I like the beats and I like the yelling: Theomachia, Thorn, Trest

Theomachia: The Theosophist
Out 4th February on Xenoglossy

This conceptually weighty EP self identifies as “gnostic black metal”. Borrowing artwork from William Blake, and drawing heavily on ancient Roman and Greek esotericism, one could be forgiven for thinking that ‘The Theosophist’ would be a confused exercise in sensory overload so common to modern extreme metal with aspirations to the intellectual. But no, Rome’s Theomachia keep things brief and understated for their debut EP, offering an interesting blend of trancelike repetitions, with elements of minimal Russian black metal, neofolk via the lens of a Negura Bunget or a Khors, and some more familiar Burzum shaped calling cards.

The black metal elements are kept minimal and distant, with simple ruminating riffs set to galloping rhythms, all deployed in order to set the scene rather than acting as a centrepiece. Picking up these simple melodic frameworks are breakdowns of clean guitar arpeggios that draw the rhythmic philosophy closer to the personable character of folk, which serves as a welcome contrast to the washed out severities of the black metal elements. Drums submit to these rhythmic dictates, switching from mid-paced blast-beats or busy double bass driven drum patterns to simpler rock back-beats with ease.

Vocals veer from mid-ranged growling to droning clean vocals, the latter of which is not the strongest in terms of carrying a tune, but the distant, almost sleepy style fits the subtle, dreamlike qualities that Theomachia flesh out on this EP.

The push and pull between the aggression of the distorted style and the profound fragility of ritualistic clean chanting is mapped onto equivalent tensions found within the music itself. The folk elements are not simply decorating a black metal EP, they seem to be working in direct opposition to them. A subtle war of attrition is drawn out between the competing tenets of human fragility vs. the bracing dangers of the universe external to this.

And this is where the tag “gnostic black metal” warrants further interrogation, because it seems that we could analyse all great works within the genre in these terms to some extent. In its attempt to subvert the various conceptual frameworks imposed from above by institutional hierarchies, black metal seeks to cut the umbilical cord of prolonged socialisation under consumer capitalism. Black metal is a form of meditation directed toward experiencing what the romantics would have called the Sublime directly nad without mediation, whether this be through direct experience of natural wilderness, the currents of deep history, mythology, or the thrills of internal exploration via the physical and emotional extremities of occult ritual and personal strife.

One reading of the various currents of black metal over the years is that of a quest to bypass the noise of societal hierarchies, preconceptions, and traditional moral structures in search of a more permanent reality that persists beyond our own in-built mortality.

It is interesting therefore, that Theomachia, in attempting to expand on this idea by directly referencing this as conceptual material for ‘The Theosophist’, should come to such an understated and – dare I say it – intimate EP by black metal standards. Although the familiar cogs of black metal are at work behind the scenes on these three tracks, they work in direct contradiction to the underlying themes of the music, which seem to lean more toward neofolk in spirit. Most black metal searches for a means to transgress modernity through encounters with external forces beyond the self, eshewing the immediacy of the human psyche, self-reflection, ritual, and intuition. ‘The Theosophist’ by contrast, is black metal that seeks revelation by looking inward, to the boundless eternity of the self, to which the exterior forces of reality and nature represented by the traditional black metal elements are antagonistic.  

Thorn: Yawning Depths
Out 4th February on Chaos Records

“Good music transcends genre” is one of those sayings that looks like wisdom, but is rarely as sage as advocates would have you believe. Sometimes, perspective matters. Especially when it comes to the murky territory of music criticism. It is with a mixture of scepticism and frustration therefore, that we approach Thorn’s latest release ‘Yawning Depths’. There’s something about the concoction of death, doom, sludge, and grind that comes across as a little chimerical. From the wrong angle it looks disfigured, a worst-of-all-worlds genre mashup. But from another angle this album has a story it wants to tell, one that comes tantalisingly close to fruition were it not thwarted by needless distractions.

This is the second album from this Arizonian solo outfit, and one has to admire the brevity of Thorn’s statements if not the execution. Despite the slow, lumbering, weighty character of this music, it’s actually really quite cluttered in terms of genre reference points. Half formed death metal riffs will collide against sludge breakdowns, soaring, melancholic leads, and lacklustre grind segments. This is delivered against a backdrop of a guitar dominated mix, with a fat drum sound that’s barely able to pierce the thick armour of the guitar tone to announce its presence. Vocals stick with the guttural death metal style despite the broad pedigree of influences on display here.

