I like the beats and I like the yelling: Benthik Zone, The Mist from the Mountains, AngelBlast

Benthik Zone: εἴδωλον
Out 28th January on Onism Productions

Any Star Wars fan worth their salt will have seen the footage of George Lucas discussing the jarring transitions at the finale of ‘The Phantom Menace’ with editor Ben Burtt and producer Rick McCallum. The cloaked panic on their faces as Lucas responds to the observation that within about 90s seconds we go from “lamenting the death of a hero, to escape, to slightly comedic with Jar Jar” with the claim that it’s “stylistically designed to be that way”, all the while acknowledging the need to mitigate its effects. Whilst the hot mess that was ‘The Phantom Menace’ leaves little doubt in anyone’s mind that it was stylistically designed at all, the jarring tonal swaps that greet the ear on ‘εἴδωλον’, the latest LP from the Portuguese outfit known as Benthik Zone, are disorientating, stimulating, and look to be entirely intentional on the part of these musicians.

In the first few minutes of this album we go from noise, to ambient punctuated by gentle pan flute music, to industrial black metal a-la Blut Aus Nord, to an orchestral build that resembles Widziadło in its tempering of post metal sentimentalism into a more refined and focused beast. But extreme music, unlike mainstream cinema, is the perfect forum for exploring the art of juxtaposition, contrast, shock, and abrasion. And far from ‘εἴδωλον’ resulting in nonsense, the melodic through lines, the concentrated crescendos and well-placed key changes guide us through this motley crew of surface level influences with hypnotic ease.

Following the considerable scene setting of the first two tracks, the album then settles on the atmospheric, industrial black metal angle with ease, working in elements of ambient and noise to contrast with the driving rhythms and relatively conventional chord structures of the metallic passages. Benthik Zone hold the threat of utter disorientation over our heads for the entire album however, as builds and fades continue to haunt the peripheries of these pieces.

Distant samples, guitar noise, and gently pulsing synths all present familiar sounds in alien guises, at times mimicking the sounds of a city with voices and sirens, at others the more conventional industrialism of a drum machine takes hold. All the while punctuated by the relatively pedestrian distortion of the rhythm guitar which serves as a foundation for soaring harmonies and sequential refrains that lend all these disparate sundries some much needed context.

And this is where the real beating avant-garde heart of ‘εἴδωλον’ can be found. Anyone can – and many do – slap together bizarre concoctions of influences and quirks deemed crass by the conventions of good taste for the sake of provocation; a sort of “any reaction will do” ethos. But few can master such a large cluster of moving parts into a work that means something beyond empty taunting.

Benthik Zone prove to be masters of scene setting. They show their hand early by forcing the listener through such abrasive and unwholesome transitions that by the time track three ‘Sonho-a Desnuda’ kicks in we are primed to accept almost anything. And this focus on arrangements that will compliment their rich brew of competing flavours is what sets this album apart from similar endeavours.

From there they marshal their textural armoury into a battering ram of industrial black metal with a strong doom aesthetic. The fact that many of the chord progressions are somewhat commonplace looks like an act of audaciousness in this context, as if re-introducing the garden variety conventions of “music” into this setting is something that we should regard as brash. But in actuality it’s a masterful demonstration that extreme music at its best is often a meeting of revolution and tradition. The new gradually seeps in at the outer seams of ‘εἴδωλον ‘, giving new and unexpected perspectives on the old.

The Mist from the Mountains: Monumental – The Temple of Twilight
Out on 28th January on Primitive Reaction

The debut album from the Finnish outfit known as The Mist from the Mountains – if the name didn’t already drop any hints – is one of those releases that makes me re-examine that phrase: guilty pleasure. ‘Monumental – The Temple of Twilight’ is a sugar-coated slab of melodic black metal bordering on symphonic. It is so free of risk, so pleasingly entertaining, whilst retaining a degree of sombre restraint as if to certify its legitimacy that I cannot help but go along for the ride. It’s a greasy tray of chips to the sickly sweet, iced cakes of Dimmu Borgir.

