I like the beats and I like the yelling: StarGazer, Caedes Cruenta, Tedio

StarGazer: Psychic Secretions (2020)

The latter-day saints of progressive extreme metal (those that have achieved some semblance of artistic success) tend to thread an understated needle between competing styles. I’m thinking of the likes of Norway’s Execration, Sweden’s now defunct Morbus Chron (Sweven doesn’t count), and Australia’s StarGazer, whose latest album sounds more like the heir apparent to Italy’s Sadist then anything overtly contemporary. The guitars take a back seat, letting other instruments do the heavy lifting on the technical front. The style of riffing itself owe more to Slayer than anything remotely progressive. But they smuggle the idea of complexity in by frequent shifts in pitch and rhythm, whilst the riffs themselves remain relatively straightforward. It’s the bass that adopts a truly progressive metal approach with tight, intricate basslines that function as a lead instrument.

‘Psychic Secretions’ boasts a warm and crisp mix, like having breakfast next to an open fire before stepping out into a cold frosty morning, stepping on ground covered in crusty dead leaves. The guitars have that clean quality to them that benefits precision timing over any atmospheric qualities. They leave the mix wide open for us to view the playful basslines with all their complex scale runs and exploration of melodic dead ends. Despite being the star of the show, very little in the way of fruity effects have been applied to the instrument. This is to the overall benefit of the music, as the raw musicality is fleshed out enough to require very little in the way of enhancement.

Vocals are a fairly standard mid-range death growl, sometimes stooping to the guttural, other times reaching for the manic. They follow in the trend of old school death metal revivalists by adding a ton of reverb to give them that chasmic quality. In this setting the effect is not distracting, but this trend in vocal mixing is becoming predictable to the point of commonplace. Drums follow a similar philosophy to the guitars. The illusion of complexity is smuggled in under relatively simple fills and rhythmic patterns (by progressive metal standards). The playing is kept tight and dense, with frequent shifts and meanders, but each individual moment is easy enough to follow; complexity supervenes on the amalgamation of individual components.

For a work that wears its progressive and even psychedelic influences on its sleeve, ‘Psychic Secretions’ is a refreshingly unpretentious affair. The compositions are dense but avoid being needlessly complex. Brevity is a virtue in music just as in literature, and StarGazer have certainly assimilated this aesthetic rule of thumb. Each track is tight, clipped to a relatively short length, ensuring that each moment is packed with new ideas that nevertheless make sense in context. Nothing is overly technical for the sake of it. The basslines are left to carve out their own path, only minimally beholden to the push and pull of the music’s flow. They are able to take on the role of key focal point within each track, yet simultaneously fade into the background at will thanks to the understated tone of the instrument. “No-nonsense” is not the usual platitude one would call to mind in the descriptive bag of tricks needed for an album as progressive as ‘Psychic Secretions’, but it applies here in this refreshingly stripped down approach to a genre rife with sonic dead-ends and musical in-jokes.

Caedes Cruenta: Of Ritual Necrophagia and Mysterious Ghoul Cults (2021)

‘Non Serviam’ may have been a worthy follow-up to ‘Thy Mighty Contract’, but it lacked a certain panache that left one feeling gently hollowed out after each listen. The ideas were there, but the spirit remained unwilling. Twas ever thus for Greek black metal in general. Combining ancient mysticism with delicate melodies and arcane imagery proved to be such a finely honed and brittle approach to extreme metal that many could not sustain the aesthetic for more than a couple of albums. That’s not to say the divergent paths many of the artists took were terrible. Zemial successfully absorbed prog metal into playful Celtic Frost style energy with 2009’s ‘Nykta’. Vorskaath’s brother “Eskarth the Dark One” (Chris to his mates) took his project Agatus into a dignified heavy metal direction. Varathron’s return to form with ‘Untrodden Corridors of Hades’ was triumphant, but in updating the Hellenic style with a modernised sheen it normalised a certain bombastic, melodramatic variant of melodic extreme metal that jettisoned the subtle esotericism present in those early works.

