Monday, 13 June 2016

#393 Vektor - Terminal Redux

In so far as it has been some time since my fingers graced the keys, staring at the blank screen with a sense of vague cognitive unease, it could easily be said - without deploying too much hyperbole - that Vektor's new record defies the English language, at least for a while. Roughly half-an-hour, all things considered. Its ability to do so, I would opine, is not only a testament to its quality, but is likewise musically and thematically appropriate; Vektor are, and always have been, unearthly. Lost for words though it may have temporarily rendered me, "Terminal Redux" has conversely been one of the most discussed metal records of 2016. The album's predecessor "Outer Isolation" has received ten reviews on Metal Archives, over the span of around five years - a fairly generous quotient, might I add, a number befitting an album of its quality. "Terminal Redux" has received fourteen reviews over the span of a month, and thus far, all of them positive. If that's not motivation to find something to say about the record, then nothing is, and thus, I shall struggle on.

Vektor have always been musically fascinating; it's a fact that made them stand out from their peers, by light-years, during the hit and miss shenanigans of the mid-2000s "thrash-revival". Both "Black Future" and "Outer Isolation" were records that stood at times almost completely alone in a raging sea of radioactive beer and zombies. While some bands, for better or worse, insistently superglued themselves to the constraints of the retro - to the figurative rulebook of their genre - Vektor were different; possessed, almost from the very outset, with a penchant to mould and transmogrify the thrash genre, to repurpose and refit it for their own musical vision. Like many of the best-of-the-best, instead of pouring their music into the mould of a genre, Vektor use thrash as a conduit for their bizarre and sinister music to traverse, and ultimately manifest itself from. While they have always done this, and, without exception, to great effect, scanners suggest that this cosmic amalgam, like some science-defying futuristic substance, is present in even higher quantities within this specimen. Indeed, "Terminal Redux" further warps the limitations of genre, simpliciter, to the extent that I'd be almost reluctant to ascribe it one fully, in the act of, for instance, recommending the band to a friend. Thrash, perhaps - but to some extent nominally so; and perhaps not the best mode in which to listen to the music. In many respects it is from this that the record takes on its inscrutable and massively appealing air of musical otherworldliness; its complexity and musical quirkiness forces one to listen to it almost entirely on its own merits, and those merits are, suffice to say, substantial. 

Each Vektor album, including this one, has been the site of an unusually well-executed reconciliation; of the side consisting of the band's almost absurd musicianship, rapturous technicality and magnificent inventiveness, with the opposing side. That is, whilst Vektor are a truly blistering band to listen to; requiring attention, dedication and numerous re-listens, their albums, including this one, also boast an uncanny ability to still flawlessly deliver direct and appreciable metal energy. It is powerful, memorable and at times down right ballsy. The complexity is not committed to the detriment of such foundational pillars as good-riffs - really fucking good riffs - memorable songs, and so forth, and in that regard the album's ability to be understood exists in a logically-uncertain but undoubtedly magnificent juxtaposition and cohabitation with its resplendent and exciting complexity. "Terminal Redux" is far from an unappealing behemoth of convoluted and gratuitously complex proportions - that is to say, it is decidedly not the type of progressive metal record which keeps me awake at night trembling in fear. Instead every inch of complexity and technicality are created for a purpose, and used - and I hesitate to use an objective term in a business so seemingly subjective as music - correctly.

"Terminal Redux" showcases Vektor at their most complex, ambitious and mature yet; further expanding their nebulous galactic empire into new systems, new influences, new swathes of genre and technicality previously unexplored. Indeed, perhaps the most tangible way in which I can capture it in words is to explain to the reader just how little I have succeeded in conveying about the record, even in spite of my best efforts. The album was almost five years in the making, and has transpired to be worth every minute; Vektor are a band who have every right to take their time, when the music they produce is as good as this. The record is a standout of 2016, and, with time, will perhaps come to be remembered as one of the standout records in metal more generally. Superb.

This is a 9.5/10.


