I like the beats and I like the yelling: Mefitis, Gjoad, Hate Forest

Mefitis: Offscourings (Out 30th January on Hessian Firm)

Listening to Mefitis is like looking through a window to an alternative timeline. We are transported back to 1994 to re-witness history as it could (or should) have unfolded. Perhaps a bit of background is in order. If we read the story of death metal from around 1985 to 1994 in terms of increasing chromaticism, it could be argued that this plays out in microcosm the tension that occurred within 19th Century Western classical music. Throughout the Romantic period, the likes of Brahms and Wagner were distinguished from the Classicism of Mozart by the ever greater flirtations with chromaticism; music became increasingly unshackled from key and meter. This process of entropy – which came to a head in the 20th Century with composers like Schoenberg – led many to lament music’s increasingly ambiguous direction. If the key is unclear so is the intent, masked behind chromatic meanderings, tritone play, and rhythmic confusion. What are we supposed to be feeling? What is the music saying? But many argued that bending and eventually breaking these rules of tonality opened up new corridors of artistic and sonic expression.

Although not as formally documented, this drama played out in the first decade of death metal’s existence; as does the drive toward entropy in any musical cosmos. Albums like ‘Altars of Madness’, ‘Legion’, ‘Nespithe’, and ‘Slumber of Sullen Eyes’, whilst superficially enhancing the extremity and intensity of what came before, were further distinguished by increasingly complex layers of ambiguity. Whether chromatic or atonal, they created new tonal worlds within metal, inviting the listener into novel musical landscapes that existed on their own terms. These artists were crafting music with its own unique language, unshackled from the traditional dichotomies of major and minor key, and all the direct emotional responses that supervene on this simple bipolar interaction.

But the 1990s were an odd decade for metal. The project of ambiguity and the new worlds it could unlock was abandoned before it could reach fruition. Those that didn’t succumb to the pressures of fast changing mainstream trends or the overtly technical and progressive offshoots of death metal threw in the towel. This is where Mefitis come in. Their first album ‘Emberdawn’ released in 2019 offered a window into a history that could have been. It was rightly praised for its maturity and fully formed character – rare attributes in a fledgling debut – which planted its flag of independence and clear artistic intent as a challenge to the shallower whims of their contemporaries. We’ve had the best part of two years to become better acquainted with ‘Emberdawn’, to delve into its many complexities and hidden corridors, each listen revealing new layers and nuances. But in the current climate of OSDM revival obsessionists such as Tomb Mold or Blood Incantation, the overarching thing that strikes me about ‘Emberdawn’ is how Mefitis adopted the project of OSDM on a philosophical level, whilst articulating this through a style that is very much their own. One can spot the commonalties with more overt homages to classic death metal, but ‘Emberdawn’, because of those all-important tonal ambiguities, exists in its own universe.

Which leads us on to 2021’s ‘Offscourings’, coming out on Hessian Firm this month. Following an album like ‘Emberdawn’ is no mean feat. Do you repeat the winning formula? Do you rip it up and start again? Do you water it down in the hope of attracting a wider audience? Well, in the case of Mefitis, you build on this hard-won foundation, and learn to become more comfortable with the potentialities found within the pre-existing framework. ‘Offscourings’ expands on specific elements of ‘Emberdawn’, nudging at the boundaries of the expressive range found therein; it takes more risks, offers more in the way of dynamics and musical tangents, but there remains a clear underlying continuity between the two albums.

First let’s deal with some basics. The production is far more immersive here, I would say it’s almost cinematic. Mefitis have added a greater dynamic range to the guitars, as well as many clean tones and even acoustic guitars, see ‘Sonstead Blight’ for example. Vocals also display greater expressive freedom, with the mid-range growls venturing further up and down pitches, bolstered by some clean chanting and choral effects in the background, see ‘Meridian Artefact’ for example. Drums boast a richer and more organic sound. The overall impact is heavier, but enough clarity is retained for us to bear witness to the three-dimensional interplay between this rhythmic core and the complex push and pull of the unfolding riffs. Mefitis – having clearly found their feet – are now keen to push at the boundaries of their sonic territory, drawing our attention to their idiosyncratic relationship to tone and key. Synths, and a broader range of guitar effects are deployed during some of the more alienating passages to enhance this effect.

