June Roundup: Death, Doom, Black, Jazz & Thrash
The latest/upcoming records from Abramelin, Dinosaur, Hail Spirit Noir, Thanatos, Serment & Sorcerer
Abramelin‘s back after some 20 years since their sophomore, Deadspeak, dropped. Well, technically, they’ve been back since 2016, but no one would blame you for not having heard of that. In his quest to drum for every Australian band out(back) there, Dave Haley’s taken up the stool behind the kit, and the chair too, but every other man in the line-up, besides the ever-present guitarist/vocalist duo of Aldridge & Dower (Matt Wilcock on guitars and Rob Mollica on bass) has previously enjoyed at least some kind of stint in the band.
Returning is not only their line-up, but their taste in album art as well. Although where Deadspeak‘s was the kind of bad that could elicit a chuckle, Never Enough Snuff’s comes closer to face-palming embarrassment of image processing. In a way though, it’s the best imaginable art to adorn Abramelin’s comeback album, in that its quality pales in comparison to the lyrics. Death metal is no stranger to gore, and over the years, the genre’s developed myriad ways to approach the subject matter. Abramelin is no stranger to digging particularly deep into death metal’s fascination with violence and morbidity for their lyrics, having been banned from sale in parts of Australia for topics such as child molestation.
Perhaps in feeling that he had to out-do himself, Dower has grazed practically every song with topics like shitting on a woman and killing her, and lines like “I’ll make an incision with surgical precision. Connective tissue will be no issue.” Not a particularly bad example, in fact it might be the highest Never Enough Snuff reaches in terms of eloquence and content. Dower’s at the height of his lyrical prowess, but it is grimly reminiscent of an extremely awkward rendition of that death metal rap karaoke thing Archspire was pulling off a couple years back. There are many ways to make gore lyrics, and though in 2020, all of them are devoid of content, Abramelin strives to hit a new low. If you have nothing to say, why do you insist on doing so? At least half of brutal death/slam vocalists don’t much glance at their lyrics, Obituary didn’t need to and Demilich didn’t even pretend to have them.
Dower’s vocal performance, at least, is much better than his poetry: a very consistent, low grunt occasionally interspersed or harmonized with higher growls. He’s fairly intelligible, though at his best when he’s not; their workman-like nature reflects the quality of the material at hand. There’s a deceptive simplicity to Aldridge’s & Wilcock’s riffing and bountiful leadwork. Whether the bone-grinding chugs, scorching Morbid Angel-esque tremolos, hasty thrash rhythms or even expanding upon their melodic palette, Never Enough Snuff isn’t just memorable, it’s outright catchy. They avoid veering into caveman territory or subjecting their songwriting to either overtly derivative dumbery or obvious flashiness. It’s so close to an all-out modern masterpiece of death metal that its few failings are only more bitter for it.
Thanatos is often cited as the very first Dutch extreme metal band, reaching their roots back into 1984, to the founding of Whiplash—though they would release their first demo under the current name later the same year. They experienced an early period of instability before guitarist/vocalist Stephan Gebédi found Erwin de Brouwer for guitars, Ed Boeser for bass and Remo van Arnhem, whose playing can also be heard on the criminally underrated Sempiternal Deathreign’s lone album, The Spooky Gloom, for drums.
This line-up recorded two albums, Emerging from the Netherworlds and Realm of Ecstacy, both now regarded as death/thrash classics, before hanging it up in ’92. But by the end of the decade, Gebédi decided to assemble a new line-up around himself, recruiting Paul Baayens for second guitar and the rhythm group of Theo van Eekelen and Sinister’s Aad Klosterwaard for bass & drums respectively. Though the foursome only ever recorded one album, Angelic Encounters, before parting ways, it established Baayens as Gebédi’s right hand man, a position he still holds today, and began the tradition of recruiting rhythm groups who had already performed together previously, as Kloosterwaard and van Eekelen had in Houwitser.
