Catacomb Ventures – Emanations from Beyond
One year since the last installment of this series and the snow has not even begun thawing. Yet underneath the slush and fading ice, six treasures emerge and each proposes a distinct view of funereal and alien music unbound from the expectations and conventions that frequently surround it. Welcome to the first of this year’s Catacomb Ventures.
Vanitas Vanitatum et Omnia Vanitas
1997, Ceremony Records
The best kind of “progressive” or “avant-garde” extreme metal usually happens by accident and its even better when it sounds the part. Formed in 1991, Nostradamus got their part playing an extremely dense grind-tinged sort of furiously filthy death metal with an unusual penchant for cheap horror movie synths floating over the churning carnage. In the latter half of the 90’s they would undergo a strange transformation into a more experimental domain like many of their genre compatriots. What they had hinted at with 1994’s Non Omnis Moriar would now take the centre stage. However while many others would abandon their gnarly roots (and usually any semblance of quality too), Nostradamus managed to go to some bold new dimensions while retaining the intensity of their origins. It’s still defiantly rooted in death metal but the end result simultaneously was more oldschool and just outright bizarre and perplexing than almost any other death metal band making a huge stylistic leap.
You could roughly say this is a sort of oddly darkwave influenced melodic death metal but that doesn’t quite do their sound justice. Earlier Septic Flesh is an obvious point of comparison with their spacious and often very floaty synthesizer textures with their guitar work brings to mind the forlorn mysteriousness of Temple of the Lost Race. However this exists within an aggressive and highly varied rhythmic framework that frequently contrasts articulate harmonies with frenetic automatic volleys of crunching chords that sound like Suffocation influenced deathgrind supported by abrupt blast beats. These two facets play off of one another in a highly theatrical drama alternating between sombre introspection and even at times oddly uplifting exultation and storming terror and uncertainty, creating an order from the chaos inherent to its own aesthetic. Many of the songs are arranged in lengthier chains of contrasting riffs linked one after the other (which they call “linear” nowadays) leading to a highly narrative (read: the more accurate term) sense of storytelling present. Its rough production and very, very specific style definitely won’t be everyone’s fit but for those looking for the hidden tales of mad genius from the 90’s, this should be one of your first stops.
Éxtasis et Colapso
Sheer aural depravity; the death throes of a drug-overdose and the raw murderous instinct of a back alley brawl. Chile’s Solipnosis debuted with this incredibly uncomfortable and anxious six song demo that reaches into black metal’s punky, thrashing roots and forcefully injects some dirty needles filled what who-knows-what directly into its veins. While their epic ambitions are apparent with their lengthy track lengths, it all unfolds in a chaotic stream of consciousness manner. D-beats shove Celtic Frost meets Discharge riffs as they avalanche over one another one minute and in another NWOBHM inspired leads soar and dance like evil spirits around the funeral pyres of Mercyful Fate and Satan (UK). What even sounds like jangly post-punk/gothic rock chords pop up from time to time, coming to a head in the semi-atonal jittery lengthy opening of the nine minute “El Hedonismo de los Vencidos”. The disorienting shock of these disparate parts is united by raw forcefulness combined and haunting anxiety, creating distinctly sectioned songs where their many demented personalities each help to build increasingly feverish moods, progressing their songs towards utmost wild-eyed annihilation. It’s definitely very messy sounding in that sense as they constantly attempt to find new heights of self-destructive depravity but it gives their songs a propulsive character even when they mellow out; a constant reminder that a new atrocity is waiting for you just at most a few minutes later. It’s bold, it’s bastardly, and it’s quite possibly the most unusual first wave style black metal out there right now.
