Bringing together new tracks from neoclassical trailblazers Goatcraft and the last recorded material from Texan black metallers Plutonian Shore, this split EP from Hessian Firm offers plenty of food for thought. Over the years Goatcraft have forged new creative spaces between extreme metal’s relationship with dark ambient and neoclassical music that draws on the spirit of both genres. Whilst Plutonian Shore set about meshing the formalities of death metal composition with black metal’s romantic spirit, in a marriage of the two style that strikes at a more fundamental level than many superficial ‘blackened death metal’ outfits.
But we’ll start at the beginning, with Goatcraft. This project started life by translating death metal’s chromatic philosophy and complex relationship with percussion into a neoclassical setting. By stripping the creative core of extreme metal back to a raw sequence of layered piano pieces, Goatcraft managed to forge a new direction where similar attempts fell short. In order to achieve an aesthetically pleasing atmosphere, many on a parallel path have compromised on compositional complexity. However, projects that retain the layers of musicality at work behind the distorted guitars in the setting of solo piano music often result in a mere demonstration of music theory; instructive but lacking in artistry.
On their first album ‘All for Naught’ released in 2013, Goatcraft surmounted this dilemma by fully exploring the technical and emotional range afforded by classical piano. Whether through single or multiple layered tracks, this instrument – once shed of all accompaniment – offers a wide range of emotional expression. By accenting the piano’s dynamic and percussive qualities, Goatcraft crafted organic arrangements of dark and aggressive music in the spirit of death metal. It was notable for both its variation, complexity, and for taking the same music theory and working in a level of spontaneity and emotive expression not yet reached by the typical death metal setup. Since 2013, Goatcraft mastermind Lonegoat (naturally) has expanded these concepts into dark ambient and rich neoclassical music. But the piano has always remained at the core of the sonic philosophy, and as such affords this project more structure and compositional sophistication than is typical of the dark ambient genre.
The three tracks recorded for this split EP are no exception. Goatcraft expand further into dark ambience with the tracks ‘Demios’ and ‘Phobos’ named after the moons of Mars, which elegantly frame this short collection of tracks. ‘Demios’ works like a short overture to set the tone, as we are treated to swelling synths carried along by minimal percussion. The centrepiece track ‘Mars’ takes us back to the piano with busy and repetitive refrains backed up by deep, chugging chords that sporadically come to dominate proceedings. In utilising the very low end of the instrument Goatcraft is able to find new ways to progress this music beyond simply developing a melody with the right hand, relegating the left to providing texture and rhythm. Out of this threatening, low end cacophony a simple, almost euphoric finale is reached to close. The final track ‘Phobos’ stretches out the structure of ‘Deimos’ by exploring the narrative potential in simple chord sequences which gain layers and depth after each repetition, driven along by distant percussion, more foreboding than urgent. I’ve not looked in on this artist for a few years, and it’s encouraging to see them still putting out quality music with a fierce commitment to originality.
The three tracks from Plutonian Shore’s swansong ‘Alpha et Omega’ (2018) fit neatly into the new direction some North American acts are forging. This is defined by combining the esoteric qualities of black metal with the complex theory of death metal. If Swedish artists such as Sacramentum and Dawn were lauded for merging these genres with a traditional melodic sensibility, these tracks from Plutonian Shore are very much the other side to this coin. They are just as complex and urgent as their Swedish forebears, but operate on more chromatic territory with hints of dissonance sprinkled throughout. This creates an atypical and dark atmosphere distinct from other more traditionally ‘evil’ or aggressive aesthetics littered throughout extreme metal.
This, combined with tight yet ever shifting drum patterns makes for an experience that is both exhilarating yet contemplative. On an intellectual level it is not unlike ‘The Red in the Sky is Ours’, in that one can place each riff and segment (usually crafted from at least two complementary guitar lines) under the microscope and analyse their relationship to the wider whole; but equally one can sit back and allow the whole experience to flow past in a challenging yet intuitive environment.
Both these artists stand in stark contrast to their contemporaries; those that rehash stale ideas in glossy new packaging or simply capitalise on a craving for nostalgia. Although both sides of this EP are superficially contrasting experiences, they both tap into similar creative potentials still present in extreme metal and her sister genres in the year of our demise 2020.
Precambrian is the latest arm of the Hate Forest/Drudkh/Blood of Kingu trajectory of Roman Saenko, and the sound on debut LP ‘Tectonics’ is instantly recognisable as such. Despite the concept and artwork, this is essentially Blood of Kingu album number four: now with added minimalism. Nowt wrong with that, but it might as well have been a Blood of Kingu album. Just as I have a problem with artists that violently break with the themes and philosophy of their roots without operating under a new moniker (one more reason to follow albums over artists it seems), Precambrian do the opposite. In every way this is a Blood of Kingu album. So for those familiar with this project – which was in turn a continuation of Hate Forest with some marked differences – read no further. For those new to this – by now – signature Ukrainian take on black metal, here’s a brief gander behind this particular curtain.
The core of this music relies on consistent, driving tempos, with very little rhythmic variation. This normally involves sporadic switches between blast-beats or a simple, driving rhythm with pounding double bass work. On this most basic of foundations are placed simple chord progressions that nevertheless benefit from repetition. They are either defined by darkly minimal and aggressive dissonance, or more conventional chord shapes which hint at the euphoric when married with the galloping drums. Such was true of Hate Forest, but Blood of Kingu/Precambrian aim for a more oppressive atmosphere, with faster, conspicuous blast-beats and the minor chords knitted together with plenty of dissonance and urgency. Saenko’s vocals were always situated at the death metal end of the spectrum, which added a real ‘rainy day’ vibe to this persistently mono-themed black metal. On ‘Tectonics’ he opts for a broader range, touching on passion and anguish as well as oppressive monstrosity.
Long-time collaborator Krechet is once again credited with bass duties here, so I guess there must be a bass guitar played on this album, but beyond a malevolent presence beneath the earth it’s pretty indistinguishable from the mix. The guitars are a meaty fuzz of tremolo picked riffs. The tempo and technique rarely changes. The aim is to stretch out complementary chord progressions well beyond the conventions of shelf life, working in conspiracy with the relentless drums. If one focuses on the phrasing and relationship between various riffs and refrains however, there is a compelling beauty that shines to the fore nevertheless. There is a determined fluidity beneath the suffocating, cold aggression formed by the overly distorted guitars and monotonous drums, probably not complex enough to be called polyrhythms, but a marked additional layer of sonic intrigue all the same.
Bringing this survey kicking and screaming onto the prehistoric subject matter of this project, there is relatively little to remark upon. In adjusting their sound in no way since Blood of Kingu, applying this finely honed craft to geology undoubtably works. There is fluidity and motion to this music, such that it works on a different timeframe to our conventional intuitions of 4/4 pop music, as does its relationship to key and cadence. Indeed, none of these tracks reach a conclusion, they simply work through a handful of refrains, playing off the qualities found in their repetition or relationship to one another, and then the track ends. It’s not that the musicians stop playing, the end has just been sliced off in the mixing process. But in this context of exploring time that stretches so far out beyond our humble comprehension, one can pass this off as a clever creative decision and not an act of laziness I guess. For that and the reasons hinted at above there is a conflict in whether to this album a glowing plug. Because ‘Tectonics’ is the child of musicians on that seem to be on auto-pilot in context of this Ukrainian collective. Few musical developments have been made; we have simply taken an old formula and slapped it on a new lunch box. But unfortunately, the formula works really well, all the more so on this tight and focused album. Hence, the word is sadly not ‘lazy’, but ‘effortless’.
The debut album from the neofolk project known as The Pilgrim Soul in You, ‘Ode to the Gods of Deep Forest’, articulates solitude by taking delicate, elegantly layered guitar melodies and applying a minimalist, one could say almost efficient approach to track structure. The classical guitar arpeggios for example are relatively busy, but the phrasing is so fragile one can feel it disintegrate after only a few moments of acquaintance. These simple guitar passages – made up of two or sometimes three classical guitar lines, with simple arpeggios, harmonies, or looped melodies progressing the music forward – these make up the backbone of this album. They mostly operate in that ambiguous realm between major and minor keys, thus creating a sense of pathos; mourning without sorrow. Rhythmically they either flow gentle by like the comings and goings of the natural landscapes this music is attempting to invoke, or they devolve into singular strummed chords with only silence placed between, and a final, unchanging state is reached.
Other instruments crop up to adorn this simple yet hypnotically decorated canvas. These include flutes, cellos, very light percussion, and delicate vocals both male and female. When these instruments with more legato capabilities do crop it gives the music a fluid, almost urgent dynamic, we become more aware of the passage of time as the guitars are connect up via simple, flowing notes on the cello for instance. The vocals, sung in English, are very sporadic, and do not break the spell of haunting threnodies and meditations that are laced through ‘Ode to the Gods of Deep Forest’ (as vocals are so often liable to do on neofolk albums of this nature). They follow the fragile atmospheres carved out by the music, and stick to the most minimal of melodies. As a result their key function seems to be to add occasional words and a human context to the intangible celebratory mourning this album evokes.
Structurally, ‘Ode to the Gods of Deep Forest’ follows a simple journey of rising activity to a mid-point, the latter of which is positively busy, as new instruments and textures jump out of the mix, carried along by minimal percussion. But this buzz slowly fades out as it arrived, and the album concludes in symmetry with how it begun; we are left with nothing but the classical guitars, flute, and light cello to close. This time with a sense of finality to the cadences and an acceptance of an end. Again, the key messages and emotions invoked by each milestone of ‘Ode to the Gods of Deep Forest’ is communicated by subtle musical language, carried in phrasing and timbre, and not in dynamics or lyrics. Through these intricate layered guitars, couched in the language of sparse minimalism, The Pilgrim Soul in You strike at the heart of music’s sui generis qualities as a means of artistic communication. They demonstrate not only an ability to harness these simple yet effective techniques of composition, but also execute it well enough for the listener to forget their existence and simply drift away with the emotive artistry of the music if one wishes.