Cryptic Shifts: Visitations from Enceladus (2020)
Progressive death metal’s rising stars Cryptic Shift have just released their debut LP, which is not so much a consolidation of their material to date as it is a quantum leap into new levels of epic, technical metal. Their approach fits very much within the lexicon of progressive death metal, with hints of all the usual suspects bleeding through at different points throughout the album; Gorguts, Pestilence, Voivod, and of course Vektor, all clearly audible within ‘Visitations from Enceladus’. Cryptic Shift’s sound is clearly very much their own however. Listening to this debut feels like watching an incredibly complex jigsaw puzzle gradually assemble before your eyes. Sure it’s insanely frantic and complex at times, busy with three dimensional chord progressions and time signatures, but the development from one idea to the next feels patient, logical, intuitive, they all contribute to the larger whole of the story this album is trying to tell both lyrically and musically.
In terms of the mix they have gone for a very crisp, mechanical approach that complements the sci-fi themes that the band are so passionate about. Humanity in an artificial environment, entirely reliant on technology for survival, a new kind of solitude in the face of the unknown, with no small amount of mythology and world building worked in. Vocals stick to the mid-range, not unlike Luc Lemay at his best, with the occasional deadpan clean chanting worked in, adding to the drama of this cosmic opera. The snare drum sounds clear and crisp, cutting through the mix whilst also blending in with the other instruments. And the same could be said of the guitars and bass as well, all are rendered clearly enough to do justice to the technical acrobatics the musicians are capable of. But this is done without any unnecessary studio trickery, the music itself is granted space to breath and stand on its own two feet without any bizarre choices being made at the mixing desk (I’m thinking specifically of Pestilence ‘Spheres’ as an example of what not to do in this regard).
Analysing all the compositional and musical techniques that Cryptic Shift deploy here would take several essays (and is frankly beyond my abilities). But suffice to say that they have an approach to unpacking each idea to a finale, through either melodic progression, rhythmic tension, or dynamics that build to a crescendo (an underutilised technique in a lot of extreme metal), that can only be described as extremely satisfying. As all the ideas gradually reveal themselves they are always brought to a resolution that makes this album cohesive and purposeful, as all the loose ends get tied up. They are not just chucking disparate ideas together and hoping some of it will fit. We don’t suffer from dissonance fatigue for example, as dissonance is only applied when it is used to comment on the previous riff or lead into the next. The bass cuts through the mix and functions as a lead instrument at selected points, usually to accent a certain note of a sustained chord, or to further disorientate the listener by working through dazzling licks and flares at key moments scattered throughout the album. But this card is not played too often as to become predictable. The drums ground the music some, and although there’s no small amount of impressive athleticism and musicality in the playing, they function more to anchor the music in the familiar, so the listener does not become completely overwhelmed. A clever balancing act between showmanship and convention.
This leads us on to the real joy behind ‘Visitations from Enceladus’, which is that despite the mechanical production and aesthetic, clearly intended to invoke the machinery of space travel, the music itself developments and unfolds very organically. The opening number, the twenty-five-minute epic ‘Moonbelt Immolator’ progresses like a symphony made up of four movements. The stop/start way that it opens, made up of slow, doomy chords, leading into a faster passage only to bring it down again with some clean trippy sections; all this works as the introduction of themes before the second movement picks up the pace and things really get going. And from their it continues in both unexpected and meandering corridors of mind-bending technical death metal, to slower, more broody passages and even some more traditional thrash riffs.
Cryptic Shift manage to achieve a balance between exemplifying an undeniably technical approach to death metal without the listener feeling like they are being beaten over the head with obscure music theory. If slower tempos work, they’ll throw it in, if a more basic thrash riff works in transitioning from one passage to the next then so be it. We’re not browbeaten by technical prowess without end, and therefore we feel intellectually challenged by the album, but not fucking exhausted; as is a danger with a lot of technical metal of a similar style.
This is a debut that lives up to expectations. It is both heavily referential of the past without being slaves to it. Of the many and varied elements that Cryptic Shift pull together on ‘Visitations from Enceladus’, they have mastered them all into a cohesive and sophisticated work of epic metal that – for all its chaos and speed – is a work of patience and maturity.
