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%

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Report: Unconquered Darkness; Dublin - 29/04 - 01/05/2016

The Irish are well used to looking overseas, casting eyes toward far off coastlines, be it in search of adventure or simply a living. Similarly, seekers of musical stimulation have long drooled over the lineups gifted to our continental cousins and stateside miscreants. Emulating the Wild Geese, many Irish have left on campaigns of catching must-see acts, splashing the cash to hit some of the most obscure festivals worldwide that boast better and better lineups year on year.

As such, the earliest whispers of hands at work at what would eventually become Unconquered Darkness sent ripples through those with their ears to the ground in terms of contemporary death metal. It was obvious from the outset that veteran Irish label Invictus Productions working alongside the endlessly impressive Dark Descent Records could only produce good things - and as was to be seen, it was a collaboration that certainly delivered.
Unable to catch Friday's burnt offerings to the void, the weekend's fruits were lined up for consumption. All in moderation, of course.

Saturday's second act, Sweden's Head of the Demon worked well as an intro to the more intense acts that followed in their wake, employing repetitive, hypnotic mid-tempo grooves that told of a definite, bass-heavy Mercyful Fate heritage with just enough dissonance to push it into more contemporary, occult rock-focused arenas.

Almost the exact antithesis, Qrixkuor, a consistently spell-binding and improving live act, unleashed wave after wave of labyrinthine, atmosphere-soaked, blasting death metal. Their cacophony is endless, working its way around the Voodoo Lounge's long lamented pillars and generally disappointing acoustics, but the delivery allows it all seem fitting. It's meant to be filthy. The band utilised the significance of April 30th as Walpurgisnacht to release their most recent EP, 'Three Devils Dance', via Invictus Productions.
Qrixkuor - 'Three Devils Dance' EP
The ultimate wind down, of sorts, Qrixkuor's follow up (in the uninspiring guise of Anguish) plodded through a set of tedious doom metal that sent most shuffling to the bar for top ups and into the smoking area for better conversation. It somehow failed to fit and while doom metal's general vibe is often one of dejection, a fairly lacklustre stage presence and presentation did the band no favours.

Local favourites Zom blew any cobwebs that had formed well away with their trademark punk attitude-infused black/death metal racket, easily showing some of the more established acts how it's done. Passionate, uncompromising, and most importantly: enjoyable. Yet another act that seem to improve every time they take to a stage, and rumour had it the band hadn't rehearsed in some time. Some bands simply have that magic.

Alongside Zom, Belgium's Possession helped to further set the tone for the potency that was primed to be unleashed across the final few acts of Saturday night. Though only catching their last couple offerings, a mix of wild guitar work, intense percussion and howling vocals, the venue was shook and a mixture of nods and beaming faces, once instruments were downed, told of a sold crowd, pumped for what the remainder of the evening would deliver.

Adversarial's brand of wide-shouldered, aggressive US death metal had most rooted to their spot for the length of their performance. Razor-sharp, jarring riff work, a commanding frontman and an incredibly unrelenting stint from their drummer impressed all no end.
A definite highlight of the weekend, Lvcifyre were the perfect accompaniment to label mates Adversarial's barrage, though sounded more technical and textured, even amid the now constant discordant hum that reverberated around the venue. This lent the band an emphatic and memorable presence as they hammered through twisting track after twisting track. As with most worthwhile situations, it was all over far too quickly.

Closing the evening on a high, veteran act Morpheus Descends pushed through the lingering din left by the previous two bands with crisp, punctuated, classic death metal that was both atmospheric and brought with it welcome tempo variations. A lively, tight set, devoid of some of the more debatable 'hoods up, wall of sound' trappings of contemporary death metal, there was a definite sense of "this is how it is done".

