Beats and yelling from: Medieval Demon, Miscreance, Sarcophagum

Medieval Demon: Black Coven
Out 16th September on Hells Headbangers

There is comfort to be taken from the fact that the unashamedly camp eccentricities of a band like Medieval Demon still have a place within the extreme metal zeitgeist of 2022. Their latest album ‘Black Coven’ opens with a track entitled ‘Where Witches Dwell and Labyrinths Confuse’, boasting a literalism as amusing as it is reassuring. The music is no less unapologetic. Veering from the outrageous occultist bombast of their countrymen Necromantia, to more traditional horror elements via hammy organ tones, juiced up haunted house soundtracks rearranged for metal guitars, and theatrically ghoulish vocalisations fit for such a setting.

The whole thing would be a challenge to treat sincerely, dripping as it is in horror clichés from every pore, were it not for Medieval Demon’s ability to whip this framework up into a juggernaut of powerfully melodic and undeniably creative Hellenic metal. Any notion that this is a tongue in cheek all-for-show celebration of melodramatic occultist metal is quickly eroded by the title track, which sees them deliver a symphony of epic melodic extreme metal that manages to make room for both an intellectually engaging narrative structure and a whole host of bizarre musically diverse pockets (saxophone solo included).

Such accommodation is achieved through Medieval Demon’s understanding of exactly how humour functions within extreme metal. The joke only lands – or rather achieves longevity – if it is bolstered by ontologically demonstrable musical chops, something that these Athenians hold in abundance. Some may find the packaging a little too silly to swallow whole, but for those willing to not only engage with but indulge in the abrasive occultist horror drive behind this album, nuggets of substantive musical pleasure await the discerning music fan.

Medieval Demon are aided and abetted in this regard by more cinematic production values than was found on previous releases. The guitars – despite remaining the dominant voice within these pieces – are set relatively low in the mix, positioned on an equal footing to the pronounced keyboard elements working through organs, choirs, strings, and pianos to give the entirety a truly tragedian scope of expression. The drums are soft yet powerful, providing bounce and poise to the theatrical elements, never letting the music languish for lack of momentum. Vocals act more as a dramatic performance than anything purely musical, narrating dark occultist tales to the listener with pronounced lyricism.

In this regard, Medieval Demon pose as a link between various forms of underground metal, from the Hammer Horror worship of retro doom and psychedelic metal, to the ghoulish black metal of Mortuary Drape and Necromantia, wrapping this into symphonic metal, and no small element of traditional heavy metal deployed as link riffs between each rumination on regal necroticism. ‘Black Coven’ is therefore as daring as it is cliché ridden, indulgent as it is masterfully composed and arranged, and as eclectic as it is specifically fixated on its limited aesthetic. A deceptive layer cake of an album concealing many hidden revelations for those willing to take the plunge.

Miscreance: Convergence
Out 19th September on Unspeakable Axe Records/Danex Records/Desert Wastelands

One thing that never made sense about the old school death metal trend of the 2010s, much like the remake/reboot blight that swept Hollywood throughout the same decade, was the desire to emulate the already perfect. The death metal of late 1980s and early 90s was an already fully matured version of itself, leaving only an invitation for others to build on this work, not simply remain frozen on the same moment. I was therefore always struck as to why – aside from the obvious learned musicianship required to pull the style off – technical death and thrash metal never received a more pronounced resurrection.

That’s not to say that Voivod, Coroner, DBC, Sadus, or Obliveon did not all release works every bit as enduring as their death metal peers, but more that theirs was a project that felt that little bit more unfinished, the genre was all but killed off by the alt metal turn in the early 1990s, with a few dud albums from Pestilence and Death finally pulling the trigger. Theirs is a lineage as yet to reach fruition, and deserving of more attention than the banal facsimile metal of Blood Incantation or Vektor.

But here in 2022, with almost every stone of metal’s history now unturned and alive and well again, the time seems ripe to give the genre a more nuanced contemporary treatment than it has thus far been afforded. Whether it be Demoniac and Mental Devastation in Chile, Horrendous in the US, Cryptic Shift in England, and now Italy’s Miscreance stepping up to enter the fray with their debut album ‘Convergence’.

Despite the overtly retroist packaging, upon listening to the music within it’s clear that Miscreance pass the first hurdle facing all vintage orientated artists, that of sincerity. The slickness of the delivery, the care behind the craft, the density of information considerately packed into an album charming in its brevity, all mark Miscreance out as one to watch. With this in mind, combined with the fact that this is the debut album for these Italians, one can overlook the struggle for identity at play here. They are aided in this regard by relatively organic production values that all the same do not speak of explicit old school aspirations, but rather gifts ‘Convergence’ with a beating heart of authenticity.

All the signifiers are there, from the taut, intricate bass-work, to ambiguous time and key signatures, the higher end annunciation of the vocals allowing for proper navigation of the complex tempo changes at play, to the spacey progressive breakdowns allowing respite from the barrage of technical death/thrash riffage deployed to further showcase the various musical abilities and visions on display here.

Miscreance weave detailed tapestries that veer between straightforward atonal thrash bludgeons, to complex unfolding melodic material pivoting on a dynamic ability to blend moods both light and dark, aggressive and reflective. Despite the dense musical architecture deployed to deliver this, ‘Convergence’ remains a fluid and refreshingly austere work, in the sense that it is relatively short, keeping any overly elaborate progressive meanderings at bay, and forcing Miscreance to make each moment count. Repetition is rife enough to grant context and grounding for the listener, but the picture is refreshed and upended with a frequency that holds the attention without becoming overbearing.

Despite the obvious nods to pioneers of this self-consciously brainy genre – both in terms of musical technique and lyrical content – Miscreance are still able – and licensed – to pose as a breath of fresh air. There is activity, life, and focus at play on this work beyond the obvious density of the music itself.

Sarcophagum: Conduits to the Underworld
Out 12th September on Nuclear Winter

Combining the taut riffology of death metal with the drab aesthetics of black metal, the debut EP from these Aussies presents as a refreshingly compact if tantalisingly brief delivery mechanism for tight, high impact extreme metal. There is an underlying sorrow at work in Sarcophagum’s melodic philosophy that is salvaged from stagnating into over indulgent depressive pontifications by a rigid adherence to death metal’s strict ethos of activity in the face of annihilation.

The production is sharp and melancholic. Guitars are crisp and clear, residing in higher pitches common to black metal for the sake of giving voice to the subtle evolutionary chord progressions at play, building thematic material through phrasal repetitions. Drums are equally clear, bounding forth with rigid blast-beats and double bass work, limiting fills and stuttering patterns to micro spaces of transition. This gives the overall delivery of the music a strong sense of linear flow, of teleological motion in contrast to the choppy, directionally ambiguous philosophies of death metal. Vocals stick to the lower end of the range, articulating both the monstrous and the mournfully human within a distorted vocal range.

Despite the speed and activity at play here, nursing distinctive lead melodies over guitar solos, the limited pitch and key choices give ‘Conduits to the Underworld’ a sense of being frozen in a moment, of energy suspended in stasis awaiting release. Despite this, the result never poses as monotonous. Whether through simple rhythmic manipulation, beat emphasis, or evolving chord progressions, the picture gradually transforms imperceptibly over time. One finds satisfaction in the redelivery and affirmation of the same repeated themes, as they are driven home to their ultimate conclusion.

In leveraging the energetic aggression of death metal alongside a flare for black metal grandiosity, and no small element of melancholic doom metal, Sarcophagum have delivered a deceptively dense EP, replete with musical life smuggled beneath a homogenous but no less pleasing textural range.  

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