Tuesday, 30 September 2014

#360 Nargaroth - Herbstleyd

For a while now, I've been aware of the fact that when it comes to black-metal - or at least, the blackened side of metal, I have typically been much more inclined toward the fusion genres and the oddities; the black-thrash, the first-wave black metal, the special cases; Rotting Christ, Blut Aus Nord, and so forth. Sometimes, however, I want to listen to some scathing nineties-style dark, ominous black metal; the kind which sends chills down your spine when you first discover it, mystified ever-so-shallowly by the controversy, the church-burning, and much more wholesomely by the larger-than-life evil sound. This craving has recently been driving me to explore more of the landscape of "traditional" black metal, if such a thing exists, and this leads me to one of my newer interests; the work of German band Nargaroth, the debut album of whom, Herbstleyd, I have been lending my ear to recently.

Admittedly, it has taken me longer than usual to decide what to think about Herbstleyd. The album is one of superb atmosphere but at times flawed execution, albeit as slowly dawned on me through several listens, flaws which are massively outweighed by the record's virtues. Following on in the hypnotic, grandiose style of the early Norwegian acts like Burzum, Nargaroth weave a rich, lush and enthralling sonic tapestry of triumphant tremolo riffing, repetitive but pleasant drum-beats, and simplistic synthesizers, all with the perfect degree of raw-production. Nargaroth are perhaps somewhat more inclined towards being dynamic, however, and the music on Herbstleyd strives at times towards a more agile style than the truly repetitive work of a record like Hvis Lyset Tar Oss. Getting into the flow of the album is at times tricky; the introduction has plentiful moments of splendor, but weighing in at around seven minutes long it is, frankly, almost offputingly excessive. Forgiving this, however, much of the rest of the record flows reasonably well from track to track, particularly the first half. Better indeed, than I had first thought, with a half-hearted first-listen nearly spoiling the album's chances to gain my appreciation. Fortunately, however, subsequent listens revealed the solidity of the record, and with misgivings having somewhat lessened, the excellent atmosphere spun by the tremolos and keys truly ooze from the speakers for appreciation far less blemished than it had, prima facie, appeared. It is, in fact, a very absorbing and pleasing album.

Here and there, of course, there are crude slips, some of which can't quite be ignored; a shortcoming of the drum machine here and there, particularly in the first track, where mistimed cymbal-hits come very close to ruining a section. Likewise scattered around the record are a fair few interludes which don't serve as much purpose as might have been hoped, giving the album, if anything, baggage as opposed to embellishment in some cases. Nonetheless, the main-course, the body and soul of the album, if you will, is intact. The black-metal sections (and indeed, more than a few of the better interludes) very much capture the beautiful, vast and dark feel which I love in black-metal. It offers both bleak, dreary and sorrowful sections - typically where key-use is restrained - with far more triumphant and melodious pieces with more predominant keyboards. These two sides of the record - or at least, the two sides of the black-metal on the record - are nonetheless well-reconciled, not disrupting its feeling of purpose. Often, contrasting atmospheres can create something of a meandering two-headed snake, and while at times the direction of Herbstleyd can seem slightly diffuse, for the most part the album very much knows what it is doing... certainly sufficiently to be thoroughly enjoyable to listen to - albeit in my case with a brief run-up to becoming accustomed to it.

As it happens, Nargaroth are a band that I've actually been aware of for quite some time; I'm not entirely certain what caused there to be such an elapse of time between being aware of them and actually listening to them, however. Indeed, this process took several years. Nonetheless, I once again encounter a band which makes me which I hadn't delayed exploring their music, and while the at times apparent indifference - at least, there appears to be such - towards the band by a lot of the black-metal community may have been an off-putting factor, it's certainly not something worth taking heed of; as far as the debut goes, I can safely say the music is great - imperfect, but nonetheless great.
This is an 8/10.

Nargaroth Official Site
Nargaroth on Facebook
Nargaroth on Metal Archives

Thursday, 25 September 2014

#359 High Spirits - You Are Here

Austere, ferocious and cruel as it so often is - and we love it for it - Metal is also allowed to be catchy. Outrageously, unapologetically catchy, in some cases. Fun, too. Indeed, nowhere is it written explicitly that metal has to be at all unpleasant or set random passers-by slightly ill at ease. That brings me to High Spirits. The catchy, warm side of metal - or at least, my listening therein - so far this year has been dominated by work of Chris Black and his aforementioned suitably titled project. High Spirits are an entity which produces some of the most deliciously refined fun I've encountered in quite some time. Consequently, the second album, You are Here, released earlier this year, is the subject of my review today.