Sunday, 5 June 2016

#392 Conan - Revengeance

"Revengence"- which I suppose must mean the vengeance wrought upon those who avenged themselves upon you after the first time you had your revenge - marks the third full-length studio album by UK doom titans Conan. And titans, indeed, they are; one of the country's greatest current assets to the genre, and a band who have risen to a level that few do, especially given the time-span in question. The last five years or so has seen the band carving a place as a globally well-known name and a legitimate headliner wherever they choose to go, standing out from the burgeoning and crowded UK doom scene with an originality and uniqueness which often goes unnoticed to the inattentive listener. With their third album settling into its spot on the shelf nicely, no longer feeling like a bizarre extra limb, but rather a meaningful component of the Conan corpus, the time to review is upon us...

In a time before the internet, album art was of paramount importance; or I've certainly always thought so. On one hand, an album must be eye-catching, visually compelling, especially in that record-store environment of old - you must, in short see the record sleeve, the CD front, the cassette, whichever medium it may take, and think to yourself, "I want to hear this.". Secondly, good cover-artwork stands as a statement of the integrity of the music contained therein - a woe indeed it is to see albums where the artwork does the music injustice. Visual aesthetics remain, to my mind, as important as ever; record-store shelves oft replaced by the recommended-videos section of YouTube, the feed of Facebook, and so forth - visual aesthetics did matter, and still matter. And, to finally get to the fucking point, Conan know this. "Revengeance" stands, visually and musically speaking, a proud extension of the band's body of work; the desolate landscapes and ochre-washed primordial brutality of the artwork immediately aiding its inclusion into the set of the bands records, promising -and delivering - stylistic continuity. It is continuity which is indeed seen to be the case upon listening to the music; the same unfathomably heavy and hostile sound; gargantuan pillars of noise gnashing slowly like geological teeth, in a way familiar to all fans of doom, but executed in a way quite unlike any other.

On that subject, I've seen Conan decried as generic - a view in which, as far as I can see, is misled, unless my knowledge is truly lacking. Zero Tolerance gave their second record, Blood Eagle a zero-score some years ago, which struck me as somewhat illustrative of whoever wrote it having completely missed to point. The primitive and minimalist arrangement of the bands music carries an atmosphere which almost no other bands are creating; a primordial mountainside of wailing, soaring and disembodied vocals, and riffs which - as I've mentioned in previous discussions of Conan - sound almost akin to music instinctively and viscerally created, pounded on taut animal-hides and stones in a bygone time, whilst evading predation by the enormous creatures no doubt stomping the face of the earth. That sound is a concoction every bit as much subverting the norms of the doom genre as invoking them, particularly with the bands relatively energetic and forceful choices of tempo. This trademark sound reappears on Revengeance. This isn't to say that the album is simply another carbon-copy brought forth from the same cauldron, however. The retention of the fiercely rhythmic potency of the music is met with the signs of a slow and self-aware evolution. Sure, Conan could probably make the same record repeatedly and a certain crowd would adore every single one, but the nuances and variations from previous tracks is a sign that, while not gratuitously reinventing themselves - and thank goodness for that - Conan are more than happy to continue to explore the boundaries musical lands they claim as their own.

"Revengeance" is a welcome addition to the bands discography; the accustomed heaviness and atmosphere taking the listener once again to that desolate place that the band has taken us before. It is a record liable, I expect, to be remembered in years to come as being among the bands classic works. The album mirrors the virtues of its predecessors, reprising everything which the band have grown to be known and enjoyed for, whilst evolving their sound sufficiently not to come across as stale. "Revengeance" is different. Just a little different, but there is enough change in the air - in the form of a well thought-out, logical progression - to capture the interest even more so than it would if it were simply a competent but identical continuation - and heck, I'd have already been happy with merely that. A slow evolution, it must be granted, but slow is an entirely understandable rate for a band who sound so very, very cyclopean.

This is an 8/10.

