I like the beats and I like the yelling: Goatcraft, Autokrator, Demonic Temple

Goatcraft: Sic Transit Gloria Mundi
Out 26th November on I,Voidhanger Records

Within the milieu of metal instrumentation, the keyboard is often viewed as a means to an end, an affordable substitute for a rich array of instrumentation. For the vast majority of musicians, access to a real orchestra is well beyond budgetary means, and even for the less ambitious among us, modern keyboards are more capable than ever of providing a reasonable and affordable simulation of whatever instrument we desire, real or synthetic.

This leaves the actual art of keyboard playing somewhat out in the cold. Sure, there are exceptions, but for the vast majority of us within metal, keyboards are relegated to the status of a tool, one used to furnish pre-existing arrangements. The intimacy and skill of playing traditional keyboard instruments such as the piano, harpsichord, or organ are left to other styles such as classical, jazz, or blues.

It is maybe for this reason that piano centred projects like Goatcraft have gone criminally underrecognized over the years. Combining elements of neoclassical, dark ambient, electronica, and dungeon synth into a rich and dark brew of soundscapes, this project is now on their fifth and sadly last album to date. ‘Sic Transit Gloria Mundi’ typifies and culminates the many aspects of the Goatcraft style, from the primal and aggressive piano playing of the debut ‘All for Naught’, to the more flamboyant restraint of ‘Blasphemer’ and ‘Yersinia Pestis’, to the ambient brevity of ‘Submersion’, it’s all here on this final offering.

Metal’s relationship (particularly black metal) with ambient music – despite some glorious moments over the years – often promises more than it can deliver. It seems fitting therefore that we should look beyond metal’s borders for a more complete understanding of the purpose and philosophy behind metal that can only be afforded us once the rock instrumentation is stripped away. Goatcraft deploy a minimal ambient backdrop to ‘Sic Transit Gloria Mundi’ that seems to ooze into the subconscious the moment the opening chords of ‘Redivivus’ kick in. This provokes an almost fugue like state within the mind of listener that doesn’t relent over the course of the album, granting us access to the unique internal logic of this music, taking us outside of time and place.

Most ambient projects that sit beside metal would often stop at this point, and stretch out a loose framework of atmospheres into a full length album for the sake of the “vibe”. But for Goatcraft, these richly layered textures are the setting for complex piano pieces replete with dense musicality. Thus, as the intricately weaving arpeggios of ‘Nous Aflame’ unfurl their majesty, driven forward by chord progressions both dark and hopeful in tone, we realise that the rich ambient textures that introduced the album are merely a backdrop for boisterous piano driven pieces.

Displaying an adeptness for the instrument rarely heard outside of classical music, both from a compositional standpoint and in playing ability, the interweaving lead melodies are delivered in twists and cycles that unfold atop subtle polyrhythms. The piano is such a diverse and enduring instrument thanks in part to its percussive capabilities as much as the melodic. Goatcraft seem acutely aware of this fact, as the basslines play off the more fragile lead melodies, and twisting arpeggios again emerge in graceful, flowing patterns. But all this virtuosity is contained within the internal melodic logic of each piece. They articulate themes of a progressively darker nature as the album drags us onward, only to culminate in a cover of Morbid Angel’s ‘Desolate Ways’, which fits neatly into the cathartic narrative arc of ‘Sic Transit Gloria Mundi’ as a whole, leaving only the bittersweet organ of ‘Thus Passes Wordly Glory’ to close the experience.

The Goatcraft project is a reminder that – for metal at least – the quest to evolve and reinvent the template of contemporary music’s expressive potentials has only just begun. And the real borders of that evolution are not in the rootless genre alchemy of so many alleged innovators currently lurking under “progressive” genre monikers, but in framing the philosophy of metal with more of a birds eye view in mind. Rather than splitting metal apart and melding it with jazz or noise or hip hop, our time may be better spent in boldly attempting to understand the spirit of metal beyond the instruments and forms that it has chosen as a means to express itself over the last fifty years. Such an undertaking requires nuance and patience, and a willingness to explore musical avenues that we as an audience don’t seem quite ready for yet. And as Goatcraft have once again demonstrated, this is ultimately a project that will take us well beyond the bounds of metal as we currently understand it. This may sadly be the last we hear from this project, but for our movement as whole, we may have only just begun.

Autokrator: Persecution
Out 5th November on Krucyator Productions

I don’t think it can be denied that metal is much darker than it was ten or twenty years ago. Whether it’s the abrasive dissonance of modern black metal, the swelling density of doom metal, or the nihilistic chaos of blackened grindcore and war metal, at the extreme edge of extreme metal, there is no colour to be had. But darker doesn’t always mean better. The lofty concepts and undeniably rich atmospheres many of these albums conjure often falls short in the musical department. It’s easy to see why after all. If you have a fat mix, a monstrous guitar tone, and plenty of noise to layer on top, why bother writing riffs?

