Beats and yelling from: Sepulcrum, Spectral Lore, Death Vanish

Sepulcrum: Lamentation of Immolated Souls
Out 17th March on Chaos Records/Canometal/Burning Coffin

Support Chilean death metal! Well, there’s actually far more besides to celebrate about Chilean extreme metal in general. But the debut album from Puerto Montt’s Sepulcrum brings home the message once again that Chile is currently a world leader in the death metal field. ‘Lamentation of Immolated Souls’ is a perfect example of discovering near limitless expressive and compositional possibilities within a relatively restrictive genre pocket.

Although this album is broadly of the homogenous “old school”, there’s nothing overtly retroist about it. There’s no sense that we are being force fed nostalgia or asked to celebrate subpar work due to its proximity to familiar tropes. This album is a straightforward, tight, unabashed celebration of meat-‘n’-two-veg death metal with no distracting aesthetic, no lazy bounce of whimsy, no flashy studio trickery deployed to varnish over half formed compositions.

Naked is the word, and naked is how the music of Sepulcrum presents itself. The riffing is dense, the playing is tight, but this is no exhibitionist show of tech death. It borrows liberally from the Tampa scene as was, in its matured state in the early 1990s, but combines this with elements of older thrash, the grim mysticism of Finnish death metal, and the galloping punk of the Swedish. All is concocted into a rich and layered brew of intuitive riffing, complex enough to put real meat on the narrative bones of these pieces and give the listener plenty to sink the intellect and id into, but not so complex as to clutter the picture with unnecessary trills and technical dead ends.

The production is put directly in service of this end, offering a polished and lean mix carrying the requisite power to deliver this music as the bight of aggressive death metal it was intended to be. But the picture is left completely free of unnecessary inertia. No heavy handed compression, no one spilled the reverb bottle over the entire mix without clearing it up, and just the right quantity of quirky interludes and sampling to give a sense of dramatic flair.

Drums are perfectly locked into the shape of the riffing, upsetting the momentum when it counts, and offering batteries of double bass attacks to bolster their power during moments of dramatic finale. The riffs themselves oscillate between stilted, schizophrenic aggression and segments of unstoppable momentum betraying an earlier thrash influence at play, one filtered through an adept understanding of what made formative death metal so special even in this, its most direct and unornamental form.

‘Lamentation of Immolated Souls’ is a celebration of everything that makes death metal special. But it is an expression only available to musicians who can demonstrate an intimate understanding of the form beyond its surface level tropes. Sepulcrum dig beneath this surface, mining the rich tapestry to be found by meshing riffs in forms both complementary and jarringly juxtaposed, forming a cohesive meta-narrative atop the superficial chaos, with the rhythm section veering between moments of collision and cohesion against the various projects of the guitars. A dramatic compositional story rewarding for fans both old and new.

Spectral Lore: 11 Days
Out 21st March, self-released

Spectral Lore are part of a crop of artists that scatter the contemporary picture of black metal who mark themselves out by virtue of their common want of self-editing. Charitably we could call them experimental or progressive, for their music is not without value. They certainly have more to offer than their post black metal cousins across the pond. But they are chiefly identifiable for their rather bloated perception of their significance as artistic figures. A perception the metal public is more than willing to prop up. Artists like Blut Aus Nord, The Ruins of Beverast, Midnight Odyssey, Esoctrilihum, Darkspace, all are not entirely devoid of worth, but all would be dramatically improved by a joyfully vicious censor, cutting out chunks of their creative output for its lack of purpose.

(I am aware of the irony that it took a paragraph to say the equivalent of “their albums are too long”, but life can be very cruel at times)

’11 Days’, is a classic example of this, weighing in at around three quarters of an hour, this “EP” is split across four pieces, two of which are chunky and energetic atmospheric black metal, two of which are ambient numbers. The EP is written as a protest against the Greek (and European) government’s treatment of refugees attempting to traverse the dangers of the Mediterranean sea in their flight from war and famine, and is a tribute to those who have died in their quest for a better life.