Conan Official Site
Conan on Facebook
Conan on Metal Archives

Friday, 1 April 2016

Live Review #15: North of the Wall Festival 2016

This years North of the Wall festival held promise from the moment acts began to be announced. My attention first began with mild interest, through to enthusiasm, culminating in outright hype and excitement. Granted, I would probably have gone anyway; North of the Wall is something I like to support - but nonetheless, this year, the line-up certainly helped matters. Things began with the trickle of announcements; more-than-solid examples of the UK underground scene - bands like Barshasketh, Vacivus, Coltsblood, and so forth - already bands well worth seeing with no further incentive required. But then the announcements continued to escalate, almost beyond all belief; rendering the festival entire degrees of magnitude bigger and more exciting than any of its previous incarnations.

By the time the line-up was beginning to take-on its final form, it was shaping up to be one of the strongest in living memory within the Scottish metal scene. Suffice to say, it sold-out, too - unsurprising perhaps, but likewise an extremely pleasing sign. I like seeing things do well. This year North of the Wall did well indeed, spread over three venues, holding host to sixteen bands over the course of about eight hours, and, if I recall correctly, something over five-hundred people. There was more than could possibly be seen in its totality by one person - a two-edged sword; both serving as a testament to the magnitude the festival has taken on in recent years... but also a sign that I was going to miss a band or two - sacrifices had to be made... Still, ten out of sixteen isn't too bad - and now, onto my thoughts about all of those ten...

The Heritage-core centric pre-show fell the day before, and managed to sell-out about a week before the festival-itself did; consequently, I attended the latter, but not the former. Fortunately I'd seen three of the four bands on previous occasions at least once - so I wasn't broken-hearted. By all accounts each act was roughly consistent with what one might expect given their previous exploits; Ashenspire no doubt solid, Winterfylleth likewise, and Saor somewhat underwhelming, or so I'm told. On the other hand, I've not seen Aloeswood before, so hopefully a chance will arise on another occasion - I certainly plan on finding out what they sound like, when I get the opportunity.

Kicking off the main festival were local doom quartet Atragon, playing in "Audio"; seemingly the smallest of the three venues - I'd always thought it was larger than it is - and performing a set largely consisting of Reverend Bizarre covers - by design, as opposed to by surprise, mind you. Atragon's set proved to be something of a godsend: Going straight into a line-up consisting almost entirely of underground black-metal and death metal within about two-and-a-half hours of getting out of bed would be like a pizza colliding with a brick-wall from the pizza's point of view. I'm standing right beside the P.A, and at this point have forgotten entirely to take any mental notes with an eye to reviewing the festival. Looking back, the first thing that strikes me is that the snare drum sounds really really good for some reason - indeed, the sound in general in "Audio" is great, mores the pity that I saw only two bands of the entire line-up there. The room is already packed, and the entirety of Atragon's set is a raucous and pleasantly haphazard affair, delivered with the infectious tongue-in-cheek cheer that can only come from a band who start this - and if I recall - several other - live appearances with the phrase "We're so sorry". I must confess, tentatively, that I don't actually know Reverent Bizarre very well, but I certainly do know "Doom over the World", which seems to go down well with everyone when played. Shortly thereafter I leave to get to Ivory Blacks to catch the next band in their entirety.

Ivory Blacks - just round the corner - isn't quite so busy yet. It's easy to get to the front to see Lunar Mantra, although fortunately the venue filled up as the show went on. I've been meaning to see Lunar Mantra for a long while - probably about as long as they've been playing live at all - and they're a band who have been building momentum both locally and internationally, picking up a signing to Invictus Productions along the way. Their performance is tight and enthralling; earnestly and excitingly occult and atmospheric, with all of the trimmings. There are glimmering candles and bowls of incense; one of those "flavours" that I can never seem to find in shops - and while one might be tempted to think that such things are cliche these days, that becomes a much harder conclusion to reach when they are used to such great effect as they were here. The bass tone comes across as a little warm in some places, perhaps, but generally the musicianship is splendid in just about every way, capturing much of the darkness so integral to the black-metal genre, combined with a distinct and memorable ritualistic flavour which Lunar Mantra can proudly call their own.

