Do remember when Gorguts released ‘Colored Sands’ back in 2013 (it’s spelt ‘coloured’ by the way), and everyone rushed to condemn or praise it in equal measure? A modernised version of Gorguts at the turn of the century, or yet another aging death metal act struggling to keep step with one fad or another? Enter Withered of Atlanta, Georgia, with their second LP ‘Grief Relief’ (2016). I’m torn as to how to approach this. There is an undeniable similarity to ‘Colored Sands’ that simply cannot be ignored, but it seems more fitting to hold Withered up to the standards of this album’s predecessor, 2010’s ‘Dualitas’.
The latter of which is a dark and epic exploration of that elusive idea that is modern extreme metal. Neither death nor black, drawing upon post hardcore, doom, grindcore, and no small pinch of sludge. Spacey, cavernous production, disjointed dissonant chords, non-linear compositions, all designed to augment the disorientation of a disorientating age. I can’t decide if this style is tired or yet to reach its potential. So many tedious failures disguising themselves as artistic maturity, with scant nuggets of promise here and there, located in the mechanistic bowls of techniques and tricks within the music as opposed to any emotional impact it may have. If one has to search so hard for a reason to praise something does it simply devolve into grasping at straws to seem intelligent? Everyone seems to be going for this super alienating sound right now that we appear to have reached edgy saturation.
Well, for Withered, I really enjoyed ‘Dualitas’, for the simple reason that the thing fucking developed itself as the album progresses. The compositions, although grating and dissonant in places, seemed to unfold with malevolent purpose, enhanced by no small amount of character. So what’s the problem with ‘Grief Relief’? It feels like it should be Withered’s debut. Despite the music being denser, more riffs, more layers, more shifts and turns, more aggression…much less is said. Sure there’s cool passages, a neat little percussive riff chucked in here, a pleasingly unexpected breakdown there, but the whole thing seems starved of inspiration.
With highly stylised music like this, there are some that will just lap up whatever such bands release as long as it contains all the above-mentioned trappings (Spacey, cavernous production, disjointed dissonant chords, non-linear compositions). But for those of us that need some…y’know, music to sit beneath this pleasing but nevertheless surface-level aesthetic, we smell a rat. So let’s be right, ‘Grief Relief’ is still ahead of the pack as far as this sludgy new breed of extreme metal is concerned, for any fan of ‘Dualitas’, you will still get a lot of this, so don’t let the preceding pedantry discourage you.
Does this make me feel positive or negative? In music – as in life – the real points of intrigue are not in the major or the minor, the happy or the sad, but in the interactions between the two. And tonally, music that imitates sounds considered unpleasant to the modern palate – harsh machinery, grinding rocks, animals in pain – is carelessly defined as the opposite to music that imitates the pleasant – birdsong, gentle breezes, people enjoying each other. Again, it is the mechanics of the interaction between the two which is of interest. And more importantly, how and when they combine to invoke a more profound experience than one or the other.
What does all this have to do with Quebecois black metallers Deletere and their latest EP ‘Theovorator: Babelis Testamentum’ (2019)? Well, because it’s a fine example of black metal as a positive force. But, keeping in mind the above reading, this is positive black metal not in the airhead sense of those who disguise their lack of musical insight behind pink album covers and directionless major chord progressions specifically catered to upset the hysterical black metal hordes. No, this is a more profoundly life affirming statement in music, that takes all the familiar building blocks of black metal, and – yes, sometimes runs them through some unabashedly major keys – blends them together in uplifting music with purpose.
How is this done? At its most basic level, by applying a repeated refrain (usually a short riff) through several iterations and several accompaniments – sometimes a simple ascending chord pattern, sometimes by dropping the tempo out – and each one written with the finale in mind. These relatively simple tricks give the music a sense of mission and drive, one that you didn’t know you miss until you hear it on this EP. A razor-sharp guitar tone helps to bring these elements to the fore, along with drums that are required to bolster up the power of the melodic centre of this music without stealing the show. A tricky balancing act that many drummers fail to achieve.
So whilst this is no doubt an impressive release, and a breath of fresh air for those that take unbridled joy in black metal and despair at the ruination it continues to suffer from liberal arts students, it’s important we don’t get carried away. Deletere’s previous full length of 2018 ‘De Horae Leprae’ was a solid slab of melodic black metal done right, but it merely hinted at the narrative maturity that they would reach on TBT. However, this long form composition requires just that, a longer form to reach fruition than a twenty minute EP can allow. This may hint at the lofty heights of ‘The Voice of Steel’, but they remain hints. Nevertheless, this is an impressive EP and comes recommended for those that still believe in the potential for compositional maturity in black metal over and above the liberal avant-garde free for all that some media darlings tried to make of extreme metal in the last fifteen years or so.
Geordie death metallers Live Burial released their first LP ‘Forced Back to Life’ back in 2016. It straddles more worlds than the retro ‘Reanimator’ style album cover suggests. No, this is not just another novelty retro act with all the subtlety of a Municipal Waste of space. ‘Forced Back to Life’ is a delicate marriage of classic thrash with some nods to pretty esoteric death metal thrown in. The first thing that struck me about this release is…yes, the snare sound (actually the first thing that struck me was the intro ‘Screams From the Morgue’ which is worthy of the most epic black metal release). It’s very tinny, whether by choice or necessity it seems it would be more fitting on a modern grind release. But – if premeditated – it offers a clue for the album to come; fast, hard, and too impatient with individual ideas to dwell on them for too long.
Vocals are a high-pitched, rather pained scream more befitting of hardcore, but they work in the context of death metal that draws so heavily on the b-movie horror tradition. Derivative, but nevertheless enjoyable thrash riffs collide with tremolo picked sequences of a surprisingly fluid nature. Drums pound busily beneath this cacophony working as many fills and rhythmic shifts as possible. This gives the illusion of complexity to many of the more basic riffs, which is no bad thing.
The joy found in ‘Forced Back to Life’ is rooted more in expectation vs reality than anything intrinsically unique about this release. If we’re judging books by their covers then Live Burial looks like yet another retro revival outfit (although at this point in 2020 it’s more like ‘retro survival’, right…right). But, the actual goods beneath all this packaging is a rich blend of hard thrash, death metal of both a brutal and more traditional nature (I can hear both Suffocation and Massacre in here), combined with some clever little flourishes within those tremolo riffs, the solos, and much of the drums. The end result is not only undeniably fun, but surprisingly well made.