I like the beats and I like the yelling: Sadistic Drive, Heruka, Swords of Dis

Sadistic Drive: Perpetual Torture
Out 27th May on Headsplit Records

Finland’s Sadistic Drive march into the difficult second album with newfound confidence and bombast, but this does not hide the fact that something has been lost along the way. The Autopsy-on-meth mind-fuckery of their debut EP ‘Street Cannibal Gluttony’ made them one of the more promising death metal outfits of the recent present. The disjointed bedlam of their debut ‘Anthropophagy’ only further justified this assessment, taking a sledgehammer to middle-of-the-road death metal convention and twisting it into a malformed iteration of itself, one fit for the disorientating chaos of 2020.

In this context, ‘Perpetual Torture’ is far from a total failure. The street level aesthetic is retained, with all the grit, rough edges, and chaotic violence that have become Sadistic Drive’s calling cards. The musicianship has also been ramped up, with the technical and percussive elements tightened into a slick and streamlined blast of choppy death metal that warrants comparisons to Morpheus Descends or early Suffocation. There is also plenty of chromatic weirdness still intact on tracks like ‘Sacraments of Sadism’ that sees them supplement two dimensional violence and energy with some much needed experiments in the horrific.

A crunchy guitar tone fleshes out complex, unfolding riffs that build up collections of staccato motifs over the course of each track, offering new iterations with each shift in tempo and rhythm. New characters of atonal confusion are introduced partway through by way of additional thematic material that goes some way to adding welcome tension and development to supplement the obsessively compulsive drive that sits behind the central refrain.

Drums perform as expected, framing the rich articulation of relationships between riffs with rhythmic punches and shifts in emphasis. A more elongated fill might signal the introduction of a new link riff and thus the next stage in the narrative. Sharp basslines can be discerned clearly, working beneath the fray, adding accents of menace as much as a rhythmic anchoring. Screaming guitar leads are a welcome but sparingly used tool in the Sadistic Drive arsenal, taking over where the guttural vocals leave off in gathering these disparate elements into something approaching a song philosophy.

But the overall package sees Sadistic Drive take a step away from the outer borders of death metal at its most celebratorily twisted and instead pivot toward a musically richer tapestry of riffs that nevertheless brings it more in line with standard OSDM of early 1990s worship fodder. They still approach this brief and much revered period with a degree of nuance and knowledge lacking in many of their peers, but it is undeniable that with the release of ‘Perpetual Torment’, Sadistic Drive have gone from a vanguard phenomenon to merely above average competence.

For those unfamiliar with this outfit, ‘Perpetual Torment’ will rightly be considered one of the more delicious treats of death metal in 2022. The fact that this is a step backward for this artist as far as their morality warping uniqueness is concerned should not diminish perceptions of this as a solid death metal offering worthy of anyone’s time. But question marks remain over the future trajectory of this artist, and whether the impetus to the weird will ultimately win out over a merely competent exercise in genre box ticking.

Heruka: Memorie
Out 24th May on Rude Awakening Records

‘Memorie’ is the third full length for this Italian black metal outfit, and their ability to combine weighty thematic material with outrageously catchy riffing shows no signs of fatigue. True to form for Southern European black metal, Heruka offer a highly riff-based take on the style as opposed to the pronounced atmospherics of their Northern European cousins, but there is a heavy dose of Swedish influence apparent in the riff philosophy behind these tracks.

Production is clear and crisp without sacrificing the raw spontaneity behind this brand of direct and intense black metal. Drums are intimate and direct. The snare has an exposed, tinny sound that is still knitted neatly into the rest of the mix. The lower end of the kit is given plenty of clarity in order for the precision blast-beats and instantaneous fills to be fully visible despite the density of the music.

The guitar tone is equally dualistic, split between a raw DIY aesthetic and rich theatrics. The tone is crisp and clear, but with enough body to inject these tracks with a sense of high theatre. Vocals are a  strained, mid-range bark which lends ‘Memorie’ a welcome punk aesthetic despite the heady lyrical material. Percussive punches are tempered by elongated notes of conviction in delivery.

