Monday, September 29, 2008

The Post-Post-Metal Post

Full disclosure: I don't care that much anymore for "post-rock" and "post-metal." I'm over it. You might call me "post-post-metal." It's no fun going into a review knowing full well that you'll be bored by what you hear just on principle, so when this post was first envisioned, I wanted to review three recent records in the umbrella "post-rock/post-metal" subgenre as if I were still in high school, still genuinely excited by Slint and Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Isis and the spirituality that I thought they were bringing to rock and metal. But the more I listened, the more I realized that rewinding my viewpoint wasn't going to help. The problem isn't that I've changed -- it's that so much of the post-whatever subgenre hasn't. What have Rosetta, Mono, Red Sparowes and Tides done to change our understanding of music beyond what we already learned from Young Team, Times of Grace and Oceanic?

Old Stories (Cavity Records, 2008), by the Iowan instrumental quintet Giants, actually saddens me. It's a well-produced disc, its three guitars rippling through the surface of the music in a tidal pool of reverb, distanced just so to create the illusion of depth. The gorgeous artwork and sea-themed song titles ("Vessels," "O'Tide," "Fisherman's Prayer," "At Last, Ashore") summon wide-open, watery vistas.

Giants - "O' Tide"

But that expansiveness, so refreshing in the hands of Mogwai and Explosions In the Sky, just feels lazy and copy/pasted here; there's no fire, no tension, no resonance, just pretty liquid guitar tones and steady-rolling cymbal washes like we've heard dozens of times before. Well-rehearsed post-rock moves and surface beauty can't hide the redundancy of Old Stories. Even their name is borrowed (unintentionally, we assume) from a better "post" band, North Carolina's Giant.

Some day Neurosis will release a career-spanning disc of B-sides and songs that didn't quite make any albums proper, and it'll sound a lot like Mouth of the Architect's third full-length Quietly (Translation Loss, 2008). That's not necessarily a condemnation of the Ohio band, which generates the requisite atmospheric sturm and crushing drang to sustain the obvious comparison without embarrassment. But momentum gets the better of stamina on Quietly, and with the exception of the intriguing carnival stomp of "Guilt and the Like" and taut trance of "Rocking Chairs and Shotguns," these particular tectonic plates stop shifting before album's end.

Mouth of the Architect - "Rocking Chairs and Shotguns"

Kudos to Mouth of the Architect for its dynamic rhythm section, which keeps their head-nod epics from devolving into complete snoozefests (that MOTA has used Intronaut bassist Joe Lester on tour should tell ya something). Removal of kudos for under-using Made Out of Babies/Battle of Mice singer Julie Christmas and mis-casting her as a wounded puppy on "Generations of Ghosts." But the main issue here is, again, redundancy. On its own terms, Quietly is a decent post-metal disc. Given the competition, "RIYL Neurosis and Isis" sticker status just isn't good enough for me.

I can get behind What You Were (Cavity Records, 2008), the third album by Arizona's North. If ever you've thought that Pelican would be way more engaging with a dudeman hollering over the triumphant peaks and valleys of their songs (I have), this might appeal -- vocalist Kyle Hardy's monochrome gut-scream gives North an admonishing edge to rough up the pretty riff-doilies surrounding that patented Peli-chug.

North - "Eidolon"

On What You Were, North never forget that they're a metal band, which saves this one from the post-metal recycling bin. The soupy stuff gently laps at each track's shore without defining it; riffs are building blocks rather than end points. North are supple in their Isis worship, like some giant casually juggling the Stonehenge monoliths. Guitars get sucked into bottom-heavy dark matter, during both destructive bits and the uplifting chord changes of "Veiled In Light." Outside of the album's crude lyrical conceit about ghosts and memories, there's minimal reliance on post-metal's introverted romance to What You Were; even the mellow of the hazy final track "Reflections" is totally harshed by Hardy's bark. All of your typical post-metal tropes, contorted just so with the aggression turned up a notch.

Post-Post-Metal Post Postlude: Innovation is far from the only criteria, or even the most important criteria, in my enjoyment of music. I'll happily listen to bands that sound like Morbid Angel, Immolation or Gorguts without slagging them for doing nothing for death metal. So why can't I do the same for post-metal? I'm drawn to metal that tempers the visceral with a little bit of the cerebral, and generally turned off when a band concentrates on head-nodding at the expense of head-banging. The best post-metal reaches ambitious emotional and structural plateaus; most recycle genre clich├ęs in hopes of getting there. The ambient interludes and tremolo guitar doused in reverb. The long-term crescendo. The screaming-defiantly-at-the-top-of-a-mountain moment as the only emotional high-point worth surmounting. These tools aren't bankrupt per se, but they are mere tools, and far too often mistaken for the entire message. The same goes for metalcore breakdowns, black metal corpsepaint and any other genre signifier of course, but there is an inherent pompousness to post-metal that makes mediocrity within the genre even more unforgivable. Sloppy death metal can be charming. Shitty post-metal is just shitty. 

