The Kryptik: Behold Fortress Inferno (2020)
Straight out of Rio de Janeiro comes the best Swedish black metal album you’ve heard all year. This forty-minute-long EP offers some of the best melding of epic riffcraft with bracing symphonic atmospheres to be heard in a long time. Channelling the spirit of Dawn or Vinterland, The Krytpik focus on building rich, carefully balanced sweeping narratives of cold, melodic black metal. The guitars have ceded some of the ground as lead instrument to the keyboards in a delicate balance of priorities. Although the riffs still guide the overall direction of the music via refined melodies and blasting tremolo picking, the complexity is kept to a minimum in favour of allowing the keyboards breathing space to fill out the atmosphere, and sometimes rise above the mix to dominate the sound with glorious harmonies.
In noting the production values, now more than ever, the architecture analogy beckons us. The foundations of this mix can be observed from the drums up. The tight double bass work offers a depth and size to the sound without disrupting the elegant ballet of the more delicate instruments above it. The snare is sharp, but some of the decay has been removed which means it can offer a tight punch of blast-beats or a steady rhythm and lose none of the impact. The whole drum performance is framed by a sheen of tight fills and cymbals that wash out the sound, working more like ambience than percussion.
As mentioned, the keyboards are placed centre stage here, sharing the lead role adjacent to the guitars. Aside from some soaring chord progressions either on choral, organ, or string effects that occasionally swoop in to carry the music higher, they adopt a kind of ponderous rhythm guitar role. This means that the guitar tone – whilst not thin or tinny by black metal standards – can remain at the high end, offering a sharp, well-defined sound perfect for articulating those tremolo lead melodies, whether it’s a simple two chord refrain or something more involved. Vocals are surprisingly intimate on this recording. They are not washed out with heavy-handed reverb or set low and distant in the mix to give the illusion of size. Rather they feel next to one’s ear, maniacally narrating us through this journey by our side, as the size and scope of the rest of the music unfolds before us. This juxtaposition is not jarring however, thanks in large part to Danilo Ximenes’ stirring performance.
As far as the compositions themselves, much like Dawn, they are usually guided by one simple guitar refrain that opens the track, as layers of keyboards and percussion are added this undergoes simple shifts and variations before reaching a dramatic mid-point, defined either by a shift in tempo, timbre, or key. All very simple and commonplace tricks of the trade that undergo a profound transformation when applied in the right setting, patiently built and placed in their proper place within these epic narratives.
Despite the album’s lavish trappings, the exhilarating pulse of the whole thing showcases speed and intensity as much as ethereal atmospheres. When considered in context of time and wider trends within melodic black metal, ‘Behold Fortress Inferno’ is still fundamentally a work of restraint. Each individual idea is relatively simple. One does not listen to it feeling that anything needed adding or taking away. They represent microcosms of ideas, beautiful to behold in their own right. But then placed in their wider context within these epic compositions they take on new meaning and significance. If the temptation to showcase overly technical or atypical aesthetics had been succumbed to, this brilliant balance of elements would collapse into confusion. As it stands, ‘Behold Fortress Inferno’ is a grand reaffirmation of melodic black metal at its finest.
Helvetes Javla Skit: Satans Javla Helvete (2020)
Grindcore will always be a contested style, thanks in large part to its dual antecedents in death metal and hardcore punk. Early artists swung clearly in one direction or the other, and usually after a short stint quickly abandoned pure grind for pastures new. This leaves modern grind artists with an interesting choice. Either pay fealty to the traditions of genre, or abandon all limitations completely besides intense, fast, extreme metal in microform. Of course, the latter option often comes up against the obsessive fixation metalheads have for genre and their common obfuscation of classification with quality (myself included). Then again, you could just offer up an album like ‘Satans Javla Helvete’ for the slaughter and let the gods (or armchair critics) decide.
