Bostonian experimentalists Ehnahre are joined by German drone guitarist Hellmut Neidhardt (aka N) for their latest album ‘Jacob’. It’s a lengthy hodgepodge of post hardcore, drone, ambient, and garden variety experimental offcuts. The result is another keyless foray into the limits of tone, essentially picking up where early Swans left off, supplementing the industrial elements with the passionate histrionics of Neurosis, and the unrepentant Gen X nihilism of early Earth.
Since this album is an experiment in the relationship between sounds of various intensities, with only brief moments of release that submit to the dictates of traditional rhythm, we cannot use the conventional language of music to explain whether this work stands or falls. There is a clear cross purpose that cuts the album in half; the first is the pursuit of tranquil ambience defined by monolithic swelling harmonies pivoting on swaying volumes as an expressive outlet. The second acts in direct contrast to this, characterised by urgent abrasion, where drums and hardcore vocalisations sweep away the reflective mood of the previous movement with unrestrained anguish.
Whilst such contrasts are clearly intentional, they simply don’t work. Whilst this may sound blunt, there’s no more diplomatic way to put it. There is no poetry to their development, no purpose aside from the joy of unexpected mood swings. The problem is that the moments of loose hardcore-cum-jazz experimentation a-la Painkiller are simply too domestic, too familiar, too earthbound to really stand up to scrutiny when set against the spacey drone segments. The opener ‘An Exiled King’ for example, patiently builds in the atmosphere that is at first reflective, before gradually becoming discomforting with the introduction of guitar feedback. This is a tense, well arranged piece of sound art that justifies the length it takes to reach various pitches of intensity with the painstakingly slow addition of percussion, piano, and other instrumentation.
By this point we find ourselves in a power violence track sans any rhythmic unity, as bass and drums trade blows accompanied by the pained screaming vocals. The problem is the crash down to earth this engenders after the otherworldly drone that led into it. Contrast is one of the most important tools in any arrangement, especially one that lacks melody, but here it is deployed as an end in itself, not as a tool to some higher end.
Perhaps this is the fruits of the collaboration we are hearing, the two competing musical philosophies of these artists; either way the result is an album that seems to be fighting against its own aspirations. These moments of violent juxtaposition only become more immediate and intense as the album progresses, as the musicians trade on the simple thrills of tension and release, abandoning the foundations of drone and ambience pregnant with jeopardy that were established at the album’s inception.
‘Jacob’ can boast many successes as a piece of experimental noise art. But it is ironic or just plain unfortunate that the chief downfall of this album is perhaps the fact that it is not nearly experimental enough. The moments of hardcore and power violence (and yes, the all too human vocals) domestic the process to such a degree that we are taken out of the experience. And even more ironically, I find myself turning to post rock as an example of where contrasting dynamics and tension/release trade-offs actually succeed, via the addition of traditional melodic forms. Abandoning, breaking, or surpassing old hat musical mores is only worth something if we have a direction of travel in mind. ‘Jacob’ has such a direction, but it fails to make the journey, instead favouring circular and pedestrian wanderings into post hardcore that take us no further than the 90s in terms of experimental boundaries.
Despite the aggressively power metal vibe one gets from this band’s compound word moniker, Spellforger are no Rhapsody of Fire wannabes. However, their uncanny meeting of Sarcofago and Hammerfall is about as close as blackened thrash can come to power metal without going full cloaks and swords on us. Their latest EP – ‘Upholders of Evil’ – is twenty minutes of tight, energetic, and remarkably fresh melodic thrash metal with a distinctively blackened bent to it. Much like the recent success of Demoniac’s ‘So it Goes’, Spellforger are polishing up and old form, allowing us to find new joys and new potentials in archaic forms.
The production would be fitting of a juiced up NWOBHM album. Guitars offer a razor-sharp distortion, focused towards articulating the taught, playful riffing whilst granting the lead guitar work plenty of weight and gravity. Drums offer a concise and creative battering to underlay this, but the lavish reverb applied to the snare is welcome rather than distracting. Vocals stick to commonplace thrash barks, pivoted toward percussive power over elongated notes; that being said, plenty of banshee screams emerge from the mix throughout this EP which brings an additional retro sheen to this otherwise insistently modern take on old forms.
Of the tracks themselves, efficiency if the name of the game. There is no wasted space, and no element is overlaboured for the sake of cheap statements. The riffs stick with classic thrash stylings for the most part, with a distinctive orientation toward heavy metal melodicism. And it’s this sense of melody that ultimately elevates this EP above standard old school worship. Spellforger are not afraid to pick up scraps of melodic licks from their atonal riffs and run with them to create new bridges or even entirely new segments over the course of a track. Frequent drum fills add to the frantic, eager nature of this music, like a dog fresh out of training and keen to demonstrate the many tricks now under its belt.
Spellforger display an abundance of engaging riffs; what they lack in mind-blowing originality they more than make up for with enthusiasm and sheer quantity. But more importantly on ‘Upholders of Evil’ they prove themselves adept at stitching these many ideas together in a flowing, intuitive, playful dance of energy. This EP bounds out of the stables and does not let up until the thing has run its course. It never grows tired or stale despite the fact that every moment is pregnant with unadulterated classic metal riffing, the music constantly refreshes itself in new and interesting ways that still fit with the moment that preceded it. A triumphant debut EP with bundles of character and creativity in its purest form.
Sometimes, all you need to bring together are the most boiler plate elements if the aesthetic is well and truly nailed. So it seems to be with Poland’s Nekkrofukk, whose latest album – entitled *breathes in* ‘Mysterious Rituals in the Abyss of Sabbath & Eternal Celebration of the Blakk Goat’ – is a conveyor belt of the most basic, generic, unoriginal doom metal riff fodder imaginable, that still somehow raises its head above the pack. The chief reason for this is the early Impaled Nazarene sheen the whole thing has been painted with.
A worthy demonstration of this is the track ‘Devil’s Blood Inekktion’, which hangs on a stoner doom riff of all things, but is elevated not just by Lord K.’s singular vocals, but also a delivery and mix that speaks of a total lack of shits given in regard to more discerning audiences. The guitar tone itself is meaty, well suited to the doom metal stylings this album rides on. Those aforementioned vocals are a gargled, monstrous construction that both fleshes out the mix and adds some welcome theatrics to proceedings. Drums are perhaps the flattest element of the production, with little to bolster up their overall presentation. But this shortcoming is perhaps forgivable given their clear low standing in delivering the goods of this album beyond simple time keeping.
Beyond that, all the usual trappings are there, random animal (goat) noises, church bells, spontaneous vocal ejaculations, and church organs. But those looking for a new musical journey will be sourly disappointed by ‘Mysterious Rituals…’. This is the musical equivalent of a well-made but ultimately referential b-movie cobbled together from knowing winks to other works and in-jokes for genre aficionados.
For these reasons and more Nekkrofukk are closer to figures of fun such as Acid Witch than they are a serious blackened doom affair. And as with Acid Witch, we are being asked to decide if the projects stands or falls on its own metrics of tongue in cheek fun. In this regard we must count it as a success. ‘Mysterious Rituals…’ is well made enough to avoid the pitfalls of the obnoxious or just plain clueless. There is enough substance to the music to hold the attention, and in moments lacking said substance Nekkrofukk lay out enough window dressing to keep us at least entertained.
But success on one’s own terms does not necessarily amount to success in a wider context. The aspirations can still be criticised for being overly modest, base, ultimately pointless beyond passing the time, and in creeps the knockoff b-movie analogy again. Crack out some popcorn, kick back, enjoy, this is truly music fitting of the couch dwelling culture the last year has subjected us to.