And now, I step down from my soapbox. May we all be favorably compared to our heroes. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Psykup - We Love You All (Season of Mist, 2008)

My high-school self is mondo stoked on the third album by Frenchie metal clowns Psykup. 'Roundabout my sixteenth birthday, maximalism was the only aesthetic I cared about. I worshipped Mr. Bungle, System of a Down and Naked City, bands that rejected genre boundaries and presented a free-form amoeba of styles and sensibilities, all delivered with a healthy dollop of absurdity. Psykup's got more death metal per minute than any of the aforementioned, and that's a good thing -- my post-college self wishes that Mr. Bungle would have calmed down and written more riffs like that awesome death metal section in "Carry Stress In the Jaw." Psykup shred hard and tight when they're not thickening tension with their manifold ambient sections. 

Psykup - "The Choice of Modern Men"

And yet We Love You All is more appealing as a study in the bizarre than as a metal album. Psykup envisions its songs as aural storyboards that might soundtrack Terry Gilliam or Tex Avery shorts. I'm not buying it. This stuff calls way too much attention to itself to play backup to anything. Refreshing as it is to hear songs freed of your standard ABA structures, the lengthy numbers on We Love You All are dictated more by a "what cool shit can we do here?" maxim than a "what would move this song forward?" maxim. It's an aesthetic that used to move me, when I held novelty above all else. No longer. I like contour and direction more than shock tactics. 

I've also got a personal favor to ask of Psykup's vocalists Ju and Milka: please, PLEASE reconsider your Mike Patton obsession. That nasal lothario shtick was getting old even before Faith No More broke up. You're both fine singers and even better vocal arrangers, and I bet that line "I wouldn't piss on you / If you were on fire" wouldn't force me to laugh embarrassingly if I could imagine you singing it instead of Patton -- just listen to Coinmonster for proof that you can sound like him without sounding like him. Throw me a bone here. Or a time machine. Oh, to be sixteen again. I'm so goddamn jaded. 

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Enucleation Roundup

New Jersey-based metal label Enucleation (a term which describes the removal of yer eyeball) may only have seven releases in its catalog, but there's not a bad one in the bunch. Earlier this year I reviewed Enucleation's release of the eleventh album by Runemagick at Prefixmag. Here's a few more solid discs that'll make ya poke out your eye:

Dead Congregation - Purifying Consecrated Ground (Enucleation, 2008)

I am indebted to Dead Congregation for two things: 1) Upping the number of Greek metal bands with which I am familiar to a grand total of three (they join Rotting Christ and Septicflesh) and 2) Pumping out a mega-solid debut in Purifying Consecrated Ground. Originally released in 2005, this EP owes a massive debt to early stuff by Incantation and Morbid Angel.

Dead Congregation - "Vomitchrist"

You won't hear me quibbling about lack of innovation though -- "Vomitchrist" and "Feasting Angelcunts" bring considerable craft and control to blastbeat-riddled speed trials, while "Lucid Curse" and "Auguring An Eternal War" ram down the blasphemy into slower groove machines that recall the lucid complexity of Immolation. Extra points for the deceptively poetic Christ-hating lyrics and creepy pencil-drawn cover.

Gravehill - Metal of Death / The Advocation of Murder and Suicide (Enucleation, 2008)

Right there in the liner notes, these SoCal throat-slitters announce "Gravehill play dated, uncompromising, and ugly music exclusively, everything else can eat its own cunt!" Well-stated. Prime blackened thrash and proto-death metal drip from the open gashes left by dueling slice 'n dice guitars and the caustic vocals of Mike Abominator. This stuff dates back to the era when thrash and hardcore could sit comfortably side by side, most noticeably on the Discharge-inspired punk pummel of "Ravager," gilded with guest vox by Massacre's Kam Lee and Jim D. of Cardiac Arrest.

Gravehill - "Murder"

Live, Abominator comes off as a pretty uncomfortable frontman -- bullet straps and fake blood scream "fuck all!" but his constant yelping of "get closer!" and "c'mon, start a pit, motherfuckers!" veer closer to "love me!" Dude should just shut up and let the tunes do the talking. Especially as harnessed by the massive pounding of Morgion/Keen of the Crow drummer Rhett Davis (aka Thorgrimm), this EP offers the same orgasmic pleasure as scratching a real nasty scab.

