I like the beats and I like the yelling: Amon Acid, Upon the Altar, Nathr

Amon Acid: Paradigm Shift (2021)

From Hate Meditations’ hometown of Leeds comes the new LP from Amon Acid. To call ‘Paradigm Shift’ an amalgamation of Hawkwind and Electric Wizard would be simultaneously a great disservice yet entirely true. In the literal sense, Amon Acid have taken the slow, brooding doom of Electric Wizard, which rooted its significance not so much in the power of the riffs as their deliberate rumination and repetition of atomised musical units too basic to be called themes. They have then combined this with the haze and swirl of early Hawkwind which came to be known as “space rock”; as with the hollowness of that particular cliché, Hawkwind, for all their early innovations, could never quite take their ideas beyond the hammy platitudes of late Space Age fatigue.

The point is that both Hawkwind and Electric Wizard, despite being trailblazers in their respective fields and eras, were both famously limited and limiting. Not just in and of themselves, but also in the genres they helped to shape in their own image, which were (notable exceptions aside) famously cliché ridden and formulaic.

Which is where ‘Paradigm Shift’ may be worthy of closer study. The raw components of these antecedents are all there. The droning chords fashioning the merest shadow of a groovy stoner riff, but ultimately remaining too minimal to fully “emerge”. Yet by virtue of brooding on these so deliberately, they ultimately dictate everything that follows, from the shape of the drum patterns to the entire structure of each track. Sarantis’ vocals in turn also call to mind the understated crooning of Jus Oborn, although admittedly with more raw talent in this department. Then there’s the swirl of Hawkwind style psychedelia that functions more as a series of ambient textures and colours that vary in intensity and pitch at the most basic level; trading in sensory overload as opposed to dazzling musicality.

So much for raw ontology, now for some value judgements. After the hesitant opening track proper in ‘Monarch’ – which meanders about pleasingly enough, but fails to conclude or progress anywhere memorable – things take a turn for the interesting. ‘Alien King’ pivots on some intricate harmonic minor arpeggios that determine the shape of the rest of the track, which shifts about in a way that is both absorbingly atmospheric and intellectually engaging. The addition of clean guitar – and the wise choice to leave plenty of empty space in the mix to allow for its articulation – is a welcome variant rarely taken up by stoner bands (save YOB maybe).

After ‘Alien King’ the album proceeds in a similar manner in terms of structure. Each track is built around two or three very simple ideas, shifting between them with pleasing regularity. But these are set to a constant shifting backdrop of feedback and synths that build textures gradually and deliberately, ebbing and flowing but moving in a clear upward trajectory as the track progresses. The result is a lurking tension and jeopardy behind what can sometimes be a comforting veneer in the manner of ambient music. There are moments that lack direction and dwell on a fixed point beyond its shelf-life, but by stoner doom’s standards Amon Acid are positively frugal. The finale of the closing number and title track takes a while in coming, but the listener is rewarded for their patience as the riffs compound on one another to create a sense of drama ending in catharsis.

Whatever flaws this album has are small. Over and above this it should be celebrated for raising the stakes for a genre that many have abandoned as one dimensional and out of ideas. But as is often the case, problem is not the genre but lack of vision. Amon Acid take pleasingly incremental steps into new sonic territory, not overtly experimental or abrasively avant-garde, but certainly with a character all of its own, one well worth paying attention to.

Upon the Altar: Absid ab Ordine Luminis (2021)

Primitivism as a musical quality can be deceptively difficult to master. The conviction with which someone like Blasphemy approached it was lightning in a bottle; oft imitated, little understood. The compelling and intricately pre-meditated abrasion of ‘Transylvanian Hunger’ required a deeper understanding of where the true spirit of black metal was heading, one that few grasped at the time, and fewer still replicated with any success. The bizarre discography of Iljdarn makes primitivism profound through sheer tunnel vision and singularity of purpose; that, and a vast quantity of work all in the same vein makes Ildjarn style pimitivism worthy of academic study in itself.

Then there’s those that curate their primitivism. They know all the tricks, all the techniques, and publicly commit to this philosophy, resulting in music as performance art; impressive, but a facsimile, hollow at its core. I’m thinking of Teitanblood or Bone Awl as obvious examples of this. Which leads us on to Poland’s Upon the Altar. Their debut album ‘Absid ab Ordine Luminis’ displays many of the qualities found in this latter category of primitive metal, but there is something to this album that carries it above performative primitivism into something more interesting.

