I like the beats and I like the yelling: Sagenland, Altered Dead, Airylion

Sagenland: Oale Groond (2021)

The pastoral scene that greets us on the cover art of ‘Oale Groond’, the gentle woodwind instrumental that emerges from the speakers as we press play, all is deception. Sagenland’s debut LP quickly murders any pretence of offering an ode to tranquil days in the country with an explosion of traditional black metal with a particularly aggressive bent. The typical trappings of blast-beats and tremolo picking are frequently supplemented by sprinklings of rural life; acoustic guitars, gentle clean vocals. But these work in direct contrast to the unfiltered rage that seeps through the cracks of these tracks. The result is an album that feels like it’s being pulled in two different directions, between the historic folk influences and instrumentation, and the raw, punk gut-punch of full throttle black metal. This dichotomy can be found in Sagenland’s most obvious antecedent; Ulver’s black metal trilogy. 

The vocals in their distorted form are patchy and strained, as if they are actually causing damage to the throat that utters them. But there is an immediacy and authenticity to this performance that invokes after images of a time when musicians rendered such performances out of necessity rather than a pre-meditated aesthetic choice. The guitars make a similar offer of unfocused dualism. Taking their cues from Ulver, especially on tracks like ‘Bladval’, they cater the guitar tone towards being as raw as possible whilst still capable of articulating intricate melodic lines for the listener to follow. The result is a clear, crisp sound that lacks the aesthetic edge of more lo-fi versions of black metal, or the size and space offered by a meatier guitar tone.

But Sagenland seem aware of the missing middle in the mix as laid down on ‘Oale Groond’. This is where the bass guitar comes into its own. The majority of this album is crafted from thin tremolo picked riffs with a clear melodic character, yet the bass offers fully fleshed out counterpoint and accompaniment to this high-end veneer. At times it takes up the mantel of lead instrument. But for the most part the bass loops are kept simpler, with the intention of fleshing out the gap left by a lower end rhythm guitar, yet offering a little more activity than mere root notes. This approach has been adopted on black metal albums before – Gorgoroth’s ‘Antichrist’ for example – but it remains an underutilised technique that can open up new corridors of sonic expression for this style.

Occupying the same pitch space as the bass are the frequent appearance of acoustic guitars. There are plenty of interludes and pauses that give these folk inflections a full hearing, but often the acoustic guitar will sit beneath their distorted cousins, fleshing out the sound with simple arpeggios, resulting in a bustle of activity at the heart of this mix.

We are forced to conclude that our initial feelings of deception upon first opening and playing ‘Oale Groond’ may have been ill founded. This is still fast, raw, aggressive black metal of a bouncy melodic bent for sure. But it is littered with subtle layering and touches of folk timbre and musicality that pull this album in the opposite direction, to the slower pace of traditional agricultural communities across Europe. In that regard it is kindred to folk punk with its dichotomy of urgency and strife mixed with a yearning for time’s passage and historical progress to slow, allowing us to absorb scenes such as the one that adorns the cover art of this album. “Quaint” is not the word that black metal artists usually shoot for in critiques of their work, but there’s no denying that it applies here.

Altered Dead: Returned to Life (2021)

The new LP from these Canadian death metallers offers a bizarre accentuation of known and loved tropes within the genre. All the trappings are there; the sludgy, down-tuned guitars, the unbridled atonality, the whimsy and playfulness of the riffcraft, the nods to doom metal along the way. But all are filtered through a very post millennial pallet of exaggeration and specificity. Is ‘Returned to Life’ and entirely new beast, or is it simply tweaking at pre-existing norms? Nudging at the boundaries of death metal’s timbre range.

Well, to answer that question let’s look to the most obvious background function in this regard, the sludgy-as-fuck mix. The guitar tone is so down-tuned and swampy that it almost no longer feels like listening to a distorted guitar. It’s akin to walking through a muddy swamp and feeling the squelch of saturated slime beneath your feet. Or, maybe more appropriately, like touching rotting flesh and feeling it offer no resistance to the pressure, an upsetting mash of matter forgoing structural integrity.

