I like the beats and I like the yelling: Deathmace, Profanatica, Marthe, Basmu

Deathmace: Coffin’ Maggots (26th June 2020)

Yorkshire death metallers Deathmace have a new single out come the end of June. Following on from their album ‘Bleeding Frenzy’ in 2018, ‘Coffin’ Maggots’ walks a similar path in that it transcends old school emulation, and reaches the heady realms of surpassing many of their forebears. Deathmace are neither ethereal fine art project or comedy roadshow; they thread the needle that hearkens back to a time when death metal was fun, with no caveats or overworked attempts at comedy. Just crunchy guitars, tight drums, and hard hitting riffs to sink your teeth into.

Deathmace take things a step further on ‘Coffin’ Maggots’. The first half is – rather audaciously – made up of one riff with alternating vocals lines, resulting in what can only be called a singalong number, death metal’s answer to ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’. It would be ridiculous if the whole thing weren’t executed so well. Deathmace aren’t ones to waste any time however. This stomp along section eventually gives way as the music picks up the pace, and we’re left with a frantic death/thrash section to close; all in a track that is just shy of three minutes long. Perfectly demonstrating how to get more from less, the philosophy here is not the riffs, but how you use them.

Profanatica: Rotting Incarnation of God (2019)

After the soul warping jigsaw-metal that was ‘Thy Kingdom Cum’ (2013) was followed by the shaky filler album ‘The Curling Flame of Blasphemy’ (2016), the release of ‘Rotting Incarnation of God’ has confirms what many had already feared: Profanatica is running out of steam. Surveying their post-2000 body of work, there’s a clear logic to each full length release, one built on the central notions of brutality and primitivism incarnate. These blunt tools would then be focused in one direction or another to make a specific point. Whether it be the dark romanticism of ‘Profanatitas de Domonatia’, the energetic intensity of ‘Disgusting Blasphemies Against God’, or the percussive gymnastics of ‘Thy Kingdom Cum’, there was always a greater philosophy that emerged from the chaos as each album progressed. But ‘The Curling Flame of Blasphemy’ bucked this trend by falling back on the framework of a Profanatica album, without placing any greater artistic purpose atop this skeleton to give it character.

‘Rotting Incarnation of God’ continues this downward trend. Or rather, it abandons entirely the joyful illogicity in music that made Profanatica unique, for the sake of more conventional musical forms. The result is an album that comes crashing down to earth as far as this artist’s calling cards are concerned. Ledney and the gang have domesticated their untamed brand of black metal into more conventional musical forms, and produced an album that slots into current trends within extreme metal rather than bucking them. The tracks are more meditative, slower, doomier, with an undeniable attempt to layer on additional atmospheres and laboured, brooding intervals. But the unpredictable danger to their music has all but left for the sake of servicing these elongated builds and breakdowns. The faster passages go nowhere, descending into a colour-by-numbers version of what this artist was once capable of.

The soaring riffs, the crushing chords, disorientated by Ledney’s animalistic approach to drums; all are present and not entirely terrible. But they appear cut down to size in order to fit a brand of extreme metal that is fundamentally more acceptable to the mainstream ear, and undeniably watered down. The mix is neither raw nor cavernous, meaning that the trance-like tremolo passages of old carry no sense of jeopardy or excitement, no real impact and no real purpose. The meditative sections work better, but are nothing we have not heard a hundred times before, and serve no purpose beyond padding the runtime.

It should be noted that the problem is one of presentation rather than content. This is not an artist completely drained of ideas. Rather they have lost or forgotten the ability to place these ideas together with any sense of bombast, risk, or just good old-fashioned imagination. Individual components work, but they are strung together and played in such a way as to fall flat. The genius of Profanatica of old was sheer quantity of musical information they could string out from the tightest of sonic spaces, the most delicately poised yet aggressively simple and unsettling arrangements possible. ‘Rotting Incarnation of God’ is – objectively speaking – more expansive and ambitious if we look simply at riffs, complexity of chord sequences, key changes, time signatures, and so on. But the seeds of its failure are found in that very fact, simply because bucking all these musical conventions in creative and ordered ways was what made Profanatica such a special band in the first place. There is hope yet, but only the smallest glimmer of it can be found here.

Marthe: Sisters of Darkness (2019)

Marthe is a new solo project out of Italy from the guitarist of goth rock band Horror Vacui. Their first EP ‘Sisters of Darkness’ released in 2019 is an atmospheric and undeniably idiosyncratic approach to traditional heavy metal styles with a drop of psychedelia thrown into the mix. Production wise it’s of demo quality, at least as far as the drums are concerned. Guitars are clear enough for these mid-paced atmospheric heavy metal riffs to shine through. Vocals are halfway between punk and clean singing, carrying only the most basic melodies through repeated iterations resulting in an hypnotically stirring and ritualistic experience that’s hard to encapsulate. Imagine Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats playing Bathory’s ‘Hammerheart’…that’s the closet approximation of what we got here.