Though the following years saw Thanatos as active as ever, by the turn of the century the band was heard of with decreasing frequency—a fact not aided by Gebédi’s founding, and subsequent success, of Hail of Bullets with Martin van Drunen. Nor by Baayens’, whom also partook in HoB, and van Drunen’s decision to deepen their collaboration by reforming Asphyx.
And so, here we are, at Violent Death Rituals, the band’s 7th album, arriving a brisk 6 years after their preceding full-length. A fresh rhythm group of Mous Mirer and Martin Ooms, both formerly of Liar of Golgotha/Melechesh, in tandem, Thanatos may have slowed down but signs of the flame waning are scarce. Once more Gebédi focuses his disgust towards organized religion, corporations and abuse. Musically, Violent Death Rituals isn’t any further removed from their past than lyrically. Thundering gallops, harmonized & thrashing riffs and interspersing melodies slow down for some of their most effective moments. The mix of melody and thrash on “The Outer Darkness”, the grand “It Always Ends in Blood” and closing “As the Cannons Fade”, alternating between solemnity and mid-tempo aggression with the weight of the world on its shoulders, make for the highlighting moments, but there’s nary a weak song in the bunch.
Violent Death Ritual does tend to blur together at places though, and, lacking in that final push that lifted Coffin Curse‘s latest head and shoulders above its kind, might not stand against the test of time as well. But its immediacy and consistency, without trapping itself with single-minded aggression, lift it high among the band’s 21st century discography.
10 years, three albums, 4 musicians, such is the story of Dinosaur thus far. They’ve played some of the most iconic jazz festivals, and bandleader/trumpeter Laura Jurd has won multiple awards for her work, yet this is the first I’ve ever caught a whiff of them. Not that it should come as a surprise to anyone. With Elliot Galvin’s piano, Conor Chaplin’s double bass and Corrie Dick’s drums to interpret her compositions, it’s difficult to say if Jurd’s compositions are more akin to guidelines and central melodies for the musicians, or rigid structures to decorate. For example, if you were to tell me the opening title track contained no improvisation whatsoever, I would believe you, yet the band and their label insist To The Earth is full of improvisational magic.
So seamless is their combination of “technical prowess and playful abandon”, so well integrated the four musicians’ individual styles that it’s impossible to say where the line between written and improvised should be drawn. And it’s this playful abandon specifically that has brought me back to Dinosaur’s third opus so often, after its May release and subsequent introduction to me by the Lizard King of the Hell Toilet.
It’s very reminiscent of the early, iconic prog-rockers Wigwam, especially the material Pekka Pohjola penned for them, and his subsequent solo records, which, it should be said, are some of my all-time favourite prog/jazz records. But even though it’s impossible to not hear his pen marks on tracks like “Mosking” or “To The Earth”, Dinosaur never feels even slightly derivative, nothing but fresh, and I might even be persuaded to believe Jurd has never heard of either. Maybe. Whatever the case, Dinosaur is the most exciting jazz discovery I’ve made in 2020 so far.
A new solo project from Forteresse guitarist Moribond, Serment‘s approach to black metal is likewise majestic but in a different sense. Rather than the triumphant riffs of Forteresse, Chante, Ô Flamme de la Liberte evokes a feeling of smallness in the face of winter’s grandeur. And speaking as little French as I do, there’s little else to go on with other that constant feeling and the concept of a “legend of a pact with the Devil and the quest for a lost heritage, a dark and epic journey at the heart of Québec’s snowy forests, buried beyond the snows of ages”.
As far as the “snows of ages” and “dark and epic journey” are considered, Chante does very well in carrying its concept through the music. Its grandeur is evoked through minimalism, relying on simple, repeating riffs and subtle keyboard melodies, although the keys are placed onto the forefront in the same way many 90’s “symphonic” black metal bands did, before symphonic actually became to mean, well, symphonic. On “Par-Delà Collines et Rivières” the blast beat becomes a drone over which tremolo-picked notes unveil; eventually, the keys join with the guitar. On “Flamme Hivernale” the two take a more lively approach, playing mostly in unison, the keys further expanding on the progression here and there.
