I like the beats and I like the yelling: Journey into Darkness, Devour Every Star, Cosmic Burial

Journey into Darkness: Infinite Universe Infinite Death
Out 10th September on Spirit Coffin Publishing

Journey into Darkness’s third LP ‘Infinite Universe Infinite Death’ jettisons some of the baggage of symphonic metal’s contested past, cutting the fat from a bloated style with class and poise. This homage to the vastness of space eschews the barren soundscapes of a Darkspace, and instead attempts to present us with a universe of chaos, danger, activity, and of course life’s end. No ambient preamble, no lengthy interludes, all is motion and conflict, no space left unfilled. It comes across as an interesting hybrid of styles which is surprisingly difficult to pin down. This is essentially a technical death metal album with the aesthetic of European romanticism; think Septic Flesh, or Sentenced circa ‘North from Here’, with an undeniable colouring of Dimmu Borgir circa ‘Death Cult Armageddon’ without the extra cheese.

But this highly traditional and neoclassical approach to melody that defined the European approach to extreme metal in the 1990s is supplemented on ‘Infinite Universe Infinite Death’ with some pronounced American percussive flavourings. The rhythms are choppy, impatient, varied, they cut across the soaring harmonies in bracing schizophrenic tempo changes, pieces dive from breakneck blast-beats to unfolding mid-paced riffs defined by meandering drum patterns in whiplash inducing transitions.

This melding of traditions is reflected in the aesthetic choices made at the mixing desk. Drums are kept synthetic sounding and without dynamics, accentuating the shifts in rhythm and style over organic expressive qualities. This artificial underpinning in turn dictates the tone and presentation of the guitars, which offer a clear and crisp distortion, fully articulating the complex web of riffs as they relentlessly compete for airtime. Vocals stick with a modern black metal sheen, high end and distorted but with plenty of attack, allowing them to match the music for rhythmic nuance.

Keyboards are a near constant presence throughout this album. And here we might as unpack that word “symphonic”. Journey into Darkness are one of those artists that, even sans keyboards, could still be described as symphonic. The atonal and chromatic approach of death metal is largely avoided, yet the music is dense and rich with musicality, unlike the sparse soundscapes offered by a purer form of black metal. The riffs themselves follow a certain neo-romantic tradition of melodrama, complexity, yet are still defined by highly traditional melody. Taking the density of death metal and the harmonic techniques of romantic era classical leads us to conclude that ‘Infinite Universe Infinite Death’ is symphonic to the core.

It is interesting to note therefore, that the keyboards are surprisingly limited in their range of timbres. They stick largely with synth string tones, some more textural and understated, others heavy on the attack, allowing them to match the pacing of the guitars and sometimes follow them note for note. Unlike Summoning say, who flip the keyboard/guitar relationship within black metal on its head by making the former the lead instrument and the latter a mere textural lever, Journey into Darkness instead fully integrate the keyboards into the melodic dictates of the guitars. This not only gives the music a sense of unity in spite of the density of the compositions, but also imbues the guitars themselves with symphonic qualities, accentuating the melodrama. Every percussive punch thrown at the listener is opened out with size and grandeur.

Beneath its surface level chaos, ‘Infinite Universe Infinite Death’ is an interesting and subtle marriage of disparate melodic traditions within metal. And in this pursuit it goes some way to bringing symphonic metal back into the fold of legitimacy after its long wilderness years in the cheese wagon. Whilst the vastness of space provides the bedrock of inspiration for Journey into Darkness, the aesthetics of this album are kept broad, allowing listeners to either immerse themselves in this conceptual material or simply admire the mechanics of the music itself, both from a technical perspective and in the subtle understanding of its sonic lineage.  

Devour Every Star: Antiquity
Out 3rd December on Blue Bedroom Records

Genre alchemy is a commonplace within contemporary metal, often passing without note. But nevertheless, it’s a dangerous game. In more recent years however there has been a marked push to meld metal with styles well beyond its usual comfort zones of punk, ambient, jazz, or folk. It’s usually black metal that bears the brunt of this, and gains the most attention from civilian music fans owing to its enduring avant-garde potentialities. But more often than not the results are derivation disguised as innovation. Rather than genuinely striking out on a new paths, artists seek to lift elements from unrelated styles (hip hop and black metal, ska and death metal) and piece together Frankensteinian creatures desperately searching for an identity beyond the body parts they are made from.

That’s not to say we should damn the very principle of cultural exchange currently underway. Fruit is still forthcoming, but buyer beware. Enter Devour Every Star, with their latest LP ‘Antiquity’. This is essentially a trip hop album with guitars in it, and by that measure falls well outside my usual remit. But Devour Every Star are doing a few things both in terms of composition, and in the melding styles and moods, as to be worthy of a spotlight.

Most projects that attempt to marry hip hop with black metal give little regard to arrangement, often coming across as two or three records played at once, clipped and unstructured montages of music history with little concern for how these elements are integrated at the holistic level. By contrast, Devour Every Star take a surprisingly subtle approach. On the surface this is literally a mellow instrumental trip hop album with the occasional passage of distorted guitar. But what’s key here is the way the guitars have been integrated into this setting, and the effect this has on the wider compositions.

All the elements of trip hop are here; the mellow, shuffling beats, the rock solid basslines, the minimal piano melodies, a general sense of melancholia. Devour Every Star also make subtle use of synths throughout, adding soaring high end harmonies set low in the mix, thus entering the mind at a subconscious level, functioning as suggestions of how to feel as opposed to overt emotional manipulation. Despite offering the usual warm sentiment and catharsis of contemporary lofi hip hop – these are not dark pieces by any measure – many of the melodies offer a bounce and activity that keeps the attention. At times they wander between ambient and folk, giving us the subtlest hint of dungeon synth set to hip hop rhythms at times.

