I like the beats and I like the yelling: Atvm, Askog, False Emperor

Atvm: Famine, Putrid and Fucking Endless (2021)

Hailing from that there London, Atvm have dropped their debut LP ‘Famine, Putrid and Fucking Endless’ into our laps this year. If 2015’s ‘Out of Chaotic Waters’ was a promising chrysalis of an EP, they have now confronted us with nearly an hours worth of bizarre multifacted death metal across seven weighty tracks, throwing themselves at the greater creative scope afforded by the full-length format.

Forging a unique artistic identity in a musical landscape infamous for its micro-genres and obsessivley precise stylistic distinctions, Atvm avoid the pitfall of limiting their sound to one particular subset or aesthetic of modern extreme metal. Although the music on ‘Famine, Putrid and Fucking Endless’ could broadly be described as progressive death metal, it touches on many different colours of metal throughout, from melodic death metal, to thrash, to black metal, and a healthy dollop of post metal leanings here and there. 

Mixing and mastering has been handled by Colin Marston of Gorguts and Krallice fame. He has rendered the entire sound with a warm, organic sheen. Although this is very much technical metal, rife with activity and movement, the analogue aesthetic helps to ground the music in its DIY roots, a rare commodity in the brainier circles of extreme metal. The mix allows plenty of space for each individual performance to shine without overwhelming the other instruments. But it retains a pleasing sloppiness that bucks the heavy-handed compression that overshadows the bulk of modern progressive metal. There is a rawness and authenticity that underpins the music even at its most flamboyant and intricate.

The bass is a law unto itself, linking up with the guitars as and when it chooses, but just as liable to wander off into counterpoint or elongated slap bass accents. Drums sway from down-the-barrel thrash pummellings and washes of intense blast-beats, but are just as comfortable getting up in the bass’s grill with unexpected fills and complex rhythmic patterns. Guitars essentially provide the genre colouring over this unpredictable but rock solid rhythm section. Deploying an array of riffs from various traditions of metal alongside liberal use of leads that shun excessive displays of virtuosity in favour of revelling in their own unique character.

Vocals hark back to the late 80s, as if emanating from the primordial soup of death metal’s gory inception, they are a guttural cacophony beneath which a touch of humanity can still be discerned. If anything this helps to ground the instrumentation with a consistent stylistic thread to guide us through the many metamorphosises and winding corridors the music takes us down. The lyrics – as the title suggests – unfold a twisted tale of famine and disease in ancient Egypt by way of a relentless barrage of short sentences and proclamations on human suffering, culminating in the closing number ‘Slud’, where the music begins to lose form, and we finally succumb to the final end as decay sets in.

The breadth of influences on display here functions in part as a survey of modern extreme metal. Such a broad scope on a debut could be cause for concern. Will it come across as an unfocused mess? Will the joy of the music be lost beneath the foggy esotericism of genre alchemy? Well, not in the hands of Atvm apparently. The reason for this is the underlying structure of ‘Famine, Putrid and Fucking Endless’. Each lengthy track is connected by similarities in style, mood, and lyrical themes, but each has its own unique narrative arc articulated through composition. It’s akin to reading a collection of short stories connected together under a thematic umbrella. Each is told using different techniques and playing styles allowing, us to view the subject matter from different angles. For that reason, tracks like ‘Squeal in Tourment’ can instantaneously lurch from post metal to sludge metal to melodeath whilst remaining true to the character of the album as a whole.  

To put it another way, Atvm are exploiting different traits from metal’s past in order to realise their vision, as opposed to allowing the dogma of specific genres to dictate the direction of each track. The result is progressive death metal not just from a technical standpoint, but progressive in that it is a celebration of extreme metal’s expressive range as a form of challenging contemporary music. Each track unfolds an engaging and unique story whilst simultaneously revelling in the many varied and colourful traditions of metal to weave its narrative, thus pushing at the limits of these creative bondaries still further. It’s akin to lifting up a rock at the bottom of the garden and observing the diverstiy of life and activity beneath the apparently inert stone.

Askog: Varþnaþer (12th May 2021)

From generic and inoffensive beginnings comes this swaggering and energetic full length from Sweden’s Askog. The formula is certainly by the numbers, acting as a broad survey of Scandinavian black metal similar to the likes of Mork in its lack of barnstorming originality. But sometimes that doesn’t matter. Comparing this to last year’s ‘Varg’ EP from this outfit it’s clear that Askog are keen to juice up every aspect of their sound.

