I like the beats and I like the yelling: Kostnatění, Felgrave, Osi and the Jupiter

Kostnatění: Hrůza zvítězí (2019)

‘Hrůza zvítězí’ is the debut album from fresh faced American black metal project Kostnatění. Notice upon listening how they play major and minor keys at the same time; resulting in dissonance…how novel. Like…ok, there are loads of different ways and means to incorporate dissonance into your sound and contrast it with other chunks of music theory, but we’re talking about music that is almost entirely formed around the philosophy of dissonance. Which are in turn accompanied by drums that are free flowing as much as they are formal in the metal tradition. Vocals are suitably manic, and bizarre tempo chang….it’s Deathspell Omega basically, right down to the lack of band photos. Sometimes a more nuanced analysis of influences and their interaction is warranted, but sometimes an artist is so obviously aping off another that there’s no need for coyness.

This is a Deathspell Omega album…with that astute observation out of the way it’s worth noting that ‘Hrůza zvítězí’ is superior to most of the output from that inexplicably popular French outfit. Kostnatění have dialled back the directionless abrasion-for-its-own-sake meanderings and added some much-needed structure and focus to the cacophony of empty pretension that is the Deathspell Omega tradition. Kostnatění offer chaos certainly, but they temper this by frequently distilling this chaos into one riff or refrain on repeat, granting the music some welcome space to breathe. And in doing not shying away from the virtues of simplicity, it makes for a more useful study of the nature and purpose of dissonance in music.

The concept itself is antagonistic in essence; it is defined by its contrast with traditional uses of key, or consonance if we’re talking proper. And like any quality outside the bounds of conventional notions of ‘good taste’, its power is drawn from this contrast, and the deeply rooted ideas of what music should sound like that are ingrained in the mind of the listener. Aside from some more chaotic, layered passages, Kostnatění play what should sound like traditional melodies and harmonies, often set to very generic rhythms, but because they have layered up the dissonance on top they arrive in the listener’s mind contorted and mutilated, recognisable but hideous.

As the album progresses Kostnatění are able to layer more complexity by way of additional guitar lines providing harmony and counterpoint. Because these extra flashes are only added once the central theme has been established, we able to follow the infrastructure at work as the complexity builds, and Kostnatění are free to explore the potentials within these central themes. It doesn’t really matter that there are almost no ‘conventional’ chord shapes or progressions present on this album, because the initial contrast with intuitive musical conventions was broken down at a more basic level first, before layers of complexity were built back in.

This makes for a worthier contribution to the French school of modern black metal, as it does not rely on technique and alienation alone, but rather builds in a story and purpose, and uses these techniques to aid in the telling. That being said, in limiting themselves to this technique alone, the artistic reach of this work falls far short of those not shackled by such self-imposed restrictions. We are given but one mood and one emotion to digest, and so no other ideas emerge once the initial theme is unpacked. It becomes a competent and interesting exercise in theory, with little artistic merit beyond this one idea. That and the album cover looks like Crowded House’s ‘Woodface’.

Felgrave: A Waning Light (2020)

Somewhere beyond the recent death/doom of The Ruins of Beverast and the epic doom metal of Ahab, sits the debut album from this little-known Norwegian project by the name of Felgrave. The overall presentation of ‘A Waning Light’ shies away from being overly murky. The guitars are more geared towards bolstering up the melodies than they are carving out cavernous spaces which is to their credit. There are plenty of clean guitar leads that are caked in reverb to adorn the album with some massive sonic vistas. Drums offer a tight and suitably engaging performance, but again they do not overwhelm the mix with caverncore clichés, such as an oversized snare sound for instance. Vocals are fairly typical for death metal, being in the mid-range of the distorted spectrum, with enough humanity to convey emotion when needed.

The album is split into two clearly defined parts, separated by an acoustic instrumental piece called ‘Summer’s Widow’. Each part is made up of two lengthy tracks that perfectly exhibit two competing approaches to the form. Melodic doom that coalesces into a mid-paced march, which in turn carries other musical flourishes along with it, or more depressive doom that gradually builds into faster death metal. As a result, each half is a perfect narrative mirror image of each other. We see the same themes and moods crop up in different guises in the second half, the whole works as an epic journey with many corridors and diversions along the way.

