A Rebuttal to Gabe Kagan’s Review of Ygg Huur

I’ll start with a caveat, so people don’t get the wrong impression. I think it is perfectly reasonable for someone to give Krallice, and Ygg Huur in particular, a chance, yet come away with nothing of worth. If it doesn’t speak to you, then it doesn’t speak to you. Heck, it doesn’t really speak to me. But it is intellectually dishonest to coach this criticism in factually incorrect statements just to give your criticism weight. Say it like it is: you don’t like it. Don’t give some faux analysis filled with nonsensical hyperbole.

You can go read the full review made by Gabe Kagan here. I’ll pull out the most egregious quotes and give a rebuttal.

“Every second of Ygg Hurr takes on a different meter, rhythm, tempo, tonality, and so forth.”

Let’s ignore the fact that you wouldn’t be able to tell if these things were true, and get to the part where they are patently false. There are certainly bands that take the approach of complicated time and tempo changes, but arguably early death metal classics do this more than Ygg Huur.

Take the first minute of the first track. It consists almost entirely of quarter notes and eighth notes with some half notes near the end of the minute mark. Here’s roughly the sheet music (I couldn’t hear exactly which guitar had which part due to the closeness of the registers and the distortion, and the very end notes might be slightly off). There has been no simplification:

Screenshot (15)

This exact idea repeats many times with slight changes in texture and embellishment. How someone could call this strange rhythm is beyond me. I guess one way to count it would be to alternate 5/4 and 6/4, but this hardly counts as “changing meter” because you could call the whole thing 11/4.

There are no tempo changes. There is one established tonality: a minor. In fact, you’d have an easier time arguing the tonality as too static to be interesting. This track plays like something Ulcerate would do. The only way someone could make the above quote is if they haven’t listened to the album, or they are ignorant about what any of those terms mean.

The meter, rhythm, tempo, and tonality all remain fixed throughout the song. Some of the later songs introduce a little more complication but not much.

“Instead of dwelling on one simplistic idea for an enormous quantity of time, Krallice abandons all their previous concepts like clockwork because it’s already time for the next riff.”

I’ll stick to the first track again since we have a reference for it, although I think many of the tracks follow a similar structure. I’ll give Gabe that some of the motifs presented on the album are not simplistic (though the one I wrote out above is quite simplistic), but Krallice does dwell on these ideas enough for there to be clear development. I actually only hear one riff per song unless there are clear sections, in which case each section only develops one riff.

The first track consists entirely of developing those first two measures I wrote out. When the vocals come in, the parts get elongated, probably to change the focus to the vocals. The sounds that come from those measures are the foundation for the rest of the song. I’m pretty sure nothing in the song is a new idea after those measures. Sure, 3 minutes isn’t an “enormous quantity of time,” but it’s only 2 measures making up that material. They most certainly do not jump around from riff to riff on this album.

“I really need to brush up on my mathematics so I can make a proper reference to deterministic chaos and attractors, but even without such a metaphor it should be apparent that Krallice’s music isn’t very well thought out.”

Again, this criticism is almost the exact opposite of the one that ought to be made. One might be able to make the argument that the music is too well thought-out to have the emotion content of the great classic black metal bands. Look at the sheet music. It is almost perfect traditional counterpoint. You have similar motion balanced with contrary motion. You have anticipations and suspensions. You have an echo between the voices. This doesn’t happen by accident and without planning. It is strange to argue otherwise.

“As a result, Ygg Hurr showcases every idea that Krallice’s members must have thought was even marginally cool, without any cohesive logic or anything in the way of quality filtering.”

I think we’ve sufficiently dealt with this already. Krallice have actually composed quite cohesive songs, and the songs themselves don’t have the smattering of ideas Gabe seems to think. They tend to focus around one or two ideas.

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:

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:

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).

Exhumation Opus Death Review

Exhumation play death metal right out of the early days. This is old school in a way that many bands don’t dare to do. Guitar tone, production, song structure, riff styles, and so on all bring to mind many of the great pioneers. Opus Death is the second album of this Indonesian band.

Let’s start with the best part: the soloing. Despite the sound and feel of these songs, the solos add something new to let Exhumation stand out. The solos are sometimes well-executed, wild, chromatic riffing around the main ideas that reminds me of Morbid Angel’s Altars of Madness.

Other times, the solos are long and melodic with almost jazzy alterations to the scales (see the second track). The choice of solo placement in the song and solo style is excellent. It takes the album from a good attempt at imitating the classics to something better that can be remembered on its own terms.

Some may say it is not the riff itself, but what the band does with it that makes excellent death metal. If this is the case, Exhumation are excellent. They use their riffs in all sorts of ways to construct interesting, constantly changing songs.

Unfortunately, I think only about half of their riffs are good on their own. Sometimes they think outside the box to create some strange yet memorable ideas (see “Possessed”). Other times, I find the ideas a bit too simplistic to be interesting.

Still, something has to be said about the talents of the songwriting in this band if they can take ideas I don’t find interesting and still make songs I find interesting out of them.

The other thing Exhumation does well is to take a “whole album” approach that is often hard to find these days where people can download individual tracks. They have a few beautiful songs (middle and end) consisting of piano and acoustic guitar. These not only add variety, but round the album out by contributing to the overall sound in diverse ways.

The main aesthetic is an unrelenting and punishing album made out of old school ideas but with a modern twist. The second half of the album is better than the first. This may be intentional, because the songs seem to become more complex as the album progresses.

Overall, I’ll give this an 8.5/10. Here’s a sample:

A Forest of Stars – Beware the Sword You Cannot See Reviewed

I remember back in 2012 reading some excellent reviews of A Forest of Stars previous album A Shadow for Yesterdays. I somehow never got around to listening to it, so I jumped on the opportunity this time around to get their newest release Beware the Sword You Cannot See.