Drums are rich and warm, but in the context to which they are thrown offer something that could be called clarity. The patterns and rhythms are nothing remarkable besides a consistently tight percussive pounding. But in this gooey setting they offer an olive branch of solidity to cling on to. Vocals waltz back and forth from the guttural to mid-range monstrous rasping. There is a pronounced aggressive undertone to their delivery that perfectly matches the all-encompassing, clingy, muddy tones that the guitars drench us in.   

The guitar tone itself is so bespoke that it places very real dictates on how the music actually takes shape. On the whole it’s a solid rendering of Autopsy meets Demilich. There is an undeniable groove and bounce to a lot of the riffs that gives them the old school flavour of (whisper it) “fun” that’s missing from the endemic darkness that pervades the many borders of modern extreme metal. The overall tone and atmosphere engendered is one of claustrophobia, of smothering dampness and putridity. But the playful rhythms and mid-tempo grind these tracks often settle on give a sense of revelry to this suffocation. This idea is also brought to fruition with a cover of Celtic Frost at their most urgent and punky on ‘Into the Crypts of Rays’.

When the pace picks up to a blast-beat any clarity in the guitars is lost to the inertia of the muddy tones; only with clear, staccato markers are the riffs able to retain any clarity at these faster paces. But along the way the music is also happy to settle on a doom metal breakdown, kept pleasingly brief in order to function as a moment to pause and contemplate the alienating and clammy horrors that await the next burst of speed.

So, in answer to the question “is ‘Returned to Life’ an entirely new beast?” we’ll have to come down in the negative. It feels this way because Altered Dead’s approach to revivalism draws attention to subtly different aspects of the Autopsy/Demilich brew than what many of their contemporaries offer up. This is furthered by the fact that these guys certainly know how to string some decent riffs together into a pleasing and disgusting concoction. But break down the constituents, and recover from the impact of the sludgy guitar tone after the first listen, and you have a solid rendering of death metal as we know and love it. A service to the form, but falls short of a signpost to total reformation.

Airylion: Before the Collapse (2020)

The debut from Beijing’s Airylion is a cold dose of atmospheric black metal set to the rhythmic dictates of modern doom metal. Despite the bass drum march that frames the music, the guitars orientate themselves around a structure of build and collapse. This music defines itself in terms of dynamics as much as it does melody. All is sparsity at the opening of each track, as we are greeted by a clean guitar that strums gently against the emptiness, before the loose chord progression is picked up by the distortion.

The melodies themselves play on that subdued but emotive style that is normally called “sentimental”. The simple ascending and descending chord progressions revelling in their minimalism, sometimes offering hints of counterpoint, are granted life only by virtue of the jarring contrast between quiet and loud, and the pockets of rising and falling rhythm that accompany them. Vocals follow the exact same ethos, offering intensely passionate exchanges of high-pitched screeching in contrast to some low spoken word as the music tales off once more into sleep.

This brief work offers a hint of something more sophisticated, but as it stands it suffers from the same malaise as a lot of post rock. Specifically because it trades in fragments of melody granted extended shelf life through pummelling rhythms and clattering crescendos. Once the initial theme (singular) is unpacked, Airylion do attempt to work it through some variations – subtle changes in chord progression, lead guitar harmonies – but the actual narrative remains undeveloped for the sake of these aesthetic concerns.

The opening track ‘Chase the Wind’ is easily the most developed, and attempts to drive the initial variations through some tension, some conflict. But again, we are offered a hint at what could be. And it remains a hint by virtue of being frequently interrupted for the sake of reiterating the already well documented opening theme. Kernels of quality doom-infused atmospheric black metal are present beneath the rampant sparsity and minimalism. But they remain nothing more than kernels owing to an over reliance on contrast and repetition as ends in themselves.

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