June Roundup: Black & Death Metal
The latest records from The Bishop of Hexen, The Path of Memory, Denial of God, Ormskrik, The Rite, Shed the Skin, Violent Hammer, Aversio Humanitatis & Carach Angren.
The Bishop of Hexen – The Death Masquerade
Then lacking their definitive article, The Bishop of Hexen made some waves among fans of symphonic black metal in the late ’90s with their debut Archives of Enchanted Philosophy, but never quite rose to the forefront of the underground, much less to mainstream attention. Maybe it was their relatively distant location of Israel, maybe it was their reluctance to produce a follow up, maybe it was their lack of hit material; likely it was a combination of all three, maybe even more. It took 7 years for the sophomore, The Nightmarish Compositions, to materialize, and only a promo EP a couple of years prior could sate the fans’ thirst for new material. The Nightmarish Compositions nevertheless seemed to verge on breaking them through to the next level at least, and as two of its songs were included in the Brütal Legend video game a few years later, the soil had never been as fertile, or become as wasted, for the band to make their grand entrance. The next anyone would hear of the group was a two-song independent promo and a name “change” in 2012, after which they promptly disappeared again. And before The Death Masquerade, which includes both tracks off of said promo, no word of them was heard.
Whereas The Nightmarish Compositions was an ambitious record from a band that barely had the skill to match it, but also sounded surprisingly good given its relatively low budget, The Death Masquerade sounds like the band had even greater ambitions, the same skills and an almost total lack of vision. Its overstuffed production comes off as much more polished than its predecessor’s, but there’s little to no balance between the elements. The guitars are lost beneath the loud and symphonic arrangements that might as well have been made with an automated online generator, so pointless they are. And what little I can tell from the guitars, there’s much less going on than ever before, apart from a few isolated moments of melodic lead playing, and even when there is, it’s nothing worth hearing. The awkward dry drum sound is as if lifted from some other project, the cymbals especially sounding like a poorly programmed machine (and the band at least boasts an actual drummer).
I’d hope The Death Masquerade was an archival release, and not a de facto new album, because it sounds like these are old, regurgitated ideas that the band rejected from their sophomore—from the dated arrangements to the Dimmu Borgir circa 2003 chug riffs (which didn’t work well for them then) that the band dusted off and shot out just to drum up their name before they can finish the actual new album.
The Path of Memory – Hell is Other People
Bornyhake is a seasoned black metal veteran, best known as the mastermind behind Borgne, Enoid and Pure, as well as the former drummer of Kawir. His latest project, The Path of Memory sets out on a different path, though embedded in its code lies the same rawness and darkness that Bornyhake’s black metal projects have always cultivated, and the bleakness inherited from the industrial Borgne. Hell is Other People seeks to evoke despair and desolation, and the latter it handles mostly well, but with the former it struggles. Self-described (and not all inaccurately) as deathrock, The Path of Memory’s debut maintains a somber tone throughout, even when borrowing from rawer and more extreme sources. The black metal-lite of “Locked Away” hardly builds up any more aggression than the steady pulse of “A Thousand Days and Nights” or “Don’t Worry About Me”, songs that come off entirely as build-up, ending only moments before the intended climax.
The constant, monotone dreaminess of Bornyhake’s vocals doesn’t much help, as any attempt to deviate from the album’s one central emotion (a tranquil grief, acceptance of loss? The music and lyrics often tear at different interpretations) is quickly swept into the constant buzz of guitars and singing. These feel like deliberate choices though, and don’t as much retract from the listening experience as they feel unfinished pieces of a prototype. The Path of Memory’s debut is little more than a curiosity in Bornyhake’s career, similar themes worked through a different medium, but hopefully it has opened the door for better things to come.
Denial of God – The Hallow Mass
Likely Denmark’s best known black metal band (Mercyful Fate not counted for obvious reasons), Denial of God has been around for many long years, but The Hallow Mass is only their third full-length, and unlike in their earlier years, they haven’t shown all that much activity regarding smaller releases lately either. Over their career DoG has changed only little and not much of it has happened between Death and the Beyond and now. The Hallow Mass asks for time and attention span, as it’s 7 tracks regularly clock in at over 10 minutes, for a total of an hour and change. Though their riffs are simple and archetypal, and their songwriting makes good use of repetition, DoG nevertheless manages to take their songs down roads of gothic horror atmosphere, winding enough to satisfy throughout their length.