Despite the addition of other instrumentation on tracks like ‘Vegetale’ – minimal keyboards, clean vocals – the vast majority of this album is kept modest in terms of textural offerings. All is focused toward perfecting a brand of energetic, intensely melodic, riff based black metal. This sees older, atonal schools of thought from Bathory married up with the dark romanticism of mid-1990s Swedish black metal, all tied together with a strong Hellenic influence, albeit delivered with a degree of punk intensity which grounds this music in the immediate moment.

Direct, unadorned, and utterly free of pretension. But this is far from a “back to basics” reiteration of retro credentials. Heruka demonstrate a clear identity that separates them from their peers and displays a continuity between ‘Memorie’ and their previous album ‘No Sun Dared Pass Our Windows’. Their ability to craft melodic characters that work through competing moods, whether this be pure energy and speed, heroism, reflection, or finality, all serve to elevate this music above riff salad material. Heruka are able to toy with cadence, sometimes for the duration of an entire track, teasing the listener toward a resolution in a manner reminiscent of Gorgoroth in their heyday.

This means that the relatively modest presentation works in this album’s favour, no further adornments are needed to make it work. All that is required is the intricate play of riffs, melodic licks, and tight rhythmic underlayers in order for the listener to immerse themselves in this music. Anything more would be a distraction. A refreshingly sparse and creative slab of direct extreme metal.

Swords of Dis: Cor Mundum Crea in Me, Sanctum Ignis
Out 10th February, self-released

From the home of metal itself comes Birmingham’s Swords of Dis, with a new EP of angular, dissonant, doom-laden black metal. Taking the oppressive nihilism of Mayhem’s ‘Ordo ad Chao’ and stripping the presentation back to a restrained sparsity, Swords of Dis imbue the nihilistic undercurrent of modern black metal with an emotive core born of an exploration of desperate theological rumination. The template is familiar, with grating, high-end guitar lines weaving in and out of one another via deliberately off-key meanderings, choppy rhythmic patterns and disorientating tempo changes, and clashes between abrasive distorted tones and the soothing minimalism of clean guitar lines that mirror similar juxtapositions between strained distorted wails and the almost Gregorian ritualism of the clean vocals.

The production is clean, mechanical, and wouldn’t feel out of place if layered over industrial metal. This is no wash of all encompassing, apocalyptic noise. The approach on ‘Cor Mundum Crea in Me, Sanctum Ignis’ is more forensic. The guitar tone has been deliberately robbed of any low-end, but nevertheless offers a razor-sharp distortion that allows full articulation of the dissonant, unpredictable chord shapes and interweaving lead patterns. Droning chords offset this, granting this EP its strong doom character, one born of depressive existentialism rather than crushing walls of sound.

Bass can be easily discerned beneath this framework, fully adopting the role of pace keeper, pushing the music in a forward direction in spite of its many tangents. It provides a rhythmic context to the almost lawless melodic impetus of the riff philosophy, grounding the music with a sense of context and drive. Which is just as well seeing as the drums are equally conflicted. Although they are presented as mere backdrop, relatively low in the mix and understated, they stand in defiance of the guitars with choppy rhythmic punches and blast-beat passages lasting for just a few measures before another faltering breakdown. All serves to disorientate the listener further, constantly resituating their understanding of rhythmic emphasis alongside the already ambiguous attitude to key signature.

Although dissonant black metal – particularly that which borrows mood palettes liberally from funeral doom and neighbouring genres – is almost the default setting for contemporary black metal, Swords of Dis are carving out new creative spaces within this aesthetic. This is no random collection of harsh textures and nihilistic platitudes gathered together for the sake of rampant abrasion. There is hope at the heart of this music, and therefore meaning. Gentler clean textures articulated through guitars or vocals are a constant returning character throughout this EP, and serve as welcome contrast to its jagged edges.

There is also a sincere attempt to wrestle with theological themes that goes beyond the merely negative attitude to religion prevalent across much of metal, taking on a meditative form, an attempt to articulate the profoundly reflective nature of early theological thought that was not simply driven by fear of god, but a sincere desire to understand our reason and purpose for existing. All marry up artfully in this tight and concise EP of imaginative extreme metal.

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