Πέμπτη, 13 Νοεμβρίου 2014

Obsequiae - Suspended in the Brume of Eos (2011)

The Middle Ages hold a special allure to me, perhaps the most of all the historic ages. That's not exactly original, the fantasy genre is almost entirely based in them, as is a large part of pen & paper and computer gaming, heavy metal, many more historic movies taking place in that time instead of say, Renaissance, and so on.  Personally I've wondered before why is that so, since we are clearly historically aware that it was such a backwards age. Surely, its romanticization by films and literature had its effect, but what was there to inspire it in the first place? For a start, it is sometimes forgotten that the Middle Ages had their undoubted contribution to high art, from Gothic architecture to early plainchant and early polyphony in music, the masterpieces by Perotin, Hildegard von Bingen, Guillaume de Machaut, that bear this unique "spirituality" that is seldom found in music even 10 centuries after. Oh, badass knights and their castles too (back on that later).

Obsequiae is a US band from Minnesota that is, as you surely must have guessed, heavily influenced by the medieval period both in music and general aesthetic. We are greeted with a wonderful cover taken from a 15th century fresco, that depicts a typically symbolic scene of a lady out in nature, accompanied by the usual pets every hip lady should have had at the time, a unicorn, a lion and a monkey. The title of the album itself is a perfect companion to the scene and was actually what lulled me into checking the album in the first place. But, let's hit play; two folkish guitar leads kick in right ahead in counterpoint, enthusiastic, robust and bright, as exactly you would have expected the glorious morning light to sound. They are accompanied by screaming vocals and powerful drums, both sounding somewhat reserved at the same time, like well-mannered medieval lads engaging in court etiquette (ok, let's say medieval duel etiquette and be more metal). The overall style of the band seems hard to pin down, carrying a black metal feeling but featuring little blasting, tremolo picking or dissonance, not brazen enough to be labelled pagan metal, too harsh and virile to be "melodic death metal". It's actually closer to the very beginnings of the latter genre, for example the first Opeth album or the Dark Tranquility demo, in which DT, ignoring the typical thrash riffing of the era, attempted something like a bold embodiment of nature in its beauty and ferocity alike, exactly as the "Vernal Awakening" title sums up.

To be more precise,  the medieval elements in the music of Obsique are closer to the folk music of troubadours than the churchy stuff I mentioned in the beginning; even the pseudonyms of the two members are actual names of musicians from the 12-13th century, even though the polyphony that characterizes the interplay between the guitar tracks of the album wasn't really heard until Renaissance, when composers starting making polyphonic compositions out of these folky, bouncy melodies we've came to associate with jousting, tavern partying and so on. Not that this is important, as Obsequiae are clearly a metal band, not some medieval fest re-enactment troupe. In a metal band, there is almost always an extra-musical will that drives the creation, something beyond historicism, epistemology, a personal will-to-power that concerns this very world, even if obscured by reference to fantastic ones. Especially in such a regal, high-brow band such as Obsequiae.

Feeling this, I was disappointed not to receive any lyrics in the BC download, site, or wherever else, so my only point of reference was an Invisible Oranges interview of the band.  In which, however, apart from the lyric absence being justified rather crudely (I get it about the cd insert, don't see why they couldn't be uploaded somewhere) we at least get a sum-up of the lyric themes (" dreamlike fantasies which attempt to illustrate simple tasks, observations, or notions and carry their symbolism into greater realizations "). Still, my questions mostly remain answered; what is in the medieval age that fascinates the band? Well, not "medieval history, fantasy novels, role-playing, video games, weapons", but just medieval music and instruments and... castles. Concerning which, the band also takes heed to note that "anyone who dislikes castles is probably a dick". I don't dislike castles, but I can think of a few reasons why someone would.

