Beats and yelling from: Rigor Sardonicous, Slog, Luna Azure

Rigor Sardonicous: Praeparet Bellum
Out 23rd January on Memento Mori

The latest album from veteran death doomsters Rigor Sardonicous showcases their dirge ridden brand of industrial death doom in ever increasing iterations of entropic decay brilliantly. Hailing from Long Island, this outfit have been crafting their own form of minimalist, ruminant death metal for many years now. If Japan’s Anatomia offer a psychedelically nightmarish take on Autopsy, then Rigor Sardonicous opt for the cheekier route, working in horror, satire, sadism and whimsy into what is still an undeniably downbeat corner of extreme metal.

Although the most obvious element of their sound to point out as the use of a drum machine, this is not as superficial an observation as it may first appear. Much like Mortician’s fragmented, drum machine driven deathgrind, the simplicity is only skin deep. The basic, metronomic pulses, periodic crash cymbals, and supressed bass drum hits occurring at a frequency just below the perceptual present, all encased within a precision and malevolent patience that only a machine can achieve. As this rhythmic dynamic weaves its way through music that unravels itself from the oppressive to the funereal, the predictability of the tempo quickly morphs into inevitability, a lurking, unstoppable slog to finality.

The guitars themselves work through dirt simple chord progressions of tritone infused doom, articulating moments of tension, release, aggression, monotony, and depression in achingly slow real time. The spaces between each thudding chord seem to lengthen as the album progresses and an unstoppable process of decay sets in at ever deeper levels. Vocals are naturally pitched at the lower limits of human hearing, offering a reliable hum of low end static to supplement the unbearably scant textural offering found on ‘Praeparet Bellum’

Given how musically barren these pieces are, this makes the listener claw with glee at the fragments of melodic or harmonic ornamentation that are hinted at across these pieces. They serve to signpost our way through the murk, offering brief but welcome respite from the atonal lamentations that function as the backbone of this album. But ultimately, this is an appeal that pivots on absence. Absence of melody, activity, variety, motion. All are conspicuously lacking. This is not simply because Rigor Sardonicous failed to include these common musical signifiers. Rather, the space where these elements should sit is the entire centrepiece of their style. The project is focused on producing a musical framework that poses as a vessel for additional content, and failing to provide this makes us both deeply uncomfortable whilst encouraging us to continue listening in the hope that something more might appear, even if we know deep down that nothing ever will.

Slog: Divination
Out 13th January on Morbid and Miserable Records

Slog’s second album ‘Divination’ sees this death/doom outfit grow real teeth, fashioning murky puddles of loose drones, choppy death metal, and ethereal harmonic material from the aether. What is perhaps most striking about this album is its allegiance to the unadulterated dirt that this genre is known for, whilst fashioning a compelling melodic character that carries these tracks along in undulating fits of revelry. Melodic, but hardly sentimental. The overall tone is one of despair mixed with intoxication, a window through the other side of depression, where nihilism reaches a state of acceptance and a resulting psychological euphoria.

As with other projects from these musicians such as Out of the Mouth of Graves and Acausal Intrusion, the packaging is staunchly DIY. Tinny drums cut through the fog like a knife, offering clarity and rhythmic anchors no less complex for the fact. But their aesthetic is straight from the rehearsal room, with no noticeable adornment to colour the performance. The guitar tone is pure filth. The rhythm section offering markedly direct iterations of death metal riffing, reliably veering into the slow drone of death/doom at regular intervals. But this is coloured by all manner of overdubs, with biting leads, fully formed solos, and high end swirls of dissonance colouring the relatively direct framework.

Structurally this goes a long way to summing up ‘Divination’. A skeleton of well written if garden variety death/doom has been draped with a plethora of ancillary material that serve to elevate this beast into something entirely different. They wrest the compositions from the momentum of its death metal tendencies, forcing it into uncomfortable shapes, ponderously slow tangents displaying an uncomfortable relationship to cadence, and unpredictable chord progressions made no less so by their slow tempo.

This contrast between busy tonal activity, clusters of competing guitar lines and tones, and divergent tempos allows Slog to achieve that rare thing within doom of any stripe, disorientation. Despite the self-evidently slow context, the mood outcome is not depressive, cathartic, or cavernous. Rather it is cloying, claustrophobic, rife with activity, and at times achieving a state of sensory overload made all the more confusing given the pace at which this material is delivered.

Luna Azure: Philosophy of the Skull
Out 6th January, self-released

For all its misanthropic posturing, black metal at its core is an easy access genre. This is a fact sometimes forgotten in an age where a modicum of technical proficiency is the norm. Raw black metal – as the subgenre is retrospectively labelled – came about not only as a reaction to the increasing homogeneity and virtuosity of death metal, but also because some of the artists involved (outside of the Norwegian circle who were all accomplished musicians before they turned to black metal) were capable of nothing more.

And so we come to Luna Azure’s latest album – released at a time when raw black metal is its own explicit subgenre within the “choose your own adventure” framework of modern metal – is a work so primitive, sloppy, dirty, and single minded that it immediately sticks out amongst the current crop of raw black metal as a work of necessity and not stylistic choice. One is reminded of Judas Iscariot for ethos if not artistic outcome, as Luna Azure bear their musicianship, such as it is, warts and all across ‘Philosophy of the Skull’.

This point can perhaps best be illustrated from the context of genre. To play a certain genre implies a certain level of technical competence, one must be able to control their music enough to make it sound like a certain style. But Luna Azure, despite ticking many of the boxes for primitive black metal, veer wildly across a number of riff traditions as these tracks progress, not all of them apparently intentional, as the emphasis and phrasing shifts around in unpredictable and borderline random ways, to the extent that it seems to be beyond the control of these musicians.

But herein lies the real charm of this album. If the direction of the music is beyond the control of the individuals creating it, there’s a danger on this album that something might actually happen. Most releases today, even those from the purest underground outfit, are carefully curated sound worlds entirely under the purview of the artist. No element of the music, aesthetic, production, or delivery occurs other than how the artist intended it. But ‘Philosophy of the Skull’, for all its blunt directness, its impenetrably poor production, sloppy playing, droning chords and outrageous repetition, offers a more compelling environment to inhabit precisely because we don’t quite know what will happen next, and this in turn is because the musicians themselves are probably not quite sure either. One gets the impression that – as with Judas Iscariot – the tracks were recorded live, thus giving us access to an unrepeatable moment in time.  

Fragments of metal history crop up and are dispensed with just as quickly, laboured dissonance, direct punk riffs, drone, and unintentionally creepy atonality are stretched out over the course of this album. But despite this, there is a focus of intent, a marked single mindedness to the delivery. A grim, abrasive, decidedly aggressive presence at the core of these tracks that unites them. Giving the impression that any genre hopping was entirely unintended. Luna Azure might not quite be in control of the entity they have nurtured here, but they certainly have total mastery over the aesthetic and mood that overlays this odd sound world.

Here we have a genuinely novel experience within the contemporary metal setting, an artist that hearkens back to a time when musicians were not able to control every facet of their output. And within this kernel of experience comes the thrilling notion of possibility.  

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