I like the beats and I like the yelling: Sweven, Temple of Abraxas, SS-18

Sweven: The Eternal Resonance (2020)

The long awaited follow up to Morbus Chron’s revered 2015 offering of the same name, Robert Andersson returns with new project Sweven, and a new album: ‘The Eternal Resonance’. Much like the album itself, my feelings on this are a flaccid cocktail of meandering, unfocused, directionless non-events. In one sense Morbus Chron’s swansong did show promise, but was nowhere near deserving of the hype it received. Having said that, I was mildly disappointed that they disbanded, as the project clearly had unfinished business. But life moves on, and upon hearing that Andersson was returning under a new name, the direction of which could only pick up on where he left off given the name of the new outfit, I was pleasantly surprised, but hardly creaming myself with anticipation.

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The problems with the album ‘Sweven’ centred on a lack of conceptual unity, and frustration given the fact that there were good ideas beneath the unfocused veneer. But ‘The Eternal Resonance’ pulls a hand-break turn on proceedings, and swerves the project into a completely different direction. Rather than address the shortcomings of ‘Sweven’, this album ignores them, and offers us what is essentially a prog rock version of the same, with a scattering of metal influenced riffs here and there. As a result, we are left with pretty much the same issues as before, and we have learnt nothing as a result. There are good ideas here, there is a pleasant surprise or two in the way some of the tracks develop, but they are quite simply not worth the hour runtime to get to. Further, the truly proggy elements that the album often stumbles in and out of feel about thirty years (or more?) out of date.

Some may wish to praise the understated nature of this anticipated album (there’s no denying it’s a mellow one), some may wish to praise the cinematic feel to some of the soundscapes and emotional depth that it apparently holds. But the reality is they are propping up an effervescent nothing. Motifs build into crescendos that go nowhere. Themes are developed only to peter out when the band has apparently run out of ideas. Whatever intense emotional core is evidently intended to be at the heart of this album comes over as contrived, overworked, and in places cheaply sentimental (I can feel the ever-looming spectre of Opeth and sycophants behind a lot of ‘The Eternal Resonance).

These shortcomings are not unique to Sweven’s debut. Progressive metal is laden with it. There’s a lot of music to unpack here, not just in terms of the techniques and influences employed but also the instruments: acoustic guitars are used liberally, what sounds like a real piano, synthesisers, all have the fuck played out of them by these musicians. A truly in depth analysis is beyond the scope of this review. But does it serve a purpose aside from offering a demonstration of the range of the instruments utilised, and how they can play off each other? Many passages are certainly impressive, but whatever tension and intrigue is developed all too often ends in a lazy unsatisfying cadence, or cruelly without catharsis. And therein lies the reason why the emotional core of this album feels clumsy, overcooked, contrived. Musical intuition is abandoned for the sake of vapid stylistic ends. I made a similar point in regards to ‘Sweven’; there are good ideas here. Lift them out of this album, rearrange some of it, and you could have a halfway decent prog album. As it stands we have a clunky hybrid of mixed quality.

Temple of Abraxas: Temples Forlorn (2019)

Sleepwalker of A Transylvanian Funeral has returned with new project Temple of Abraxas, and true to form he has been busily pushing out material pretty consistently since 2016 under this name. His latest LP, 2019’s ‘Temples Forlorn’ is a truly unique masterpiece of modern black metal. Positive write ups of music – when considered in the light of the actual art being discussed – is a drab colourless pursuit at the best of times, words being frankly inadequate in capturing the raw feel of the sonic experience. But this seems even more true when faced with discussing an album like ‘Temples Forlorn’. One simple and obvious reason is that the basis of this album is a fairly straightforward approach to melodic black metal. But the intangible element to this is the atmospheres splattered all over music. To describe it or how it is achieved – it goes beyond mere guitar tone or mastering – would be an exercise in redundancy, suffice to say I’ve heard few records like it.

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But what’s really going on beneath this, and what gives the album a feeling of progression, of an epic journey with a clear destiny in mind, is subtle yet constantly unfolding progressions and developments in the tremolo picked riffs. How these interact with the phrasing of the surprisingly filthy distorted vocals, the juxtaposition between the two, the unique distance to the whole mix; all make us feel as if it’s emanating into our ears from a dark and distant past.

