Roundbear Roundup: December 2023

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Like every year, 2023 had no shortage of new music released. Like every year, it’s a struggle to cover everything you’d like to. Which is one reason why I tend to keep myself to bite-sized reviews. But sometimes the lettuce just keeps piling on and you’ll need one hell of a mouth if you’re going to gulp all this down in one go.

The Toilet has a long-standing relationship with Thecodontion, from the Erstwhile Author Formerly Known As W‘s fascination with their early Prehistoric Metal of War to several features, reviews and interview over the years. I myself have managed to meet, befriend and work with some of its members—which I hope you will believe does not cloud my judgement. After all, beyond a shadow of doubt, I have been Finland’s biggest Thecodontion fan since the arrival of Supercontinent, which has a far better chance of distorting my view.

Their split partners in Ceremented, on the other hand, were completely unknown to me prior to the announcement of this record. Hailing from the US of A, their raw and hefty death metal is the perfect complement to Thecodontion’s. And not just because they don’t believe in guitars either (unless it’s a bass guitar). Thecodontion’s two originals continue to further sail their rugged metal— no longer of war, but of death—towards even more experimental and atmospheric waters.

Yes, ever since the debut full-length, Thecodontion’s music has been characterized by experimentation and “atmosphere”. If ever there has been a death metal counterpart to the atmospheric black metal boom, Thecodontion is at the forefront of it. Supercontinent and the following The Permian-Triassic Extinction Event split both found strength in the limitations of lacking a guitar. Since the beginning, the Romans have turned the geological forces which churned rock hard animal carcasses into soft, black, liquid gold and rent entire continents, forever scarring the visage of Earth, into the pounding of the bass, blasting of the drums and the “rawk” of the riffs.

But on those two releases they were no longer content to do just so. A more evocative, diverse and complex style of songwriting gave them the chance to circumvent any and each possible shortcoming of their bass-led approach, and seize that chance they did, fleshing out a genuinely progressive approach to metal, complemented by a newfound melodicism in the weird, wailing and reverb-drenched bass leads. On Thecodontion/Ceremented they’re looking to further expand that melodicism and the thickness of their atmosphere, without compromising on the heaviness of the riffs.

In contrast, Ceremented are raw and ugly, drawing from the collapse of societies, degradation of the cosmos, the general loathsomeness of the human race and the fact of death for their distorted dual-bass attack as heavy as their themes. Unlike Thecodontion, they’ve no notion of escaping that rawness, or that ugliness. They embrace it wholeheartedly. And a quick search indicates they might be on their rawest here. Very simple riffs and very simple structures with only the notion that forward momentum must be kept at all cost to keep their shambling, mid-tempo death metal in one piece. Whenever they slow down, they veer closer towards sludge. A connection amplified by the reverb-drenched, drawn-out, snarling vocal majority gliding hate-filled over the instruments. Occasionally breaking into a short chanted part, or more traditional growls buried deeper beneath the feedback and the background noise.

A short introductory track  of dark ambient, electronics and sheer noise gives way to two aggressive, hardly much longer songs of bulldozing, lower-mid-tempo wrath stripped of the scant intricacies from their earlier material. Until comes the closer “DISEASE.DEATH.KONTROL (Contravene of Death’s Hand)”. What was straightforward before becomes an unbending steel girder Bender Bending Rodriquez himself could do nothing about. What was hate and loathing before becomes a void of emotions. The Chthuhlu Mythos created by August Derleth reduced to the single thread which united the string of unrealized thoughts haunting H.P. Lovecraft’s hate-filled mind, which bore the initial idea—the cold, uncaring cosmos. What was a bulldozer becomes A Thing. The Impending Inevitability. It does not seek out, it does not move. It does not need to. It is inevitable. As death and doom give way for nihilistic sludge, a lone flute rings out evoking the ancient rituals where life and death joined hand in horror and celebration. But what follows is only the nothingness. Where once were warriors, only the deafening silence of the great empty remains.

