I like the beats and I like the yelling: Kodu, Valosta Varjoon, Wharflurch

Kodu: Unusta kõik (2021)

Unusta kõik – the debut album from the Estonian black metallers known as Kodu – is one of those albums that adopts a specific philosophy of composition, and uses this to frame the music writing process. Said philosophy is at its most explicit on the closing track ‘Laotus’. A muffled and mutated rendition of a Bach Cello Suite greets the ears, the tonality safely contained and manipulated into ordered sonic forms in this beautiful piece, only to be torn apart by dissonance and chromatic anarchy as Kodu kick in. But this apparent chaos eventually solidifies into a compositional order of its own. The takeaway lesson of all this being that dissonance works best when deployed to warp the agreed customs of traditional music writing, and not as a starting point in itself. Many of the riffs and chords progressions found on this album take a very familiar form as far as black metal is concerned, but a frequent barrage of dissonant artillery and other off kilter chord shapes throw this traditional framework off balance entirely.

The production is clear and crisp, acknowledging the fact that the riffing is angular and changeable, subject to frequent tempo changes and sudden shifts in direction that would be lost if distortion and reverb were applied too liberally. Although the guitars still embody a rawness suitable for black metal, the tone is kept sharp in order to allow for the articulation of the multiple moving parts present in each riff. Equally the drums have an undiluted quality to them; there are no thrills and no lavish reverb, the focus is placed entirely on bringing out the non-linear performance that constantly interrupts itself with unexpected fills and disorientating tempo changes. Vocals are the most conventional aspect of the overall presentation, operating with a broadly familiar black metal flavour, at once aggressive and monstrous.

The strict no-nonsense approach to the mix makes this all the more joyful to listen to. The music shows enough character and a wealth of activity to make any flashy studio trickery superfluous. Which leads to perhaps the most important observation to make about ‘Unusta kõik’; because although this sits squarely in the black metal camp in terms of presentation, this is philosophically a death metal album. The chromatic wanderings that seem to grab each track by the throat and force it into uncomfortable shapes and uneasy pattern formations, the angular, alienating attitude of the music itself, the prioritisation of the interaction between riffs over any atmospheric considerations. All are qualities one would usually favour in death metal. Maybe we should borrow a term from Mefitis and tentatively offer ‘Unusta kõik’ as a “dark metal” album.

There’s a similar project of world building at play here. Kodu prepare the ground by transitioning the listener gradually into their idiosyncratic approach to composition and arrangement, so that by the time the off kilter opening refrain of ‘Kui minna suurele teele’ rolls around we’re completely onboard, and everything Kodu does from then on seems to make sense on an intuitive level. This is complex creativity that writes its own rules as it goes along. The patient and sophisticated arrangement of song structures thwarts the agreed customs of polite society’s musical norms, but also uses these tools of destruction to create a new order and structure of its own. A triumphant debut that is both rewarding and challenging in equal measure.

Valosta Varjoon: Das Flammenmeer (2021)

The latest album from this German outfit plays a curious game with not very interesting material. In black metal terms this is about as generic as they come. But the riffs are so sparse, so skeletal, and repeated so far past their shelf life, that one wonders if these repetitions carry within them hidden artistic intent. The framework of ‘Das Flammenmeer’ is inoffensive and unimaginative melodic black metal with a punky rhythmic foundation, and a twist of black ‘n’ roll leaving a vaguely unpleasant aftertaste. But there’s a synthetic, by-the-numbers quality to the flat riffing that actually calls to mind the aggressive minimalism of Ildjarn in places.

Each track consists of rudimentary riffs cobbled together from basic chord progressions, with no melodic adornments or other hints of nuance. These are driven through a number of basic variations and developments, before the piece simply…ends, with no obvious concluding remarks. A grumbling bassline can be discerned throughout, which largely sticks to root notes. This one-dimensional, sequential approach is underpinned by the most basic of drum patterns…there’s really not much more to say about them other than fast/slow, simple fill here, crash cymbal there. Vocals do little to lift the music above this tedious demonstration of black metal at its most generic.

The problem with trying to analyse this as piece of minimal, Ildjarnist subversion is the fact that Valosta Varjoon work just enough variation and development into each piece to make one think that their intention was not directed entirely at minimalism. But equally, the conventional musical qualities that are present on this album are nowhere near interesting enough to hold the attention. Which ultimately means we are forced to conclude that this work fails both as engaging entertainment, and as a piece of avant-gardist artistry. There are moments where the same flat riff is repeated well past the dictates of good taste with zero variation, to the point where it could become compelling. Just as there are moments where Valosta Varjoon lift the music up, layer some different guitar lines over each other, work in some pleasing if largely uninteresting lead melodies. But again, neither force at either end is developed enough for us to determine the overall point.

And that, sadly, is the final observation to make of ‘Das Flammenmeer’: what’s the point? At heart all reviewers and listeners at large will approach an album by asking this question, even at an subconscious level. Usually, if the music if gripping enough, or unique enough, the question is quickly dropped in favour of more nuanced explanations of its qualities. But in the case of ‘Das Flammenmeer’ I find myself stalled at this first step. What are Valosta Varjoon saying? Why are they saying it this way? What am I supposed to be feeling? None of this is clear. And nothing has been learned. Such a conclusion is overly harsh of an album that is by no means terrible. If it was the first black metal album you ever heard it would probably grip the attention from start to finish. But this, alack, is far from the first black metal album I’ve heard. So I return once again, to asking myself, why does this album exist?

Wharflurch: Shitslime (2020)

There comes a point in every critics’ life when they find themselves dropping all pretence of objectivity. The mask slips, and they all but admit that their assessment of an album is dependent on current mental state as much as anything. Florida’s Wharflurch were in danger of becoming that release for me. If you want a survey of modern death metal riff structures and techniques, here it is (how many times have I said that), it’s a competent but unoriginal appraisal of the terrain within death metal (how many times have I said that), one cannot fault the mix of old and new influences on this EP (how many times…). It’s not better or worse than the many identical such releases I listen to in a week, but catch me on the wrong day and it may well feel more wrath for no other reason than my being in a bad mood.

But I’ll dial back the aggro some and pretend that ‘Shitslime’ is not the tenth EP I’ve heard in a similar vein this week for the sake of balance. It’s early days for this outfit, and for an EP that is essentially a brew of Wharflurch’s influences they still come out head and shoulders above many comparable releases of the recent present. The mix is meaty, with guttural vocals and a warm guitar tone. Drums are clear enough but occasionally lost beneath the muddy guitars during the faster passages. Wharflurch make frugal use of solos, relying more on the knitting together of riffs to imbue each track with animation.

Incantation seems to be the chief voice in the actual song-writing. They deploy doom segments on each track to break up the tight, percussive blasting and eke out a narrative direction to each track. This is in direct contrast to many Incantation followers who use doom as an atmospheric trait, which whilst not a detriment in itself often means that riffs are treated as an afterthought, thus losing the attention of the listener. Not so with Wharflurch, who offer a clear forward motion which extends even to the slower passages, and never overlabouring a particular tempo or refrain.

And this is probably the key reason why ‘Shitlime’ deserves a nod of recognition. The mix of riffs is something we have heard a hundred times before, but Wharflurch are constantly refreshing each piece, throwing in unexpected melodic refrains, a welcome thrash riff here, a wash of dissonance there. The sound remains pleasantly unpredictable despite the well-worn tools they are handling.

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