I had heard of High Spirits for some time before I acquired both of their albums (simultaneously, I might add). Indeed, High Spirits is something of a scene-sweeping cult-phenomena, and deservedly so - indeed, by my reckoning, a cult phenomenon limited only by who discovers their music, as opposed to occupying some obscure niche of taste. You Are Here carries on the work which led so many, including myself, to fall in love with the bands first work Another Night; the ultra-catchy, melodious and well-crafted traditional metal and hard-rock infused goodness remains every bit as strong on the sophomore effort; the entire thing exudes an ineffable aura of song-writing excellence. It is, indeed, quite difficult to explain just how memorable either of High Spirits' records are - if there was a chart of catchiness, you'd probably have to place the co-ordinates somewhere on the blank wall to the top-right of the graph. It's the sort of thing you could play on prime-time radio without unsettling your audience especially much. Now, that might initially sound like some sort of jab at the album for being accessible, and in a genre which fetishises obscurity, that might be the first interpretation someone makes. That's not, however, my intention. Lets frame it from another angle; almost everyone, however secretly or mildly, is partial to some rock 'n roll at least a little bit, and while many metal albums rush out to greet a far more esoteric audience, one self-versed in "how" to enjoy the material, High Spirits captures the refreshing spirit of rock n' roll being for everyone. 

It is difficult - monumentally difficult - to make an album which feels properly fresh in such a traditional genre, and yet, Chris Black seems to a great extent to succeed, if not by overt originality, then by extremely gifted crafting of established elements. High Spirits in general offer the perfect mixture of musical cleverness and elegant simplicity - there's a lot going on, and a lot of it is extremely well-written and fits into the song-structures perfectly, but at the same time, there's a beauty in You are Here which is born of its modesty; it isn't trying to put more into the mixture than it needs to, but it down-right excels at what it does. The whole run-time of the record feels like the sonic equivalent of looking at some sublime, ergonomically perfect piece of simplicity; an aluminium drink can, an elegantly shaped piece of candy - some bands try to make elaborate cocktails - High Spirits is, on the other hand, a particularly inviting whisky on the rocks, or something of that sort. Ultimately, well-crafted is perhaps the best way to summarize the quality which elevates High Spirits from good to great, and does so for the second time running with You are Here. The production is superb, leaving every element of the music open to appreciation, and the songs themselves are infectiously upbeat, but not edged with a forced children's-television grimace of forced joy, in a superb balance.

There's a limit to how - and here I look for a word for a moment - how profound perhaps, a record like this can be; in most cases, I wouldn't consider it transcendental, for instance. It is very much a heavy metal record, and one steeped in the modesty I mentioned earlier. For what it is, however (and we would be foolish to try to appraise it for what it isn't) it is a truly glorious piece of good, old-fashioned heavy metal songwriting. Memorable, inspired, and massively rewarding to listen to. Don't be afraid of fun.

This is an 8.5/10.

High Spirits on Bandcamp
High Spirits on Facebook
High Spirits on Metal Archives 

Sunday, 14 September 2014

#358 Meads of Asphodel - The Murder of Jesus the Jew

Every now and again, I stumble across a band that I very quickly get really, really into. Currently, the band occupying that "slot" in my listening has been The Meads of Asphodel, an English avant-garde black metal act, and, as far as I'm concerned, one of the most interesting and unique bands out there. Sometimes, when I write reviews, I refrain from immediately telling you what I think from the outset, instead leaving my verdict as more of a surprise, only revealed by the reader having to strenuously complete the task of scrolling past the large image of the album art directly below the introductory paragraph... This time however, spoiler-warning, I think the record in question - The Murder of Jesus the Jew - is exceptionally good. The rest of the review is going to involve me telling you why I think so, quite possibly at great length.

