Monday, April 27, 2009

CHAINMAIL: Kevin Hufnagel - Songs For the Disappeared (self-released, 2009)

The CHAINMAIL section reviews bands that were proactive enough to e-mail me directly. Here at Cerebral Metalhead, initiative is rewarded.

There are precious few musicians in metal whose ardor for expression extends far beyond the reaches of extreme music. Kevin Hufnagel is one of them. As the guitarist of the underrated instrumental prog-metal act Dysrhythmia (one of my favorite live acts when I was living in Philly), Hufnagel tied up rhythm and crunch into complex gordian knots; with Byla, his duo project with Dysrhythmia/Behold...the Arctopus/Krallice's Colin Marston, he unspooled them into beautiful sheets of abstract guitar textures.

The all-acoustic Songs for the Disappeared focuses on a side of Hufnagel's musical personality far removed from prog and metal, but its exploratory spirit nestles snugly between the opposite poles of his previous work. "Hunter/Hunted" and "Insects Will Tell" thrust us into brambles of clashing timbres and odd, prepared guitar tunings, reminiscent of the pensive acoustic experiments that Nels Cline often drops into his albums. "Mystery Sender" and "Days Half-Remembered" clear the brush for cracked classical arpeggios and artfully picked harmonics. Most Byla-like are "Night in Reverse" and "Will They Find Me." Here processing and Echoplex loops unite Hufnagel's acoustic guitars into walls, waterfalls, skies.

Songs for the Disappeared works because its beauty never resorts to sentimentality. It's loaded with surprises and still calming. This is a guitarist's album, created by someone who's both in total control of his instrument and in awe of its myriad possibilities. Hufnagel writes with layers and dimensions, and there's also a rich melodicism that can be appreciated by all. Intoxicating stuff.

Amazon (digital only)

Friday, April 10, 2009

CHAINMAIL: Inchoate - IV: The Revenant (self-released, 2009)

The CHAINMAIL section reviews bands that were proactive enough to e-mail me directly. Here at Cerebral Metalhead, initiative is rewarded.

Considering that one man performed, programmed, recorded, mixed, mastered and promoted every sound on IV: The Revenant, and designed the stellar artwork taboot, I'm gonna forgive Inchoate's lone dude Brandon Duncan for forgetting to track vocals. But they would certainly help. They'd help maintain my goldfish-on-ritalin-like attention span throughout the course of the single 32-minute track that makes up the album; they'd provide some interest when his pounding White Zombie via early Don Caballero riffs start wearing thin.

IV: The Revenant contains a grab-bag of awesome guitar licks and a bare outline of what to do with them. In between standard riff/repeat/move-on-to-the-next-one-cycles, Duncan slows down, speeds up, shreds, plods -- plenty of peaks and valleys, but with so little counterpoint between bass and guitar; and programmed drums that rarely push the music anywhere interesting, the paths between them feel pretty drab. Divided into more discrete bites, the album might work as a collection of simple, compact headbangers a la Pelican's City of Echoes. Duncan makes us take in his "soundtrack to a fictional zombie movie" as a whole, which just highlights its deficiencies. Duncan's website reveals a compulsively creative artist in a variety of media. As far as Inchoate goes, Duncan's talents lie in the guitar riffs, not the expansive vision. It's a sadly appropriate project name that he's chosen.

Watch a headless Brandon Duncan play the first 10 minutes of IV: The Revenant on guitar:


Friday, April 03, 2009

Saros - Acrid Plains (Profound Lore, 2009)

Clear is the new opaque. In the hands of recent Enslaved, Agalloch and Ludicra, black metal's traditional obfuscation cedes to glinting clarity. Same with Saros. In this San Francisco band's vision of black metal, further focused by producer Billy Anderson (Neurosis/Sleep/High on Fire),  everything once hidden is laid bare. Guitar riffs sparkle where elsewhere they would blur. Diatonic harmonies cadence with the crispness of chamber music, often augmented by languorous female vocal lines. Leila Rauf rasps lyrics up-front -- this is a human voice producing those wraith-like shrieks. Drums (played by Blood Eagle, of Weakling) propel rather than overtake, mostly abandoning blastbeats for looser rhythms. Acrid Plains's shifts from trad-metal crunch to pastoral acoustic prog feel frictionless. 

It's refreshing to hear metal with so much emphasis on composition, even if it comes at the expense of grit. Free-flowing as "Acrid Plains" and "The Sky Will End Soon" are, there's also a baroque stringency to their structures that harkens back to ...And Justice For All and late-period Death (and, more recently, Saros's sometime live comrades Dreaming Dead). If the clean riffing in "Coriolis" and "Devouring Conscience" sounds tame and even antiseptic compared to the ruddy mash of most black metal, the lack of hardness also kicks the doors wide open for violins and acoustic guitar passages that feel like essential parts of this music, not just foils to the louder stuff. Forget the typical "beauty and the beast" duality. Even the beastly parts are beautiful on Acrid Plains. Otherwise, it's all balance -- between heft and weightlessness, light and dark, warmth and frigidity.