Sometime last year, a friend of mine once said that lengthier drawn out riffs in death metal were reaching the limits of what they could offer to the genre. While I’m not sure if I can completely agree, we have seen bands like Faceless Burial, Hateful (Italy), Prosanctus Inferi, and Moss Upon the Skull buck a now long-lived compositional practice and give us a fast and fractured take on the genre that’s as fresh as they come. Joining them this year are Californian death seers Thanamagus, particularly drawing my attention due to the connections to Ascended Dead, Ghoulgotha, Weightlessness, VoidCeremony, Extraneous, and Funebrarum. This two song demo is firmly rooted in an early 90’s approach to death metal given a modern day treatment in finesse with Charlie Koryn’s highly inventive drumming while Jonathan Quintana and Nick Alosio display some surprisingly tight guitar work for this style. However, it’s quite difficult to pigeonhole this. There’s a slightly Human Waste era Suffocation vibe to not only the technical execution but the rigid and highly idiosyncratic structures, linking together riffs that at first seem unrelated into a wider-ranging sense of looming compositions. Like earlier Goreaphobia, many of their patterns break apart almost as quickly as they appear, linking a number of oblique riff shapes together in what should be yet somehow never become nonsensical sequences. Incantation comparisons (*audible groan here*) are somewhat understandable; how sharply they switch gears between grind-frenzied blasting and crushing downstroke doominess is impressive.
However these are all very general comparisons because at heart, this doesn’t really sound like any of these bands beyond surface-level comparisons. Thanamagus use a wide array of riffs to paint a picture of aural horror, introducing and then mutating or dismembering established ideas far before they can get comfortable. Breaks in tempo and pattern are used to introduce contrasts in theme and phrasing that disappear quickly, hinting at future developments often by introducing bits of lead guitar or re-using older riffs to serve as jumping off points. As a whole they essentially use the classic 90’s practices of fractured mazes of riffing that through various violent conflicts, reveal more and more pieces of a larger over-arching focus. In that sense, while this is a very distinct sound that finds fairly few points of comparison today, it also sounds more faithful to the songwriting practices of earlier 90’s death metal while simultaneously executing it with a freshly contemporary manner. As such, this will appeal to quite a few fanbases; grind fans will love how sudden and ever vigilant it is against any sort of complacency, the “ritualistic” crowd won’t have a hard time getting behind its eldritch airs, and even those who prefer the thick and filthy will delight in how this elevates the same species of ugly griminess to new heights. As of the time of this article being written, this is 2019’s most promising new extreme metal band.
The Rumored Death of Atlas
In the last feature, I reviewed Miscreance’s debut demo which was an excellent piece of progressive/technical death/thrash. I forgot to mention that near the end of 2018, it would be joined by another band in the exact same genre classification yet a distinctly more sci-fi and modern style. Featuring members of Australis, Sunless, and Pestifere, tight musicianship is not in short supply though the end result is miles away from any of these bands. Obsolete play a kind of semi death-oriented thrash (think early 90’s Sadus) that dwells at the upper register of the strings, emphasizing less of concussive power as much as shimmering dissonance and agile lead-heavy guitar playing. Subsequently it feels very light and airy even for the standards of this brainier approach to thrash. Agile fretboard work is clustered into a particular set of motifs and both songs navigate around them, building on them with variants of a theme or breaking for sudden aggressive bursts, keeping them from becoming either too similar or disjointed. This is contrast to the jerky staccato riffing and tendency for the guitar to travel across a variety of abstract chord shapes and vibrant harmonies, assisted by a highly capable of fairly understated rhythm section with bass inserting a good number of harmonies and drums carefully capping off the corners with succinct rolls. This expansive, wandering sense of structure combined with its tendency for semi-Voivod esque dissonance gives the demo a sort of wistful, distant vibe that’s not often found in thrash and helps to create a sort of sci-fi atmosphere within its six minute runtime. In a way this is what I wish Vektor could have been though their similarities come off as incidental rather than intentional given that this is far less flashy and considerably more to the point.
