After releasing one of the best extreme metal albums of the last decade, 2014’s ‘Gesundrian’, it looks like New Zealand’s Diocletian have been through some changes in personnel and outlook since that time. Following this masterwork up would be an intimidating prospect for any artist. But after five years of waiting it’s fair to say we could have expected more from this. Diocletian operate in that ultra-aggressive and relentlessly fast strain of black metal known as ‘war metal’. Heavily informed by grindcore, death metal aesthetics, and lyrics consisting of the requisite apocalyptic poems, the fact that ‘Gesundrian’ managed to work an undeniable epic majesty into this cripplingly limited form of expression makes it all the more unique.
But 2019’s follow up ‘Amongst the Flames of a Bvrning God’ is not a complete failure. Nor could one so used to the feeling call it a disappointment. It’s a competent mashing of imposing death metal riffage at its most primal, with regular descents into the absolute chaos of grindcore. They have tried to vary tempo and rhythmic impact as much as possible in a bid to stimulate some sort of innovation into the serviceable but unremarkable riffs. But rather than risk working in minor harmonies or any kind of melodic core to this music, they have dipped into the chromatic play book of American black metal traditions exemplified by Profanatica et al. But the genius of Profanatica’s use of this technique was in how they worked into a largely sonic philosophy that existed for the sole purpose of being an insult to the very idea of music itself, through utter mockery of its very foundations. But on ATFOABG these elements simply serve as a bridge to the next domesticated primitive death metal riff, or a doom breakdown.
Let’s be right about this. If we treated this album as a debut from a new band (which, looking at the line up changes we could make a case for), we could maybe say that it was a promising if unoriginal piece of face-rippingly fast grinding war metal. The staccato guitars are bolstered by pounding drums which are able to switch effortlessly from this to outright blast-beats and back again. The production is warm and murky, which seems to suit the more straightforward punch in the face that Diocletian were aiming for on this effort. Chaos reigns on this album as it ever did. But the unavoidable truth is that this album is not the debut of a promising new act, but the long awaited follow up to one of the best war metal albums ever made. And whilst returning to first principles after releasing a genre defining album is nothing new in metal, it is predictably disappointing. Taken on its own merits this album is till worth picking up for any fan of the crushingly abrasive world of grinding black metal. But judged in the light of what we have come to expect from Diocletian, it’s an album produced on autopilot.
Harnessing the unfocused chaos of modern extreme metal darlings Deathspell Omega, the Icelandic black metal scene has been throwing out harbingers of doom at us hapless southerners for some time. And (along with the likes of Svartidaudi) leading the charge of these weaponizers of dissonance is Carpe Noctem. Their latest album ‘Vitrun’ released in 2018 is a hopeless chasm of crushing despair. Everything about this album seems intended to invoke the feeling of being drawn down, descending, sinking, buried. The dissonance employed is only half the story here, although it does make up a large part of Carpe Noctem’s approach to connecting riffs. But these are either layered or set alongside awesomely constructed tritone or minor key progressions, driven through variations and repetitions; with drums employing a breadth of methods well aside the usual black metal framework, making full use of toms and twisting, tribal like rhythms to hammer home these repeated riffs.
Production is also put in service of the pervasive, suffocating aura already present within the music, offering a chasmic, fleshed out sound with hidden corners of atmosphere that make themselves known at various interludes. It’s a clever balancing act between flexing the mix’s muscles in terms of size and scope, without overplaying this to the detriment of the complexity and intricacy of the musicians’ abilities. Vocals sit somewhere on the death metal register, albeit with far more emotion and variation worked into the phrasing. They again augment the uncompromising despair that is at the very heart of ‘Vitrun’.
As hinted at above, this album is a good demonstration of the fact that mastery of technique and theory is only half the story in the writing process. In other hands (Deathspell Omega’s for instance) the use of dissonance, and shifting, restless rhythmic patterns not often seen in metal can come across as an unfocused and directionless mess. But harnessing these elements of chaos in order to contrast them with focused narrative patterns, through the lens of Incantation riffs given a black metal sheen, channels these musical elements into a sophisticated sonic architecture. Without contrast, there is no drama, and without drama there is no emotional or intellectual core to the music beyond a series of technical demonstrations. ‘Vitrun’ demonstrates both elements to perfection, but in the process harness them all to the point where the end result sounds like a fully integrated and unified work.
