Spectral Lore – Gnosis

Spectral Lore has been on my radar ever since they released the epic III. That album stayed with me for quite some time as a great blend of traditional melody and black metal, yet highly experimental in other aspects. Earlier this year Voyager released, and I didn’t review it because I couldn’t get into it at all.

Gnosis provides a return to the melody and experimentation I loved on III, yet there are significant departures from it. Most of the melodies are influenced by Middle Eastern scales and melodies. Thankfully, this doesn’t come off as a gimmick. Unlike the recent Nile release, these ideas are blended so seamlessly into the music, that it doesn’t sound like it could be any other way.

The tracks run 8+ minutes, but the album as a whole is only 5 tracks long. This makes for a nice total length. The long form of the songs don’t feel too long, because there is steady development throughout. The tracks are instrumental and through composed, so there isn’t a bunch of tedious recycling like many modern long form black metal albums.

One of the “experimental” aspects of the album is that there are lyrics despite no vocals. I’m not sure if I’m just missing them somehow. It is more like a jointly released music/poetry project. My guess is that this is somehow a commentary on how you have to read the lyrics for most black metal anyway to understand what they are.

Overall, this album is a slower and more patient album that III. Every song is mid to slow tempo, and you won’t find much fast technical work or blast beats. A lot of the complexity has been stripped to bring greater focus to the melodic work.

The song I’m going to give as a preview isn’t representative of the album’s sound, but I think it gives the best idea of how carefully constructed these are. The rubato, the dynamic contrast, the use and non-use of instruments in meticulously chosen locations, and the melodic development and counterpoint with the bass all show how Spectral Lore think about constructing songs on this album. These elements of songwriting are present on other tracks, but are harder to hear because of the louder metal sound.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed listening to Gnosis and expect it will be one of my top albums of the year. I’ll give it a 9/10. Here’s a sample:

Panopticon – Autumn Eternal

Autumn Eternal is Panopticon’s third album in his bluegrass/black metal trilogy. I’ve reviewed them all so far, and I’m always pretty disappointed while remaining optimistic for the next one. I feel like a broken record, so this will probably be the last time I do one of these reviews unless the next album totally blows me away.

I love the concept. He takes black metal and tries to combine it with American folk. From an instrumental standpoint, this is a great idea. Instruments like banjo have a very harsh, metallic sound, but can also portray a deep sadness. Lots of folk songs are about tragic events like coal miners doing backbreaking work only to die in a cave in. This is the essence of black metal.

Unfortunately, when you pull the two ideas apart and merely shift back and forth between folk instruments and black metal it creates an uneven and partitioned album.

I don’t think the songwriting has evolved as much as some people say. As usual, the folk parts are excellent. The opening track has multiple melodies played in counterpoint, a beautiful blend of instruments, and interesting rhythm section. It is complex yet simple in the right ways.

The black metal sections remain a mystery to me. For example, take the end to “Into the North Woods.” It is an extended and repetitive fully synthesized outro. Nothing about this makes sense in the context of the song. The synthetic sound is cringe inducing and completely changes the aesthetic. It goes against all that the album stands for in its nature themes. The repetition makes me want to hit skip after almost a minute. What is the point of this outro? The album is long enough that there is no need for the filler. This same type of thing happens on future tracks as well like “Sleep to the Sound of Waves Crashing.”

He also introduces a very clean melodic lead guitar on most of the metal tracks. This also feels out of place and is again the wrong aesthetic. It is most noticeable in “Autumn Eternal” and is pretty much the only thing I can think about during that track. The prominence might just be a mixing issue.

In the next track, the melodic clean guitar works a lot better, because it gets integrated into the overall sound. And this basically sums up how I feel about it. The album is a highly inconsistent collection of ideas and aesthetic choices. This is disappointing because of how promising the ideas are.

There are some great moments to be sure. But there are also some Deafheaven-esque post-metal poppy progressions that ruin those moments. Overall, I give this a 6.5/10. Here’s a sample:

Mgła – Exercises in Futility

Mgła is a band people have been telling me to check out for a while. Their latest album has received rave reviews and many are calling it black metal album of the year.

At first, I didn’t like this album at all. It seemed very simplistic, formulaic, and repetitive. Every song is built out of some pretty short motifs in repetition that builds in intensity until they hit the climax, usually right at the end of the song. The album has more of a riff structure from death metal than the melodic focus of black metal.

This rubbed me the wrong way. These motifs aren’t very interesting on their own. There are brief moments of melody, but these are few and far between and de-emphasized. Even Krallice uses full melodic structures. Anyway, I decided to take my own advice and stop worrying about what the band ought to do and figure out if what they actually do works.

I’m glad I did this, because I’ve come around a lot on this one. I like that they named their tracks “Exercises in Futility” I-VI. It makes it sound like these really are six exercises in futility. The effect would be lost if they went down the path that some bands go nowadays with titles like “My Naked Body Became One With the Earth Under the Gaze of the Moon” or something.

I think the first few tracks do suffer quite a bit from the extreme repetition of pretty uninteresting ideas with little-to-no change. Each song gets a bit better, and by the end of the album, they’ve hit upon how to make the formula work. Much how Ulcerate takes almost nothing and builds intensity through layering, texturing, and dissonance, so does Mgła.

