OND: Brutal Skeleton Fistfight (2020)
One has to admire the audacity of OND’s new EP ‘Brutal Skeleton Fistfight’. It’s just an incredibly hard working release. It somehow manages to combine classic thrash and heavy metal licks with an undeniably progressive bent, an ethos rooted firmly in punk, and lyrics marked by a quirky sense of humour, offset by some genuinely serious messages (‘Save the Bees’). All this is packed into an experience that lasts just shy of half an hour.
At its core ‘Brutal Skeleton Fistfight’ is idiosyncratic melodic thrash which at first glance comes across as a British version of late 80s Megadeth. The classic shredding riffs are put through the same blender of frantic guitar licks and a frequent stop/start approach, whereby pounding thrash metal in full flow will collapse without warning into a meandering breakdown, which in turn leads to another corridor of unexpectedly weird experimentation, until the track has taken a complete left turn into an entirely new direction to the one we started with. For instance the bass solo in the middle of the track…*checks notes*: ‘There is no Egg for the Wicked’, which morphs into a whimsical punk interlude before the guitars kick back in, or the creepy breakdown on ‘Carve’ that serves as a build into the finale. These are old tricks of course, but they are given a new lease of life in the context of OND’s humorous and fearless approach to riffing.
Drums provide a rock-solid foundation to offset the playful tendencies of the guitars. The polished mix on this release allows for a greater appreciation of the rhythm section when compared to OND’s self titled debut, as the bass constantly interacts with the dual guitar attack or fades into a simpler, rhythmic backing. The drums switch from infectiously groovy (on the title track), to an outright skin bashing (‘Save the Bees’), to oddly shifting fills that unsettle the listener’s sense of rhythm, linking up with the guitars in their quest to constantly bombard the listener with whimsy (which is not a word often applied to thrash metal, but believe me, it applies here). This is most apparent on the outrageous tapped arpeggios that make up the backbone of the track ‘Giving Names to Nothing’, which is doubly menacing thanks to the shuffling drum pattern it is set to.
But no discussion of OND would be complete without mentioning the lyrics. I don’t often engage with lyrics in any great depth besides a passing mention now and then, but such is the extent that OND’s music is informed by their quirky, straight-faced humour that they simply cannot be ignored here. The vocal style itself is a punky bark with a marked British accent, with all lyrics perfectly audible. They work their way through repeated lines, which is usually some variation on the track title, or in the case of ‘Carve’ a deadpan narration of what it would be like to be a pumpkin on Halloween. The difference with OND’s approach to so many other attempts at humour within metal is how straight-faced it’s played. There’s no obnoxious invitation to laugh, no ham-fisted quirkiness; just what – for all intents and purposes – comes across as the bizarre revelries of the deranged. This is further augmented by their interaction with the tirelessly manic style of the guitars.
The playful nature of the riffs and the drums, the simple lyrics repeated like mantras, the interplay of all these elements, all compliment each other and contribute to the sincerely mad world that OND inhabit.
Old Corpse Road: On Ghastly Shores Lays the Wreckage of Our Lore (2020)
The quest to redeem UK black metal continues. Old Corpse Road, along with A Forest of Stars, bucked the trend of their countrymen somewhat by facing the elephant in the room head on. That elephant being a huge Cradle of Filth shaped legacy. A legacy which was sadly defined by an over the top carnival of gothic metal which infuriated traditionalists and hipsters alike. But way back when, in the mid-1990s, an argument could be made that Cradle of Filth were on to something, at least as far as a distinctively English take on black metal was concerned. For more downbeat variants of black metal that draw on a reverence of nature for inspiration, there’s a sense in which the blandification of Fen and Winterfylleth was inevitable in shaping the UK’s contribution to the black metal canon. The Russians, Scandinavians, and Canadians will always have us beat on that score. Cradle of Filth for a time hit upon a very different but distinctively English style, by referencing melodramatic Victoriana, Gothic literature, and a rich history of folk and ghost tales. Sadly they quickly devolved into a cartoonish version of this by 2000 and – when not completely trivialising every facet of the extreme metal project – settled on being an Iron Maiden tribute act.