Atop the most basic of drumbeats, soaring guitar lines are crafted from mid-paced Viking era Bathory tracks. This rudimentary foundation provides Marthe an abundance of possibilities from which to grow each track as it swaggers through these driving rhythms. As these swirling chord progressions take shape, simple two or three note leads emerge from the haze. These are usually tremolo picked and laced with reverb, calling to mind atmospheric black metal in the vein of Midnight Odyssey, seemingly guided by an equally triumphant and heroic philosophy.

Technically speaking, this music is a straight line. Each track has a purpose that is made known almost immediately, and there is little deviation in terms of themes in carrying out this purpose. The driving rhythms occasionally shift up or down tempo, the powerful guitar lines are composed of only the most simple chord progressions, as are the leads. Vocals rise above the fog, made up of multiple tracks to give an otherworldly, almost ghostly delivery. But all are so perfectly arranged that a dreamlike, epic brand of heavy metal emerges from these blueprints, the likes of which I have not heard for many years. It borrows the disorientating, intellectually subduing tendencies of the psychedelic revival and blends it with the purposeful, heroic, epic, far-reaching scope of heavy metal at its best. This is a work that promises to transcend its influences.

But on top of this elegantly simple and instinctively life-affirming foundation, Marthe adorn the music at key junctures with only the most subtle of flourishes, either from basic guitar leads that elevate the drama and danger of a key passage, or simple vocal inflections that give the music a ritualistic, quasi-spiritual element that words cannot do it justice. I read that Marthe has layered the vocals on multiple tracks to give the impression that they are being delivered by an ‘entity’ rather than an individual, and that is precisely what has been achieved here. And from this disembodied, almost cumbersome technique, it allows Marthe to garner far more impact from a well-placed melody or refrain than would otherwise be the case. Extended interludes of clean guitars that borrow from folk melodies also make an appearance, and are tied together as the metal picks up, granted extra context, and displays the long-range vision of the artist, and their intent to carry ideas for the full length of these epic tracks.

‘Sisters of Darkness’ is also a great example of how genre alchemy could and should be done. By borrowing only the most fundamental techniques and elements from disparate styles (in this case namely stoner/psychedelia and Viking metal, although more is at work on ‘Sisters of Darkness’) it allows Marthe’s true character to shine. This is in direct contrast to artists that throw so much music and influence at the speakers that very little of note seems to stick, besides a cacophony of confusion and directionless technique. But here, we are given a true lesson in the virtues of restraint, and what can be achieve when modest technical endeavours are put in service of a craft that is bent on tapping into an eternal, transcendent experience of humanity understood through music. Melancholia meets triumph in this unique debut EP.

Basmu: The Encircling (2020)

On the outskirts of obscurity lie projects like Alberta’s Basmu, and their latest LP ‘The Encircling’ (2020). It’s either schizophrenic black metal desperate to overcome its own animalistic qualities and ascend into a more intellectual plain of thought and quiet contemplation, or it’s lo-fi atmospheric black metal played so badly (like…Judas Iscariot bad) that one can’t quite believe why they didn’t fork out for a second take while recording some of these tracks. But that’s the beauty of black metal if you catch it on the right day, you can never quite tell if there’s a joke, if you got the joke, or what the punchline is.

Production is raw but clear, with drums given the standard mic-hanging-from-the-practice-studio quality in the mix. But the playing is so simple (and pretty sloppy) that we’re not missing any subtleties in this rendering. Guitars follow the basic drab aesthetic of raw black metal; a more sophisticated and minor-key orientated Ildjarn maybe, albeit with a hint at greater complexity than that particular master of rawness. Vocals are a supressed audial conveyor belt of grunts, moans, and rasps with little rhythm or life to them. But again, this fits with the haphazard audacity to this brand of black metal that is simplicity incarnate.

So, assuming this is meant in all sincerity, why is it schizophrenic? Well, if it’s an honest if shakily executed attempt at darkly atmospheric black metal, the fact that Basmu’s imagination ran well beyond the technical capital at their disposal is an unavoidable feature of listening to ‘The Encircling’. Simple yet melodic raw black metal makes up the bulk of the music here, with just enough imagination and variation to stop this from dissolving into monotony. This is broken up by scattered and truly bizarre use of keyboards. Bizarre is the only word that will do, simply because one isn’t quite sure if they succeed in achieving their ends, or what those ends were intended to be. Equally, one is unsure if the ability of the player is at Mortiis-dungeon-synth-era levels of technical competence, or perfectly executing off-kilter melodies and layers of timbre that provide harsh yet undeniably interesting contrasts with the guitars.

Although this only occurs a few times throughout ‘The Encircling’, it’s a perfect way to sum up their approach to this form; riding the line between covert genius and laughably bad. I am reminded of Yamatu as an artist with a similar (if not greater) scope of ambition and message that they wished to convey, but who was equally limited by ability and means to quite carry it off. But rather than resulting in utter failure, enough intrigue and question marks are presented throughout to keep one listening, and probably returning for another spin.

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