Monday 27 March 2017

Boiling Chrism

Band: Rebirth of Nefast
Release: 'Tabernaculum' (2017)

It would be too easy to label 'Tabernaculum' a magnum opus, to box it off and send it skyward amid the loftiness of similarly top shelf creations. As much as it is wholly deserving of the accolade, there would exist an indolence in such an action, and this long-anticipated full-length from Rebirth of Nefast is worthy of far greater trophies, far greater than the likes of Album of the Month, or even Album of the Year can ever truly bestow.

A record essentially 11 years in the making (from the advent of the auspicious 'Only Death' demo in 2006), 'Tabernaculum' is a veritable labour of love, though such a term may be unsuitable when utilised in reference to black metal. Like all staggeringly brilliant releases, it endured mixed fortunes over the years, wrestling rewrites and near abandonment, as Stephen Lockhart (aka Wann) found himself unwittingly helping to craft (via the art of studio wizardry) what we today know as the 'Icelandic sound', as well as operating full-time within acclaimed act Sinmara, and lending a live hand to Irish black metal powerhouse Slidhr, the dauntless project of longtime co-conspirator Joe Deegan.

In purely production terms, 'Tabernaculum' is a marvellously clean, tight and modern black metal record with quite an incomparable sound and compositional variety. This belies the level of heaviness on offer, most notable when the more funereal, hypnotic sections give way to twisted discordance and almost inhumanly precise blasting. Additionally, in keeping with Rebirth of Nefast's approach and output to date, the album is lean to within an inch of its life - all fat removed - nothing at all superfluous, despite its liberal use of layering and one hour plus duration.

Lockhart's studio time with noteworthy acts like Svartidauði, Mortuus Umbra, Mannveira, Dysangelium and Almyrkvi has been well spent, exposing him to the nuances of the best of contemporary black metal, as well as the curse of choice found within the profuse subtleties of music production. Indeed, the latter more than likely hampered the journey taken by 'Tabernaculum' from start to finish, but it was one circuitous route well worth the effort.

'Tabernaculum' is an overwhelming listen, impossible to truly absorb after first exposure. A lot of its majesty gives thanks to its deft use of atmosphere. Many black metal bands merely toy with the creation of dread or malice, inserting languid ambient passages before, between and after tracks that often equate to nothing but skipped filler. Through delicate layering across a broad frequency spectrum, balanced against some seemingly out of place and even upbeat guitar work, most of which could be considered very unusual for black metal, the record retains a portentous tactility throughout. Here lays the crushed global spirit...

Though first and foremost a black metal record, in the most rigid sense, it is the album's more unorthodox elements that truly differentiate it from anything else heard to date. There exists a sinewy warmth as melodies just about merge, as a riff far too blithe for its own good is suddenly accosted by an unexpected aggression and malevolence, akin to a fresh oil slick embracing an all too perfect sandy shore as an ochre sun rises - a devastating allure, realised.

Indeed, this spirit runs through 'Tabernaculum', its lyrics, its fantastically adroit accompanying artwork - a heaving, exasperated earth shuffling on under the weight of an ineffectual, fetid human kind, a comfortable acknowledgement of the end, wherein lies a beautifully redemptive quality. Very few, if any, black metal albums are as strikingly evocative.

Mention of the use of traditional instrumentation in black metal may perturb many, as thoughts of bodhrans and fiddles stumbling over bouncy riffing are truly the province of nightmares, yet 'Tabernaculum' employs the cello, mandolin and the sharp-sounding bouzouki, which backs up the majority of lead lines across the record to magnificent effect, credit again to that lavish yet astute layering.

As with many great releases, this, too, is best digested as one course, though each track is in itself a compositional masterwork, epic in scope, while also fervently and mercilessly introspective. Piece after piece reaches its crescendo with seeming ease, despite the tension that builds and builds, in a style that reminds of the always excellent Clint Mansell.

Buttressed by compelling, apt artwork and layout (Alexander L. Brown, Alex Karpouski, Joe Deegan, Gunnhildur Edda Guðmundsdóttir, Manuel Tinnemans), heavily metaphysical lyrical content and garnering the support of the imperious, French label Norma Evangelium Diaboli, as a black metal package, 'Tabernaculum' is quite perfect. It confidently presents itself as a crowning achievement, not only for Lockhart, but also for Studio Emissary and the future of Irish/Icelandic black metal collaborations. An unnervingly inspired work and thoroughly matchless on every level.

