I like the beats and I like the yelling: Plague Weaver, Cisza, Coffin Mulch

Plague Weaver: Ascendant Blasphemy (2021)

‘Ascendant Blasphemy’ is the debut LP from this Canadian outfit. It’s a forceful mix of cyclical Rotting Christ style riffs, with the oppressiveness of early Samael, and some riffs even reaching all the way back to Celtic Frost in their relentless and dronelike qualities, as if they being dragged along unwilling by the dictates of the rhythm section. Conventional minor key melodies come up against the raw atonality of older riff styles in a concoction that is both a single-minded assault on the ears, whilst managing to constantly refresh itself, avoiding stagnation despite deviating little in tone or mood from start to finish.

It’s a rare thing to say in the context of my usual take on extreme metal albums at large, but it’s the vocals that make this one. Each line has been recorded over at least two tracks, sometimes more, with each take being set at roughly the same pitch. The effect is similar to Deicide’s first album, whereby the delivery seems to collapse before our ears, emanating from a person whose individuality is breaking apart, with dual or multiple demonic entities taking over from the single, unified self. The vocals themselves are pitched at the mid-range, sometimes veering toward lower, guttural growls, but always with each vocal track following roughly the same route through the music, which again contributes to this off-kilter, deranged delivery.

The reason we need to make so much of the vocals on ‘Ascendant Blasphemy’ is partly down to the intriguing layering technique that has been applied to them, but also because they are pretty much a constant throughout the course of this album, with very few passages of extended, raw instrumentation. That’s not to say the music itself is limited. It veers from mid-paced blast-beats defined by their simple but classically formed melodic shapes and slow, doom passages of droning chords that provide waves of energy for these despondent lead melodies to surf on. The vocals will then follow a similar pattern, either tunnelling through the faster passages with elongated notes sustained through this multifaceted attack, or else raining down aphorisms as if from a podium over these ponderous, marching passages of martial old school metal straight from the book of Samael.

The slower passages are directly contrasted with galloping rhythms which take on a more purposeful melodic flavour, colliding mid-paced tremolo picked riffs with the intermittent cannon fire of tom rolls. There are small respites from the onslaught, as with the track ‘Lay Fire’, which sees the drums cut out for a brief period, allowing the guitars to work through some simple, clean arpeggios. But the one constant through it all is these persistent, multi-layered demonic vocals. In other hands this technique may have come over as obnoxious or distracting, but here they are masterfully worked into the overall tone of the music to enhance the oppressive qualities of this delicately poised concoction. And for this reason Plague Weaver can get away with a near constant vocal delivery as an important avenue of articulation, enhancing the music’s expressive range. This makes for a subtly innovative release that reopens the door to untapped potentials within distorted vocal techniques, which are often thought to be a needles limitation in extreme metal, but here they are both used to great effect and act as an asset that elevates the overall impact of the finished work.

Cisza: If it is True What the Prophets Write (2017)

Casting the trawler net to the very limits of the recent present (all the way back to 2017 to be precise) occasionally dredges up some worthy specimens, like this EP from Poland’s Cisza: ‘If it is True What the Prophets Write’. Loosely described, this is a polished, cathartic piece of metal, aesthetically sitting in the black metal camp, but compositionally drawing liberally from heavy metal and even elements of melodic/progressive rock in places. There is a bounce and pomposity to these tracks that some would call almost whimsical.

The first half of the EP is defined by the usual trappings of black metal, replete with blast-beats and plenty of tremolo riffing. The chord progressions patiently unfold in lengthy melodic through-lines that take their time to resolve, stingy on transitions, but generous in grandiosity. But in context, these extended passages fashioned from simple chord progressions are then supplemented by rich melodic lines. These will either interrupt the onward progression of the music with a clean solo guitar passage that signals the next phase or transition, or else through delicate lead guitar work that jumps out of the rhythm section, making use of some atypical scales for black metal in the process; this is where the proggy side coming into play.

