Ulcerate – Stare into Death and Be Still

Double Doink!
My relationship with Ulcerate is somewhat similar to the relationship Charlie Brown has with Lucy’s football.  Every few years, they release another album to widespread acclaim, so I take the snap and then whiff the kick as they pull my football-shaped enjoyment away at the last second.  I want to like Ulcerate.  They’re one of the most important metal bands in recent memory, their discography is very consistent, they’ve influenced a multiplicity of young death metal bands, they’re chaotic and unrelenting, on paper they are just everything I want in a metal band nowadays.  And for whatever reason they’ve just never vibed with me.

Stare into Death and Be Still is different while being exactly the same.  This time I actually made contact with the ball and even managed to avoid a ridiculous Scott Norwood shank.  It’s not pretty, and I hit the post, but dammit I put three points on the board!

What makes this different from other seminal works of theirs that I never managed to care about like Everything is Fire or Shrines of Paralysis is pretty difficult to pinpoint, because this really isn’t all that different.  It’s still an unrelenting deluge of cataclysmic percussion and dissonant guitars that don’t really riff as much as they whir and clang.  Maybe the guitar tone is a bit beefier and less scratchy?  Maybe the songs themselves are simply more well constructed?  Their approach to songwriting is just as non-euclidian as ever but the flow feels a bit more natural to me this time around.  Ulcerate always had a strange Uncanny Valley feel to them, where their songs always yawned and swayed like organic creations but felt lifeless and stiff at the same time, like saltwater frying a fish’s nerves and causing it to flop and spasm long after it dies.  Stare into Death and Be Still simply managed to catch a live one, I think.  Like always, this is much more about overarching atmosphere than riffs or hooks, and as a result the whole experience tends to feel like one long song instead of a collection of them.

And if you’ll allow me to mix my sports metaphors, I think the reason this isn’t quite a home run despite some solid contact is exactly this.  There are tons of twists and surprises within the riffs themselves, but rarely within the wider context of a song or the album.  58 solid minutes of this suffocating atmosphere is just that, suffocating.  That absolutely works at times but around the second act of this behemoth it goes from exhilarating to tedious.  It’s like the coaster I built in Rollercoaster Tycoon when I was 9 that had like fifty inversions and took twelve minutes to finish.  Sure there are subtle variations in tempo and approach on Stare into Death and Be Still, but ultimately you’re just doing the same loop-de-loops over and over again on the same track for an uncomfortably long time.  Each successive Ulcerate album has been a few minutes longer than the one preceding it, and that trend continues here, and I really think it’s to the album’s detriment.  Despite all eight tracks basically feeling like the same long song, it’s still quite noticeable that only two of them run for less than seven minutes.  This wouldn’t be a problem if it felt like the songs were actually leading somewhere, but after repeated listens the only time I can truly pick out a song with a climax is “Drawn into the Next Void”.  The rest of it sounds like sonic flash rust, standing still and deteriorating before my eyes despite the immaculate craftsmanship put into the initial product.  Every Ulcerate album tends to spin its wheels to some degree, and admittedly Stare into Death and Be Still manages to get a good amount of traction and actually move forward, but a lesser degree of the same problem is still the same problem.

When Everything is Fire dropped in 2009, I recall the buzz around it at the time being something akin to “It’s Deathspell Omega but death metal”, and I see where that statement is coming from.  But the key difference to me is that for as anarchic and chaotic as DsO can be, they always have a point to make and more often than not they do it very well.  Some of this boils down to my own personal preference, since I notably tend to prefer my death metal to be a bit more pugilistic than textural, but the fact that I like Portal well enough tells me that Ulcerate simply struggles to reach their destination at times.  I would definitely say I have a positive impression of Stare into Death and Be Still overall, but the problems that have always plagued the band haven’t really been ironed out here.  They made it work more than usual, but at the end of the day I can’t help but think this heavily atmospheric style of dissonance simply fits more naturally in a black metal context and a shorter package, and that’s why Serpent Column absolutely wrecks my shit while Ulcerate merely manages a brisk foot tapping.

Rating: 56%

In Flames – Clayman (Re-Recorded)

Inconceivably worthless

Rarely does a band re-recording their older studio material go well. There are instances where it makes sense of course; wanting to give older material the benefit of new production, wanting to re-interpret the material within the framework of a different style, wanting to show off a new vocalist who was substantially different to the one who performed on the old material, and so on – all of these cases would produce re-recordings that have a purpose by serving a need the original could not provide, even if it turns out ultimately redundant and inferior to the original. This however has no reason to exist at all, being a note-for-note rehash of Clayman‘s title track that adds nothing whatsoever to the original song. Every change made here is one for the worse, and what few positives this track does have is carried over from the original and has nothing to do with this version specifically.

