Of all the old school revivalist trends of the last decade, the return to pre-1990 blackened thrash metal has to be one of the most successful. Not only in pulling black metal back from the brink of disappearing completely up its own arsehole, but also by reiterating the true roots of black metal it brings back into the fold in relation to its sister genres. These may not be the most original or innovative of releases, but there is always something to be learned from returning to first principles, especially when a genre reaches middle age, and various midlife crises abound.
Slaughtbbath are one of the bigger acts to come out of Chile in recent years. Their debut LP ‘Hail to Fire’ released back in 2013 is a tight barrage of old school blackened thrash that perfectly exemplifies the ‘less is more’ philosophy. This takes us right back to Bathory around the ‘Under the Sign of the Black Mark’ and ‘Blood Fire Death’ era. Hyper charged thrash riffs blast past the listener one after another, constructed of the most basic atonal chord progressions. The guitar tone is pretty meaty for metal that walks on the blacker side of thrash, but this suits Slaugthbbath’s stripped down approach to this style.
Drums stick to a near constant blast-beat, occasionally switching the tempo up and down at odd intervals which affords the guitars a layer of complexity despite their form remaining constant. The vocals stick to the mid-range, with plenty of lyrics perfectly audible; and there are many stanzas with a tight, rhythmic delivery. Some rip past at the same pace as the rest of the music, others soar above the frantic tempos lingering for longer. Again, what soloing is present is minimal yet frantic. There is no time to explore any melodic flair or key progressions. They simply jump out of the cacophony for a few brief bars before falling back into the deluge. All this adds to the chaotic, warlike feel to this music, but there is structure beneath the carnage.
‘Hail to Fire’ manages to maintain this level of speed and intensity throughout without it becoming tiresome by the end of the album. The trick to this is their approach to constructing each track. We can criticise them for bringing nothing new to the table in terms of innovation, but there is much to learn from this LP. Everything is so tightly strung that there is little room for manoeuvre. All the other elements are swept along by riffs with more percussive qualities than tonal. Combine that with a near relentless skin bashing and anything that would deviate too far from this backbone would transform this from a delicately balanced exercise in chaos into a complete mess. The fact that this intensity is maintained means that Slaughtbbath really don’t need to be too elaborate when it comes to adding other elements or developing these tracks beyond these basic components. They get more out a simple tempo change or merely dropping out the shredding and letting a chord ring precisely because it is in such stark contrast to what came before.
Madrid’s Teitanblood have left an impression on many since their inception in the early 2000s. Their second LP, the aptly named ‘Death’ released in 2014, sees them expand on their…..sound? So the meat of this music is a cross section of old school death, grind, with an undeniable black aesthetic that borrows from the ultra-primitivist works of Beherit and Profanatica. Whilst that approximates their overall approach to metal, the one caveat is the complete lack of coherence or logic to any of their compositions. Despite the fact that most of the tracks on ‘Death’ reach over ten minutes, they are essentially collections of dirty grindcore songs stitched together by breakdowns, or more brooding interludes. The riffs and narratives that we would normally expect to emerge are further interrupted by constant static and what sounds like dissonant keyboards, but could well be guitar effects. The schizophrenic approach to vocals further exacerbates this, with all ranges utilised in such a way as to defy rhythm, and operate completely independent of everything else.
There is no attempt to stitch all these disparate elements together into a cohesive unit, which means that listening to Teitanblood feels like listening to multiple albums at once; only occasionally is one facet allowed to rise above the cacophony and hold the listeners attention. This becomes so disorientating at times that one is just thankful when they give us a 4/4 drumbeat to latch onto.
One further laboured description before we move onto whether this actually achieves anything. Imagine more conventional extreme metal as a giant pumpkin. The structure and integrity of the pumpkin is the sum of all the techniques and music theory that goes into producing a run-of-the-mill piece of extreme metal. Now imagine picking up the pumpkin only to discover that the bottom has completely rotted away. As you lift it off the surface, all the innards and seeds spill out and go everywhere. As with Teitanblood, the shell remains in tact; the riffs, the drums, tracks begin and end, but lift it up, and the bottom falls out exposing a mulch of goo, unable to maintain its structural integrity. An empty shell remains.
Teitanblood have travelled so far in this direction that we must ask whether this is ‘experimental’ music. Is this one logical conclusion of the various strains of extreme metal that Teitanblood draw on? The process of entropy in action. The ‘what if noisy….but more’ approach. What value can we derive from this? Is it simply dependent on induction? Our expectations of what music looks? On a personal level I find the outrageous performances and extreme dissonance of this music thoroughly enjoyable. But if we turn to a more intellectual assessment we come up against the inescapable fact that ‘extreme’, whatever it means as a quality of music, is only half the picture. Structure, composition, narratives, all play a key role in this music’s appeal as well, arguably a more important one. And all are missing or at least highly diminished on ‘Death’. The bare bones of more traditional metal are there to be pieced together. But they seem to bubble up at random, and as they being to coalesce around more a solid structure they sink back into the swamp. The overwhelming force on this album is a journey from unconnected rooms of sonic horror, each with its own little micro universe. It’s more akin to a noise album with guitar riffs. Teitanblood’s approach to this allows for just enough logic to avoid complete incoherence, but also just enough chaos (and an undeniable character and class in the execution) that they pull off a monolith of intricately deconstructed extreme music.
Both these albums reassert first principles within a broadly black metal framework. Both reach back to old school thrash as a way to articulate this. But whereas Slaughtbbath strip away all the excess fat from this style to create a tight, razor sharp album with absolutely no wasted space, Teitanblood have pretty much done the opposite, and completely deconstructed this music into a cumbersome, sloppy mess. Both achieve exactly what they set out to do. But the simple fact is I find Teitanblood the more intriguing. Not because they are more experimental and quirky, but rather the opposite. They manage to hold enough structure and form in their music to hold the attention whilst also pouring on the idiosyncrasies to the point of outrage. It’s a bizarre mix of good sense and the senseless that I struggle to tear my ears away from. However, for a more straightforward album that wears its heart very much on its sleeve, you cannot go wrong with ‘Hail to Fire’.