I like the beats and I like the yelling: Mongrel’s Cross, Black Death Cult, Negative or Nothing

Mongrel’s Cross: Arcana, Scrying and Revelation (2020)

Brisbane’s Mongrel’s Cross return for a third LP in the form of ‘Arcana, Scrying and Revelation’, and – following the unceremonious dissolution of Absu – Proscriptor McGovern has joined the party for want of employment, offering his unmistakable vocal talents to the fray. And what – I hear you ask – does said fray consist of? Mongrel’s Cross shun the war metal of their Aussie and Kiwi fellows in favour of the rich melodicism of the latter-day Greek scene. You know the story by now. This is epic NWOBHM as played by an extreme metal outfit. And – aside from a riff here and there – bypasses thrash entirely, judging a punky gut punch of atonality as too blunt an instrument to service the bombastic epics being churned out here.

The production is suitably spacious to carry the size of Mongrel’s Cross’s vision of occult and epic heavy metal rendered through the esoteric sheen that only black metal can provide. Guitars are centre stage, with the drums – despite the pleasingly organic snare sound – being somewhat supressed so as not to clutter the mix. Minimal background synths jump out when the music settles on a sweeping tremolo section. Again, this is a praiseworthy act of restraint, anything more would clutter up the mix as the guitar work really leaves no space for much else.

That’s aside from Proscriptor’s trademark vocal ejaculations. His ghoulish aggression is as unfiltered as ever, offering up everything from the comical to the dramatic and even a banshee scream or two for good measure. As ‘Arcana, Scrying and Revelation’ progresses he trades blows with the dual guitar attack, which works through an intricate maelstrom of classic heavy metal riffage, updated with some symphonic black metal soundscaping for good measure. From galloping Iron Maiden-esque leads, to meditative tremolo picked segments, to longform riffcraft on tracks like ‘Fate of the Grail, Pt. I’. The latter of which calls to mind Varathron circa ‘Genesis of Apocryphal Desire’ in its stitching together of simple riffs that gradually compound on one another to form a grand symphony of patiently layered components.

All of which leads us to conclude that Mongrel’s Cross may well be outdoing modern Varathron, Katavasia, and even Macabre Omen for imbuing this style with some much-needed ambition. Despite all the musicality that this strain of blackened heavy metal requires, it is still just as susceptible to artists phoning it in with spare parts and rejected riffs from other works. The denseness of the guitar work, the heightened drama, the theatricality, all make for an overwhelming experience on first or second listen. Those who can offer an underlying internal logic, pauses for thought, and compositional integrity prove to have the staying power beyond this initial impact. ‘Arcana, Scrying and Revelation’ is one such album.

Black Death Cult: Devil’s Paradise (2019)

Do you ever wake up in the morning and think “You know what the world is missing? A band that’s like…Beherit…but… psychedelic, and their name needs to be generated by a black metal version of one of those random name generator things you see on Facebook…” Well, look no further, because Canada’s Black Death Cult have got it covered with their debut LP ‘Devil’s Paradise’.

Like, ok, facetiousness of this opening gambit aside, that’s exactly what you get on this album. Black Death Cult take the otherworldly rituals of early Beherit, add an array of organ tones and retro horror clichés, and pretty much run with this formula throughout. There are some doom metal leanings here and there, which, with the addition of a church organ evoke a Skepticism vibe, but beyond that, this is ritualistic black metal with a strong stoner vibe to it. But of course, the real question is, does it work on any discernible metric?

The guitar tone is muddy, suited more for doom metal than it is black metal, but that is entirely appropriate given the clammy, restrictive atmosphere BDP are going for here. Drums are fat and bass heavy, with no decay on the snare, thus preventing them from hampering the murk of the guitars with an overly invasive clarity. They stick to a basic bludgeon that celebrates the all-encompassing guitar tone more than anything too showy. Vocals range from guttural death growls to the trademark whispered style of Holocausto, and even some artificial, alien tones on ‘The Gate of Nanna’ tribute track ‘Nightside of the Pyramids’.