The production, which on Clayman was and continues to be a gold standard for modern metal, is not copied or improved upon here. The thunderous sound of the drums, the slick and heavy guitars, the vocal layering, precisely none of that is present. Instead, the band chooses to use a totally unremarkable and boring modern metal production style. Sure it’s still slick and what not but it sounds so much limper than the old song, lacking a lot of the low end and robbing the music of a lot of its original power. The instrumentation sounds lifeless and lacks a lot of weight and frankly even by the standards of an average modern metal recording this is subpar.

The instrumentation is performed 100% faithfully – while many would see this as a good thing I believe it serves only to make this recording more redundant than it otherwise would have been. Later In Flames traded its layered guitar harmonies for increased keyboard presence, but the band doesn’t even choose to adapt the song into their more modern formula – while this wouldn’t have made it better it’d at least give it somewhat more of a reason to exist, instead of being a facsimile that pales in every conceivable way to the original. And then there are the vocals; Anders Fridén has never been a particularly good vocalist, harsh or clean, but at least backed up with the massive production of Clayman and with some vocal layering, his growls and cleans fit with the instrumentation well and weren’t the focus of the song. Here, with its anaemic recording and unsuitable vocal mixing, all of his vocals are pushed to the forefront and as you would expect he doesn’t sound good at all. His growls sound weak and his cleans are as awkward and whimpering as ever, with his performance here really topping off how useless this entire endeavour is.

There are many failed re-recordings in metal – Let There Be Blood springs immediately to mind – but at least on that album Exodus wanted to give the original album heavier, modern production and show off a new vocalist that, while in the same lane as the the original, could still offer something different. As bad as that album is, at least it makes sense as to why Exodus chose to record it, and while I didn’t care for the changes made on that album, that can be put down to personal taste. This on the other hand is inconceivably worthless and devoid of any distinguishing positive characteristics – every change made on this version is objectively inferior to what was on the original, and the band do nothing to substantially change it in a way that could be seen as some sort of reinterpretation of the original. As bad as this band’s post-Clayman output is, they’re still better off sticking to what they’ve been doing for nearly 2 decades instead of pointlessly rehashing the past.

At least this should put to rest the delusion that this band will ever turn it around, because with all the lineup changes from their glory days it will never happen, as demonstrated here.

Rating: 0%

Serpent Column – Endless Detainment

Wars Waged in My Privates lol gottem

Look man I’m just gonna make this a short one.  I’m not reinvigorated by the Covid like most of you are, I’m alternating between pointlessly going to work anyway and spending a week at home being fidgety and annoyed at my housemates for simply existing.  I thought I was gonna review during this downtime to help keep myself sane, but it turns out I hate doing that too but dammit I’m gonna try FUCK

Serpent Column has been something of an underground sensation over the past few years, with Ornuthi Thalassa coming out of nowhere in 2017 to destroy listeners with the main dude whose name I can neither spell nor be bothered to look up’s signature brand of spiraling black/death intensity.  Since that debut their profile has only grown, with last year’s Mirror in Darkness managing to rank in the Top 30 across all genres on RYM, and the subject of this review, Endless Detainment, currently sitting at the pole position in the EP category for this year.

Each release has gotten more and more chaotic, and the current result of that ever-unfurling sonic degloving is an album so twisted that it eats nails and shits corkscrews.  There isn’t even really a thematic thruline I can use within the context of this review to help it make sense, because around every new turn in the music is a new ghoul, a new trap door, a new falling rock.  Everything is a trap and it’s a confusing and violent nightmare.  Take a look at “Arachnain”, likely the best example of this album’s utter distaste for the safe and familiar.  It starts off with the closest thing to a “normal” riff you’re going to find across the entire twentyish minutes of Endless Detainment, with a quick trill and a few chugs, you can’t help but feel like this is an illusion.  Nothing up to this point has been so simple and groovy.  After the whirlwind of broken glass that was “Violence Aesthete”, there’s no way Mr. Column even has the impulse control necessary to stick to something catchy.  And he doesn’t, because before you know it, that simple riff is accompanied by bass and percussion that feel juuuuust a bit wrong, and by the time you can likely comprehend what the interplay between al the instruments is supposed to be well surprise now you’re careening down Willy Wonka’s Boat Ride to Hell.

