Today I’d like to look at two shining examples taken from different traditions within underground metal. In particular how they both tap into what’s commonly referred to as the “spirit of metal”, despite their stylistic and thematic divergences. One is taken from the fantastical and occult backdrop of the Lovecraftian mythos, which finds its voice in metal through riff traditions that attempt to imitate the complexity of the beings described in Lovecraft’s stories. Thus these themes are articulated not just through the lyrics and overall presentation but also in the angular, alienating quality to many of the riffs, designed to cut across the fluidity and linear motion that pedestrian listeners are accustomed to. The other is from the grounded world of war and politics, human strife and suffering, and finds its articulation in the straightforward gut punch of thrash metal primarily.
In comparing these differing goals and outlooks, we get to the heart of the philosophy of extreme metal insofar as it can be said to have a unified world view. From differing ends of the spectrum of influence and thematic preoccupations we arrive at music of a very similar ethos. Both attempt to transcend expressing merely personal experience through music, reaching for the wider currents of history and the universal human condition for inspiration.
Shub Niggurath – as the name suggests – were a Lovecraftian death metal outfit from Mexico. Whilst most of us in the North Atlantic axis understand Mexican death metal by way of The Chasm, this is a very different entity. Although their output was scant in their 90s iteration, the full length they did manage – 1997’s ‘The Kinglike Celebration (Final Aeon on Earth)’ – is an impressively mature piece of work. In mixing the disorientating, angular riffing of early forms of dissonant death metal with occultist black metal, we get a wicked concoction of immersive and abrasive music.
The production is relatively rich for the mid-1990s. Drums still carry a raw and organic sound to them, which means some of the technical nuances are lost beneath the guitars at times, but there is more than enough visibility to appreciate the off kilter, stop/start rhythmic play of the percussion. Guitars definitely sit within the death metal camp in terms of tone, despite many riffs being borrowed from orchestral styles of black metal. They are accompanied by subtle yet imposing keyboard lines which crop up during the slower passages where the listener is permitted to catch their breath. Vocals are an aggressive snarl that works well for this genre bridging style. They are covered in the obligatory chasmic reverb, but not to the excesses on display in many modern releases, only enough to give the mix size and breadth.
The reason this album stands out is largely down to the idiosyncratic arrangements. There are straightforward moments of atonal death metal, with even some more basic thrash riffs thrown in for good measure. These are supplemented by tritone based riffs that lend it that all important occult vibe, along with some of the angular, disorientating riff chaos that would define the likes of early Nile. In lesser hands this would be called a riff salad. But here, supplemented by drums that never seem to sit on a comfortable, easy to follow rhythm, the alienating, constantly shifting musical centre – both tonally and rhythmically – carries with it a degree of intentionality. It’s as if the end goal of this album was to unsettle the listener on both an intellectual level – i.e., our typical expectations of how passages should resolve or lead into one another – and on an emotional level, with the sheer, all encompassing chaos of the overall delivery. There sits a conductor above the bedlam however, organising the fragments into a teleological order.
Solos frequently jump out of the fray. They are usually a textural phenomenon, entirely without musical properties. But in the instances when they do reach for a melodic character they sound almost out of tune when set against the ever shifting goal posts of the music’s centre. This further alienates the listener. Riffs are introduced and evolved, only for them to be shifted and warped in ways that thwart our common expectation of what musical development should look like; Shub Niggurath are notable in this regard even amongst death metal bands where such techniques are more common. Such an approach is entirely fitting given the themes that they are exploring however.
The album goes beyond sounding merely “evil” or inhuman, and seeks to toy with our perception of the music itself. This meta commentary is far more effective than merely suggesting moods through the selection of timbre or conventional minor key melodies. For this reason Shub Niggurath stand out amongst the many examples of occult metal in that they are showing us their outlook and not telling us about it. It’s not just individual musical properties and aesthetics that communicate the intent of the music to us, it is the entire arrangement and playing style that compounds over the course of the album into a collection of near unknowable and horrific phantasms.