Sometimes less is more. Sometimes, alternatively, more is also more. And where more is more, The Meads of Asphodel bring what might well be the most. Particularly on this record, which manages to be the most dynamic and varied - and yet cohesive and flowing - album of its kind that I've ever heard. The whole thing - best listened to in its entirety, might I add - is eclectic, absorbing, grandiose and at times sublimely beautiful and grim in equal measure. Tracks like "My Psychotic Sand Deity" epitomise the record for me, running the spectrum from crushing, twisted black metal right through to sublime lead-guitar and comfortably incorporated beautiful choral singing, all whilst managing to avoid paying the usual price of coming across as spastic, and over-saturated with contrast. Nothing about the album is superfluous despite the huge - legitimately huge - swathe of influences which are brought into the fold.  The fact is, The Meads of Asphodel are actually a very difficult band to explain, such is the extent to which they go against the grain of what a black-metal listener might expect, pushing the envelope and furthering the things which the genre is capable of. Perhaps the sheer difficulty they pose to the reviewer - who is, after all, trying to put into words something which is not words but is instead sound - is the highest compliment I can pay to their work.

As I said, the record is exceptionally good, and while I - as many are - am guilty of sometimes using words like "exceptionally" merely as something to keep the word "good" company within the sentence, this time around, I very, very much mean it. The album itself, a concept album, is one which showcases just how well music can be utilised to tell a story - and unlike many a "concept album" this one actually sounds conceptual, with the life and death of Jesus evoked very effectively by the musical choices; the grandiose portrays the divine, as used early on in "...Psychotic Sand Deity", which concerns the wrath of God. Likewise, the record sounds very biblical, both with its epic sections and its crude, gristle-chewing sections, with Metatron's brutal narration gnashing and snarling it's condemnation on anything which stands in it's path. The competently dynamic nature of the record also ensures the other sounds which are present; punk influences, more modern sounding sections, and a multitude of others, are all woven in very seamlessly. While the record dances from style to style merrily, there is no point at which the listener is juddered out of their enjoyment of the music with a cry of "What the fuck happened there?", and really that says it all - if there was one band I firmly trust to capitalise on a "more is more" approach, this is it.

Ultimately, all that I have to say about this record has been said. Despite being from 2010, The Murder of Jesus the Jew has managed to be one of the albums which has greatly impacted my listening in 2014, and for good reason; it's one of the best albums I've listened to in a long time, and in the world of avant-garde metal, perhaps the best within that sphere that I have heard thus far.

This is a definite 10/10.

The Meads of Asphodel on Bandcamp
The Meads of Asphodel on Facebook
The Meads of Asphodel on Metal Archives

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Live Review #011: "EdinbURGH", w/ Bonesaw, Ninkharsag, et al.

Of the live-reviews I've written, this one probably involves the most obscure bands thus far. Obscurity is not, of course, synonymous with low-quality, and of all of the shows which illustrate this fact, this may well have been one of the best. Indeed, this review highlights some of what are, and were, my favourite metal bands from around the UK. Initially, owing to it's relative obscurity, perhaps limiting its interest to the metal community at large, I hadn't planned to review this, but as the dust settled after Bonesaw's set - Bonesaw's last ever set - as I thought about it, I realised that yes, writing a review seemed the thing to do. Not only because it demonstrates that the depths of the underground can put on some of the best shows in metal, but also because many of the bands involved, obscure as they are, should be of interest to the metal community at large.

Black thrash band Nolti Nan Gana Nan Nolta were the first on. They were the promoter's band, and, as it happens, are also the band that I'm in. Consequently, it's not really my place to attempt much of a public analysis of how their - our - set went; that was for the crowd to decide. I quite simply did my best to deliver a good show from behind the drum-kit, and pleasantly, things went quite well. Our performance ended with a feeling of general positivity, an anticipation of the evening yet to come, and a thirst for beer. The most positive sign of things to come was the sheer number of people who were already arriving in the crowd so early; more than the total-attendance of some shows I've seen in the same venue, and definitely a substantial number of people. The Banshee Labyrinth where "EdinbURGH" was held is the epitome of an underground venue; hidden, tiny, at times cramped, but likewise home to some of the best shows I've ever seen, and a true physical cornerstone of the local metal scene. Tonight, it would later emerge, was to be no different, and the numbers present foreshadowed the crowding to come. 

Second up were Newcastle old-school death-metal outfit Live Burial, who deliver some of the meatiest, filthiest old-school goodness out there. Undulating, powerful riffs with a thick and unique tone, accompanied by cavernous vocals. The sound front-out-house isn't quite perfect, but the essence of the bands work comes through clearly, with lengthy, substantial death-metal tracks energising the crowd and appealing to the sensibilities of anyone with a love of everything from crushing Swedish death metal to the from-the-gutter nastiness of Autopsy or the hammer-blow of Asphyx, all delivered tightly and comfortably. Live Burial can claim ownership to some of the best riffs in the business.

