I like the beats and I like the yelling: Abbath, Out of the Mouth of Graves, Saklas

Abbath: Dread Reaver
Out 25th March on Season of Mist

Many treasures were lost upon Demonaz’s untimely tendonitis induced departure from Immortal. Gone were the intricate layers of high speed guitar work found on ‘Pure Holocaust’, out was the reckless abrasion of ‘Battles in the North’. All spoke of music too heady and self-involved for a new generation that took pride in maintaining a humorous detachment from artistic experience. It was asking too much to expect the heady Bathory driven early days of Immortal to suddenly gain a second wind under Abbath’s stewardship. The fanbase with an appetite for Immortal’s brand of light hearted melodic blackened thrash were too large and vocal to ignore. Thus the era ushered in by ‘At the Heart of Winter’ found an enduring popularity in the new post ironic century and ensured that Immortal’s creative train would terminate here as each subsequent release began to mimick this style.

Following the ugly legal dispute that cleaved Immortal in two, it was Demonaz who sensed that maybe the time was ripe to resurrect some old school primitivism, a move made apparent on the first post Abbath Immortal offering ‘Northern Chaos Gods’ in 2018, which saw a flavour of ‘Battles in the North’ barbarism make a return.

But the real significance of the split in Immortal was the fact that their finely crafted public personas as the good humoured elder statesmen of black metal finally cracked. This made it necessary for Abbath’s solo career to double down on his clownish public image regardless of what Demonaz was up to. He thus formed the band around his personality, his trademark corpsepaint, and a potent mix of fun loving heavy metal and epic melodic blackened thrash with just enough depth for critics to sink their teeth into. Three for three, the latest offering ‘Dread Reaver’ features another image of Abbath’s face, this time going full old school heavy metal with comically superimposed devil horns.  

Given such a restrictive remit it’s hardly surprising that his solo material circles around the same set of safe and familiar tropes. The music wanders from a similar brand of epic heavy metal that could be found on his other project I, with some light dissonance sprinkled around for good measure, a holdover from Immortal’s black metal years, along with heavy dollops of bouncy pop driven blackened thrash.

For the most part the tempo has slowed, and there is a marked attempt to move away from the one dimensional winter enthusiasm that has defined much of his career. This is a very modern call back to the heavy metal giants of the 1980s. The tracks are fixated on achieving an anthemic, foot-stomping mass appeal. Any black metal traits still present are directed toward retaining enough edge and danger to allow long time Immortal fans to listen safe in the knowledge that they are not being fed anything remotely connected with the brand of pop metal currently under the protection of Ghost followers.

This album will secure Abbath’s public image for another few years. Having survived the brief reality check that was the Immortal legal battle, his solo work has salvaged his reputation as a fun loving but serious musician. Naysayers can safely be dismissed as taking life too seriously. He offers just enough compositional meat for critics to lavish praise on his work without them losing face. Fanbase, brand, and some semblance of artistic integrity are all in the bank for now, and everyone goes home feeling like they came out on top.

Obscurantist tract writers will come off looking utterly foolish for attempting to pick apart this work with anything like the rigour they would spend on a more serious artist. There’s no need to make explicit what everyone already knows but cannot admit, lest they risk missing out on the grand post ironic illusion that is black metal’s merching with popularist humour, birthing a truly bestial chimera that refuses to be slain.

Out of the Mouth of Graves: Harbinger Unceremonious
Out 31st March on Vargheist Records

Sitting just on the border of what we could charitably define as music comes ‘Harbinger Unceremonious’, the debut album from the brand new American death metal entity known (rather pithily) as Out of the Mouth of Graves. If we were feeling uncharitable we might describe this as death metal’s answer to Deathspell Omega. But where the latter was an attempt to pack as much surplus information as possible into every bar of music, ‘Harbinger Unceremonious’ is an exploration in music’s untimely collapse. It’s as if we are watching death metal implode from the inside, as riffs, drum fills, and guitar leads all struggle to marshal some semblance of solidity in the face of their ultimate decay.

The production is what we in the trade would call “raw as fuck”. Tinny drums clatter and barrage their way through these tracks with absolutely nothing done at the mixing desk to soften their immediacy. Several guitar tracks weave in and out of one another, accompanied by an array of vocal outbursts from every end of the register with little regard for rhythm or phrasing.

