I like the beats and I like the yelling: Abigor, Valravn, Engulfed

Abigor: Totschläger (A Saintslayer’s Songbook) (2020)

There was a time when laboured artistic premeditation was the preserve of older acts, whose image and intentions were already deeply embedded in the minds of their fanbase. Beholden to the axioms of expansion, the next statement would have to be bigger, more ambitious, more novel, more thought-through than the spontaneous explosions of youthful energy. Applying such lofty demands to the fragile world of creativity is bound to have its warping effects on the creative process. Of course, nowadays, younger artists also subject themselves to these unexamined demands for ‘more’, chucking out a two hour magnum opus for a debut, or else cloaking their apparent naivety and youthful enthusiasm under a pinpoint imitation of noises long past; the by now exhausted old school revival. This revival that has in turn determined the recent direction of many older artists, as they dredge up the sounds of their youth in the quest for purpose. This complex – the persistent need to revisit and revamp the sound of ages past – could be read as a direct response to the unmeetable demands of being bigger, louder, and more ambitious with every release; a yearning for a simpler time, when music was rough around the edges, sloppy and ill produced but pregnant with possibility. However honest the intent or masterful the execution, it remains art filtered through this veneer of shallow intentions; it remains a facsimile.

Enter Austria’s Abigor, with their twelfth album ‘Totschläger (A Saintslayer’s Songbook)’. Their post 2000 work mirrors that of Mayhem, Enslaved, and many other of their fellow second wave veterans. The predisposition of the older artist, reviewing the dust now settled around their initial burst of creativity, looking for purpose where none is to be found. Given black metal’s reputation for an incestual relationship to influence and near crippling elitism, artists like Ihsashn, Ulver, and Enslaved are widely praised for simply turning away from black metal, as if they have undergone some great flowering emergence by giving up on challenging cultural norms in favour of pop rock or whatever Ulver are doing these days.

This is where Abigor’s latest release is particularly interesting. On the face of it, this is the Austrians’ magnum opus, the culmination of their work to date, and a bold, expansive, broad, ambitious work, rich with musicality and emotional expression. But dig beneath the veneer, and we find the nostalgia complex masquerading as originality all over again. Only this time Abigor are not harking back to Bathory or Sarcofago, but the odd tangents that black metal took in the early 2000s. We find riffs that would be at home on Emperor’s ‘Prometheus’, echoes of Mayhem’s ‘Grand Declaration of War’, elements of Thorns, the grandiosity of Annal Nathrakh, and the theatrics of Dimmu Borgir, and yes…early Abigor. In contrast to the plethora of other nostalgia works, which wear their historic yearnings on their sleeve and paint them as a virtue, Abigor attempt to smuggle this sonic bibliography under the guise of originality.     

Through the sleight of hand afforded by their mastery of technique, arrangement, and execution, these disconnected regurgitations of the recent past are disguised as the work of elder genius. They have largely achieved this deception via a form of sensory overload. Whilst one cannot deny the talent and labour required to pull a work of this nature off, however flawless the final product is in execution, ‘Totschläger (A Saintslayer’s Songbook)’ is nothing more than a scrapbook of the lesser visited corridors of extreme metal’s history. It may be laminated, with an artful sprinkling of glitter, but it remains a scrapbook all the same. The depth and complexity Abigor are able to work into these compositions, and the fact that they are utilising elements less visited in today’s obsession with the late 80s and early 90s, all are used to disguise the reality of this as a well made tribute to an era when black metal was desperately attempting to overcome itself.

This is made all the more interesting because the self-overcoming that black metal was undergoing in the early 2000s was defined by bolting on random influences and techniques with little regard for whether they actually fitted, or served any purpose beyond novelty. Not only is ‘Totschläger (A Saintslayer’s Songbook)’ a work of nostalgia, but the period and styles it references are defined by second rate works, born of creative exhaustion and lack of purpose in the artists that defined said era. It’s a copy of a copy. This is in direct contrast to those attempting to look at the underlying architecture and philosophy of the music itself, pursuing this with a view to orientate black metal toward an enduring purpose in the longer term. This latter being a subtler, less sexy, incremental project, requiring patience and restraint, the cheap novelties disguised as sophistication that Abigor throw together on their latest work will sadly always win out in the court of public opinion.     

