Post utopian metal: Disharmonic Orchestra and Supuration

The early 1990s were an odd time for subcultures. Particularly those whose existence was predicated on critiquing the societies they existed alongside. Since its inception metal artists have commented on the hubris of the powers that be. In relistening to ‘Paranoid’ recently I was reminded of just how much that album was a product of the Vietnam War and the fear of nuclear holocaust. As lyricists began to delve into fantasy and history for inspiration, themes such as hubris, oppression, and betrayal were frequently explored. With the intensification of greed throughout the 1980s, thrash metal artists were screaming to the sky about the dangers of unchecked wealth, unjust wars, nuclear weapons, and the arrogance of humanity.

For that reason, the renewed age of hope brought on by the end of the Cold War caught a lot of people off guard. One lesser remarked upon aspect of this is metal’s renewed interest in transcendental themes; themes that were more eternal than commenting on the political climate. Aliens, conspiracies, mind control, the sense that governments were encouraging passivity in the populous as a means of control. All bled forth in various aspects of the culture of the 1990s. In metal this took many forms. One was common to the more progressive strains of extreme metal. An inward looking, introspective exploration of the nature of oppression, freedom, and the price of peace. The two albums we’ll be looking at this week are often seen as aberrations; wonderful anomalies released in a time of historical flux.

Austria’s Disharmonic Orchestra were a peripheral metal artist of sorts. They hinted at transcending the strict genre demarcations of extreme metal with their debut ‘Expositionsprophylaxe’ (1990), leading commentators to resort to calling them avant-garde grindcore. Their second LP ‘Not to be Undimensional Conscious’ (1992) is an idiosyncratic surrealist extreme metal masterpiece. In the most general terms this is Europe’s answer to ‘Unquestionable Presence’. It lacks the bouncy positive energy of Atheist’s classic of American death metal, instead blending complex death metal with an aura of paranoia, oppression, and surrealism. Despite the dynamic grooves that weave their way throughout, this is a grim album.

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The guitars work their way through off-kilter chord progressions and unexpected melodies; all set to a wash of time signatures not often heard in metal. This is given additional texture owing to the use of the Swedish buzzsaw guitar tone. Bass cuts through this unsettling haze with intricate jazzy fingerpicked lines. Drums utilise many different techniques, some borrowed from jazz, others from more conventional metal influences. But there is an underlying groove that lends a unique pace to the album, one that seems to operate on a different perception of time, like watching the ebb and flow of a ballet in slow motion.

The result makes for a disorientating listen, one that remains unique within extreme metal. It comes across as a fuzzy fever dream of half formed philosophies, vague suspicions about the true nature of reality. Although the vocals are of the Petrov of Entombed variety of death metal, the album on the whole is more oppressive than it is aggressive. Confusing the listener with its constantly evolving key changes and left of centre chord progressions. A truly bizarre feat in surrealist metal.

France’s Supuration need little introduction. They are broadly speaking a gothic infused variation on mid-paced death metal, but gothic in the sense that their music engenders a feeling of despair and despondency; the angst of humanity being overrun by their own creations. And this is exemplified in their seminal LP ‘The Cube’ (1993). Conceptually it’s essentially a darker take on sci-fi thrash of the late 1980s, with more emphasis on psychology than sociology. This is haunting introspective death metal that borrows heavily from gothic doom metal in terms of technique, but applies it to a futuristic aesthetic. For instance, the frequent clean vocals, which are almost spoken word, sound robotic a-la DBC’s ‘Universe’ (1989), but they speak of anxiety and inner turmoil rather than space and pre-history.

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The music itself is mid-tempo death metal that regularly breaks down to almost doom metal pacing, but accented by dissonant guitar leads, some of which are repeated to the point of discomfort, adding to the highly oppressive, claustrophobic nature of this music. It washes over the listener, with each refrain offering subtle changes or alterations to the last, giving enough hope that progress is being made, but leaving enough uncertainty to give the impression of being trapped. Like a fever dream that never resolves itself.

It does this with the same tool kit as much European death metal of the time. Although being French, Supuration are definitely closest to the Swedish school in terms of technique and approach…they sound a little bit like Entombed on Valium. Or rather…the musicians actually knew exactly what they were doing in creating such a torturous and dark piece of death metal. But they make you feel like you’re on Valium, and left to rot in a dark cold room. The end result is death metal to make you question your mental state.

In terms of quality and originality, both these works are up there in the cannon of classic early 1990s extreme metal. But both would prove to be a bit too weird and interesting to gain the following of an Obituary or Entombed. Maybe not being part of these world famous scenes was another hindrance. However, both are retrospectively gaining newfound respect within the underground, and both would prove to be highly influential for metal that dares. More importantly their inimitable approach to death metal was not built upon novelty, it seems to flow naturally out of the music as a by-product. Which on a personal level somehow makes it all the more unsettling, like looking at an intangibly deformed familiar face. If we could have more Supuration and Disharmonic Orchestra influences and less Opeth and Tool the world of progressive metal would be a more…progressive place by now.

With that in mind I must resort to the album I prefer on a personal level for my pick of the week, although I feel they are both outstanding in their own right. And for that me it’s DO’s ‘Not to be Undimensional Conscious’. Like a mental state that requires intense meditation to reach, it never fails to disturb and mesmerise in equal measure.

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