I like the beats and I like the yelling: Hymnr, Ungfell, Perilaxe Occlusion

Hymnr: Far Beyond Insanity (2021)

True to form for black metal emanating from the vastness of Russia, Hymnr’s debut follows in the footsteps of Forest, Walknut, and a considerable dose of Ukraine’s Hate Forest. The key to this style is the layering and texture of the guitars. As long as the aesthetic foundation embodies a cold and immersive atmosphere the actual compositions can get away with a degree of simplicity. ‘Far Beyond Insanity’ does embody a more pronounced melodic core than is usual for this minimal style however, with the interchange between simple scale runs and hanging chords set beneath galloping drum patterns going a long way to imbue each track with a sense of forward motion and activity.

Because this style trades on a handful of relatively simple arrangements collected together into lengthy compositions, the production needs to present a very specific mood across to the listener. Too raw and we lose the invocation of expansive vistas and the vastness of scale. But too polished and the music risks losing all character and devolving into normalcy, and our minds become too anchored in domesticity as a result.

The mix on ‘Far Beyond Insanity’ manages this balance well. The guitars are layered and domineering, but retain enough clarity for the melodic inflections to emerge from the fog of tremolo riffing, these also provide milestones throughout each piece, giving the listener a sense of time passing and hence the whole is granted forward motion. Drums cut through this framework to provide that all important trancelike pulse. They ground us in the repetition, and give each piece a sense of purpose without becoming a distraction.

The only element where this balance falls down however is the vocals. V has gone for a variant of death growl that retains plenty of control and articulation, allowing us to hear clearly the rhythm of the syllables in a manner closer to actual clean singing. Thus the performance is sound, but it is ill fitting for this spacey, ethereal style of black metal whose chief appeal is the sense of solitude and insignificance when placed against the vastness of natural landscapes such as the Russian Steppes. The vocals themselves have also not been given much in the way of treatment in the mix, with no heavy-handed reverb or delay applied. For that reason they feel too close, too immediate, and ultimately out of place when set to the open spaces of the music itself.

Not one to let one duff performance sully an otherwise solid album however, Hymnr show a mastery of their chosen style of black metal, and are able to refresh and vary their sound as the album progresses, avoiding the pitfalls of limiting their style to a handful of off-the-shelf techniques. Things take a turn on the track ‘Part III’ for instance, which slows the tempo to a mid-paced march and works in some welcome dissonance to contrast against the euphoric harmonies of the preceding tracks. This gives ‘Far Beyond Insanity’ a replay value as we find ourselves drawn to the music from a compositional perspective and not just as a wash of pleasing atmospheres and textures. It may not be the true heir to Walknut’s ‘Graveforests and Their Shadows’ just yet, but Hymnr have offered us an impressive and fully realised debut in a style too often exploited by those wishing to phone in their black metal.

Ungfell: Es grauet (2021)

‘Es grauet’, the third LP from the Swiss outfit known as Ungfell, sees them further the highly melodic, riff based, relentlessly frantic, ADHD brand of black metal that has seen recent iterations in the likes of Suhnopfer and Ultra Silvum. Here we see this musically nutritious style supplemented with fascinating forays into Swiss folk music that serves to ground this album with a rich, historically resonant colour that immediately makes it stand out from the crowd.

It’s a challenging style, pivoting on dense clusters of melodic riffs that are rarely repeated, leaving the listener with few hooks to find a way into the music. Themes are certainly revisited, but never in the exact same iteration, and Ungfell remain staunchly unsentimental with their riffs, disposing of them as quickly as they are introduced. This, combined with a frantic, shifting, lightning-fast rhythm section can lead to an overwhelming cacophony of sound to which the listener is at risk of simply switching off to.