Enter Old Corpse Road to rescue this legacy. Playing it straight down the middle on every release to date, they draw on many of the same traditions as Suffolk’s finest; replete with melodrama, gothic melodies, and boisterous symphonics. But there’s no denying the fact that they have shed some of the baggage attached to these stylistic leanings. The title of their latest LP ‘On Ghastly Shores Lays the Wreckage of Our Lore’ (2020) leaves little to the imagination as to what they’re up to. Their earlier attempts at this risky style were a little audacious but frankly enjoyable for the fact. But on this release we see them reach a level of subtlety and maturity that elevates their music to a new level of epic gothic metal filtered through symphonic black metal.
There are multiple vocal tracks at work here; from spoken word, to death growls to higher pitched screeching, all of which are deployed depending on the mood or themes that Old Corpse Road are unpacking in the music. Guitars remain at the core of proceedings, guiding us through rich and complex melodic riffs that reference both black and death metal along with melancholy folk refrains worked throughout. There are plenty of calmer, acoustic passages that further bolster up the folk influences, and also lend a stronger thematic unity given the lyrical history of folk tales and mythology that Old Corpse Road are drawing on. Keyboards range from string sections that follow the guitar lines to simple piano melodies and more outright synth patches. Although very much in the tradition of Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth, there is a patience and subtlety to them that means we’re operating in a completely different environment to these notorious cheese wagons.
Drums are an important (and all too underrated) element in achieving the emotionally broad soundscape that is OGSLTWOOLL. During the more melodic and contemplative passages they’re able to provide a simple, driving beat without becoming a distraction to the delicate melodies. But it’s during the melodic black metal passages that they really shine. Subtly switching the emphasis on the blast-beats and switching between fills at key markers in the chord progressions allows the guitarists to extend the same riffs out for longer without feeling repetitive. The rhythm shifts extend the shelf life of the riffs. Complementary synth lines are deployed in a similar way. This is a great example of getting more from less. Thus this is music that may indulge in similar levels of melodrama common to the excesses of gothic metal, but instead here it comes across as gracefully epic thanks to these simple yet effective tricks
But ultimately, the real charm of this album comes from a more personal and sadly subjective place for this writer. It is quintessentially English black metal. But unlike many of their countrymen, Old Corpse Road has an undeniable character and life of its own. It’s bombastic and epic without being obnoxious. Where so many turn away from this style in favour of achingly boring post black metal influences, Old Corpse Road face head on the potential that was present in Cradle of Filth’s sound, and thus serve as reminder that excitement and Britishness are not mutually exclusive concepts when it comes to black metal.
Irae: Lurking in the Depths (out 26th June 2020)
Irae’s latest LP ‘Lurking in the Depths’ is about as generic as they come for longstanding fans of no thrills black metal. But that’s not to say you can’t supplement a general approach with a marked degree of competence and still end up with a work that’s worth some attention. There is a focus of intent to each of these tracks that sets it apart from the aesthetically similar lo-fi black metal hordes churning out endless rafts of material since the late 1990s. It’s noteworthy how working with the same raw material can lead to such differing results if a little passion and respect for one’s craft is applied when it counts.
What we have here is essentially a mashup of classic Darkthrone and ‘Belus’ era Burzum with some less-than-subtle nods to classic Celtic Frost riffage in the mix. From this most aped of melting pots a pleasingly unified riffcraft emerges, which, with a little help from a minimal scattering of synths, contributes to a pleasingly atmospheric piece of traditional black metal. By combining these simple melodic progressions crafted from mid-paced tremolo picked riffs with driving bass and souring keyboards, simple polyrhythms emerge in the vein of ‘Transylvanian Hunger’ with a more accessible bent.
Vocals are harsh and distant, but framed with the music well enough to link up with the phrasing of the guitars. Their suppression in the mix allows them to augment the dissonance that crops from time to time, and adds some much needed drama to offset the pleasing but safe chord progressions that constitute large portions of this album. This is reminiscent of early Graveland releases that contrasted the sweeping epic passages with harsh and abrasive turns to invoke the chaos and danger of battle. Irae deploy a similar method along with frequent switches into atonality, referencing pre-1990 black metal in their willingness to contrast this with the much aped traits of the Norwegian school.
The main take away from ‘Lurking in the Depths’ is the simple pleasures that can be garnered from a competent rendering of all too well-trodden ground. The reason this release is not frustrating where so many that walk a similar path are, is the brute fact that Irae demonstrate an understanding and respect for their craft. This is not a mere box ticking exercise, but an intuitively creative slab of black metal in its purist form, borrowing from a selection of black metal’s richest traditions. The joy in this is not found in the purity itself, but in witnessing an artist’s ability to manipulate and work within this framework, allowing it to focus their craft without distraction.