“The Lake in the Woods’ ” clean and “Undead Hunger’s” acoustic sections are the clearest breaks from their sound and with the “short and sweet” 6-minuter “Hour of the Worm’s” straight up aggression, make for a more malleable album divided into sections that make for an easier experience. However much the band would try to change, Ustumallagam’s vocals and Azter’s unusually bright sense of melody would make for an instantly recognizable sound, and even though The Hallow Mass doesn’t venture as far into western-soundtrack or skate-punk territory as Death and the Beyond did, most of the songs remain full of these trademarks, down into outright predictability, which plagues the band’s songwriting at a larger scale as well. As a more directly melancholic song, “The Shapeless Mass” defends its inclusion om the record, even if it was already released on an EP bearing the same title, but another aggressive and shorter song would have both cut down the album’s extensive length and added some variation.
Likewise, the two-minute organ instrumental “A Thousand Funerals”, bearing an archetypal DoG melody, would have been better off left out and worked into a full song for some future release. But despite its flaws, The Hallow Mass is exactly what DoG fans, like myself, were expecting (and wanting). And it’s been out for long enough for me to know it isn’t quite too much exactly what I expected and wanted to also be good.
Ormskrik – Ormskrik
Ormskrik is an up’n’coming, Norwegian thrash metal band, with a good bit of blackened influence, and they even occasionally take advantage of the muscularity of death metal. The band brings an unusual amount of subtlety to their mostly single-minded thrashing. The switches between their additional influences, acoustic interludes scattered here and there and a few Iron Maiden-styled lead guitar melodies could make for one endearing record, and if you’re into the modern era of American thrash metal, it also might. For myself, the likes of Havok hold less and less to marvel, and while Ormskrik riffs harder and better than many of their US counterparts, only a couple of the songs actually carry memorable motifs. But then, their self-titled isn’t trying to hide its mission’s simplicity, to offer muscular thrash, one banger after another, and if only it were a bit shorter, and some of its duller moments culled, it could have hit just that much harder and really stick.
The Rite – Liturgy of the Black
The Rite was founded in 2017 for A. Th and Ustumallagam to play a more savage and morbid kind of black metal than what their primary thought vehicles allowed for. If A. Th’s Black Oath is an esoteric doom metal band occasionally flirting with black metal in its riff-construction, then The Rite is primal black metal incorporating much traditional doom riffing, while also flirting with the likes of Mercyful Fate and Celtic Frost. Ustumallagam’s vocals naturally draw comparison to Denial of God, but the similarities don’t end there. Both “The Black Effigy” and “Children of Belial” utilize rhythm & chord combinations that could be from any DoG record, and the use of “Hammer Horror -style organs” for added horror movie effect is definitely invading their home turf, but thankfully the simplistic, short songs and lack of DoG’s melodic abundance alone are enough to divide the two bands.
Shed the Skin – The Forbidden Arts
While I had seen the name Shed the Skin float around before, even some good words about them, I’d never really taken the time to check them out before, and I have to say I regret it. Quickly familiarizing myself with their 2016 debut Harrowing Faith, I found an excellent death metal record owing both its melodic and rhythmic flair to Necroticism-era Carcass, and a fairly good sophomore that made a few halfhearted attempts to move away from the shadow of the colossus. Created by Incantation / Acheron drummer Kyle Severn and Ringworm guitarist Matt Sorg, with the latter’s bass playing compatriot Ed Stephens and vocalist/guitarist Ash Thomas, to re-ignite the flame of Satanic death metal, the quartet has relentlessly honed their craft, and with The Forbidden Arts offer their most varied work to date.
