Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The energy poured into pointless b-tier black metal outfits with a respectable degree of popularity seems to bounce back into low-key ambient side projects with measurable predictability. DomJord – the passion project of Mortuus, of Marduk fame – finds itself two albums deep as of November 2020. Given how limiting Marduk is as a creative entity, it’s no surprise that its members seek other outlets, if for no other reason than to salvage their sanity. So how does ‘Gravrost’ stack up against his bandmate Morgan Håkansson’s solo work under the Abruptum moniker, and the ambient rambles of his fellow metal contemporaries at large?
Put in the broadest terms possible, it’s an interest mix of dungeon synth, neofolk, and 90s trance, with an overly zealous penchant for pitch-benders. The melodies, the mood, the layering, all speak to a desire to create arcane atmospheres that reach beyond the individual to the transcendental. The execution of this intent is a complex tale however. Much like Khand’s offering earlier this year ‘The Sage of Whitherthorn’, it picks out melodies and arpeggios that are clearly intended to invoke the feeling of the ‘other’ realm, whether this be fantasy literature, dreamscapes, hallucinations or the occult, they reach for something beyond the mundanity of the day to day. But the raw execution of this, the choice of synth patches, the percussion, sequencers, and layering of these disparate elements has a marked 90s retro vibe to it.
This creates something of a feedback loop of irony and self-referentialism. Dungeon synth grew out of the newfound sonic potential in keyboards and recording technology available in the early to mid-1990s. Despite the lofty promises, the tools were inherently artificial, lifeless facsimiles of the acoustic instruments they claimed to replicate. But dungeon synth artists used these imperfect tools to create what was essentially a sonic love letter to medievalist fantasy literature, thus subverting the inherently modernist feel that more conventional ambient music was trying to invoke at the time. The limited ability and technical knowledge of these innovators gave rise to its accidental charm; lightning in a bottle that followers have been futilely trying to recapture ever since.
‘Gravrost’ – compositionally speaking – follows in the footsteps of dungeon synth, yet it is littered with retro synths, effects, and percussion that hark back to a bygone age’s idea of futurism, in direct contrast to dungeon synth’s original intent. Hence the self-referential feedback loop that encapsulates the experience of listening to this album. A dungeon synth album, articulated through ironic and wholly synthetic retro mid-1990s trance/ambient effects, released in 2020.
Whilst ‘Gravrost’ is frontloaded with these bombastic retro elements, this only half the story however. Towards the second half of the album, Mortuus captures the virtues of emptiness and minimalism with tracks such as ‘Jarn’; a virtue made all the apparent by the contrast with the cluttered opening clutch of tracks.
By the end he reaches for a sense of tranquillity that calls to mind the ambient interludes on ‘Det som engang var’. With a set of tools defined by their very artificiality, this music begins to reach for the organic, the world beyond the plastic and concrete. This finds its expression through ultra-minimal melodies that seem to mourn the very plastic material that birthed them. ‘Gravrost’ is a conflicted album at heart. At once boisterous by dungeon synth standards, yet also seemingly aware of the inherent contradictions that stand at the heart of its creation. Like witnessing a journey through adolescence in miniature, it starts confident, and ends with a humble acceptance of its own naivety.
Does it even count as nostalgia anymore? Or is death metal joining Miss Havisham in her self-imposed stasis? There are those who attempt to shoehorn death metal’s current ennui into a false dilemma of sorts: endlessly revere the early 90s glory days, or accept the tasteless aesthetic prescriptions of avant-gardists who would have their artistically vacuous way with it. The obvious response to this is that there are outliers dragging the genre forward into the 21st century (better late than never), whilst retaining at least a scrap of artistic integrity.
Skelethal are not one of these outliers however. They are at the apex of death metal’s nostalgia, an industry that has grown so effective at imitating the past that it threatens to outshine it. Their latest offering – ‘Unveiling the Threshold’ – is not so much about reliving the past as it is rewriting it. Skelethal are the meat ‘n’ taters side of the coin to Horrendous’ progressive direction of late. It’s energetic, tight, riff laden death metal with an undeniable old school aesthetic. The latter of which seeps through to the mix, the guitar tone, the vocals, the compositions themselves, and the overall presentation in the cover art, lyrics and track titles.
Why the Horrendous comparison? The reason is subtle. Beyond the boundless enthusiasm and rhythmic bounce permeating every aspect of ‘Unveiling the Threshold’ which certainly calls to mind Horrendous, there is also a certain lack of focus to Skelethal’s mixing of old school tropes. It smacks of a random pick and mix of various percussive traditions and approaches to riffcraft. The end result is not so much a broad survey of death metal as it was in the early 1990s so much as it is a computer-generated rendering of the genre after it has been fed a certain volume of data. There is no direction to these tracks beyond a series of homages to scenes or bands or specific guitarists. It blasts out of the speakers with an unbridled lust for life, but in this over excitement fails to establish a direction or a reason to exist beyond finding new ways to rehash old forms.
Pound for pound, Skelethal are a cut above many other old school imitators for raw talent. But there seems to be no filter on these musicians, as riffs and ideas burst out, falling over each other to be heard. Take Blood Incantation as a comparison. They embody a similar desire to rehash old ground, but decided to focus in on specific aspects of Timeghoul and Gorguts worship, ultimately creating a knockoff version of the same. Their creative filter was perhaps a little too brutal, and in limiting their plate of influences to such a degree found themselves working in post rock flourishes to pad the runtime, with no regard for compositional integrity.
Skelethal take a far broader survey of death metal, and as a result make much more efficient use of their time than Blood Incantation. But the same lack of focus permeates through every pore of this album. The end result is a set of references. A conveyor belt of ‘remember this’, which ultimately leaves them without a voice of their own. An artefact of metal’s obsessions with its own past in every sense of the word.
Brittany’s Sepulcre offer up their first demo in the form of ‘Ascent Through Morbid Transcendence’, a pleasingly abrasive wander through Demigod style morbidity. Some unexpected rhythmic nods to Napalm Death circa ‘Harmony Corruption’ are thrown to keep us on our toes. I’ve always maintained that although France cannot boast as many household names as their European neighbours, the French acts that do litter the canon always stand apart for their originality, extremity, and eccentricities. This demo shows hints of living up to this significant national legacy.
The production is of a respectable demo quality. There’s a marked static clotting up the mix, especially between the high-end of the guitars where the tinny qualities are most pronounced and their interaction with the crash cymbals. But there is enough depth and weight to carry the drab, ghostly atmospheres of this brand of haunting, mid-paced death metal. Vocals are a selection box of grunts, barks, growls and howls of anguish. But it should be noted that none of this is overdone to the point of distraction. All vocal ejaculations are put in service of the ultimate nihilism at the core of these tracks.
Sepulcre borrow the alienating weirdness of old school Finnish death metal and revitalise it with a solid and energetic rhythmic foundation. Whilst more in line with Demigod and Adramelech in their manipulation of key – sidestepping Demilichian ambiguity – the mood set by this demo is impressively mature and well-formed for a debut. It swaggers along with its own doom-laden and ultimately miserable character, balancing the atonal elements with a narrative backbone which is surprisingly well developed for just fifteen minutes worth of music.