Valravn: Prey (2020)

The debut album from this new Finnish outfit aspires to the non-stop intensity of Dawn’s ‘Slaughtersun’, but finds itself short on the momentum required to maintain this for a full length release. As a result they dial back the taught, precision riffcraft of their Swedish forebears in favour of a more folky, homey approach to supplement the high drama typical of this style. But to their credit, this is presented as no mere compromise, but finds itself neatly knitted into the sweeping, epic narratives that Valravn aspire to, as exhibited on tracks like ‘The Raven’, and the acoustic intro and outro that bookend the album.

Production is par-for-the-course for this style, with guitars in their rightful place dominating the mix. Bass cuts through, but not distractingly so, acting as a presence rather than a melodic entity in itself. Drums adopt a similar role, underpinning all with forensic timing and artistic expression that works in unison with the instrumental centrepieces. Vocals are an interesting concoction of hardcore stylings aspiring to fill the black metal shoes they have been forced to wear on ‘Prey’. Whilst this is not outlandish – the line between traditional black metal vocal technics and hardcore is much closer than many would have you believe – it immediately strikes the ear on first listen as an unusual creative choice for a style with such rigid parameters of technique.

Whilst Dawn strung out longform narratives from riff collections defined by their economy of notes, Valravn supplement this approach with pockets of smaller riffs and refrains articulated through lead melodies as opposed to the architecture of tremolo picking. The breakneck intensity is further supplemented by slower numbers such as ‘Conjuration’, which avoids the utter tedium that a lot of black metal is prone to when it sinks below 80bpm, with a good dollop of rhythmic shuffles and melodic articulation.

The realm of melodic blackened death metal has become a surprisingly crowded field in recent years. Surprising due to the subtleties that lurk at its heart. Superficially, it’s a samey, homogenous sonic colour palette, defined by highly formalised and ultimately limited compositional techniques. And whilst it’s certainly true that the style takes a certain headspace to fully absorb, it’s also true that there are few misses and many hits. Of course the heady days of ‘Far Away From the Sun’ and ‘Slaughtersun’ are probably far behind us, but albums like ‘Prey’ offer a reasonable simulation. Like a Wagnerian opera, the level of concentration required, aligning the rhythm of our thought processes with that of the music drains the intellect as much as it nourishes the spirit. But many promising worlds await those able and willing to commit, with potentialities far outstripping many of its sister genres for technical as well as artistic expression.

Engulfed: Vengeance of the Fallen (2020)

Turkey’s Engulfed is a name that should be commanding increasing respect in recent years. Their latest EP ‘Vengeance of the Fallen’ sees them ride the waves of Incantation circa ‘Diabolical Conquest’, an iteration of death/doom that evinces a marked sophistication over and above the aimless caverncore meanderings that have dominated contemporary airwaves. The reason for this is simple enough to state, but requires a singularity of purpose to carry off.

Engulfed collide pockets of dense, fragmented and frantic death metal with sparse open landscapes, defined by more their minimalism than the lagging tempos of death/doom. These contrasting threads are connected by the most rudimentary commonality of chord sequences or refrains, which lends a conceptual and tonal unity to these compositions lacking in many comparative works that fail to work in this underlying architecture. For this reason it should be noted that the doom elements are embedded into the essence of the music when it suits the purposes of composition, and not thrown in as an act of box ticking designed to achieve a desired aesthetic.

The more fundamental essence of this music is death metal of tension and release, energy and inertia. The compressed ideas of the faster passages are later aired out with slower riffs that accentuate the minimalism of each component; with the greater whole achieving a complexity that supervenes on the collective mass of contextualised ideas present.

‘Vengeance of the Fallen’ is not all forensically precise musical arrangements however. There are moments of calm, moments of build and collapse, with clean guitar arpeggios thrown in to truly bring out the aggression of the death metal itself. The drums provide a rock solid framework that follows every twist and turn that the guitars take. This allows the lead work, when it does manifest, to embody a more freeform approach, unshackled by the rigorous demands of the rhythm section, they patiently unfold textures and simple harmonies that add a layer of depth and aesthetic character to this otherwise mathematically precise music.

Given that Incantation have experienced a renaissance in recent years, it’s good to see an artist like Engulfed shine a light on the lesser explored elements of this enormous body of work. Unlike many of their contemporaries, who lean on the ‘what if death metal, but murky?’ crutch all too often.

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