Ambiguity is not an end in itself. Many artists mess with key, rhythm, tempo, instrumentation, all in order to throw the listener off balance. But if these things are treated as the only worthy goal, the result is often an unfocused collection of unrelated chunks of music theory, thrown together for fans to feel like they have acquired some esoteric knowledge inaccessible to the plebs. What sets Mefitis apart in this regard is the internal logic of their compositions. They use many of the same tools as their contemporaries, but one can hear the thought that has gone into constructing these pieces around an underlying structure, one that makes sense within the context of this music. For that reason the way each track unfolds in many directions, twisting and turning in ever shifting forms and patterns, all this feels intuitive despite its unpredictability and the rich layers running in parallel to one another. Like revisiting a long lost dream, this is a completely alien landscape we nevertheless feel well acquainted with.

Ambiguity, channelled through chromaticism, can only open the door to these uniquely expressive sonic corridors. In order to walk through this door and reveal new possibilities, new and completely novel forms of sonic communication, all require rigorous musical structures. In turn, these structures dictate the interaction and interplay of each riff, both tonally and rhythmically. ‘Offscourings’ shares many common threads with ‘Emberdawn’, yet it massively expands upon the ideas and potential expressive range of Mefitis, and raises the stakes for what this artist is capable of. It is at once utterly unique, whilst managing to pick up the loose threads of death metal from yesteryear – as it was at its apex in the early 1990s – and forces it to reach for something beyond what it previously achieved. This is a reclamation of the truly distinct compositional techniques many earlier artists were hinting at but never quite managed to bring to fruition by 1994. The true OSDM revival is the fulfillment of its promise in ‘Offscourings’. A far more worthy and lasting project than the pale imitations offered by OSDM revivalist acts.

Gjoad: Samanōn (2020)

The covert art adorning black metal albums typically falls under four different categories. There are those that depict symbols, such as Gorgoroth’s ‘Antichrist’. There are those featuring the band members in various states of undress and corpse paint, as in any Immortal album excluding ‘At the Heart of Winter’. There are paintings of fantasy scenes, castles or landscapes…such as Immortal’s ‘At the Heart of Winter’. And lastly there are those grainy black and white photos of churches, or trees, or various woodland landscapes, such as the output of any bedroom black metal project from the 2000s.

Speaking of the 2000s, these time-honoured traditions for decorating albums was called into question throughout that decade. This shift occurred alongside stylistic ones within the music itself. The atmosphere, intent, mood, and overall sonic philosophy was lifted out of its metallic context, and placed alongside post rock and other indie genres, and with this gradual taming of the beast came a change in cover art. The grainy photos and paintings of foreboding natural landscapes were coloured in; an innocuous act at first glance. Gone are the grainy, thrice photocopied photos of a church. In are the lavish landscapes and deep, rich shadings of a Caspar David Friedrich.

I mention this in relation to Gjoad’s debut album ‘Samanon’ simply to draw attention to the agenda I’ll be taking towards this album. Facetious maybe, but necessary. Musically speaking, this is a post rock album, with some very quiet hints at Warduna on the opening number ‘Rouh – Samanon’, combined with the stop start pacing of latter-day Earth offerings. Gentle guitar arpeggios work their way through simple, meandering passages, these are gradually disciplined by the drums into a crescendo of sorts, which relies on toms and ride cymbals to gently build and breakdown the momentum of each piece. Other instruments make appearances throughout to ornament this central framework; a distorted and acoustic guitar, spoken word narration, various horns and percussion instruments also make an appearance.

Like a lot of recent neofolk, the music of this Austrian outfit remains orientated toward the aesthetics of black metal, with the usual trappings of blast-beats and tremolo riffs surgically removed. But as a result, it suffers from the same shortcomings common to a lot of black-metal-adjacent neofolk. Or maybe ‘shortcomings’ is too brash, a more fitting word would be ‘limitations’ perhaps, because – and let’s be right about this – ‘Samanōn’ is a rich, immersive selection of sound colourings that immediately enwraps the listener in its chosen moods and vision. The limitation stems from the fact that not much happens after that. Now, clearly I understand that this is the general intent. The tectonically slow cycles of nature, the tranquil pastoral scenery, the underlying majesty that reminds us how small and temporary our lives are. All are brought forth distinctively within this mood music.

