Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Darkthrone - Eternal Hails......

In January this year, Darkthrone's debut Soulside Journey turned 30 years old. While its sound did not resemble what the band would get known for later on, it has made its mark as the full length starting point of quite possibly, the most influential name in black metal. And what is impressive about them is not just the fact that they have maintained the same path since then, it is the case of rather "stubborn" idiosyncrasy when it comes to musical approach. By thinking of their 70's and 80's influences, even if they have had different turns in their style, Darkthrone have really not changed at all till day one. Think of how many bands went astray, or had big changes of heart, or got lost in the ages, while Fenriz and Nocturno Cult kept on paddling. And even if there are clear weak points in their gargantuan discography, a listening course is also a course of this music's history.

While I have not been totally into their punk phase in the 00's, I frequently spent time listening to their albums of the previous decade and especially 2013's The Underground Resistance, which has heavy metal that I have found to enjoy more than a lot of such material out there. I appreciated Arctic Thunder and its camping photograph cover (even though it's not as memorable) and happily bought Old Star from Bergen when I visited the city, parts of it being reminiscent of a little bit of a more intense "black metal" sound that was not there for a long time. All in all, Darkthrone have honed the old school heavy / doom / black / speed metal recipe into the mainstream and through personal playing style as dedicated fans, but not as copycats. With all that said, what is there to listen to from yet another release? How can they succeed in catching the attention once again? As numerous releases, re-releases, countless compilations after compilations, rare pieces in all formats have proven, Darkthrone have reached the state where it doesn't matter what they release, as the fanbase and its roots are stronger. By now, this logo is the black metal equivalent of The Ramones t-shirts in global clothing chain stores.

By the time Eternal Hails...... was announced, first thing to notice is the cover. I am not used to them not using their own artwork, and especially to pick a work that has been used many times before in underground metal, most notably within 90's black metal itself and the Greek band Zephyrous, who also picked the same art. The original piece is named "Pluto and Charon" by David A. Hardy, dates back to 1972, which in turn could have been inspired by a very similar photo from an expedition in the Arctic from the beginning of the previous century). Of course, I could make an easy guess if I were asked which of the two bands asked for copyright permissions to use it for their album, but this picture shares some truth on such topics.

The aspect that you will never take away from this band, is its organic sound. How natural everything sounds is like it was recorded in a much earlier time when technology was still not so invasive to the musical instrument. Eternal Hails...... is a pleasure to listen to from that perspective, just to appreciate the raw and authentic sound of Darkthrone, and also of metal. On its own it doesn't make the record great, but it has always been something to appreciate and probably will not change in the future either, a word that might be unknown to the project anyway. There are five songs in the record that run a bit longer than usual, as the shortest one is above the seven minute mark, and Darkthrone exercise all their prowess on slower heavy / doom tactics. The only surprising part of Eternal Hails......, is by far the last composition "Lost Arcane City of Uppakra", which refers to an archaic Swedish city of the same name (more accurately, Uppåkra), an interesting piece of history with traditional anti-Christian lyrics in case you have missed them. The song's middle part and ending sees the band experimenting a bit with cleaner guitars and background synths that create a space-like feeling (justifying the cover), something I would never expect from Darkthrone but here we are. 

Other than that, Eternal Hails...... is business as usual. After several listens, I noticed it grew a bit more than what I thought of it in an initial listen, but by now I can't help but think that a new Darkthrone album is like a new Motörhead, with a slight twist here and there. I'm sure the fans and the band are more than delighted with such a statement (why change a winning team) but to get more specific about this record, I did find a lot of parts of it just not as hard hitting as expected. The riffs are there, the raspy vocals are present, the melodies reek of the old school, yet Eternal Hails...... feels like it holds back and is going into levels of predictability that would make it music to leave playing, and not to focus on. It's regular Darkthrone. I heard a lot more filthy, traditional doom in the slower parts of the record, but this time, the band doesn't punch as hard. It doesn't seem like an effortless work on their part, but often the tracks are dragged more than need to reach these high durations, constituting in pieces with fine moments in between dull instances. Honestly, I can imagine older fans, who have been following the genre closely for many years, discarding this as mediocre very quickly. 

As a person who didn't grow up as this band grew up, I haven't been let down by them as much as I have been blown away. By now, I follow Darkthrone from a distance so if most of the music in the album is enjoyable, then it passes the mark. Eternal Hails...... is a slight let down compared to their previous record and not one I will be re-listening a lot, but there's surely something to mention for parts of its music, as a hint of a new idea from them (not innovative, but from the same, aforementioned influences they have). "Wake of the Awakened" and "His Master's Voice" are tracks I liked almost whole, and the rest of it is just nice Darkthrone tunes, worthy to have a known Chernobyl meme attached to them. 