Rating: 100%

Saturday 28 January 2017

No Remorse

Band: Death Worship
Release: 'Extermination Mass' EP (2016)
Musical supergroups are often best avoided, especially within metal - the clash of big-haired, perpetual adolescent egos and differing approaches to their 'art' colliding in a result that is later found in bargain bins and the also-ran columns of polished turd publications.
However, due care would be sensible when attempting to lump Death Worship into the above category. Indeed, while the pedigree of its participants is a war metal wet dream, comprised of Blasphemy, Conqueror and Revenge veterans, there's a tangible (and wholly intentional) air of disdainfulness that wafts about the project, quick to shut down any faux camaraderie and further dilutions of their 'die-hards only' aural bedlam.
The 'Exterminaton Mass' EP received a limited edition release at the Nuclear War Now! Fest Volume 5 in November 2016 to fairly solid critical acclaim. Though some dissenting voices have considered the release par for the course for all concerned and questioned its worth, it is arguable that Death Worship, in a refinement of elements, presents an approach and sound more bewitching and varied than its better known forbears.
Of course, comparisons to Conqueror and Revenge are thoroughly obvious, if not even a tad lazy - but a band fronted by the likes of R. Förster and J. Read was only ever going to produce one sound. In a recent interview, Förster described Death Worship as his interpretation of the natural progression of that which began with Conqueror, while Read has done similarly with the unrelenting savagery that is Revenge.
All ingredients considered, including a backing vocals appearance by Nocturnal Grave Desecrator and Black Winds (of Blasphemy), 'Extermination Mass' does adhere quite closely to the Conqueror/Revenge/Axis of Advance (and altogether Canadian) school of black/death metal, with its militant, precision machine-gun percussion, distorted diesel engine heaviness, inhuman vocalisations and the odd unbridled guitar solo.
Don't expect a memorable riff or anything that really sets one track apart from the others. Much like Revenge, Death Worship primarily set out to create an atmosphere of unrelenting attack and hatred, but something that this EP can boast is the welcome presence of a few well placed, toe-tapping hooks, an element Förster himself has commented is all too lacking in the output of many contemporary acts pushing this particular style of metal and unreservedly influenced by Blasphemy et al. 
Though acts such as Tetragrammacide and Nyogthaeblisz have taken black/death metal to its most extreme (yet still enjoyable) regions, generally sounding closer to harsh noise with blast beats, Death Worship's application of experience, classic structures and injections of an unflinchingly heavy metal heritage does lend its out-turn a certain something about which many similar bands remain clueless - with only the likes of Revenge and New Zealand's Diocletian and Witchrist coming close to emulating that Conqueror legacy.
Rating: 75%

Tuesday 1 November 2016

Spiritual Entrails

Band: Uškumgallu
Release: 'Rotten Limbs in Dreams of Blood' (2016)

The knowingly obscure Vrasubatlat collective has been polluting the air with their particular strain of malady since 2015. While young, its shared consciousness has borne twisted entities whose output, though possessing a unique miasma, sits well next to some of the foremost (and mostly Icelandic) black metal releases of recent times.

'Rotten Limbs in Dreams of Blood' not only acts as a milestone for Vrasubatlat (the tenth release via its collaborators) but presents the prolific Uškumgallu as a fully-realised, commanding black metal outfit.

Uškumgallu's self-titled demo and its follow up endeavour, 'Mortifying the Flesh' (both released 2015), were brilliantly rattly, primitive artifacts that set Uškumgallu aside as a propitious act that wasn't fearful of wearing its heritage on its sleeve.

While the more straightforward (albeit noteworthy) death metal of Triumvir Foul easily caught the attention of fairly pedestrian listeners who may have otherwise ignored the too-underground, twisted disseminations of the Vrasubatlat coven, 'Rotten Limbs...' is one of the best representations (alongside Dagger Lust's recent output) of the label's depraved, melancholic and violent ethos to date.

Tension and claustrophobia dominate this release. From its ominous intro, right through to its prevalent speed and aptly repetitive riff structures, the record is a veritable lesson in dynamics and the masterful use of groove-peppered tempo variation. Despite the unrestrained, smothering attack of much of 'Rotten Limbs...', the album is imbued with an excellent sense of space that grants all instrumentation leave to wander and breathe, allowing multiple possessed voices to assail the listener.

Much of this full-length's potency lies in its adherence to the immediacy and rough nature of Uškumgallu's demo works. Truly venomous and disturbed vocalisations underpin the uncomfortably misshapen (even by black metal standards) aural creation being blared, never for a moment allowing even the slightest hint of production wizardry or sterilisation, a common curse on full-length efforts, to take hold.