A lot of people around the ‘net (as the kids say) have been citing a huge uptick in influence from mathcore, particularly Dillinger Escape Plan.  I’m unprofessional as fuck and only have a surface level knowledge of what mathcore even is, so I’m just going to parrot that citation and hope it’s correct.  I can understand it from what little knowledge I have though, as “Pantheoclasm” sounds dangerously close to what genre purists accused Deathspell Omega of being when Circumspice first dropped.  That influence is definitely there, and the first handful of songs in a row all exemplify that sort of dutch-angled firing-squad of riffage, “Manure in Pearls” specifically being the one that crushes my brain the hardest.

I’ve forgotten how to review and I’m going to abuse my reputation to post this rambling bullshit anyway.  The point of all this is that Serpent Column is extremely good, and if you look outside of MA you can tell that it’s really catching on elsewhere.  Hopefully someday the largest and most historically important website for metal culture catches up, because this fucking rules. 

Rating: 88%

Lovebites – Battle Against Damnation

Just gimme a 1/3rd of an album pls

The first draft of this review opened with a lengthy thinking-aloud segment where I opined on how exploitative the idol industry treats women in the Far East, and how desperately I hoped that this wasn’t the case with the current wave of all-girl J-metal bands that have been sweeping the nation in recent years.  But before publishing, I (for once in my life) had the good sense to hold off on spouting Epstein Brain bullshit and actually just talk to some people who actually understand the culture in which these bands spawn and thrive.  The good news is that it isn’t nearly as cynical as I was dreading, with basically every one of these bands being a genuine creative effort from talented women who are seizing a cultural shift that sees the women of Japan no longer being demure and submissive, and using this newfound power to express themselves in ways they previously never really did.  The important one here, obviously, is forming metal bands.  Early progenitors of this specific wave like Aldious and Destrose helped pave the way for the Mary’s Blood’s of the world to break from their cultural chains to dress like cute anime girls while simultaneously ripping listeners to shreds with honest-to-god future metal classics without playing into dumbass pop stereotypes, which helps differentiate this scene from the more cynical marketing moves like Babymetal.  Of those early examples, my clear favorite is Destrose.  Not just because I had mostly found them on accident when doing a shallow dive into Touhou bands and actually reviewed their sole full length years ago before I really knew how much this scene was going to blow up, but because three of the best current bands in the style were all formed by former members.  We’ve got the steampunk fever dream of Fate Gear, the powerhouse of Mary’s Blood, and the deceptively dangerous power metal maniacs hiding behind a saccharine image (and the subject of this review), Lovebites.

The reason I so badly wanted the dystopian hellscape of idol culture to not hold sway over Lovebites is because they absolutely fucking rule.  I could’ve guessed that this band contained members of Destrose (the bassist and drummer, if you were curious) based entirely on the fact that the rhythm section here is equally as menacing and powerful as their previous band.  Lovebites tends to be, as a rule, less traditional and more power metal with regards to their songwriting when compared to their origins (apart from Clockwork Immortality, which (smartly) leans a bit more into AOR at parts, but this was (unfortunately) abandoned with Electric Pentagram), and as a result everything they write tends to be a fuckload faster.  Their sense of melody is completely awe inspiring, with breathtaking choruses peppering every song they’ve ever written and never shying away from an extended dueling guitar solo.

I’ve been speaking in generalities and not really focusing on the release at hand, so I suppose the question needs to be asked why I’m choosing to review their second EP, Battle Against Damnation, instead of any of their other myriad releases.  The reason is simple: this is basically the only release I ever really go back to and listen from front to back.  Lovebites is an incredible power metal band with a bewildering skill to weave between high speed rippers and melodic singalongs without ever delving into pop influence the way stereotypes would have you expect, but their three full length albums have enough material to fill out like four and a half LPs.  There is no reason for their albums to be as long as they are, especially when their songwriting so rarely deviates from their winning formula.  They don’t really fuck around with ballads or interludes, so their albums tend to be completely overwhelming due to the constant barrage of double bass and shredding.  Don’t get me wrong, I love double bass and shredding, but Battle Against Damnation is their strongest release entirely because they only assault me for 20 minutes instead of 70.