Damage: 3/5 [Good]

Saturday, June 12, 2021

World Yet Known to Man - Blood Incantation

The first encounter with Blood Incantation was through their first EP Interdimensional Extinction, in 2015. This mini-release summarized the work of the band up to that point, re-working on compositions from their earlier demo tapes, (even though the infamous untitled rehearsal that would later become "The Giza Power Plant" is not present here), so it was the most complete effort at this given time. Popularity hadn't exploded yet and still as Blood Incantation was lurking in the underground, the main discussion was if it is a project honoring veteran entities like Demilich or Timeghoul, or it follows a direction of its own. Musical comparisons between these names are hardly insubstantial, but you can tell of the members' influences  even by looking the 2014 demo Astral Spells artwork, side by side with the tape art of Regurgitation of Blood, from 1991. I always found some distant Slugathor references to their music apart from the more obvious aforementioned bands, yet by now they have expanded their palette significantly.  

Having said this, I didn't actually know what to expect before listening to Interdimensional Extinction as I didn't know any of this information yet. The unreadable logo drew my attention, as well as the black / white space related artwork, which showed Blood Incantation's lyrical themes and made it even more interesting. At the same time, this EP played alongside Skelethal's Interstallar Knowledge of the Purple Entity EP, released just a year before, so these two conceptual releases helped each other to my positive stance towards such topics in general. Needless to point out that all the shenanigans regarding lyrics, artworks or aesthetics, can not really save an album if it has mediocre material, which is why Interdimensional Extinction sky rocketed to the top for me on that year as one of the best EPs of 2015. Blood Incantation's technical mastery becomes apparent immediately, as the complex guitars unfold. The riffs are heavy. The drums are perfectly played. The solos hold meaning. Each track is so well made, it leaves the listener scratching their head by trying to equate it with other death metal bands of its time. Interdimensional Extinction is not simply the first Blood Incantation release of bigger magnitude, it isn't just some old tracks re-recorded, it was the band's statement to try and step out of their influences' shadows and grow on their own. The EP features flawless material, the first three out of four tracks contain exceptional death metal that doesn't limit itself to the term, with potency and excellent flow. Slightly more abstract jamming takes place in the final tune "Subterranean Aeon", which has only a handful of lyrics. Such playing would later become a vital part in Blood Incantation's body of work. 

With this momentum, the next step of a band can prove crucial in deciding its fate and especially in this case when Blood Incantation are battling the waves of old school death metal fans grumbling about originality. A split with Spectral Voice, a brother band sharing almost all members, featuring one of their older tracks didn't spare clear signs on their intentions and what would be the following move. It look less than a year to the release of the debut full length album Starspawn, through Dark Descent Records, who had supported them with Interdimensional Extinction as well. Once again with prolific artwork (this time by Don Dixon), with some color addition and completely new compositions, Starspawn was the turning point that could decide whether the community would care about Blood Incantation at all after this release. Before going into a record, you spend some time looking at the tracks, their duration, the titles and everything around the listening itself. I thought a risk had already been taken when I saw a thirteen minute long track as the first in the album, and the shorter ones actually towards the end. From what countless metal bands have been doing so far, this is already pretty counter intuitive. 

And this is one of the legs the not impressed death metal fans stand on, among other things. Even if I am not one of them, such tracklists being called weak is a frequent argument against Blood Incantation, as well as the fact that each album "doesn't feature enough music". This would be true if one assumes that interludes and instrumental moments are only filler parts of a death metal record, but modern bands have finally arrived to burst that bubble with compensating brutality with atmosphere, something that has been not simply missing, but was an unknown concept in the vast majority of albums out there. The comfort in which Blood Incantation dances between more fluid, progressive parts with no vocals, to full-on heaviness, is remarkable and one of its kind at the time period it's being made. As much of a brilliant band Timeghoul were in the early - mid 90's, the same brilliance flows in the veins of Blood Incantation in the 21st century. And yes, Starspawn is breathtaking. All the artistic edges of the band are glorified in every second of this record, the stellar music is overwhelming in what should be one of the most recognized death metal moments of its decade, if it wasn't for the band's second full length that came out three years later.

Clearly Starspawn deserves a lot of replays, and even after that, it does not get boring. In 2016, the scene now started taking Blood Incantation more seriously, as they got mad promotion from all around, the people who didn't totally get the fuss were wondering more and more. It's in 2019 when the real storm hits. The band, after having spent three years of strenuous song writing, with some rehearsals for songs taking up months, releases their second full length album Hidden History of the Human Race. The topics of alien life, space and technology, through well-written lyrics, are crystal clear and a landmark for Blood Incantation by now. Another piece of art by Bruce Pennington is used, this time the cover of the book Space, Time and Nathaniel by Brian Aldiss. While a more obscure Canadian brutal death metal band named Agony, had used the same art for their debut Apocalyptic Dawning (another worthy record for you to listen to by the way), Blood Incantation took proper rights for usage of the art. "The Giza Power Plant" is the only old composition (from ~2013), and the other three tracks, including a mammoth eighteen minute piece "Awakening from the Dream of Existence to the Multidimensional Nature of Our Reality (Mirror of the Soul)", are brand new.

