Pointing out an artist’s influences is often treated as an act of aggression. Far from dropping a neutral comment on origins, some take it to be a damning indictment that a band dared wink at their routes. Obviously, the debate needs to extend a little further; well done, you have identified that no art is created outside of history, now venture a further observation on how these precursors affect the quality of what we have in front of us. Conversely, many artists are nothing but their influences. Not simply aping one or two traits of their forbears, but revelling in every aspect of the past. From the music itself, to the recording techniques, the instruments, the image of the band members, everything. This mischievously cuts off the discussion of influence before it can start, because now it’s right there, dancing naked in front of us. So we must simply sigh, and ask if/how/why there is any merit in this music, and move on with our lives.
Germany’s Kadavar have been pushing out old school heavy rock albums pretty consistently for near a decade now. The good news is, they just keep getting better at it. This is one of those rare treats in a band so obviously channelling the past; their talent as musicians and song writers is too good, and they cannot help but stamp their own unique identity all over this music no matter how nostalgic it is. Despite its deadpan opening, 2019’s ‘For the Dead Travel Fast’ is probably their heaviest album; or rather, their darkest. It sinks to the depths of melancholia, but it also oozes infectious melodies and riffs from every pour.
The lyrics turn from lust for life to introspection, even when the tempo and groove does pick up it is underpinned by a layer of unease and drollness. This is augmented by Christopher Bartelt’s life affirming way with the drum kit being suppressed somewhat in the mix. Their presence is still very much felt, but they are downplayed in order to better serve this rock album for a rainy day.
But it’s not just the undercurrent of darkness at the heart of ‘For the Dead Travel Fast’ that makes for a more mature listen. As well put together as Kadavar’s earlier releases were, they were a little over indulgent in places, positioning the blues and flower-power influences front and centre not because they served the music, but because that’s what Kadavar felt they had to be. But on FTDTF we see a band that – on a personal level – are looking forwards, to developing a more disciplined style and structure in order to express themselves. But paradoxically this is done through the medium of rock music that looks backwards.
Far from being yet another band that apes the past, Kadavar are improving upon it. They have taken us to the very genesis of heavy metal, where heavy rock departs from its forbears in favour of a darker path. Yet this comes so naturally to them that it is unmistakably Kadavar. It must be noted that I was not nearly so inclined to give this such a positive write up until I spun FTDTF a few times. I’ve always enjoyed Kadavar, but I get bored with this iteration of retro heavy rock due to its own self-imposed limitations. Kadavar were always an above average example of a mediocre form. However, here we see them take a step further down a more ambitious path, and the message, not the medium, has won through.
Do you like the 70s but with all the compression? Then Purson’s second LP ‘Desire’s Magic Theatre’ released back in 2016 is the album for you. Dripping with music but struggling to standout, the only retro styles this album does leave out are punk and disco it seems. So with all this prog, psychedelia, classic rock and no small hint of glam to go at, what are we to do with ‘Desire’s Magic Theatre’? It’s certainly more energetic than their debut ‘The Circle and the Blue Door’ (2013), which came across as Deep Purple on Valium.
Well the first thing to note is the unfortunate consequences of embracing the retro sensibility but submitting it all the same to the totalitarian age of compression. In listening to this album, I can’t help but think of that eccentric audiophile rant that Fenriz went on in a bizarre interview with Sam Dunn a few years back, where he bemoans the pervasiveness of compression on all modern recordings. In this age of uniformity, he laments that vocals can just barely keep their head above water. In the case of DMT, when they are not struggling to stay afloat they completely overpower the mix. And the mix – it should be noted – is so polished, serene, boring, that the whole thing feels like it came off a production line.
This would make Purson a more boring version of Jess and the Ancient ones or Goat, were it for this one caveat: there’s no substitute for good song writing. And aside from a couple of cringeworthy lyrics and jazz flute passages that are a bit hard to swallow in a post Anchorman age, Purson are not short on ideas. They’re an ensemble band, and that much is apparent throughout the course of the album as all musicians are given a chance to shine, from organs, to drums, to flutes and the old faithful guitar. This informs Purson’s approach to composition, which unabashedly makes room for improv as the music progresses.
For the metal purist, one who values rigid structures and disciplined compositions, this puts Purson very much in the ‘proto’ metal category even if we set aside the prominent jazz and blues that inform this music. At times I find this frustrating. Where some see the space for musicians to express themselves – and more spontaneously than full blown metal would usually allow – I see lack of imagination and filler. As varied as this album is, there’s nothing one cannot glean from more worthy contemporaries in Jex Thoth, Uncle Acid, or Kadavar. Nevertheless, I’m a sucker for a swelling chord passage on the old organ, and there’s plenty of that coming out of the speakers, especially on centre piece number ‘The Sky Parade’. The music keeps moving, and for the willing there are plenty of rewards for a diverse range of listeners stacked throughout this LP.
This week’s choice is a simple one: a predominantly boring album with moments of intrigue, or an album played in a boring style in a charismatic way. And the choice is simply the latter. Kadavar are leading in a field where admittedly the competition is not all that stiff – dominated as it is by average minds – but their undeniable charisma shines through every note of ‘For the Dead Travel Fast’. There’s nothing inherently wrong with ‘Desire’s Magic Theatre’, unless you count mediocrity as a damning flaw, which I’m afraid I do. Scattered ideas stand out here and there, and there’s no doubting Purson’s willingness to genre hop. But they do not provide anything one cannot get elsewhere and better.