Shed the Skin: The Forbidden Arts (2020)
Shed the Skin blend an interesting mix of influences on their latest LP ‘The Forbidden Arts’, combining the ominous plodding tempos of Demigod with straightforward thrash and Swedish influences, and even some melodic doom metal along the way. But rather than flouting the scope of their mastery of these differing forms, all are blended into an artefact that revels in its own primitivism and adherence to traditionalism in death metal. The mix falls in line with recent trends in modern brutal death metal and tech-death. The guitar tone is meaty, the drums are strong and consistent, the vocals are almost comically guttural. Indeed, from the opener it feels like we’re in danger of being treated to another festival of old school worship with a contemporary lick of paint.
But no, Shed the Skin’s character quickly emerges as ‘The Forbidden Arts’ reveals itself as a rich layer-cake of riffs; with surprise influences rearing their heads along the way. It’s this mastery of disparate traditions that makes this album stand out. For instance, tracks like ‘Veins of Perdition’ keep the tempo low, but do not sink into what we would think of as doom metal, simply because rhythmically it works more like a death metal track with a reduced bpm. But whilst other artists who have attempted similar things across their careers (Obituary, Asphyx), they have often fallen into plodding boredom with little to recommend it. Shed the Skin by contrast use these slower tempos to create tension, and build to a payoff as rich instrumentation and melodic resolution is gradually unfolded. They achieve similar feats on faster tracks, deploying all manner of references across the death metal spectrum to inject some life into what could have been a colour by numbers ‘no nonsense’ snoozefest.
But Shed the Skin’s loyalties to various traditions helps them bind together the many far flung reaches of death metal and hardcore punk that they reach for. This isn’t a clusterfuck. The more flamboyant elements of ‘The Forbidden Arts’ that jump out sporadically are knitted together by old fashioned d-beat thrash. The technical chromatic passages are used to lead into melodic death/doom where the true harmonic interplay from the previous passage is aired out, revealed to the listener as the track reaches its apex. This puts Shed the Skin in the same league as much that endures within death metal, above the hordes of flat pack releases, the substance of which was pre-ordained before writing even commenced. ‘The Forbidden Arts’ is a reminder of a lesson that many will already be familiar with, but it’s worth noting once again. The assembly of the parts can be just as important as the parts themselves. Dismantle this album, and rearrange its components in another way and you could be left with at best a boring and generic slab of old school worship for its own sake. But Shed the Skin exhibit enough care and knowledge of their craft that resounding success has been snatched from the jaws of utter failure which could have occurred in other hands.
Dauthuz: Grubenfall 1727 (2020)
Dauthuz’s latest EP ‘Grubenfall 1727’ is an organic and flowing piece of primitive, atmospheric black metal. It feels like a relic from a Summoning career in an alternative universe, if the Austrian trailblazes had retained a drummer and gone in a more conventional direction. Dauthuz mine the depths of European history for lyrical themes, drawing inspiration from….a mining accident. At this point it feels like content for its own sake; flat, meaningless content to slap on a lunchbox so that your lunchbox stands out next to all the other lunchboxes of obscure, high-concept extreme metal. Usually attaching such lofty sentiments and esoteric waffle to album makes us lose site of what quality is present within the music itself, if at all. Whilst I make no secret of my increasing lack of interest in the amateur historicism and epic poetry of many artists (notable exceptions aside), it’s very easy to set this to one side whilst digesting ‘Grubenfall 1727’ and enjoy the flowing melodies and minimalist folk flourishes that make up the core of this EP.
Dauthuz take the minimalist approach to riffcraft informed by soothing atmospherics, without sacrificing any elements of substance to the music in the process. The standard blast-beats are interrupted by bouncy, graceful rhythms reminiscent of black metal’s early symphonic traits a-la ‘For all Tid’, with an equally quaint yet engaging mastery of harmonics and folk melodies, allowing for a spacious and soothing experience that is nevertheless packed with ideas and talking points along the way. Drums take a very straightforward approach which is ideally suited to this flowing, ethereal style of black metal informed more by atmosphere than riffs.
The reason I bring up Summoning circa ‘Lugburz’ stems more from philosophy than a direct musical comparison. There seems to be a deliberate sloppiness to the playing, it’s a little rough around the edges, which really augments the transitions from one mood, key, or theme to the next; remnants of the previous moment remain in the next as the instrumentation struggles to keep up, fudging the listener’s perception of the passage of time. But more than this, the approach on ‘Grubenfall 1727’ – despite being made up of three lengthy tracks – is less one, epic idea carried through the entire runtime, but more a compartmentalised series of sonic sketches not directly related by narrative progressions, but thematically bound. These aren’t random segments stitched together with little cohesion, but rather a series of short sonic poems that gradually lead to a unified conclusion in a meandering, indirect sort of way.
A similar approach was taken on ‘Lugburz’. Although Summoning’s debut was undoubtably more riff driven, the relationship between them was often held together by a thread on each track, with the musicianship and narrative backbone running through the core being largely coincidental. But again, whether intentional or not, it worked as a series of miniatures that gradually amalgamated into a narrative arc made up of these micro stories. Just as for Summoning this would later translate into building epic soundtracks from mini-sequences that were layered atop one another and lent new contexts with each repetition, Dauthuz take a similar approach by using acoustic guitars to articulate simple folk refrains that in turn go on to inform the shape of the black metal riffs and what keyboards are present to bolster up the atmospheres. But Dauthuz are strongest when a simple tremolo picked lead melody is used as the anchor for the music, and additional guitars perform simple counterpoint, the drums follow in the wake of their rhythms, and the vocals provide a wash of melodrama. It then morphs into graceful, meditative metal with an impressively substantive backbone.
Clairvoyance are Polish death metal’s new kids on the block, with a demo out this year. When did the production on demos get so good by the way? I know it’s common knowledge that decent recording equipment and home studios are pretty much readily available for anyone willing to sink money into it these days, but it’s another thing seeing that play out in reality. This is a slick, well-produced demo with crunchy, imposing guitar tones, decent guttural vocals with plenty of reverb slapped on, and although the drums may be a little weak they’ve clearly taken every measure to bolster up the snare and cymbals so they do not lessen the overall impact. Maybe I’m getting old, but it didn’t seem that long ago when the sound quality on demos were at best thin and weak, hinting at a sound that cold be, or at worst ten minutes of indecipherable static.
Clairvoyance borrow heavily from the Incantation school of thought both in aesthetics and their approach to riffcraft. Their all encompassing atonality collides against tritones and chromaticism, or else they break up the chaos with laboured doom passages at unexpected junctures. But Clairvoyance also take the reverse approach at times, whereby a track gradually builds from a slow but persistent doom tempo, with the guitars piling on the layers with each repetition, to the point where the tension, waiting for the release, becomes almost unbearable, only for the music to explode into chaotic blasting just when you had given up hope. The chaos is augmented by liberal use of staccato power chords that add a throbbing, abrasive contrast to the tremolo sections.
There is much craft to unpick on this ten minute demo. It sits very much within American traditions outside of Florida, both in its unbridled atonality and more diverse approach to tempos, but also in its playfulness. The chaotic core of these tracks is not just achieved through speed alone, but jarring chord progressions and an intelligent contrast between the simple and the complex which can be found at every level of this music.