Acedia Mundi: Selfhatred.Addiction (2020)
When the choice is made to delve into French black metal only one thing is certain, shit’s gonna get weird. Whether it’s the unholy lo-fi noise that constitutes the majority of the output of the Les Legions Noir crowd, or the forays into technical dissonance that became Deathspell Omega’s calling card, or even the unapologetic blunt instrument that is the grind of Antaeus; it always seems to operate on a different metric of obscurity to what the rest of the black metal world is putting out. Acedia Mundi are no exception on their new EP ‘Selfhatred.Addiction’ released this year. This distinction is even more apparent in the micro universe of this EP, as two original tracks are sandwiched by covers from very different sources.
The original material is a curious blend of raw black metal with a distinctively modern flavour to it. Dissonance collides with more conventional black metal riffs, set to an ever-shifting rhythm section, that switches from blastbeat to backbeat from one bar to the next. This, along with the schizophrenic guitars that never settle on one mood or theme for more than a couple of bars, creates a complexly disorientating and alienating vibe for the listener. There’s an element of black metal’s ventures into industrial as a thread that runs through Acedia Mundi’s approach to chord progressions. It has a character that calls to mind the likes of Axis of Perdition for black metal that is set to a dynamic rhythm section, combined with riffs that are more fluid and varied than the standard tremolo picked tritones. This creates a very cold, modern atmosphere despite the fact that the production is of a fairly standard raw black metal flavour.
Vocals follow the same restless pattern. From impassioned black metal that augments the despair at the heart of this music, to hitting the lower end of the distorted range, along with clean chanting that comes across as more robotic than spiritual; again, this fits perfectly with the overarching emotions conveyed on this EP.
Which brings us to the covers. The first is of an old Katharsis track off the album 666: ‘666 (Hohelied der Wiedererweckung)’. Right off the bat we see the contrast between the original Acedia Mundi material and the more traditional Katharsis riffs. Although their German forbears they pay tribute to maintained a more aggressive, grindcore strain to their sound, their approach to riffs falls very much in the Norwegian Darkthrone tradition. This is in direct contrast to the more percussive approach that Acedia Mundi take which again augments the alienating, artificial qualities to their style.
The second cover is the more out there choice for a black metal outfit, which is essentially a lick of black metal paint to The Stooges classic ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’. The simple three chord refrain lends itself to the black metal aesthetic, especially when they unleash some tremolo picked accents here and there. But Acedia Mundi also go in a more punk direction on some of the variations by applying a punchier aggression to the repetitions. This all in all makes for a cool EP that sees Acedia Mundi pushing the boundaries of their sound. One looks forward to how this will develop further on the next full length.
White Medal: East Riding Cart Burial (2018)
‘East Riding Cart Burial’ is the latest full length in what is shaping up to be a pretty significant discography for the Yorkshire black metaller known as White Medal. It’s an interesting tour of black metal’s more melodic tendencies, with soaring scale runs making up many of the lead guitar passages, which are contrasted against rhythms that stick to the bouncy, punk end of black metal’s traditions. Many of the central riffs are actually pretty accessible beneath the raw production values. Having said that, there is a nuance and forethought to the riffs resulting in an accessibility that is imbued with an undeniable sense of the epic; avoiding the pop punk vibe that so much black metal of this strain falls into.
There is not only a melodic core one can follow through each track that is developed and matured as the piece progresses, but many of the riffs appear to be informed by traditional folk melodies and techniques. These are presented in an authenticate and tasteful way unlike a lot of black metal that attempts this, for the simple reason that they inform the narrative progression of the album, and are not shoe-horned in without any regard for where and when they might fit. As far as the more generic riffs that do form many stretches of this album, they have an oppressive and overtly grim quality reminiscent of some Hate Forest. The phrasing and choice of chord progressions is very similar, and while not entirely characterless, they are nothing an avid black metal fan has not heard before.
Which leads us to the vocals, which again following in the same strain as Hate Forest stick to the lower end of guttural growls. Here however they have more of a human character, with idiosyncratic inflections that in places are almost comical. I’m not sure if they are attempting to convey despair, or anger, but at certain points it really works, especially at points where the music is gaining momentum, but at other times it’s frankly distracting. I can’t fault White Medal for attempting something more interesting than a standard black metal screeching that has been done to death by now, but in places this more eccentric approach just does not come off.
Having said all that, this album is still worth checking out, for the simple reason that even when it falls short, it has more character and life to it than the vast amount of black metal out there, and one can appreciate these stylistic leanings which remain well within the bounds of good taste.