Colombia’s Neurosis offer an equally striking iteration of mid-90s extreme metal in the form of 1995’s ‘Verdun 1916’. The final years of the last century were interesting for death metal. Many emphasise the litany of decline that followed its apex lasting roughly from 1985 to 1994. But in many ways 1995 to 2000 saw some of the most mature works that extreme metal – or at least death metal – has to offer. Incantation, Immolation, Morbid Angel, Gorguts, Monstrosity, and The Chasm all come to mind as acts that put out some of the most sophisticated death metal going during this short period. Neurosis fit well within this pattern on their debut LP of 1995, offering a smooth blend of thrashy death metal with some progressive touches which imbue each track with maturity and grace.
The mix is cold and open. The drums are tight but tinny, with the snare and kick drum cutting through the mix with precise rhythmic uniformity. This provides a solid, uniform foundation for the guitars to conduct their elegant dance of riffs that dive from melodic to atonal, from mournful to defiant, all seamlessly bound by rigidly formalised structures. Vocals are a high-pitched howl, set low and far off giving the mix a sense of size. They also humanise the mechanical relentlessness of thrashy prog metal riffing that make up the bulk of these tracks.
The frantic riff salad of early Coroner is driven through a blend of mid-period Death and even some early Atheist at times. But Neurosis’s riff style is very much their own, utilising aspects of hardcore punk that sit seamlessly alongside a nuanced understanding of melodic progression. The underlying moods explored seek to showcase the amoral chaos of war, the uncaring infrastructure of governments and global capitalism, and these are articulated through the frantic energy of the thrash riffs. These in turn are supplemented by more gentle melodic refrains that lend the whole thing an undeniable sense of tragic outrage at the human cost of these macro level injustices. The album is not without hope however, with tracks like ‘Deprived of Liberty’ and ‘Full of Thorns’ coalescing into bouncy punk rhythms augmenting melodies that are almost stirring, triumphant.
But any album named after Verdun must embody a sense of gravitas and respect for its chosen subject matter. As the longest and bloodiest single battle in the First World War, anyone seeking to pay homage to these events must do so with respect. But Neurosis are more than up to the task. The title track opens with a slow, marching clean guitar arpeggio that sounds both militaristic yet full of sorrow, before the amoral bludgeon of aggressive thrash takes hold, and the chaos of war sets in. The statistics and facts that surround this battle are hard to get one’s head around, to the point where they become meaningless for a single individual to comprehend. Much like metal’s use of the occult, this mysterious, arcane knowledge is closed off for those seeking a purely intellectual understanding. Only the language of music will suffice to convey the spiritual toll that life will exact from us. And for themes and moods that are seeking to express horrors and outrages difficult to comprehend on an individual level, this is where metal can come into its own.
And this is where the comparison between ‘Verdun 1916’ and ‘The Kinglike Celebration (Final Aeon on Earth)’ is at its most stark. Functionally they are very different albums. Neurosis, despite their sophisticated riffing, are a straightforward barrage of high energy death metal, showcasing the many influences – from prog to hardcore punk – that have gone into defining this style. Shub Niggaruth by contrast are a twisted, angular, warped iteration of this form, with similarities to black metal, borrowing from European traditions of romanticised death metal in direct contrast to the Tampa style thrashing of Neurosis. But both tap into metal’s greatest strength in a similar way, one does so through the occult, the other through real world horror. Through the medium of music they seek to give voice to the un-expressible, either through an exploration of the darkest corners of the human imagination, or the darkest episodes of humanity’s capacity for cruelty. Despite taking very different routes through the human psyche, we end up at a surprisingly similar place at the end of the journey.
Both albums receive a hard plug from me this week. But as a personal preference I will side with Shub Niggaruth, simply because I tend to be drawn to their style of metal more. But Neurosis deserves just as much attention in people’s rotations.