With that in mind, we have to credit Spectral Lore with effectively communicating this theme of nautical danger, using the supervenient chaos found atop layers of tremolo guitar riffs and washes of rich synth tones to evoke imagery of monolithic aquatic force. The wall of sonic material that batters the listener across these tracks is something to behold, the incomprehensible scale of oceanic activity is effectively conveyed on both the metal and ambient tracks.

But here, again, we come to the main shortcoming of Spectral Lore’s approach, and indeed the shortcoming of the latter day champions of “ambitious” European black metal. For all its orchestration, cinematic soundscaping, for all the panorama of activity, it’s surprising how localised the actual journey is that Spectral Lore take us on. What riffs there are, are spread thin like butter over so much bread to the point of almost fading into complete obscurity. Cyclical leads ride atop the dense wash of rhythm guitar layers, but they function more as synth sequencers than they do bringers of developmental melodic material.

Equally the ambient tracks, despite their length, serve as extended interludes more than fully conceptualised pieces of ambient music. They work well as complimentary commentary on the fraught conflict latent within the metal pieces, but each one stretches itself to ten minutes in length, doing little to justify this even if we allow for the minimalist requirements of the ambient genre.

None of this is to say that ’11 Days’ is a total dud, it’s just not forty-five minutes worth of material. A problem common to all Spectral Lore releases and many of the artists mentioned at the opening of this review. The alleged scope, grandeur, ambition, and vision of their work is two thirds empty air, propped up by slick PR and aesthetic packages, and the adoration of fans who mistake a plethora of content for intellectual depth. Much like the rumblings I hear from our neighbouring film fans on the needless bloating of contemporary cinema to compensate for lack of substantive artistic goals, we must continue to celebrate the virtues of efficiency, subtlety, and austerity in the face of this superfluous content.  

Death Vanish: Hermitic Fire
Out 17th March on Eternal Death

The latest EP from this Connecticut based tribute/homage/outfit explicitly blends elements of early Root, Beherit, and Profanatica in a hokey slab of formative occultist black metal of a decidedly un-Norwegian orientation. One doesn’t need to read the promo notes to grasp that Death Vanish go beyond merely articulating a stash of influences, reaching into full on tribute territory here, with track titles like ‘From Down There’, that explicitly quotes Beherit’s ‘The Gate of Nanna’.

But whilst we can certainly pat ourselves on the back for spotting the references, and having tastes developed enough to appreciate them, the lurking questions remains: what’s this for? Truth be told, beyond the superficial fact that this EP is packaged tightly within its inspirations, ‘Hermitic Fire’ sounds remarkably fresh in the current landscape. Rampant, lo-fi primitivism is certainly not in short supply these days, but the eccentricity, the unabashed melodrama, the shameless theatre, all mark this EP out as infinitely more interesting than a good portion of the current crop.

The presentation is downbeat, understated, lacking the punky bight of early black metal, but lends it an almost psychedelic, ethereal quality, elevating the music’s latent mystical qualities. Valder is no Paul Ledney behind the kit, but the loose back-beats serve their purpose in binding the music together with lackadaisical momentum.

Loose, murky guitars flesh out the mix with dirt simple power chord formations and simple tritone play. They are adept at articulating the monomaniacal ritualism of this explicitly occultist brand of black metal, circling around the same basic themes with impressive perseverance. Idiosyncratic vocals are a near constant presence, adopting the half whisper, half distorted growl of Beherit, but here with less annunciation, choosing instead to emphasise atmospheric qualities. The voice functions as a liminal presence haunting the mix with surplus activity, devoid of rhythmic or lyrical qualities entirely. Minimal keyboards supplement this picture, solidifying the sense of grandstanding theatre that marks this EP out.

The real lesson to take away from ‘Hermitic Fire’ is that it is possible to revel in fragments of music history whilst stamping a clear and distinct identity on the final output. This EP does not so much indulge as it does gorge on its musical idols to the point where influence bleeds into homage bleeds into direct quotation to straight up tribute act. But if one discards the promo notes and sets aside their preoccupation with originality at all costs, ‘Hermitic Fire’ has much to offer as a refreshing, remarkably novel take on occultist black metal.

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