The debut album from the brand-new Swedish outfit known as Helvetes Javla Skit follows in the footsteps of recent offerings from Takafumi Matsubara, Gridlink, and Wormrot for that matter. What’s interesting about these modern iterations of a famously limiting genre is how they go about overcoming said limitations. And much like these other iterations of modern grind, this album works in a similar way to Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes. Satie’s works offered challenging yet half formed ideas, scraps of music that remain compelling for what they don’t say as much as what they do. If Beethoven’s piano sonatas are weighty novels, the Gnossiennes are memorable and thought-provoking aphorisms. Just as if Immolation’s ‘Close to a World Below’ is an epic poem, then ‘Satans Javla Helvete’ is a short form spoken word performance.
The production is very synthetic sounding. Drums offer breakneck blast-beats with only minor shifts in tempo, and at times sound programmed (citation needed). The guitars have a hint of the Swedish buzzsaw tone to them, which works to HJS’s favour in this context as it is a sound that fleshes out the mix whilst still articulating the more complex and frantic riff structures. There are plenty of samples and unexpected deviations and inflections of melody that contrast with the barrage of atonality that makes up the bulk of these tracks. Vocals sit between a higher end rasp and some guttural death growls. They are for the most part rhythmically tight, but standard fair for death/grind genres. We could do without the auto-tune line that crops on ‘Pop Grind och Helvete’, which adds nothing and comes over as an overly desperate cry for avant-garde credentials (that being said, it may have been chosen for satircal reasons, citation needed).
There are plenty of riffs that would be at home on a melodic death metal album, a hardcore punk album, or (shudder) a mathcore album. But here they are all compressed into hints of an idea. Scraps of paper and post-it notes that speak of something yet to be built. This is naturally granted greater significance in the setting of fast, hard, pounding music. Helvetes Javla Skit are not just whispering or hinting suggestions to us, they are practically punching us in the face. The simple ontological fact of grindcore is that the track lengths are often so limited that more sophisticated narratives are just not achievable. But I don’t raise this point as a detriment, as that’s clearly not the point. The intention is to crush as many ways of achieving the same level of intensity in the shortest time possible; this is done through a myriad of means and riff traditions, whatever fits best in the moment. It’s a fine line between blurting forth chaotic noise and devolving into utter nonsense. But on this debut at least, there is a coherent and persistently stimulating package of noise philosophies that will keep one coming back for more.
Noxis: Expanse of Black Hellish Mire (2020)
The latest EP from these Ohio based death metallers offers a solid slab of percussive death metal in the vein of Morpheous Descends, with some brief nods to unbearably weird Demilichian groove jumping out at well-timed intervals. The production sits on that early Suffocation vibe of brutal death metal that emphasises rhythm above all. And indeed, there are many hints of slam breakdowns here and there, but they are so well knitted into the idiosyncratic chromatic death metal riffs that make up the bulk of this EP that they pass without notice.
The drums are raw, crisp, and sharp. What they lack in atmospheric qualities they more than make up for in work ethic. Offering a cavalcade of collapsing fills and off kilter rhythmic centres to frame the rich tapestry of riffs as they roll by. The guitars have that crisp yet highly distorted sound that makes up a lot of brutal death metal, placing greater value on rhythm than melodic articulation. That being said, Noxis unpack a surprisingly diverse array of death metal riff traditions in this relatively short EP, and go far beyond the realms of standard brutal death metal in their quest to refresh the genre.
Although the guitar tone is boisterous and confident, it leaves plenty of space in the mix for us to hear the thundering bass. The tone is distorted, but clear enough to allow us an insight into the mechanics of the basslines as they either reaffirm the guitar lines or offer accents and licks that interplay with the frantic up/down scale runs of the guitars. Vocals are a lurking presence of malevolence beneath the harsh veneer, operating at a very guttural level that cuts through the lowest end of this EP’s sound range.
‘Expanse of Black Hellish Mire’ is a name that not only rolls of the tongue nicely, but the music itself shows an imaginative mastery of a wide range of influences. They have managed to blend Finnish weirdness with old school NYC death metal in a way that is not contrived or derivative, but rather very much its own beast; at once wholly familiar yet completely fresh to the ears.