I like the beats and I like the yelling: Valgrind, IIIXK, Nekus

Valgrind: Condemnation (2020)

Italian slow burners Valgrind released their fourth LP ‘Condemnation’ this year; an album which, unlike the band’s career, wastes no time in setting its stall out. The approach taken here is akin to a melodic death metal version of mid-period Vader, with a vocalist that apes the Martin van Drunen style with some character of its own. This nevertheless proves to be a refreshing break from the guttural vocals buried in reverb which clouds so many recent death metal offerings cashing in on the caverncore craze. ‘Condemnation’ builds its foundations from a relentless thrashing energy that never settles on a tempo or repeated riff for more than a few bars before either moving on or switching it up in some way. Although the rhythmic underpinning remains more at the thrashy end of death metal, there is little time to catch your breath as Valgrind bounce between riffs and segments with ease.

The production is crystal clear, to the point where there is not much to say about it beyond the fact that it is fairly generic for modern ears. However, not so generic as to warrant calling attention to it. By that I mean that frequently modern mixes, that sound overtly digital, are so artificial to the point where it is becomes a distraction and a detriment to the music. Not so on ‘Condemnation’, as this frantic death metal lends itself to a meaty, clear production that can capture the power of the guitars and do justice to the nuanced melodies. Although the number of looped refrains remains relatively low, Valgrind return to core themes frequently enough throughout each track to contextualise the riff salad, and ground it in something more focused than would otherwise be the case.

Atonal, chugging chaos is offset by brief but intricate lead guitar work and an idiosyncratic approach to melodic licks as they jump out at unexpected intervals in contrast to the meaty power chord driven riffs. Drums find themselves more than up to the task of matching this adrenaline fuelled blend of techniques and tempos. We find them switching from tight blast-beats to free-flowing tom rolls and back to tight back-beats all in the space of a minute. They never distract from the guitars when the latter is taking centre stage, but prove to be an interesting listen in their own rite thanks to the variation and precision displayed in this performance.

This melting pot of techniques is located somewhere between Europe and the US, in the thrash of early Pestilence with all the energy of a young puppy, contrasted with the boisterous swagger of Bolt Thrower. This is then combined with some of the more proggy leanings of later efforts from members of the Tampa school. But from this complex and crowded mix of influences emerges an interesting and battle-ready style of melodic death metal that bucks the unfortunate trends of pop metal that this term often invokes. More importantly it results in a rich blend of musicality for the listener to sink their teeth into whilst dropping just enough restraint in that the whole affair comes across as focused and purposeful, and not a meaningless display of technical prowess for its own sake. By returning to central riffs frequently and often with subtle shifts in phrasing and rhythm the tracks feel grounded and energetic, and most importantly full of character.

IIIXK: Demo 2020 (2020)

IIIXK are a new Russian black metal outfit who – on their debut release – offer a bold melodic core that invokes feelings of finality in the mind of the listener. This is done by contrasting the grindcore infused, militaristic end of the genre with a strong sense of melodic progression, juxtaposing nihilism with pathos. This thematic approach bleeds out into the apocalyptic aesthetics of this demo, with production being raw but clear, doing justice to both the abrasive and the sensitive elements found on these tracks. Vocals too, adopt a mixture of traditional black metal screeching with more human wails of despair and aggression, with some clean chanting thrown in for good measure.

The result is a release full of character, one that manages to reference many traditions within black metal in a very short space of time whilst remaining unified. It’s refreshing to see an artist that is capable of producing an abrasive, washing blast of speed and aggression whilst not abandoning more complex and thought out musical components to retain the listener’s attention, and extend the creative breadth of the music. The techniques are nothing ground-breaking, but they don’t need to be when they are in their proper place. Simple ascending or descending lead guitars jump out of the chaos to heighten the drama, tremolo picking gives way to staccato strummed chords adding an intriguing percussive quality to this otherwise straightforward black metal. The tone of the guitars suggests a chasm of empty space without completely losing us in the murk of overly liberal amounts of reverb. Drums have a garage quality to them that perfectly fits the raw quality of this demo.

It may be short and sweet, but IIIXK have outlined some interesting takes on the chaotic, blasting, warlike black metal on this demo. It’s probably too melodic to put in the same school as early Impaled Nazarene or Blasphemy, but it’s to their credit that they have opted to do something a little more interesting than join the hordes artists currently operating in that style. And more importantly, so far IIIXK have proved they have the ability to pull it off.

Nekus: Death Nova Upon the Barren Harvest (2020)

Sitting just beyond the realms of the structureless wanderings of Teitanblood is the debut EP from the German outfit known as Nekus: ‘Death Nova Upon the Barren Harvest’. Following a philosophy of riffs dictated more by atmosphere than structure, their approach is to fold together only the most basic of rudiments into a work defined by overpowering glumness as opposed to anything overtly musical. The way it revels in the empty spaces it creates puts it closer to Havohej’s latter day direction albeit with a heavy dose of monotony. There are plenty of actual riffs, underpinned by liberal blast-beats, a healthy dose of dissonance, and fairly constant cavernous vocals. But the appeal is clearly intended to sit in the overwhelming mood of this EP as opposed to any musical talking points.

With that in mind it’s not clear Nekus have done enough to justify the existence of this EP. Once one has becomes accustomed to the brooding dark, the meaty guitar tones focused on ambience as opposed to intricate compositions, and the drama through competing tempos with little variation in any other department, it really becomes a monotonous slog. One can find more interesting riffs and atmospheres on Spectral Voice’s debut LP ‘Eroded Corridors of Unbeing’, an album that manages to be more extreme in its imposition on the listener, whilst displaying more music to unpack and discuss in the process.

That being said, the approach taken on ‘Death Nova Upon the Barren Harvest’ is not completely devoid of merit; the emptiness in the production is vaguely compelling at times, the guitars do not vary in tone or pitch throughout, there are no keyboards and no interludes one would normally expect from chasmic death metal. All of which draws one’s attention to their fidelity to minimalism, the austerity in anything that could be construed as comforting the listener. But these elements are merely noteworthy, not admirable, for the simple reason that the resulting EP is less interesting and less intense than many other outfits operating in a similar field. In the process of stripping away any colour and character they have failed to compensate for this empty space with even the half-formed blueprints of brutality; there is no tension or intrigue leftover to compel us, resulting in an experience barren of stimulation. The result is not so much crushing as it is tedious. We are left with nothing but the process of speculation as to where this music will go, and why it exists when this speculation leads nowhere. The veneer of substance that gives way to reveal a blank slate of creativity, which no amount of brutality and cavernous production can compensate for.

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