Sorcier Des Glaces – Ritual of the End Review

Sorcier Des Glaces are a Quebecois black metal band. If you’ve been following me for awhile, then you probably know that I don’t review black metal very often. I think this is mostly to do with how hard it is for me to start writing a review. With technical/progressive stuff I can write about time signatures, chord progressions, and so on without much thought.

Black metal takes more work. This album has been in my rotation for several months, because I keep putting off writing this review. This probably makes it one of my most listened to albums of the year. Yet I’m still having a little difficulty with it.

As an overall impression, the songs have structural and sonic similarities to old school black metal like Emperor or Darkthrone (though vocally quite different). The songs have clear ideas and sections, but they are longform without traditional song structure. They tend to meander, which is a good thing in this case.

The songs evoke a dark, icy mood by feeling somewhat static with long tremolo melodic lines, but still having a turbulent urgency underneath which keeps them pushing forward. The chord progression contributes as well by changing frequently, but not following a traditional progression.

There is a clear key signature, but we never feel that we are moving towards some tonic (the “I chord”) in the progression. This makes it feel like the whole song is constantly moving. Progressing classically to the tonic would make it feel like a temporary ending until we move away again.

Despite all these old school black metal ideas, the album feels very fresh and modern. The production keeps every part of the song audible. The vocals can be heard and understood. The bass can be heard. The guitar and drums can be heard. It all feels very clean.

This is almost a negative for me. There’s a touch of dirtiness in the guitar tone, but it feels calculated. There’s a middle ground between intentionally using the worst recording equipment you can find and highly polished production, and I can’t help but feel this errs on the polished side too much.

Part of what made the old black metal so great was the organic atmosphere. It was messy and human. You can practically feel the click track on this album, making sure everyone is playing perfectly (I have no idea if they actually used one) which somewhat ruins the atmosphere they are going for.

That said, I’ve been listening to this for months and still get lost in it. I can’t imagine getting sick of this album anytime soon. I think what makes this album so good is the perfect level of complexity. At their root, the songs are elegant in their simplicity. But the melodies and solos are fairly intricate keeping things interesting after many listens.

The more I listen to it, the more it sinks in, and the more I like it. Right now it is sitting around an 8.5/10.

Here’s a sample:

Stimpy Lockjaw’s Stimpy Lockjaw Reviewed

Stimpy Lockjaw is a band that plays prog/jazz fusion/math rock. They are based out of New York, and this is a self-titled, self-released album. I think all the members have other projects, so they are a “supergroup” of sorts. It is really hard to pin down too much else. Their site is fairly non-descriptive. For example, the About Us section says, “We’re a little band called Stimpy Lockjaw. Please buy things.”

The first track has an old school math rock feel to it. I used to listen to Don Caballero a lot, and this track brings back nostalgia for that time. It starts with a short two note rhythmic idea (which is actually a bit more embellished than the actual motif later). The whole song is very minimalist with passing this small concept around the band.

The beginning maybe feels a bit too repetitive and strives too much to have a modern djent sound to it. Once the song gets going it gets better. The idea morphs all over into jazzy sections with a fretless bass, female vocal singing neutral syllables, and some soloing that sounds improvised. But my guess is that it is actually composed.

The second half of the track puts the rhythmic idea into the bass, and slowly starts building up a lot of tension by adding more and more layers. Despite the repetition, I think this succeeds on all fronts of keeping the song interesting and having a lot of forward momentum. The song dissolves at one point into piano nothingness, only to start back up a little slower and a lot dirtier with the distortion on the guitar and the tonality starting to fall apart.

The composition is amazing on this first track, but after having listened to the whole album many times, it is my least favorite. The basic idea described here is how all of the other songs progress. The other songs are far less minimalist and repetitive, though. The second track starts the motif, and already the idea to be passed around is more complicated than most parts of the first track. They also never again bring the djent sound into the songs.

Track two has more of a jazz combo feel to it. There is a saxophone that makes an appearance several times. Despite the complexity, the drumming has a more traditional feel keeping time rather than imitating a rhythmic idea that the rest of the band is doing. I’m also less sure about the composed vs improv aspects of this track. There are solos that really feel improvised. I think if I only heard the first track I may not have stuck this band out, but this second track is the type of jazz/metal combo that I really loved in T.R.A.M. and is extremely hard to find anywhere.

