Saturday, 14 February 2015

#371 Num Skull - Ritually Abused

I'm not trying to score metal-elitist points or anything... but I listened to a battered old LP of Num Skull's cult-classic "Ritually Abused" at a friends house one evening a long-while Relapse Records re-released it. Fortunately now, the album is widely available again, and widely promoted, and that is damn good news. "Ritually Abused" is one of the unsung heroes of the heavy, scathing rear-guard of thrash in the late 80's - it's an album which people should be investigating, an album which ought to be picked up by people who missed it the first time, and, frankly, that's almost everyone. I went ahead and bought the Relapse remaster... the tracks-names were all completely mismatched, but I suppose it's the thought that counts.

"Ritually Abused" is a classic which damn well looks like one. The artwork is a lush visual feast - it's the sort of record you would buy on a whim, and it would reward you for doing so. The colour scheme and layout are simply sumptuous. I've always cared a lot about good artwork, and albums like this are why; good artwork always adds to an already good record. Musically, the record is quite representative of the goings-on of its time - the entire album is probably best thought of as a thrash album, but as with many records from the time, while the music twists and turns, it screams "death metal is coming" at the top of its voice... much in the way that a record like Scream Bloody Gore was more a sign of things to come, than an instance of what such things were. Regardless, it's damn heavy - a cannonade of riffs with a filthy tone which bludgeons as much as it slices. It's not razor-sharp and it's not especially flashy - it's tough and gravelly with just enough lucidity to pronounce the excellent riffs. The dry tone puts plenty of emphasis on the heavy side of the album, and on it's power. At a glance, the most extreme music at the time divides vaguely between heaviness, intensity, and evil-atmosphere. Num Skull invest primarily in the first two - the album flails and flagellates, grinding your bones for its bread, but it doesn't quite drip with evil in the way something like Possessed's "Seven Churches" from three years previously does. When it comes down to it, the result is an album which represents a mature genre at its best, as opposed to something with a huge spirit of experimentation. The final stepping-stone on that genre's journey, it sits astride the barbed-wire fence where thrash ends and death-metal begins.

It probably isn't unfair to call Ritually Abused a "riff" album - and it's within this domain that the album shines most brightly. Every song has riffs of the sort of caliber which would make them stand-out riffs on lesser albums - but Ritually Abused is no "lesser" album. It took about thirty seconds to impress me, and then emphasized the point by staying that impressive for its entire duration. It's relentless in both pace and quality. The songs whirl and dive from one riff to the next with almost impulsive abandon, but simultaneously maintain a deeply coherent flow. It's jarring, but in the right way - constantly taking the listener by surprise, but not off-putting; it can take a while to get used to, as with bands of similar intensity - Sadus for instance, but once accustomed, the album constantly rewards your inner riff-lover - one of the most fundamental but at times easy to neglect indulgences of any metal fan. The songs are packed with variety - there are a few albums worth of riffs within about forty minutes, but there isn't a feeling of hurry. Indeed, the whole album reeks of well-measured craftsmanship and maturity, almost surprising for a debut. There are no throw-away songs... no throw away moments.    

It's genuinely good to see "Ritually Abused" peering out of the chasm of obscurity - hopefully to be noticed once again by friends of the underground. It's also an important lesson to remember. Hidden gems like this are abundant - more so than most of us, including myself, imagine; for every one which comes once again to light, like this, there are many more hidden still below the surface. Ritually Abused is a statement of excellence by Num Skull - heck, by thrash in general. It is also a hefty reminder never to neglect the obscure. Not all that is obscure should be.

This is a 9/10.

Num Skull on Bandcamp
Num Skull on Metal Archives

Monday, 9 February 2015

#370 Sigh - Scorn Defeat

Sigh are a band who have undergone a long latency-period for me; the time between sampling their work with interest, and later fully delving into it has been quite a lengthy process. Indeed, I've been meaning to listen to their work for the last couple of years, but never quite found the appropriate moment. Some time in January I finally took the plunge, starting, as I often like to, at the beginning. For Sigh, this beginning is a stylistically interesting and innovative one - only to be expected from a band who later matured into one of the best avant-garde acts in all of metal. Regardless, Scorn Defeat is the record which I have elected to focus on, not just for its musical merits, but for its unique place in the maze of second-wave black metal.

(Artwork from the 2014 Remaster, Hammerheart Records)
Listening to Scorn Defeat is a deeply interesting exercise in similarity and difference in equal measure. The deeply Norwegian-influenced elements stand as a testament to how well ideas and sounds were being transmitted in the tape-trading pre-internet days of the underground, while the massive divergences in style which exist on the record is a testament to quite the opposite; how lavishly, fantastically different the record is from anything else which was being made at the time. Almost conventional one minute, the record has no qualms about suddenly, almost unexpectedly, leaping into something which bucks the black-metal trends which themselves had barely had time to settle and fall into place. Scorn Defeat delivers traditional black-metal evil, yes - particularly well, in fact, with an abundance of crushing and legitimately devilish sounds. Simultaneously, however, the record deploys atmospheric sections and approaches to musicianship which for the most part hadn't been tried before within the genre - at least not quite in this way. While plenty of the components within the work will feel familiar, there is no question that Scorn Defeat is simultaneously a unique work; bringing original flavors to the genre in a way that seminal works like Deathcrush had, before. Interestingly, however, Scorn Defeat does not sound "embryonic" - it is without question a very fully-formed album. While the band sound extremely different today, this retrospect does not leave Scorn Defeat feeling retroactively incomplete in the way in which a record like the aforementioned Deathcrush does; at times like a stepping stone in the shadow of Mayhem's mature sound.

It's position in the grand scheme of things aside for the moment, an equally interesting topic are Scorn Defeat's musical merits in their own right. The record is compositionally fascinating - more inaccessible than some black-metal records, but likewise at times more rewarding to listen to - both confirming and violating expectations subtly, emphasizing the works uniqueness. It's an album which doesn't rely on intensity, speed or being a wall-of-sound to be powerful, instead striding forward with a quirky mid-tempo gate. Swaggering and slithering riffs bolstered by the extensive but non-sugar-coated synth give the album a reeling, supernatural and funereal feel, a tangibly eastern sense of evil meeting with black-metal sensibilities, executed with better musicianship than a lot of their peers. At its best, the atmosphere is engulfing and impressively executed with the accustomed "minimalist extravagance" of black-metal, giving the record an at times crude but constantly vast and impression-making atmosphere of tangled dread, fear and evil, entwined with beauty. Constantly, the spirit of innovation and avant-garde musicianship shines through in the record, setting it apart immediately, and to this day. It is a record which has to be heard to be understood, for it is, once again, a tough record to explain in words - so often the way with records which are islands; who can it be compared to?

Some of the most fondly remembered classics are records which unapologetically blazed their own trail, and Scorn Defeat is certainly such. Combining the emerging black-metal traditions with innovative and unique sounds, the record is one which stands as an outsider among outsiders - it's all the more a fascinating album for it, and one which I would urge everyone with an interest in classic black-metal to explore.

This is a 9/10.

Sigh Official Site
Sigh on Facebook 
Sigh on Metal Archives