As a dedicated Cyndi Lauper fan with an extreme metal blog, I should probably clarify why this album would be considered a “guilty pleasure”. On closer examination the best I can come up with is the fact that – for fans of bracing, polished black metal with plenty of NWOBHM melodicism and subtle folk flourishes – this album gives us exactly what we want. We are invited to gorge ourselves on these well-worn features of the black metal landscape and indulge in them free of shame.

The problem with The Mist from the Mountain is that they are just too adept at this style to allow for any resistance from the intellect. I come across about ten releases a month in a similar vein to ‘Monumental – The Temple of Twilight’ and most of them get ignored as derivative, dull, or simply too close to sonic iced buns for my liking. But The Mist from the Mountains present a mixture broad enough and focused enough to keep us wanting more.

Fast and mid-paced melodic black metal via riffs with a strongly defined character is rendered through a panoramic approach to composition, and some welcome folk and proggy flourishes along the way (see the track ‘Thus Spake the Tongueless Serpent’ for example, which had the audacity to offer an Opeth-esque acoustic breakdown alongside haunting female vocals to supplement the full-frontal attack of riffs).

Alongside the usual sheen of rich guitar tones, earthy, full-bodied drums, and vocals placed just on the right side of passionate, The Mist from the Mountains deploy subtle keyboard textures, strings, jaw harps, acoustic guitars, and an array of instrumentation worked in modestly alongside the metallic centrepieces. The key to this is the fact they have harnessed this in subtle and understated ways, alongside music that – for all its bombast – reins in the most excessive trappings of this style for the sake of retaining a degree of artistic legitimacy.

So despite my best efforts to avoid making this review sound like a convoluted justification for eating comfort food, that’s precisely what this amounts to. ‘Monumental – The Temple of Twilight’ is a shameless celebration of black metal at its most escapist, soothing, and downright fun. None of these things should detract from it as a serious work of art. The musicianship, composition, and mixing are all executed flawlessly. But I would throw out nine other releases that sound like this for the sake of one ‘Monumental – The Temple of Twilight’ for simple reason that it works as a celebration of well-worn traditions, and for fans of the style we simply cannot help but get caught up in its pageantry, and dispense with the serious pursuit of ground breaking music for a moment of innocent joy that this album brings.

AngelBlast: Throne of Ashes
Out 28th January on Edged Circle

Some well-placed accents and ancillary flourishes just about save this EP from being the most boiler plate of Dissection/Necrophobic derivations. ‘Throne of Ashes’ is the second such release from AngelBlast, which sees this outfit expand into blackened death metal of the gothic and horror driven type as opposed to the proudly melodic.

With A.I. now able to compose music in different genres if fed enough information, one could be forgiven for thinking that ‘Throne of Ashes’ is one such result. Boasting lyrics and riffs way too far on the wrong side of generic to be taken seriously, this concoction of commonplace cliches is a little hard to swallow in 2022.

Whilst the production is broad and nuanced and the musicianship tight, these things are simply not enough to stand out from the crowd in this day and age. AngelBlast are not lacking for energy, throwing any number of blackened thrash, melodic death metal, symphonics, and rigidly precise drum fills to frame this picture.

But the resulting scene struggles to amount to anything more than a box ticking exercise in dark extreme metal. It’s as if we are listening to a rehearsal of a group of session musicians working through some exercises to keep their shit tight. It’s impressive from a technical point of view, flawlessly executed, but the heart is lacking. It is only the guitar solos and the occasional outrageous screaming segment of lead work that reminds us that there are real human passions at work behind these two tracks.

The problem is not the style – generic as it is – but lack of vision. One can work within limited and much trodden parameters and still emerge with a distinct identity. Unfortunately for AngelBlast, beyond a couple of wild solos and some interesting textural flourishes of guitar noise, we have no way of knowing that this wasn’t written by a bot that was forced to listen to hours of Dimmu Borgir, Necrophobic, and Dissection and then asked to churn out a Scandinavian metal EP.

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