Sunday's zealots, nursing hangovers or simply continuing their Saturday nights, rolled into the venue on time for one of the fest's biggest and most entertaining draws. Slovakia's Malokarpatan set chins wagging last year (and well into 2016) with their debut full-length offering, a quirky mixture of Slovakian folklore, primal black metal and a 'worn on the sleeve' heavy metal heritage. They rolled into their set with gusto while bathed in red light and easily awakened the venue.
Their frontman, Temnohor, enthralled the majority. Despite toe-tapping song after toe-tapping song, he remained quite static throughout the set. Clutching a tinned beverage and expressionless behind aviator sunglasses, he did nothing but emit wails, croaks and snarls, as well as utterances in his native tongue between some numbers. However, it worked perfectly, adding to their generally quirky nature and 'band from another time' bearing, playing on against the wishes of the sound man and then ending abruptly to return to wherever they'd stashed their time machine. A brilliantly bizarre set.

The great interaction between attendees that the fest effortlessly fostered continued on the Sunday afternoon. With the hum of distortion as ambience, the staccato of multiple accents, guffaws and the recognisable click of cigarette lighters formed the true soundtrack of the Unconquered Darkness weekend. With the risk of drifting into saccharine, United Colors of Benetton nonsense, it was the concept of music as a 'universal language' in action, even if us Irish were thin on the ground. To have devotees of underground music travel to Ireland from far and wide, inspired by such a lineup, is excellent in itself.

Drawing us toward the evening and Sunday's headlining acts, Antiversum launched into an unapologetic black/death metal maelstrom, creating that total vacuum heard on 2015's noteworthy EP. Sounding close to Antaeus at times, the band was probably the most black metal of the fest, at least in contemporary terms; detached yet devoted, and thoroughly impressive.

Scotland's Ellorsith stepped up with ease next. An intriguing act, their naturally frosty, insistent black metal sounding somewhat more polished than what Antiversum had just offered, these two acts did feel like the resident black metal delegates, but obviously no one was complaining. Yet another impressive performance and another step toward a building intensity.
Ellorsith - '1959' EP
Sepulchral death metal masters She'ol added to Sunday's wall of sound with a stirring set of mouldy, well-paced total death worship, each member wholly comfortable behind their instruments and focused on the creation of some of the finest death metal emanating from UK soil of late.

Yet another draw, Finland's Lantern were quickly acknowledged as a veritable highlight by the majority in attendance. A set full of pulsing energy and pensive presence, Lantern's output was visceral yet suitably dusty and capacious, riffs twisting here, there and everywhere. Seriously good and very memorable. 2013's 'Below' is highly recommended

More Finnish genius rattled bones in the form of Krypts. An intense, zero blather affair that brought with it a truly tangible heaviness and hanging, oppressive atmosphere; tempos chopped and changed without once losing the band's inherently unhinged quality. A possessed performance.
Sunday's final act wrapped up proceedings in the most suitable fashion with a tribute of utterly blistering death metal. Closing the unholy Finnish triangle, Corpsessed, though last on stage for the whole fest, delivered unreal, seemingly insatiable energy as they pummeled through song after song. The vocal performance must be pinpointed here, being incredibly audible and pronounced amid the clashing instrumentation on display. A powerful end to a powerful, landmark weekend.

Speaking to Darragh (of Invictus Productions) at various points over the course of the fest, conversation invariably turned to attendance. "Where are all the Irish?" The hordes that emerged for the likes of Diocletian and Witchrist in 2010 were nowhere to be seen. Surely Unconquered Darkness would attract similar clientele? "Maybe this kind of thing simply isn't cool to people currently?" 

Obviously, the hanging question here is, was it ever? Many of these acts are as niche as it comes, these gigs draw all the same faces, the usual underground stalwarts, plus competing with more mainstream events in Dublin over the May bank holiday weekend is no easy feat.

Despite debates surrounding turnout and the various reasons why such a fest boasting such a lineup didn't pack out the Voodoo Lounge (a pretty small venue, in truth), consensus speaks of a successful, satisfying event, and one thoroughly appreciated by those that did show up, be they local or otherwise. Kudos to Darragh and Matt (of Dark Descent Records) for organising and pushing through Unconquered Darkness right to the bitter end and many thanks to all the bands, helpers, participants, Voodoo Lounge management/staff and attendees for making it what it was. Here's to the next instalment.