I like the beats and I like the yelling: Polemicist, Cmpt, Mountain of Smoke

Polemicist: Return of the Sophist (out 25th June 2021 on Hessian Firm)

In 2019 Polemicist delivered their debut ‘Zarathustrian Impressions’, a more nuanced treatment of my boy Nietzsche’s ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’ than we are used to within black metal. Despite the histrionic tone of the book, it drew together and sharpened the key ideas of his philosophy to that point in a highly structured and unique style. But the music found on ‘Zarathustrian Impressions’ may have more in common with Nietzsche’s later iconoclastic works from ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ onwards. Frantic, urgent, self-assured, full to the brim with life to the point of bursting, Polemicist’s brand of black metal captured the spirit of early Abigor in its bracing aggression, tempered by a refined and unique sense of melodic progression.

It seems fitting therefore that this year’s follow up ‘Return of the Sophist’ asks us to take stock, maybe pause and consider, both thematically and musically. Now a power duo in the form of Josiah Domico and Lydia Giordano, drums are headed up by Pendath on loan from Mefitis, who offers his unmistakably angular percussive foundation, Jon Norberg from Sacrificial Blood takes up bass, and Canadian black metal legend Sébastien Robitaille of Sorcier des Glaces once again fulfils mixing and mastering duties.

Armed with this impressive list of supporting clientele, Polemicist offer up a wider, cinematic expanse of music. The philosophical approach adopted by this outfit extends well beyond the obvious conceptual material. It is coded into the very DNA of the music itself, a variant of black metal which by this point we might as well call “progressive”, despite the semantic baggage associated with the term.

Polemicist look to the cradle of Western philosophy in ancient Greece to weave this highly conceptual music into a clear narrative. We are greeted with a tale of tension and resolve, between esotericism and rationality, sophistry and spiritualism. Apparently not ones to shy away from an ambitious undertaking, ‘Return of the Sophist’ comes across as a musical homage to the birth of modern Western thought. Whilst more direct treatments of philosophical themes within black metal tend scratch the surface, blunted by a superfical need to express power and aggression in its purest form, Polemicist offer a sober reflection on ‘Return of the Sophist’, grounding the more abstract themes within a structured context.

The the range of timbres at their disposal has seen some expansion too, with brief passages of clean guitar harmonies free of percussion and subtle layers of keyboards decorating the metallic textures with sonic mysticism. These elements supplement their by now well-defined approach to melodic black metal with a pronounced progressive inflection articulated through a rich and clear production bursting with character.

‘The Way to Delphi’ and ‘The Cave of Gaia’ function as a double opening to the album. Introducing engaging but fairly conventional melodic through lines of high-end tremolo picking, only for these genre norms to be immediately torn apart as Polemicist reach for abrasive, whining dissonant guitar leads. By refreshing the tonal palette in the first few musical sentences of this album they leave the way clear for the variations on a theme that follow to pose as a state of near tranquillity. This is where Pendath’s drumming comes into its own. Keeping blast-beats to a minimum, the mid-paced rhythms maintain a constant swirl of shifting patterns and fills that challenge the traditional melodicism of the guitar leads, with the latter seeking a place of rest that the former will not allow.

‘The Cave of Gaia’ acts as a frantic bridging piece, bombarding the listener with melodic material in quick succession owing to the higher tempos maintained throughout. But as we reach ‘Epistemology Reduced to Absurdity’ the music is once again refreshed, with the opening riff serving as a sequential reference point linking back to ‘The Way to Delphi’. It embodies a clearly defined and conventional melodic character that signals the journey moving forward. Each individual component is relatively simple and musically familiar, but with rhythm guitars working in counterpoint they gain a degree of tension that reaches to malevolence at moments of heightened tension. Frequent metric modulation keeps the music in a state of constant motion even when the tempo drops, with the guitars remaining fixed in their revery.

‘Epistemology Reduced to Absurdity’ in part functions as a prelude to the central ‘Delphic Temple’ trilogy, which broadens the ideas and themes suggested in the first half of the album, sometimes pushing traditional melody to the fore via epic guitar leads, at other times ripping this to shreds with jarring key changes.

When critiquing a difficult second album, words like “maturity” or “growth” are often dropped in, without really unpacking what these terms denote. ‘Return of the Sophist’ feels stripped back and mellow when compared to the dense onslaught that was ‘Zarathustrian Impressions’, but the reality is that Polemicist’s first album was the determined execution of a very specific concept. On ‘Return of the Sophist’ they have reached broadened their horizons by smuggling in dense musicality beneath a veneer of subtlety and tight knit sonic integration. As a result this album greets us as a fully realised world at ease with itself, free of any contrived musical oddities so common to progressive music that tend to remove the listener from the experience. A mellow yet dense offering of black metal that dares the listener to be free.