Though some black metal has suffered a crisis of identity of late, battling social justice crusades, genre dilution and release saturation, Uškumgallu and other Vrasubatlat adepts continue to revel in the obscure, and the skewed caverns of tortured minds, while aspiring, first and foremost, to communicate via what are some of the leading black, death and noise onslaughts in existence.

Rating: 80%

Tuesday 4 October 2016

Endless Unrest

Band: Unyielding Love
Release: 'The Sweat of Augury' EP (2016)

Threatening, unruly and haunting are terms often thrown at the feet of extreme noisemakers - and this persistent usage sometimes leaves such descriptors jaded and stripped of potency. Similarly, tying descriptions and genre labelling to Belfast's Unyielding Love, once they've been truly experienced, seems not only difficult, but also unjust and lazy, such is the enigmatic faculty they wield so effortlessly.
While comparisons to Dendritic Arbor and Discordance Axis most definitely set the scene (and while these bands have more 'going on' upstairs than simply their combined tumult), Unyielding Love are gifted/cursed with the ability to present an all too tangible, turbulent reaction to anxiety, illness and restlessness that makes 'The Sweat of Augury' one of the finest releases of 2016.
Much like their literally blood-, sweat- and sparks-filled live expressions, 'The Sweat...' is a taught, unnerving, blackened grinding bellow of striking viciousness that is wholly professional and refined beyond the band's active years. Despite the harshness and direct aggression of their marvellous racket - essentially grindcore with equal parts hardcore and grating noise elements - Unyielding Love's final product is less straightforward.
With traces of black metal and the murkier, discordant recesses of concurrent death metal atop their yield, as well as the use of noise as an integral component in proceedings, this EP could almost be the perfect sonic accompaniment to Full of Hell's 2014 collaboration with Merzbow were it not for those traces of uneasiness that has it stray closer to the bleak brilliance of Column of Heaven.
Indeed, this surely is an act that's threatening, unruly and haunting - in the most real sense - but its violence is pointed inward, directed at notions of the self and the brutal truth of human frailty, especially when faced with the twin grimaces of mental and physical illness. Yet none of this appears superficial or contrived. The band's addressing of these topics is fresh, real and utterly personal, and as much as their live contortions are nothing short of spectacle, they are cathartic episodes for themselves alone; the audiences just happen to bear witness.
For Unyielding Love, 'The Sweat...' is a distilled purging, if only for its brief duration. The quartet exist now as a band very much of their time with releases that have bottled contemporary discontent - something never in short supply on the Emerald Isle. This lyrically strong, more sombre (and interesting) aural treatment of human nature sidesteps the adolescent, soapbox weltpolitik that often litters the (safe) spaces occupied by grind and hardcore and thus works to catapult the band into auspicious realms.
Rating: 90%

Monday 3 October 2016

Back to McKinley with the Freaks and Geeks

Originally written in 2009 as a retrospective review, of sorts, and destined for an old friend's cinema/TV blog (which never saw the light of day), I decided to dig up this piece on the inimitable Freaks and Geeks now that it's available on Netflix UK and Ireland.

Cult status is hard won. Long-running television series such as Friends and Lost, while hugely popular, could never be referred to as 'cult TV shows'.

Paradoxically, this could be due to their very success and familiarity. Yet, while there isn’t a TV viewer over the age of 18 who wouldn’t know the lucrative X-Files TV series, it relishes in cult status, even while remaining very well-known, as well having spawned two best forgotten movies.

As such, it seems that cult status is something earned; cult shows deliver something more, are never comfortable with cheap laughs or hastily-drafted storylines and often tap into seldom heard social wants.

Cult TV is a veritable labour of love and is adored in return.

Though later appearing in Time magazine's 2007 '100 Greatest Shows of All Time' list, Freaks and Geeks originally suffered a quick cancellation and a mere 12 of 18 episodes aired while on NBC during the 1999/2000 season.

Prompted by a fan-led campaign, NBC broadcast three more episodes in July 2000; the last three would not be seen until September of that year, when the cable network Fox Family Channel aired them in syndication. The complete series was later released on DVD and promptly snapped up by the show's multitudinous fan base.

Countless online references and emphatic declarations of adulation later, Freaks and Geeks continues to enthral its still mourning supporters, while finding new converts thanks to the brilliance of the internet. To know it is to love it.

Created by Paul Feig (nominated for two Emmy Awards for writing the show's first and final episodes) and produced by the now ubiquitous Judd Apatow, the short-lived 'period teen dramedy' followed two unique groups of teenagers dealing with life in high school during the 80s.

Enthralling and humorous was the show's thoroughly informed depiction of high school years as experienced by the outsider strata of the education system. Indeed the show’s tagline rang all too true: "It's 1980 and this is what high school was like for the rest of us."