The third track is their “single” from the album that was released for promotional purposes and will be at the end of the post. It is the first track to have vocals that have lyrics. It also feels much more like a prog metal song than the jazz combo of the previous track. Once the opening is done, they set up a piano ostinato and build the next section of the song on top of it, and impressively pass that complicated material to the guitar. This is excellent technical playing.

None of the repetitive sections are that long in comparison with the song as a whole, but I still think this track also suffers a little from how excessive the repetition is. They do a really good job of coming up with ways to keep it changing with instrumentation, style changes, and forward momentum. I foresee the repetition making a large number of repeat listens more tedious. The second half frees up the form with the jazzy soloing again, so if you listen to it, make sure you get that far to hear the type of stuff that appears on other tracks.

The fourth track is half atmospheric, but builds into a full band climax and embellishes with some chromatic runs. The song is fine, but somewhat forgettable in comparison with the rest of the album. The last track also starts as atmospheric sounds, but this one develops into a down tempo experiment with chords. This first half has a different feel to the rest of the album. By the end, they go into their standard mode of passing around a technical ostinato.

I really love this closer, because I think they strike a better balance with the repetition, countermelodies, and chord progressions. When it dissolves back down, they even do some interesting rhythmic things like putting the bass drum “downbeat” a sixteenth note past the true downbeat.

Overall, this is the type of album I’ve been waiting all year for. In my opinion, it is well worth checking out. I give it a 9/10. Here’s a sample:

Collection of Suggestions

I’ve been trying to post every Friday, but I’m just not ready to do a review this week. Instead, I’m going to go through the comments and try to find things that people have suggested for me, so I have them all in one place.

Condor – Nadia
Gorguts – Obscura
Atheist – Unquestionable Presence
Blotted Science – Machinations of Dementia and/or Animation of Entomology
Sorcier des Glaces – Ritual of the End
Locktender – Rodin
Goatcraft – The Blasphemer
The Contortionist – Language
Xerath – III
Amogh Symphony – Vectorscan
Demilich – Nespithe
The Hirsch Effekt – Holon: Anamnesis

I didn’t mean to skip any if your suggestion didn’t make it. It is kind of tedious to go through the comments section of every post to find these. I also only went back to about Oct 2013. Just leave a comment here if I skipped it, or if you want to add something.

Thoughts on Panopticon’s Roads to the North

Now that I’ve written my thoughts, I looked back at what I said in 2012 about Panopticon’s previous album, Kentucky. I find it interesting that my reaction to that album was almost exactly the same as this one.

If you haven’t kept track, recall that Panopticon is Austin Lunn, a one-man Kentucky (or Minnesota, I can’t quite track this down) based black metal/bluegrass fusion band. Honestly, I’m still fascinated by the idea that this might work. I had a lukewarm impression of his last album, but I thought this one would blow me away with its perfect unity of these two distinct styles.

This album doesn’t hold up for me. First, they’ve moved away from the black metal aesthetic quite a bit as the first track shows. The song is all over the place. It has black metal influenced parts, but shifts to some standard rock beats with almost metalcore style riffs and even some power metal sounding parts.

The bluegrass influence on the track comes from fiddle riffs (?) during the black metal parts. I sort of like the metal part, because it creates this deep, static atmosphere. The fiddle is a novelty that doesn’t add the correct feeling to the song. It is playing an arpeggiated, moving part which contrasts awkwardly with the static guitars. If the fiddle were doing tremolos here, I think it would add a nice texture that actually fits with the sound.

The next track is one of the best. It starts with acoustic guitar accompaniment to a tin whistle (?) and fiddle duet. It then goes into the metal part. This time I’m not sure how to classify it. Maybe post-rock? The fusion with the traditional instruments actually works here. Despite this, I don’t find the song itself that interesting. It is incredibly repetitive, and the content on repeat is pretty standard stuff.

The next three tracks are three parts of one epic song. It starts with banjo accompaniment to fiddle, and turns into a traditional bluegrass stringband piece. Sadly, I think this is where the band shines. Their pure bluegrass material is excellent. The rest of the epic is post-metal. There’s lots of atmosphere with droning, shoegaze guitar. The bass work is really good. It sounds like something that you might expect from a prog band.

Overall, my impression is that Panopticon really know their bluegrass, but the novelty of fusing that with metal hasn’t been ironed out yet. The metal itself is all over the place. I still feel the project has tons of potential, but right now I’m just not feeling it (and apparently I’m the only one as I’ve seen something like 6 stellar reviews and no criticism). What I think other reviews confuse is the difference between the idea of this album (excellent!) and the actual execution.