Hidden History of the Human Race features another instrumental track, where the former jamming tendencies have grown out of death metal into a mixture of psychedelic / post / death metal that depicts the band's clear forward thinking character. Demilich's own Antti Boman does feature vocals here, just to confirm that there are no artistic gaps between these bands. The opener "Slave Species of the Gods" is insanely catchy, overly aggressive and hammers top-notch riffing from the band, it's a memorable future classic track to characterize Blood Incantation and an immediate attention catcher, in other words the ideal opener. Of course, the last track, in all its duration, makes up for the wildest experience you can get from them. The record splashed all over the metal media and not only, got extreme levels of coverage, and history has already been made. Such a natural and coherent group, whose live shows sound even better than the captivating studio sound, whose members also have several side-projects with remarkable material, can't hold back the truth about how much talent and potential these individuals have. Hidden History of the Human Race is Blood Incantation's establishing mark and a point of discussion for many years to come.

I don't know if they took their album name from the Cremo / Thompson book with the same title, released in 1999, but combined with the cover art, and then the colossal music with all its directional branches, constitutes to this masterpiece, that not everyone has to understand necessarily. All of their material are on regular repeat, nothing has grown old and there have been insanely good moments since day one. It has now been a bit quiet again in the Blood Incantation camp, I'm wondering if the next work of the band is being prepared as we speak. It is a band that has sky rocketed to the top, caused polarization on the way, but with undeniably high level and competent musicianship, the slightest activity from now on will cause the death metal scene to stir again. 


Saturday, June 05, 2021

Portal - Avow

A confusing headache

The Australian band Portal have a long history since their inception in the mid 90’s and definitely one of the most unique projects in extreme metal, posing as a challenge to the ears even of experienced listeners. There are not a lot – if any – other artists that manipulate sound like them, as the term death metal is only set by convenience and not because it is reminiscent of the genre’s typical examples. In fact, it couldn’t be more far away. It’s not driven by extreme technicality either, but instead wrapped around tense and ugly cacophony that shreds the average idea of riff / song structure completely. 

Big shoes had to be filled after their, in my opinion, most dominant album to date, Ion from 2018. That record has their craft mastered and in frenzy, with a cutting edge production, fully aggressive and non-linear turnarounds that I still haven’t recovered from since it was released three years ago. I learned the band with Swarth, another beloved but not their best album, while the further back one goes, more and more murkiness thrives in their material. I think Portal had a great decade in the 10’s, but every time I am through with one of their releases I don’t feel like expecting another one. This makes the waiting time between records easy, but to experience new work is always a new challenge, especially when it’s not one but two full albums. As the release of Avow had been announced for the year, the band dropped a second surprise album the same day, named Hagbulbia, and the way I decided to listen to these was one after the other and with no prior reading / listening to singles or sneak peaks of what they might contain. Such is this band that it is very difficult to have your attention elsewhere when they’re playing. At first glance, it can be noticed how they return to dark grey / black cover art after the slight more different artwork of Vexovoid and Ion, which also hints the earlier records.

I don’t have any kind of expectations before going into a Portal record, mainly because of the kind of uniqueness they have. And honestly, Avow takes off with its longest track “Catafalque” that half way through was for me rather dull and ineffective in what this band achieves usually. The cutthroat sound of Ion is missing but the composition itself feels like it’s halting, it gets too repetitive with unimaginative riffing and delivers not even close to the impact that the listener is used to from this extraordinary project. The same frustrating pace is kept with the second track “Eye”, both of which do not appear to me as Portal’s bright moments when it comes to longer running tracks (“Olde Guarde” from Ion was brilliant). Such mannerism of slower, more minimal parts in their songs apart from the frenetic faster moments, seems to be overly exercised in Avow as Portal adapt more and more clearer noise elements (again, the noise track from Ion was brilliant) but it doesn’t manage to maintain the crushing atmosphere it aims for, while at the same time being quite unstable between its different songs. For its first half, the record does not have by any means the successful flow of previous releases.

Going harder and radically more extreme, as Portal used to do, is a rare occurrence in Avow. A few instances in “Manor of Speaking” bring back some of this glory, as well as the last track “Drain”, but there is not much more other than unfathomable monotony with unclear purpose, at least to me. I don’t think I have heard a piece as repetitive and predictable as “Bode” from the group for example, which shows how for the most part either they didn’t really know how to fill the empty parts of their compositions, or the experiment simply failed in this release. At least it is not easygoing or any softer at all than what we are used from them, and the uncommon song constructions are presented through the band’s own mindset, so you will definitely recognize this as a Portal record from the first seconds. In a more general sense, it could still be enjoyed a lot from the band’s fans, while for me the idea will be simple from now on, sticking to specific older material where real scare and substantial darkness are present. Comparing Ion and this back to back, is a quite clear indication of this band’s highs and lows.

Portal went for a form of musical disintegration with Avow, which still has the main elements of the band that makes them loved among their fans. For me, the idea was not acutely conveyed, as I found several times throughout the listen that the material was aching and the tracks didn’t deliver, resulting in an overall underwhelming effort with just a few fine, scattered moments. As for Hagbulbia, a pure noise record with some hints authentic intensity, it was this, that saved the day and the year in regards to the band for me. In an otherwise disappointing effort, Portal decide to make some material that steps even further from metal and more into abusive electronics, joined by The Curator’s imposing vocals makes up a fine outcome. 

Damage “Avow” : 2/5 [Below Average]
Damage “Hagbulbia”: 3/5 [Good]