Perfectionists and paragons: Maleficarum and Necromass

We’ll do something a little different this week, because I was recommended two albums I don’t know, from bands I’m unfamiliar with, from a country not all that known internationally for its metal scene (hence my ignorance): Italy. But good death metal is a universal language, one with hallmarks that are instantly identifiable even when approaching an album blind. One can spot its influences and where it is striking off on its own path (if at all that is). So despite approaching both these albums blind – which is not something I usually do when writing these segments – one can instantly spot where and how they fit into the wider lexicon of black and death metal in the mid-1990s, and what they bring to the table in terms of building on the form.

Maleficarum’s first LP ‘Across the Heavens’ (1995) is a product of the best aspects of death metal of the 1990s in every way. The production is rough and ready, but with more than enough clarity for this intricate, downbeat death metal to shine through. Looking at the drums for instance, to compensate for the tinny snare the bass has been accentuated in an effort to fatten out the sound. A trick straight out of the bible according to Scott Burns. In the more frantic passages it can be overbearing, but the guitars are strong enough to stand up in their own right. Vocals are halfway between John Tardy and Ross Dolan in their low-key menacing of the music.

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Which leads us perfectly into initial impressions of the music itself, because ‘Across the Heavens’ overall comes across as Italy’s answer to ‘Dawn of Possession’. It’s more melodic, the solos and guitar leads deal in melody and harmony over atonal and chromatic fretboard mayhem, and many of the riffs are of a more European lineage as a whole. But structurally, Maleficarum’s approach is very similar to Immolation of the same era. Rhythmically diverse, yet always settling on a mid-paced groove to pull all the more chaotic elements together. A central riff or motif is set, to which other ideas will bounce off and compete, but they will always be drawn together by re-iterating the opening theme somewhere in the middle of the track and then again towards the end, albeit under slightly different guises each time.

This is what it means to truly have grasped a sense of the epic in death metal. Because – more obvious permutations aside in the My Dying Bride esque intro – this thematic unity within the riffs themselves grants the music a sense of unity and purpose beyond the immediate moment the listener is experiencing. It demonstrates how to contextualise each moment within a much wider picture. Although Maleficarum’s phrasing and rhythms do call to mind early Immolation, the former work a much greater sense of classical melodies throughout their music, especially when they fall into a mid-paced groove informed by tremolo strummed riffs backed up by throbbing double bass work; an almost neoclassical Bolt Thrower.

Tuscany’s Necromass are as good a place to start as anywhere when it comes to Italian extreme metal. Their second LP ‘Abyss Calls Life’ (1996) slots very neatly into the Southern European traditions of black metal in all its melodic hat tipping to classic metal of the two decades that preceded it. The production holds few surprises, with no thrills drums which – despite their competence – hide behind a liberal dose of reverb. But they are relegated to a more traditional rock style on here and – although doing a fine job of keeping things interesting – tend to ignore the more unconventional roles this instrument can play in extreme metal. At certain points however, they are completely dedicated to servicing the rhythmic sensibilities of the riffs, which is to the credit of the compositional sensibilities of these musicians. Vocals take the death metal approach with elongated syllables of guttural growls that grounds the music in a more sinister edge required for black metal even of this more colourful stripe.

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All well and good, but such things are a mere sideshow for the relentless interplay of twin guitar leads and complex bass work which – to the mixes credit – is audible and welcome throughout. Although this is generally slower than Rotting Christ or Varathron, the music still has a dynamism and drive to it that never lets up throughout the album’s runtime. This is achieved predominantly by the restless melodic purpose to the guitars. It seems that all the effort was put into making sure this instrument shines through even more than usual for what is essentially classic heavy metal; their melody and counterpoint, the delicate picking of the clean passages backed up by the most subtle of synth accompaniments, or their gradual evolution through different motifs via various iterations at different tempos and rhythms.

So to some extent I remain I’m torn over this album. In one sense this is nothing I have not heard before, but in another my ear remains drawn to it after repeated listens. The reason for this is obvious of course; there simply is no substitute for good writing. On the on hand this is just a very good slab of melodic metal that draws on many traditions within the genre’s long and proud history to craft a rich and nuanced work, one with many treasures to reveal even after multiple listens. On the other hand one could say that this album transcends such a reading. It seems a disservice to say that it is simply a ‘very good’ example of melodic black metal. A lot of bands that play this variety of black metal – one that requires balance and restraint as much as a wealth of ideas and attention to detail – do not achieve in their entire career what Necromass pulled off on ‘Abyss Calls Life’. It seems we must step up our language when couching this album and declare it a paragon of this non-Norwegian informed strain of black metal that was so prolific at this time in Southern Europe. A formidable slab of metal by any measure.

So, thanks readers for granting me a foot in the door to a scene that until now I had not yet scrutinised. A direct comparison between these two albums will prove ineffectual as they are markedly different styles (although both show a mature understanding of narrative composition for the time). What we can do however is tie together the loose threads of how each addresses its chosen style and remark on their quality. The first thing to say right off the bat is that both do a great service to death and black metal of the time. One can set aside all of the preceding lofty analysis and still say this in confidence just by listening to each album. Both are over twenty years old yet still sound incredibly fresh today. Maleficarum draw on very specific aspects of European and American traditions in death metal, and amalgamate them into a mature and balanced work. Necromass, whilst remaining very much in Europe when it comes to stylistic references, have gone hell for leather when it comes to their study of melody in crafting ‘Abyss Calls Life’, and produced an album of energy and colour with few equals. But for the pick of the week I am going with ‘Across the Heavens’ for the simple reason that its innovations are more subtle, yet more enduring and curious as a result. A lost treasure of death metal’s heyday. But both come with a strong recommendation this week.

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