The EP kicks off with “The Crusade”, which I’d say often jockeys for the pole when it comes to deciding my favorite song they’ve written, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that it’s basically just a rewrite of Iron Maiden’s “Aces High” but even faster.  The other three tracks more or less stick to their “Galneryus meets Stratovarius with an injection of Megadeth” formula, but the fact that there’s only three of them is a huge boon to the release’s enjoyment.  That… really is the secret to Lovebites’s success I think, they just need to trim the fuckin’ fat and deliver their best cuts instead of bloating everything to absurd proportions.  “Break the Wall” and “Above the Black Sea” are completely dominating power/speed metal typhoons with balls-forward thrash gallops that could even make Persuader blush, and I’d say I want a full album of this but I already know what a full album would be like (totally overwhelming).

I know I keep harping on the length of their LPs and using that as a reason to say their EPs like this one are significantly better, but that’s honestly the truth.  Lovebites writes some absolutely thundering power metal with an impossibly meaty riffset underneath, complemented by powerful, soaring, and crystal clear vocals and absolutely fucking feral guitar solos, and they’re at their best here when they’re restricted and unable to do the same thing too many times in a row.  Just give me a quick, bite-sized morsel of your genius and then take a break.  To the Western Hemisphere folks who see the band of cute girls in white dresses with the word “love” in their name, absolutely do not sleep on Lovebites.  They will absolutely fuckin’ wreck your neck.

Rating: 89%

False – Portent

Thumbing my nose at the True Believers

(I’m not going to bother moving all 500+ of my reviews over here because I am a lazy man, but I’d like to herald my entrance to Review Lads with an album that I love that I also know Thumbman hates.)

If Bell Witch can be held responsible for anything at all, it’s introducing the metal world to Mariusz Lewandowski, apparently the only human being in the galaxy capable of accurately emulating Zdzislaw Beksinski’s iconic art style. Since painting the stunning cover of the aforementioned Mirror Reaper, this nearly sixty year old painter has suddenly found himself one of the most in-demand artists in the entire metal sphere, and one of the bands that won the Lewandowski Lottery this year was Minnesota’s False, a band finding itself scrutinized fairly hard by those in the know. This midwestern sextet seems almost lab grown in how they hit every single nerve when it comes to soaking up alternative press adoration as the token “metal band we’ll allow ourselves to like”. Gorgeous cover art, female vocalist, pristine production quality, easy to absorb and understand music, inspiration from modern styles of metal, signed to Gilead (home of Smart Person BM heavyweights like Yellow Eyes, Mizmor, Falls of Rauros, and Krallice (and previously Fantano mainstays like Imperial Triumphant and Thou)), they blacked out the Internet Metal Journalist bingo card before a note was even heard. I can absolutely understand the skepticism from the underground when a band hits a meteoric rise like False did when every single element seems like the closest thing to an industry plant that metal can muster.

However, sometimes the Hipster Hype Train gets it right. Maybe, just maybe, it was purely by accident/coincidence that False has all of those aesthetic bits that made them media darlings so quickly (though it may be worth noting that they’ve existed for nearly ten years without a lineup change before finally hitting it big with their sophomore release here), because none of that shit should even matter in the first place, and allowing it to cloud your judgment of the album obscures some fantastic songwriting.

I’d be lying if I said Portent was something radically new or unique, but I’d also be lying if I said this was a shamelessly derivative copypasta. It’s pretty close to impossible to listen to any random snippet of this album and not be reminded of Emperor’s full lengths from the 90s, but their personal twist on it is that they’re paradoxically hypermaximalist while taking heaps of influence from drawn out minimalist atmoblack of the Cascadian variety. It’s no secret that I love overly busy maximalism, I am one of the last dudes still loving obnoxious tech death after all, and I think putting such an idea into the context of extremely lengthy and atmospheric black metal creates a sound that should be a total disaster but somehow works marvelously. For example, synths are featured on the album, but they’re never “prominent” in the sense that they’re carrying the melody. They’re settled back playing simple chords to accent the atmosphere, unlike the Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk style of hammering you over the head with doodly melodies. The guitar instead takes the lead when it comes to these things, and they restrain themselves only insofar as they aren’t playing shredding Yngwie Malmsteen arpeggios, because they’re doing everything else they can to be the star of the show here. Occasional bursts of major key triumph pepper the landscape laid out on Portent, and they never let these moments go by without drawing attention to them. Take a look at the 3:37 mark in “A Victual for Our Dead Selves”. That right there is an abrupt shift in mood from slow, agonizing death into a bombastic victory fanfare, and it’s done without a reliance on tooting keys at all. It’s just pure, unadulterated, fist pumping metal slicing through the darkness.

