I like the beats and I like the yelling: Tyrannus, Freja, Cultic, Slimelord

Tyrannus: Unslayable
Out 2nd April, self-released

Following on from the promising ‘It Taketh’ EP released last year, Scotland’s Tyrannus expand their quest to marry riffcraft with atmosphere on their debut full length ‘Unslayable’. This is essentially one elongated piece of high concept, Lovecraftian inspired extreme metal. Riffs bounce seamlessly from technical death metal to oppressively fluid black metal with ease. As the album progresses we move from dark and moody tones through to the (relatively) bright realm of euphoric and triumphalist black metal supplemented by staccato punches of death metal. But context is not a myth, and despite the rich tapestry of riff styles and neat pockets of melodic experimentation, Tyrannus are an artist with an ear for atmosphere, soaking their work in an overpoweringly drab aesthetic guaranteed to grey any sky.

From the understated menace of the album’s opener right through to the practically jubilant finale of the closing track ‘Break the Will of Evil’, Tyrannus unfold moods of oppression and alienation punctuated by intoxicating hope. In maintaining a balance between these competing forces they save the music from becoming overworked with sentiment or heavy handed contrivance at any point.

Dark and flowing black metal riffs blast by, layering up harmonic material and soaring bittersweet guitar solos in their wake, only to be cut down by the stop/start jolt of angular death metal riffing. Drums are able to switch from mid-paced blast-beats to stilted, shuffling rhythms with ease, providing a technically proficient anchor for the music without ever distracting from the patiently arranged riffs as they develop and build ideas over the course of entire tracks.

Although bass is rarely the star of the show in extreme metal, within moments of climax or transition the instrument emerges from its supportive role to provide minimal but effective timbral enhancing punches when it counts. Vocals offer a mid-range growl befitting of occultist extreme metal which feels entirely appropriate given the Lovecraftian subtext to this material. Lyrics are also perfectly audible thanks to the fairly uncluttered mix and the conviction of the performance.

Tyrannus are not without a progressive edge, as many of the tracks meander into clean breakdowns replete with rhythmic intrigue, allowing each instrument its moment to shine within the spaces left in the absence of distorted guitar. Equally, a melancholia is established and maintained throughout the course of ‘Unslayable’, as a drab aesthetic re-emerges at regular intervals only to be supressed by the wanton aggression of majestically dark riffing.

Ontologically speaking, this album sits on very familiar territory for any seasoned fan of modern extreme metal. But ultimately, that’s not the point. Tyrannus have fleshed out a niche for themselves within this cluttered field and made it very much their own. Through a combination of rigid adherence to their uniquely glum aesthetic and adeptness for melodic manipulation and riff placement, this debut shines forth with an unmistakable character lacking in many of Tyrannus’s peers. A success of understated contemporary darkness.    

Freja: Tides
Out 22nd April on Babylon Doom Cult Records

Atmospheric black metal is probably what qualifies as easy listening in extreme metal circles. I struggle to say this seeing as I find everything from Agalloch to Fen so offensive to the sensibilities that listening to them could not be any further from an “easy” experience. Freja’s take on the style on their debut album ‘Tides’ is awash with the same atmospheres of sweeping and cathartic soundscapes, but here they feel earned thanks to the fully realised structures that sit beneath these compositions, which are replete with diversity, fully integrated, energetic, and mildly dissonant at times.

It gets right what so many artists in this field get wrong. It has real substance to bolster up the strong aesthetic offering that is a requisite for this style, one so strictly enforced that many bring nothing but textures to the table. There is motion and life behind these pieces, they progress as stories are told through music with variety and contrast, not as mere coat hangers for trite sentiment.

Layers upon layers of rich rhythm guitar serve as a foundation for reverb drenched leads defined more by their textural qualities than melodic. Drums – despite the relatively simple down-the-barrel performance – offer a massive sound, with the snare beating relentlessly beneath the wash of guitars and adding genuine bite to the music. Bass can also be clearly discerned thundering away at the bottom of the mix, creating earthy textures that lend the music a truly immense size and scope.

The vocal offering is also a diverse one, with guttural death growls, high end screeching, ethereal chanting, and soothing melodies that hint at pop hooks. All are distant in the mix, drenched in reverb, again serving to open out the sound and give credence to the wide spaces Freja are attempting to conjure.

Freja work between runs of galloping blast-beats, washes of melodic guitar noise, and moments of abrasion by way of contrast, only to collapse into straightforward rock rhythms as an anchor to guide the traditional harmonic material. Segments are dwelt upon and repeated well past their shelf-life, as is common for this style, but Freja never let a refrain settle without adding some variation after each cycle, whether this be clean guitar harmonies, soaring vocals, or additional contrapuntal riffs, even the subtlest deviation from straightforward repetition goes a long way to justifying the longevity of these pieces.  

