Beats and yelling from: Pustilence, V:XII, Vargrav

Pustilence: Beliefs of Dead Stargazers and Soothsayers
Out 24th April on Memento Mori/Rotted Life

A solid slab of imaginative if direct death metal out of that Brisbane, Pustilence, despite their moniker, eke out abstract and surprisingly meditative lyrical themes to accompany this diverse broth of traditional death metal riffcraft and pronounced melodic character. Chaos meets premeditation as passages of blast-beating chromatic madness collide with reflective and at times soaring, epic lead guitar work. Guttural vocals complete the picture, delivering the emotional core of the music with solidity, whilst containing enough controlled power to add an undeniably calculating vibe resting beneath the hyperactivity of the foreground.

If we’re speaking in terms of “old school” death metal (which, let’s face it, we usually are), then the production on ‘Beliefs of Dead Stargazers and Soothsayers’ captures that moment in the early 1990s when death metal found a powerful, assertive footing, building on the framework pioneered by Scott Burns, but dispensing with the dirge of bass heavy mud that so many Morrisound releases became. The guitar tone is thick and monstrous, but untroubled by surplus inertia it is free to flesh out at times complex three dimensional riff interplay alongside transparent brutality.

Drums offer an equally well balanced split between raw, adrenaline fuelled power and nuance. They do a good job of bringing the more regal aspirations of this album into the mechanistically efficient arena of percussive death metal by chopping up the flow of the riffs into moments of controlled disorder, adding layers of anomie to further augment the exchanges of harmony and atonality.

Pustilence may slot neatly into death metal’s current hegemony of 90s navel gazing, but the ability to string riffs together that appear conflicted at the molecular level, but nevertheless unite around a common purpose when absorbed from a distance marks this out as very much its own entity beyond subgenre trend quibbling. Equally, the production is not a carefully crafted collection of retro tropes, but actually seems bent toward bringing this healthy stew of angular death metal riffage to life, giving it the strongest possible platform by which to express itself.

Out 21st April on Sentient Ruin

A loosely formed amalgamation of martial ambient, minimalist industrial, and dirge ridden black metal atmospheres stretch across the latest LP from Sweden’s V:XII. In fact, the metal comparison only extends as far as the vocals, which clutter the album with a near constant refrain of distant, artificially distorted barks, at once declarations of intent and demands for action. The album functions more as a pulse of ebbing and flowing static, which takes on an almost percussive tendency, with the actual percussion in the form of simple programmed drum syncopation acting as lead instrumentation in lieu of any melodic content.

That being said, ‘LU-CIPHER-SABBATEAN’ is a slow burn of an album. The first half is perhaps the most alienating, offering very little to ingratiate itself to the listener. This is interlude music, delivering simple sequenced ideas pivoting on the combination and contradictions of timbre, unified only by the reliable, rhythmic swell of volume and texture. Vocals are a near constant, but they bleed into the background, never overwhelming the mix with undue humanism or emotive content.

But as the album evolves it becomes a more reflective beast. The title track sees the activity come to a head via more active percussion, with the material that follows deploying additional synth tones, fleshing out minimalist dark ambient, granting the amorality of the music’s inherent ritualism a moral compass. This also allows the industrial qualities to expand, expressing the emergent ideas sitting behind the simple repeated pulses of static and synthetic percussion. Environment confronts the products of industry as the inherent mysticism of instrumentation capable of harmonic expression collides with the atonal nihilism of mechanistic noise.

Whilst ‘LU-CIPHER-SABBATEAN’ is a worthy inheritor of metal’s considerable history of cross pollination with ritual and dark ambient, fans more used to the rich compositional content of metallic music may find the abrasive minimalism of V:XII underwhelming. But this album works as both an engaging exploration of immersive atmospheric experience from an explicitly artificial, “post capitalist” orientation, and at the more domestic level, the exchanges between rich synth tones and harsh percussion is both vibrant and alive to its own potentials whilst remaining couched firmly within the philosophy of minimalism.

Vargrav: Encircle the Spectral Dimension
Out 16th April on Werewolf

It’s heartening in a way that bands like Vargrav not only exist, but manage to maintain an audience large enough to make their persistence worth the effort. This hearkens back to a simpler time when black metal was weirdo music, and I mean actually existing weirdo music, as in totally unaware of itself and its standing amongst the surrounding cultural fauna. And definitely before academics and hordes of pseudo intellectual bloggers (yep) spat out endless half-baked theoretical frameworks in an attempt to bottle its essence for popular consumption. This is unsalvageable in the eyes of cultural orthodoxy.

It’s little surprise that black metal’s “pre-intellectual” flame is being kept alive by Finland. This EP is a brief primer for Vargrav’s forthcoming album, seeing two original tracks, a cover of Emperor’s ‘Ancient Queen’, and a live rendition of ‘Netherstorm’, the title track from their debut album.

The joy of Vargrav is not hard to explain. It maintains the extreme theatre of classic symphonic black metal. But more importantly, it retains the low budget charm of the subgenre in its developmental stage. It warrants comparison to early Nokturnal Mortum or Abigor more than it does the grand esotericism of ‘Anthems to Welkin at Dusk’.

The riffs themselves are a variant of dark, hyper fast thrash, augmented by choppy, tight drum work veering from tight blast-beats to pounding half tempo transitions. Rich keyboard layers follow the progressions of the guitars, sometimes diving into elegant ascending harmonies to elevate the at times basic riff package. Drab, melodic bass hooks are also clearly discernible within a mix that leaves plenty of room for nuance. Breaks in tempo to articulate more developed melodic hooks provide welcome variation in pacing and intensity between empty speed thrills.

As pleasing as this is to long time fans of this much maligned subgenre, it is remarkable how naïve it appears to contemporary ears. But in this revelation there is cause for hope. There is a reason this variant of black metal was never assimilated by the ripped jeans and flannel shirt movement of post 2000 black metal. The high drama, gauche aesthetic package, the presentation untroubled by audience perception proved (and continues to prove) to be too much to swallow for external music fans interested in black metal only insofar as a means to deploy blast-beats, tremolo picking, and intense vocal delivery to otherwise bland furniture indie. The orchestration, fantasy imagery, and limitless joy in musical exploration of symphonic black metal continues to defy the tastes of fair-weather friends of the genre.

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