I’m actually baffled that the earlier tracks don’t use this. The only explanation I can come up with is that they wanted an album-long descent into intensity and dissonance (not that they really ever get super dissonant). But it isn’t worth this sacrifice.

The drumming is pretty wild on this thing. Sometimes it has a bit too much going on for the simplicity of the rest of the song. For instance, on the fourth track these weird ride symbol flourishes cut through everything, and it is all I can think about. Other times the drumming transitions into a standard rock beat. Most of the time it serves the song well, but a few moments it takes over to ill effect.

Overall, I definitely liked this album, but there are some serious flaws. There is no doubt this is a band to watch. If they can really pin down this formula, they could make a really great album. Also, I love the last two tracks. That’s where they got it right. I’ll give this a 7.5/10.

Here’s a sample:

Nile – What Should Not Be Unearthed

I figured I should weigh in on this album, since Nile is one of those heavyweight bands that profess to be doing something interesting (combining Middle Eastern melodies with brutal death metal).

First, I’m not sure what the production on this thing was supposed to sound like, but there’s a difference between a brutal/punishing sound and something too muddy to hear anything. There are loud segments that are not so much atonal as they are without a tone. The sections consist of chugging on some “chord” in a string of fast sixteenth notes, but it comes across as pure noise.

I’m pretty sure this was not intended. It makes the harmonic minor riffs so much cornier. Loud noise, loud noise, loud noise, sudden “Egyptian” riff which is crystal clear, loud noise. The effect is almost comical. It sounds like a Nile parody band.

To be fair, many of the songs are not quite that bad … but many are. Nile have been around a long time and clearly have excellent technical chops. Occasionally there are some very technical solos and riffs. Too often they fall back on chromatic filler or simply playing a harmonic minor scale.

I’m not sure why they messed with the death metal structure so much. If they took their best riffs and cut the filler, this would probably be a pretty good album. Some bands can get away with developing their riffs into longer, six minute songs because they have the content to do it. Most of the time it feels like Nile wanted longer songs, but couldn’t come up with the material to do it so they chugged on toneless chords.

The lack of development gives the songs a meandering and aimless feel. I think they were going more for chaotic with the sudden tempo and timbre changes. Instead, we’re left with a lack of cohesion.

Overall, there are some good moments but not enough to overcome the lack of interesting content. I won’t bother coming up with a number for this one. Here’s a sample:

By The Patient – Gehenna Reviewed

By The Patient is a band from Denmark, and Gehenna is their fifth release. I have no idea how I found this band. They must have been on some list somewhere. I tend to throw any album I come across that looks vaguely interesting into a big Google music library. This album had been sitting there for a very long time, so I figured the time had come to listen to it. This is also their last album as they’ve recently announced they’ve broken up.

Gehenna is Scandinavian-style melodic death metal. They mix it up between tracks quite a bit. Some songs are down tempo, almost doom sounding, while others are thrashy in their speed.

Nothing really stands out on the album. When playing fast, they are tight and have some interesting moments. When playing slow, they build good harmonies and the songs have good motion towards a climax. Unfortunately, most of the songs fall in the middle, and we don’t get to hear either extreme.

The riffs in general are not interesting enough to stand on their own. This weakens the songs considerably, because the songs must get their material from other sources: changing textures, rhythms, and feel. To be fair, there are a few stand out riffs that do work to bring the song together, but this is the exception.

I’m not a big vocals person. Vocals rarely change my opinion one way or the other. Bad vocals don’t ruin excellent instrumental work, and great vocals don’t improve terrible playing. The vocals on this album rub me the wrong way though. They remind me a lot of Gojira but as if the singer were bored. It is hard to pinpoint exactly why. It has to do with the overly precise rhythmic execution and how monotone they are.

Unfortunately, this album is too generic. It isn’t as bad as I’ve made it sound. I’ve listened to it in the background probably 8 or 9 times. I’ll just not remember it in a few weeks. I hate doing negative reviews, but I wasn’t prepared to do a different album today. I give it a 5/10.

Here’s a sample:

Cattle Decapitation – The Anthropocene Extinction

Last week I was out of town, this week I’ve been really sick, so I’ve been sleeping in my spare time instead of listening to anything new. I’ll keep this short, because I’m still pretty out of it.

I know Cattle Decapitation’s last album, Monolith of Inhumanity, was pretty universally praised. I know I listened to it, but I honestly don’t remember it very much. I wanted to keep it that way going into The Anthropocene Extinction to not skew my view and constantly compare to it.

This album is one of the most relentlessly brutal I’ve listened to this year. Most of it is fast, but not in a too-fast-all-the-time so as to be boring way. Almost every song slows down into a groove and layers semi-clean melodic vocals into the mix. The also show off excellent technical proficiency at times but have the maturity to exercise restraint at others.

The vocals are hit or miss. Some of the melodic content works well and has some interesting contours to the motion. Other parts feel forced, like they needed a melodic section and couldn’t really come up with something interesting, so they put some notes together that were in the right key without thinking about the overall structure of the melody.