Drowned in the Oneiric Depths
It took maybe two years for this demo to click with me and it’s not hard to hear why. The somewhat thin production (it sounds like a cleaned up rehearsal) and somewhat haphazard songcraft definitely isn’t going to go down easy even for hardcore fans of Chilean evil but Myst is anything but sloppy at heart. I’d compare this demo to Absu’s cult 1993 debut album, Barathrum V.I.T.R.I.O.L., as both bands play a surprisingly agile kind of death/hybrid featuring many tempo changes linked by adroit drumming and sinister rushing tremolo arrangements. However Myst differ by having less repetition and a stronger black metal undercurrent manifesting in the lengthier melodies they embed in their guitar work, something that’s become a hallmark of many recent Chilean bands. With a more pronounced sense of structure, they develop this across three songs of ornate structure, warping and bending them across a number of particular passages. They’re comparable to the recently popular ritualistically blackened and doomy ( “cavernous”) death metal bands like Altarage, Muknal, Impetuous Ritual, and Void Meditation Cult in that sense in how they rely heavily on tremolo picking to create a foggy and dense “occult” atmosphere. However this demo is set at a comparably higher register and established riffs break apart quite frequently, avoiding the smoky ambience often associated with these bands for a more 90’s death metal oriented sense of threatening paranoia where no riff stays safe for very long.
Even when sticking to a fairly narrow range of guitar techniques, they display an excellent ear for how to shape and contrast a melody, using slower segments to streamline and help bury it into your head before faster ones rapidly erode it into baser, rougher background-blizzard forms. Simple layered harmonies make a number of appearances and sometimes they switch to rapidly shifting almost Necrovore esque phrasing. Equally vital is their refreshingly active drumming, inserting thundering semi-technical rolls that add an immediacy often absent in this style, shining in the slower segments. Even the bass occasionally chips in with a few sweet and short riffs of its own. They work their impressive technical finesse into long-form compositions that contrast the consistency of the guitar playing against the sudden nature of how their songs evolve, breaking their length into distinct chapters each defined by a simple guitar pattern. Each time they reach a new one they elaborate on it with the previously described technical practices, morphing the form but retaining the function and sense of ever-advancing direction. Thus they avoid the tendency for individual portions to blend into one another and become sheer monotony as is unfortunately common for many of their compatriots. At times, you kind of forget how long some of these riffs are simply due to how upfront and active their instrumentation is. Along with Spectral Apparition, Ritual Chamber, and Grave Miasma, Myst are probably this style’s most promising bands in how they expertly sidestep its shortcomings and amplify its strengths.
2004, Cuneiform Records
Heavily inspired by the works of the Belgian avant-prog act Univers Zero, particularly their 80’s output, Israel’s Ahvak create a similar sort of funereal chamber rock as charmingly eclectic as it is just straight up unsettling. Whereas their European counterparts were morose and sombre, Ahvak’s sound is more electrifying and vivid in its intensity, taking the more electronic and abstract elements of that band’s albums Ceux Du Dehors, Uzed and Heatwave and filtering them through a zanier and more energetic delivery broken up by moments of sparsely brooding minimalism. As such it’s unusually high energy and the frenzied level of activity can be maddening enough in its beehive like activity that at points it reminds me of today’s discordant and ambiguously melodic/dissonant death metal acts. The structures are subsequently quite vague at first, working themselves through bizarre architectural arrangements of acoustic and electric harmony, and the numerous strata of instrumentation only really tone down for these abrupt breaks into quietly unsettling ambience. Basically, this album is the antithesis of “hooks”, “catchiness”, “riffs”, or even conventional songwriting as you’re left with these lengthy layers of ambiguous tonality and rapidly germinating notation and the songs don’t really conventionally “develop” as much as they violently mutate like some sort of horrifying black site bio-experiment gone horrifyingly *not* according to the plan. Inevitably, it will come off as highly disjointed or some might even go so far as to say random and while that is understandable, its underlying logic isn’t necessarily indecipherable as much as it is simply closer to some sort of twisted film score esque thinking rather than even a conventional rock or even prog approach. Basically, this is a prawg rawk album for death and black metal fans who don’t like prawging or rawking.
Cover art courtesy of Boris Groh.