You see, sometimes we forget that castles were the exclusive residence of middle ages nobility, the class that emerged out of the feudal system to amass local power. Lords and knights have been always portrayed conveniently as the humble protectors of the weak, when in reality they were land-lords that employed large populations of peasants in their farms, to harness almost all of the wealth coming from their work, in exchange for protection (or, obviously, "protection", at times). There were as responsible for epic feats of bravery, for patronizing the arts, as they were for maintaining the all-known misery, poverty and rigid hierarchical system of the middle ages. This is actually where my concern about medieval-inspired metal lies; it's no lie that as the larger part of the power and resplendence of the ages comes from the aristocracy, there is often an implied, or perhaps subconscious endorsement (and a meeting point with some contemporary right-wing politics) of it by many bands within the "genre". However, I would not lump Obsequiae into this category, for not only there are no such references, but interestingly the lyrics to "The Wounded Fox" posted in the I.O. interview depict an inversion of the state of power between the hunter and the haunted, an antithesis to the ideal of perpetual, hierarchical, supposedly "natural" order that must be maintained in such a worldview.  Hopefully they don't think I'm a dick too.

Getting back to the music, the only drawback that I can attest to is that the mood does not differentiate that much throughout the album; certainly Obsequiae have a distinguishable, personal style, characterized by an interchange of mid tempo folkish guitar leads with faster, tremolo riffing parts that could be labeled as melodic black metal or death metal, depending on the case. After the first half of the album has passed, there aren't many surprises to be found though, not because there isn't variety in the wealth of musical influences, but because the mood that they are presented wavers between regal lyrical and regal angry.  But this is just a minor complaint, as the quality almost never diminishes. Indeed, what shines on is the spectacular musicality of the band. Besides the already lauded intricate guitar harmonies, courtesy of (also Celestiial main-man) Blondel Del Nestle, praise must be given to the airy delivery of Neidhart von Reuental on the drums, as also for some nice bass lines that pop out once in a while. Although the band plays often quite technical parts, there is a finesse in the delivery that makes the music really breathe and succeed in its goal, also aided by a dynamic and spacey, non pro-tools sounding mix that works great, especially when listened in headphones. Also noted must be the classical guitar instrumentals, in a purely medieval style that sounds like actual transcriptions, that serve as interludes between the metal songs. The highlights of the album lie for me (not surprisingly I guess) in the moments when the band emphasizes the melodic black metal influence, such as in the epic "In the White Fields", the menacing "The Starlit Shore", not to ignore the excellent instrumental outro of the album, "Cabin Lights" that actually ends sooner than I would like.

"Suspended In the Brume of Eos" is one of the finest metal albums I've heard lately, that places Obsequiae in the esteemed category of the bands that I hold the most expectations for the future. Perhaps the only thing missing is them defining themselves in a more assured manner; in some ways (from the absence of lyrics, to the band choosing a certain obscurity both in presentation and attitude) this feels like a well-done project rather than a "main" band.  Acknowledging that I am projecting my own interpretation and expectations in a supposedly objective manner, I'd like to see more clearly what they are "about" and what is their will-to-power. Neidhart mentions in the I.O. interview that "the best heavy metal has always been mired into escapism and mysticism". But, the best heavy metal has been that which was able to create and reflect, out of the escapist freedom, meaningful and powerful visions and realizations about the very real world.


Τρίτη, 11 Νοεμβρίου 2014

Inter Arma - The Cavern (2014)

It's been some time lately since I got hooked into a metal song right away after clicking το one of these bandcamp play buttons (thanks to the cool guys at metalbandcamp.com, as usual).  Inter Arma's "The Cavern" starts off with a wondrous and threatening wall of noise and feedback, like some indian ayahuaska-infused psychedelic ritual, to melt into a lyrical, emotive clean guitar passage, thereafter eloquently harmonized by violin and more guitars.  Pause. Outburst of electric guitar and heavy drumming, monolithic palm muted riff, whose second part rises in fierce, vigorous dual heavy metal leads. That's a little bit of everything that is good, in just three and a half minutes. A good way to start an album.

What also somewhat excited me after briefly googling the band, is that Inter Arma are obviously lumped into the post-metal category, Mastodon/Baroness references, Relapse contract and all, however seem to contain an essence that is not usually found in the said style, or at least is more vibrant to the context of my personal preferences. "The Cavern" is a release that is comprised of the 45 minute same-titled song, with a lyrical theme that concerns the survival of an exiled man in the hostile desert, a theme that very typically shares spiritual extensions (for example, as a rite of passage for the individual) in various cultures that it is found, from the Aborigines, to ancient Spartans, to the manner by which such survival stories are presented in modern documentaries. In short, we have a presentation that hints over something "deeper" than what your typical metal band goes for, but does such a thing indeed exist in the contents?

