Well let’s face it, ‘New releases: first impressions’ wasn’t the most inspired title for this feature. As summer raps up it may be premature to start shortlisting for those ‘best of 2019’ features. But this is no normal year. We have the complete works of the 2010s to rifle through and assess. And more importantly, discuss the present state of underground metal in light of the releases of the last ten years.
Is extreme metal in a better place than it was a decade ago? I would say in terms of the volume of quality releases, scenes, and activity it is. It remains dangerous, distinct, and above all alive. It has not been sterilised by a progressive liberal agenda (hipsters) for the most part. And more importantly it has not been absorbed into safe inoffensive indie-music. But the perpetual battle to remain truly underground continues. The persistence of underground websites, labels, artists, and local scenes gives much cause for hope.
But will the pressures of promoting and sharing via social media eventually take its toll? Has the internet turned underground metal into just another product, just another page to like on Facebook? Are promoters, record labels, musicians and the rest succumbing to social media’s need to generate inferior content and hits in the endless quest for more clicks? It may be too soon to tell. Check back in 2029.
That was a longer preamble than intended. Here’s some new music.
Hot off the press, Mefitis’ new LP ‘Emberdawn’ released in August this year boasts an intimidating amount of music to unpack. This is one of those rare albums that can truly claim to have transcended the death/black metal framework into something that doesn’t have a name yet. There are so many ideas within each track that in lesser hands this frantic, restless extreme metal would devolve into a mess. But Mefitis never lose focus, and never place a surplus idea where it’s not required. Like a richly complex tapestry, one can admire each segment for its beauty and technical prowess, and then step back and behold its role in contributing to the final work.
There are a number of different components to pull together, so let’s start with the guitars. The first thing to note is that this is music composed for two guitars. Whilst this is nothing new, there are few albums out there that commit to counterpoint in quite the same way. One has to reach for albums in a league of their own for worthy comparisons; ‘The Red in the Sky is Ours’ and ‘Nespithe’ spring to mind. Whilst ‘Emberdawn’ sounds distinct from these classics, the methodology and intricacy of the music is comparable.
Each and every riff has at least two components played simultaneously. Not only is the sheer volume of their quality mesmerising, but each one breaks apart and restructures the music in novel and unexpected ways. Every trick in the book is utilised (and exemplified), from polyrythm to atonality to dissonance and much more.
Rhythm is a key element to ‘Emberdawn’. This is largely determined by the direction of the riffs, as is the tempo. This allows the drums to take their own journey. They will sometimes link up with the guitars to emphasise their percussive tendencies, sometimes the drums will peal away from the other instruments with unexpected fills and breakdowns. The riffs will announce the end of one passage and the beginning of the next. The drums taken on their own are tight and engaging, but they exist to serve the course set by the guitars, and offer a subtle balance of technical competency whilst granting the music space to breath. A subtle layer of depth that would be hard to achieve with a drummer preoccupied with showcasing their skillset over servicing the compositions.
As frantic as this music is, it slows down at the midpoint with centrepiece Kolossos Pt. I and II. This is an eerie ambient passage that feeds into a perfectly poised instrumental piece. Similar flares are used sparingly throughout the album, cleanly sung chants, acoustic guitars, scant keyboards. These surface level textures are applied at key turning points within the album that signal the next movement.
Many of these musical components are fairly common to extreme metal. So what makes ‘Emberdawn’ so successful where others would fail? The answer lies in the amount of care Mefitis have taken to place these riffs within a larger structure. One can admire each one for its novelty, its precision, the complexity behind its construction. But this is to admire one brick in a vast and intricate structure. And this is ultimately the difference between ‘Emberdawn’ and an album that uses similar techniques but ends up being a random directionless mess. If things continue on their present course, this is a contender for album of the year.
Suffocation…. seminal band, awful legacy. You can’t blame an artist for the influence they have I guess. But the endless stream of average tech-death and *shudder* ‘slam’ metal artists that name Suffocation as a key influence is something to behold; and the bane of any metal all-dayer. It is also predictable that lesser minds would take the elements of Suffocation’s sound that are easiest to mimic and spew out endless reams of subpar material. Such is the nature of imitation.
Enter Baptized By Fire, who clearly take many cues from these legendary New Yorkers, but have applied and honed this craft into death metal of a frankly higher calibre. Their debut LP ‘Upon the Pyre’ released in June this year is a treat for fans of mid 1990s brutal death metal. The guitar tone on this album hits that sweet spot between crushingly heavy yet sharp enough to allow the riffs to shine forth. This is reminiscent of mid-1990s Morbid Angel for blending brutality with delicately poised riffcraft.
The music itself is a classic blend of staccatoed percussive riffs contrasted with simple yet effective tremolo strumming. The former will introduce the themes and situate the music, while the latter will drive the music forward into new refrains and iterations. This is a classically American take on death metal that remains transfixed with the points between order and chaos, how they interact, and how they resolve.
‘Baptized By Fire’ may not push the bar forward when compared to what we’ve heard before. But it is a fine example of what this music can be capable of. And a strong reminder to never accept average death metal that takes the most basic components of our forbears and does nothing challenging with them.
It is with regret that Leeds’ own Bongcauldron are throwing in the towel. They were good when they did things like play gigs and release music. But this happened rarely over time. Music is a time-consuming hobby. It extracts a heavy toll on some.
After the triumph of revelry that was ‘Binge’ they have left us with one last EP of primitive excess, ‘Tyke’, released late last year. Bongcauldron offer various lessons in how to make stoner/sludge metal exciting even with the most basic components. One is humour, which has a problematic relationship with quality music in general, and tends to kill longevity. But applied sparingly and tastefully it works. And Bongcauldron’s celebration of depravity is invigorating and funny.
The second lesson is the power of percussion in doom metal. They are not afraid to mess with tempos, they wear their punk influences on their sleeve, and even when they deteriorate into a crushingly slow groove the ear is still drawn to that rhythm section. Which brings us round to lesson three for doom metal artists, find yourself a good drummer. Jay Hope certainly added some high fidelity musicianship to their primal live shows. This comes through on ‘Tyke’, but remains underdeveloped on this three track EP.
The other hallmarks of this music are fun but nothing we have not heard before. Dual vocal attack, catchy heavy blues riffs, engaging groove, and rhythmic tension. I would have liked to see where Bongcauldron were going with their sound on a second LP, but some things are just not meant to last.