Do you ever raise your eyebrows when reading an interview with a band talking about their latest release? When they reveal that it’s going to be an incredibly complex and specific high-concept album that apparently involved a postgrad degree’s worth of research to complete? The preamble to the lyrics and themes become longer and longer, and you find yourself wondering how the smeg it will translate into music? As the academic rigor they have applied to their chosen topic becomes apparent, one wonders what life changing, epoch defining experience we are in for. And more often than not we’re in for an overworked mess, or at best an album that’s actually hindered by servicing this overabundance of ideas, when parsimony would have sufficed.
But then, every once in a while, an album comes along that transcends its lofty philosophy, and everything one expected to fail in execution actually works; nay, not only works, but the concept and the music start to coalesce into a piece of art that is more than the sum of each part.
Thecodontion’s debut LP is one such album. In terms of concept we’re not all that out there by metal standards on ‘Supercontinent’. As the name suggests, this is an album about ancient super continents, their formation and collapse, taking us up to the more familiar Pangaea. I’m reminded of Dead Brain Cells’ ‘Universe’ in regards to metal albums whose chosen subject matter is the drama of what is essentially inanimate objects. The theatrics found in lifeless collisions of matter, chemicals, gases. There’s a unique sense of peace and solitude found in just evoking the subject of a time before life emerged. But Thecodontion’s approach to this heady material is so audacious it’s a wonder they pulled it off, let alone excelled at it. This album is two parts avant-garde grindcore that immediately calls to mind Nuclear Death in its unbridled extremity, and one-part melodic post hardcore in the realm of Neurosis at their most euphoric. The instrumental core consists of two distorted bass guitars, with plenty of higher lead passages jumping out at regular intervals, also played on a bass.
Four of the tracks are dedicated to the super oceans Gyrosia, Lerova, Tethys, and Panthalassa. These are instrumental and tend towards fascinating harmonic expressions that are almost free-jazz in nature, although they were clearly composed prior to recording. They serve to break up the abrasive grind that makes up large portions of the album. Make no mistake, when ‘Supercontinent’ gets going it’s about as crushing as it gets for death-grind. The metallic, tinny quality to the dual bass attack – here front and centre with no guitars to distract us – lends the blast-beats a freeform, polyrhythmic quality. Drums are left pretty raw in the mix, with plenty of reverb added to the toms. This is put to great use when they switch from breakneck blast-beat to slower fills which flesh out the sound in the absence of anything in the mid-range. At times the intensity ramps up to the point where they have apparently completely lost control, only to pull proceedings back from the brink of the abyss with a darker, more brooding passage of throbbing toms and jerky, stop/start rhythms. Vocals for the most part stick to a mid-ranged growl which bolsters up the abrasive qualities of the music. They act as our guide through the movements of these ancient land masses over the aeons.
Whilst metal acts that deploy bass as the lead instrument are nothing new, the themes and atmospheres on ‘Supercontinent’ really benefit from this raw, minimalist and undeniably primal use of the instrument, and it’s interaction with the drums. Even at its most relentless there is an emptiness to it, a unique atmosphere afforded by an absence; an absence of convention maybe, when it would have been so easy to flesh this out with the addition of more instrumentation. Given the album’s subject matter and the ideas it attempts to plant in the listeners mind – colliding rocks, giant prehistoric oceans, tectonic plates – it would have been all too easy to utilise the more conventional trappings of the ‘epic’: massive guitars, sprawling synths, maybe some choral effects. But no, this is a more chaotic and illogical age, prelogical in fact, from our perspective defined more by negation than anything else; a negation not only of modernity but anything remotely human or mammalian.
Equally, Thecodontion could have opted for a more outwardly progressive and technical approach whilst sticking with their bass and drums format. Whilst this album is undeniably technical, in opting for down and dirty grindcore cum free-jazz and colliding this against incredibly idiosyncratic melodies and harmonies, it not only emphasises the lawless, primal aspects of these ideas, but also grants the music a sense of freedom. There is possibility in the chaos, and at each melodic interval we feel this possibility as it is realised. I would not call this feeling ‘hope’ as that is an all too human concept, but certainly the realisation of a potential as the album concludes with ‘Pangaea’ and an ode to super ocean Panthalassa, and life eventually gains a foothold. For all the seemingly random components that Thecodontion thrust together in the chaotic grinder that is ‘Supercontinent’, order emerges from the chaos.
Lustre exist at that point where highly melodic and symphonic black metal departs and ambient music steps up. It’s always been one possible direction for black metal to take ever since Varg recorded ‘Hvis lyset tar oss’ and Summoning put out ‘Dol Guldur’. But where those albums stripped black metal down to a minimalist ambient core to discover the true narrative potentials locked within, the hordes of bedroom black metal projects that followed were concerned with timbre and aesthetics and nothing more. Being inspired in no small part by some video game music, it’s hardly surprising that they would gut the creative core from this music leaving only a collection of sounds without context, and skeletal, half-formed concepts.
Whilst the Paysage d’Hivers of the world pushed the limits of noise within a fundamentally epic black metal framework, Sweden’s Lustre opted for a more melodic approach. Tracks usually consist of a few simple keyboard arpeggios, with suppressed guitars filling out the texture, and bare-bone drum tracks. Black metal vocals are retained, along with distorted guitars, but this is probably where we leave metal behind entirely into ambient territory.