It doesn't take long for the enthusiasm to somewhat curb, after hearing the band repeating the (awesome) after-intro riff for about well.. more minutes than it should have. Ah, I am reminded that this comes from "sludge", the sole sub-genre in metal that I cannot get myself to listen to, as the extreme, hardcore-infused version of doom without the lyricism and melody.  Much repetition, less variation, less trance-like quality comparing to drone music (good drone music, not that one coming solely from guitar feedback, please). And god-damn boring vocals. Of all these, Inter Arma are indeed guilty concerning the vocal part (the signer's polite, pitched shout doing almost nothing for me) but only partly on the others. This is obviously a very talented and musically competent band, not at all shy to create complex, soloist-style, dual guitar riffing in-between all the groovy, slow parts.  The part between the introduction and the 20th minute wavers in-between these two styles, sometimes being quite awesome, sometimes leaving me struggling to keep my attention. The melancholic clean guitar and violin fortunately show up again around then, deepening the mood with an added epic twist in one of the best sections of the song, until an ambient break happens that creates a evident bridge between a first and a second part of the song.

Lyrically, from 20 to 26 minutes, this part represents the protagonist seeing a light that guides him/her to a descent (judging by the cover) to the cavern you might have expected from the title. There, although the hero finds water, his/her certainty of dying and consequent magical transportation to a mountain peak, greeted by an "ethereal woman" points that all these might be probably the illusory thoughts that the brain produces at the last stage before death. The music seems to point towards that direction too,  as after some needlessly excessive soloing around the end of the "Americana" section (a bloated part generally) it begins to take a turn for the darker. And it ends in quite an agonized way, using a consecutively slower played variation of the beginning riff, atop increasingly reverbed screaming and feedback. No happy ending I suppose here.

The long-form composition  is a bet generally taken at odds against. Although demands might be lowered given to them being conceived as experimental works, the payback isn't big either, as not a lot of people have the patience to sit through a 45 minute song, or remember where they left it off anytime they had to go. Taking this into consideration, I will applaud the band for the boldness, even though they did not avoid completely the usual pitfalls, such as hit and miss riffing and overlong parts. But undoubtedly, the composition flows just fine and features many strong moments throughout. Although I am still kind of distant to the style of the band, their adventurous approach certainly  will succeed in being able to connect them with a wider audience, such as that of prog or atmospheric metal. The label seems to have grasped that and rather deceptively also uses the label black metal in describing them. While there might be atmospheric echoes of the Cascadian style of bm present in Inter Arma  (mostly in the acoustic, droning parts) this is like saying one plays heavy metal for using a Malmsteen-like scale. The band doesn't need such cheap marketing. It's also worth noting that this is in fact a 2009 composition, recorded by the band as written in the BC page in-between tours. This creates some justified expectations for their contemporary and future work.


Παρασκευή, 31 Οκτωβρίου 2014

Qualeaceans - Capture Of Ziz (2014)

This is a very interesting case; Qualeaceans is a newcomer project comprised of unknown individuals, hailing from an unknown country, who present themselves (?) to us with a single song with a duration of just.. 78 minutes. And this is just the beginning. Their motto is "Metal in Opposition", a reference to RIO, the prog rock offshoot "genre" that despised limits and conventional structures (being despised itself in turn by the mainstream music industry), favoring instead poly-stylism and free form experimentation. Its adherents in the metal culture being so few, Qualeaceans have the advantage to at least begin from a position of interest.

Unconventionally so, the album "The Capture of Ziz" has one song, which does not bear the same title. It is actually called "In the Cavern of the Flightless" and its lyrics would generally place it into the sci-fi category, albeit of the very psychedelic variety, perhaps surrealist too. There is a story here and although it is veiled enough by metaphor and unconventional phrasing, it does create interesting imagery and those hooked by the musical part will probably get their returns when trying to unlock it.

