I like the beats and I like the yelling: Theandric, Nathr/Ordo Cultum Serpentis, Ninth Realm

Theandric: Flight Among the Tombs
Out 11th February, self-released

The fact that a band like Theandric with an EP like ‘Flight Among the Tombs’ can exist in 2022 is a source of both hope and exasperation. Hope (and confusion) that there are still far flung corners of the world – Detroit no less – where this cocktail of prog rock, heavy metal, and high fantasy stylings still gains significant traction in spite of what everyone from stuffy critics and cynical fans (and the general ambient misery of our times) may say to the contrary. Yet exasperation that, despite the rich and intricate musicality on display here, the style refuses to budge an inch beyond the 1980s.

Theandric subvert the most obnoxious aspects of power metal by looking to older 70s influences in the pronounced prog flavour that seeps through these four tracks. This in turn supplements the gradualist melodrama of the Candlemass school with intricate guitar and keyboard work and some surprisingly bouncy folk flourishes. This allows Theandric to bypass the paradox of heavy/power metal, in that in literal musical terms it should be the most accessible style of metal. The riffs are catchy, the vocals clean, it shares many traits with popularist heavy rock. Yet it remains notoriously abrasive, divisive, and at times oddly impenetrable.

With that in mind it makes for an extra treat that ‘Flight Among the Tombs’ manages to transcend this baggage, replete as it is with intricately unfolding melodies that cannot fail to engage, odd meandering bridges that manage to take the listener on a journey via musical story telling, and plenty of space for virtuosity that avoids alienating the listener in any undue masturbation. Seen in this light, pop hooks sit quite happily alongside densely packed prog segments and a measured dose of power metal’s penchant for fanfare.

That being said, the guitars reign supreme in this regard, taking us on a whistle stop tour of metal riffing since about 1975, supplemented by some tasteful folk revival influences to broaden the sonic offering. But keyboards also play a key role in delivering the ‘Flight Among the Tombs’ baby, with intricate organ lines opening the EP and making frequent appearances throughout, serving as a backdrop to the call and response guitar leads.

Theandric lack the darkness of Cirith Ungol, the shameless intensity of Candlemass, the glamourous swagger of Queensrÿche, or the speed and exhilaration of Iron Maiden. What they do have is a shit load of riffs, an ear for melodic development, and a seemingly bottomless well of creative space in which to work. For this reason I’d wager that this EP could reach an audience far beyond the usual crowd of dedicated traditional heavy metal fans. There are so many pockets of intrigue hidden within ‘Flight Among the Tombs’ and so many familiar touchstones presented in new ways that it’s almost infectious. I’m still not sure whether to be encouraged or fall into despair at the sheer naivety required to release such a compellingly innocent EP in 2022, but I can’t seem to tear my ears away, which is certainly an encouraging sign.

Nathr/Ordo Cultum Serpentis: Shadows Crawl
Out 4th February on Signal Rex

Ever since its inception via Skepticism, Switzerland’s Mordor, Thergothon, and Esoteric, funeral doom has been in a state of flux. An ironic notion for a genre famed for achingly slow tempos and epically long compositions that suggest a state of stasis. But given that it straddles the borders of black metal, death/doom, melodic doom, dark ambient, and dungeon synth, it’s hardly surprising that it should occupy such fraught territory. I’m always of a mind that this shade of hyper depressive music works best when it presents itself as the literal process of metal shedding its metallic elements. Much like the entropic structure that Anatomia applied to their latest album ‘Corporeal Torment’, which felt like a metal band playing ambient. For all its aspirations to suspend a sonic moment in time by creating the illusion of stasis, this is a realm of activity and struggle.

That’s certainly the impression one gets after listening to this split put out by Signal Rex, which features two lengthy tracks from Nathr and Ordo Cultum Serpentis. Norway’s Nathr open this EP with a slow burn intro consisting of an organ driven pulse, anchored by the threateningly minimal tap of a bass drum, gradually ascending chords, and the slow increase in activity of isolated clean guitar notes.