Throughout their half, Ceremented move progressively towards what can best be described as ‘the end’. Starting from the rawest point of their career so far, each song is slower, longer, more execrable and monstrous than the last. Until all notion of emotion has been burnt out. In a complementary, but reversed lens, Thecodontion starts out at the softest and most emotionally evocative point of their discography and attempts to move upwards only. The bass sound is, despite ample clank, the clearest I’ve yet heard, G.E.F’s vocals are somewhat more articulate than before and there is a newfound fluidity to the songwriting. The seeds of a movement often begin to sprout in the previous one, and when on Supercontinent and The Permian-Triassic Extinction Event the melodies often felt intentionally juxtaposed against the riffs they were playing over, here they are not. Now they have been situated and arranged with the riffs, more mindful of each other’s length and rhythm. The change is especially apparent on the opening “Trilobite” as the leads there are more ample than ever.

The slow-moving “Hallucigenia” leaves a lot of empty space around it. But this space is occupied by a new element. For not only have the band’s live members, bassist L.S. and drummer V.P., been admitted to the band as official, full-time members, there is also a very prevalent guest on the record. Stefano Allegretti of Bedsore has lent his talent on the keyboard to Thecodontion. While this hasn’t brought a great change to central songwriting, it does revamp the atmosphere.

For much of the split he either doubles the riffs, or provides complimentary chords, but it’s enough to redefine the band’s idiosyncrasy. I also suspect the balance between the keys and basses is the ultimate reason for a cleaner approach to production. On “Trilobite”, the band’s busiest song so far, Allegretti provides additional melodic work as well, but it’s the closer “La Torre”—a Franco Battiato cover—where he seems to take the lead most.

Battiato was a Sicilian-born singer-songwriter, film director and a painter under the pseudonym Süphan Barzani. His career in music spanned from progressive rock and electronic music to opera and a multitude of pop music styles. “La Torre” appeared first on his 1982 album L’arca di Noè, a mixture of progressive and pop sounds. Thecodontion has claimed great inspiration from Battiato, and though I have heard many gravelly voices doubt the sincerity of that statement, I do not agree with them. A man with a career like Battiato’s is exactly the kind of a person I’d expect to inspire a band, and a record, like this.

One need not look any further than the cover itself, how easily and naturally its new arrangement falls in place. The bass and the keys work together to emulate the synths on the original. The bass uncharacteristically does keep to a root, providing the rhythmic pattern of the original, while the keys replicate the melody with spacious chords. The second bass comes in with a simplified, more Thecodontion-esque variation of the lead and suddenly the song drops into a very easygoing verse, with only V.P.’s ample double-bass groove reminding this is not a pop rock group.

Perhaps there is something to be said about the difficulty of identifying Battiato’s influence depending on your musical DNA. In Finland we have iskelmä. It’s a way of making and understanding melodies, lyrics and music in general that is difficult to explain to a non-Finnish person completely, but also isn’t relevant here. What is relevant is the tendency to borrow from other countries. Many iskelmä hits originated as a b-side quickly discarded in its country of origin, but deemed to have the makings of a hit in Finland. These were then covered, reworked, remixed or re-appropriated to one degree or another, but always mangled to better fit the then-current iskelmä parameters. Some of the most popular scenes to go digging for these songs were the Italian pop, schlager and disco scenes. So there is a great deal of shared musical DNA between the two countries. But iskelmä is a diamond drill like no other. It penetrates everything, from every kind of pop imaginable, through country to hip hop and metal of both radio-friendly and extreme varieties. So someone who is used to picking up these influences from any kind of music imaginable, and is already familiar with this particular musical genealogy, might have an easier time identifying them in Thecodontion. At least that is what I tell myself whenever I see a yank questioning them.

There is something I must carefully agree with the gravelly voices on though. And that is the all-clean vocal performance of bassist G.D. While he is a good singer, and the vocals do actually fit the cover, I would’ve preferred to either hear the inclusion of these cleans elsewhere, or the presence of growls on “La Torre” as well. As the song is already more lightweight than the rest of the material—not solely because of the different composer, but also because the keys take a more dominating role—the vocal disparity does keep it from connecting as well with the two originals as it should.

I don’t know if the band plans to keep keyboards for future releases, and I’m not sure  if I’d wish for them to be as prevalent as a rule in the future. But I do hope they won’t entirely discard the possibilities of an expanded soundscape they award. As I also hope they keep integrating those clean vocals into their songs in the future as well.

Thecodontion | Facebook | Instagram

Instagram | Bandcamp | Ceremented

 

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