Almost all of the buzz surrounding the album, positive and negative, has done well to describe the music accurately, with the only real difference being the qualitative assessment thereof. If you don’t like the idea of especially busy atmoblack, then False was never going to appeal to you to begin with, and that’s fine. For me though, this is superb. Imagine Wolves in the Throne Room or Altar of Plagues except the drums almost never slowing down and the melodies less floating in the upper spaces and more being shot out of a bazooka. Portent is forceful in its expressiveness, very much taking background elements and exploding them into the foreground. My only real complaints are ultimately pretty nitpicky, those being that the vocals aren’t nearly as impressive as the rest of the band and “The Serpent Sting, the Smell of Goat” is 100% just two separate songs smashed together, complete with fifteen seconds of silence between the two halves. It’s such an oddly pointless thing to do and I wonder if somebody insisted that every song needed to be over ten minutes or else the album wasn’t getting released. Pure speculation, but whoever had that idea is a doofus.

So the hype train took a stop in Minnesota and picked up False, but I’m happily hanging onto the caboose like a filthy transient, pumping my fist and hooting the whole way. Portent just hammers you over the head with riff after riff after melody after riff and I adore it. Maybe it’s overbearing for those who can’t stop huffing the fumes of burning ravens and slashing their wrists with their bullet belts, but for those of you who, like me, wished atmoblack as a scene would stop pumping out so much drawn out mediocrity and finally let something fucking happen for a change, Portent is a godsend.

Rating: 94%

Munarheim – Willens & Frei

Hokiest shit you’ll hear all year

If the combination of the goofball renaissance fair style band pic, that they have nine musicians including two flautists, and the fact that they play folk metal while being from Southern Germany isn’t a massive red flag, I really don’t know what is. I only discovered this because I was obligated to listen to it for an internet thing, and this is hands down the lamest metal album I’ve heard all year. Everything about this is just so incredibly hokey. From the constant faux-bombast of the keyboards to the generic power metal leads, from the saccharine non-riffs to the corny choirs, this is a total cheesefest and has essentially nothing in the way of redeeming qualities.

A lot of the riffs are non-entities, existing solely to back up the Disney-esque keyboards. Many of them would also fit in with a flowery europower band, and I really don’t have much to say about them because I forget them the millisecond they’re over. The rhythm guitar is generally mixed fairly low in the mix, because the point of this is really the ever-present bombast-lite of the keyboards. The showy lead guitar is ripped out of the europower playbook and I’m not surprised – the intent here is the exact same as the cheesiest band of that ilk. The same can be said for the keyboards, which are really grating. Like virtually everything else with Munarheim, they exist to fulfill a self-conscious quest to sound “epic.” We could go on about the flutes, the cheesy choirs, the big kitschy choruses – but all you need to know is that Munarheim are the musical equivalent to a shoddily written young adult fantasy novel.

The most inexplicable ingredient in Munarheim’s saccharine mix is the vocals. You do have some clean vocals in the big dorky choruses, but most of what we get here are death growls. Does anything of what I’ve described about the band so far seem like something that would have death growls? I’m surprised too, but here we are. Do they work? The short answer is no. They feel incredibly out of place and I’m not sure what the rational for including them was. That said, I’ll take them over the cheesy falsetto abuse that often accompanies this sort of music.

Munarheim are the type of mega-cheese that could only gain traction in Germany (don’t get me wrong I love a lot of German black metal and the classic Krautrock scene had lots of cool stuff, the country just seems given to certain strains of cheesy metal). They essentially exist for the Wackencore circuit. You know how the preposterous campiness of Twilight Force comes off as Disney europower? In the very same manner, Munarheim come off like Disney folk metal. I’m running out of synonyms for corny here, so I’ll just end by saying this is the most aggressively lame metal I’ve heard all year.

Rating: 20%

Obsequiae – The Palms of Sorrowed Kings

A formula that works and continues to work

It’s one of the weirder things that this formula works so well, and continues to work so well in this album. As a whole the album’s themes make you intuitively want to think this band should be playing the stereotypical ‘medieval’ music – the flutes, the harpsichord, the tin whistle – but that’s not the case here. With Obsequiae, the formula is a simple matter of album structure; instrumental tracks built on the wonderful work of the talented Vicente La Camera Mariño and his use of the medieval harp act as natural breaks between more standard, melodic black metal tracks. You won’t find the hyper use of folk instruments or the occasional awkward folk sampling; that’s just not the type of music this is.