This is one of the few black metal album’s I would say this about, but the vocals are also key to the way this music unfolds. As a critic of extreme metal, my interest in vocals (and to some extent lyrics) has always been minimal, beyond the primal impression they leave in their wake. But on ‘Temples Forlorn’ I must make an exception. The way the phrasing and rhythm of their delivery interacts with the understated yet epic riffs lends a sense of quest to the music. This is achieved both by the contrast between the multifaceted distorted vocal attack atop these mournful and elegant riffs, but also in the way the stanzas compliment the subtle development of the riffs over the course of each track. I know this is true for a lot of metal and I simply choose to ignore it (finding the music itself more interesting), but the way the lyrics and the riffs interact to create tension and drama – often through simple call and response – really adds another layer of excitement to the experience of ‘Temples Forlorn’.

What’s even more impressive is how this is carried throughout the length of an album with almost no weak spots and yet no shortage of contrast and emotional range. The sweeping, galloping passages occasionally give way to simple breakdowns, where a guitar harmony is repeated slowly, and with each iteration the music slowly builds up around it once again. A moderate sprinkling of keyboards is placed on top of the riffs in places, keeping pretty constantly and faithfully to their chord progressions; there simply to work another layer of depth and range to the album than pick out separate melodies themselves.

At this point I cannot help but feel that this is what prolific but now defunct American artists such as Judas Iscariot should have been. He displayed a similar aptitude for crafting melodies and delivering them in such a way as to make them sound almost eternal, as if emanating from a distant past from peoples long dead. But Judas Iscariot could not carry this on for entire albums at a time, settling instead on padding his works out with tired b-tier black metal riffs. This is simply not the case here. Such contrasts between the meditative and the urgent all flow into the same united whole of an album.

SS-18: Brighter Than a Thousand Suns (2019)

Militaristic black metal outfit SS-18 released an EP last year entitled ‘Brighter Than a Thousand Suns’, and true to the name this is apocalyptic war metal with a strong black metal aesthetic. One part overbearing doom in the tradition of Diocletian, two parts frantic riffage along the lines of Zyklon-B. It jumps from frantic black metal, complete with a near constant vocal attack of unadulterated aggression, to slower, doom laden passages. But what is marked about SS-18’s approach is the dual guitar attack applied to a style renowned for a prideful primitivism in approach. The leads are often simple, yet undeniably creative, working in unison with the vocals, backed up by a framework of more basic black metal riffs. It adds a layer of nuance and (dare I say) melancholy to this otherwise aggressive form of metal. Think Antaeus with more emphasis on melodic sensibility.

Drums provide the required inhuman skin bashing. Tempo wise they are kept to a near constant, but there are breakdowns when the music grants itself space. Many of the fills are surprisingly complex and easily missed given the speed and intensity of the EP. But the pace of the double bass is kept up at these points to maintain momentum.

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Despite only being made up of three original songs, one must remark upon the fact that SS-18 manage to keep their sound fresh throughout. Anyone well versed in this warlike style of black metal will be acutely aware that diversity and nuance are not its strong points. But SS-18 have overcome this by compromising just a little on the intensity, to allow a more balanced approach to guitar leads and narratives to take hold. These contrasts ultimately add to the drama and impact of the music rather than detract from it, so more power to them I say. Case in point would be the epic closer ‘Killing Cold’, that makes good use of layered repetition, building to a surprisingly epic climax that at once seems to come from nowhere whilst also growing organically out of the tracks that preceded it.

With that we must pass comment on the second half of this EP, which is made of three covers. The first of which is Von’s ‘Devil Pig’. Without the filthy production of the original we are left with an atmospheric yet primitive slab of trancelike ritualistic black metal that, if listened to after the original tracks, comes across as jarringly simple by contrast. Next we have Voivod’s ‘Overreaction’, taken from the heyday of these legendary Canadian thrashers. Again, they keep pretty faithfully to the original. But hearing Piggy’s approach to thrash metal riffs played with what is essentially a black metal aesthetic lends Voivod fanatics another perspective to our understanding of this unique mind within metal. Lastly we close on a cover of ok Norwegian black metallers Gehenna, with ‘Eater of the Dead’. Given the choices that had gone before this feels like an odd way to close the EP, but someone in SS-18 was clearly a fan. This is also the cover that is closest to the style of SS-18, which to my mind makes it the less interesting of the three. Again they keep pretty faithfully to the original, but aside from tipping the cap, we haven’t really learnt anything once the track has played itself out.

All in all the covers I could take or leave, but that does not detract from the rest of EP being a decent slab of sophisticated militaristic black metal, well worth a spin for any fan of the genre.

2 thoughts on “I like the beats and I like the yelling: Sweven, Temple of Abraxas, SS-18

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