One can hear elements of all the usual suspects at work on ‘Varþnaþer’, from early Enslaved, to flashes of Emperor and Darkthrone, and a healthy dose of Burzum circa ‘Belus’ and ‘Fallen’. But all this derivation is presented with such confidence and no small degree of clever compositional work that one cannot help but applaud the final outcome. Despite the fact that Askog are manipulating the same basic techniques of Northern European black metal that have remained unchanged in some thirty years, this album does not spoon-feed us the same stale cliches.

It’s the connecting threads that knit each track together, the willingness to thrust the individual themes through several shifts in mood and texture, to constantly refresh the rhythmic core beyond endless mid-paced blast-beats, and no small degree of heightened drama in the vocalisations that some would even call cheesy, all serve to elevate what would otherwise be a painfully tired collection of tropes into a grand reaffirmation of first principles within this style.

For anyone familiar with modern European black metal, a detailed discussion of the production and overall aesthetic seems superfluous. The formula remains unchanged. The mix is well polished, with guitars kept clear and crisp. They are able to wash out the sound with imposing tremolo picked segments whilst articulating more percussive riffing alongside grandiose lead melodies. Drums are perhaps the unsung hero of this album. Despite the ear being drawn to the undeniable creativity found in the melodic core of these tracks, they are serviced by a tight and varied rhythm section that allows the music to constantly shape shift and refresh itself before the listener begins to tune out. The vocals bear comparison to Grutle circa ‘Frost’ era. But there are plenty of clean passages as well, adding a welcome injection of spiritual theatrics to the template.

But Askog are not leaning on studio trickery, overcooked aesthetics, or a sycophantic desire to please through overt originality in order to motivate their artistic endeavour. The energy and creativity of the compositions stands on their own terms, the honest hard graft of writing music for its own sake is allowed to come to the fore without the distractions of a lofty agenda that so often fogs up modern releases with feigned esotericism.

If black metal has a Motorhead setting – a formula repeated over many years with little alteration, yet carrying deep resonance for the listener – then it’s albums like ‘Varþnaþer’. Many have tried to capture and bottle this magic, but they so often overwork the true-blue black metal credentials, forgetting to write some actual riffs in the process; or worse, falling down the black ‘n’ roll pit (Nargaroth and Carpathian Forest come to mind).

Askog manage a fine balance of riff based black metal that still pays healthy homage to the enormous atmospheric potentials within this style. Making space for both the warrior and the sage within their tightly bound craft. No element is pushed too far in any one direction, but equally no element outstays its welcome or is overdone. A fascinating demonstration of how to bring nothing new to the table and yet still outdo most of the competition for unbridled originality.

False Emperor: Nurus Diabolica (2021)

False Emperor’s debut EP ‘Nurus Diabolica’ sees them emerge fully formed, with a clear artistic vision of restrained symphonic black metal. They co-opt a number of other styles into this tightly packed EP, but by keeping the structure of each track linear and uncluttered this never comes across as an overwhelming mess, as modern symphonic black metal is wont to do at times.

The opening number ‘Over Me Under You’ is a slow burn, pivoting on a patiently unfolding hook that wouldn’t be out of place on a stoner album were it not for the interludes of pummelling blast-beats. The interchange of clean and distorted vocals, the lyrics mixing themes of lust with the occult, the blows traded between tremolo picked riffs and rich keyboard string lines, all call to mind a classic 70s horror flick rendered in symphonic black metal form.

This exchange of 1970s psychedelia and Septic Flesh style melodrama is carried through the entirety of this chunky EP. The production meets the moment by capturing the almost cinematic scope of ambition that False Emperor wish to convey. The drums offer a tight and varied succession of patterns and fills to transition the music from fast paced occultist black metal to slower, meandering passages defined by wringing guitar leads that call right back to metal’s very beginnings. Keyboards crop up frequently, usually in the guise of strings or deep and heavy synths, opening out the sound and legitimising the more theatrical leanings of ‘Nurus Diabolica’.

But it’s the guitars that carry through the true thematic material of each piece, switching from the loose groove of riffs such as the opening of ‘Torn’, to razor sharp tremolo picked chord progressions to mournful lead melodies, bolstered by the commanding grace of the keyboards. This bears comparison to the classics of the Greek cannon in Septic Flesh and Necromantia, but also at its must frantic there are even elements of flamboyant tech-death in early Nile at times. These elements sit happily alongside straight edge black metal traits in the likes of the opening riff of the ‘Abyss’, which could be just as at home on a Drudkh album.

But all these disparate elements feel right at home on ‘Nurus Diabolica’, carried along by the melodic and thematic threads that define each track. False Emperor have essentially structured this EP not as a loose collection of tracks to introduce us to their style, but as a mini album with its own narrative arc. For that reason, we are greeted by an artist with a fully formed identity, one that taps into a diverse array of traditions within occultist extreme metal that False Emperor are able to make their own.

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