For that reason, I cannot help but think that France’s Autokrator are how many bands in this field want to sound but are never quite able to pull off. Their latest all too brief outing ‘Persecution’ is every bit as violent as blackened grindcore, as twisted as modern death metal gets, with plenty of feedback drenched doom breakdowns and industrial noise colourings scattered throughout. But the familiar feeling of zoning out to this aesthetic as the lack of substance beneath makes itself known quickly melts away as we come to realise that Autokrator have (whisper it) written some “riffs”. Good riffs too, and there’s more than one per track.

Ok, sarcastic shitmunching aside, ‘Persecution’ raises the game for that darker brand of modern extreme metal fixated on violence and engulfing sonic tapestries. The production on here speaks to that. Despite the meaty guitar tone, the mechanically precise drums, the guttural vocals, and the static noise lurking neath all this, the mix feels somewhat distant. The impact is once removed, as if we’re listening to the sounds of warfare a few valleys away. Echoes and siren like guitar leads seer across the machinegun of blast-beats and simple yet effective tremolo picked riffs.

Whilst this form of cavernous presentation is somewhat commonplace in this day and age, it becomes more engaging as we – the listener – peel away the layers of sound and begin to focus on the music beneath. Autokrator deploy an interesting marriage of drab doom riffing that is slammed up against those industrial grindcore segments, all informed by the more sophisticated melodic philosophies of death metal.

This is a tightly honed set of arrangements; one made all the more interesting given the marked industrial aesthetic that has been applied throughout the album. Interesting because the album’s subject matter focuses on the persecution of early Christians in the Roman Empire, a marriage of old and new ideas made plain on the track ‘Ceasar Nerva Traianus’, where theatrical keyboards and sound effects are worked into this decidedly contemporary extreme metal.

This album once again demonstrates that it’s often not the genre that is limiting but the minds working within it. Autokrator match their contemporaries for sheer blunt impact and overwhelmingly dark atmospheres. But it’s not the heaviness the counts, it’s what you do with. And on ‘Persecution’ we are given plenty of riff developments, interesting marriages of guitar noise and minimal progressions, and intricate sound tapestries to get lost in. All making for a far more rewarding listen than many albums currently being offered in a similar vein.

Demonic Temple: Through the Stars into the Abyss
Out 11th November on Putrid Cult

What started out as a promising slab of cold black metal morphs into a rather laboured affair by the close for Demonic Temple. ‘Through the Stars into the Abyss’ is the third full length outing for this Polish unit, and despite misgivings and disappointments as the album mires itself in stagnation toward the middle, it is not entirely without merit.

It starts out strong, as a foreboding intro gives way to the minimal counterpoint and subtle narrative developments of the title track. This is bracing and energetic black metal focused on repetition and mood, with melodic progression proving to be a welcome afterthought. The apocalypticism of this music is borne out by simple, high-end ascending chord progressions that hint at dissonance in a manner similar to Svartidaudi. And indeed, this album bears many similarities to the hopelessness of the Icelandic style as mournful guitar leads and despairing vocals compound on each other as each track progresses.

All is open space and exposure as simple guitar lines reverberate around the mix like relentless blasts of cold wind. Drums provide a surprisingly bass heavy anchor to these ethereal wanderings, thumping away at the low end with an immediacy to the ear that feels oddly jarring against the wash of distant guitars.

But sadly this formula is developed little over the course of ‘Through the Stars into the Abyss’. Sure, the tempo changes, with some tracks choosing to falter in stop/start rhythms and undulating drum patterns, bringing welcome respite to the blast-beats. But Demonic Temple tend to lean on the same chord shapes and intervals a little too frequently to truly maintain engagement. The obvious rejoinder to this is of course that this particular brand of black metal is designed to be repetitive, self-limiting, with the chief intention being to hammer home a certain atmosphere and mood that sits beyond the emotive bounds of other forms of contemporary music. And whilst that’s certainly true, Demonic Temple simply don’t have enough going in the textural or atmospheric department to warrant such melodic stagnation.

Their general aesthetic is nothing we haven’t heard a hundred times before in modern black metal. And whilst it’s certainly true that ‘Through the Stars into the Abyss’ is an above average offering in this department, the competition isn’t all that stiff. That being said, Demonic Temple shouldn’t count this album as a total failure. There are many pockets of intrigue, compelling finales and expert use of layered guitar lines which make for a pleasing experience regardless of any shortcomings in spontaneous creative energy. A well-crafted work that could have been improved with a willingness to take more risks.

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