Instead, in spite of its medieval themes, Obsequiae have consistently relied on the use of stringed instruments that make its instrumental tracks seem more ancient than medieval. And, it’s in the instrumental tracks wherein that element is isolated and on show. Set among sounds of nature, the stringed instruments – particularly the harp – are elegant, graceful, and frankly beautiful. They’re also undeniably meditative with melodies that transition into subsequent tracks with the same level of grace in which they are played.

Likewise, the melodic black metal tracks raise the bar with each and every subsequent song. Guitars rise above the rest and appear to drive the music with soaring chord progression. The bass and drums create and hold that triumphant rhythm while giving the vocals a thick atmosphere for them to complement, not take away from the rest. Compared to the instrumental interludes throughout the album, these melodic black metal tracks have a similar elegance while still being uplifting, fast-paced and energetic. They’re undeniably fun, but not in the hokey, cheesy sense. This is serious music, but music that also doesn’t shy away from wanting people to find it enjoyable first and foremost.

Although, for the most part, The Palms of Sorrowed Kings sticks to that tried and tested formula, there are some areas or moments in which the band have opted to experiment and try new or different things. This is most evident towards the end of the album, with “Lone Isle” and “Emanations Before the Pythia.” Both tracks feature guest artists, notably women, providing either narration, screams, or clean vocals, which have the effect of emphasizing the storylines of those particular tracks. Although I appreciate this move, I somehow feel those guest artists could’ve been better utilized; their addition almost feels like an afterthought. That’s my only complaint though with that. Doing things like this makes for good progress, and I hope they continue doing so in the future.

On the whole, and overall, the album is a great continuation of the band’s take on melodic black metal, and without a doubt is one of the better albums of this year simply, if not only, because that same formula that led to the band’s success is still on display here in all its glory. My own feeling of disappointment is that, and I can’t really explain it, the album just doesn’t feel as novel and exceptional as the previous two felt for me. I always worry a little about bands that focus too exclusively on the same formula, in that they can often end up – for the lack of a better term, albeit a movie-related one – ‘Marvelizing’ themselves; in essence, creating good, satisfying products, but not necessarily great works. I don’t think Obsequiae has gone that way with The Palms of Sorrowed Kings, and this album deserves praise, but it’s a lingering thought in the back of my mind. It’s a bit of a mystery.

Rating: 90%

Also published on The Metal Archives.

Yellow Eyes – Rare Field Ceiling

What the hell is a Rare Field Ceiling?

Yellow Eyes’ fourth album Immersion Trench Reverie was one of my black metal highlights of 2017, so I was pretty excited for the follow up. Rare Field Ceiling (what does that even mean lol) is a much thicker mixture of dissonance than its predecessor. While it’s a good effort, I can’t help but be left a bit cold, if only because of the weight of expectations. Rare Field Ceiling eschews the alpine atmosphere that kept me coming back to Immersion Trench Reverie. While I’ve enjoyed it each time I’ve listened to it, this one hasn’t become a staple in my black metal listening diet the way its predecessor has.

The Skarstad brothers, who lead the band, have said that leading up to the album there have been a series of devastating health crises in their family (God, I wish that wasn’t so relatable), and that it couldn’t help but have a big impact on the album. I think this makes a lot of sense. While you still have some subtle melody, as well as samples of bells, women’s choirs and the like, this is a much darker album than Immersion Trench Reverie. The production is intentionally rough and muddy and they lean much harder on their dissonant side than their melodic one. While Immersion Trench Reveries brought to mind images of forests and mountaintops, Rare Ceiling Fan almost has the atmosphere of an industrial wasteland. Actually, it reminds me a lot of the movie Stalker where it’s still in sepia and they’re sneaking through the industrial section leading up to the zone.

Yellow Eyes have long had an obscure streak, but I find the song titles to be particularly amusing here. With song titles like “Light Delusion Curtain” and “Nutrient Painting”, thematically they can be as obscure as the music sometimes proves to be. The production here is raw and muddy, the songs structures atypical and everything kind of congeals into this thick, molassesy stream of dissonance. We do have some off-kilter melody penetrating the murk, and it’s a welcome inclusion. Mike is as good as always on the drums, and the rasps are strong and pained. The album is a very dreary affair that kind of ends up blurring into one experience, rather than there being standout songs.

