The older you get, the more you understand the passage of time. As a kid listening to Morbid Angel and Deicide one marvelled at the leaps their music took from Possessed and Hellhammer just a few years before, and the further dynamism of black metal a few years later. But this deified period from about 1984 to 1994 – so packed full of classics for the curious young metalhead – was a mere ten years. If we pluck another more recent arbitrary decade out and stick it under the microscope what does it reveal? Say 2004 to 2014. Of course the internet’s greasy fingerprints are now all over the way metal behaves as a culture, but its impact on the music itself is harder to measure. Thanks in no small part to the sheer volume of cross pollination that it facilitates, regional and national sounds melt away, and any truly revolutionary moments in music akin to ‘Altars of Madness’ are either ignored or buried beneath algorithms favouring more market savvy but inferior artists. But there are, despite all this, artists and sounds that are distinctively modern, or ‘post-2008’. It may not have a name yet, but here’s two more albums that have come to typify it.
Canada’s Mitochondrion were a promising little outfit a few years ago, but after their second LP ‘Parasignosis’ released back in 2011 they seem to have dropped off the radar. But what an album it is. Hype and fan boys aside, the problem I always had with Blasphemer era Mayhem was the lack of a broader purpose. ‘Grand Declaration of War’ linked the revamped Mayhem up with black metal’s industrial flirtations, ‘Chimera’ was an unremarkable bulldozer of an album, and ‘Ordo ad Chao’ was an interesting tumble further down the rabbit hole of black metal and dark ambient/electronica. All had merits. But all lacked the focus and attention span to link up any of these disparate ideas. They ended up being a lucky dip of disconnected concepts, travelling one path only to about turn down another.
Why am I talking about Blasphemer era Mayhem? Because Mitochondrion’s ‘Parasignosis’ is kinda like these three albums, but with every shortcoming removed, every half-baked idea fleshed out, every concept followed through to its true potential and fruition. It’s complex and technical death metal with an unmistakable blackened industrial aesthetic. But rather than being tiresome and banal, Mitochondrion approach this style with a sincerity and refinement that avoids these common pitfalls. Although the production is slick, with complex layering and plenty of reverb to the guttural distorted vocals, it has enough rawness to give the music a primal edge.
The music itself is made up of dissonant technical death metal, replete with plenty of doomy breakdowns aided by the chasmic spaces afforded by the guitars. Drums, although meeting the required technical competency expected of the form, have a mechanical and machine like quality to them as they build a complex tapestry of horror with the intricate guitars. The latter of which form half riffs out of chopped up collections of power-chords which are constantly interrupted by dissonant scale runs or structureless pitch bending. But as with any music that courts chaos in this way, it really comes into its own once all the disparate and disorientating elements are gradually stripped away to make room for a focused and spacious doom breakdown, or in the case of closing number ‘Kathenotheism’, an extended breakdown followed by a dark ambient outro. A surprisingly rewarding listen on this LP made all the more surprising that it is yet to be followed up.
Finland’s Lantern offer a masterclass in how to make the ordinary seem unordinary through recording techniques with their debut LP ‘Below’, released in 2013. I may lack the vocabulary to fully do this justice, so we’ll do our best not to labour the point. At its core, this is frantic blackened death metal bent on atonal or minor chord play than anything more melodic or epic. It’s dark, fast, and rich. Riffs come and go at breakneck pace, with switches in rhythm or mood picked up without warning, and discarded just as quickly.
So far so typical. The problem is that Lantern have opted for a mix on ‘Below’ that would be more fitting of funeral doom. Everything is covered in reverb and compression. The snare sound takes ages to decay, but the drums make more use of blast-beats than they do anything else. The guitar tone is one that lends itself to ringing chords, epically slow solos, and slow, building melodies, but for the most part they blitz past in a fudge of tremolo picking and shredding thrash riffs. Vocals again are an almost punk like bark of aggression, but they are so laced with cavernous reverb that they come across distant and foreboding as opposed to violent.
So if those are the symptoms, what’s the diagnosis? Well, like much of the best in extreme metal, it’s a truly alien sound leaking from the speakers. It takes time to reach the right frame of mind to fully grasp what Lantern are going for. At first it feels like choices made in poor taste. But as one grows more familiar with music one grows accustomed to the finished work that takes shape over these base level aesthetic choices. What can seem like complete chaos can – without warning – bleed into patient and complex crescendos and overtures. And when those moments get going this album really comes into its own. What ‘Below’ lacks in dynamics it more than makes up for in the complexity and layering of the individual builds and falls as the music progresses. One really that the thing itself has a longer attention span than you, and the many secrets this music has been hiding slowly unfold. Rather than sitting passages of utter carnage next to more structured and disciplined moments, Lantern seem to mix and blend the two opposing forces simultaneously. The result is an unsettling but rewarding exploration of riffcraft. One that is enhanced by some clever and risky choices made around the presentation of the riffs themselves.
Two very strong contenders this week, but despite that the choice is easy for me. Lantern’s ‘Below’ is just that bit more bizarre. It’s one of those rare albums (especially of more recent times) that truly does not sound like anything I have heard before. ‘Parasignosis’ is an accomplished slab of technical and dark death metal, but it seems to typify the times rather than better them. ‘Below’ is an album of risky choices that don’t make sense to the listener on first or even third listen. But once that zen state of equilibrium with the music is reached, its rewards are great. It’s a trait that is common to some of the best albums in extreme metal.