The variation here stands for more tempo changes within songs, a larger variety of rhythms to draw from and the melodic doom of the penultimate “Veins of Perdition”. The album has a more diverse gene pool (even though in comparison to the debut, The Forbidden Arts has again moved further from Carcass’ territory), especially when it comes to the rhythmic basis of the riffs, though some reminiscence still remains. A stronger identity would help propel Shed the Skin miles further, but it’s their workmanlike songwriting that keeps The Forbidden Arts from making the same impact as Harrowing Faith did. It’s a good album, but the band has done the same thing better themselves, and as there’s a clear attempt at breaking the formula, you’d hope they’d go further with it.
Aversio Humanitatis – Behold the Silent Dwellers
I am told that the Spanish Aversio Humanitatis‘ Behold the Silent Dwellers is a long-awaited release from a well-heralded band, but as I have not been familiar with their name before now, I can’t attest to the matter. What I can attest to, is the quality of its swirling black metal that is no stranger to the altered perceptions of dissonance that run along its menacing, unforgiving, urban construct, amplified with bassist A.’s discernible and articulate shouts, further separating them from the nucleus of black metal as it once strove to be. Finished with psychedelic tinges, Behold the Silent Dwellers is an excellent, if not groundbreaking, view of a dystopic future (or present, in the case of our timeline, if we share the same timeline, that is). At least it could be; the last two tracks are good in their own right, but struggle against the front of the the record, and on an album as short as Aversio Humanitatis’ sophomore, that can prove a graver flaw than you’d think.
Violent Hammer – Riders of the Wasteland
Hailing from Northern Ostrobothnia, Violent Hammer dropped two demos in the mid-aughts, disappeared, resurfaced with a new line-up in 2014, dropped a demo, disappeared and have now re-surfaced again to drop a full-length. Time will tell whether they intend to disappear in smoke once more, like some once forgotten, psychedelic warlords. Not being familiar with those demos, I can only speak for Riders of the Wasteland, but its remorseless and primitive approach to black/death is very much in the tired, chaotic and noisy vein of war metal. Violent Hammer’s “twist”, if you will, is their very occasionally appearing influence from classic Swedish crust punk, which mainly permeates their rhythmic basis. As “(Trapped) in Depths”, “House of Berija” and “Bratva” demonstrate, they’ve got a knack for the catchier side as well, in the case of the former and the latter, with leads and in the case of the middle track, playing to their grindcore influence. But these don’t yet make for truly memorable songs, and the rest of the 20-ish minutes is hardly spared war metal’s most tiresome flaws.
Carach Angren – Frankensteina Strataemontanus
Let’s be honest for a moment, without implying prior dishonesty, which I would never admit to anyways: Carach Angren is a symphonic black metal band that always sucked at “black”, are increasingly bad at “metal” and have never excelled at “symphonic” either. And yet, their carnival extreme metal has had its moments, chiefly thanks to the symphonic arrangements, the bad of which has always been the vision and the discourse between them and the rest of the instruments, not the existence of. Frankensteina Strataemontanus doesn’t attempt to disprove this, as much as it’s making a show of hands of it. On top of which, without any fiddling with knobs down at your end, it sounds outright bad. Tinny guitars buried beneath clanging, typewriter drums and violently thudding bass, the presence of which I would usually solemnize, but which only adds to the sonic mess here. With the full use of my players’ knobs and twiddle-things and meters it’s become listenable, besides the symphonic elements, which seem to be the only part of the record into which any care went in, for long enough to force a review to materialize from thin air. I would have preferred to not have found out how haphazardly the metal parts of this album sound thrown together, as if it had been the grandiose arrangements that had existed first and the rest was written to fit them. Not to serve the songs, not to work as compositions, but to to fit just that one given part of the arrangement they accompany. Although, with a title like that, it might have been the point. There’s little coherence between the band’s bouncy, chuggy side and the tremolo-picking, two penny black metal side either, as if written by two different persons, lacking knowledge of each other, but at least the former makes sense in the context of the title track which might as well have been named “Frank Klepacki’s Greatest Hits, The ’99 Redux – Ho66o6 Remix”. Too bad that’s the only side of the band that ends up making sense in context.