Sacrilegious Impalement - Sacrilegious Impalement (Enucleation, 2008)

Finnish trio Sacrilegious Impalement has that early Norwegian black metal sound staked. The muffled guitars, the darkened harmonies, gloriously sloppy blastbeats way prominent in the mix - many thanks, Mayhem! Even the ultra-grimmm cover depicts one of those memorable black metal nights spent cutting and pasting at the local Kinkos. I'm having trouble letting go of the image of cover model Impaler von Bastard as a miniature BM figurine standing in an Oslo deli, the angel-killing skewer he's holding as a toothpick freshly removed from a roast beef sandwich. 

Sacrilegious Impalement - "Infinite Darkness"

Perhaps the seriousness of Sacrilegious Impalement's anti-Christian (and, as revealed in "Prophet of Misanthropy," anti-Semitic) crusade is lost a bit in the obviousness of the band's sound, but there's a considerable variety of evilness on this four-song EP. Each one is another piece of chewy meat on a delicious black metal kebab. And mini-Impaler von Bastard holds the skewer.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Beantown 'Bangers

I've spent the last few days taking a much-needed vacation in Boston, so I thought I'd give a shout-out to a few of my favorite metal albums from in and around the area. Boston's traditionally more of a hardcore town (both Siege and Converge, two Boston acts that were important for the development of metal in general, started in the hardcore scene), and its metal tends to be overshadowed by ho-hum Massachusetts bands from further west like Killswitch Engage, Shadows Fall and All That Remains. But Boston's had its fair share of inventive bands over the years, and here are five great albums from 'em, in chronological order:

1) Only Living Witness - Prone Mortal Form (1993)

Thank you to Decibel Magazine for hipping me to this excellent, defunct hard rock/metal band. Only Living Witness were the toast of the town back in the early to mid-90s but never rose to the level of popularity that other jammin' metal acts like Rollins Band, Quicksand, Soundgarden or (early) Tool were able to achieve. Too bad, because the blistering riffs and Jonah Jenkins' strong singing voice (always clean, never squeaky) made for a killer combo that probably could have made small waves commercially if given the chance. 

2) Grief - Torso (Pessimiser, 1998)

Every major American city has a great sludge band, and Grief was Boston's. The doom riffs pour slow and thick a la Eyehategod without the blues; tortured howls and depression are the only thing you'll find emitted from Grief's black pit of despair (that's basically what's happening on the cover). Southern Lord has released a couple rarities and live discs from the band in the last few years, and they half-heartedly reunited in 2005. But Torso remains the definitive document of Grief's no-frills, pained doom metal, as slow and nasty as this stuff gets. No less an authority on doom than Ryan Lipynsky of Unearthly Trance told me that this was one of his all-time favorite doom records. 

3) Maudlin of the Well - Bath (Dark Symphonies, 2001)

This prog-death collective was Toby Driver's band before he formed the equally uncategorizable Kayo Dot and moved to New York, a city whose musical climate is more in tune with his band's serious avant-garde proclivities. There's more post-rock and death metal with Maudlin of the Well than Driver would use in his next band, less of the experimentation with free jazz and modernist classical composition techniques. It's just as pretentious as Kayo Dot, but more limited in its ambitions, which means it connects way more often, too. Try listening to Bath without remembering what would come next and you might very well end up preferring Maudlin of the Well to Driver's later work. Entrancing, often beautiful stuff. 

4) The Red Chord - Clients (Metal Blade, 2005) 

The following quote is reprised from my Prefixmag list of the top 15 albums of 2005. While it's no longer the most ferocious album in my collection, I stand behind my assessment: "The Red Chord play a grinding amalgam of death metal and hardcore that somehow never oppresses the ears like so many out-and-out brutal bands do. Clients was the most plainly ferocious album in my entire CD collection until I read the lyric sheet and realized that the vocalist was saying silly shit like "I'm not a Democrat/ I'm a conversationalist/ If your aunt had balls/ she'd be your uncle." Now it's the silliest, most ferocious album in my collection."

5) Ehnahre - The Man Closing Up (Sound Devastation, 2008)

This is one of my new favorite records. In 2006, 4 members of Kayo Dot quit the band at the same time, towards the end of a tour. Toby and Mia from KD continued recording and reconfiguring the band, but I hadn't heard anything about the ex-members until I received Ehnahre's debut in the mail. Imagine the cyclical death metal atonality of Demilich, the uncomfortable ambience of Portal and the Schoenbergian tone-rows of...well...Schoenberg, and you're somewhere in Fenway, metallically speaking. To be sure Ehnahre shares KD's nomadic sense of song structure and texture, but there's no bones thrown to beauty on The Man Closing Up, just millions of shades of black, rendered in millions of shades of metal. Totally brilliant.