I like the beats and I like the yelling: Ezra Brooks/Serpent Rider, Evil Damn, Pressor

Ezra Brooks/Serpent Rider: Visions of Esoteric Splendor (Split)
Out 22nd October on No Remorse Records

This split EP provides a welcome holdout for proudly traditional heavy metal, offering many rewards and lessons for the discerning listener. Ezra Brooks is a Canadian solo act, brainchild of one Shawn Vincent, which here deliveries plenty of infectious heavy metal, replete with utter sincerity pitched just on the right side of the border of good taste, ducking the more excessive trappings of genre that some find hard to swallow. Serpent Rider are formed of members from Seattle based death metal outfit Draghkar. Here we find them extending their mastery of Greek black metal and its close connection with the heavy metal family tree.

When we label this as “proudly traditional” however it’s important to note that this is not regressive music. The Ezra Brooks half of this EP gallops out of the speakers with unabashed bombast. One cannot help but think that this is the style that the modern “heavy metal” iteration of Darkthrone always wanted to be, if only Fenriz had any vocal chops or an ear for melody.

The production is somewhat understated, hinting at a retro aesthetic without beating the listener over the head with it. Despite the clear drums, the crisp guitar tone, and the unmistakable clean crooning vocals, all is contained with ample compression, speaking of a focus on riff and melody articulation over dynamic range.

And as each track unfolds these choices feel entirely appropriate. Old school speed metal makes up the link passages of each piece, with soaring yet slightly distant vocals riding waves of fast-paced drums and unrelenting riffs. But these are quickly supplemented by outrageously catchy melodic hooks. At times, keyboards function as an alternative lead instrument to supplement the guitars as the dominant soloist. Speaking of solos, these are tempered somewhat within the confines of the music’s structure. There is plenty of virtuosity on display for sure, not least the drums which deploy subtle rhythmic shifts and off-kilter patterns beneath the guitar work to heighten the tension. But all is kept contained within the melodic character of its environment, and serves to develop each piece rather than completely railroad it with empty musicality.

Serpent Rider take a less conventional approach. The early Greek influence is still present – as it is in Draghkar – but here the rhythmic underpinning is unmistakably within the heavy metal camp, diluting the drabber approach of early Rotting Christ and Varathron with a jaunty bounce that gives the music a more heroic quality than it does mystical. Riffs are frequently supplemented by lead guitar harmonies, which almost work in duet with Villar’s ghostly take on clean metal vocalisations.

The production betrays death metal’s hand at work as the background influence beneath the overt heavy metal elements. Drums are heavy, with a loud, reverb-laden snare dominating the mix and giving the music an aggressive punch at its very foundation. The guitar tone, whilst warm and organic, wouldn’t be out of place on a certain brand of older European heavy metal. And of course the high end is placed front and centre allowing for the lead melodies that make up the heart of this music to draw the ear. Whilst the style of vocals on display here is a little distracting, it works as a well placed contrast to the high energy music. They are slightly distant, ethereal, disembodied, adding an interesting layer of atmosphere to the otherwise relatively straightforward range of timbres within the music itself. Seen in this light, the approach taken to the cover of Varathron’s ‘Flowers of My Youth’ takes some interesting turns, as Serpent Rider must reinterpret the distorted vocal performance into the melodic setting.  

In combining the pageantry of traditional heavy metal – especially from a rhythmic perspective – with the sense of ancient mysticism that made Southern European black metal so special in the early 1990s, Serpent Rider have concocted a powerful blend of heavy metal. At once comfortingly familiar, yet with elements of the mysterious, the unknown, the beyond, which bleeds out of the music through the vocal lines, the fully matured guitar melodies, and the longform construction of the compositions.  

Both these artists stake a strong claim to the continued legitimacy of heavy metal in a modern setting on this EP. Owing to the underlying naivety of this style, its relevance today has been relegated and confined to ironic party music or the camp excesses of modern power metal. But ‘Visions of Esoteric Splendor’ represents a holdout for heavy metal as music of nuance, complexity, and sincerity, hiding many layers beyond simple pomp and ceremony, with many corridors of creative expression yet to explore.