Cmpt: Mrtvaja (2021)

Black metal isn’t easy. Even dirt simple variants are a challenge to land if one is to avoid presenting an audience with nothing but tedium. But sometimes, every now and then, an act comes along that makes it look so natural and intuitive that one could be fooled into thinking that this is the most accessible form of music going from a player’s perspective.

Serbia’s Cmpt have emerged as if from the soil itself to offer their first EP ‘Mrtvaja’. With little information to go on, right down to the very identity of the musician(s) behind this work, we are left with no proverbial cover to judge this book. The name Cmpt means death, and is a reference to the pre-Christian death cults of the Balkans, which goes some way to flesh out the deeply immersive variant of black metal found across this two track EP.

A comparison could be made to ‘Hvis lyset tar oss’ in the fluidity with which two chord riffs are strung together and elongated with only the slightest of inflections and accents. The drums also switch from blast-beats to galloping rhythms with pounding double bass in a similar way.

All is repetition and swirling, trancelike rhythms on the opener ‘Mrtvaja Part I’. A reverb laden guitar tone works its way through soaring tremolo riffs with subtle yet highly effective synth lines providing harmonies to flesh out the modest musicality behind these melodic threads. Despite their simplicity, everything is placed so deliberately, the arrangement so balanced and taught, that the most minor shift in pitch or melodic direction changes the entire scope and mood of the track.

Cmpt do offer breakdowns and more overtly tritone based riffs, working in some eerie clean vocals to really layer up the foggy atmosphere. But for the most part this EP rides along on fluid and immersive trade-offs between elegantly simple melodic lines, relying on adept arrangements – where to place transitions vs. repetition – to carry these tracks through. This makes the atmospheric flourishes – the understated keyboard lines, the reverb laden clean vocals – welcome but entirely peripheral to the highly streamlined atmospheric black metal on display.

Never one to drop a Burzum comparison lightly, these is one of the few releases where the matchup is worthy and not deployed as a disparagement. ‘Mrtvaja’ does not immediately drip originality, but it embodies that intangible musical quality, scourge of critics due to its existence beyond the verbal remit. Some would call it magic, but it’s really just the sum of compositional qualities expressing that which is beyond words, and awakens dormant areas of the listener’s imagination.

Mountain of Smoke: Gods of Biomechanics V1.5

Imagine a sludge metal band lifting conceptual and sonic material from Blade Runner, let that concept inhabit your mind for a moment. How does it taste? Then take this Platonic form and measure it against the actually existing Texan act known as Mountain of Smoke. My guess is that expectations are likely to be thwarted, but not in an entirely displeasing manner.

The pleasures to be found on their latest EP ‘Gods of Biomechanics V1.5’ are more deeply rooted than the obvious nods to the sci-fi classic that take the form of synth lines and samples lifted directly from the film. Superficially speaking, these aesthetic adornments are placed atop a fairly by-the-numbers sludge metal template of droning, down-tuned riffs, crash cymbal happy drums, and barked, punky vocals. But delve a little further into the actual riffcraft on display here and their homage to Blade Runner runs a little deeper.

Sludge metal can be repetitive, certainly minimal, but it largely seems to emanate from a very organic place, a place of the earth, it is born of a very human all too human spirit. Mountain of Smoke beg to differ. The riffs are robotically repetitive, the drums stick to rhythms and beats in a purposefully persistent way, often augmented by fills that mimic the sequential sounds of factory machinery in their fluid oscillations. This leaves the guitars free to hammer home the same riff or refrain without fear of tedium, and certainly free from accusations of lack of direction. Synthetica abounds.

This is the industrial setting of the Blade Runner dystopia. The traditional metallic elements are engaged in an act of world building, or rather invocations to the world that has already very much been built within the film itself. With the scene set, Mountain of Smoke set about fleshing out the drama to take place within this world, which on ‘Gods of Biomechanics V1.5’ finds its expression through the synths, samples, and lyrics.

An uncharitable reading of this dichotomy would find that this conceptual material is being used to prop up fairly run of the mill sludge metal. But I cannot help but conclude otherwise. This is in fact a work of symbiosis. Each element compliments the other, and through their interaction we get both a story and the sonic world in which said story is to play itself out. Blade Runner was always more impressive as an environment and lived-in habitat than the plot of the film itself, which was serviceable but underdeveloped. This makes it all the more interesting that Mountain of Smoke’s homage should borrow so overtly from the film, to the point where it could pose as part of the expanded universe. 

But even for those going in blind, with no knowledge of the source material, one is greeted by a left-of-centre piece of sludge metal that is not afraid to mix genre and mood together whilst avoiding ham fisted conceptualisations or a desperation for experimental credentials.

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