I even feel a little bad writing harshly about a one-man project, because it feels like a much more personal attack than to criticize a large band. Don’t take my word for it. Form your own opinion. Here’s a sample:

JZZBLK’s Welcome Reviewed

JZZBLK are a little known Swedish group that released their first EP in June of this year, Welcome. Some might call this prog metal, but I’m not sure it really fits any obvious style. It has lots of jazz influences, but also lots of experimental elements and some punkish parts.

That sounds like it might be a really disjointed mess, but I think the whole thing works well and stays consistent throughout. The first track exemplifies this fusion. It starts with an abstract introduction which is a reworking of a later motif, and then settles into downtempo punk type of thing. It shifts into an amorphous collection of chromaticism and dies into a single guitar playing an arpeggio ostinato.

This idea keeps getting passed around the band for a minute or so as it builds slowly with more and more instruments and voices all the way up to a giant climactic moment. This is extremely well executed in a classical sense. The build is patient and done with instrumentation, rhythm, and harmonic intensity. Just as the chaos gets to a tipping point, the main motif gets played homophonically.

The song then breaks from the unity back into chaos with a new technical and chromatic breakdown of the idea. To wrap the song up we get a return to the beginning. Overall this album is fun and exciting to listen to. It makes you pause and wonder how something that can be so strange and technical at parts still seems to be so enjoyable. The answer is easy enough: they aren’t afraid to employ some typical rock elements.

The second song’s beginning drags a little for me, but really ramps up to the excitement of the first track after a little bit. The third track feels a bit like filler, but I’m not sure what they are trying to fill since it is a 29 minute self-released EP. Maybe I’m missing something on that one.

The fourth track is a deviation from the first two. This one definitely fits more in line with the prog metal label with a fretless bass and the most robust harmonic material of the album. It is also stylistically the most unified without much shifting around like the first two. The last track is closer to the first one with clear motivic material that gets passed around and developed into different styles.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time with this one and I’m excited to see where this band goes next. They have a very good sense of how to develop material and play in different styles while keeping a unity to the song. They also understand how to build climaxes, which is extremely rare in metal which tends to keep things loud and fast all the time. I give it an 8.5/10. Here’s a sample:

Doom Metal Double Review

Pallbearer have achieved a somewhat strange level of popularity for a doom metal band. This is almost certainly due to Pitchfork, the darling of the indie music scene, giving their most recent album Foundations of Burden a glowing review and stamped it with “Best New Music.” I decided to give it a shot.

I’ll start by saying that this is my most listened to album over the past two weeks. This is not to say I think it is good. It is merely because when I’m at a loss for what to listen to, I just throw this on to see if its genius will reveal itself to me this time around.

Why, oh why, did every review I read compare this band to Deafheaven (you know, that indie band that plays “black metal” but sounds like My Bloody Valentine early 90’s shoegaze)? There is no comparison. Pallbearer, for the most part, plays doom with no indie rock influences (except for a few parts which we’ll get to).

The opening few tracks are pretty good. Part of what made me listen to this so many times is that I couldn’t really remember what it sounded like. The riffs aren’t very memorable. But they stick to their guns once they’ve laid down the main ideas of the song.

I like how they develop the material. The songs are epic in length, and they don’t overdo it. They are constantly shifting and developing the riffs. The development is slow, but constant and not too slow to get boring.

The clean singing vocal line is in nice counterpoint to the band. Each song builds to a climactic moment, but honestly the volume and instrumentation don’t distinguish these moments that much. In fact, a lot of this album feels static. I’m not sure if this is a mixing issue, or a compositional issue.

Let’s get to the elephant in the room. Periodically, the band does break into a 4/4 traditional rock sound and feel. I don’t really see the point. These are usually small sections of a 10 minute song. The song would still be long if it were cut, and then there would be stylistic continuity. This would make a really good doom album if that happened.

Also, there is a 3 minute song “Ashes” plopped in there, and the song could have been written and played by Sigur Rós. I’m still sort of convinced it is Sigur Rós. What is that about?

Overall, I think Pallbearer have a lot of potential. They understand doom and song development, but I think they suffer from trying too hard to be “original” and break conventions. In some sense, they are still trying to find their voice, and when this happens they’ll be great. Until then, I give this a 6.5/10. Here’s a sample:

I’ve never really understood Earth. I still remember when The Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull came out, and everyone told me it was the greatest thing they had ever heard. I found it extremely boring and uninteresting. Earth have made their name on combining minimalism with something like doom (I know, some people will say it is drone).

