Beats and yelling from: Tsalal, Psionic Madness, Bran

Tsalal: Agnosthesia
Out 13th October, self-released

Akin to witnessing the emergence of black metal from the primordial soup of noise itself, the new demo from blackened drone project Tsalal undulates between the most basic of raw black metal structures, into disjointed noise, minimalist industrial, and dark ambient. Melodic qualities in the traditionalist black metal sense do arise across these four lengthy tracks, but they are posited as adversarial to the homogenous lacquer surrounding them. The process of decay lifted from the conceptual realm into perceptible reality.

The actual black metal segments are about as raw as they come. Riff philosophies may be lifted from Burzum or even Bathory in places, but the basic drumbeats and primitivist, punk like persistence they are set to screams Ildjarn. The drums are of demo quality, veering from basic, metronomic beats to sliding fills and off kilter transitions. Vocals are notable insofar as they are of a more industrial-cum-punk lineage than strictly black metal. This brings a degree of personal intimacy to this otherwise most alienating of experiences. A spectre within the machine.

Again, although there is a marked industrial element to this blend of ambient noise and black metal, it seems to fight against the more naturalist qualities exhibited in the guitars, which veer from borderline catchy black metal melodicism to spacey drones that speak of cold open landscapes and unknowable empty spaces beyond the realm of the artificial. This tension almost tears the music apart in places, as sudden transitions from metallic momentum are cut down by murky drone segments, accented by random vocalisations and ancillary static.

‘Agnosthesia’ sees Tsalal once again fiddle at the edges of dark sonic extremity, creating music that is notable for its adept manipulation of texture and volume as compositional tools in themselves and not mere aesthetic flourishes. When the music solidifies into conventional black metal it is usually to contrast with the structurally looser elements that surround it, acting as an existential ambient threat.

Although black metal often aspired to expressions of permanence beyond the explicit chaos metal of thrash and death, conflict was still a central thread running through archetypical examples of the genre. Here we see this conflict centred in singular collisions of structure and void, of clean and distorted tones, even of tonal and atonal music itself. Each piece pivots on this clash between viscous drone and concrete solidity.

Psionic Madness: Rotting Dominion
Out 29th October on Vargheist Records

Despite the cloying, claustrophobic atmosphere seeping from every pore of Psionic Madness’s latest release, ‘Rotting Dominion’ offers a variety of colour palettes to wet the appetite. Chasmic grind is animated via some nuanced and surprisingly proggy tangents, pivoting on vibe creation as much as riff manipulation. This is somewhat expected given the “weird” pedigree of these musicians from projects such as Out of the Mouth of Graves and Acausal Intrusion.

The mix is generally murky, with a cloud of clashing, dissonant guitar lines threading their way across these tracks, borrowing elements from antecedents as diverse as Gorguts and Demilich to Brutal Truth and Blut Aus Nord. But despite the orchestral aspirations of the multifaceted guitar work, ‘Rotting Dominion’ retains an undeniably DIY aesthetic. The drums, despite the forensic and layered precision of the performance, are kept tinny and largely free of studio makeup. The snare sound would be at home in your average garage slam outfit. The vocals for the most part settle on a burpy, goregrind style of gurgling, guttural outbursts. Again, the reverb has been kept refreshingly subtle, allowing the vocals to enhance the percussive qualities of the music rather than flooding everything with surplus static.

This form of blackened goregrind elevated by elements of progressive death metal is infectiously popular within the death metal community right now (a quick scan down the Blood Harvest roster will make this apparent). But despite the fact that Psionic Madness have foregrounded this aesthetic, they stand apart from their many contemporaries. Not only through deploying unique musical nuances borrowed from the quirky end of progressive death metal of yesteryear, but more broadly for deploying atmosphere as ornamentation and enhancement rather than a substitute for substantive compositions.

These pieces are rich with activity, a miasma of playful riffing of an unpredictable tonal centre, motivated by drum work that slides from linear momentum to angular cross fills of ponderous chaos. The result is a compelling blend between the dark surrender of all control that this subgenre trades on, supplemented by a strict adherence to the music’s own internal logics, a complex three dimensional interplay of tonal and rhythmic philosophies that manage to parley somewhere in the middle, creating a vessel for bracing entropic collapse retaining an unshakable degree of solidity. 

Bran: Odcházení
Out 31st October on Signal Rex

Music is a messy, abstract, lumpy artform. Deeply personal yet highly social, collaborative yet forever contested. From the very germinal of an idea, through to the creative process, the technical quibbles at the mixing desk, the audience and critical reception, through to endless reappraisal following the initial buzz. It’s little wonder so many of us dedicate so much mental energy to bottling its essence in non-musical idioms, little realising that 90% of our efforts are largely fruitless, streams of conscience little understood by those around us.

With all that in mind, it’s perhaps refreshing to come across a release as neat as ‘Odcházení’, the debut from this Czech outfit. Four lengthy but compact tracts of fast, melodic black metal, totally uncluttered yet packed with information, no wasted space, no clumsy transitions, and all contained within an agreeable half hours’ worth of music.

These pieces unfold in fluid interchanges of increasing complexity and simplicity, gliding from one passage to the next with a familiarity as pleasing as old leather. Scant timbral adornments such as acoustic guitar passages break up this framework in places, but for the most part the character and structure of Bran’s riffing style is enough to carry this handful of pieces for their considerable duration.

Despite the obvious Nordic lineage of this album, it easily outdoes much contemporary black metal for placing well trodden tropes in new situations. The ingredients are much the same, but the outcome could not be more striking for its quality. It’s akin to giving the same set of random ingredients to a master chef and, well…me, and asking us to create a serviceable meal from them. The studied artisan does not necessarily need to reinvent the wheel or go full avant-garde to create a striking product with enduring resonance.

The key to Bran’s success in this regard is simply their ability to unfold these compositions as one would a narrative arc, with each moment building on and complementing the last. The pieces flow with an intuitive sense of forward motion. For instance, lead guitar melodies, key changes, shifts in tempo, timbral variance, all too often these garden variety tactics are deployed by artists not to manipulate the music toward their artistic vison, but for the sake of mere content, because the blunt reality is you have to make your music do something.

But in the hands of Bran, each axiomatic technique of musical development is deployed at exactly the right moment, with efficacious emphasis, and for just the right amount of measures to achieve the maximum possible impact. Although Bran trade in a rather typical variety of energetic, fast paced, melodic black metal, their take on this genre is so mechanistically precise as to be almost categorically distinct from comparable releases from recent years.

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