I like the beats and I like the yelling: Conjureth, Sammas’ Equinox, Dropdead

Conjureth: The Levitation Manifest (2020)

San Diego’s Conjureth return with their second demo of 2020: ‘The Levitation Manifest’. As things stand these guys are two for two in terms of compact, crisp death metal, stylistically sitting pretty much bang in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. It operates somewhere between the chromatic chaos of Deicide’s ‘Legion’ and a lot of Northern European output of the early 1990s.

Production is soulful and meaty. The guitar tone is rendered to emphasise both brutality and atmosphere. The same could be said of the drums, with the decay on the snare cut off, leading to that punching-a-pillow-in-a-cave effect that, if used correctly, can add real weight and depth to the overall mix. Vocals are at the mid-range, settling on a rasp that is both ghoulish and aggressive. Wayne Sarantopoulos displays the benefits of both a tight rhythmic discipline in distorted vocals but also a degree of passion and melodrama that brings real colour and life to this brief, fifteen-minute ear pounding.

Conjureth manage to pack in a sense of dark and fast romanticism in a relatively short space of time. Whilst some riffs are barely a couple of bars in length, speeding past in the riff-salad tradition of early Morbid Angel, there are many that are drawn out into complex pathways of mystery, leaving one second guessing how and when they will resolve. It’s a fine balance between down and dirty brutality that feeds of disorder, contrasted with a nuanced, esoteric beast aspiring to carve out meta-structures by linking up the chromatic riffs with those built around a tonal centre. Solos are rare, but when they do arrive they serve to not only strengthen the melodic core for a short period but also add depth to an already atmospheric mix (by straightforward death metal standards)

‘The Levitation Manifest’ feeds off the impetus of death metal at its most ambitious. Many elements will be very familiar to veteran listeners, but Conjureth are very much their own beast on this and their previous demo ‘Foul Formations’.

Sammas’ Equinox: Tulikehrät (2020)

Modern black metal thrives on mediocrity. Like any genre it has its tiers. Landmark releases that are widely revered, and beneath that the honourable mentions, still lower it has the further listening list for the dedicated. And down in the gutter absolute disasters are not in short supply, making for a fascinating source of study in itself. But outside of these broad categories, the overwhelming majority of releases, particularly in this century, have been passable. Neither painful to listen to or worthy of a finger gun of approval. The reason is clear: lack of diversity. It’s no longer enough to slap some unresolved tritones together and tremolo pick them over mid-paced blast-beats, and record the whole thing on a four-track tape deck. Many still try. But the result is a homogenous blob of the average. Attempts to overcome these limitations by foraging indie genres like post rock, shoegaze, and ambient have met with less than mixed success.

Finland’s Sammas’ Equinox – on their debut album ‘Tulikehrat’ – offer some subtle but noteworthy means of surpassing these limitations. They have essentially melded the primitive, raw, melodic style that borrows heavily from punk in terms of rhythm and straight up catchy riffs and melded this with minimalist symphonics. The resulting album, against all odds, keeps one guessing. The production is relatively straightforward, operating on common ground for lo-fi black metal, but with enough clarity for the guitars to display their simple yet elegant melodic core. Raw punky drums and standard mid-range black metal vocals bookmark this, and are put in service of what are apparently pretty generic tremolo picked riffs with an off-the-shelf melodic core.

So far, so generic. But upon closer inspection, one notices the keyboards, which at first do nothing more than emphasise the guitars at certain intervals. But at times they seem to take the lead, not in terms of melody but in terms of dictating the substrata of the chord progressions. This reaches an interesting midpoint climax with the ambient outro to ‘Northern Gate of the Sun’. By slamming on the breaks and pausing everything just when the album is gaining momentum, the guitars are forced to respond by raising their game upon their return in the second two thirds of the album. The interaction of these different layers is more nuanced than we are used to, the lead refrains are more sophisticated, more sure of themselves, and the keyboards are a near constant presence providing both purpose and layers of atmosphere via various timbres.

Sammas’ Equinox evolve from punky black metal to atmospheric along the lines of early Sombres Forets, with a good chunk of early Satyricon discernible in the lead guitars. It’s not clear if this diverse yet unified tour of styles is made compelling by setting our expectations so low the opening riff of the first track ‘Fire’, or whether Sammas’ Equinox have genuinely managed to raise the bar by half an inch for the various traditions they call upon throughout the course of ‘Tulikehrät’. But this is undoubtably an album that catches the attention when set against the last ten albums of colour-by-numbers black metal you have likely trawled through this week (just me?…k).

Dropdead: Dropdead 2020 (2020)

For those wishing to relive the spirit of post-1990 hardcore punk then the latest (and very late in coming) LP from veterans Dropdead does a bang-up job. It pulls together the strange meshing of punk, grindcore, and power violence that took place in parallel to the growth of sludge metal in the 90s. The production has been cleaned up considerably when compared to earlier output from this band, and similar output from the 90s. This can be a double-edged sword depending on what you’re after. On the hand, this work is a knife, it’s premeditated precision, clean, sharp, and brutal. On the other, the clumsy spontaneity that defines punk movements at their inception is all but lost, the blunt instrument of wanton destruction and joy has been tamed.

The vocals, despite still packing a punch, follow in the footsteps of Tom Araya’s aging process. The animalistic aggression afforded to a younger vocalist all but subdued for the sake of a consistent level of disgruntlement. They stick to very simple syllable emphasis in order to keep up with the speed of the music without losing too much power.

And that pretty much sums up the majority of this release. It’s a consistent barrage of classic hardcore punk and thrash riffs, blending breakneck d-beats with full on blasts, microcosms of stop-start structures packed within these miniature tracks; all put in service of a consistent level of intensity that takes few risks. If you’re after a comprehensive and deliberate summary of the state of hardcore punk as it was in a less complicated world, then this LP delivers. And to some extent that makes it all the more refreshing, simplistic music that drowns out the endless background noise of a confusing present, urgently cutting to the chase. It’s there in the title after all, noise for 2020. But one cannot help but notice the restraint, and the homogeneity prevalent on ‘Dropdead 2020’ that prevents this from being anything more than a halfway decent summary.

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