Into Oblivion: Winds of Serpentine Ascension (out 29th September on Hessian Firm)
In a world saturated with voices, all jostling for airtime, all embroiled in a bitter fight to the death for our valuable attention (and clicks), hyperbole is rife. All too often terms such as ‘epic’, ‘legendary’, or ‘ground-breaking’ find their way into contemporary commentary, devaluing the significance of the these words, and in turn the eroding agreed standards and metrics of quality. As it is with rhetoric, so it is with a lot of music churned out these days. Many modern artists are single minded in vying for the last word in a one-dimensional pursuit of extremity: a busy surplus of half-baked ideas, intellectually weighty lyrical concepts, chasmic production, abrasion, all stifle what artistic merit there was beneath the clamber of aesthetic box ticking. By comparison, it’s almost quaint to look back at the arms race of extreme metal in the late 1980s.
Hate Meditations is far from innocent in these misdemeanours, committed in the name excessive verbiage. Critics often find themselves all too caught up in the same pursuit as the musicians themselves in the battle for your attention. But every now and then new material will leap out of the crowd as if from nowhere; and it will stand out by no other virtue than its existence. There is no hook, no angle, no supplementary reading required to appreciate it. Its existence, in short, ‘explains itself’. Into Oblivion’s latest EP ‘Winds of Serpentine Ascension’ seems to be one such example. I say ‘seems to be’ because we do not yet have the objectivity afforded by the passage of time to warrant us chucking around overly exuberant language just yet…but that’s never stopped me before.
Much like The Chasm, Into Oblivion’s approach to forming music of epic scope and ambition consists in patiently stitching together motifs built from highly traditional death metal phrasing and conventional melodic flourishes ripped straight from the playbook of the romantic era in music. The result is sophisticated death metal with an emergent epic narrative core. By the manipulation of the same moods and themes over the course of all three lengthy tracks on this EP, the thematic framework is strung out into a story that takes over half an hour to unfold, connected by passages of frantic chromatic death metal that revels in its disorder, and works in direct contrast to the patiently built finales that act as milestones within each piece.
Drums are thus given the dual task of conventional yet creative rhythm keepers in the traditionally melodic sections, only to switch up the pace, and frame the riffs in the sections of staccato, atonal death metal. The mix is raw but clear, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the drums, which are given only the most minimal enhancement in the production. Vocals follow suit in this regard, sticking with an aggressive mid-range rasp that would fit either the traditional death or black metal format. But these primal elements work as a perfect backdrop to the sweeping poetry that gradually unfolds as these compositions progress. As if to match the waves of ancient drama that gains momentum over proceedings by the second half, the drums take on a rhythmic core closer to folk music or Viking metal in the manner of Graveland. Furthering strengthening this comparison, choral tones are used to accent the tension between the guitar parts, and offset the passionate aggression of the distorted vocals.
By the opening of the third and final track – the twenty minute long ‘Eagle of the Serpent Sun’ – the themes are introduced by an acoustic guitar and violin which stands in where a lead guitar would normally be found. By this point the riffing has become patient and layered in a manner closer to black metal. This again illustrates one of the great strengths of ‘Winds of Serpentine Ascension’, in its ability to marry the spirit of death and black metal, and not just the techniques of each tradition.
Into Oblivion open this EP with unstable chaos and close with melancholy acoustic guitars and strings; from jeopardy to catharsis, the journey is accomplished in a manner both intuitive yet enthralling. The building blocks are more or less the same as the majority of extreme metal that has walked the winding path between these two stylistic pillars in the last twenty years or so. But here they find their true potential realised via a musical arrangement born of patience and ambition over sonic hyperbole.
Darkened: Kingdom of Decay (2020)
Boasting some interesting clientele, Darkened are a death metal…super-group? Well, maybe a notable-clientele group. Although it’s good to see Andy Whale back behind the kit in a more interesting outfit than the lacklustre Memoriam. And, if reliving the magic of Bolt Thrower is the aim, then Darkened are a far more successful project in that regard. But the similarity does not extend much further than collecting together ultra-basic atonal riffs and building them into an extended motif of bludgeoning narratives; giving them a shelf-life far beyond what such simple components would normally allow. On this rock-solid foundation, lead guitar work – either primitively aggressive or soaring and epic – is able to fill in the melodic gaps.
To further tempt comparisons to Bolt Thrower the mix is reminiscent of ‘…For Victory’, with heavy nods to Swedish death metal. The drums sound triggered, but in this context it works as a consistent blast of artillery and machine gun fire. Whale’s subtle shifts from double-bass pounding to simple yet effective fills provides a strong foundation; one that still offers a few shifts in tempo capable of catching a listener with an ear pointed at the rhythm section off guard. Vocals offered by Gord Olson are consistently mid-range for death metal, with articulation that offers a clear view into the lyrics even on first listen. They follow the main arc of this music which points towards Sweden but retains some no-nonsense elements of old school British grind with a strong melodic core.
As the album progresses we are treated to much the same formula but with layers and complexity built into the riffs as they introduce slow tremolo picked sections, and Whale shifts into d-beats (not something seen very often on vintage Bolt Thrower). This of course further invokes comparisons to classic Swedish death metal, but Darkened hint at greater ambition in their framing of each track and attempt to construct a longer view of these compositions. This becomes apparent by the time ‘Cage of Flesh’ kicks in, which opens with dirt simple melodic doom metal before picking into a mid-paced ear pounding of slow, epic death metal. A more complex Asphyx would be a worthy allegory as the tempos are just too driving for us to consider it death/doom proper, and there are some noteworthy leads that completely take over the progression of the track as the drama builds.
Most of the faster tracks follow a similar pattern, albeit in micro form. This means that ‘Kingdom of Decay’ ultimately makes for a pleasing box-ticker of an album for any fans of the basic variants in death metal. It’s what I would have hoped and expected of Memoriam when news of a Bolt Thrower follow-up act hit town in the wake of the tragic death of Martin Kearns. But sadly, that project, whilst not an abject failure, felt more like a bargain basement tribute act. Such is the nature of projects defined by their past, even before the writing process has begun, and, as is apparent, experienced clientele are no insurance against mediocrity. But Darkened succeed where Memoriam failed, in keeping the spirit of Bolt Thrower circa ‘…For Victory’ alive, but exhibiting a pronounced character of its own.
The Passing: The Passing (2020)
Without so much as a nudge at the borders of creativity, this new LA outfit known as The Passing have released a self-titled EP that revels in its lack of ambition. If you’ve heard Swedish d-beat a-la Disfear you will be well acquainted with the music to be found here, with only the most minor of tweaks. If that assessment sounds thoroughly negative it’s because it is. But in fairness this brand of nihilistic hardcore punk is one of those rare pockets of noise where derivation can be excused, in a made a virtue of, if played with the requisite enthusiasm.
Bare bones atonal riffing over d-beats makes up the bulk of this EP, with some hints at metal stylings in the direction of Hellhammer here and there. Vocals are tailored to fit this restrictive remit by sticking to a bark of singular notes, limiting in scope and range but with an aggressive payoff. In one sense this is even more primitive and repetitive than the bands it apes, with the riffs being so similar throughout that it’s hard to tell at times if the music is moving forward or just cycling through the same two or three ideas. But again, as a work of rudimentary chaos, this doesn’t have to be a detriment.
I suppose one could say, particularly in the context of metal, that in this age of bloated releases, all attempting a definitive word on conceptual scope and sonic ambition, The Passing’s reaffirmation of this music’s primal roots is a worthy project. Attempting to bolster these tracks with artistic aspiration or originality risks clouding the message. But that would be to look beyond the music on ‘The Passing’ itself for a wider meaning, one reliant on the context of extreme metal in the year of our demise 2020. If looked at as the execution of a specific idea this EP is faultless to a tee. But without any character of its own it amounts to little more than a love letter to d-beat punk.