The songs flow seamlessly into one another, enveloping into a melancholic, 40-minute haze. It’s an all-consuming experience that demands only attention. An excellent debut playing on familiar themes, ones that Moribond’s touched upon many times before. But sometimes all it takes is a new angle.
Hail Spirit Noir was founded a decade ago in Thessaloniki, Greece, as a trio. This first incarnation produced three eclectic, psychedelic and progressive rock-influenced black metal albums, although mostly only very nominally black metal. It would be very hard not to take Eden in Reverse, the brand new 4th full-length, as the beginning of a new chapter for the band. Firstly, the band that once was formed by bassist/guitarist J. Demian, guitarist/vocalist Theoharis and keyboardist Haris, has grown to become a sextet formed by the first trio and another, consisting of drummer Foivos, relieving the band of their constant need of session musicians, second keyboardist Sakis Bandis and vocalist Cons Marg, who brings with him the most apparent change for the band, clean vocals.
Previously Hail Spirit Noir relied on harsh vocals, but Eden in Reverse features none, and as they no longer underline the band’s historical connection to extreme metal, even hints of this past become pushed back in the compositions, allowing for HSN to shed their skin for a new avant/prog/psych manifesto. Often delirious, Eden in Reverse nevertheless stays on this side of the line, choosing rather to appear more unnerving and unnerved than they are, allowing for a more perfect control over the emotional side of the music. There’s so much to listen to on the surface alone that it would be easy to forego the compelling and dynamic rhythmic work. Not that it would be easy to overlook Foivos’ amazing drumming, or even J. Demian’s basswork, but rather the interplay between the two.
There’s no other band HSN would clearly compare to, but Oranssi Pazuzu might put you in the same ballpark. The thing is, in many ways HSN takes the same, or similar, ingredients, for a very different outcome. Where Pazuzu’s songwriting has always been very monolithic and monochromatic, even homogeneous, Eden in Reverse flatters itself over the variety it manages. From the all-out psych trips of “The Devil’s Blind Spot” and the 10+ minute closer, “Automata 1980”, through the last vestiges of their blackened past on “The First Ape on New Earth”, to the extremely infectious “Crossroads” sung by Borknagar’s/Solefald’s criminally underrated Lazare.
There are no bands like HSN, and few even attempt anything similar. But one has to wonder how come, since it all works so well on Eden in Reverse. Without a doubt one of the best records released in 2020.
The other Swedish epic doom metal band from the ’80s, Sorcerer left behind them only a couple of (album-length) demos before hanging it up, and never quite became as successful as perhaps would have been warranted. Reformed in the early ’10s by bassist Johnny Hagel and vocalist Anders Engberg, after years spent honing their skills in Tiamat, Therion and Lion’s Share, with an otherwise new line-up, they released their official full-length debut in 2015, and finally began to gain some greater traction with their sophomore, The Crowning of the Fire King, two years later.
With a slightly shed skin, having welcomed Justin Biggs for bass and the returning Richard Evensand for drums, Sorcerer doesn’t play doom by the strictest measures on Lamenting of the Innocents, further obscuring the already muddled line between traditional (/epic) doom and heavy metal. The songwriting is consistently strong, even if it gets a little too one-note by the 70-minute mark, and for an album with several 8-minute tracks, Lamenting can get surprisingly chorus heavy.
Engberg proves himself a capable and versatile vocalist, balancing himself between clean and rasp with ease and surviving both harsh and spoken word sections without breaking a sweat. And though Niemann/Hallgren/Hagel string trio’s work is strong throughout, it’s Engberg who elevates these songs, and it’s his performance that’s responsible for the most memorable moments. The only exception is the acoustic “Deliverance”, in which cellist Svante Henryson and guesting doom-royalty Johan Längquist briefly steal the spotlight.
Despite its length and other minor quips, Lamenting of the Innocents is a successful gambit for the doom year. Well, the year’s halfway through, but it still feels like a gambit, wonder why…