Still, I decided to give them another shot with Primitive and Deadly getting a lot of rave reviews. I’ll say up front that I like this a lot more than the previously mentioned album. The polished production make Earth sound more modern than Pallbearer. There’s a lot of distortion, but it is so judiciously added in that the whole band sounds very clean to me.

The minimalism isn’t quite as extreme on this album. It still has a ton of repetition, but at least stuff is going on. Earth traditionally is all instrumental, but they have a guest vocalist on this album for some tracks. Honestly, I think this was a mistake.

The first track has no vocals, and they put a lot of effort into making sure the song doesn’t sound like accompaniment. All instruments work together to create a piece of instrumental music that stands on its own.

In the pieces with vocals, the minimalism is just too much for me, because the instrumental work is designed for accompaniment. The vocals try to cover this up, but those songs really drag. They contain less interesting riffs/rhythm/harmony/development/etc.

I understand that bands like Earth aren’t going for traditional song making. The point is for the listener to get lost in the repetition. The song isn’t meant to “develop,” but to have small deviations from the pattern that seem big to someone lost in the music. I think the first track succeeds in this. The vocals are a misplay in my opinion, because they pull you out of the trance. They are way too prominent, and then the song just falls as repetitive and boring.

I don’t hate the album, and my disclaimer that I’ve never been able to get into them means I probably shouldn’t be reviewing it at all. I give this a 6/10. Here’s a sample:

Cloak of Altering Plague Beasts Reviewed

Before reviewing Cloak of Altering’s new album, let’s just take a quick look at some other noise albums that have come out this year. I usually like the genre, but nothing stood out so far. There seems to be two trends that put me off. The first consists of bands that just make a pop album, and then layer a bunch of noise over it to call it art.

Maybe some people fall for this indie band trick, but I’m kind of shocked to see it get so much metal coverage. For example, I was excited about Have a Nice Life’s The Unnatural World because of the coverage in Decibel and a 9/10 at American Aftermath. I found the album unlistenable, because it fell in this first category. Pop plus noise does not negate the pop.

The other category is the other extreme. I like experimental music, but there is a line that can be crossed from avant garde to chaotic, disorganized, random sounds. This type of music has potential, because maybe I’m just not spending enough time with the album to understand the complicated underlying patterns. My guess is that there isn’t actually something there, though. I saw rave reviews for White Suns’ Totem, but found it to be unlistenable for that reason.

Then I found Cloak of Altering’s Plague Beasts. Cloak of Altering is a Dutch one-man project: Maurice de Jong. He’s been involved in a lot of extreme music projects, including another one-man project, Gnaw Their Tongues. This is Cloak of Altering’s third full-length release. Rather than call this noise, maybe it should be classified as industrial electronica with noise elements.

I’ll admit up front that I don’t love this album, but it at least encapsulates what originally drew me to the noise genre. First, there are some really great sounds on this album. The potential for interesting, new sounds definitely keeps me coming back to noise.

I understand these sounds are produced by just playing around with electronics, so there’s nothing too deep about it. But at least there’s something original happening. Isn’t the whole point to produce original sounds? The two pitfalls above only think about using harsh white noise.

The next thing Cloak of Altering does well is maintain some semblance of being music. There’s structure, beat, melody, and harmony. Most of the time it is buried, complicated, chaotic, and extreme. But it is still there. To me, this is far more interesting and impressive. If you want pure chaos, why listen to albums? Just go sit next to a construction site. I understand that when you experiment on pushing boundaries, sometimes you go too far. It is part of the process. This album is the result of understanding where the lines seem to be and producing a more balanced album.

All that being said, I think there are some down sides to this release. Sometimes the sound can get a bit cheesy in a few ways. The keyboard synth sound goes for a retro, eerie atmosphere in some songs, but there are moments where the time period that it conjures is a bit too vivid. I hear drum machine and 80’s synth which gives off a cheap dance sound. These moments are extremely rare, but really pull me out of the experience when they happen.

The other main cheesy bit is when the drum machine is used to produce a more standard sounding loop than the chaos and noise effect it is mostly used for. He makes use of the technology in innovative ways most of the time, but those few traditional uses feel out of place.

Overall, I really like the album and think this type of balance is what noise music should strive for, but it isn’t great. I give it a 7.5/10. Here’s a sample: