I like the beats and I like the yelling: Draghkar, Morta, Katavasia

Draghkar: At the Crossroads of Infinity (2020)

‘At the Crossroads of Infinity’ – the debut album from Californian death metallers Draghkar – feels like an echo from an alternative dimension, one where death metal took a very different route after the early 1990s. It’s not unprecedented and it has many antecedents, including early Hellenic works from Septic Flesh and Rotting Christ, the simple yet richly crafted melodies of early Amorphis, and the playful, galloping rhythms of Unleashed; one can hear all these shadows lurking behind the veil of ‘At the Crossroads of Infinity’. This album bypasses American contributions to death metal for the most part. Setting aside the tech death boom that followed in Suffocation’s wake, and later the caverncore trend that has seen Incantation enjoy an unlikely renaissance. No, these guys look to older lore for inspiration, and find their bricks and mortar in more traditional heavy metal informed by a pronounced sense of melody.

But Draghkar haven’t simply written a decent enough album that belongs back in 1993 all the same. By delving into the subtle craft of understated riffs, simple intertwining guitar leads, and rudimentary but unpredictable chord sequences, a dark and unique album takes shape, laced with atmosphere, tension, and intrigue. The key word we need to pick up on here is ‘understated’; because in this context it means getting more from less. And as with many albums of a similar calibre, this quality can be found in the artistry of the music but also in the engine room of this album, namely the production.

The mix is perfectly suited to meet the delicate balance of idiosyncratic yet intuitive riffs. The interweaving guitar tracks are clear enough to carry along the sweeping, complementary melodies, but there is also a muddy quality to them, similar to early Varathron. This never distracts from the alchemy of fragile leads, purposeful and frantic rhythms guitars, and throbbing bass; the latter of which is perfectly audible at all times. The aim seems to be to allow the guitar leads to shine as much as possible in contrast to the dirty rhythm sections. Drums are a similar no-thrills affair when it comes to the mix: perfectly clear yet almost no obvious enhancement added in mastering, which further enhances the organic qualities at the heart of this album.

All this creates the perfect foundation for Draghkar to build on the real appeal of these compositions: the subtle uniqueness to these riffs, which throughout the course of each track build and fall in a dramatic interplay of competing energies, which culminate to create a world of their own. Through the use of atypical keys and chord shapes in an otherwise familiar rhythmic setting, they elevate the superficially commonplace into an album that keeps one guessing all the way; one cannot help but listen on to discover how each track will unfold. It’s refreshing to see an artist take these old school elements of Southern European death and black metal and update them in an album with a character all of its own. By adding their own signature onto this heavy metal informed death metal it far surpasses idle old school worship, or the countless releases that helplessly follow in the overarching and temporary trends that death metal is so susceptible to.

We can pull out the possible influences or similarities ‘At the Crossroads of Infinity’ has to certain canonized works, but in reality this album exists in a world of its own, one not born of cheap novelty or overly stylised production. For that reason it seems to have visited us from an alternative timeline of metal evolution. Draghkar have very few modern equivalents in death metal at the moment, as most of their contemporaries are fixated on caverncore, old school blackened thrash, or endlessly fucking around with dissonance. By referencing an almost forgotten form of extreme metal that was snuffed out largely because it was neither the fastest, the most technical, or the most atmospheric thing going at the time and so lacked the momentum afforded by sustained mass appeal, the original works remain much loved but little imitated. It remains a challenging yet rewarding craft, precisely because there are few aesthetic flourishes to cover up poor song writing. Albums like this reiterate the original values of extreme metal as a more ambitious and challenging version of heavy metal, one that refuses to be distracted by whatever aesthetic trend is garnering attention at any given time.

Morta: Funebre (2020)

On their debut EP ‘Funebre’ (2020), Morta tap into the values of Les Legion Noires with an updated melodic refinement that makes for entertaining listening. The garage production quality is just clear enough to allow us to follow the through line of the riffs, even as they become overwhelmed by the reverb submerged vocals. The result is catchy and simple black metal that follows in the well-trodden traditions of sorrow and heroism common to the genre at its purist. This is aided by the back-to-basics mix, which essentially leaves the drums as we found them in the garage, but covers the tinny guitars and distant vocals in reverb to achieve that fresh-night-on-the-moors vibe. These simple yet effective tricks then work their magic on the mournful tremolo picked riffs as they gallop and soar through unoriginal yet well composed chord progressions.