Keyboards do offer more besides just organ tones and supressed psychedelia however. There is a consistent attempt to create an unsettling, idiosyncratic vibe through ambient interludes and supressed synth tones that lurk behind the guitars. But the dominant presence is of course the organ, which works through fairly typical tritones and ‘spooky’ chord progressions that gives the whole thing a comical, Hammer Horror vibe which I’m not sure was intended or not.

With all that in mind then, it’s important to give credit where it’s due. ‘Devil’s Paradise’ is not a one-dimensional gimmick album. It’s a well made if limited piece of occult black metal that does a good job of create an immersive vibe. And – by virtue of actually writing riffs and nurturing some themes to fruition – it is allowed to develop into engaging metal on some of the longer tracks. Does the psychedelic gimmick hold it back? Yes and no. And by that I of course mean yes. In one sense, the constant organ is a needless distraction as it largely follows the guitars and brings little of any musical value to the field other than timbre. But this timbre is precisely the problem because it changes the overall impact of the music from legitimately creepy and layered ritualistic black metal to entertaining and hammy homage to old school horror films.

I actually want to take this album seriously. But one gets the impression Black Death Cult are not as interested in any lofty artistic statement as much as they are throwing out quirky Beherit knockoff riffs and cracking in-jokes that will have a very short shelf life. So, to sum up a confusing writeup for a confusing album, we could look at ‘Devil’s Paradise’ as two albums playing in succession. One is a tedious circus of retro references mashed in with the aesthetics of arcane black metal; the other is a flawed but honest and multi-faceted attemot at ritualistic black metal that shows much promise. Sadly the melding of the two competing statements relegates the finished whole from artistry to entertainment, and I fear it will dramatically shorten the lifespan of this album’s appeal beyond the recent present.

Negative or Nothing: Drowned (2020)

The problems of a genre like depressive black metal – famed for its tedium, self-indulgence, creative limitations – are entirely self-made. Sometimes an album comes along that overcomes these limitations so elegantly yet so simply that one wonders why more people aren’t following the same path. Negative or Nothing’s latest LP ‘Drowned’ won’t blow your mind, but it will make you reconsider this maligned offshoot of black metal.

All the highly specific and specialised trappings of the genre are here. The fog of static that is the rhythm guitars. The partial clean tone that carries most of the melody and progression of each track. The supressed, incomprehensible vocals that remain ensconced in the safety of the murk. Chord progressions defined by only the slightest shift in pitch, accenting the overall glumness of the music as minor key scale runs with tiny, incremental developments unfold at an achingly slow pace before our ears. But Negative or Nothing colour these trappings with such ground-breaking techniques as key changes, shifts in tempo, and a logical melodic thread one can trace through each track.

The drums stick to fairly rudimentary rock rhythms, offering very few blast-beats along the way. But this loose foundation is fitting for the inertia of the layered guitars, which make up such a presence that a large chunk of the tone simply encases the whole in a misty atmosphere, with no discernible musical progression. But on top of this is a near constant lead guitar that guides the rest of the music through each track and – in the absence of traditional vocal lines to follow – acts as a surrogate vocalist for much of the album.

There are moments of intense repetition, where the guitar sticks with one simple refrain and repeats it with conviction, allowing the rest of the music to catch up with itself and offer a trancelike backing to this sonic rumination. From there, only the simplest of adjustments is required to pull us out of this torpor and advance the music forward; a shift in pitch, a collapse into a breakdown, a progression into a major key for an all too brief handful of bars. There are also some well-placed minimalist ambient interludes to break up the metal tracks. These provide much needed space to breathe given the imposing and relentless nature of the guitar tones deployed throughout ‘Drowned’. Not much else is required beyond some gradually rising and declining keyboard tones to space the music out, using the inherent virtues of emptiness to transition from one segment to the next, allowing the guitars are free to return with renewed conviction.

Again, none of this is rocket science, and Negative or Nothing aren’t exactly revolutionising metal with this release. But they are reimagining a very stigmatised genre in a way that could go some way to redeeming it in the eyes of many.    

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