Poly-stylism is a word that the band uses to define its work and indeed there is a lot of stuff here, ranging from heavy death metal, to space rock, to intimate acoustic parts, to freak folk free jamming, to.. you get it. In essence, there are different movements that could have been presented as separate songs, yet I do like the concept of the long composition anyway as it re-enforces the idea that it should be listened as a whole and there is also good enough flow between the parts to justify it. Generally, the logic of jamming progresses actively the song, as all movements reach a point where they "lock" into a repeating rhythm, with a lot of guitar soloing (and not only) happening. But there is also substantial riffing in-between these parts, not failing thus to keep the interest intact as many bands of the "space rock" genre do, for whom recording albums and jamming live is almost one and the same. There is also a variety in the instruments that are used,  from psychedelic keyboards to flutes and mandolins (?), some sounds even defying recognition. Guitars are usually heavily effected in ingenious ways and drums, although it parts sound programmed, groove in often complex rhythms. The metal parts are quite complex, even though in a very different way than your typical techno-death band; it is as if they feel a desire to dissolve themselves, to destroy expected structure and logic and find a greater freedom underneath the debris. The so-called dementia, perhaps, a word that is uttered often by the lips of conventionality.

Most of the times, at least, because the band unfortunately does give in some times to the temptation of rather pointless doodling. This usually happens in certain solos that keep on for too long, or at some parts where the desired weirdness translates into random dissonance that doesn't do anything for me. The greatest misstep is in the segment from the 50th to the 60th minute, where just after perhaps my favorite part of the song, an inward acoustic movement with clean vocals in the vein of Kayo Dot, every guitar track begins to play totally unrelated stuff, somewhat like childish play.  Maybe that was the point, but still it is pretty pointless to listen to this segment and I pass it every time. I guess that would be because the absolute breakdown in structure doesn't work in music except as a statement, and even the most experimental theme has to carry some slight repetition to bear musical meaning. Yet, it's completely natural in such experimental works sometimes for the experiment not to pay off, but fortunately for Qualeaceans, this concerns the smaller part of the album.

The Capture of Ziz is a very bold work that improves by every listen and holds much actual content beyond experimentation-for-the-sake-of-it. I would definitely recommend it, even though its rough parts and uncompromising form will definitely require much patience from the listener. It will be very interesting to see how will Qualeaceans evolve in the future and if this happens in the direction of substance rather than remaining fixated on aiming for "weirdness", as it happens in a lot in these kind of projects, certainly the metal scene will have a new standard of mind-sex to refer to.


Τετάρτη, 28 Μαΐου 2014

Appalachian Winter - Ghosts of the Mountains (2013)

In heavy metal, there are bands whose lyrical content, attitude and general aesthetic is so unappealing that one feels almost guilty liking them, obviously solely because of their awesome music. And then, there are bands which get it so right, which are showing such a purity and true-ness of vision, that it almost doesn't matter if the music isn't "professionally" produced, performed, or even top-notch at all times. Appalachian Winter is the second kind of band for me. This is a personal project created by Daniel Klyne (lately there have been some additions in the line-up), a US citizen whose descent or primary residence is traced in the area of Appalachia, a "cultural region in the Eastern United States that stretches from the Southern Tier of New York to northern Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia" (to copy from Wikipedia). The area is almost synonymous with the mountains that occupy a large portion of its range, is quite famous for its unique folk music (a mix of anglo/irish/scottish tradition with some blues) and for its people. It would be interesting to read a bit about Appalachians before delving into the project, a people at different historical times revered or disdained, as as a result of their cultural/physical isolation and the hardships they endured, such as poverty and physical labor under difficult circumstances (remember Panopticon's "Kentucky").

Appalachian Winter is a historical project, as opposed to the fantasy literature that dominates metal to a large extent. All lyrics have to do with either the land itself, or the people living in it. This kind of connection with reality, is a characteristic that is not found very often in black metal music, where, even in the case of bands with historical themes (read: usually nationalist) the idealization of a distant past that might have not even existed, persists. Appalachia itself has also historically been a "victim" of idealization, with all the positive and negative elements that this entails. But this doesn't sound like new age music made by and aimed at city people;  this sounds like there is something deep and pure, something truly connected with the land, in Daniel Klyne's heart.

