I like the beats and I like the yelling: Witchtrap, Svabhavat, Cynabare Urne

Witchtrap: Evil Strikes Again (2020)

Columbian blackened thrash veterans Witchtrap have returned this year, or struck again you could say. ‘Evil Strikes Again’ makes apparent that Witchtrap would like us to note of how much housework they have carried since 2015’s ‘Trap the Witch’ (they’re note known for masterful wordplay). Not only is the instrumentation and general finish applied to the mix markedly cleaned up for this latest offering, but the focus is back on the thrash and not so much the black. Although all the full length material from this artist has been released in the last two decades, their style has already been very much of the 80s, championing a style of South American blackened thrash more closely tied to NWOBHM traditions than early extreme metal.

The trend continues on this latest offering. Many of the riff choices and galloping rhythms speak more of an evil sounding Iron Maiden than they do ‘Morbid Tales’ era Sepultura. The mix is very clean, calling to mind a lot of modern output from veterans of heavy metal. The focus is on clarity of guitar tone and drum mixing, which carries the intricacy of the quickfire riffs and tight rythmic core, sacrificing the murkier qualities associated with this brand of occult ridden metal. Whilst one could lament the absence of dirt in this approach, it actually makes for a refreshing break that Witchtrap were fully confident in the power of their music to stand on its own without the distractions of an overtly old school aesthetic.

Was this confidence warranted? Yes and no. There’s a word for albums like this. Albums that string together riff after riff of heavy metal bordering on old school thrash, with lyrics that don’t so much dabble a toe in the clichés as dive in headfirst with bricks strapped to the ankles. That word is fun. Witchtrap keep the pace pretty consistent throughout, offering no slower numbers to space out the album. But in spite of this each track has a markedly different feel. The track placement was clearly a very deliberate process. The intensity of each is pitched to fully contrast the track that preceded it. Ripper’s vocals have lost none of their bite. He still apes early the Teutonic style of proto black vocalisations, attacking each line with an enthusiasm that avoids the obnoxiousness.

The whole things has a degree of sincerity to it so lacking in the sea of other releases pointed towards the past. It’s not just the fact that Witchtrap are at veteran status now, thus granting them a free pass on the old school aping. It’s more the fact that this is not obviously trying to sound of the past like so many other homages do. The production has a very modern sheen to it, the riffs, although diverse, are totally fixated on a small window of shapes, tempos, and structures that speak of a very specific branch of old school metal. This is no survey of multiple scenes from the late 80s. ‘Evil Strikes Again’ is very much its own album, despite all the generic trappings it displays from start to finish.

Svabhavat: Black Mirror Reflection (2020)

More often that not, first timers prepare the ground with a peppering of demos and EPs before ensconcing themselves in the studio to land the debut. But now and then, an artist will come out of nowhere, a fully cognisant life form, and drop a self-aware full length onto an unsuspecting world without so much as a by-your-leave. Ok, so the members of Svabhavat already have their fingers in a few pies. Chiefly James Sloan, who seems to have been on a bit of a releasing spree this year with projects Aleynmord, Anachitis, and Grave Light all suddenly throwing out material.

Along with Svabhavat, and their debut release ‘Black Mirror Reflection’. Much like their fellow Portlanders Tchnornobog, this album attains a level of maturity and self-assurance more fitting of an artist with a few releases already under their belt. But there the similarity ends. Svabhavat take a much more down the middle approach to black metal, one that is actually in line with a lot of American material we have been treated to over the years. It borrows the general techniques and aspirations of Norwegian black metal and attempts to shoehorn something distinct and characterful on this basic framework, in the hope that it takes us far enough away from tired convention, and into new talking points.

The attempt is more valiant than many that try this slight of hand. But the outcome is a little unfocused. This is a survey of various styles more than it is a beast on its own quest. There are many classic Darkthrone riffs frontloading the album. Played with a guitar tone more fitting of the American tendency to fill out the bass, and add some overtly evil sounding chord progressions. This gives the music that closed in, suffocating vibe that goes so well with this brand of darkness. The vocals by contrast are distant, laced in reverb, implying open spaces, giving the music size and room to breathe.

But these sonic tributes to the great outdoors are somewhat overdone when the lead guitars kick in. What could have been neat licks to signal transition points and build the atmosphere of certain passages becomes a near constant siren call of extended notes and string bending that pretty much accompanies us throughout the entirety of ‘Black Mirror Reflections’. Taken on its own I don’t hate it. The black metal foundation it’s set to is better than average, and adding these simple harmonic inflections adds a rich layer of texture above. But these give way to some hints (mere hints) at post black metal stylings, and of course they could not resist adding some weighty dissonance to the underlying tremolo picking to further contrast this.

Now, all these elements are used sparingly, tastefully, and ultimately complement rather than hinder the overall sound picture Svabhavat are painting. But it becomes frustrating when the riffs actually coalesce into a compelling narrative. As the chord progressions move from dark and depressive to exhilarating and life affirming. Because just as these more intriguing elements gain momentum they are railroaded by yet another on-trend technique, another superfluous piece of instrumentation, or another nod to stylish modern interpretations of the form. As a result, Svabhavat give the impression that their heart is in the wrong place. The album is a white knuckle ride not because the music is so compelling, but because one is never quite sure what the intention is. The experience is honestly as ambiguous as this review. Make of that what you will.

Cynabare Urne: Obsidian Daggers and Cinnabar Skulls (2020)

Sitting somewhere between Swedish and Finnish styles, the debut LP from Cynabare Urne brings some much-needed ambition to Scandinavian death metal. Listening to this, one cannot help but feel that this is the band Entrails could have been after their reformation, had they not consistently leant towards limited d-beats and melodeath stylings from album to album. ‘Obsidian Daggers and Cinnabar Skulls’ takes the meaty guitar tone, fat drums, guttural but clear vocals of the Swedish masters, and adds an additional layer of darkness to the riffs courtesy of a pronounced Demigod influence.

Production has a very old school flavour to it. The drums, although clear enough for us to appreciate the playing, are a little weak. The guitar tone is bass heavy, far more organic than the cliché ridden tributes to classic Swedish death metal that are currently swamping inboxes around the world. They perform the dual purpose of covering the album in a tone that carries with it a dark atmosphere as well as articulating the musicality of the riffs themselves. Vocals are much more standard fair for this style, almost to the point of feeling out of place in a setting that aspires to esoteric darkness more than it does power and brutality.

Cynabare Urne have taken only the smallest of steps in this direction however. But it is enough to carry this album above the current crop operating in this field. They have blended the familiar traits of mid-paced death metal with some faster riffs borrowed from black meta, which not only elevates the death metal features above a mere box ticker of brutality, but also implies a darker atmosphere throughout. This dichotomy becomes apparent by the track ‘Escaping Xiabalba’. Regardless of tempo, key, or general riff tradition Cynabare Urne are lifting from, this is a very binary listen. It is split between competent but lacklustre death metal, only slightly more notable than average, or interesting builds and narratives that bring the listener back in.

It’s a shame that Cynabare Urne do not do more to build on these more compelling features that speak of death metal that transcends genre. As it stands, they remain too brief or underdeveloped to fully draw us in. Despite this, there is a unity and logic to the tracks; one that can be enjoyed on an intellectual level if we’re admiring good musicians displaying both their craft and their ability to spin better than average compositions together.

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