The guitars themselves take the art of dissonance to another level by apparently just playing different pieces of music over the top of one another. Whilst the drums manage to keep the rhythmic momentum of the pieces together, the guitars for the most part offer a blunt wall of sound, atop which random melodic inflections or contextless flecks of noise occasionally jump out of the fray. The competing guitar lines do coalesce at times, either linking up with droning chords in response to a rhythmic breakdown or collaborating in lead guitar work that marries up with the pitch if not the key of each line.

Much like China’s Scenery of Pale Lake is for black metal, I would describe ‘Harbinger Unceremonious’ as a work of post death metal. And I mean this in a very literal sense rather than the common understanding of the “post” prefix. It feels like we are watching the literal collapse of death metal’s proud formalities. The taut rhythms, the disciplined riff formation and placement, the solos that bring theatre and melodic character into sharp focus, all are losing their structural integrity and dissolving into noise across these tracks. But Out of the Mouth of Graves attempting to exist between two worlds.

Many metal subgenres have abandoned the pursuit of traditional music and started to bleed into noise. But here we witness life on the border, with just enough familiar musical features to make us feel like this should be home, but a home where the walls are slowly collapsing around us, sinking into the murk below. And this uncanny exercise in music’s partial decay is undeniably more compelling and noteworthy than many purer metallic interpretations of noise genres.

Saklas: The One Who Swallowed God
Out 1st April on Personal Records

Bucking the death/thrash trend of fellow Chileans, Saklas offer up a surprisingly sober interpretation of symphonic black metal for their debut EP. Apparently not ones to shy away from ambitious goals, ‘The One Who Swallowed God’ offers up nearly forty minutes worth of material across a mere four tracks, including a cover of Los Jaivas to close. Their touchstones are all too familiar, but the approach is refreshingly concise. Early Dimmu Borgir, Mayhem circa ‘Ordo ad Chao’, and flashes of Emperor prove to be key influences, but these are supplemented by the contemporary appetite for lavish displays of abrasion and dissonance.

The production embodies an industrial quality. All is tight, clinical, pristine, yet with an underlying static that keeps the overall presentation fairly raw. The cinematic depth and textural range required to give this style of symphonic metal a sense of immersive theatre is retained. Although the closing title track ‘The One Who Swallowed God’ reaches over sixteen minutes in length, a good chunk of this is silence that eventually leads into a minimal industrial suite to close off the original material on this EP. And given the precise delivery that characterises the metal tracks – the sharp guitar tone and tight rhythmic flourishes – this dark electro segment fits well with the overall themes that preceded it.

Saklas introduce themselves by way of utter chaos, with a surplus of lightning fast riffs and blast-beats blazing by at a rate designed to overwhelm the listener. But these eventually give way to slower segments which see riffs of a classic gothic infused romanticism supplemented by very modern dissonance. Keyboards are put to good use here as they take on a lead role via piano tones that supplement the chaos of the guitars with some much needed melodic material. From their each instrument engages in a dance for domination over the forward direction of each track as they meander from atonal nihilism to tragedian gloom.

The choice to finish the EP with a cover of Los Jaivas’ ‘La poderosa Muerte’ from their seminal 1981 album ‘Alturas de Machu Pichu’ is an interesting one. If for no other reason than the fact that Saklas manage to retain the spirit of the Andes inspired prog folk of Los Jaivas and place it into an undeniably black metal setting, thus bringing out the most compelling features of each genre and further solidifying extreme metal’s already strong links with classic era progressive rock. It also serves to end the EP on an oddly bright note, as the cathartic melodies are given newfound power via the black metal textures.

The prog influence also creeps into the original material at times, with breakdowns characterised by clean guitars and ethereal synths creating plenty of space for the drums to shine with more complex rhythms and intricate fills. This EP is a great display of musical unity whilst simultaneously allowing the many voices within Saklas’ armoury a chance to shine. Each instrument is granted its moment in the sun, but this avoids coming across as a mere vehicle for musicality, as each contribution serves to elevate and advance the narrative of each piece, gradually dragging the listener deeper into the experience with each new phrase.

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