I like the beats and I like the yelling: Blessed by Perversion, Transilvania, Exsul

Blessed by Perversion: Remnants of Existence (2020)

The latest album from Greece’s Blessed by Perversion is an interesting cocktail of fairly standard death metal riffage that has been given a new lease life thanks to the commentary of melodic riffs borrowed from their black metal countrymen. In fact, the riffs with a more overt death metal flavour are kept deliberately primitive, to the point where they act as little more than percussive interludes set in contrast to the complex tremolo picked meanderings that makes up the real bulk of these tracks. The result is an interesting hybrid that looks like a death metal album cut from the usual template of the modern style, but manages to smuggle in degrees of subtlety beneath this deceptive veneer.

The production in part explains this. All is clear, crisp, digitally precise, with clicky double-bass drums and the same guitar tone we’ve heard a hundred times before on modern death metal albums. But credit where it’s due, the bass can be clearly heard thundering away beneath the meaty mix, and this instrument is given frequent moments to shine as it announces the next passage whilst the other instruments pause for breath. Vocals are low but not quite guttural by death metal standards, with clarity retained to discern some of the lyrics within the fray. Understated keyboards make regular appearances, following the chord sequences of the guitars. Again, although the literal application of subtle synth tones is nothing noteworthy, it adds an interesting layer of ethereal mysticism to this otherwise mechanical operation, elevating the music above simple metrics of brutality and rhythm into something with a distinctive character.

Generic production values aside, the playing and arrangements are executed flawlessly. The drums consistently refresh the guitars, framing or interrupting the flow of each track as required. They are able to jump from fluid blast-beats to accenting the percussive punch of the basic death metal passages, further accenting the contrast between the two. The guitars themselves exhibit a similar compulsion to throw out moments of soaring melody at unexpected junctures, forever linking this back to the dirty death metal soil from whence it came. It’s an interesting push and pull of primitivism contrasted with regal harmonic tendencies that elevates this album above the polished, mass-production qualities of the general presentation.

One other thing to note is the scarcity and briefness of the solos (with the exception of the epic closing number ‘Within Monumental Chaos’). Whilst solos in themselves are only as good as the execution and placement within a piece, it is noteworthy that Blessed by Perversion largely shun them as a creative tool. Deciding instead to spend their creative energies in carefully crafting these riffs toward a culmination in their own right. Any heightened drama and chaos that solos can add is almost an afterthought for this band; a ‘nice to have’ but not by any measure necessary.

But taken as a whole ‘Remnants of Existence’ is a work that takes the rudiments of modern death metal at its most generic and moulds them into a sophisticated compass of melodic and rhythmic interplay. By borrowing the bracing theatrics of Greek black metal, chunks of Finnish death metal, and a tight imaginative rhythm section ultimately elevates this release into something more enduring than at first appears.

Transilvania: Of Sleep and Death (2021)

We find a solid work of melodic blackened thrash metal in Transilvnia’s second LP ‘Of Sleep and Death’. Fresh out of Austria, more than usual for this style the ‘blackened’ riffs are clearly segmented from the ‘thrash’ riffs. Usually one would find the techniques of one informing the other, either melodically or rhythmically, resulting in an integrated whole. But in ‘Of Sleep and Death’ we receive something of a whistle stop tour of the history of riffage; a bracing montage of sounds clips. Although the tracks offer less fluidity and oneness than their peers as a result, there is still plenty to enjoy in the music of Transilvania.

The production is pleasingly rough, retaining the perfect amount of clarity to detail the layers carried within each riff for the listener’s benefit. The drums – cold cymbalogy aside – are relegated to a low, dull thud with little decay on the snare. Although the resulting thud is perfectly audible, allowing us full view of the patterns and fills of the performance, it makes the snare and toms almost indistinguishable, limiting the expressive range of this instrument. The guitar tone is fairly standard for melodic black metal; crisp, clear distortion with limited bass frequencies, granting the riffs power and clarity whilst retaining that cold edge. And the story is much the same with the vocals, walking that line between a tone that will do justice to the technical flair, yet retaining an edge of rawness to keep things dangerous.