Whereas Teitanblood collect together fragments of riffs, order them in the most illogical way possible and cut them with random vocal ejaculations; one gets the sense that Upon the Altar really did intend this music to be recognisable as music. There are touches of USBM in Demoncy and early Havohej, some bombastic aggression in the manner of Slaughtbbath. But the guitar tone is so muddy, so ill defined, that even the slightest hint of subtlety to the riffs is completely buried. Even the rhythmic qualities to the guitars are lost to this singular, unbroken tone, one that shifts up and down pitches at varying intervals. Whether intentional or no, the effect is compelling enough.

The snare sound is weak and raw, offering a tentative rhythmic patter beneath the grind. This is in direct and jarring contrast to the bass drum, which is rich, but contains a trace of the clickiness found in overtly digital mastering. Vocals narrate their own path, a demonic law unto themselves, only loosely following the structural dictates of the music they are set to. Guitar leads offer nothing in the way of melodic articulation. They function more as mini noise experiments couched within these tone collections.

The reason ‘Absid ab Ordine Luminis’ stands out amongst other works reaching for an overt expression of the primitive is the simple fact that it looks like it was meant to be music in a way that Teitanblood never did. This album sounds like it began with Upon the Altar sitting down to write music together, constructing riffs and building ideas together. Then in the actual execution something went very wrong or very right depending on where you’re standing. They may have started out with the intention of making raw, intense, ritualistic black metal. But somewhere along the way – either in brewing the effects banks or in the mastering of the final recordings – the musical components dropped out of the picture entirely.  When the music slows down, for instance on the track ‘Mortuus est Rex’, it feels like we’re witnessing a rusty car being taken for its final drive as pieces fall away, and the whole collapses into something no longer functional as a car, or even a piece of machinery. It becomes a representation of the very edge of sanity, the edge of an experience we can only hope to give names to. And this, ultimately, is what draws the ear to ‘Absid ab Ordine Luminis’ over other more curated attempts at the diffuse notion of the primitive.

Nathr: Beinahrúga (2021)

There’s something so fundamentally stirring about a single distorted guitar working through a loosely knitted chord progression, emerging from a setting of miscellaneous ambient noise, that no matter how formulaic this opening gambit is, it never gets old. So begins the story of Nathr’s debut EP ‘Beinahruga’, both in literal terms and as an indication of how this Norwegian outfit approach their chosen subject matter of funeral doom. A generic, cliché ridden tour of achingly slow black metal that is nevertheless able to translate these all too familiar wanderings into the illusion of the “new”.

Nothing on these four tracks will not come as a surprise to anyone well versed in the ways of funeral doom and black metal with their closely intertwined history. Simple, reverberating guitars work with conventionally depressive minor chord progressions, gaining significance by the slowness at which they unfold each idea. Drums set the tempo at the very limits of the perceptual present: the experiences and sense data that the mind organises into what is commonly called “now”. In this setting, rhythmic techniques take on new qualities and significances within the mind of the listener. For instance, a drum fill is not so much a shuffling of beats designed to make the rhythm more engaging and less predictable so much as it is an ambient quality; something that lends greater textural weight and depth to specific moments. The same goes for the crash cymbals that are sometimes used in a metronomic sense, other times to bolster up the tone of the harsh guitar tone.

Atop this simplest of frameworks are gentle synth tones that again act more as textural flourishes than they do melodic indicators. Vocals stick with a generic black metal style. Although they don’t add anything noteworthy in raw musical terms, they do humanise the music, adding emotional weight and significance to an otherwise relatively sparse dance.

Each track represents a variation on this basic formula; a variation on a theme if you will. But there is a logical progression that works through the ordering of the tracks themselves. They gain greater specificity as time passes, with the opening number and title track being the most generic but also the most accessible (in the present context at least). By the time track three ‘Into the Void’ rolls around we have a clear articulation of a single idea. The music has homed in on its goal. It has reached a point where it is essentially an elongated crescendo made up of only the most minimal shifts in pitch, and a greater focus on the urgency of the vocals. This gives way to loose ambience, and the ultimate despair in the abrasion of closer ‘Vado Mori’. Again, all fairly generic tricks as far as this style is concerned, but Nathr exhibit a notable mastery of said tricks to refashion the old into the new.

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