Review: Zhrine – “Unortheta”

Over the past few years, Iceland’s metal scene has exploded in popularity. This year has seen Svartidauði perform in the United States and support Primordial on a tour across Europe, while Misþyrming performed as an Artist In Residence at the legendary Roadburn festival after just one album to their name. Zhrine seem set to continue that winning streak with their debut album ‘Unortheta’, taking elements of black metal and death metal and combining them to create that something far greater than the sum of its parts.

I’m going to get straight to the point here: Zhrine‘s greatest strength is their ability to write fantastic songs. Other bands might be heavier, more technical, or more avant-garde, but Zhrine‘s ability to write beautiful, haunting, deeply unsettling  music is so many steps ahead of most other bands it’s almost silly. And that’s even more impressive considering this is their first release together as Zhrine, having been previously known as Gone Postal before rebranding as Zhrine to mark the change in musical direction from that past project. For such a young band to come out with such a well-written debut album as Unortheta is a rare thing. It’s not an easy thing to articulate or explain, but whatever good songwriting is – it’s present on Unortheta in spades.

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Leviathan – Scar Sighted

Leviathan is the one-man black metal project of the controversial California-based multi-instrumentalist, tattooist Jef Whitehead, a.k.a. ‘Wrest’. Wrest made a name for himself with Leviathan’s early music which channelled the depressive suicidal black metal spirit better than almost any of his contemporaries, and 2003’s ‘The Tenth Sub-Level of Suicide’ remains a classic within that subgenre. But as time moved on Wrest began to incorporate many more influences and styles into Leviathan’s music, culminating in 2008’s ‘Massive Conspiracy Against All Life’, to date (in my view) one of the best albums in the entire black metal genre. I remember listening to the album through my earphones on a long, late walk back from town and this album absolutely engulfed me. It grabs you and pulls you in in a deeply unsettling but gripping way with weird, psychedelic melodies and distorted riffs as well as long, progressive song structures.

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ZOM – Flesh Assimilation

ZOM are a blackened death metal group from Dublin, Ireland. With their debut full-length album ‘Flesh Assimilatiion’ they join bands like their fellow Irish compatriots Malthusian in the fight to create the most cacophonous, cavernous death metal out there, and do a marvellous job of it, blending catchy, punishing riffs, with brutal vocals that demolish everything put before them, all amplified by rough, raw, loud production that sounds primitive and heavy as hell.

While ZOM don’t necessarily do much to reinvent the entire genre of death metal, one simply cannot deny the compelling nature of their sound. There is something totally honest about the rough nature of their sound: Sabbac hammers and smash away furiously behind his drumkit while guitarist Sodomaniac produces some of the heaviest, catchiest riffs heard this year. While some are a conventional (but still enjoyable) blackened death metal affair, other moments (particularly the last three tracks of this album) bring in influences from bands like Death and Slayer and make for some really memorable tracks.

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Teitanblood – Death

I was not prepared for Death. I was tipped off about this album from a bunch of people over on last.fm and after I worked up the courage I eventually gave in and decided I would have a listen. From a quick look at their last.fm profile, at their picture and at the most common tags (three of them being “black metal”, “death metal”, and “war metal”) I went into Death with the idea that ‘okay, this is probably going to be pretty heavy.’

I was not prepared how heavy Death was going to be.

Death is the sound of a thousand corpses being crushed into the ground by some huge machine, their souls screaming out in agony, and all about the sound of war and noise. All of which, it goes without saying, takes place within an impenetrable vortex of torment and suffering. This is not an album of subtleties or complexity: it does one thing and it does it really fucking well. There is absolutely no intention of fundamentally revisiting what death metal should or could sound like. Instead, they see how far they can push it in terms of extremity.

Death is almost certainly the most relentlessly extreme and terrifying album you will hear all year. I certainly can’t remember a heavier one. The drums, performed by “J”, are like a machine gun, relentlessly smashing away with such ferocity and precision that it becomes a force of its own. “NSK” is responsible for the guitar, bass, and vocals and he is really at the top of his game here. The vocals aren’t really black metal so much as a range of howls and  roars ranging from shrieks to bellows to guttural growls; whatever works  in the moment.

The guitars are tuned low. Really low. The mix also results in a huge amount of distortion, and seems to blend the guitars, bass, and drums into a single cacophony of fury slightly below the vocals, while also providing a kind of ‘cavernous’ sound to the record, with some echo/reverb on the vocals and drums. Among the muddied, thundering guitarwork you also have occasionally flairs of dizzying, powerful, and electrifying guitarwork. Electrifying is a good word here, I think, because in the context of the music it almost sounds like a crash of thunder and lightning above the battlefield. There are some seriously headbangable riffs throughout this album, but the two that stand out for me appear towards the ends of ‘Sleeping Throats of the Antichrist’ and ‘Burning in Damnation Fires.’

That said, at times Death is so single-minded in its approach that it can become tiring, particularly when the album clocks in at a pretty massive 70 minutes. When you listen to Death it really does demand your undivided attention, but on the other hand Death lacks the variety and dynamics to make that sustainable over such a long period. By the end it does all stand to blend together a bit, which wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t demand so much time to finish in the first place. You may instead have greater success listening to the first half, taking a break, and then coming back to the maelstrom in a bit. And, in general, I certainly enjoy listening to this album. I love putting it on my record player, turning the volume up, and getting lost in it until the end of the first of the two records, before I go and do something else for a bit, and come back to finish it. But after that experience is over, I can never remember exactly which track I enjoyed the most, as they all sounded so similar. There are only a few moments I can point to that were real highlights.