These elements take on a greater role as the EP progresses and the black metal techniques gradually drop out in favour of melodic heavy metal riffing. Running parallel to this are the vocals which, although not sung in the clean “metal crooner” style, certainly display a melodic dimension. This a common technique of folk metal bands on the borders of black metal, but here the mix of harsh distortion diluted by a clarity and richness that is able to harmonise with the guitars adds a subtle avenue of emotional expression into the mix; and brings this music much closer to heavy metal in overall presentation.

The impact of all this is a concoction of catharsis running parallel to whimsical rock. Black metal is a broad church these days, but in its purest form it tends to offer one very distinct mood and tone over the course of an entire album. But Cisza – while certainly making use of many of the raw techniques of traditional black metal – jump between urgent yet thoughtful passages of melodic metal into moments of fragility beset with mourning, to the melancholy pop rock of the closing track ‘Entering the Flames of the Ancient Gods’, which is replete with catchy hooks, tonally ill-fitting when compared with the more metallic tracks that preceded it. So I guess my lukewarm “take” would be that IIITWTPW is a heavy metal release that makes use of a black metal aesthetic.

Another reading could be that this is another contemporary attempt to broaden the emotional range of black metal, by bringing it closer to the playfulness of heavy metal. Cisza’s reading of this comes over as creative, if a little unsure of its identity at times, yet nowhere near as obnoxious as many similar endeavours in this field. The blending of styles and moods can work well in the right hands, and considering the broad range of reference points that Cisza draw upon for a short EP they do a good job of marshalling them into a compact and varied story. This is a debut EP however, and a different approach can sometimes take time to hone, so it will still be worth watching what this act does next to see if they are able to group some of the adjacent but unconnected elements of their music into a more unified and purposeful work on subsequent releases.

Coffin Mulch: Septic Funeral (2021)

In the vast and ever expanding universe of guitar effects, whether applied liberally or frugally to enhance and diminish certain aspects of a riff, the iconic buzzsaw tone is a pretty cumbersome beast. Stumbled upon almost by accident all those years ago, it tends to bluntly dictate the terms of composition more than other guitar effects, to the point where it places very real limitations on the kind of metal one can actually write whilst still achieving a degree of clarity. This in part explains the endless d-beat or d-beat adjacent death metal being put out by the buzzsaw’s loyal bannermen; rhythmic or melodic complexity is not its strong suit. In the wider context of old school revivalism of the last decade, the Swedish style has been a key flashpoint that has seen the buzzsaw tone become part of the furniture in modern death metal for better or worse.

Which brings us to Glasgow’s Coffin Mulch. On first reading their latest EP ‘Septic Funeral’ is yet another foray into this already pretty limiting territory from both a compositional standpoint and from an expressive point of view. Slap some half-baked Autopsy riffs together, cut it up with some clumsy d-beat passages, guttural vocals pontificating on gore and dirt, job’s a throbber.

That’s a surface level reading of this EP in any case. But one gets the sense that Coffin Mulch are reaching for something a little more sophisticated, and are either held back by the limitations of this guitar tone, or are deliberately not showing us too much leg in order to leave us wanting more. For the most part the tempo of these tracks is relatively slow. The greater chunk of this EP is broaching death/doom territory both in terms of tempo, but also in the patient layering of riffs that articulate a distinctive droning quality; these are then complemented by simple but effective guitar leads that cut through the mulch like a knife, providing a much-needed extension of this music’s tonal palette.

Many of the riffs seem bent on creating an atmosphere or mood as opposed to a simplistic and raw ear bludgeoning. And this point also applies to the way the vocals have been mixed. They are deep and guttural, but have a punky punch to them reminiscent of Petrov. They are set fairly distant in the mix, bottoming out the sound with excessive reverb. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before, but in a world beholden to the dictates of this iconic buzzsaw guitar tone, the vocals take on a much needed atmospheric quality, adding an additional layer of immersion for the listener to bury themselves in.

The real takeaway from ‘Septic Funeral’ is the hay one can make with these very basic tools. None of the riffs will blow your mind, the overall atmosphere is one we have heard a million times before. But through some simple yet imaginative tweaks to the way the riffs compound on one another, effective layering of guitar leads, and some much needed rhythmic diversity, the end result manages to hold the attention for far longer than many operating on similar territory to Coffin Mulch.

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