While still indulging in the attractive 'jock and cheerleader' world on occasion, it was used to highlight but another element of the system that the show's protagonists questioned. Yet, this questioning was not just an added facet of knee-jerk, alternative student politics, but an introspective interrogation of moral and social values.

The show concentrated on siblings Lindsay and Sam Weir, and their two highly different, yet similarly ostracised, groups of friends who comprised 'the freaks' and 'the geeks' respectively. Both attending William McKinley High School during the 1980-1981 school year in the town of Chippewa, Michigan, a fictional suburb of Detroit, we witness their struggles with acceptance, drugs, drinking and bullying, peppered with just enough razor-sharp comedy to save it from deteriorating into a preachy daytime talk show.

Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) and Sam's (John Francis Daley) groups of friends were populated by actors who have gone on to become household names, appearing in popular films such as Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express and the Spiderman movies.

The 'freaks' were comprised of Daniel Desario (James Franco), Ken Miller (Seth Rogen), Nick Andopolis (Jason Segel) and Kim Kelly (Busy Philipps).

Franco, Rogen and Segel have appeared regularly in recent works by Judd Apatow (the show's producer), such as Funny People and Knocked Up. Clearly, Apatow's work owes a lot to the Freaks and Geeks formula and its particular presentation of comedy and character.

The 'geeks' saw Sam joined by Neal Schweiber (Samm Levine) and Bill Haverchuck (Martin Starr), and on occasion, the rotund and instantly likeable, Gordon Crisp (Jerry Messing) and geek guru, Harris Trinsky (Stephen Lea Sheppard). Recently, Starr was excellent as Joel in coming-of-age comedy drama, Adventureland.

Though bolstered by proficient writers and an obviously strong cast, the show's focus and lasting strongpoint was Lindsay, an endlessly attractive and enigmatic mix of intelligence, daring and tomboy good looks. Seen later in ER and the Scooby-Doo live action movies, Cardellini is most fondly remembered as green army jacket-wearing Lindsay Weir and has immortalised both herself and the show as a result. Indeed, it is safe to say that every male fan of the show has been searching for his own Lindsay Weir since first spying that smile in the opening credits.

Deeply upset by the death of her grandmother, Lindsay is plunged into a realm of reassessment. Once the school's prized champion 'mathlete', complete with college and career aspirations, Lindsay now wanders from class to class in McKinley until she encounters and is adopted by the 'freaks', much to the discontent of her parents, Harold and Jean (played flawlessly by Joe Flaherty and Becky Ann Baker), and the bemusement of nerdy and religious former best friend, the well-meaning Millie Kentner (Sarah Hagan).

Even though Lindsay's time with the misunderstood 'freaks' introduces her to their world of skipping class, rock 'n' roll and experimentation, it leads her to unique, moving moments of realisation and ultimately, the pursuit of her own happiness and dreams.

The show's genius and poignancy was buttressed by a varied and brilliant period soundtrack and is another element that has ensured its enduring appeal. Most memorable is the show's opening sequence set to the rousing "Bad Reputation" by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.

Songs by Van Halen, Deep Purple, Santana, KISS, Rush, Cream, Madness, Alice Cooper, Journey, The Moody Blues, Queen, The Who, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Black Flag, David Bowie and Grateful Dead followed the 'freaks' and 'geeks' through victories and mishaps during the series.

Purchasing the rights to use these songs required much of the show's budget and became an obstacle in releasing the show on DVD. Thanks to Shout! Factory, a music and video company specialising in comprehensive reissues and compilations of classic and sometimes obscure pop culture, Freaks and Geeks was successfully brought to DVD with all of its music thankfully intact.

Profoundly human, tender and astute, Freaks and Geeks still stands head and shoulders above the majority of today's languid and quick-hit TV offerings. It's not surprising that its creator has since directed episodes of some of the most worthwhile contemporary TV shows, such as Arrested Development, Weeds, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation and Mad Men.

Inimitable, emotive and unforgettable, an internal void yawns once that final episode draws to a close and Grateful Dead’s "Ripple" lulls you into an immediate nostalgia even before the credits cease rolling. Watch it all again. You know you want to. They don't make them like this anymore.

Saturday 11 June 2016

Poisonous Bliss

Band: Qrixkuor
Release: 'Three Devils Dance' EP (2016)

Unshackled on witches' night, Walpurgisnacht, amid the clangour of Dublin's Unconquered Darkness festival, 'Three Devils Dance' is a cogent, unnerving offering of contemporary death metal.