What is immediately apparent once the first half of ‘A Waning Light’ is played out is Felgrave’s determination to play the long game when it comes to composition, and to carry the listener along for the ride. Each track hammers its central theme home from the off, which is then either contrasted with jarring key changes or else brought together into driving, chugging mid-paced death metal in the manner of Bolt Thrower, or indeed The Ruins of Beverast. These passages are bolstered by purposeful double bass drums, whilst the guitars hammer home the central riff, which in turn is complimented by soaring clean guitars that jump out of the mix as if from nowhere. A bombastic mix of marching death metal that one cannot help but be carried along by.

But then many of these passages are contrasted with more meditative doom metal on tracks like ‘The Borrower’, which is a real slow burn of sentimental melodic doom that gradually gives way to idiosyncratic melodic death metal. Through whirling guitar loops that work through gradually descending riffs, and drums subtly growing in chaos and complexity, we feel the sensation of being drawn downwards as a weight is placed on our soul. Although at core it remains death/doom of a very European variety, Felgrave harness many other styles as each track progresses, which allows them a broad range of creative space to walk into. But because each track is disciplined by one or two central themes or ideas, the end result is never unfocused or messy.

Because of its genre hopping nature, this is doom metal that has the potential to be urgent and impatient as much as it does brooding and contemplative. Whilst many others operating in this field between the melodic and the crushing tend to get caught up in unfurling one specific passage, and thus allowing the music to stagnate, Felgrave – despite taking their time to build these tracks from the bottom up – never let a particular idea outstay its welcome. They settle on a groove that feels like it will be laboured on for a period, only to move on. But each idea is not simply discarded, there is a logic and purpose to the way these segments are chopped up and then built back together. For that reason ‘A Waning Light’ has trimmed much of the unnecessary fat associated with this genre away. Every bit as epic and compelling as some of the best entries in the genre, but nowhere near as bloated and cumbersome as it could have been. A triumph of discipline and creativity with no wasted space.

Osi and the Jupiter: Appalachia (2020)

Riding the waves of the neofolk revival comes Osi and the Jupiter’s new EP ‘Appalachia’. Although generally speaking it sticks to the ambient end of the spectrum for this style, there is a good deal of Americana aesthetics dropped in, particularly on the title track. Percussionless emptiness is the aim of the game here, albeit a very different brand of emptiness to the synthetic sequencers or spacious synths of ambient music proper. Each track is defined by simple, meandering, non-repetitive melodies either played on violins or an acoustic guitar, which is then accompanied by cellos and soft choral notes, or…nothing.

The overall impression – despite Osi and the Jupiter’s clear intention for this to be a static meditation on the permanence of the natural landscapes around us – is one of conflict and tension. And I don’t mean ‘conflict and tension’ in an engaging artistic sense, but in the sense that there is a conflict at work throughout this EP between the elements that work and those that very much don’t. The string sections are hauntingly beautiful, with simple sliding ascents or descents that grant the music size and scope as well as oozing atmosphere, guaranteed to lift even the most urban ensconced listener out their ennui.

The acoustic guitars on the other hand, whilst not entirely terrible, ground the music in something far more pedestrian, less esoteric, fundamentally basic. When used as a rhythm instrument alongside the rich strings this adds texture for sure, but there is so little musical benefit as to render the move needless. But then we come to the real detriment that immediately rips us from the slumbering melancholia this music otherwise invokes, which is of course the vocals. The lyrics are harmless enough, simple half formed poems about how great trees are…who could argue (black metal is rife with such sentiments after all). But the style of vocals is very 90s alt rock, which breaks the spell of ‘Appalachia’ instantly. They are not poorly executed in themselves, but they are so out of place in this spacious setting, performing such basic and jeopardy-free cadences, that it kills the bliss entirely. Things only worsen on the closing of the track ‘The Binding Will of Mountains’ when the vocal tracks are layered up to sound like an ensemble. The result is a sleepy, drunken dirge that belongs at the end of a heavy day of drinking at the local cider and folk festival.

With that out of the way, this EP is still worth a spin for those with a taste for the minimalist, hypnotic end of neofolk. It operates on a very organic level, with one eye on the past and an interesting blend of North American folk traditions, without the base crassness that this tag normally entails.

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