The reception in the metal community, much like Lustre albums themselves, has always been lukewarm. The latest offering ‘The Ashes of Light’ does not stray too far from this apparently winning formula. It’s true that the first half is positively upbeat, with almost lively drumbeats, and some pretty busy keyboard lines by Lustre standards. But the general formula to the music has not changed despite the beefed-up tempos. Whilst the individual passages and refrains are characterised by more notes, more trills, and more layers, the actual progression of each track still proceeds at a glacial pace, each passage is dwindled on for just as long. So it would be a mistake to label this as a break with the past by any stretch. That being said, the murky, cumbersome bulk to this music, burdened by echo and reverb, does coalesce around what could loosely be described as a driving beat, melodic keyboards, clockwork like in their repetition, almost calling to mind a dreamy 80s synthpop vibe.
The question then becomes – as with a lot of highly stylised music that clearly sets out with a very specific aim – does it achieve what it set out to do? The answer is a resounding ‘yes’ if the only goal here is a pleasing, meditative, and dreamlike ambience. But too often is this question taken as an end. Setting a goal and achieving it is no metric of quality. But a lot of ambient can upon first listen strike one as music that focuses in on one moment in time, and expand upon this fixed point over the course of an album. When on repeated listens it can reveal itself to be a teasingly slow progression of an idea. The structure of a lot of ambient albums usually mirrors the process of entropy. As ‘The Ashes of Light’ plays itself out, those more upbeat, tighter rhythms gradually decay, with the occasional reprise, before the closing of the album where form finally disintegrates, and all that is left is a gaseous void. Slowly decaying an album from start to finish is nothing new and hardly a stroke of genius, but it tends to work very well for minimalist and ambient styles, for the simple reason that it signposts the listener through the album, and offers something beyond a pleasing yet structureless void.
That being said, we can’t go too far in crediting Lustre in this regard, other artists have taken a similar approach with far more drama and tension along the way. This could have been a winding and perilous road, but ‘The Ashes of Light’ is a safe, and predictable trail, one that is undoubtably scenic all the same. Lustre and many artists like him will continue to churn out albums like this, developing musically at about the same pace as their albums take to unfold, and someone will always be there to lap them up. For my money their appeal is very much based on context, the mood of the listener, the time of day etc. Unlike more timeless albums which work regardless of context, whose merits stretch to something more universal, ‘The Ashes of Light’ comes across as competent but one dimensional, brittle, hollow.
Godthrymm certainly live up to the hype of being the new flag bearers of British doom on their debut LP ‘Reflections’. Consisting of former members of Solstice and My Dying Bride means there was no small amount of expectation placed on this release. And for the most part they deliver. Applying a new lick of paint to a genre like epic doom metal is always a challenge. And whilst ‘Reflections’ is far from ground-breaking, it’s an impressively multifaceted release, exploring a broad range of emotions, one that might actually appeal to people not usually partial to the longwinded meanderings of this genre. Like a lot of debuts, it functions as both an introspective consolidation of a band finding their sound, and an outward looking comment/addition/breakthrough on their chosen style. For instance, the track ‘A Grand Reclamation’ which was featured on their first EP of the same name back in 2018 is rerecorded for this release. It sees the band re-adapt the structure of Black Sabbath’s ‘Black Sabbath’ with an epic doom sheen, with haunting, creeping verses that build to the crushing finale.
But then many of the new tracks on here, whilst referencing the same use of dynamics and theatrics, opt for a more streamlined, holistic approach. The guitar tone feels more fitting of a stoner doom album, but when Shaun Tyler-Steels applies his emotive drums, reminiscent of stormy seas crashing against rocks, the whole thing comes together. The guitar leads and solos are used more sparingly than many of their contemporaries; showing a degree of restraint in this regard given not only how well they work, but also how fun they must be to play. Whilst someone like Pallbearer make similar use of sprawling melodies that painstakingly unfold over the course of each track, they end up squandering this potential by not deviating from this technique. Tempos, dynamics, and mood rarely shift save for sporadic interludes. Not so on ‘Reflections’, which feels like the potential of someone like Pallbearer now realised with the application of emotional range, and a few healthy nods to old school British metal for good measure.
Hamish steps up to perform vocal duties. For the most part he sticks to a passionate but surprisingly melodic bellowing that more than does justice to the epic scope of the music they are set to. His voice is more than capable of being the centrepiece of a track, for instance on the aforementioned first half of ‘A Grand Reclamation’, or taking a back seat for extended instrumental passages, most notably the tantalisingly slow closing piece ‘Chasmic Sorrows’. And that leads us to one of this album’s greatest strengths. A lot of epic doom falls into the trap of information overload. The sense of epic style, the drama, the theatrics, all cannot be maintained without turning into a monotonous cacophony of noise. But ‘Reflections’ is an album that well and truly delves into the full potential of this style. It’s not simply a case of providing spacious interludes, and longer, layered intros. They have actually put the work into the melodic progression of each track, and brought the genre’s more aggressive and primitive core to the fore in places. This breaks up the soaring epic passages and prevents them from becoming the slog that they so often turn into on other epic doom albums.