Τρίτη, 11 Σεπτεμβρίου 2012

Artefact - Ruins (2008)

In my previous review of Darkenhöld's - A Passage to the Towers I mentioned that Aldebaran, although creating a series of very good albums, had never reached the focal point of excellence; getting back to Artefact's magnus opus, Ruins, I am forced happily to make a kind of renounciation. For me, "Ruins" is the best album in the Emperor/Dissection school of melodic/progressive/epic black metal, since "Storm of the Light's Bane" and "Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk". Don't take this as an absolute statement though, as I can't say I have heard that many albums in that particular style. In fact, it remains that this album got minimum attention until now, except perhaps some positive reviews and a spot that was given to the band at that time in Wacken. 

I believe Artefact did a "mistake" here that made sure of the band's relative obscurity into the black metal circles. They got too progressive and complex for the ears of a black metal listener. Complexity into a Deathspell Omega record for instance is mostly in the fields of atonalism where no real sense of harmony exists, but an alternation of monochromatic, dissonant chords, which could be random in relation to one another and still create a similar kind of effect. Artefact however, are purely harmonic; harmony is like a straight line, if you get lost in the way there is no getting back. They are also quite technical on the rhythmical department and of course, like any black metal band that respects itself, speedy and rushing. In addition, there is not really a slow or simple song in the album, with the exception of some moments of brief rest here and there. The end result is a record that sounds overwhelming and mind-numbing from 3-4 songs and on. Professional producers always make sure to put slower, more atmospheric songs in an album of dense music, so as to make it be heard from beginning to end, to constitute a bigger, sum-is-greater-that-the-parts, experience, as did the classics with their symphonies, by the way (and to think how dismayed they would be by seeing modern audiences still last no more than a couple of minutes).

With "Ruins" there is also another defining characteristic; the first song of the album is obviously the better. The band seems to suggests us this itself, as there is a 7 minute piano rendition of it as the closing track, and the intro even plays with its basic themes in order to lead into it. Indeed, "Gargoyles Unleashed" is definitely the catchier song this band has ever produced. It leaves one breathless with its merciless exposition of epic and rough melodicism, running wild like, indeed, a storm of 1-tone pissed off flying creatures. It is the "Night's Blood" of the band, a song that will hopefully remain classic as an example of excellent black metal in the ages to come. While in Dissection's opus, however, follows "Unhallowed", a much simplier and melodic black metal song (and then even, the catchy hit, Where Angels Lie) here we have an even more complex, multifarious song, Medieval Ancestry, and it just goes on an on like that. I admit than in previous listenings I usually stopped after some songs, kind of frustrated, to relisten to "Gargoyles Unleashing" and finish the session, a probably criminal mistake. But this shows that albums like these should not be listened as a whole, but as 2-3 songs at a time, until one feels familiarized enough with the content to follow it all in one shot.

And indeed, with Ruins, this approach absolutely pays off. Medieval Ancestry sounds like an exploration into the mysterious and complex threads of history, alternating between anxious struggle and glorious discovery, between technical, thrashy riffs and melodically advanced black metal. It is too an absolutely fantastic song and a paragon for progressive black metal. After the vocal, monastery-sounding interlude of "Catharian Ruins" the onslaught continues with the Emperor-ian "Reverence" where the guitar fury begins from galloping techno-thrash to reach an emotional crescendo with " " shouting dramatically over an almost orchestral sounding arrangement. What is really formidable about this record is that even when it falls back into a relative melodic calmness such as "In the Fountain of the Enchantress", it does not allow its melodies to recieve a non-adventurous evolution. "Fountain" ends in a satisfied manner, in a major mode that might even remind some of fellow dreamers Alcest. "My Inner Sanctum" almost carries from there, indulging into romantic, twin evolving melodies. Synths join with guitar leads to portray audially sacral places of beauty amidst constant dynamic movement, like a forest of stubborn, ancient trees throughtout the violent changing of the seasons. An excellent instrumental that makes me think that Artefact could make a successful living creating music for rpg's if they wished. "Curse of the Wizard" totally crosses the line of accepted song titles and is probably the weaker song of the album, so off we go to "Stellar Winds" which is another highlight with its almost hollywood-sounding melodies (I think of John Williams when I say that, don't frown please) and progressive playfullness. "Finale" (yes, titles isn't exactly their strongest point) unfortunately doesn't impress much as it seems like a filler made out of rejected riffs. With an album of such density, 60 minutes is probably unnecessary and Artifact would do better if they had the courage to leave out one or two of the weakest songs. Of course, nowadays we can just leave them out the playlist, but in truth, less songs always means more attention to the better ones. Despite what it says, the album actually closes with the piano cover of Gargoyles Unleashing, called Gargoyles Rest (let's not mention titles again). It's pretty interesting that it transforms the song into a solist piece, but I would not listen to it many times. The jazz closing is cool though (a bit wtf, of course).

To be honest, Ruins obviously has its imperfections, and still after my re-assessment of its value, it seems slightly inconsistent. Especially the second half of the album (which is weaker) looks like it could be trimmed a little without serious repercutions. It total though, it is a great achievement that could be a point of reference for many musicians trying their way into the difficult and thorny pathways of ambitious, progressive black metal. I should admit though that I feel kind of sorry for these guys that the rest of the world doesn't think so. Especially when I know how difficult for one is to transcend or repeat his magnum opus (as they obviously haven't stopped making music) and that this opus is not even considered such by the majority of outward reality. In any way, I seriously hope that Artefact is one day reunited and give it another shot, or that Aldebaran will be able to reach the same amount of excellence with Darkenhöld.


