I like the beats and I like the yelling: Solitary, Iskandr, Malicious

Solitary: The Truth Behind the Lies (2020)

Step one: form a band. Step two: select genre. Step three: harvest knowledge of  genre tropes. Step four: profit. Well, step four is easier said than done with certain styles I hear, but y’know, don’t stop dreaming. To be fair to Preston’s Solitary they are no newcomers to UK thrash, such as it is. But their latest album ‘The Truth Behind the Lies’ offers colour-by-numbers thrash metal far beyond what the title and album art hint at. It just provokes visions of this band plugging the relevant parameters into a computer program, designed to generate bro-thrash albums.

Production is clean but not overly meaty. The snare sound is a little tinny, despite the fact that the toms have plenty of depth to them, which is apparent given the frequent tom rolls that signal a shift in riff or pitch in the guitars. There’s really not much more to note on that score aside from a clean, polished finish. Richard Sherrington’s vocals are certainly one of the few highlights on here. Reminiscent of Chuck Billy in that they are injected with a degree of punk melody and sustained notes after key stanzas. This mixing of clean and distorted vocals in the classic thrash metal tradition of the US actually gives this style an underrated edge over more extreme genres (especially those outfits with uninteresting vocalists). When done creatively, it can offer a varied mix of aggression, hints of melody, and emotional range.

Musically, we’re on very generic ground when it comes to thrash metal of the last thirty years, once it had lost its buzz by the 1990s. Solitary do their best to place more primitive, atonal tracks of pounding, constant tempos with the slower, more melodic tracks, mixing these simple contrasts up as the album progresses. But every aspect of the riffing, the solos, and the general structure of each number operates on seriously tired ground. This is an album that feels written by a decision tree; select genre, select techniques, suitable guitar tone, common song writing tricks, shuffle these basic elements round until you have an LP’s worth of material.

And of course, we all know the thing about mediocre music. It is far less compelling than abrasively terrible music, which, although painful to churn through, at least offers us talking points and hopefully some takeway lessons. ‘The Truth Behind the Lies’ gives us nothing beyond competent, background thrash metal to sip a beer to. For all those who wish to claim it’s just harmless fun, you probably have a different (incorrect) metric or motivation for listening to music.

Iskandr: Gelderse Poort (2020)

The latest EP from Dutch black metallers Iskandr is really a game of two halves. It’s quite literally segmented into two weighty tracks of basically the same length, both aiming to capture an entirely different mood. The first is a fairly standard rendering of ghoulish black metal with strong gothic overtones, warm production values by the standards of the genre, and a decent degree of melodrama worked into the vocals. The second is an acoustic cum ambient piece, which ultimately functions as a tone setter for some spoken word narration.

The unexpectedly broad range of musicality this EP attempts to encompass is pulled off well. Iskandr lay the groundwork to transition into each moment and new sonic passageway without anything feeling out of place or clumsy. The first and title track ‘Gelderse Poort’ opens with more standard gothic infused black metal with a claustrophobic, classically evil approach to composition, before transitioning into a clean guitar interlude which leads into the mid-point climax. The guitars are more epic, the riffing spread out and open in contrast to the opening, but the general mood of the music is maintained, thanks in no small part to the expressive vocals that range from wails of despair to simple, low-key chanting.

An elongated fade out of the final chords elegantly preps us for the second track, ‘Het Graf’. Thematically, this is the more fragile piece. In one sense it is simply a minimalist set of acoustic guitar licks, very occasional ornamental piano trills, all of which threatens to coalesce into something more cohesive, thus maintaining tension throughout, as we find ourselves waiting for a build, some solidification. This eventually comes. A low cello note gains traction, before drums kick everything into gear with a simple, driving, rhythmic reaffirmation of the atmosphere that came before it.

All pleasing and melancholy. But the story of this music can be read in another light, which is simply that all these tributes to minimalism that characterise the first half of the track are in fact a mere accompaniment to the spoken word. Given that this is in Dutch it makes it less abrasive and distracting for non-native speakers; it being easier to tune out. However, it still feels like sacrificing a compelling exercise in musical emptiness is shied away from, in favour of retaining vocalisations that really don’t add anything musically, besides a minor distraction.

Details dispensed with, it would be bad form to end on a negative. All tiny blemishes on a canvas with few flaws besides this. What initially comes across as a fairly standard black metal ride rooted in horror and melodrama – in the true tradition of EPs as a testing ground for riskier ideas – quickly takes many unexpected twists and turns along the way.

Malicious: Deranged Hexes (2020)

‘Deranged Hexes’ indeed, and fitting right in with fellow Finns Sadistic Drive and their debut LP ‘Anthropophagy’ released summer 2020, Malicious’s first album is a potent shot of surrealist death metal to wind down the year to. This is chromatic anti-music that seems to revel in its own disregard for the conventions of the civilian taste pallet. The central riff patterns charge around abrasive chord shapes and progressions in a relentless staccato march of madness.

Fans of modern death metal outside of the overtly technical or cavernous variants will be familiar with this style, and find it easier to shove their head into the requisite non-space in order to glean enjoyment from this. Others may not be so lucky. The production is relatively soft. The drums being somewhat supressed in the mix, something more than made up for in the performance. Perhaps something the producer was attempting to over-compensate for. They shuffle from off-kilter blast-beats to frantic fills and patterns seemingly designed to catch the guitars off guard. But the guitars themselves seem to revel in the anarchy of rhythm as much as they do key.

Of course, much like ‘Legion’, ‘Thy Kingdom Cum’, or ‘Anthropophagy’, there is method in the madness. A seemingly hopeless battle against the uncompletable jigsaw gradually demonstrates some internal logic. There are important link riffs that signpost our way through various tracks, they are identifiable more as familiar pitch relationships in a non-musical setting – say in speech patterns – than they are the conventions of contemporary music. These are then offered more familiar musical contrasts with some solos rooted in the classic old school blackened thrash tradition, that injects some much needed melodic grounding at various points.

The vocals also are take their cues from the classic tradition of early extreme metal. This offers at least an anchor in the chaos, as the amoral drama of riffs builds and falls in intensity. Honestly, ‘Deranged Hexes’ is not only an apt title, it is also one of those albums that rushes by so quickly, with such a density of ideas, that it really does warrant a few back to back listens to properly navigate. Like a battle of ideas, both conservative and radical, constructive and destructive, various musical ideologies and anti-musics hash out a surrealist conflict before your ears. Fine death metal defined more by its hyper or non-reality than heroism and constructive nihilism in the more familiar sense.

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