It’s pretty funny that one of the brothers takes on gigs like making commercial Christmas music for Reese Peanut Butter Cups commercials. The swirling shroud of dissonance that comprises Rare Ceiling Fan is about as far away from that world as you can get. While this does not reach the towering alpine peaks of Immersion Trench Reverie, it is still a welcome addition to the Yellow Eyes discography. Featuring a much more dreary and opaque vibe, it is good at what it does an still one of the stronger black metal albums I’ve heard out of 2019.

Rating: 80%

Bartushka – Hospodi

Do not buy this

The title cannot be reiterated enough – even if you like the teaser material for this album, under no circumstances should you buy it from the label. It’s the work of a man who pulled the rug from underneath a genuine artist’s feet to make a cash-grab, and it should not be supported in any way. Bart here may have the legal basis for carrying on with the name, but that certainly doesn’t make him the honest actor in the drama surrounding this album. Should anyone think I’m being unfair by being prejudiced against this release for the drama and not solely focusing on the music, all I have to say is that bringing this external drama up is necessary in judging the album as it would not exist without the drama and like any album its contents have been affected by the context it was constructed in. It’s a lazy cash-grab that truly sounds like just that – it’s a cobbled together load of rubbish that bears no meaningful resemblance to anything approaching a Batushka album.

The common thread that runs throughout is that the material is entirely derivative, lacking any identity or memorability. There is not an original bone in this album’s body; its boldest idea is the mix of choral and harsh vocals, which are ripped off from Litourgiya. The guitarwork is taken from a few sources of inspiration – the astonishingly crappy groove riffs and chugs that pop up from time to time being one example. The unending tremolo throughout the songs makes a lot of the guitarwork here sound like cast off/riffless Nightbringer or Litourgiya material. There are also some references to less riffy symphonic black metal acts, and there are some thrashier riffs at points, most notably on the track ‘Utrenia’ but it’s mostly tremolo-heavy, riffless fluff. Overall Hospodi listens like the work of a coattail riding second-string band with no identity of its own that apes a bunch of different sounds, one of which happens to be Litourgiya. For the most part this doesn’t listen like a Batushka album at all, or a development from Litourgiya, though clearly the band is trying hard to evoke its atmosphere and aesthetics with some very surface-level and forced references to it musically.

Another common factor in the material is that it is almost entirely mid-paced. The band never really picks up the pace or slows down to a drudging crawl; they’re entirely content to sit at a very uniform ‘not really fast but not really slow’ tempo. By doing this the music is erased of any potential points of contrast – there is no chance for a crushing, doom-like passage or a much faster, blast-filled section here. Variation in tempo is not a must for good music but with music this shallow the last thing it needs is to have another layer of potential variation stripped from it. It makes the music even more flat than it would have been, as there is no attempt to alter the mood using the tempo.

Making matters worse is that the songwriting is abysmal. Many of the songs here feature big stretches devoted to building up to something, usually in the form of tremolo and chords atop of double bass and choral vocals borrowed from Litourgiya. The first problem with this is that these build-ups lead to absolutely nothing – in place of climaxes the band routinely delivers an anti-climax in the form of a weak groovy/chugging/slower riff or quiet sections with faint choral vocals and guitars ringing in the background. This has the effect of making the songs feel like parts of the cutting room floor stapled together in the same way over and over again, as opposed to pieces that were actually written as one from start to finish. The second is that the band simply cannot find a way to increase the intensity of their music beyond making it louder with more tremolo, more choral vocals, and more double bass. The music never actually feels more aggressive during these moments, and as a result the buildups that the band spend so much time doing don’t even feel like they’re building up to anything, they listen more like an idea stretched far past the point of being remotely fresh. Tracks will start and end at seemingly arbitrary points, as it feels as if there is no reason why something is happening within them. The tracks don’t build up to anything meaningful, they don’t end in a satisfying way and taken as a whole they don’t even flow properly or feel like a complete journey. This is just about every track on the album, with only ‘Powieczerje’ and ‘Polunosznica’ really feeling like they were written with any care or attention paid to them.

The uniform tempo and equally uniform (lack of) songwriting highlights the next big issue with the album, which is that it is unbelievably copy-paste and very short on ideas. Once you’ve heard one song here you’ve basically heard them all, as the band has nothing to offer beyond rejected Litourgiya non-riffs, Eastern Orthodox-inspired choral vocals, one style of black metal rasp and some utterly flat meandering passages that give way to anti-climactic points, all at one tempo. Ideas get drawn out to the point of becoming stale within songs as the band clearly have no idea how to develop these ideas, and across the album the same tropes get repeated over and over meaning that songs will bleed together as the album wears on and the listener’s mind wanders as they wait for a song to end. Needless to say the songs are far, far too long for how flat and musically bankrupt they really are, and just a few tracks in you’ll be reaching for the pause button. This kills the atmosphere the band spend so much time trying to evoke, and while listening you’ll struggle to feel anything from the music because nothing about its composition or substance is inspiring enough to do that.