Whispered spoken word vocals are something I usually dismiss as cheap theatrics in extreme metal, but here they settle into the background throb and work well in contributing to the build in tension. The way Nathr gradually layer up the instruments over the course of ten plus minutes, subtly building in distorted guitars in a way that burrows into the listener’s subconscious is reminiscent of post rock in its use of dynamics. The manipulation of quiet/loud contrasts, whether stretched over extended periods or jammed into sudden juxtapositions is a basic yet highly effective compositional technique all too underutilised in extreme metal.

Nathr have put a great deal of thought into arranging the different instruments according to their inherent qualities, getting the best out of their selection of timbres. From there the focus is on obtaining the right collection of sounds and driving them in the required direction as opposed to complex musicality.

The crescendo then built, Nathr are free to let loose with their brand of apocalyptic funeral doom, replete with aggressively distorted vocals, distant clean chanting, random projectiles of feedback that approach the ear gradually from afar, and from different directions each time. To their credit they keep the mix fairly empty in spite of the massive guitar tone, opting instead to build tension from silence rather than cluttering up the mix with surplus information. The structure is akin to watching a wave build in slow motion, the heavy and inevitable rise of energy sluggishly reaches its apex before falling away back into nothing.  

Mexico/South Korea’s Ordo Cultum Serpentis certainly reside more on the death metal side of the funeral doom coin. Indeed, their contribution to this EP in ‘Filii Serpentis Nigri’ could well be an Anatomia b-side. Droning, down-tuned guitars do exist on this track, and indeed march through large swathes of it, but they exist against a backdrop of cavernous echoes and ritualistically haunting vocals that sit somewhere between Gregorian chants and throat singing.

Initially the riffs populate this sparse landscape with downbeat drones somewhere beyond menacing death metal with no small hint of stoner doom thrown in. If the delivery were not so sincerely gloomy one could almost say there was an element of whimsy to them. They return after a lengthy interlude of chasmic dark ambience to be accompanied with more distantly distorted vocal patterns, so drenched in the inertia of reverb as to morph into textural framing as opposed to a centrepiece. At this point the tempo picks up, a blast-beat kicks in, and the guitars well and truly devolve into noise as they attempt to tremolo pick in a tone ill-suited to the task.

This is where the argument on perspective becomes important. Despite the lineage and choice of timbres on display here, this is clearly dark ambient. Maybe livelier and more sentient than ambient is commonly held to be, but the structure, delivery, and intent behind this music comes from a slightly different place to that of straight edge extreme metal. And this is also where I would argue that funeral doom is at its strongest, as an achingly slow struggle for metal to shed the weight of its lineage and open the door to uniquely dark and vast spaces via the meeting of doom metal’s gravity and ambient’s spacey indifference.

Ninth Realm: Ondreis MMXXII
Out 3rd February, self-released

The latest demo from Maryland’s crossover newcomers Ninth Realm sees them flex their death metal muscles. I love the directness of a thrash pummelling as much as the next shitmuncher, but the broadened stylistic horizons hinted at on the two tracks that make up ‘Ondreis MMXXII’ are perhaps a welcome hint of things to come for Ninth Realm, and paradoxically brings the music into sharper focus.

Riffs are potent brew of Teutonic thrash, early death metal, and old school heavy metal, with no small amount of doomy melodicism thrown in for good measure. The first track ‘Ondreis’ sees Ninth Realm slow things down, as a stop start, punch and duck structure begins to emerge via drum patterns built around tension and release, with guitars following their lead in building up energy before unleashing a barrage of staccato atonality, accented by frantic trills and wonderfully aggressive vocals. Although the second track ‘Witch’s Choir’ attempts to speed things up some, the pattern of slow, patient builds before a thrust of speed is retained despite the briefness of the track itself.

The production is suitably beefed up to accommodate the chunkier monolith that Ninth Realm are sculpting here, with the sluggish tempos allowing them to develop riffs centred around a full-bodied guitar tone that gets every ounce of energy out of each ringing chord. Likewise, the drums, despite their rawness, pack a heavy bass punch that underpins the momentum of this music. Guitars are then free to link up the strong beats with brief flourishes of ascending notes, adding urgency and tension in the absence of any frantically fast tempos.

This heavier, murkier, moodier take on thrash with an undeniably sinister undertone is a welcome new avenue for Ninth Realm. One can only anticipate how this will play out on a lengthier EP or even an album somewhere down the line.

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