Also, because of the melodic sections, I think some riffs took a back seat. There are sections where every instrument serves as an accompaniment to the vocals which turns the song into a rock feel.

This album is at its best when it all comes together: fast, technical, chaotic, melodic. The soloing is wild and infrequent, the way I like it. Despite the above complaints, they are on most of the time, which makes the less good parts stick out more. It sounds like a lot of complaints, but I’m going to keep this in rotation for a while.

Overall, it does feel a bit formulaic, but I applaud that they’ve found their own formula instead of being poor copycats of older bands. They do their own thing and do it well. I give it an 8/10.

Here’s a sample:

In Which I Try to Explain Why the We’re Having the Wrong Conversation about Deafheaven

On the surface, Deafheaven spawns all sorts of conversation about genre, true black metal, the creeping influence of indie rock on metal, and how popularity affects art. I could care less at this point. Deciding whether you like their recent album based on any of these points is ridiculous when there’s an interesting discussion to be had about why they aren’t very good at what they do.

I was listening to New Bermuda with the intent of doing a review of it this week when it became clear to me why I didn’t like what I was listening to. Unfortunately, this clarity is going to be very difficult to articulate. It has to do with something that you’d probably struggle with constantly if being trained as a classical musician. It has to do with the fine line between being expressive enough to engage a listener and over-expressing to the point of alienating a listener.

This distinction exists in all art forms, and I think it is easier to explain with poetry. Think of some angsty high school kid trying to express his feelings in poetry. It’s probably blatantly obvious and filled with all sorts of cliche metaphors. It is so over-the-top that it makes you cringe to read. But it was probably also heartfelt, sincere, and cathartic for the writer. It’s just that the writer hasn’t realized that getting a reader to feel what they feel is separate from spewing everything onto a page.

To give the most extreme example: a sad person can’t stand on a stage and cry and expect the audience to get anything out of that. Expressing emotion in a way that someone else can immerse themselves in is much more about restraint than expression. All instrumentalists I know of go through this phase. They get good enough at their instruments that they can finally start expressing in music. What comes out sounds like Celine Dion. Their teachers let this go for a while, but at some point they have to be told the truth: what you’re doing is embarrassing. You have to tone it down. Great music is about subtlety.

The same goes for composing. Early on you catch on to some things you think express something. What you don’t realize is that everyone goes through a phase where they find those same chords or hooks. Once you move on to a more mature phase of composing, you hear those same cliche ideas and cringe like at that terrible poetry. It’s too obvious and too overwrought which pulls the listener out instead of in. What makes this a strange phenomenon is that the player can play it with sincerity and think that since they are “feeling” the music, the listener is too. It’s one of those things that you have to experience to understand I think.

Here’s another example that happens all over big budget Hollywood movies. A dad who is kind of a nice guy, so you’re rooting for him, but he’s struggling to make ends meet so has a ton on his mind wakes up and his wife says, “Don’t forget to get the cake for your daughter’s birthday tonight.” And you just know how the next 20 minutes are going to go. He’s going to have a bad day, so it’s not his fault when he forgets, but of course to everyone else it just looks like he’s a bad dad. And by the end of the movie he’s going have done something to more than make up for it. He’ll be dad of the year with epic flowing music and people crying in the audience.

From that one sentence about the cake, everything after has such a cringeworthy level of predictability that you can’t actually believe they popped another one of these pieces of trash out in exactly the same way as the last 100. They used those same cliche tricks, and somehow there were still people there who didn’t see through it and were “moved” by it. They’ll still dish out $10 to go see the same crappy writing do it again. Sure, all the specifics will be different (change dad to “gay uncle” and crappy job to “drug addiction” and cake to “present”), but at a structural level, it is exactly the same.

This brings us to Deafheaven. The reason I think this is the right conversation to have is that the line between good and bad with respect to expression is difficult to find. If you don’t get close enough to the line, you produce flat music with no content. If you accidentally cross the line, no matter how little, it is cringe inducing with its cliche over-expression. This is one of the most difficult parts of making art and worth talking about. This is the reason that changing one word can mean the difference between an excellent poem and a terrible poem.

This is also one of the reasons classic black metal succeeds. It is extreme. It is highly expressive and walks right up to that line. But it also strips away all of the pop music tricks and cliche to do this. The great bands we still listen to managed to not cross this line.

The other way to get next to the line is to use the cliche, but to tone everything else down so much that you don’t cross the line. What Deafheaven does is flawed from the start even at a philosophical or theoretical level. What do you expect when you take the extremeness of black metal and the saccharine cliche of pop and combine them? It doesn’t just nudge you over the line, it pushes you so far past the line it makes you want to slap something.

I know this is going to sound controversial, but I completely understand why people like this. It’s the same reason people would rather go to a Celine Dion concert than the symphony. It’s the same reason that people who don’t cringe when they hear the cake line go to those movies. This makes it hard to talk about this with people who don’t automatically cringe when they hear those moments on New Bermuda. I could point them out, but the people who don’t get it probably won’t benefit from being shown the problem, and those who do get it already understand the problem (even if it is difficult to articulate).