Evil Damn: Necronomicon
Out 29th October on Hells Headbangers Records

Well, it took the best part of twenty years, but Peru’s Evil Damn have offered their first full length LP to posterity. Sticking largely with Hells Headbangers quest to comfort the timid with familiar styles, this album fails to break any boundaries in a distinctive way. However, it has a few things going for it that make it worth closer attention. ‘Necronomicon’ harks back to an older school of death metal, a wonderful brew of thrash, hardcore punk, early black metal, and of course the begins of the fledging style of death metal. The cover art and title of this work should dispel any myths that we’re getting earth shattering conceptual material here, but this is a tight and rewarding brew of early extreme metal stylings regardless.

Sure, we could look to Sarcofago (a cover of ‘Christs Death’ is deployed to close the album), early Sepultura, Grotesque, Bathory, and Hellhammer as all obvious influences. But the end result on ‘Necronomicon’ could actually be more closely summed up as a thrashy version of ‘Altars of Madness’. The thing about opting for Lovecraft as the chief inspiration for a metal band is the responsibility it places on musicians. One cannot just borrow the language, concepts, and ideas of Lovecraft’s stories, the music itself must be imbued with a sense of the alien, the other, the unknown. That’s why so many artists opt for a form of angular and brooding technical death metal as the ideal compositional style for invoking many tentacled monsters and faceless horrors.

Evil Damn take a more direct approach. But they haven’t simply opted to lift their chosen subject matter and place it on a rather basic form of blackened thrash metal. They have supplemented this format with creepy guitar leads, tritone breakdowns, wild vocal ejaculations, and subtle atmospheric inflections. Guitar solos often feel like they were composed first on a clean setting – or maybe even a piano – to ensure that the melodies were suitably haunting, before transposing them onto an overdriven guitar and set to fast paced thrash drumming. Standard Slayer style atonality is offset by tremolo scale runs that are just so early Morbid Angel that at times – were it not for the more direct (although no less tight) drum style – one could be forgiven for thinking this was an act of plagiarism.

The production betrays its modern context however. Everything is just a bit too clean and immediate for this form of horror-based thrash. The vocals are suitably atmospheric, but the drums and the guitars are overly clinical in their finish. Whilst from a purely musical standpoint this allows us to admire the tight musicianship on display here, one can still wonder whether a few more aesthetic flourishes – overly zealous reverb, a cavernous snare sound, excessive feedback – might have helped the music to convey its subject matter more effectively.

That being said, Evil Damn can still claim to have crafted a perfectly balanced interpretation of pre-1990 extreme metal, both enriched by occult aesthetics yet replete with well crafted musical architecture. They do just enough in terms of idiosyncratic guitar leads, monstrous vocal play, and occult weirdness (especially on the lengthy title track) to make ‘Necronomicon’ standout from the pack as far as unapologetically retro metal goes.

Pressor: Twist the Bliss
Out 18th May on Addicted Label

Russian psychedelic doomsters take a more measured approach on this latest EP ‘Twist the Bliss’. Where the previous EPs such as ‘Weird Things’ were characterised by relentless drone, punctuated by persistently energetic rhythmic punches, all framed in a Hawkwind fuzz of synths and feedback, ‘Twist the Bliss’ opts for a more brooding form of malevolence. Patient yet insistent, the fuzz of distorted guitars has been stripped back to an intermittent background feature in favour of layered synth loops, forthright vocals, and surprisingly catchy bass hooks.

Although brief, this EP functions as an overture in two parts. With the opening track ‘Twist’ defined by simple grooves and the gradual layering of sound tapestries atop a relatively conventional stoner doom malaise. Intriguing in its repetition, what makes this compelling are the background features that frame the relatively pedestrian meat of this piece. The gradual layering of synth loops, the industrial rhythm placed atop the drums, the artificial vocals subtly altering the aesthetic of Stas Vasilev’s performance.

But this oddly understated performance creates an undeniable sense of tension, which gradually gives way to more traditional doom metal antics as the EP transitions into ‘The Bliss’. Here we enter true Ufomammut territory, as dark and fuzzy guitar soundscapes are flavoured with endless mechanical noise, and new space is opened out for atmospheric expression.

And that’s the real lesson to take away from this EP. Following the ironclad lows of entropy, the strict rhythmic discipline of the first half, where all is order, logic, and reason, gradually gives way to the dictates of chaos, and the latent disorder finally seeps through the cracks only to dominate the close. Structurally it’s nothing ground-breaking in the realms of doom metal, but Pressor apply a unique aesthetic sheen to these loose grooves that allows us to see these old formats in a new light.

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