Out 24th June on Season of Mist
‘Call of the Carnyx’ opens Saor’s latest album ‘Origins’, a track seemingly crafted as a whistle stop tour of the Saor’s aspirational Highland folk remit. A wash of sounds evocative of open plains, towering mountains, tranquil lakes, and dark forests greet the ear. All rendered through open, unchallenging chord progressions apparently composed with the sole intent of leaving listener palettes entirely unchallenged.
These are used to funnel melodic lead guitar lines that slump between heavy metal melodicism, bouncy folk refrains, and lyrical material with only the mildest undertone of sorrow. Heavy, driving rhythms walk beneath, with all blast-beats now stripped out of the equation save for scattered hints, leaving lavish, easy to follow patterns, occasionally linking up with the guitars to deliver djent-light staccato punches, the placement of which at least creates the illusion of activity within the core of the music.
What’s perhaps more interesting than these aesthetic flourishes however is their interaction and placement in relation to each other. Each element is delivered as a vignette, only marginally related to the sequence that precedes and follows it. Every track on ‘Origins’ follows roughly the same thought pattern, giving greater emphasis to one theme or another throughout. The overall delivery of the album therefore comes across as a demo reel designed to showcase atmospheric/melodic metal at its most crowd pleasing. The music has strayed so far from the black metal arena that the moniker look unbecoming at this point. Indeed, Saor mastermind Andy Marshall seems aware of this fact as his low-end grunting – formerly a welcome brush of animalism worked into the Saor package, now an obsolete appendix – is side-lined for the sake of extended instrumentation and minimal clean vocals.
This in itself is no detriment, and it should be noted that Saor have taken great pains to fill out the empty spaces in the landscape left by the lack of any lead voice, as the instrumentation – whether it be lead guitar, bagpipes, flutes, or violins – steps up with lyrical melodic throughlines that command the listeners focus on the first few listens.
The problem seems to stem from both the form these pieces take and the content of each building block. The guitar lines could honestly be computer generated. Every trick and tactic of mainstream musical wisdom is deployed in such a way as to cloak the utter lack of content beneath, a fitting soundtrack for a post Guitar Hero landscape. Any hard earned tension is quickly disposed of in building crescendos that take all the musical risks of a nursery rhyme. The music – for all its pomp, skill, arrangement, and theatre – fails to say anything about anything beyond a series of pleasing storyboards. Metal re-imagined as muzak.
Light Dweller: Lucid Offering
Out 24th June on Total Dissonance Worship
‘Lucid Offering’ could be read as an attempt to salvage postmodern death metal from the clutches of utter incoherence. It bears all the contemporaneous garden variety hallmarks that make up the complex of audience expectations in the present day. The post mechanistic aesthetics of organicism reaching for symmetrical clarity, lavish dissonance, overbearingly abrasive riff philosophies, and needlessly technical sonic material cluttered with information that achieves less than the sum of its parts.
But there is an underlying focus to Light Dweller’s marshalling of these unwieldy engine parts that gives us partial sight of daylight. Whether this be the addition of keyboards adopting string and piano lines with a brightness and cheer to them that works the music into a frenzied and monstrous euphoria, or the decision to rest on a refrain for the more than a few measures and allow the music to achieve some kind of focal point, all are indicative of an artist at least trying to offer the listener something beyond a mere aesthetic re-affirmation.
‘Lucid Offering’ is orientated as one would expect for an artist that follows in the wake of post reformation Gorguts. Rather than explore the surgical meditative dis-metal of ‘Obscura’, the infrastructure of arcane network-riffing has been transplanted onto a more organic, homely aesthetic that would be acceptable to sludge metal operatives, thus diluting the focus away from transcendence via percussive riff management and into indistinct postmodern blandisms.
But although ‘Lucid Offerings’ fits into this latter day Gorguts narrative, there are promising signs of an overcoming of contemporary stagnation in the offing to be found here. Riffs will often undergo a period of cyclical activity, before violently breaking free of their biomechanical paralysis and refocusing on a central theme that embodies the appearance of purpose. Jarring contrast, clever repetitions, chord sequences stretched just beyond their shelf life, and some well placed dynamics and textural shifts all go a long way to elevating these tracks out of their postmodern mire, positioning them in such a way as to signpost new possibilities and open pastures where brightness and melody has a resituated purpose when placed alongside the illogicisms of dissonant death metal.
Solipsism: Cruelty and Necrospection
Out 24th June on Hells Headbangers
The debut album from this Australian outfit is about as generic as they come for raw black metal. But there’s something to be said for a passion for the craft and ability to carry it off that can make even the most lazily drawn up template shine bright in an overwhelmingly cluttered sky. By now we all know the drill. High-end, tinny guitar lines move through a mix of mournful, sweeping riffs, with occasional forays into atonality as a cursory nod to the dictates of variation. Basement quality drums hack through mid-paced blast-beats, colliding crash cymbals, and barely audible bass. Obscure, reverb drenched vocals ride over the top with monotonous passion.
Since this description could apply to any number of albums released in the last two decades, it might be fitting to discuss the choice to even put pen to paper in service of ‘Cruelty and Necrospection’. The answer to this particular riddle can be found in the title of the album itself and its latent strain of whimsy. Although “whimsy” is not a common word that comes to mind when discussing black metal at its rawest, it is a fitting description for much of the style.
Whether this be the accidental comedy of grainy, photocopied corpse-painted images, or the stretched, disfigured structure of the track titles which, much like the great pains taken to produce low quality photos in service of the aesthetic, appear to have been thrice roasted in Google Translate before being considered fit for the black metal public. Titles such as ‘As I Wince at the Unrelenting Stare of Truth’ or ‘Alone with My Thoughts Again’ speak of a laboured literalism so striking that it must be considered deliberate.
And then there’s the whimsy of the music itself. If these tracks were transferred over to a professional mixing desk and given the standard treatment of the musical industrial complex it would probably sound like pop punk. The guitar lines may be mournful, crafted for wistful violins and late reflective nights, but the rhythms are bouncy, the music is replete with activity and life, the tunes are catchy, playful almost, they drive into the ear with a youthful persistence, a desire to be heard, to emerge into the day stuffed with a lust for life.
So much positivity – from a genre that prides itself on precisely the opposite – must, if it is to be considered legitimate, be cloaked in a veil of abrasion. Hence the lo-fi production, distorted vocals, barren guitar tone, and factory floor drums. But as a result of this sleight of hand there supervenes a new kind of musical experience, the intention behind which is hard to pin down, call it sorrowful euphoria, accidental dashes of colour, or a secret and deeply complex conflict smuggled beneath a veneer of dirt simple musicality. Whatever the relation between artistic premeditation and actual outcome, the listening experience remains endearing, despite the naked components of the music being so outrageously overworked and familiar.