2021 sees the release of two new promo tracks from Greek death metal outfit Cleavercult. Despite the invocations to a gore aesthetic in the band’s moniker and logo, the tracks themselves stick to a traditional sense of melody which – combined with the fluid and imaginative approach to rhythmic interchanges – grants this music a level of refinement so often lacking in modern death metal. Both tracks offer a playful, dense, and imaginative take on modern death metal that forces us to a more melodically focused place.
Any budding metal band looking for some heady historical material to hang their music on can’t go wrong with Russian history. So it is with Voland, an Italian symphonic black metal outfit of sorts, who – on their latest EP ‘Voland III: Царепоклонство – Il culto degli Zar’ (the cult of the Tsars) – take us on an epoch jumping journey through some of the key events of pre-Communist Russia, specifically concerning the relationship between the aristocracy and the wider popoulation.
This is an example of metal serving a dual function of offering a musical experience alongside educational material, one that encourages further reading into the subject matter on the part of the listener. The music itself is polished, cinematic, symphonic metal that gives the likes of Batushka a run for its money. Voland are as steeped in their source material as Nile, as capable of doing justice to the high drama of the events they are treating as any modern theatre company, and perhaps most importantly all the compositions reflect the dramatic and ambiguous moral centre at the heart of these historical narratives.
This is the end of the line as far as the “metal” element is concerned in symphonic metal, the latter being almost completely absorbed into the former. There are metallic touchstones certainly, a black metal riff here, a doom metal passage there. But the focus is on bringing rich orchestration and orthodox Russian musical traditions into the fray, and letting these dictate the shape of the composition. These pieces eschew the linear momentum and motion of conventional metal, preferring instead to use metal techniques to heighten the drama of music that is very much of Russia (at least pre-Communist Russia).
The vocals certainly make use of death growls, but at this point it feels like this is a concession to the demands of a metal audience rather than an aesthetic choice on the part of Voland. Primarily the vocals shoot for a style of Russian liturgical chanting. The same can be said of the way the music is arranged. There are conventional metal riffs that lead us from one passage to the next, but these are presented more as linking phrases between the chief themes, which are articulated through traditional Cossack music, Russian orthodox spiritual music, and hints of classical music of the romantic era. It’s all highly ambitious for a four track EP with two bonus tracks of live material.
Additional reading material is not something I usually care for in metal releases, as I believe the music should stand or fall independent of excessive curation. But in the case of Voland, Russian history is just that fascinating and so fully integrated into these compositions that we’ll give this EP a pass in its overt encouragement on the part the listener to read around the ideas behind it.
The opening track ‘Casa Ipatiev’ deals with perhaps the most well-known historical event concerning the Tsars, the assassination of the last Tsar Nicholas II at the hands of the Bolsheviks, along with his entire family. We are also treated to an account of Ivan the terrible, the first Tsar of a united Russia, who took the name of the title from the Caesars of Rome, thus asserting that the Tsars had all the authority and heritage of the Roman Emperors of old. ‘Promontorio’ deals with the Cossack Stepan Razin who led an uprising against the nobility in 1670. The final track of the EP itself (excluding the bonus live tracks) is ‘Suite russe’, which takes a look at the European obsessions of the Russian aristocracy of the 19th Century, blinding them to the suffering and growing resentment of the masses.
This last track proves to be a neat way to tie these themes together, and the scope of the music reflects this. The concoction of ancient aristocracy and rituals with a nation begging to enter the modern age. The noble intentions of liberating the people from their mass squalor leading to the bloodiest violence imaginable. The hubris of divine rights. Metal blended with traditional orchestration is a form of music uniquely situated to treat this complex subject matter.
Horrid invocations indeed my friend. What do we mean when we describe music as primitive? Do we simply mean from a technical standpoint? Unrefined maybe? Crass? Normally we mean a number of different qualities when we deploy this word. Bands that are singled out as the archetype of “primitivism” within underground metal are usually very much aware of their artistic goals and how to realise them. The artistry of so-called primitive artists is refined insofar as their work is highly curated and premediated with a very specific vision in mind. It’s also not the case that primitive extreme metal is necessarily lacking in technical flare. This latter being a highly relative term that people often fail to divorce from the quality of a work.
Australia’s Hecatomb have offered up their debut demo ‘Horrid Invocations’, which proves to be a fitting title indeed. This is primitive material in that premediated sense I mentioned above. It sits at the cusp of old school blackened thrash championed by the likes of Chile’s Slaughtbbath and Insurgency from the UK. The riffs are completely atonal, exploding out of the speakers in a barrage of choppy, staccato chord clusters set to an assault of simple yet ever shifting rhythmic batterings curtesy of the drums. Vocals equal the moment by offering distorted barks rooted in hardcore punk traditions.
All this – along with the garage quality production – constitutes our common understanding of the “primitive”. But upon this rough and ready foundation there is a certain nuance, a sophistication that begins to emerge upon the sum of these parts. A forward motion that is nevertheless so single minded, so fixated on a mere handful of well-honed techniques and musical flourishes to get its message across that we could almost call it refinement.
This tunnel vision – combined with no small degree of pure conviction – makes ‘Horrid Invocations’ stand out amongst the crowd despite its garden variety references to old school death/thrash. The rush from one pulsing rhythm to the next, the frantic dash to reach a collapse in the music, the fact that the drums seem to trip over the guitars in their need to unfold every beat faster than necessary, all make for an intriguing demo that succeeds in spite of itself and its common ground with so many old school apers currently at large.
There’s not much in the way of information lurking around online about this entity, other than the material found on this EP. It’s a competent enough concoction of sparse black metal in the form of early Burzum. It predominantly pivots on riffs constructed from simple minor key chord sequences that are driven through mid-paced meanderings aided by driving and persistent drums that work as a prelude to tightening up this loose framework into blast-beat segments. Scant keyboards are deployed in the form of what sounds like an organ to add a sense of mysticism to this otherwise fairly bland collection of tracks.
The production is of demo quality. Clear enough for us to hear the mechanics of the drums and individual guitar lines, but lacking in discernible mastering. Vocals are cold and distorted, embodying that feeling of being submerged underwater which carries through to the rest of the mix. The curiosity behind this mix is the fact that it is not so raw as to be an obviously conscious choice, but it is still clearly designed to mimic early black metal works when poor production was an act of necessity, one that nevertheless yielded unique artistic results and only later became an artistic preference in the likes of Darkthrone. For that reason ‘čornaje połymia’ comes across as the imitation of history’s happy accidents, somehow more contrived than an overt display of shitty mixing to enhance the raw qualities of the music.
And this leads on to the chief beef with this EP, the tough nut of mediocrity. The tracks are competently put together, the riffs suitably grim given the subject matter, trading on hanging tritones and minor harmonies. The tempos shift enough to avoid utter tedium. And texturally those aforementioned keyboards – although sparingly deployed – do elevate the overall presentation, which as it turns saves this work from being obnoxiously bland in spite of all the competencies listed above.
We will give this EP a pass only because it is a debut and we can excuse the lack of character in a musician still finding their voice. But know that a voice is exactly what is lacking on ‘čornaje połymia’, which is closer to a set of boxes ticked for the sake of constructing an obscure piece of traditional black metal that just barely keeps itself from being completely absorbed back into its influences.