I like the beats and I like the yelling: Deathvoid, Majestic Downfall, Sabhankra

Deathvoid: Semaphore (4th June 2021)

“Rawness” is a relative quality. This is known. So when I say the latest demo from the Italian/Swiss trio known as Deathvoid is “raw black metal”, I am left deeply unsatisfied with the descriptor. ‘Semaphore’ not only operates on the borders between black metal and noise, it is a noise album rendered via the techniques of traditional black metal.

One can hear vocals, a drumbeat, maybe the shadow of a repeated chord sequence…something one might call a “riff”. But these are all peripheral to Deathviod’s artistic goal, which is to bury all these traditional elements beneath a static so pervasive, so domineering, that it’s as if we are truly witnessing black metal’s proud melodic core melt away for the sake of pure abrasion.

At times it feels like listening to poor quality versions of tracks that have not yet been given the studio treatment…y’know, like a demo. Emperor’s ‘Wrath of the Tyrant’ demo comes to mind, early Hellhammer, elements of mid-period Havohej. But there is a degree of intentionality behind what Deathvoid are doing, the noise has gone beyond an atmospheric adornment or an accident of recording to become the central thesis of this project.

The music swirls around these very traditionally grim black metal riffs, rendered on a tinny as fuck guitar tone (no other way to put that). These are driven along by muffled but confident drumbeats, supressed by their bass heavy position in the “mix”. They jump from slow plodding tempos to simple punk rhythms, occasionally picking themselves up into a shuffling blast-beat of sorts.

But all these musical artefacts present on ‘Semaphore’ are remarkably hard to come by after a casual listen. And this is where the title of this demo becomes highly appropriate. Much like deciphering obscure flag signals through a thick fog, the ear is drawn away from the guitar and drums to focus on the static of shifting intensity; an amoral, indifferent presence inserted into the sound and mediating our relationship to the music through the lens of pure noise. Our connection to the very possibility of meaning is being challenged, a barrier has been placed between us and the common language of music. The vocals, in sticking with traditional black metal screeches, seem to revel in this evisceration, with the vocal tone bleeding into the all-encompassing static and bolstering its presence.  

The demo closes with ‘Hierarchies Dissolve’, which of all the tracks on here has the most pronounced melodic progression, with a tone that could be a keyboard or it could be a bass guitar, it’s honestly hard to tell. A low hum gradually climbs in pitch until we have nothing to navigate by save a haunting siren and shuffling drums barely holding it together. A fitting way to end this collection of tracks that guard the borders between metal and noise, as if daring any who wander by to take the plunge, and relinquish their loosening grip on musical comfort blankets altogether.     

Majestic Downfall: Aorta (2021)

Looks like someone reeeeeally wants to carry the Esoteric torch. Majestic Downfall’s latest offering is a weighty undertaking by any measure. ‘Aorta’ is four tracks long, but clocks in at well over an hour of melodic death/doom that certainly lives up to their moniker. I’ve said on a number of occasions that lengthy albums are something of a sickness in modern metal, with their presumption that bands can or even should occupy so much of our time in this age of content saturation. Whatever quality found in the initial hit of music is lost as artists attempt to extend their vision to feature film length without the compositional chops to justify it. The lack of quality control, facilitated by the limitless space of digital releases has struck many a quality album down.

But perhaps a stronger case can be made for ‘Aorta’ and its temporal greed. This is, after all, achingly slow doom metal. The tempo may rarely shift, but these pieces do develop, unfolding key changes, shifts in guitar tone, vocal intensity, there is forward motion in each of these tracks that is somehow more hypnotic given how long it takes for these developments to unfold. The mood shifts from despair, to a kind of joyless euphoria, to pained darkness, and gentle contemplation. It is never static. And this instantly makes it more rewarding than a lot of extreme metal operating at faster tempos, which often exists in a constant state of battle readiness, a fixed point of intensity. Majestic Downfall, despite the weighty track lengths and the tempos threatening to sink below the perceptual present, keep things moving forward, each track has a destination in mind.

