Cromlech: Ascent of Kings
Out 3rd March on Hessian Firm
Bombastic, raw, epic, almost comedic in its sincere quest to deliver giant slabs of epic doom metal that seem to emanate from another time and place, far away over the hills. ‘Ascent of Kings’ is the second album from Cromlech, and sees them expand further into a lumbering behemoth of cinematic soundscaping, the scale of which is almost too vast to comprehend. Whilst stylistic crossover with the members’ other project Into Oblivion is apparent via the intersection of raw, primal riffing put in service of a much broader thematic architecture, Cromlech is defined by a stronger melodic core that guides the direction and orientation of these lengthy tracks.
The foundations of this album are decidedly DIY. The production is raw. All elements are presented with a rough immediacy that lends the overall picture an oddly charming quality. The album achieves a sense of aspirational grandeur and ambition that elevates it far above comparable works with bigger budgets and busier mixes. The guitar tone is sharp and clear, offering a pleasing bight of aggression whilst still evincing enough meat on its bones to articulate the slower drone of the doom passages. But the focus is on their ability to flesh out the melodic core of these tracks, either through the punchy rhythm section or the soaring guitar leads that swirl across the scenery like birds in flight.
Drums provide a busy but undistracting foundation, driving the forward motion of the music even during the slower passages, offering thunderous fills and driving, warlike beats that transcend their rather weak sound within the mix. Vocals veer from deep clean crooning to more aggressively distorted barks of rage. Violins crop up to provide slices of mournful lamentation standing in stark contrast to the bombast and – at times – joyful revelry of the guitar riffs. Further into the album, lead guitars supplant the violin in providing commentary and context to the swirling chaos of interchanging riffs.
This is a lengthy album, not without its surplus fat. But Cromlech have succeeded in patiently erecting a towering monolith of epic prose in metal form, the scope of which is almost too vast to absorb in one sitting. It veers from epic melodic doom, to thrash, to moments of classic heavy metal of the fantastical variety borrowed from the playbook of Cirith Ungol. The listener is being called to take in a truly imposing canvas, but rewards await those willing to engage with the task, an experience richer, denser, and more rewarding than many comparable but decidedly more polished efforts. ‘Ascent of Kings’ stands apart for its ability to execute its towering ambition.
Contrarian: Sage of Shekhinah
Out 17th March on Willowtip Records
Of all the revivalist genres to have plagued the metal landscape over the last decade, the return of early 1990s progressive death metal is one I can definitely get on board with. Given the nose dive to homogeneity that tech death took during the 2000s, this welcome course correction was required. Lost in endless tomes of dense, directionless musical esoterica devoid of soul and spontaneity, it became a closed border for the general populace, a feedback loop of musical esoterica aimed only at fellow musicians. Resurrecting some of the colour, life, dynamics, and organicism of earlier iterations of the genre has therefore been a welcome means to allow the listener to once again cross the border and engage in this music as a form of artistry as well as craft.
Contrarian slide nicely into this modernist tradition, offering complex sci-fi themed progressive death metal as playful as it is masterfully executed. ‘Sage of Shekhinah’ is their fifth such endeavour, it is notable for drawing on not just the techniques of Cynic, Atheist, and Watchtower et al., but also for nailing a sense of creative cohesion, and even leaving room for something as banal as “fun”. Ultimately this is music that has an audience in mind, real care has been taken to craft these compositions with strongly defined narrative arcs. For all their surplus activity, warping time signatures and dexterous chord progressions, a non-musical listener can still fully engage with, and orientate themselves, into the journey this music is attempting to take us on.
They pivot on a degree of rhythmic bounce, playful in its sense of humour, but never trivialising the overall experience. Crisp distorted guitars flesh out the mix with sharp clarity, but again, the object is not clutter or intensity despite the undeniably technical nature of the music. Plenty of space is left for the bass to cut through with engaging hooks and wonderful melodic vignettes, along with plenty of clean interludes where the music adopts a more jazz orientated style a-la Atheist. Vocals adopt the higher end of the death metal spectrum, working through harsh rasps of aggression that retain enough rhythmic clarity to navigate this three dimensional interplay.
Tonally, the overarching emotive effect of ‘Sage of Shekhinah’ is one of threnody. There are many tangents and routes hinted at but not fully taken. But the melodic core of the central leads are decidedly mournful, tragic almost. They speak of loss, aging, a mature acceptance in the face of the passage of time. But this overarching thread is given greater clarity and gravitas due to the excessive amount of external commentary, the many left turns the music takes, and the plethora of additional material provided by each instrument as it deviates from the central narrative to provide moments of antagonism, only to be folded back into the main narrative.
The quality of song writing on display here means we can almost dispense with any mention of the retro aspects of this album. Yes, it references elements of early progressive death metal and thrash, but this is almost incidental to the fact that Contrarian have succeeded in articulating a character and story of their own, one that stands apart without the need for us to over emphasise style and influence. A singular and strangely hypnotic success story for progressive metal.
Skrying Mirror: Omnimalevolence
Out 3rd March on I, Voidhanger
Adopting the wash of discordant static and groove laden rhythms that typified the Blut Aus Nord take on industrial extreme metal, Skrying mirror drag this template into a more specialised, abrasive, and ultimately intense beast of almost unbearable noise. The mechanistic beats of early Godflesh are apparent at its very foundations, as is the alienating nihilism so unique to extreme music that seeks to ape the artificial. But here, all is blended into a solid statement of dissonant rage. Riffs of a metallic lineage are discernible, but they are buried in layers of combative static and funnelled into rhythms more notable for their sense of persistent groove than unpredictable meanders.
A less considered Desecresy would also be a good starting point to approach ‘Omnimalevolence’. Where the Finnish industrial death pioneers used repetitive rhythms as platforms on which to build soaring sequential refrains defined by their harmonic material, here the musical content is cut out for the sake of one, monotonous, persistent rallying cry of industrial noise. Whilst there is something compelling about the level of intensity Skrying Mirror are able to conjure here, the album functions as more of a statement of intent than a piece of art that looks built to last.
‘Omnimalevolence’ is an expertly crafted vibe space. An oppressive, insistent, relentless procession of machine driven noise. But unlike a lot of works that offer a glut of mood music leaving the mind underfed, the battle between these two impulses seems to be taking place within the music itself. Riffs and melodic content fight for airtime. Soaring chord progressions and mournful lines that look to hold a cadential character.
But over the course of this album they are violently pummelled into the background, suppressed into mulch for the sake of the relentless barrage of crash cymbal driven drum lines, distorted bass, and background waves of discordant noise. It makes for an interesting and undeniably intense experience, but one that I fear may lack endurance after repeated listens. The message delivered, it can reveal only scant nuanced content beneath the initial battle cry.
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