I like the beats and I like the yelling: Foetal Juice, The Funeral Orchestra, Serment

Foetal Juice: Gluttony (2020)

Mancunians Foetal Juice once again buck the trend on their second LP ‘Gluttony’; demonstrating how death metal built on good old-fashioned horror and gore themes doesn’t need to sacrifice any class in the process. By modern death metal standards, this is about as on-the-nose as they come, essentially working together all of the more popular styles of mainstream death metal from the last decade. Old school thrash riffs, a big chunk of grind, plenty of references to the melodic traditions, but nothing too showy or esoteric on the technical side. That being said, the execution is near flawless. The production gives full weight to the guitars, which are murky yet clear enough to do justice to the more intricate leads that make regular appearances throughout ‘Gluttony’. The downside to this is that the drums – despite the mix being clear enough – are just too damn quiet. They are a little buried beneath the guitars (as are the vocals), which for the most part is no big deal aside from the fact that we miss some of the more complex skin bashing going on in places.

I don’t know if you could call it growth, or the beginnings of a new direction for Foetal Juice, but this album feels more restrained, slicker, more cohesive than ‘Masters of Absurdity’ (2016). In the packed-out middle of the road of death metal, Foetal Juice are able to lead the pack by balancing their generic tendencies with something called “flare”. The songs are tight, well-oiled machines, with none of them breaking the five-minute mark and absolutely no wasted space. If thrashing atonality becomes a slog, in goes a black metal riff. If the blast of goregrind grows tiresome, in goes some d-beat thrash. Vocals follow this ‘keep things moving’ approach as well, with Derek Carley’s voice hitting each end of the distorted range, sometimes layered on multiple tracks for additional emphasis.

This amounts to an album that manages to keep things fresh, within what would otherwise be generic as fuck death metal. It demonstrates that originality isn’t everything, and on even the most well-trodden ground there is always room for more with enough creative passion and know-how. It builds on the debut only to the extent that the tracks are more diverse, the riffs more complex, and the overall sound is more playful. But let’s be right about this, we’re not re-splitting the death metal atom or anything. But it is a testament to the slippery notion of how to have fun with death metal without over working it. This is thoroughly entertaining but not obnoxious, more Suffocation than Bloodbath in terms of consistency, and how to stand out in an already crowded field.

The Funeral Orchestra: Negative Evocation Rites (2020)

‘Negative Evocation Rites’ is the latest offering from Swedish glass-half-emptiers The Funeral Orchestra. It’s a grim fucking album of compelling funeral doom that borrows heavily from genre pioneers Skepticism, but opts to take their techniques in a much darker direction. The most obvious tip of the hat being the cavernous and minimal drums, lifting techniques from classical music and the role timpani drums can play in building crescendos and enhancing the drama as much as actually keeping time. This minimal yet expressive approach to drums is one of Skepticism’s many great gifts to metal as a whole, exemplifying how to get more from less, the importance of creative drumming in slower forms of metal, and touting the virtues of empty space. Look to Joe Gonclaves’ performance on Winter’s ‘Into Darkness’ for a similar rhythmic philosophy.

But the Funeral Orchestra take things in a wholly negative direction when compared to their relatively heroic Finnish forebears. The guitar tone is thick for funeral doom, almost stoner metal thick. When it’s not being put in service of depressive, droning tritones – granted an early Earth vibe thanks to the tone – they construct and layer tremolo riffs that build and fall as tension is drawn out and resolved. Alongside the Earth-on-a-bad trip corridors of empty space, The Funeral Orchestra follow on from 21st century funeral doom trail blazes Elysian Blaze (yep) in their marriage of depressive black metal dissonance with the weightier creative and intellectual potentials found within this style. Vocals are a real mixed bag, offering up everything from black metal, to spoken word, to miscellaneous droning; all of which seems fitting given the scope of ideas The Funeral Orchestra are attempting to unpack here. I say ideas, because there is only really one theme or mood throughout ‘Negative Evocation Rites’, but one that is brought to different levels of intensity and drama, making for a compellingly monotonous experience.