One reading of the genre straddling leaps this album makes could be rather cynical. An attempt to cast as wide a net as possible in the hope that this will draw in a broader audience than would otherwise be possible, whilst still retaining the veneer of a finished, unified product. The fact that we are given bits and pieces of various genres is considered enough to keep the fans happy. Never mind whether they are serving any wider purpose in the music other than simply being something we recognise. It’s the laziest form of genre alchemy there is.

This is made all the more frustrating because there is a decent album buried beneath all the noise on ‘Yawning Depths’. There are segments of melodic doom on tracks like ‘Lapis Lazuli’ that link up nicely with the atonality of the sludge and grind elements, which eventually meanders into a welcome dark ambient link section into ‘Unknown Body of Light’, which again uses dissonant drone to serve as contrast to the percussive rhythm guitar as it strikes relentlessly at a single note to great effect. The cyclical inevitability to many of the leads even hints at the death industrial ethos of a Desecresy at times.

But the moments where Thorn actually uses these disparate traditions in its armoury to flesh out a story via music are sadly a little too rare. ‘Yawning Depths’ spends too long on providing a whistle stop tour of contemporary extreme metal styles on the borders of sludge, doom, and death, with little regard for whether this serves a wider artistic purpose. But even that, sadly, may be a little generous, seeing as tours tend to start in a different place to where they finish. But Thorn seem to jerk from one style or riff to the next, leaving the subtle craft of musical arrangement, pacing, and progression out in the cold. The result is a box ticking exercise, a kind of art-by-audience-recognition, concocted in the hope that listeners will laud one’s ability to merely ape various fragments of genres we love, as if music were a one stop shop of disconnected tropes for us to high five over.

Trest: Ordalium / Chambre Ardente
Out 28th January on Amor Fati

This anonymous German outfit sees both their demos, ‘Ordalium’ and the previously unreleased ‘Chambre Ardente’, compiled together on this one release from Amor Fati this year. ‘Ordalium’ is the chunkier of the two, consisting of five weighty tracks of solidly grim black metal. We are told that Trest are German, but the sound is very much Ukrainian, with Roman Saenko’s influence apparent all over these driven, trancelike numbers.

For the most part Trest keep things raw but immersive. The guitars are layered up to create an enveloping wall of sound, granting extra mileage to the simplest of riffs. Although drums are certainly unpolished, they present a full-bodied throb that works to fill out the mix, adding weight and gravity to the overall look of this music. Vocals opt for a lower register than is common for black metal, again solidifying the Hate Forest similarities, this also calls to mind Hymnr’s recent offering ‘Far Beyond Insanity’.

This is rainy day black metal that seeks to bring the listener’s mood down through a highly focused textural experience more than via complex riffing. There are moments of dissonance, basic tempo changes, the occasional arpeggio, but for the most part the riffs consist of rudimentary chord progressions orientated toward the depressive or sparsely grey mood palettes. Repetition is key here, as simple themes are driven home with subtle flexing up or flexing down of accent chords, additional textures, and only very minimal development required to make us feel like the music is progressing toward its goal.

Although the literal interpretation of this music – at least for me – is one of motion and progression, a lengthy journey covering vast distances of imposing woodlands and open plains, the actual shape of the compositions is more cyclical. There is one chord progression that seems to anchor each piece, with rudimentary variations taking it only a short distance away before returning us to the central motif. We are circling round a resolution that we know consciously will only be reached at the track’s conclusion.

The two tracks that make up the ‘Chambre Ardente’ demo add elements of more traditional melody which are almost pleasant by comparison, but the same overall ethos is pursued with rigour. Although fans of Hate Forest, Walknut, or Ygg may find these demos a promising little holdout for this epically grey style of black metal, Trest are yet to quite stand up to the considerable legacy of these artists. The demos are yet to define a character of their own despite their qualities. As it stand this is a competent interpretation of a style, but is yet to be stamped with an identity that would set Trest apart. To put it another way, the style defines the lifeblood of the music, rather than the music defining the style. We await this difficult next step for Trest with interest.

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