Society is one sheet of bog roll away from total revolution, and the rest of us are cooped up inside, so it seems we are left with plenty of time to catch up on our listening. If things continue, there may be many more releases to come from the stranded musicians of the underground for me to stick under a microscope.
Sufferer are a promising black metal outfit from south of the border in that London. Their debut LP ‘Black Metal Warhead’ dropped this year much to my delight, having enjoyed their 2017 demo ‘War on Life’ of late. The full length is a natural expansion of the ideas found on said demo. It sits within a very modern trend within death/black metal. In one sense it combines droning, dissonant chords with more traditional minor keys. However, unlike many playing in the same arena, Sufferer have not further augmented this oppressive atmosphere by stripping this music of any punk or traditional NWOBHM or melodic thrash influences. All of which are on marked display at various points throughout the album. They are worked within the music competently enough to further the impact of each track without being contrived.
Where Sufferer differ some in this regard is the back to basics production, and how this has either influenced (or enhanced) their approach to composition. The guitars have a very crisp, clear tone to them, meaning the musicians are not able to hide behind a wash of distortion and static like many of their contemporaries. The music is chaotic and complex, but we – the listener – are given full view of every twist and turn of the playing. This is not quite so true of the drums, which – despite delivering a tight and varied performance – are slightly muffled in the mix. True to black metal form they are given their freedom without overpowering the flow of the music, but the intricacies of some of the fills are lost somewhat by the diminished snare sound.
Beyond that there are two key features to note which make ‘Black Metal Warhead’ stand out. One has already been touched on: the creativity of the riffcraft. Sufferer reference many styles throughout this album, but the whole thing is knitted together into a unified piece, with a clear logic and intuition to the construction of each track. Although one can clearly hear when they touch on a death metal riff, or melodic black metal, all influences are working towards the same end. This is either achieved through the patient building of clearly distinct themes for each track, or by the next key feature I would like to point out: melodrama and tension.
‘Black Metal Warhead’ has one of those vocal tracks that doesn’t stick to one style or technique for long. It traverses from death growls, to mid-range black metal screeches, to out and out wails of despair. It feels more like watching a piece of theatre than it does an accompaniment to the music. It provides a way to divide up the battering riffs and frantic pacing of the music. This is further aided by intervals that divide up the music. Rather than this being a wall to wall ear bludgeoning, Sufferer dial back the pace fairly early on, leaving one wondering where they may to be taking proceedings. Only to leap into the epic ‘Newborn (Caveman)’, which guides us from the more straight forward first half of the album to the idiosyncratic second half. This is a diverse yet unified album that has as much to offer for a die hard collector of Satanic Warmaster as it does a tech-death addict.
These are strange times that Rob Darken has found himself in. Despite being largely marginalised by the mainstream of black metal for his associations with NSBM, he remains one of the most significant figures in Polish metal, and the extreme metal world at large. As if that wasn’t enough, his neo-folk/ambient project Lord Wind has been putting out material fairly consistently since the mid-1990s, long before Wardruna and Heilung appeared on the scene. But rather than maintain any veneer of authenticity when it comes to referencing historical music, he is open about the fact that the style is one of his own making, inspired as much by the Conan the Barbarian soundtrack as it is Eastern European folk music.
Early attempts came across as an honest if slightly low budget rendering of folk, dungeon synth, video game soundtracks, with a marked black metal flavour still present. As the project evolved the sound has become slicker, the compositions more ambitious, and the production has improved to capture the more ambitious outings Darken was aiming for, culminating in the near flawless ‘Alas Stenar’ in 2012. But much has changed since that release and 2019’s ‘The Forest is my Kingdom’. Wardruna, Heilung and others now dominate the neofolk landscape with big budget versions of this now thriving style. The charming dungeon synth and neofolk bedroom side projects of various black metal artists now seem outclassed by these theatrical and professional outfits, as much academic studies in music history and performance as they are passion projects.
So when Darken took Lord Wind out for another spin he recruited musicians from various pagan metal projects across Poland and beyond in order to craft a more robust rendering of Lord Wind, one not weighted with clunky, synthetic keyboards and the patient layering of simple yet elegant repetition. Gone is the near constant choral backing that defined earlier releases, in their place is lead vocals provided by Darken’s other half Olga Lantseva, and Noka of pagan metal band Merkfolk. Indeed this has morphed into an entirely analogue project now, with almost no keyboard backing that I can hear (which was one of Darken’s strongest suits in Graveland). All instruments are live, moving Lord Wind away from a curiosity of experimental music to what is essentially a Polish version of Wardruna.
Whether this works or not will entirely depend on what you wanted from Lord Wind in the first place. Let’s be right about this, all the compositions are incredibly well made; this is a slick, varied, and enchanting piece of music. But in bringing Lord Wind up to speed with the current musical landscape, Darken has sacrificed the brilliant eccentricities that gave his project its magic. He may have felt it inadequate when compared to how far metal’s treatment of traditional music has come since Graveland’s inception, but his genius lay in stamping an unmistakable identity on even the hammiest low budget recordings of his career. Earlier on I mentioned that keyboards were one of his strong suits, and that’s because he has knack for combining tone and structure in a way that immediately marks it as one of his compositions. ‘The Forest is my Kingdom’ certainly has many familiar hallmarks present on earlier offerings, but for the most part these elements are suppressed. Why should we mourn their loss? Because whether authentic or born of Darken’s own mind, they were fundamentally new and unique. As enjoyable as this album is, one cannot make the same claim of ‘The Forest is my Kingdom’.
Hot of the press are Californian death metallers Conjureth with a new demo ‘Foul Formations’. I say it’s a demo, but the production is some of the fattest I’ve heard for a while, hearkening back to those chunky mid-90s mid-paced releases from the likes of Finns Demigod and Adramelech. Further, many of the riffs seem to reference these European styles, built on slower tremolo picking melodic passages which are then chopped up by staccato atonality. Conjureth keep a much faster pace throughout these tracks however, relying on the sheer majesty and intricacy of the phrasing.
The drums are heavy as fuck, the snare has all its high end removed so we are left with an earthy pounding, further augmented by the rumbling double bass. Despite this the reverb is dialled back enough to allow us a view of the intricacies of the playing. This is also a good demonstration of the importance of drums within death metal. For the most part they follow the riffs to the letter. Remove the guitars and you would still be able to locate yourself within each track based on the drums alone. This framing of the music is more than just complexity for its own sake. In removing themselves from time keeping duties alone, the percussive potentials with the guitars is brought to the fore, and this is especially true when Conjureth resort to a more straight forward power-chord passage. Death metal, far from being a more extreme version of what is fundamentally rock music, the compositional techniques employed at the very foundations move it beyond into something wholly its own. Vocals are something of an evil snarl, not unlike early Glen Benton, with manic shrieked backing vocals thrown in for good measure.
For a short demo Conjureth manage to pack a lot of music in with plenty of punch, referencing many traditions in death metal along the way. These guys will definitely be one to watch if/when a full length drops in the near future.