Death almost requires a mindset change to appreciate it. I know it did for me and for others I’ve talked to online. Fundamentally, you have to know what you want out of this album before you go into it. If you go into this album expecting some avant-garde piece of art metaphorically exploring the metaphysical consequences of the human condition… you’re going to be disappointed. If you want unbelievably powerful, cacophonous metal, representing the most brutal and dark recesses of extreme metal, extreme music taken to its most extreme, then you’ve come to the right place, and what a place it is.

Liber Necris – Negative Creator

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Sometimes you click play on an album
without knowing quite what to expect and find yourself blown away by
what you find, and this is one of such occasions. Liber Necris’ EP Negative Creator
is one of the most ferociously heavy records I have ever had the
borderline-masochistic pleasure of listening to. Drawing together
influences from death metal, black metal, thrash, hardcore, and crust,
Liber Necris throw them all into the cauldron and what comes out is
nothing short of an auditory assault on the senses.

Liber Necris formed in Leeds, England in 2010. They released their debut EP The Immutable Aversion back in 2011 and Negative Creator is
their first release since, recorded by Rob Hobson at Silent City. I
cannot knock the production at all: it perfectly captures the visceral
sound of their music, while also adding a lot of atmosphere to the
music, such as the howls in the background towards the end of opening
track ‘In the Beginning (First Light)’ and the screams off in the
distance on closing track ‘The Eulogy for Our Earth.’

The music itself is brutal. If you were to ask me for another band as a sort of reference point for what to expect from this album, I would probably say Plague Widow,
who blend similar influences to a quite different result. The vocals
are varied, shifting between a high pitch black metal shriek (with a
considerable amount of power behind it too, it must be said) and a more
guttural death metal growl. The guitars likewise display their influence
from both black and death metal, with tremolo picked passages, powerful
riffs, and even some passages that border on breakdowns – of the good
kind, you can be assured. The drumming is seriously intense stuff, with blastbeats to accentuate the heaviest and fastest moments, and a lot of variety through the tracks.

Closing track ‘The Eulogy of the Earth’ is one of the most interesting
of the tracks here to me on the basis that it deviates so strongly from
the formula established on the previous three. The guitar leads are much
more melodic with a more atmospheric introduction before the blast
beats and black metal screams kick in (somewhat reminding me of early
Watain), though the middle section of this song settles into a strong
formula of vicious, intricate riffs and powerful drumming, while
alternating between howls and growls. The section just over 2 minutes in
reminds me of some of the more recent post-black metal music movement,
and then the band lays on some atmospherics in the background to
complement the tortured guttural vocals. The final minute of the track
moves from haunting and hypnotic to a powerful declaration of intent,
ending this record as forcefully as they began it.

Behemoth – The Satanist

If you’re at all familiar with the death metal scene then Behemoth really need no introduction. For the uninitiated, however, Behemoth are a Polish blackened death metal band that formed back in 1991. Their progression from their early pure black metal sound to their more recent sound which is primarily death metal with some black metal flourishings is an important one. As the band grew they developed their death metal influences further, with Demigod arguably being their most accomplished work up to this point. Their their previous album (2009’s Evangelion) was a very cold-sounding album, devoid of humanity or frailty, which I think is exactly the sort of merciless sound they were going for. The Satanist, however, presents an interesting change in direction for Behemoth. Not only have they brought back their black metal influence in a big way, this is in many ways the rawest, most emotional, and most human album Behemoth have ever produced.

In terms of the songs on the record, this is easily the most diverse, powerful array of tracks that Behemoth have ever recorded. Tracks like Furor Divinus, Ora Pro Nobis Lucifer, and Amen are blisteringly fast and heavy, with Ora Pro… being surprisingly catchy, and bringing to my mind their earlier album The Apostasy. Amen is one of the heaviest tracks they’ve ever written, period. The guitarwork from Nergal and drumming from Inferno is absolutely insane on this track. Messe Noire is more in the style of Deathspell Omega, with eerie, twisted guitar riffs and drumwork, and a truly fantastic guitar solo to close the track. The importance of his vocals in the sound of The Satanist cannot be overstated, because they’re such a huge part of what makes their sound work. At times a ferocious bellow, at others one can hear his vocals crack and break as the intensity and emotion of the song overcome him.

In my opinion, however, the final four tracks are the strongest on the album. ‘The Satanist’ is really Behemoth trying something outside of their comfort zone. There is a big emphasis on Orion’s basswork (which is absolutely phenomenal through every track on this album, by the way) and on melody at a slower pace. It has a very ‘rock n roll’ feel to it in place, and I found myself enamoured with it. Ben Sahar has a middle-eastern feel to it, and feels in places like a war-chant, in part driven by the unbelievable drumming, and by the end of the track the track explodes into an anthemic masterpiece of death metal. In the Absence ov Light has one of the biggest riffs on the entire album, bordering black, death, and thrash metal, with powerfuldrumwork pushing the song forwards at a relentless pace, until about a minute in the song lapses into a quiet interlude. A saxophone plays softly in the background while Nergal reads a quote by Witold Gombrowiczabout Satanism as an ideology. Out of nowhere, the incredible riff fromthe opening of the track explodes back into the track and the track picks up right where it left off.

However, it is the final track, O Father O Satan O Sun, that is the pinnacle of this album. After a minute of atmospheric, noisy ambiance and droning guitars, we’re fed an unbelievably delicious bassline by Orion before launching into the epic verse. As Nergal bellows the truly anthemic lyrics to this track, the addition of many backing vocals adds a truly epic feel to the song. About 2 minutes in we’re treated to a very bluesy, rock n roll guitar solo from Nergal that gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. The sense of atmosphere, of purpose, and of unbridled emotion and musicianship present in this track really epitomise everything that Behemoth stand for with this release. I think you can expect to see this album on plenty of 2014 end-of-year-lists.