I always find the philosophy of slowness intriguing within metal. Because other forms of metal generally favour the exact opposite approach, dropping the tempos is perceived to be a form of self-imposed limitation, a challenge that – if engaging music is to be brought to bear – different artists approach and overcome in a number of interesting and creative ways (or all too often not overcome at all). As well as plenty of dynamics, empty spaces that gradually amalgamate into a structured, plodding funeral march for our times, The Funeral Orchestra also use soaring tremolo picked guitars in the same way as many bands would use synth strings; creating long, sustained notes to craft a simple, gradually unfolding melody. Underpinning this is a rhythm guitar that replicates the percussive qualities of the drums as opposed to the requisite droning chords of funeral doom. This makes for a more dynamic and multi-faceted listening experience than many funeral doom albums. Atmosphere and mood are not enough, or rather, it has to be a pretty impressive and unique atmosphere if that’s all an album has going for it. Further, the fact that these ideas do coalesce into finales and resolutions makes this album all the more enjoyable(?) to listen, once a droning groove is picked up and run with it feels like the heir to ‘Forest of Equilibrium’ at times.

We could talk more about the different techniques deployed by The Funeral Orchestra. But the real takeaway from this is of course the negative approach. The stoner doom on a really fucking bad day, the classical approach to drums that is put in service of overbearing, hopeless music that won’t even entertain a major third, and vocals that seem to be just as horrified by the whole experience as we are in listening to it. A stylised yet satisfying work, made so precisely because it does not lean too heavily on one particular style or technique for too long.

Serment: Chante, O Flamme de la Liberte (2020)

Charging headlong into the realms of shoegaze atmospherics over substance, Moribond’s debut LP under the project known as Serment is a paint pallet, with no hand to guide it onto a canvas, or rather a hand that’s asleep at the wheel (or is that mixing metaphors on the paint pallet that is my choice of words…..ahem). Luscious keyboards fill out the vast portion of sonic space available on ‘Chante, O Flamme de la Liberte’, using spacey synth tones in a way similar to ‘Hvis Lyset Tar Oss’, in that for the longest stretches they are the dominant driver of the music, but rarely vary from two or three notes and the occasional basic melody. Serment can get away with this thanks to guitars that – despite sticking broadly to the tremolo technique which produces a sound akin to a string assemble – switch chord progressions and phrasing on far shorter cycles than the keyboards they are set beneath. Nevertheless, the effect of this is diminished somewhat thanks in large part to their suppression in the mix. Indeed, there is almost no dynamic range at all, with keyboards dominating the sound, fleshed out by weak guitars, consistent yet subtle drums, and distant vocals. I’m guessing this lack of dynamic range is a symptom of heavy-handed compression, but the techies will have to weigh in for a full analysis of that one.

If used properly, such an approach is ideal for atmospheric black metal, with the obvious danger being total monotony if no creative energy is spent in…writing music, no matter how pleasing the ambience produced may be. And by the mid-point of ‘Chante, O Flamme de la Liberte’ it looks like we’re in danger of precisely that. Wind samples can’t save us now I’m afraid. But Serment are wise enough to dial things back some, cutting the drums to size and placing the keyboards even further to the centre as the album progresses. Despite the overall mood remaining unchanged – thematically speaking, this is a very static album – it provides a welcome breather, one that is built upon as the album progresses further, and we end with an ambient closer on ‘Hymme Pour la Patrie’.

Although the ethos of this album is not entirely terrible, it allows me to once again make a point I shall continue to make to no avail till I’m blue in the face, but liberal contrarians with ‘open minds’ (meaning no standards) will still wilfully simplify it regardless. Serment has diluted black metal with heavy doses of shoegaze. Rather than using this as an aesthetic wedge to then apply the complex and challenging narrative structures we would associate with black metal, they have instead lifted the structureless, indulgent meanderings of shoegaze and applied a sprinkling of black metal aesthetics to give the music more ‘edge’. Or to put it another way, this is a largely directionless album of pleasing tones, with a hint of black metal aesthetics sprinkled on top. It’s not that artists like Serment have dared to dilute my precious black metal with indie influences. It’s simply that they are no longer making metal music as I recognise it, and in this instance the art suffers as a result, as there’s no point to it beyond a pleasing atmosphere. Nothing is risked, so nothing is learned.

There are far worse renderings of this style than Serment. There is a longer game being played in the undercurrents of this album at the level of the guitars and drums, their clever use of tempo shifts, and the cyclical way they link up with the keyboards. And this does elevate ‘Chante, O Flamme de la Liberte’ in the field dramatically. But one cannot help but conclude that the more sophisticated elements of this album are held back by the demands to create a pleasing and inoffensive aesthetic under the guise of expanding the horizons of black metal, but instead neuter it with vapid content, and us unbelievers are thus caste out as the knuckle dragging elitists we are.

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