Each piece consists of these fairly commonplace elements alongside passages dominated by distorted guitars; for want of a better word we could call them choruses. The first thing that comes to mind is Godflesh both in terms of the guitar tone, but also the obvious trailblazing work Broadrick did in marrying extreme metal with electronic music. But Devour Every Star take a softer approach, the guitar tone would be fitting on a stoner album as much as modern black metal, and in following the melodic material of the trip hop segments they come across as almost jaunty in places, offering sorrow as a contrast to the pageantry of uplifting folk melodies. In this regard Summoning becomes another worthy parallel to draw in the use of hypnotic repetition, never quite settling on overtly depressive or joyful moods, always shifting in a state of ambiguity despite the very traditional harmonic approach, that and Beherit’s anomalous ‘Celebrate the Dead’ EP. Life presents us with much to despair at, but we march on with hope because we must.

Seen from this angle, ‘Antiquity’ works as a piece of genre alchemy thanks to the simple mantra that less is more. Devour Every Star have composed a trip hop album, but one informed by the smallest fragments of metal traditions which are thus sprinkled throughout these works like a fine blend of spices; a little black metal, a little industrial, a little ambient/dungeon synth.

This lends the trip hop passages a subtle but notable distinction from the contemporary norm for this genre. The guitars are fully integrated into this setting, elevating the music with drive and direction but still maintaining the themes and moods of each piece. We are a long way from calling ‘Antiquity’ a great dive into the unknown, or even declaring that it has transcended the borders of the genres it draws upon, but it does offer a unique experience regardless, a world of suggestion and ambiguity, and ultimately a series of promising signposts for any wishing to follow in its wake.

Cosmic Burial: …to the past
Out 30th September on Purity Through Fire

In an apparent quest to shun the exhilarating toxicity of extreme metal whilst still making use of the packaging, Cosmic Burial vomit forth a sickening brew of sugar-coated sterility on their latest LP ‘…to the past’, presenting us with all the imagination and musical complexity of the EastEnders theme. The obvious inspiration may be Lustre and Midnight Odyssey for swelling and immersive atmospheric black metal with a distinctively cosmic aesthetic, but the riffs take us no further than a basic pop hook. Think mid 2000s indie with a black metal guitar tone and some flat synths deployed for the illusion of depth.

As far as generic rock riffs go, ‘…to the past’ is far from the worst thing you’ll ever hear, but little is done to justify the ten minutes plus each track insists on lasting for. They breeze by with a mid-paced driving rhythm, a standard 4/4 time signature, chord sequences defined by basic and obvious cadences, and only the most generic of layered harmonies deployed as a stand in for actual musical development. As if aware of the limitations of this format, the drums will occasionally cut out to half tempo to give us the illusion of a finale, but the fact that the preceding music has been circling repeatedly round the same idea with nothing in the way of development, tension, narrative, or even the bear minimum of additional timbres means that little can be done by the end of the piece to manufacture a sense of journey, motion, or purpose.

One can sense what Cosmic Burial are trying for here, but the attempt is so lazy and uninspired that it really does need calling out. Black metal – especially the flirtations with post black metal explored on ‘…to the past’ – is well suited to creating the dreamlike, fantastical, naïve qualities that artists as divergent as Drudkh and Midnight Odyssey have been praised for in the past. But these artists – whilst far from beyond repute themselves – at least offer something by way of compensation for the loss of danger and strife in their interpretation of the form. Lustre for instance have a distinct and unmistakable aesthetic, Midnight Odyssey have atmosphere to spare and can write a riff with at least some character when it counts. Even bands like Winterfylleth – who do more than flirt with the musical catharsis of post black metal – still compose each track to a rigid set of structured rules that make the purpose and motivation clearly understood by the listener, even if their formula is now weighted by predictability.

But on ‘…to the past’ we get the worst of all worlds. The danger, jeopardy, and excitement is sucked out of the black metal aesthetic. The riffs – which are really just generic rock chord sequences – lack any defining characteristics by way of compromise for this loss. Minimalism could be plugged as a virtue, but one cannot give Cosmic Burial the benefit of the doubt even in this regard, because there is no indication that they understand the virtue of minimalism as a compositional tool for communicating more than the sum of the parts.

Even if we take these pieces as sickly-sweet indie pop (it’s some people’s bag after all), I doubt even the most forgiving indie fan would be able to put up with this format for the ten minutes that each track asks us to spend with it. Even the most sickening indie music offers novel musical hooks to engage with.

These lazy and flat compositions– varying little throughout the album’s runtime – immediately invoke suspicion in the listener. They come across as a façade, a glowing billboard promising much and delivering little. Like a TV ad that attempts to tug at the heart strings or the cheap narrative tricks deployed in the writing room of a Hollywood romcom, this comes across as desperately pandering to multifaceted human emotions that the artist is simply not equipped to convey through music.

The music we hate is often closest to the music we love. We hate Cradle of Filth far more than we do comrade Britney Spears for instance, because CoF play a style that neighbours the metal we love, we recognise elements within their music that we like, but in a setting where everything else is wrong.

‘…to the past’ bears comparison to post black metal, a style well known for inducing boredom dressed up as profundity. But even if we put a different hat on an assess the merits of post black metal on its own terms this album falls flat. And the reason for provoking all this revulsion could be boiled down to the failed attempt at sentiment. This looks like music at its most emotionally vulnerable with zero heart. It falls utterly short of actually conveying anything meaningful about the human condition. It’s not that Cosmic Burial is not “true enough” or “dark enough”, it simply fails on its own terms.

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