This is a miserable failure of a release. It’s obvious when listening who the brains behind Litourgiya was – sure that release was flawed but the regression displayed here is stunning. What few ideas the music presents are inferior copies of other people’s work that then get drawn out to oblivion across every song and the album as a whole. On top of all of this, there is no reason for it to exist beyond cashing in on the clout of an idea that wasn’t Bart’s at all. If you want a new Batushka album, go and buy Панихида, and stay miles away from this, because it’s a waste of time for anybody who chooses to listen to it. This is nothing but an effortless cash-grab; a lazy work that was cobbled together to get another release with the Batushka name on it out of the door. It’s vapid, shallow, soulless and thoroughly devoid of anything interesting.

It’s an embarrassment.

Rating: 13%

Deathspell Omega – Manifestations 2000 – 2001

Re-opening the vault

Manifestations 2000-2001 was one of two compilations released by DsO back in 2008, along with Manifestations 2002. It is comprised of material previously released on a couple of splits and a V/A compilation from the early part of the ’00s, as the title suggests, with the songs coming from two distinct recording sessions. It’s an interesting look at the pre-Aspa phase of DsO’s career – a time before they had truly found their sound or any notability in the metal world at large – and despite being overshadowed by its more notable and consistent sibling, is still of note to fans as it is a neatly packaged collection of material that would otherwise be scattered across multiple obscure releases.

The music itself is very typical of this phase of DsO’s career, to the extent that this material could easily have fit onto Inquisitors of Satan. It draws heavily from the likes of Darkthrone (mostly Transilvanian Hunger) insofar as it relies on the generally speedy repetition of melodic riffs atop a straight-forward blast beat-driven drum performance, but the nods to thrash in some of the riffs and the alternation between these and more typical second-wave inspired material points to Gorgoroth as a notable influence too. The vocals are very redolent of these influences – Shaxul’s unchanging rasp lies somewhere between Nocturno Culto and Hat and fit the music well. There are a lot of high quality riffs and they’re strung together well, they don’t dwell in one place for too long with songs consistently pushing forward (which is needed when every song breaks the 6 minute mark) and the band does well to craft an atmosphere with such basic and well-worn tools, a testament to the quality of the music.

As stated these 6 tracks are from two recording sessions – the first two come from an early 2001 session while the last four come from an early 2000 recording session. This is relevant as there is a very clear divide between the two; not so much in style but in recording quality. The first two tracks feature a typically clear, cold sound with prominently mixed snares and a somewhat delay-heavy guitar tone – very reminiscent of a crisper, higher fidelity version of Inquisitors of Satan‘s sound as well as the sound on Pentagram. The latter four meanwhile feature lower fidelity, noisier production with clickier, thinner drums and similarly thinner, hazier guitars, though these tracks ultimately sound much cleaner than anything from Infernal Battles which came out a few months after their recording. The former plays more to the strengths of the music by giving it more punch and clarity, while the more atmospheric production of the latter 4 tracks makes them less effective by doing the opposite.

The basic problems here are the same with everything else the band were doing before Mikko Aspa joined the fold and Si Monumentum… came out, in that while the material is good it isn’t that remarkable in the end, with a distinct lack of identity and therefore memorability. It also suffers from the same curse those first two albums do, in that there’s not much reason to listen to it outside of historical curiosity. What followed this and related material set new standards for what could be achieved by the band and modern BM bands in general, making them immediately less relevant on a purely musical level. Another problem is that the compilation is incomplete; DsO’s side of their split with Clandestine Blaze from around the same time is nowhere to be found here, which is a pity as those tracks are also exclusive to that split and stylistically would fit right in with this crop of tracks.

Despite its incompleteness and derivative nature, it’s a solid collection of tracks – a worthwhile curio for fans of the band, but only if they actually enjoy the first phase of their career; those who don’t need not apply, obviously. Those who thoroughly enjoy either of their first two albums (especially Inquisitors) will find plenty to enjoy here, and for those who haven’t heard either of their first two albums this is worth a few listens to get a sense of where the band were coming from with SMRC. Not essential by any means, but good.

Rating: 65%

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