Because Morta (however competently) tap into such commonplace techniques for lo-fi black metal that is nevertheless driven by riffs over atmosphere, there’s not that much more to say about this EP (I’m still gonna witter on for a bit though sadly). The baggage inherent in low-quality mixes such as this creates atmospheres that supervene atop the music; this means that Morta need only make the most subtle changes in key or tempo to achieve contrasting moods, and thus a sense of progression through and between each track. As the mix struggles to keep up with the mechanics of the instruments, new and interesting sonic spaces are discovered along the way. Morta achieve the correct balance between musical complexity via a marriage of ideas, whilst keeping this minimalist enough that the whole does not devolve into a meaningless wash of static. But again, black metal is so littered – nay swamped – with releases in the same vein, all similarly competent, that we’d struggle to pick ‘Funebre’ out of a line up.

There are minor hints of something more tucked away in this EP regardless. The opening number ‘Sacrificio’ – once the instrumentals ‘Cadáver Perenne’ and ‘Introit: Sabbat’ are out of the way – has a central riff that goes through a subtle yet effective shift in pitch as the track reaches its conclusion. It demonstrates an interesting and under-utilised attitude to cadences by unexpectedly extending them out towards the conclusion. Again, technically speaking this is a very simple trick, but in the treacle of this mix – so common to black metal – one can get a lot of mileage out of it. It has features akin to Gorgoroth’s ‘Bergtrollets hevn’, early Cirith Gorgor, and Temple of Abraxas’s more recent work. Sadly – aside from some very emotive and effective vocal work – such unexpected sophistication fails to crop up again and revive us from our familiarity with this work.

Katavasia: Magnus Venator (2020)

Katavasia’s debut ‘Sacrilegious Testamant’ (2015) was something of a Varathron tribute album from this Greek supergroup. Now with five years of distance they have offered us follow up ‘Magnus Venator’, and the change is instantly striking. Knitted into the epically melodic heavy metal stylings of recent Varathron we now have smatterings of symphonic and pagan black metal. But the real takeaway message that ‘Magnus Venator’ wants to convey is a band more sure of themselves, less preoccupied with genre box ticking and more focused on crafting majestic and epic pieces of romantic extreme metal. There is a greater energy and purpose that can be found in the stronger production, the willingness to vary tempos, greater contrast between tracks, and a diverse array of influences; even Stefan’s vocals – already full of character as Varathron’s long standing calling card – feel more varied and full of live.

All of the same elements are present. The distinctive guitar leads formed of mid-paced tremolo riffs, packed with melody and augmented by understated synths and choral tones; many of which easily outdo recent offerings from Rotting Christ in terms of complexity and originality. The soaring tempos that give way to slower, purposeful marching, the momentum of which is sustained by relentlessly creative drum fills and consistent blast-beats in equal measure. Even the short instrumental interlude – an increasingly lost art, whose sole purpose has become to break up albums into spoon feedable junks for the shit munchers and intellectually wanting – are bolstered with cinematic production values and careful arrangements. But all these familiar elements have been shuffled around, dosed with protein, and played with conviction, to the point where ‘Magnus Venator’ feels like an album from a brand-new band when compared to the colour by numbers debut.

Fans of recent Varathron, Macabre Omen, and Rotting Christ will not be getting anything wildly original from this offering. But sometimes, the same old ideas can be dramatically elevated if arranged and played with passion and a new lick of paint. And this leads us neatly on to the one caveat I would attach to this album (and by extension, modern Varathron). As complex and exhilarating as this combination of rich melodies and heavy metal adrenaline is, it lacks the subtle atmospheres and mysticism that earlier works from these artists invoked. This was achieved by the one thing ‘Magnus Venator’ is lacking: empty spaces.

As a result, this album emphasises one aspect of what made Hellenic metal so special – namely the refined sense of melody that was far ahead of their other European and American counterparts – to the detriment of the other: the ability to invoke lost or forgotten places and stories with the most basic ambient pieces, or more laid back, loose guitars and production not so overly compressed as to squish out any of this atmospheric potential within the music itself. It’s a small caveat, but an important one in this age of content saturation. Of course, pinning down a unique and arcane atmosphere is far from an exact science, especially when compared to the precise riffcraft that defines this album, but it’s also an underrated feature of what made early Hellenic extreme metal special. Of course, we could aim for something entirely forward thinking, but that seems to fall outside the remit of Katavasia, which however well crafted and joyful to listen to, is still fundamentally a backward looking project.

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