Enter Caedes Cuenta. Nearly twenty years and three LPs into their career, yet they’re still relative newcomers when compared to the giants of Hellenic metal. But that hasn’t stopped these Athenians from outclassing all with their latest release ‘Of Ritual Necrophagia and Mysterious Ghoul Cults’. It may only be February, but I’ll go ahead and declare this to be album title of the year. But more importantly, this LP is the sequel to ‘Thy Mighty Contract’ that Rotting Christ were unable to furnish us with.

The production has an organic veneer that sidesteps the homogenous, overly polished aesthetic that has become entrenched within this style. Sure, this brand of epic black metal lends itself to orchestration and theatrics, but compressing the fuck out everything as so many tend to do snuffs out the nuance. ‘Of Ritual Necrophagia and Mysterious Ghoul Cults’ boasts the warm, earthy textures of a low-key old school heavy metal album. The guitar tone has an edge to it that resonates perfectly when those galloping tempos pick up. But it is still understated, with a clear focus on articulating those elegant, traditionally orientated harmonies that are a key hallmark of this style. Drums also walk the line between clarity and authenticity; no clicky kick drums pervade the mix, no throbbing tom fills. Ethereal synths provide soaring harmonies during passages of heightened drama, adding a spiritual, almost soothing overtone to the heroic energy of the guitars.

The music itself builds on the fundamentals of early Rotting Christ by extending those slow tremolo picked riffs built from traditional but endlessly engaging melodies. These are carried along at breakneck tempos, unfolding new variations and developments and recapitulations after every few bars. Then as the tempo cuts out to half the pace the guitars are able to articulate more ambitious riffs with extra moving parts, complimented by keyboard lines providing simple yet creative counterpoint. The drums’ main focus is to provide a rock-solid rhythmic foundation for this fragile ballet to play out free from needless distraction. Drummer *checks notes* “Sacrificial Executor of Ancient Macabre Worship” leaves plenty of room for expression within this restricted remit however, a testament to creativity that has no need to (literally) beat the listener over the head with needless quirks. 

The overall feel is rich with ancient mysticism, bracing heroism, stirring triumph mixed with sorrow and pathos. The joy of this music is its ability to find new corners and undiscovered spaces for sonic expression within rigidly conventional techniques. The melodies and transitions feel familiar, they enter the mind at a subconscious level. These varied yet intuitive corridors of emotive expression are not available to complex death metal or overtly minimal black metal, which tend to initially place a challenge before the listener, who then has to recalibrate their mind before absorbing the music on a primal level.

All is familiar, yet through this familiarity Caedes Cruenta open out grand narratives in sonic form. The flow of the album is able to accommodate the incremental introduction of novelty at just the right moments so as not interrupt the seamless pacing of the music. ‘Of Ritual Necrophagia and Mysterious Ghoul Cults’ establishes Caedes Cruenta as a recapitulation of a style that – whilst not in as sorry a state as some variants of extreme metal in 2021 – has been in danger of stagnation for some years now. A triumph of the traditional reharnessing the novel.

Tedio: T.H.T.M. (2020)

Costa Rican thrashers Tedio landed a new single last year. Hitting back at the polished and neatly packaged thrash of more Northern climes, this is another example of South America embodying the true spirit of old school thrash metal in its original iteration. Right out of the gate the opening track ‘Nacidos para morir’ seems to almost stumble over its own urgency in delivering their frantic message with a rhythmic urgency borrowed directly from early Exploited. This through line is then chopped up with colliding staccato atonality, only to give way to moments of fluidity with soaring, siren like guitar leads.

Vocals stick within the tradition of early blackened thrash in the likes of Pentagram and Sarcofago. They are kept relatively controlled for the sake of delivering lengthy stanzas at greater speed, each syllable matching the pounding tempos of the drums. Speaking of drums, these will frequently break the flow of the music with a few bars of blast-beating or choppy fills, forcing the guitars to shuffle the riff patterns in response.

The result is urgent and vibrant thrash metal with none of the trimmings or cheese that flooded the genre in the last thirty years. We may still be scrabbling for a gateway to originality within this brief collection of tracks. But as things stand it is early days for Tedio, and T.H.T.M. offers a promising beginning. A refreshing return to thrash at its most bracing and creative through this manipulation of a deceptively complex play of riffs and rhythm posing as the primal.

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