Ungfell do attempt to temper this barrage however. Opening number ‘Es grauet überm Dorf (Wie s niemert het chönne ahne)’ is a short punch of a riff salad by way of introduction, before the first track proper arrives in the form of ‘Tyfels Antlitz (Wie e Huerä zwei Chind empfanget)’, a seven minute cacophony of frantic, melodic, riff based black metal. But this momentum is brought to heel by the acoustic interlude that immediately follows. ‘Mord im Tobel (Wie en hinterhältige Mord begange wird)’ picks up the pace again, but quickly side lines itself at the midpoint by flirting with a doom breakdown.

Short of stylistic incontinence however, the willingness to veer from the taught interaction of over-excited riffing is welcome. The main reason for this is the unfortunate fact that as an iteration of busy melodic black metal, Ungfell lack a distinctive identity. Fans of Cirith Gorgor will be well familiar with it, and at other times ‘Es grauet’ comes across as an Abigor album without the unique sense of melody.

The album centres on an overcooked conceptual theme. Set in a small, pre-modern Swiss town, a tale of murder, false accusations, and debauchery apparently unfolds as the townsfolk are forced to deal with events well beyond their limited worldview. With that in mind, Ungfell could have spun an interesting variant of folk metal with a colouring of black metal. This intent crops up frequently throughout the album, articulated through unique acoustic guitar pieces and dramatic clean vocals. But it feels as if the music is constantly distracted from this endeavour for the sake of returning to the chaos of dense, hyper fast black metal.

The result is an album with ADHD. Unwilling to let the music breathe for too long, to let passages, moods, even notes, hang for any length of time before throwing another barrage of riffs at the listener. This push and pull between the tension of the metal segments verses the catharsis of the acoustic folk sections can be a powerful compositional tool, for instance ‘S Chnochelied (Wie e Beschuldigti gfoltered wird und Visione bechunnt)’ sees them build these elements into a powerful finale. This is because all elements are working in unison to compliment and contrast each other for the betterment of the overall work. But too often across ‘Es grauet’ we find this contrast proving to be a distraction that kills the pacing rather than an asset.

That being said, Ungfell have certainly packed in a considerable amount of “music” into this album. It is dense, colourful, and engaging despite some pronounced issues in arrangements and structure. If the folk elements could be better integrated to serve the thick washes of black metal that constitute the stylistic bulk of ‘Es grauet’ then Ungfell could be onto a very strong formula.

Perilaxe Occlusion: Exponential Decay (2020)

The debut demo from these Canadian death metallers gets a re-release on Blood Harvest this year. Prima facie this is a meaty slab of slow, crushing metal that actually has as much in common with modern sludge than it does a death metal lineage, but both influences sit happily alongside each other in this cocktail of down-tuned chaos.

Production wise Perilaxe Occlusion have shot for a chasmic vibe, with a massive guitar tone, distant guttural vocals buried somewhere in the mix, and drums beefed up to sound like they’re being battered out in a cathedral. Despite these obvious attempts to open out the mix there is an immediacy and claustrophobia to the guitars that grounds the music, and certainly helps to articulate the riffs. By the closing number ‘Rigid Body Displacement’ they are working in elements of funeral doom, using space and depressed tempos to build tension before the final climax of chaos. The unwinding of themes in this formally structured manner immediately puts ‘Exponential Decay’ head and shoulders above many currently minding the borders between death and doom metal.

Speaking of riffs, these guys have written some. A rarity amongst a lot of releases that boast a similar emphasis on aesthetic. They centre on the directness of old school death metal in the style of Autopsy. All is kept slow yet bouncy – almost groovy in places – and would feel relatively tame were it not for the chunky guitar tone and near constant battering of crash cymbals. Perilaxe Occlusion do veer into more contemporary influences however, combining the taught directness of tremolo picked riffs with the weighty drone of sludge.

‘Exponential Decay’ may not blow your mind, but it thunders out of the gate with a confident swagger that is not entirely unwarranted. The fact that the overt aesthetic and weighty texture is the first thing that greets the ear does not mean that these guys absconded on their duty to actually stich some melodic threads together to construct these tracks. That, and some idiosyncratic lyrical concepts make for a pleasingly alienating listen for fans of death metal that dares to be that little bit more forward thinking.

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