If you’re like me, something jumps out at you before the first listen. That title is in iambic tetrameter, the verse of classical Greek poetry. I had to know if their lyrics would follow suit, so I opened them up first. Sadly, I couldn’t find the meter anywhere else (missed opportunity guys!).

Before we start with the review, it is important to understand the band a bit better. They are part band, part theatrical act. Part of the shtick is that they are a Gentlemen’s club from Victorian England of 120 years ago. The music is an artistic expression of this group. I’ll ignore the fact that the instruments the music is played on didn’t exist back then.

They don’t fit neatly into a genre. There is a lot of black metal influence in guitar and drum technique/sound, but they also rely a lot on frenetic spoken word (this reminds me of Sikth), clean vocals, and fiddle. They also have psychedelic, prog, and drone influences in lesser amounts.

I hate to keep nit-picking before I say anything of substance, but the spoken word parts make up a large part of the vocals and they drive me crazy. I think this type of thing can be done successfully, but this delivery doesn’t work.

In an attempt to emote, the delivery is so melodramatic and over-the-top that it pulls me out of what is happening around it. Also, you can hear the vocalist sucking in air at every breath (in a hugely distracting manner).

It is quite difficult vocal technique, but you can breath in almost silently and still get the intense spoken word delivery. It just takes a lot of practice. As a wind instrument player in bands and orchestras, I spent hours working on this myself throughout my childhood. I’ll get off this side rant for now.

I get that the violin is supposed to introduce folk music elements, but I don’t hear it. I’ve played a lot of English folk music, and this doesn’t have the right characteristic at all. It sounds more like a motif or ornament that gets repeated as texture to the band sound.

While I’m on the topic of things I didn’t like, the levels sound off. First, I don’t like overly present drums, but the drumming is almost inaudible on most of the album. The consistency makes me think this was a choice made for artistic purposes.

My guess is they wanted a pulsing feel from the drums without them interfering with melodic, harmonic, and spoken material. The strange thing is that the band relies a lot on big climaxes, and intense drumming can add a lot to these climaxes, so pushing it to the back hinders their goal.

Overall, this album suffers a bit from patchwork syndrome. They have tons of ideas, many of which are good, but they slam them all together to create a jumbled album in which too much happens and yet at the same time too little exploration of the good ideas happen.

So, is there anything I did like? Good question … The second half of the album is supposedly one long song/theatrical-poetry broken into 6 parts. I think they do a lot better on consistency and development of ideas on it. The harmonic structure moves from being drone-like to some interesting chromaticism.

I’m actually curious what this review would be if the album instead was an EP which consisted only of this second half. It almost sounds like they spent all the work on this and then threw some songs at the front to make a whole album.

For example, Part 3 does a lot better at the folk influences. Each song also sounds like it is a composed song rather than a random conglomerate of too many ideas.

Let me end with a disclaimer. An album like this is made for a certain type of audience. It is a bit unfair for me to pick it apart like this. You’re supposed to buy into the act, put the album on, and lose yourself for an hour in a different world.

If you think too carefully about it, you’ve missed the point. It isn’t an intellectual exercise. It is a bit like going to a Renaissance Festival and not enjoying any part of the experience because you pick apart every little thing. The point is to go in with the right mentality and play along even when things don’t go perfectly.

So I tried this with the album and got some enjoyment out of it. But I still have to go with a 5/10. Here’s a sample:

Leviathan – Scar Sighted Review

Leviathan is the solo black metal project of Jef Whitehead (Wrest). Leviathan has been around for a long time. The earliest demos date back to 1998, but it has been 4 years since the last full album release.

The album opens with some ambient sounds then kicks into a fast-paced second track. The overall sound reminds me a lot of Ulcerate and Converge with the types of dissonance, pacing, and tone. This goes away in the middle with much more dissonance and even some creepy spoken word parts.

The next track fills out the sound and presses forward in momentum. In terms of the flow of the album, the whole first part seems to build to this climactic track. The harmonic motion speeds up and is more traditional. The track is riff heavy which also contributes to the climax.

The album then settles back into a quieter section at the start of the fourth track. This is one of the great things about this album: it has an album-long view of development. There are loud songs, quieter songs, fast songs, slow songs, and they are put together in a way that keeps the listener interested.

Don’t be fooled by the quiet start. This track is the first where the experimental stuff takes the lead. It is highly dissonant with some quarter tone style dissonance and altered spoken word vocals. These sections lead into a very clean guitar duo exit.

The fifth track returns to a traditional black metal sound in terms of tone, pace, and vocals. This track feels a bit static to me, which of course a lot of the best black metal is, but the repetition of a fairly uninteresting chord progression doesn’t transport me anywhere like much great black metal does.

This album’s strong suit is when it is at its most experimental, dissonant ugliness or in the fast-paced intensity. Wrest knows how to create a raw intensity through the fast-paced chaos, and he knows how to create disturbing non-traditional soundscapes and ambient moments.

The in-between moments are perfectly fine and as stated before, the overall ebb and flow of the album is well-designed, so those quieter or slower songs are useful. But the lack of a compelling progression, melody, or atmosphere hampers the effectiveness.

When this is great, it is mind-blowing in its twisted vision. It hits that experimental sweet spot: black metal with brief moments of experimentation to deepen it. When this is not great, it is still very good.

There is a lot to absorb here. The album is full of meticulously placed complicated detail. I have to be in the right frame of mind for it, but I still haven’t grown tired of it yet. Overall, I give it a 9/10. Here’s a sample: