‘Morbid Muhammad’ is the second release from the mysterious Iraqi project known as Seeds of Iblis. If I may drift from my brief for a moment, aside from listening to this album a number of times I know this band only by reputation. Controversies around the subject matter are understandable, you will literally be put to death in some countries for championing the themes boldly tossed around on this album. Then again, there’s always the crowd of Jeremy Clarkson dads that think that if we’re so willing to attack Christianity and Western values we should be just as willing to have a go at the Muslims too, or make fun of their hats at least. This is a clusterfuck we’ll awkwardly sidestep for the time being. Just as we’ll shove the fuss over the band’s true identity to one side as well. We analyse music here, we’re not investigative journalists.
Not only cos I basically ain’t touching that shit, but also cos this is a quality album. It opens rather jarringly with a bombastic, Middle Eastern rendering of symphonic black metal, but then things quickly take a turn for the Black Funeral end with an extremely lo-fi, submerged-in-water quality to the mix, with majestic and idiosyncratic black metal rising to the surface beneath the murk. The production is mechanical, almost industrial in its ice cold precision. But the guitars provide an overtone of static that saves it from being over-polished. Drums are credited on the album, but it nevertheless has a drum machine quality to it. A machine like accuracy characterises the blast-beats, although they are imbued with life and character via well timed fills all the same.
Vocals are very much Black Funeral worship. Obscure, high pitched screeches that are then supressed in the mix to sound like they are right next to your ear. The aim here is claustrophobia. This is in stark contrast to the guitar tone which, although not massive, is fairly typical for moody black metal. The thin high-end melodies and chord sequences cut through the noise with razor sharp precision and form the through line of these compositions. Aside from the regular shifts in tempo, this remains a consistent album in terms of mood and intensity, but it is carried along by these riffs that drift from average to attention grabbingly interesting pretty consistently throughout the album.
But this leads on to the main issue, and it’s not a rare one: wasted potential. There are many breaks in the metal as it gives way to keyboard led passages that actually engage in some pretty interesting ideas for a black metal band. However, they remain too underdeveloped to warrant further comment. It’s because they, and the guitars themselves, are frequently interrupted by spoken word samples. One or two here and there accompanied by foreboding keyboard lines really works, particularly on the intro to this album, but they crop up all too often as the album progresses and kill the music’s momentum dead. The Middle Eastern influences, informing many of the guitar melodies as well as the keyboard interludes really work for this album. But one feels their focus remains on drumming up controversy by reminding us of the lyrical themes in case we aren’t reading the track titles along with the album.
Whether Seeds of Iblis is a group of ballsy-as-fuck Iraqi musicians calling out religious tyranny or some dude in a basement in Ohio is really by the by when we’re looking at the music presented to us as is. And as is, ‘Morbid Muhammad’ has some really interesting ideas going for it, and maintains this quality consistently throughout. It just suffers from a minor yet very common shortcoming of getting so caught up in theme and concept that it has the effect of hindering the artistry for us, as opposed to intellectualising the experience as was probably the intention.
For loose, atmospheric death metal that dribbles into caverncore at times, the debut EP from the Danish entity known as HAD packs a powerful cocktail of riffs. Borrowing elements from the industrial doom stylings of Finland’s Desecresy, they combine this with a light smattering of slow, percussive riffs that form the central motif of these tracks. Which are then framed by slower, doom laden passages of brooding repetition. They ride the line between technicality and atmosphere, not afraid to chop up the money riffs with staccato riff salads, but these are limited in scope as the mix here is clearly centred on creating those cathedral sized sonic rooms for us to wander through.
The mix supresses any subtlety to the drums, leaving only the basic rhythms and fills audible, with anything more complicated lost to the noise. The guitar tone is a revamped version of early 90s British deathgrind along the lines of Bolt Thrower or Napalm Death circa ‘Utopia Banished’. And the music borrows liberally from the indifferent atonality that defines a lot of that style. But HAD tap into an oft missed quality inherent in those older works, namely the all-encompassing atmosphere inherent in a simple, tremolo picked riff combined with that solid, instantly recognisable guitar tone. One could almost say it’s more suited to industrial metal than the guitar tones found in most industrial metal (variants that don’t devolve into pop metal that is). True to form, the vocals are a low end, guttural monstrosity that forms a near constant presence in this mix.
Combining this busy framework of atonal, rhythmically diverse riffs with nods to swirling death doom is a solid foundation for HAD to build from. Simple yet effective lead guitars jump out often enough to fill out the mix and centre the music with a moral purpose beyond indifference. This may not be the most original thing going, but HAD are tapping into rudimentary elements of old school death metal that have been ignored by many of their contemporaries; probably because it walks the line between extremes. Without overplaying the mileage one can get out of overly stylised production they have actually written riffs that connect up in a narrative that makes sense. But equally they are willing to explore the unique and crushing atmosphere inherent in this style when combined with the right guitar tone. But in doing so they haven’t devolved into mindless Incantation worship, and instead tempered the doom passages with well placed leads, and frequent shifts in mood and tempo. A simple yet winning formula that remains oddly rare of late.
Vermisst’s debut EP slams together dreamscapes with militarism as qualities that were both inherent in black metal when the genre was still taking shape. It’s an emotive call to arms that combines simple, sweeping riffs with charming, ethereal keyboards (informed by synth pop as much as they are Burzum), and aggressive, mid-ranged vocals with more human qualities than is typical. Applying this effective marriage to trancelike, mid-paced blast-beats, with clockwork regularity to the tempo shifts, makes for a familiar yet pleasing experience.
Vermisst aren’t doing anything particularly special here. They have taken the obscurity of say Russian black metal in the likes of Forest and combined it with early Dimmu Borgir or Satyricon in their well placed use of keyboards to both invoke pathos and elevate the otherwise simple riffs. So the takeaway from this EP is a band shifting the same elements that everyone else is using around a little, and suddenly you get a work that is genuinely engaging, as opposed to one that we have to really squint at to tell apart from the last five we listened to. Therefore, ‘Zmierzch Stalowej Ciemności’ sounds like a band enjoying and excelling at their craft as opposed to one that is ticking the boxes required for a mid-90s worshipping black metal project.
By taking the simplest of black metal riffs articulated by thin, tremolo picked guitars and repetitive, inconspicuous drums, they then layer up variations into this central backbone, at one point soaring keyboards will rise out of the mix, maybe the drums will fade out completely pausing our momentum, accenting further the qualities to the other instruments. The point is that nothing is overdone, each idea is taken and explored to its fullest in a manner similar to early Burzum. It’s almost music that is not interested in the listener’s needs; a trait all too common to modern projects gestating in the womb of social media and Spotify. Whether they fear an audience with a short attention span, or want to please as many in the crowd as possible by stuffing every track with a confusing mess of conflicting ideas; none of that is present here.
We’re left with a pleasing ambient number to close in ‘Det Skjulte’ which is pure Burzum worship augmented by some Tangerine Dream smarts that Varg probably never had. But again, it’s worth reiterating that veterans of black metal will find nothing mind blowing in this release. It’s simply a demonstration of what a difference it can make when an artist actually loves their craft over second guessing what they think a potential audience would want. The same elements are present in works of lesser quality, but on ‘Zmierzch Stalowej Ciemności’ everything has been placed with care, next to elements that compliment each other, and all ideas are carried out and explored with patience to their fullest potential before we are satisfied and ready to move on to the next stage in the journey.