There’s no getting away from the fingerprints of genre on an album like ‘Tides’ however. One reason I come down so hard on modern atmospheric black metal is the fact that there is potential locked within it, yet all but a few pass up on these possibilities because content is harder to master than form. If one is not a fan of this form then they may find few joys within ‘Tides’, but it remains a masterful work of explicitly genre orientated metal nevertheless, and therefore particularly recommended for those craving cathartic black metal with some semblance of heart and mind.  

Cultic: Of Fire and Sorcery
Out 22nd April on Eleventh Key

If we’re judging books by their covers (we all do it, don’t be shy), then one could be forgiven for assuming from the cover art and song titles alone that ‘Of Fire and Sorcery’, the latest LP from Pennsylvania’s Cultic, is either a cavalcade of bombastic power metal or dark fantasy ambient (if only that subgenre had a name). For anyone unaccustomed to this artist, it may then come as a surprise to learn that they trade in a very primitive version of old school death/doom that hearkens right back to the early days of Autopsy or Lord of Putrefaction.

Our snap judgements are often better grounded in experience than we give them credit for however, for Cultic are a serpent with many heads. They do indeed trade in sonic styles more common to the fantasy based metal (and metal adjacent) genres; here essentially positioning themselves as a death metal outfit playing dungeon synth, resulting in a procession of slow, plodding, primitive death/doom with a very clear punk ethos supplemented by dungeon synth aesthetics.  

The production is stripped back, lo-fi and murky. Weighty, down-tuned guitars are barely capable of articulating riffs that even hint at complexity, drums sway and roll through simple, lackadaisical beats that speak of a performance geared toward laboured rumination than multifaceted polyrhythms. Vocals veer from aggressive barks of proto death metal to heavy metal melodrama and miscellaneous spoken word. Despite the outrageously straightforward sonic makeup of these tracks, they offer hints of psychedelia, Celtic Frost, playful tritones, and an undeniably repressive atmosphere only aided by the garage quality of the production.

But the metallic lineage of this album is only half the story. One way of reading ‘Of Fire and Sorcery’ is as a metal album set to a dungeon synth soundtrack. Or maybe a dungeon synth album bolstered by interludes of dirge ridden death/doom. Whatever angle we come at this however, there’s no denying the rich and captivating experience that Cultic have to offer. Ambient interludes are frequent and lengthy, to the point where they make up a significant centrepiece of the album, with simple yet effective keyboard layers creeping in to accompany the doom laden riffs, adding layers of texture and thematic depth.

Despite the simplicity of each musical component however, they unfurl in a gradualist and deliberate manner in a way that compels one to continue listening. It’s an understated journey that sucks the listener further and further down into the dark, fantastical world that Cultic inhabit. By adding a degree of unselfconscious bombast and naivety to a down and dirty metal formula, they imbue it with a sense of theatre and high drama that bolsters the experience into something entirely novel.

Equally, by meshing familiar techniques from dungeon synth with the threatening menace of droning chords and a fuzz of distortion, it adds a layer of menace and gravity to the at times flippant tropes of dungeon synth (#notalldungeonsynth). But the devil’s in the delivery, and although Cultic could be praised for reawakening the marriage of bombast and primitivism that made a ‘To Mega Therion’ so special, the real success of this album all comes down to the performances and arrangements. The laid-back swagger of the death/doom segments, the restrained minimalism of the synths, the quirky melodrama of the vocals, and of course the wash of dirt that is the production of this album, all go a long way to convincing us that Cultic mean it.

Slimelord: Insurmountable Peril
Out 22nd April, self-released

Slimelord bring the weird for their latest brief EP ‘Insurmountable Peril’. The Incantation-on-Valium death/doom formula is still very much intact, as is their talent for crafting cavernously dark spaces reminiscent of diSEMBOWELMENT. But the lead guitars are just a little bit more off the wall, the structures a little more disconnected and unpredictable, the riff progressions dialled up just past the point of logic to morph into fascinatingly erratic tangents.

Equally the vocals are moving away from a one trick, guttural growl and into histrionic and bizarrely inhuman ejaculations of terror. The drums offer a stop/start foundation, unsettling the momentum of each piece, finding tension within even the most direct of rhythms, and utilising the creative potentials within empty spaces to great effect.

Although offering only ten minutes worth of material, this EP witnesses Slimelord growing into their own skin, exploring their abilities within death/doom that sits somewhere between the atmospheric and the entirely riff driven. The riffs themselves are increasingly off kilter, exploring odd key changes and elongating their duration into unexpectedly lengthy guitar licks of progressive doom. But Slimelord are becoming masters of mood as much as they of riffs, marshalling dark and haunting atmospheres to complement their increasingly idiosyncratic style.

In short, this is an artist that is bringing changes to bear on a genre, rather than simply allowing the norms of a genre to define the blueprint of their music.

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