An astute production allows Qrixkuor's now trademark, suffocating wave of sound bearing some breathing space, unveiling and allowing baffling riff structures and utterly accomplished drum work to waft through echoing atmospheres.

Channeling the attack of Teitanblood and the more introspective and aberrant countenance of the likes of Irkallian Oracle, the band's own sound and presence appears fully realised on this EP. In the midst of brooding, slowed eeriness, Portal-esque moments of black/death inversion give way to almost indecipherable war metal-like ferocity.

Never fully apparent in their live appearances, varying tempos are well utilised, avoiding boredom and repetition, but with this, Qrixkuor, on occasion, fall on their own double-edged sword, abandoning riffs and excellent song sections that could have lingered a little longer without causing any offence. An almost unfathomable amount of deft musicianship happens track to track, giving each song a veritable sense of a journey to the most profound depths.

In an arena now soaked with shrouded, reverb-drenched acts, bands must toil ceaselessly to lift their presence above the bubbling mire, despite the enjoyment the swamp and its denizens can provide. With this EP, Qrixkuor have truly bared themselves as a tightly-knit, focused act; those marvellously obstreperous guitar solos are granted leave to cut through multiple layers of distortion without losing the inherent intoxication of its tumult.

Wrapped in striking, evocative artwork and defaced with a mad monk's scrawl, the EP's aesthetics, crucially, buttress the labyrinthine, mystical fibre of its excellent content. The release's opener, "Serpent's Mirror", is the real standout track here, showcasing the band's best elements at work.

'Three Devils Dance' carries with it a real sense of the opus, a culmination of years of work, focus and refinement. It is a thoroughly talented outing, to the extent that the listener may wish its morphing, snarling content was a tad more elementary at times, but with multiple absorptions, its genius becomes more and more striking.

Rating: 80%

Sunday 29 May 2016

The Ebony Grave

Band: Coscradh 
Release: 'Coscradh' demo (2016) - Digital

As some lament the ageing demographic of Ireland's underground and its old guard hold aloft a seemingly unwanted mantel to virtually non-existent young blood, Coscradh let loose one of the most anticipated domestic releases of recent years.

Despite worries surrounding inheritance and longevity, Irish underground music is in one of its best states. Coscradh are one of a handful of acts, a mixture of active and still brewing entities, that are set to push more and more heavy music to audiences at home and abroad.

Interestingly, given the size of Ireland and its quite tightly knit underground, Coscradh are yet another band that have developed a sound all their own. In itself, this is testament to the very real passion that drives Ireland's most noteworthy metal acts, a bracket Coscradh look set to squeeze into over the next while.

Supported by veteran label Invictus Productions, the band's self-titled demo is a surprising listen. Coscradh's earliest mention of activity was accompanied by the ubiquitous influence list, which, understandably, got many proponents of the nastier end of black/death metal suitably excited. Ireland has been bereft of such filth for some time, especially after the unfortunate disappearance of the now legendary Lethiferous.

While impassioned, live appearances to date have failed to demonstrate well just what Coscradh are conjuring with their output. The demo's adept mixing and mastering utilises a robust presentation that strips back all the interferences that can be encountered live, allowing the racket breathing space and revealing a definitely unexpected groove to proceedings.

Though early rumours of the band's progress and approach talked of a Teitanblood-esque, heads-down din, listeners are instead treated to tracks that speak of Sepultura's death/thrash era, complete with discernible, if standard, riffing and well-timed tempo variations. 

A true standout feature across the demo's proclamations are fantastically possessed, throat shredding, reverb-drenched vocals that aid in retaining the quartet's more murky intentions, which are best heard when the band slows down; there's a veritable Isengard essence audible in the demo's second track "Lynch".

Amid pounding percussion, which jumps between mid-tempo rollicking and machine-gun blasting with ease, fittingly wailing solos cut through portions of the demo's more compelling, layered sections, as the guitars wind about one another and an excellently prominent bass holds sway over affairs. 

What quickly becomes very clear is that Coscradh are toying with some enthralling notions from track to track, and while many of these find room to breathe at points, they are regretfully cut short in favour of a return to the style the band are, more than likely, most comfortable with currently.

As a statement of intent, this debut is suitably loud and assuredly tantalising in its revealing of a young band tuned into black/death metal's nuances and inherent madness, all mixed with grimy doom elements. A future concentration on these aspects could see something truly monstrous manifest and nestle nicely among the likes of compatriots Zom and Malthusian. 

Added to this, it is refreshing to see an Irish band take on the darker aspects of Irish history and folklore by sidestepping gift store Celtic-ness in favour of the threefold death and the violence of bog burials.

Rating: 70%