Megalith Levitation/Dekonstruktor: Split (2020)
Following a successful debut is notoriously difficult turf; it’s called the difficult second album for a reason. But encased in the experimental cushion afforded by the humble EP, permission to let the experimental side run free is widely granted. Or in the case of Megalith Levitation, permission to elaborate on some very specific elements of the fledging style, maybe throw them under the microscope and see what landscapes await us in this new, hyper-focused outlook. In this case the ritualistic, murky haze that covered their debut ‘Acid Doom Rites’ has now reached its zenith. Repetition, mood, atmosphere, tone, all prove to be far more important on the two lengthy tracks offered here than any groove or riffs one would normally expect in stoner doom.
Instead we have gone full occult metal here, guided by only the simplest of melodic progressions to form these chords sequences. Drums provide a rudimentary framework of rhythmic persistence to this rock-solid vibe; little more is required of them and little more do they provide. Vocals seem intent on accenting the drone qualities that Megalith Levitation are now shoving front and centre, focusing more on a monosyllabic chant of elongated, off-key cleanly sung notes, with only an occasional break into black metal screeching to add drama when needed.
The aim of these two tracks is clear. Create a mood with music minimal enough to be considered ambience. The second, lengthier track ‘Despair’ sees some recognisable stoner riffs take shape, with a guitar tone so fat it seems to clip the audio at the apex of every chord strummed. The music is guided by this very deliberate limitation in style however, as vibe takes precedence over musical complexity. But as the track progresses things grow more lifelike, just as they grew from ‘Opium Ceremony’s minimal, meditative stylings into metal proper. As the riffs become restless the drums pick up, and we are left with a finale that is positively frantic when compared to where we began this EP. A neat, elegant way to signpost what these guys are about in a tight, fifteen-minute chunk of music.
The second half of this EP is given over to another Russian stoner outfit known as Dekonstruktor. Although the setup is closer to the traditions of stoner doom that would be more familiar to the audience than Megalith Levitation’s idiosyncrasies, there is an industrial quality to the grooves here that gives the whole a sense of foreboding that is sorely lacking in more Western offerings in this field in recent years. This persists as simple guitar leads take centre stage, trading on elongation of notes and harsh tones over anything melodically intriguing.
The meat of the riffs is dirt simple. Dekonstruktor seem deeply uninterested in offering any groove or hook for the listener to chew on. Everything is bent towards obliterating the intellect with a wash of murky, droning chords and only a hint of life submerged beneath. Drums follow this simplistic pattern loyally, in a feat that must be tedious for an accomplished drummer but is nevertheless necessary to carry this music’s joyless message. Anything more elaborate would have killed the mood, or overwhelmed the delicate vibe being ushered into life by these musicians.
Two curious and crushing takes on a style notorious for its lack of originality and encouragement of formulaic attitudes. They are further proof that for people that dismiss genres like stoner doom outright, it’s often not the genre itself that’s the problem , it’s the lack of original minds working in said genre. Here we have two artists redressing this balance.
Marrasmieli: Between Land and Sky (2020)
I would very much like to claim that ‘Between Land and Sky’ – the debut LP from this Finnish outfit – is the perfect marriage of crisp Norwegian rawness and the energetic folk metal of Nokturnal Mortum…because that’s precisely what it is. As far as precedents are concerned, Marrasmieli might as well have emerged from the ground to spring this album upon us, the unsuspecting pondlife of 2020. The cover is reminiscent of ‘Frost’, and much like that benchmark of early Enslaved, the production seems geared towards the musicianship on show over a bespoke atmosphere; although admittedly the mix is far more balanced here. Not that this album is lacking character, there is colour and life bursting from the speakers from start to Finnish…(I’ll show myself out). Marrasmieli are clearly keen to dispense with the crutches that an overly elaborate mix can provide, and instead let their joyful, precise craft shine through on its own merits.
The engine room of this album is a crisp melodicism rooted in a nuanced understanding of folk melodies which enrich the narratives of the compositions, rather than distracting us from them. There is also a pronounced medieval flavour to the guitar leads, whether borrowed from Obsequia or not, the comparison is worth drawing; although ‘Between Land and Sky’ is straight down the middle when compared to the atmospheric posturing of the boys from Minneapolis. There is a life and character to Marrasmeili’s grasp of lead melody that gives the album a triumphalist, stirring quality without devolving into hopeless cheese. The only other worthy comparison worth making in terms of spirit and vibe if not a direct musical lineage is of course Nokturnal Mortum’s ‘The Voice of Steel’, which should also give you an indication of the quality you can expect here.
Although at its core this is a black metal album, Marrasmeili mix up the rhythmic monotony that the form is prone to by working in riffs and tempos that speak more to Judas Priest than they do Darkthrone. This is used to build these compositions into rich stories with a broad reach as far as tone and mood are concerned. Keyboards are scattered liberally throughout, either to bolster up the various triumphant guitar segments or as a modest lead instrument in their own right. They stick to choral tones, solo string instruments and sporadic flutes. As only a session accordion player is credited besides the band members one can assume all the other non-metal instruments are synthetic, but they sound remarkably organic and well-integrated regardless. Drums also walk that line between powerfully raw but crystal clear, affording us a view of the surgical precision in the performance without sacrificing the character of the mix overall; as is a drum track’s wont at times.
‘Between Land and Sky’ is that rarest of beasts, a black metal album that revels in joy, triumph, celebration, and heroism, without devolving into a carnival of embarrassment. Marrasmeili’s sites seem to be set on honing these tracks into epic dramas of contrast and excitement informed by heavy metal pomposity, delicate yet confident folk melodies, rhythmic divergence covering everything from slow marches to euphoric blast-beats, and plenty of corridors and tangents to explore along the way. In this earthy broth of ingredients there is no room for cheap thrills or clumsy emoting. The same elements can be found on many lesser releases of late, but when these catchy hooks are worked into more ambitious compositions, they are granted life and significance by their context within the greater whole. It’s a delicate balance that has been pulled off here, and one that has apparently caught us completely off guard.
Ordinance: In Purge there is no Remission (2020)
Finnish black metallers Ordinance did not set themselves an easy task when they wrote their latest LP ‘In Purge there is no Remission’. It’s an album that feels like a lot of other material out there – namely the Icelandic style of dissonance and atmosphere in equal measure, and more on the nose black metal in the tradition of ‘De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas’ – and yet this is it its own beast. Just when you think it will devolve into hammed up melodramatic self-indulgence that plagues a lot of modern extreme metal, more bent on aesthetics than composition, Ordinance pull the music back into a tight, focused black metal jam that feels familiar, yet fresh. This is a feat that is somehow harder to pull off than purer forms of originality, even if the results are found wanting in places.
By using the same compositional techniques that are common to the likes of Svartidaudi and Carpe Noctem but removing the dissonance and reigning in the meanderings some, we get a work that holds the attention despite being similar to many that cross my desk. The chaotic, swirling tremolo riffing set to tight blast-beats give way to mid-paced, revolving jams of chasmic atmosphere, but Ordinance use melodic progression and – dare I say it – catchy guitar leads to characterise these slower passages in place of a monotonous barrage of dissonance that has a tendency to all blend into one if over used. This marriage of Norway and Iceland is carried further as the album progresses, with Celtic Frost riffs rebirthed via the lens of Darkthrone’s ‘Panzerfaust’ cropping up here and there, especially on the track ‘Gathering Wraiths’, which acts like a history of metal riffs in miniature. There are also some riffs that are unmistakably Immortal on the track ‘Credo Sceleratum’.
The production leans towards the cavernous, but this is never carried to the point of distraction. The vocals are echoey and distant, the guitar leads are spacious but not overwhelming so. But Ordinance are not chained to this aesthetic and are more than willing to shed the burdens of reverb for the sake of hammering home the focus of the riffs if needed. Traditional melodicism shines through at times, with tracks that are stirring more than they are suffocating.
The result is an album with a broader emotional range than simple, alienating abrasion. Gathering together the many points and references Ordinance make on this album may give the impression that this release is an alchemy of derivatives. And in some ways it is. I wrote that line just as the opening riff of ‘The Kingdom of Nothing’ kicked in, which is essentially ‘Where Dead Angels Lie’ by Dissection, but then things take a very different turn as the track gets going. But setting aside this nit-picking, the challenges of pulling off an album like ‘In Purge there is no Remission’ become apparent.
In tying together so many references they have still focused the music into its own entity. The tracks, despite having an arm or maybe a leg borrowed from the corpses of the 90s, are still very much their own beasts, with their own agenda that becomes apparent as the album marches on. Ordinance were not so enthralled by one or two hollow aesthetic pursuits as to lose site of the real emotive qualities that lie behind these compositions, and did not forsake the engaging musical developments that form the heart of the album for the sake of a one dimensional expression of abrasion, or atmosphere. The payoff is an album with corners and intrigues around every corner that, and whilst not the most original thing going, it has a far broader expressive range than many of their peers.