Lunar Mantra: Photography by T. Gonda

I stick around in Ivory Blacks to see what Crom Dubh sound like. They were called-in at the last minute to replace the newly split-up Wodensthrone (a band I had the pleasure of seeing twice in the past). While Crom Dubh play a  respectable style of black-metal; atmospheric and hypnotic - a style which sounds solid, indeed, downright great on record, might I add - I'm suffering at this point from a certain hypnosis of my own; an attention span radically shortened by drinking for the last hour and a half whilst having only eaten an overpriced railway-station sandwich on the way over. Consequently, Crom Dubh come across as... fine. The drums just don't seem to quite fit the riffs half of the time in the live setting, which is a shame, because on their "Heimweh" album they work perfectly well - I couldn't really tell if it was a musical issue or a sound issue - or a bit of both. Perhaps I'd have enjoyed their work more if I'd gotten more accustomed to it before seeing them live, but there just wasn't time. I leave about half-way through to get back to Audio for one of my most anticipated bands of the evening.

Barshasketh are on great form. This is, I believe, their first show with a new drummer, and he's an impressive one, too. With Audio's solid sound that evening, and Barshasketh's prowess, their set is an absolute storm; a stern, impressive schooling in authentic, intense and evocative black-metal. It's precise, meticulous and savage, with a strong stage presence and look. Crisp and exuding what I can only describe as a dark, frostbitten musical-charisma which often serves to propel them leagues above some of their peers. At one time I would have referred to Barshasketh as up and comers, but I think performances of this calibre more than attest to the fact that the band have outright arrived. 

I then hurry back to Ivory Blacks for Scythian - one of the bands I was most looking forward to. Their "Hubris in Excelsis" record was one of my favourite albums of 2015; a record steeped in majesty and triumphant atmosphere, whilst also packing a fierce intensity. Most of the majesty seems to be somewhat absent live, which was a pity. The magic that the album has is just... missing, somehow; although to some extent it's understandable; a lot of the atmosphere on the album is simply not compatible with a live-setting, it seems. It's also understandable considering that half of Scythian's line-up are also in Crom Dubh, and I know fair well I'd be getting a bit knackered by the time a second set of the evening came along. Instead of atmosphere, Scythian emphasise the bare-bones heaviness and speed of their work in an adequate if slightly sloppy performance, but just didn't rise to my expectations. Give them another five years and I hope their live show becomes formidable, but they've already had twelve. Disappointing.

Cult of Fire: Photography by T. Gonda
Apparently Slaughter Messiah had fire-breathing and a Bathory cover. I wouldn't know, as I went to see Cult of Fire instead. They've filled the main-stage in The Classic Grand by the time I arrive, so I stand quite near the back - which I think might be to the detriment of my enjoyment. I can barely see the band on stage, and while I get the occasional peek at their unique and eye-catching stage-wear, I mostly have to work with their sound, of which I lack prior knowledge. It's melodious and captivating - probably quite beautiful if I was in the right mood, but with bands like this I tend to find that the music is at its most beautiful through headphones at about 4am, as opposed to at 6pm on a Saturday night as the guys involved are on stage playing it. On a more positive note, I get the feeling that if I was more familiar with their work, I would have enjoyed it immensely, as their atmosphere, theatrics and musicianship came across as top-notch; a real vibrant and rich spectacle that grows better and better in retrospect.

I leave The Classic Grand a little early to get back to Ivory Blacks for Cruciamentum. When I was first getting into metal - or proper metal, anyway, Cruciamentum's demos were one of the first truly-underground things that I encountered. At the time I didn't really understand what I was listening to, but with time has come appreciation. Their music - unforgiving and dark death-metal - is extremely well-captured in the live setting; tightly played and perfectly cavernous. I remark to someone standing nearby that they're one of the bands of the evening who "sound exactly as they should" - and I'm not exaggerating. They're a band I had wanted to see for a long time indeed, and they did not disappoint in the live setting - a monolithic performance.

