I like the beats and I like the yelling: Vortex of End, Morbid Messiah, Ctenizidae

Vortex of End: Abhorrent Fervor
Out 24th Sept on Osmose Productions

Progressive blackened death metal is a genre that promises much but delivers little. More often than not it manages to take the worst elements of all three antecedents and concoct them into conceptually overbaked nonsense music. The directionless and frustrating riffs for riffs sake of death metal at its worst, the endless dissonance and abrasion of modern black metal with little to say for itself beyond negations, and progressive music’s well documented penchant for excessive musicality.

But a bad worker always blames their tools. And on their latest LP ‘Abhorrent Fervor’, Vortex of End manage to deliver on some of the forsaken promises of their chosen workhouse, at least far more successfully than many of their contemporaries. They offer a fine balance of nihilism and hope, of urgency and moments of reflection, of aggression and vulnerability. This is frantic music that certainly throws a lot of riffs at the listener, but these salads are gradually pealed back to reveal passages of open ended space, where the tempo slows, the guitars open out and settle on chord sequences centred around more traditional cadences, and lead melodies are able to unfold themselves as they bounce between euphoria and sorrow.

Vocals stick with a mid-range growl that wouldn’t be out of place on a hardcore album, with subtle reverb applied to properly integrate the performance into the mix. Clean chants also make an appearance, giving Vortex of End another and much needed atmospheric lever to pull on when required. Given the density of the music itself, the production is relatively straightforward. No excessive caverncore leanings, no overly zealous distortion. All is focused on creating a sharp and well articulated picture, giving full voice to the percussive qualities of the riffs, and the tight, frantic drums that frame them. Having said that, there is enough bottom end to the guitars to give power and definition to the slower passages of atmospheric/melodic doom, ditto for the lead guitars.

It’s not the speed and density of riffs, it’s what you do with them, we need to be assured that they’re going somewhere, and Vortex of End deliver on this requirement in spades. It’s not the use of dissonance or harsh aesthetics in general, it’s placing these elements in their proper context. Music is, after all, the art of contrast. And again, ‘Abhorrent Fervor’ is packed with more traditional melodic forms throughout, given greater impact and meaning by virtue of being sandwiched between points of atonality. And it’s not technical prowess itself that should be admired, it’s directing this ability to something beyond clever musical in-jokes that leave a wider audience feeling hollow. And whilst there is certainly plenty of musicianship on display on ‘Abhorrent Fervor’, all is put in service of a wider narrative.

The result is a kind of organised chaos. No, this is not the densest release you will hear this year, nor is it the darkest or most abrasive. But in using their obvious raw musical talents, Vortex of End have managed to craft a release of well balanced energy, between unbridled speed and power and open ended size. In tempering the wanton self-indulgence common to this style, both aesthetically and musically, they have created a work that is both broad in the scope of its emotional reach and admirable from an intellectual standpoint as we witness these compositions unfold in a way that is both logical and unpredictable.

Morbid Messiah: Disgorged in the Coffin
Out 24th September on Chaos Records

In the world of basic death metal, you either got it or you ain’t. But it’s all very well offering up these vague platitudes, the job of a critic is to move past them and try to actually understand why music makes us tick, or not as is more often the case. As a case study, let’s take a look at Mexico’s Morbid Messiah and their latest EP ‘Disgorged in the Coffin’, because this is death metal that has definitely…got it *shudder*.

This bears all the usual hallmarks of pre-technical old school death metal. But there is an honesty and integrity to Morbid Messiah’s stripped-to-the-bone approach. There is no sleight of hand, no trickery, and no overt effort to make this sound “of the past” (an endeavour that so often leads a lot of modern OSDM straight down to the uncanny valley). There’s just a rough and ready mix, a dense guitar sound, and a pocket full of riffs nabbed from early Suffocation, a bit of Grave, and maybe some Incantation as the most obvious calling cards.

Because the approach is so basic, we must accept that the experience we are being delivered is an honest one. But this EP goes further, and somehow cuts the fat away from death metal’s internal politics and allows us to analyse the form with a fresh pair of eyes. Forget all the contrived efforts of modern OSDM to create a character or identity by box ticking certain riff shapes or production techniques. Morbid Messiah opt for a rough, demo quality production, with just enough clarity to appreciate the drum performance and identify the riffs. The latter of which flow naturally into one another with very little in the way of “remember this” nostalgia.

This leaves their music nothing to hide behind, it must stand or fall of its own accord. And again, when studying the riffs, we find them built from logical, energetic blows of power, trading on the simplest of contrasts in tempo, of chromatic blizzards and ruminative minor key chord sequences. Solos do jump out of the mix, riding the waves of mid-paced chaos, functioning more as a textural element due to their briefness.

It’s a concoction we have tasted a thousand times before. But Morbid Messiah do it so purely, totally undiluted and without ancillary flourishes or overexcited and obvious nods to the tropes of basic death metal, that ‘Disgorged in the Coffin’ becomes a joy to listen to. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s like listening to death metal for the first time again, but the sheer bluntness of Morbid Messiah’s approach does encourage us to view the genre with fresh ears, and maybe reassess exactly where the more avant-garde boundaries of the genre are actually trying to take us.

Ctenizidae: …Of Rotting Soil and Spine
Out 15th September Nebular Carcoma

One could be forgiven for writing off Ctenizidae’s latest demo as another woefully obscure, lo-fi black metal cassette. Released earlier this year and now picked up by the label Nebular Carcoma for a vinyl release, the assumption seems to be that the captive market of small but dedicated purists will lap it up, as they do any tape of static packaged in black and white photocopied cover art.

BUUUUT, there’s actually a bit more to this demo/EP than blunt cynicism. Beneath the veneer of laziness, Ctenizidae have some real ideas going on. It’s as if they have taken some of the more expansive and well produced leanings of modern extreme metal and condensed them into a vacuum pack of under produced black metal.

The rhythms, although basic as fuck, are tight, and the drums are audible. There are riffs here, trading on intelligent but sparing use of dissonance to craft an unearthly vibe lurking beneath the static. Keyboards provide a welcome addition to the textures on offer, and although veering little from single prolonged notes, this only serves to add a degree of single-minded malevolence to the whole thing.

The vocals are perhaps the most generic aspect to ‘…Of Rotting Soil and Spine’, offering little more than distance screeches with little variation in intensity. Aside from offering an additional layer of abrasion, they bring little to the overall soundscapes of this EP.

Ctenizidae have taken the single-minded desire to reject any notion of musical pleasantry that defined projects like Mutiilation and Paysage d’Hiver, filtered it through the blunt aggression of ‘Battles in the North’, added touches of dissonance, and painted this framework with the alienating discomfort of an industrial aesthetic. For that reason it may also bear comparison to Black Funeral in its almost audacious minimalism.

Some tracks have more purpose than others. The EP is frontloaded with driving riffs that seek to lead us from point A to point B in spite of their simple components. And it’s these hints of musical narrative that really carry this EP, and serve to justify its more abrasive tendencies. Ctenizidae are able to convince us they have a purpose beyond simplistic will-to-obscurity. Therefore, when the experimental noise track ‘Thickening of the Abyss’ kicks in to close the EP, we are already primed, and take the hit of dry rhythms, static, and piercing feedback in its proper context. It only goes to show that extremity is meaningless without contrast, a little musical medicine helps the noise go down.

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