Evil Blood have been more-or-less going since 1982, and they show no signs of slowing down. Indeed, I certainly consider them among the underground's true hidden gems, and with each performance they demonstrate why. Their set revisits plenty of their classics; "Malevolent Warrior", "Kill With Napalm", "Midnight in Sodom" and the like, but also delivers new material which manages to stay true to the spirit of the band, something which many of the far larger bands with similarly long careers cannot do. The band's evil, Venom-inspired thrash enthuses the crowd well, and while the guitar cuts-out at one point, it somehow manages to sound like it was meant to - heck, as far as I know it might actually have been intentional - which very much limits any impact the mishap might have had. In short, Evil Blood once again re-affirm why they're superb.

While Evil Blood tidied up their equipment, and Tommy Concrete and the Werewolves set up theirs, I attempted to run up the hill to buy something for supper. Unfortunately, I didn't consider the fact that I would also have to eat said supper before returning to the venue. The price - missing the first few songs that Tommy Concrete's lycanthropic gang unleashed. Fortunately, I did catch the majority of their set, and as ever, they bring a ferocious, sublimely dirty d-beat metalpunk oldschool-thrash inspired attack upon us all, motoring along like a punk lawnmower. As someone who appreciates d-beats and leering old-schoolery, their set was consumed with every bit as much relish as the kebab which kept me outside had done moments earlier.

Ninkharsag are, I gather, the head-liners officially, and while I suspect more people were drawn here to witness Bonesaw's last ever show, there is no doubt whatsoever that Ninkharsag earned the right to sit at the top of a bill like this. Their atmosphere and execution is flawless; wreathed in dry ice and commencing a true-to-the-second-wave black metal onslaught with all of the regal magnificence, malevolence and majesty offered by the best their peers in the genre. The serious, dark, brooding style with which the band conduct themselves grants the set a presence and aura which many bands strive to achieve, and many, indeed, fail to. Their forty-minute journey into the pits of hell feels earnest and legitimate - this is a band to whom black-metal is serious business, but they manage to keep it such without falling to the dime-a-dozen clich├ęs which infest the thousands of bands who are simply playing at being Mayhem. Ultimately, Ninkharsag's live show backs up their studio work in suggesting that they are one of the great forces to be reckoned with in the UK scene.

And so onto Bonesaw. Bonesaw are, truly, what an underground band is all-about; soldiering on for fourteen years not for money, not for prestige, but for the love of metal, and there is no calling more earnest than that. They are integrity incarnate. I've seen the band countless times; in Aberdeen from whence they came, in Glasgow, in Edinburgh, and every single time they delivered a fantastic show. No sound-check, no fucking-around, they go up on stage, and they do what they do best. This night is no exception, and they blast through a set of grimy, nasty, down-right-filthy old-school death-metal inspired by Autopsy. Every track sends the crowd into greater fits of chaos and abandon; pits happen in a room not-much bigger than the one I'm sitting in right now - there's even crowd-surfing, as best the low roof will allow; the behaviour of a crowd giving their all to a band who are giving it their all, for one last time... and what a time it was. 

A relatively long set and several encores later, business is concluded; the background music comes back on, and as the equipment is packed-away and disassembled, so too is Bonesaw itself. It has truly been an honour to play on the same shows as the band on so many occasions, and their music has truly been a gift - a gift which will last forever - to the local scene, and the wider world of death-metal. The sorrow of seeing such a fantastic band play for the final time is blended with the joy of seeing a fantastic performance, the capstone on an already extremely enjoyable gig. It was fantastic to see so many people, and I very much hope that Bonesaw received the send-off they deserved.

Fantastic to the end. A band that will be greatly missed by the metal community.

Bonesaw on Facebook
Bonesaw on Metal Archives

Ninkharsag on Facebook
Ninkharsag on Metal Archives

Tommy Concrete and the Werewolves on Facebook

Evil Blood on Facebook
Evil Blood on Metal Archives

Live Burial on Facebook
Live Burial on Metal Archives

Nolti Nan Gana Nan Nolta on Facebook
Nolti Nan Gana Nan Nolta on Metal Archives