Zealotry: At the Nexus of All Stillborn Worlds (2018)
Zealotry’s third LP ‘At the Nexus of All Stillborn Worlds’ is a many tentacled beast of elastic progressive death metal mastery. It’s an album that reaches for the very top of the shelf when it comes to high concept, otherworldly death metal, heavily referencing the rhythmic pacing of Demilich, with very similar phrasing to Gorguts around the ‘Erosion of Sanity’ era. In fact the track ‘Lethe’s Shroud’, with its piano intro and twisting, gnarly riffs set to constantly filling drums may even be an homage to Gorguts’ ‘Condemned to Obscurity’, so similar is the overall impact and approach.
But ‘At the Nexus of All Stillborn Worlds’ is for the most part its own beast. The production is crystal clear, but not mechanical. The drums have a very organic sound to them, yet retain plenty of clarity to carry the intricate polyrhythms that are pulled off here. The guitar tone, again, is not over the top. They carry just enough presence to leave an impact, but for the most part the complex counterpoint and dissonance broken up by solos that turn themselves inside out are left to speak for themselves. Again, one important feature to ‘Nespithe’ was the flat, basic mix, which although may have been born of necessity at the time, allowed for Demilich’s mind bending riffing to shine forth with absolutely no distractions. Similarly here, Zealotry are given nowhere to hide, but as becomes apparent within the first few bars their music is perfectly capable of standing on its own numerous tentacles.
This thinner guitar tone also grants the bass plenty of space to breathe. Which is just as well as it is a constant presence here, playing a separate piece of music in its own rite, referencing that master of counterpoint, my boy J.S. Bach. Vocals are probably the most straightforward element to this music, offering a fairly standard guttural death metal tone which, all things considered, is just as well given how much is going on in the rest of the music. Here they add intensity when required, and act as a reference point for the listener to situate themselves within a track. It is curious that Zealotry released an instrumental version of this album recently. Not least because instrumental death metal (particularly the more technical variations) is an intriguing proposition that has been under utilised over the years. When it comes down to it however, I would still favour retaining the vocals having now heard both versions. For the simple reason that death metal vocals work at all in the first place, they add an additional dimension of emotional expression, and no small amount of effort goes into writing the lyrics.
Although there are plenty of points where Zealotry do pick up the pace, for the most part the tempo is maintained at a purposeful swagger. All the instruments branch off on their own meandering journeys, only occasionally linking up – again, invoking the image of a many tentacled beast – but there is a unifying groove that runs through the backbone of this album. Not in the Pantera sense of the word, but in the Immolation ‘Here in after’ vein. Whereby discordant riffs bounce off each other atop a constantly shifting rhythm section that is nevertheless bound by a bouncy, almost playful approach to tempo. A complex and rewarding release that both updates this style and raises the stakes for the decade to come.
When faced with a genre as outrageous as black metal – one that can soar to heights few other art forms can reach, yet sink to the depths of failures so comprehensive as to be tragically humorous – it always amazes me how so many artists manage to make it boring. Whilst English speaking nations must bear the brunt of the responsibility for this (namely the UK and the US), continental Europe is not entirely blameless. Enter Belgium’s Ande, with their latest LP ‘Vossenkuil’. This is a work that operates well within the sphere of what would broadly be called atmospheric black metal, but is so lacking in any character or identity that it feels disingenuous to call it ‘atmospheric’. Corpse painted old school obsessives are often derided for rehashing the same tired old ideas ad nauseum, but at least they have a degree of passion, a ‘fuck you’ attitude that breathes life into the stale.
But no, ‘Vossenkuil’ is a clean, flashy production of clear, crisp guitars, meaty drums, modest keyboard backing, and run of the mill black metal vocalisations. This is put in service of the most generic, lazy chord progressions imaginable. They appear and resolve with all the tension and drama of the EastEnders theme tune. Stylistically they are a blend of standard yet excruciatingly bland black metal riffs, drained of any character, which occasionally evolve into melodic passages which, although competent, fail to hold one’s attention. This occasionally transitions into major key versions of the same, reminiscent ofUK black metallers Fen (amongst others) , that bastion of all things serene and boring within modern black metal.