But one senses a missed opportunity once this overall theme has been set up. There is no impetus to take us on a journey or tell us a story about these natural artefacts in the way that a Tenhi or a Wardruna would. We are left, much like Ildjarn’s ‘Landscapes’, to sit and stare at the…landscape, as a static vessel absorbing the universe without ever acting upon it. ‘Samanōn’ is all passive reaction with no force motivating it. Any moments of strife, drama, of motion, patiently and expertly built up by these musicians are heartlessly cut short without reply, leaving more of the same in its wake. The rich colours and shades of the cover art – set in direct contrast to traditional black metal of a similar atmospheric intent – are a deception. There are no layers, there is no activity, no possibilities. Only one, timeless vista to absorb.

Hate Forest: Hour of the Centaur (2020)

Roman Saenko – probably the most prolific metal artist to come out of the Ukrainian scene – dropped a new Hate Forest album under the radar late last year; 2020’s ‘Hour of the Centaur’. Aside from ‘Those Once Mighty Fallen’, the underwhelming split EP in collaboration with an anonymous individual working under the Ildjarn moniker, this is the first we’ve heard of Hate Forest for fifteen years.

This has always been the most promising of Saenko’s projects. All of Hate Forest’s previous efforts have boasted a quintessentially grey atmosphere, arising from minimalist yet well thought out chord progressions that stick predominantly to the tremolo philosophy. The guitar tone attempts to strike that balance between aggression, or a physical act done to the listener, and immersion, a welcoming, inviting, absorbing sound. This dichotomy, combined with the lower death metal vocal stylings always gave Hate Forest an immediately identifiable sound.  

But somehow they never made it over the line, never grasped that intangible but oft meditated on factor that elevates a work from an object of intrigue into something enduringly artistic. And so, with little aplomb and no burning desire for this project to be resurrected, ‘Hour of the Centaur’ dropped suddenly into our laps to round off the rather trying year that was 2020. And what an unexpected boon it turned out to be.

I’d like to take a second and compare it Winterfylleth’s ‘The Reckoning Dawn’. Although the output of both artists is entirely different, there are some pronounced similarities in intent. They both offer a style with potential, but one that never quite hits the mark. They both offer an interpretation of black metal rooted very much in nationhood and identity as well as reverence for the natural landscapes of their respective countries. And they have both recently released albums that offer almost nothing new in terms of technique or style, that have both somehow managed to shine a completely new light on their purpose. Reenergised, reinvigorated, this is their older work on steroids.

‘Hour of the Centaur’ offers a completely new perspective and ethos to the Hate Forest template. This point is all the more remarkable given that Saenko has not really changed his central formula. The riffs follow the same format, although the guitar tone is beefed up and the chord progressions a little more urgent. The drums also offer the same basic shifts from blast-beats to galloping rhythms underpinned by pounding double-bass. But again, aside from the obvious tweaks in production – the fatter mix, the fleshed-out layers in the arrangement, greater clarity – the Hate Forest sound is still much as it ever was. Minor key chord progressions fly by with a sense of energy and purpose, made up of small variations and inversions that, when taken together, give this music a sense of grim urgency and foreboding; an imposing and all-encompassing atmosphere.  

There is certainly a greater degree of complexity underpinning many of these riffs. One can distinguish the basic counterpoint and layers that each one is composed of, something afforded by the clearer production values. But taking a wider view, from the perspective of the interaction and accumulation of riffs on each track, we do notice a more well thought-out and engaging structure at work beneath the varnish. Each riff either provides a commentary on the preceding passage, or ushers in a new development section before returning to the original motif. These subtle yet easily identifiable additions to the Hate Forest sound are what really pushes this album above previous Hate Forest offerings. This point is also entirely independent of the bolstered presentation of ‘Hour of the Centaur’. It’s certainly true that the enhanced production values give us a clearer view of the mechanics of each riff and its interaction within the wider piece. But the real story of this album is one of Saenko applying his sonic paintbrush to add minimal dashes of colour and shade, bringing the canvas to life, elevating it into a work of compelling artistry as opposed to the mere pleasing wallpaper that makes up the vast majority of the Hate Forest catalogue prior to this release.

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