I like the beats and I like the yelling: Sinoath, Karmanjaka, Evil Shade

Sinoath: Portraits of Personal Darkness
Out 26th February on Hessian Firm

Metal is not a style that lends itself to freeform improvisation. Whilst it certainly creates space for elaborate soloing and lengthy instrumental segments that might look like improv, as soon as these elements are committed to record and subjected to the scholarly study of its dedicated fanbase, a rigidity of form is often maintained for an individual piece. It is with some curiosity then, that we approach this semi-improvised collection of ambient, jazz, progressive rock, and heavy metal, put together by erstwhile Italian death/doomsters Sinoath.

Originally released in 2020, ‘Portraits of Personal Darkness’ will see a physical release on Hessian Firm this February. All albums are in some sense a frozen moment in time, a snapshot of where the artist’s mind was at for a brief period. But metal albums in particular attempt to transcend this inconvenient truth, and make their albums look like statements that will shine down through the ages as monuments committed to eternity. And this is often how we as listeners approach these albums, as rare jewels to be placed in museum cabinets and studied for generations to come.

The fact that ‘Portraits of Personal Darkness’ was predominantly recorded live and retains the aesthetic of a jamming band in a rehearsal studio means that Sinoath are able to stare down this illusion, and explicitly present us with a work that at least attempts to confront with art’s inevtiable temporality. The loose threads of 70s psychedelia, old school doom metal, understated NOWBHM riffing, and jazz grant these seasoned death metal musicians space to explore new characters and structures that the formalities of fully formed metal would not usually allow. The result begins to look like a sounding board of ideas. It’s as if we the listener are being granted special access to the creative process itself, an album of behind the scenes footage replete with offcuts, fascinating tangents, and avant-garde juxtapositions.

That being said, it should be noted that ‘Portraits of Personal Darkness’ retains a solid and pronounced character throughout its forty five minute runtime. Sinoath have clearly agreed a loose structure and shape to these pieces ahead of time, whilst still granting plenty of space to allow them to grow organically. This is no random collection of dead end fragments and half-baked riffs that never came off. Despite the demo quality of the drums, the subdued guitar tone, the uncertainty surrounding crescendo and finale, there is a ghostly, ethereal quality that seeps through the cracks of the music, and grants this album the look of a finished work. One can almost see the musicians making eye contact with each other in order to link together for the next build in dynamics, one can also hear the moments when it didn’t quite come off, or miniscule errors in rhythmic judgement.

But all this only heightens the distorted realism of the presentation. It gives the segments of stoner doom commonality with the dark ambient, or the triumphant heroism of heavy metal a link to the sobriety of the ambient segments. The result is an album that works from many different angles. As a kind of genre hopping freeform improvisation that can be played as background noise, or else as a study in the art of riff creation and composition, or simply in appreciation at the site of musicians pushing themselves in all manner of musical directions in order to see where it takes them.

‘Portraits of Personal Darkness’ offers a uniquely temporary artistic vision with many rewarding pockets once one lets go of a metalhead’s expectation of formality and rigid composition and treats this more like a (real) prog or jazz album.

Karmanjaka: Gates of Muspel
Out 11th February on Grind to Death Records

The third album from these Swedish black metallers sees them tighten up a package of energetic folk metal, exhilarating abrasion, and progressive virtuosity. What makes Karmanjaka stand out in this regard is how they have used the violent origins of this music in order to temper the showier aspects of modern black metal into a sombre, sincere beast that still lacks nothing in impact. ‘Gates of Muspel’ is a polished, cinematic, sweeping epic of Norse mythology inspired metal, but it retains the dirtier aspects of traditionally minded black metal, and uses these contrasting elements to complement each other, rather than becoming bogged in overworked sentimentality.

Despite the dense and angular guitars working their way through lightning fast riffing, staccato melodic death metal, epic Viking metal tracts, and odd little progressive tangents, the mix is replete with other voices and timbres. Clean guitar tones make a regular appearance as the music devolves into tasteful yet elongated improv segments which serve as the ideal contrast to the intensity of extreme metallic riffing that frontloads the album. Keyboards are used sparingly but effectively to flesh out the texture when the music settles on a melodic refrain or theme, these serve to anchor the frantic impetus of the guitars into a momentary stability before the next segment of chaos takes hold.

Drums are crisp and clear, shuffling along with the rhythmic impulses of the guitars, providing a rock-solid foundation from which all manner of fractal fills and unpredictable tempo shifts are able to grow forth. Vocals are equally schizophrenic, shifting from a mid-range hoarse rasping to semi-clean semi-distorted Viking-esque crooning.

The album is rife with unexpected pockets of jaunty folk melodies that will sit happily alongside black metal riffs of an overtly “evil” bent. These are linked together by plodding mid-paced Viking metal riffs that serve as jumping off points for the soaring lead guitars that proudly drags the music in a staunchly triumphalist direction. Karmanjaka can get away with venturing into catchy and even poppy territory at times whilst still retaining a bite of danger precisely because their music is so dense, so stuffed with purpose and ideas that the listener is forced to suspend their disbelief.

‘Gates of Muspel’ sits at the border of sensory overload, tightly stitching together adjacent but highly distinct musical traditions, but more importantly focusing these in ways that compliment and contrast with each other, and thus providing the cogs for this well oiled machine of an album.

Evil Shade: Vandals
Out 25th February on Chaos Records/Spookies Productions

Speed metal is an odd one. A shaky compromise between thrash, power, and heavy metal, it’s an unsure blend of various metal cliches that often fails to distinguish itself enough to warrant its own genre demarcation. But of the artists that are commonly understood as speed metal there is no shortage of respect. The impression one gets is that true-blue speed metal is what power metal would sound like if it took itself seriously.

These are just some of thoughts that strike one upon listening to Mexico’s Evil Shade and their debut EP ‘Vandals’. This is a shameless work of retromania, but with many similarly backward looking releases flooding our airwaves, Evil Shade retrain some of the aspects of 80s metal that modern listeners may find hard to swallow. The operatic singing style from a vocalist that has no right to be so ambitious with his untrained voice, the orchestral and remarkably upbeat positivity to many of the riffs, the fact that the musicians sound like they are having sincere and natural fun, not the kind that is so often shoehorned into a marketing ploy (Party Cannon anyone?).

Although the production clearly nods backwards, it retains a modern polish. Drums are crisp but a little low in the mix, buried beneath a dominant guitar tone. This can make the connecting threads of the transitions hard to follow at times, but a good ear will appreciate the tight performance that sits underneath. Guitars are rich and warm, boasting a tone diverse enough to capture epic heavy metal, proto thrash, and the latent neoclassicism of the solos. Vocals sit proudly front and centre and, as mentioned, the performance could not be described as weak, because Diego Rojas is really going for it on this EP, if he hits a note or two now and then even better.

But the real star of the show here is of course the bombastic riffs, bolstered by galloping rhythms and an underlying exhilaration that sits just on the border of thrashing aggression. ‘Vandals’ reminds us that there were many aspects of old school metal that would seem silly to modern ears, yet they are every bit as worthy of preserving for the simple, unbridled well of creativity that can be garnered from not catering to our preconceptions of what a downbeat modern sensibility craves. If you can’t accept metal at its silliest, you don’t deserve it at its darkest.

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