This is one side of the ‘post’ black metal coin, informed by post rock, which trades on equally basic and insultingly rudimentary chord progressions that seem to cadence every other bar. But at least what post rock lacks in imagination it makes up for in timbre and dynamics, with big old crescendos that require little in the way of musicality to leave an impact. Even this low hanging fruit is not available to Ande, sticking with roughly the same intensity, pacing, and mood throughout. This is with the exception of the ambient outro ‘Afsluiting’, which is actually a neat closer for the album as it slowly progresses from minimal dream like ambient to droning empty chords, set to a very soft drum beat for backing.
This, however, is not enough to save this album from utter tedium. The fact that it seems to go out of its way to be as unassuming and inoffensive as possible is what makes it all the more insulting. To take the same building blocks of some of the most exciting music in the world and create a sonic landscape so devoid of stimulation is mystifying. In fact I would go further and say to take any form of music, a fundamental, intangible, and vibrantly primal form of communication, and gut it of these qualities is an affront to human psychology. It belongs in the bin with the Coldplays of the world, artists who looked at music and apparently thought ‘hmm, that sounds good, what if we extracted all artistic, creative, joyful, thrilling, emotional, and imaginative qualities from it and made it as safe and domestic as possible’. An utterly dismal achievement.
Venenum: Trance of Death (2017)
‘Trance of Death’, the debut LP from German death metallers Venenum is a deceptive beast. What purports to be a halfway decent death metal album with a penchant for the doomy end of things gradually morphs into a prog metal odyssey of epic proportions, walking the line between indulgent and exhilarating with what can only be described as ‘flair’. The first clutch of tracks guide us through a dark, engaging tour of old school metal riffage, referencing those elements aspiring to transcend thrash via more progressive routes. All transposed through the lens of Autopsy. But it’s all a façade, or speaking in terms of the structure of this album, this is setting out broader themes that will be expanded on as the album develops and unfolds.
Venenum excel at using the more frantic and technical passages as a transition from one musical development to the next. They are used as a way of chopping up the structure so that the slower, more conventional passages may begin the process of building anew in the spaces between. Using these more technical elements as a means to an end is something many bands trading in similar ideas fail to even attempt, let alone do with the forethought and originality found on ‘Trance of Death’. However, even early on in the album there are tell tale signs that Venenum may stray even further out of the metal framework altogether.
Death metal, for all its diversity and reverence for a certain degree of musicianship, is a very formal and structured form of music. For me that’s a big part of its appeal. Improvisation is only permitted within the limited bounds of certain guitar leads, if that. The aim is for something more permanent, yet at the same time, at the point of composition, musicians are given a great deal of freedom to develop their own approach to building the music. I say building, because sometimes it feels more like architecture than composition. This is in stark contrast to pop which only allows for so many variations to the same general approach to structure and key. It’s also in stark contrast to jazz, which, depending on the style, whilst still loosely following certain rules, allows the musicians space to improvise, and thus the potential for every performance of the same piece to be different every time.
Venenum, whilst not straying too deeply into unknown territories for death metal, do not shy away from pushing the bounds of their craft. Simple techniques such as slowly increasing the tempo after each bar, or playing an atonal riff and ascending it up the chromatic scale after each repetition. These may not sound like much in writing, and may be common to other forms of music, but they are rarely seen in the rigid, almost mechanical logic of death metal composition, and immediately jump out at the listener for that reason.
All of which is apparently preparing the ground for the epic closer, which is a prog metal odyssey in three parts. Now if I had just read that I would be rolling my eyes by now, and whilst it’s true that Venenum stray pretty far into 70s prog worship at points, they are not nearly as indulgent as they could have been. There is a clear melodic theme that can be traced from one passage to the next despite the space they make for jamming between the different instruments (there’s even an organ at one point). There is always at least one instrument tracing the thematic unity in the background, with the drums knitting the whole thing together. This not only holds the attention, as it’s clear they are attempting to express something with this music and not just jerk the listener around with endless wankery, but it also means that the transition from the more straight forward death metal of the first half of the album is not nearly as jarring as it could have been. It’s an album of contrast and thematic unity that manages to be at once ambitious yet direct in its delivery. It’s a reminder to never settle for less, which is something I fear people do in such highly stylised music that they really want to like, and therefore let b-tier offerings off the hook. Not so with ‘Trance of Death’, an album that touches on many emotions and moods throughout, but never losing site of a conceptual and artistic unity throughout.