But the inescapable fact is that ‘Of Sleep and Death’ is a good album that still manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. It’s not a “great”. The reason is the Frankenstein’s monster approach to song writing. It’s one of the reasons critical darlings such as Horrendous or Skelethal always miss their mark. Transilvania don’t sink quite as low as these pillars of mediocrity however, there are many refrains and link riffs that stitch these tracks together into something approaching a unified entity. But that doesn’t prevent these tracks from occasionally revealing their own schizophrenia. Melodic thrash riffs meet passages lifted from latter-day Immortal, only to thunder into offcuts from ‘Far Away From the Sun’, all in the space of thirty seconds. Moments of fluid blast-beats are unceremoniously cut short by bouncy rhythms with no logical lead in. As a result, the listening experience is one of montage rather than a flowing, sonic journey.

The patient is not terminal however. Transilvania certainly know how to string out some riffs with character and purpose. We are still invited into their own little world and enjoy inhabiting it over the album’s runtime. But cracks do become clearly visible if inspected too closely, which sadly relegates ‘Of Sleep and Death’ to days of “nothing better to listen to” as opposed to a session we would savour with relish.  

Exsul: Exsul (2020)

The overwhelming heat of the Arizona desert is a powerful muse. Exsul are one of those outfits so keen to create an immersive vibe that one cannot help extrapolating meanings and interpretations that take us well beyond the bounds of a traditional analysis of music theory. Their self-titled debut EP is twenty plus minutes of crushing death doom formed from a guitar tone so meaty, so down-tuned, that it places very real limitations on the technical and expressive range of the instrument. This of course is entirely deliberate on the part of Exsul. The tone, atmosphere, the overall vibe is far more important than a complex interplay of riffs. We are left to asign subjective signifiers and philosophical intentionality to the resulting fuzz.

What riffs that are present fly by in all their atonal, droning glory. Set to the simple rhythmic interplay of clattering drums, sometimes funereally plodding along, other times forcing the overweight guitars onto a d-beat treadmill for a couple of passages. The drums also wallow in bass heavy tones, with the snare relegated to a low-end thudding to solidify the inertia of each thundering chord. Exsul supplement the ultra-primitive death metal riffs with hints of heavier stoner doom, further encasing this music in a wash of aesthetics and surface structures over complex compositions. As if furthering this idea, guitar solos offer little more than screeching fretboard murder to heighten certain moments of chaos and extend the textural pallet beyond a simple push and pull of thundering guitars and guttural vocals. Brief passages of clean guitars break up the wall of sound, offering welcome breaks of emptiness that nevertheless unsettle.

Simplicity can be a powerful weapon. One can use it to frame a statement based on atmosphere and tone rather than a complex interplay of harmony and rhythm. Exsul don’t go so far as to abandon structure and form entirely, but their aesthetic choices have directly informed the way these songs are arranged. Much like Winter or diSEMBOWELMENT, they seem fixated on the fundamentals as a source of artistic weaponry, to the point where it becomes almost compelling in its lack of dimensions. A cavern of singular intent and meaning, swallowing all thought and sense of future as it enwraps us.

Paysage d’Hiver may not be the first artist that comes to mind as a point of comparison for Exsul, but their methods and intent remain similar. They both spend their creative efforts in crafting the perfect vibe before inviting the listener to ruminate on it. They both limit the musicality in favour of bespoke guitar tones and washes of reverb to consume every element of the sound, leaving no bandwidth for raw technicality. It’s akin to an incredibly specialised form of life that has become master of one very specific craft or means of survival. Admirable, compelling to observe, but brittle and resistant to adaption. With a single EP to go on, it’s too soon to tell with Exsul if they really are resistant to adaption however, but on that basis we can be sure that they are masters of doing that one thing with ease.

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