Darkenhöld - A Passage to the Towers (2010)

Well composed, ambitious, labyrinthine black metal is one of the things I am constantly in search for. It's not that I've heard so many exemplars of this kind to end up growing addicted to it (Emperor, Dissection in the old days, Deathspell Omega and Blut Aus Nord in the modern are some of these few) but it's more like, that I haven't. As Deathspell Omega have told, black metal seems like a big promise - its purpetrators seem to have hit a deep vein, but so far have only managed to scratch its surface. It seems reasonable to think that if these progenitors (speaking about bands such as Burzum or Darkthrone) have channelled such great energies with what seems to have been a punk, guttural, feral approach, then some intellectual, reflective, artistically endowed individual should be able to harness and shape them in order to materialize a much greater potential. It is a hypothesis that has seldom come into fruition - many modern approaches according to common belief seem to lack a spiritual substance -mostly honesty and willpower, which creates a popular, nowadays, view  that black metal is a thing of the subconscious, of the dark, and shouldn't be mixed with rational, clear-headed approaches.

Darkenhöld is the direct offspring of Artefact, a french band which has had a limited success in forging their own path of ambitious black metal, mainly with their 2008 album Ruins. Epic, melodic, elaborate, (hopelessly? )romantic in their medieval/fantasy obsessions, but also inconsistent compositionally in the sum of all parts, Artefact broke up after a crisis of identity that involved a modernization moreso of their image rather than their sound, under the perhaps, reflective title of "Failure", an ep of four songs. I was very interested when I discovered that Aldebaran, the main composer had started another band that whole-heartedly re-embraced the fantastical, medieval mythos. Personally, I always preferred metal as wild, unfettered, junevile fantasy rather then cold, austere realism. Not only because of the allure of escapism or poetic metaphor, but also because metalheads are usually introverts who more directly and boldly express themselves through simulated realities, exactly like rpg "nerds", apparently. I imagine Aldebaran sitting in his chair worried, thinking his ass about his next artistic incarnation, and suddenly bursting out "Fuck all that shit! I'm really all about fantasy metal, gargoyles and dragons and castles."

Darkenhöld are hardly subtle in their lyrical and pictorial references; as with Artefact, everything seems to have come off from a D&D campaign. While the titles are bereft of any significant meaning apart of setting a visual scenery, the music suggests much more. It is comprised of melodic, evolving riffs that twist and turn, alternating emotions during their course. Guitars and bass move in counterpoint without this ever turning into a gimmick and betraying the conception of the riff, with just enough variations to successfully imbue an aura of classical symphony to otherwise traditional heavy metal songwriting (also due to there being a greater reliance to black metal melodic devices comparing to heavier/speedier Artefact). This is music with intricacies that are overseen at first listenings (especially at low volumes), perhaps underestimated because of the seemingly cliched style, but mostly due to the density and interweavement of the ideas. Some melodies for instance need to be mentally followed actively and in conjunction with the harmonic structure underneath in order to make sense. The production, unlike a typical heavy metal sound, does not seem much interested in power but rather in clarity, which will also make this band a write-off for many. (By the way, I notice that the album becomes much more aggressive when I roll of some bass frequencies below 500 hz, it seems mastering could have been a little more daring). The music itself, or to be more correct, the esoteric impetus which lies behind its creation, is also unlike to typical black metal; it reaches for wonder, awe, beauty, majesticness. It definitely does not forfeit power, however it seems mostly oblivious of the rawer, harder side of life.. It is like an rpg session where you get the awe and wonder but none of the pain. While this not necessarily a problem, I feel that Darkenhold can better expand their vision by going into less safer passages, rather than further elaborating in their already much trodden ones. We should perhaps remember that the greatest experiences in life are in fact a mix of negativity and positivity, tragedy and hope, beauty and rawness.

I find "A Passage..." best at its fiercer, epic and more dynamic, like in the opener "Ghouls and the Tower" and the spectacular middle to end part of "Citadel of Obsidian Slumber", but not as good at the sometimes anemic turns its melodicism takes ("Cleaving the Ethereal Waves"). To be honest, it's hard to pick out songs as examples in this album, as most of them share a similar combination of elements, genre-wise and quality-wise; meaning that there are some defining strong moments, some ok-ish and also a couple that are a bit disappointing throughout the songs. To get back to what I have suggested in the first paragraph, Darkenhöld, together, of course,  with the majority of modern talented but unrecognized black metal bands, seem to be indeed missing something in comparison to the great makers or classic black metal. Its fortunately not honesty or passion here, and definitely not technicality and elaboration, but perhaps the artistic imagination or boldness to break boundaries of familiarity and expectedness. That there are no lyrics also doesn't help. There are bands such as Wolves in the Throne Room where the inclusion of a mediocre lyric would destroy an atmosphere that is so purely evocative and pictorial by its own. In Darkenhöld, it would be worth to try to provide the addition of another "dimension" to the imaginary wandering of the music, as it seems there is the space for it.  

This in an interesting band, as was Artefact, in that it is talented and ambitious enough to look up a level ahead and aim for perfection, but never quite getting there. It seems likely that Aldebaran is struggling hard to create an album that will become classic and lift off his band off from an underground status. "A Passage.." for all its merits is not yet that album, but funnily enough, I just saw an announcement for a preview of the next Darkenhöld album at some website as I had already begun writing this review. People that are persistent in their vision are admirable, and even though it may not now or ever be perfect, they deserve and claim attention rightfully. So, let's see what the future holds for Darkenhöld.