This is also one of those albums that perfectly marries up with the cover art. The levels of descent are perfectly mirrored in the revolving chord progressions which normally centre on a descending chord patter. Odd inflections that sound like the cries of animals in distress jump out at odd times, further throwing the listener off balance as the attempt to navigate the ever-shifting drum patterns and uncaring vocals that seem to revel in this process. But at a more fundamental level, the appeal of this album rests on the masterful construction of each track. It introduces moods and themes, thrusts them through the lens of chaos, and then drags them all back together with minor tweaks to build to a finale, with liberal use of dynamic contrast to further hammer home these larger, overarching stories that make up this album. All told this is probably more accessible than Svartidaudi for the simple reason that – for all its despair and nihilism – the more conventional approaches to composition make this at least somewhat familiar. Nevertheessl, ‘Vitrun’ is a formidable release and a great contribution to the budding Icelandic scene.
‘Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ is a new split EP from Xenoglossy Productions featuring tracks from Illuminated Manuscripts and Quilmoloncm, two obscure little experimental black metal entities featuring members from Thecodontion, whose upcoming album ‘Supercontinent’ was recently covered on Hate Meditations. These tracks are based on a short story by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, they also share the story’s title. It explores the heady concept of subjective idealism through the discovery of a fictional world known as Tlon, whose inhabitants deny the existence of an external world. As this is a split, let’s deal with each track separately and see what’s cooking.
Illuminated Manuscripts offer an interesting and minimalist raw black metal piece in the form of ‘Hronir’. Despite the heady subject matter this music claims to deal with, this is an instrumental. The core of this piece is made up of a marching rhythm underpinning a one chord drone worthy of Ildjarn at his most unkind. But then, a doom melody begins to take shape above this simple foundation, and not only augments the rhythmic offering of this track, but also the melodic. This is because – despite the bare bones drum track – the guitars role is also percussive in nature. It’s hard to tell if this is played on a distorted bass, or if the whole thing was performed on guitars, but either way, when the simple yet engaging melody gets going, the whole thing takes on an eerie, purposeful inevitability.
Ironically this track gets less interesting at the midpoint when proceedings break into a mid-paced blast-beat. Despite the ice cold guitar tone and mournful chord progressions that seem to follow directly from the previous refrain, this is much closer to familiar black metal. Despite the undeniable quality in the spirit of all raw black metal, to the veteran of the style it feels like a gentle return to earth after the idiosyncratic first half. But then things return to the opener, and this time meeting it as we do in the new context, after the journey the track has taken us on, it breathes new meaning and power into these simplest of elements. This track is a drawing-board full of interesting atmospheric potentials that despite offering nothing new structurally, shows a mastery of the narrative form common to most high quality black metal.
The Quilmoloncm track is much closer to the punky conventions of raw black metal, and is even replete with ghoulish black metal crooning at the lower end. Laced as it is with reverb, it calls to mind a pre-1990 approach to classic old school black metal, the primitive reaching for the transcendental. This track is experimental in the sense that it fucks around with the conventions and common techniques of black metal that are generally believed to constitute ‘good taste’, and in that it is worth listening to. Taken on its own however, it lacks purpose. For instance, the guitars (which really are bass this time) follow a basic, punk infused progression, but for the most part remain rather tame in the meanderings, sounding as they do almost poppy at times. But the drums that accompany them seem to operate with a mind of their own, dropping out despite the guitars still pounding at full pace.
At the midpoint we are treated to a doom breakdown that, again, comes across more like a collection of incomplete constructions yet to form into something releasable. This feels like a tour of the scrap yard, before all these hunks of metal and spare parts have been formed into a workable piece of machinery. Individual elements are interesting, there is a hypnotic quality to this music when it gets going and settles on a repeated refrain. But they are interrupted by more directionless noodling, where one is unsure of the intent. Nevertheless, there are still many nuggets in here that may be worth unwrapping and developing at a future date.