthy keys, from the soft, rumbling drumming to the introduction of the harsh, post-metal riffing of the second chorus, the entire song is utterly fantastic. It’s been far too long since a song gave me chills like this one, but that’s another frustrating thing about this release; though “I Am” demonstrates the amazing ability this band has, they never again come close to reaching the heights “I Am” does. Even though the least metallic song on the album is the best, their other song with the least black metal in it is the worst on the album. “Healer” is only four and a half minutes long, but it drags on in that unbelievably boring way that Opeth is so famous for. Even though “I Am” is the best song on Restoration by far, “Healer” is not too dissimilar to it, which is why I said that Amiensus is most consistently best when mixing the harsher black metal styled with the folky sounds and clean singing. It’s kind of strange that I liked Restoration best when it was at its least metal points, but also disliked it most at some of these points too. They can obviously do this extremely well as “I Am” demonstrates, but I’m afraid that if they abandon more of their metal leanings they’ll end up more like “Healer”.

To continue with that gem analogy, Restoration isn’t a perfectly cut gem by any means. It has its flaws and rough edges like many albums, but the parts that do work, work so well that it’s impossible to deny that the band has a great deal of talent and passion. Restoration is more like a semiprecious stone; it is very cool and all, but it’s easy to overvalue it and get swept away by its shininess. I certainly enjoyed the album and it will be interesting to see how Amiensus develops over their next full lengths. This was perhaps too ambitious for a debut full length, but their split with Oak Pantheon was excellent and they ironed out many of the kinks that held this release back, so I’m hopeful that they’ll only improve. In any case, this is certainly something to check out for fans of the numerous bands mentioned and well worth your time.


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Fine Red Mist - Depressive Holocaust

I don’t know about you, but I tend to associate depressive black metal with places like Norway, Sweden, Canada – places with shitty winter weather and short days. Florida certainly isn’t a place I’d consider, but that’s exactly where Fine Red Mist originates from. To be honest, I’m not too sure what there’s to be depressed about in a place as pleasantly warm as Florida. Too many old people maybe? Anyways, I haven’t exactly been subtle about my general disdain for one man bands. Sure, it’s awesome when it works, but most of the time the band member can usually only play one or two instruments with any degree of competency. The best option for a one man band is something simplistic and repetitive, which is exactly what Fine Red Mist’s Depressive Holocaust is.

Depressive Holocaust’s sound is built around the repetition of just a few heavily distorted, lethargic riffs over usually slow, muted drum work and low and distant moans. Think a slower, less skilled version of Burzum’s “Dunkelheit” and you won’t be too far off. There are occasional diversions from this formula, like the short section of more aggressive drumming and some surprisingly adventurous riffing on “Blight the Earth”, but these are pretty infrequent. The thick guitars create a dense wall of noise that envelopes the listener. It’s somewhat trance inducing, and even though the album is just half an hour long, it feels much shorter than its already short length. KaosChrist makes use of synths throughout the album, but it’s hardly distracting or overbearing most of the time. The high pitch does grate a bit on “A Fool’s Game”, but for the most part it furthers the trance like atmosphere of the music.

The music in Depressive Holocaust is hardly what one would call skillful or difficult, but it has that mysterious ability to make time disappear. While listening to this album I’ve found myself missing turns while driving, forgetting to take food off the stove, and simply standing around several times. Not because of fantastic musicianship or technical displays of skill that leave me struck dumb, but because of how utterly consuming the music is. It’s all too easy to forget yourself while listening to Depressive Holocaust, but that’s really all the album has going for it. There’s more than a hint of depression in the instrumentals and vocals, which one would expect given the name, but it’s not of the in your face – kill yourself variety like Xasthur or Silencer, but more of the distanced and emotionally empty type; nice for the rain and snow of winter, which Florida lacks incidentally, without going overboard.

Honestly, Depressive Holocaust isn’t all that unique or special. After the first minute or so, you’ll know exactly what to expect from the rest of the album and if it’ll be something you’d enjoy. If you’re a fan of DSBM you could certainly do worse than listening to Depressive Holocaust. That said, you could do far better as well. In any case, it’s not something to obsess over; there are plenty of higher quality releases you should pick up before this one. It’s not a bad album by any means, but where there’s so much out there more deserving of your money, why bother?