The interesting thing is that the music of A.W. doesn't really sound Appalachian, except at few times where obvious references are made, also made apparent by instrumentation such as banjo and dulcimer. It is mostly a kind of epic, "symphonic", folkish black metal along the lines of Moonsorrow of Summoning, led by spacious orchestral synths, heavy metal-ish guitar leads and Klyne's amazing and utterly convincing vocals, usually in a deep black metal voice, but very often in clean, almost operatic mode as well. You know these sorry-ass musics featured in corporate advertisements that pass over as "motivational", right? Well, A.W. could be truly called motivational music; anthemic, heroic, powerful, but not in the typical, borderline hateful way that is characteristic of epic black metal, instead bearing a kind of sage-moderation, a positive and hopeful outlook with just the right hints of darkness or coldness, to maintain a cyclical pace that represents real struggle and overcoming.  It's also useful to note that the music has much more layers that one would imagine at first. Just listen at the excellent "The Great Battle". As with Wintersun, for example, there seems to be a monotony of consonance, which might cause the attention of some listeners used in the ADHD and abrupt changes of extreme metal to drift off; however, beneath it, it contains great harmony, a wealth of glorious parallel or "hidden" melodies, best noticed with headphones and active listening.

Heavy metallers are unfortunately very seldom interested in lyrics, but it is here where the project lifts off to land into far-away, snowy mountain peaks, where only few metal bands reside; in the domain of timelessness. It's really difficult to choose one or two excerpts among equally excellent ones, so I won't. Suffice to say that Daniel Klyne is a poet that writes with great passion and in a truly philosophical manner, one that is not characterized by fancy words and aestheticism, but expressed in the more direct, folkish way possible. In perhaps the best song of the album, "Ancestors of the Lake", past and future, reality and fantasy, all meld together into one moment of universal awareness, like the whole weight of the world is suddenly felt over our shoulders; but we are holding it, we comprehend the immensity of it all, if only for a few brief moments. It is just after Daniel finishes his last line, ah what the hell, here is the last verse.

"I like to think after I yield forth my last breath, 
That my spirit will join those ancient ones, 
In song to our beloved mountains. 
But likely that day, 
We shall all be dust, 
And nothing more."

It is like one of these moments experienced in a Terrence Malick movie, a feeling of of awe, sadness and meaningfulness mixed all together. And it is not just this one moment. All throughout the album, the Appalachian Winter speaks of the immensity that can be experienced even through a small fraction of isolated land ("The Town that Old Man Schell Built") paralleling William Blake's famous quote,  it speaks of spiritual independence amidst an authoritative regime ("Rebellion within the Young Nation"), it speaks of the power of tradition ("Patriarchs") and even of the tragedies of war and slavery, sometimes describing the perspective of the land itself, as it witnesses the horrors than men do. Yet, this is art with a positive outlook; everything matters, even if we are small, even if we seem insignificant comparing to the great whole. We can always find our place, our own meaning.

Appalachian Winter is one of the few beacons of light in today's metal scene, one that does limit itself by cynicism, pessimism or soulless professionalism, one that hunts tirelessly for its own personal, resonant vision, without even needing to break new ground in terms of stylistic innovation, without holding back for fear of being perceived as "kitschy". To get back to what I first mentioned in this review, perhaps I should already have mentioned the played-by-hand drum machine that sometimes misses a beat, the sometimes pitch-wavering vocals, the weak home-made production that lacks definition and mid-range, even a few missteps in parts that probably didn't come exactly as the creator wanted. But how much do all of these matter? Some reviewers prefer to rate by rating every characteristic of the record and taking an average of all. But this is not really consistent with our experience. Especially when its great moments aren't just great, but a kind of magic, or when by zooming out and looking from afar, one sees a creation tall enough to reach the peaks of the highest mountains.

This should become a classic metal record, a paradigm for other bands that want to create soulful and meaningful heavy metal to follow.