The production is rich and nuanced. The drums have a hollow echo to them, but there is a tight underpinning of kick drums and toms that link up the spaces between each beat, which serves to anchor the music in the passage of time. Guitars are a mix of soaring melodic leads and aggressive, earthy chords droning beneath. This contrast again allows Majestic Downfall the ability to flex up and flex down the overall tone of the music, from the Iron-Maiden-on-Valium finale to ‘Become Eternal’, to the many fragile passages of clean guitar arpeggios, plucked so slowly at times that they threaten to disintegrate completely, this and many touchstones in between keep the centre of this music in constant churn, even if this motion is tectonically slow.

Vocals match the music in terms of their expressive range. We are still in music born of death metal somewhere in its lineage, so the backbone of the voice on ‘Aorta’ is a mid-range death growl. But Jacobo Córdova is able to bring forth a range of emotions within his atonal rumblings. He does so with a restraint that keeps this music from becoming hysterical, overworked in its desire to bring forth life’s melancholia.

I’m still not convinced Majestic Downfall have brought enough to the table to justify the ambitious length. But they are certainly ahead of the grain in terms of motivating doom metal into music of motion. Despite the different perception of time and the walls against reality this music tries to put up, Majestic Downfall also pluck developments from stasis; a key change, a shift in timbre, dynamics. Like watching footage of a storm at sea slowed to breaking point, there is much activity buried within ‘Aorta’ for those willing to look.

Sabhankra: Death to Traitors (2021)

Sabhankra are proving to be a reliable pillar of Turkish extreme metal these last twenty years. First impressions of their latest release ‘Death to Traitors’ comes across as an attempt to rewrite Rotting Christ’s ‘Κατά τον δαίμονα εαυτού’, but the entire album is ‘In Yumen – Xibalba’. Most tracks manage to maintain a similar degree of regal intensity by switching between two or three riffs set to a barrage of blast-beats, achieving the maximum possible mileage out of the smallest shifts in key or pitch. And whilst it’s true that Sabhankra never really let up on the intensity, rarely dropping the tempo or the wash of dense symphonics, there is much to unpack here.

The curious thing about this album, and its chief appeal, is the fact that it outdoes modern Rotting Christ at their own game. The production is crystal clear. Bright, triggered drums cut through the mix like razor blades, which is just as well as they rarely drop below blast-beats. The guitars are layered and stick largely to melodic tremolo picked riffs, usually with a rhythm section and some very simple harmonies layered on top. Rich strings adorn most of these tracks, again layering up the harmonics or else mimicking the underlying chord structures to bolster up the sound. Vocals stick with a high intensity, theatrical growl, adding a welcome element of aggression to proceedings.

But these rich symphonics, hyper-fast tempos, and the taught high drama of the overall presentation are all a cloak for what is in fact remarkably simple music. I don’t mean this as a criticism, because Sabhrankra have nailed the art of repetition in the setting of symphonic black metal. But more importantly they have managed to maintain this intensity over the course of an album without exhausting the listener or offering up a filler track. Something Rotting Christ in their modern iteration have never quite mastered.

By keeping the music so highly strung, so on edge, Sabhranka are able to capitalise on the simplest shift in pitch or tonal centre, and pivot between one or two simple transitions to add variety between what is essentially highly repetitious, trancelike music. There are moments where they strip the music back, cutting it to the bone with singular chugging chords and double bass work, as in the opening to ‘Burn Down Their Halls’, but these tricks are deployed to heighten the tension and emphasise the contrast with the full throttle metal to come.

Sabhranka do finally reach their limit by the closing number ‘Awakened in the Dark’, which sees the distorted guitars drop out in favour of mournful, clean arpeggios. This feeds into the finale of the album which opts to end with a bang and not a whimper. But in messing with dynamics and timbre at least once before the close, Sabhranka prove that they are adept melody writers, it’s just that for the most part they choose to (and succeed at) settle on trading percussive blows constructed of micro-riffs bouncing off one another to serve as the backbone of their compositional technique. The result is a tight, intense, melodramatic piece of extreme metal that cloaks its simplicity in intelligent arrangements.

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