I scurry back to The Classic Grand to see Necros Christos, a band I discovered on a whim a few years ago because their album artwork - "Doom of the Occult" - looked cool in the record-store. This time I make it into the main-body of the crowd, and get to witness another superb performance; the flow of the bands occult death-metal in a live-setting is excellent; unimpeded by their studio work's penchant for interludes. The mid-tempo thunderous churning and harrowing, malign lead-work of the band's material is well-executed indeed; particularly tight for a band who don't play live as often as some. Necros Christos succeed in bringing forth a cacophonous, tomb-dust covered rendition of their work, and its marvellous.

After Necros Christos, there's a little bit of spare time before Aura Noir. Some might argue - including me from the future - that I ought to have gone to see some of Possession, but instead I spent the time talking to a drunk man from Belfast who thought I was in Atragon. Having told him I wasn't, I went to the bar for a drink, returning only for him to have forgotten that I'm not in Atragon, and complimenting me for their set again. I can't be bothered to correct him again, so I just say thank-you for a while instead, before wondering towards the front to await Aura Noir.

Necros Christos: Photography by T. Gonda
Aura Noir's set is magnificent. A pit starts almost immediately; not usually my thing at all, but once in a while I'll indulge. Being quite heartily refreshed with beers, I fall down a couple of times, which is more or less par for the course. To my great pleasure, Aura Noir are an excellent live-band; the first in a while to be conspicuously fun as opposed to ritualistic or serious. The entire set is a glorious tirade of black-thrashing-filth, doing absolute justice to the bands studio work, and embellishing it even beyond its pre-existing mightiness. Energetic, ferocious, twisted and powerful, Aura Noir always offered one of the very best blends of black and thrash out there, and their live show is no exception, capturing both elements richly and deliciously. I missed seeing Aura Noir when they played Scotland in 2012 - a fact which makes me doubly glad to finally see a band which I'm more than happy to include among my favourites. Aura Noir are, and deservingly so, quite possibly the best band of the night, with an explosive set and unparalleled energy from band and audience alike. It's been a long time indeed since I was excited at the prospect of seeing a band days beforehand, and not merely hours.

Breaking my own heart slightly, I leave Aura Noir a little before the end so I stand a chance of getting from The Classic Grand to the (somewhat smaller) Ivory Blacks to see Destroyer 666 before the venue hits capacity and nobody can get in. It's already heaving with people by the time I arrive, but I manage to make it to the front regardless. I saw Destroyer in this very same venue in 2012, at a time before I knew any of their songs - it was a performance that started an interest which lead to them sitting among my very favourite metal bands, to this day. The band roar and writhe through a lengthy and varied set with their accustomed and insistently infectious energy. From the new album, they play several songs, most notably the belter; "Hounds at Ya Back", already an exceptional sing-along track among the crowd - no doubt a live-staple for years to come. They also dip liberally into their classics, including "The Eternal Glory of War", "Genesis to Genocide" "Black City, Black Fire" and "Australian and Anti-Christ", to name but a few, before covering Motörhead's "Iron Fist", with absolute gusto. I more or less murder my throat singing along to just about everything - a fact I would become acutely aware of on Sunday morning when I woke up with no voice, and limbs which didn't work - all well earned. It's a real testament to how damn good Destroyer 666 are, live and in studio, that their set-list contained relatively few of the songs I'd have personally picked, and yet was still fantastically enjoyable.

Performances like this are almost impossible to critique properly, such is the personal investment and enjoyment of the music - I have no idea if the sound in Ivory Blacks was good or not during their set. I have no idea if the band made any mistakes: I was too wrapped up in enjoying the music and, as I wondered off several hours and beers later for the bus home, it occurred to me that that's probably the most honest way to listen, and definitely the most honest thing to write. Ultimately, all that is left to say is that once again, North of the Wall out-do themselves. Long may it continue.

For those not present, it might interest you that the magnificent Eagledog Productions recorded numerous full sets by various bands throughout the evening;