Wednesday, December 16, 2020
Thursday, August 27, 2020
It is perhaps unnecessary to mention, but this year has been marked by loss and tragedy, both in my personal life and when looking out at the rapid decay of the world around me. Black Metal & Brews, a website that aims to push transgressive and boundary-breaking music, has been lighter on the "black metal" lately because the rest of the universe is so crowded and chaotic that adding more harshness to my troubled mind feels pointless and potentially harmful. Still, I seek new sounds and I wish to be challenged. With that sense of exploration outside the realms of aggression, I've found myself enchanted by the second collaborative work from the trio of Aidan Baker, Simon Goff, and Thor Harris, The Bit. Sparser and with a more elusive framework than Noplace, which was already rather spectral, these three artists come together to create an album that haunts without intimidating and radiates beauty with just a few hints of unease creeping around its edges.
From the intro as it builds into the album's title track, there's something about The Bit that lends itself to contemplation, yet it also tends to take the listener out of oneself entirely. I've found myself examining the beauty in the new world that's being created just as I've sat with some of the horrors that I wish I could change or avoid. There's a sense of a sort of tunneling in the rhythm laid out by percussionist Thor Harris, but I can't tell if it's an ascent or burrowing deeper, and neither the floating guitar textures of Baker nor the sometimes frantic pace of Goff's violin provide insight. It's just a sort of motion that takes you wherever you're inclined to follow it. The greyscale approach works beautifully, shining light where it must but not providing answers that are not sought. It flows like the soundtrack to a film from another realm, yet the images are muted and obscured, sometimes coming as liquid and other times as clockwork mechanisms. It's the balance of fluidity and that motorik beat that make it neither human nor inhuman, but instead a sort of uncomfortable harmony.
While things inevitably feel like a setting of the stage for the massive closing suite of "Wild at Heart" in its 23-minute span of beauty and occasional terror, "Gait" is one song that truly captures the album's mood without giving away all its most well-hidden corners. There's a gentle, yet firm pulse backing the whole song, as beautiful layers of reverb float above. Accompanying this seemingly soothing build, however, is this back-and-forth sort of squeaking melody that sways between playful and mocking. Will it grow towards discomfort or will it resolve itself? Much of the association comes from within, but the tension the trio masterfully creates is relentless even when at its most sublime. I've written many times (often for other publications) about Aidan Baker's mastery of ambient music and how to bridge conscious and unconscious listening, but this song specifically, even among an album full of it, takes that concept to new heights. When played in the background it simply seems like a beautiful piece, yet a close listen shows a staggering depth that only enriches the experience further.
Of course, to try to sum up an album of varied compositions in a single song is folly, yet a play-by-play would demean the whole experience. Tomorrow Gizeh Records will unleash this entire album for you to enjoy and process. I sincerely hope you will. It has been both a balm for some of my suffering these past few months as well as an album I put on when I need to focus on the intensity of everything. That's a hard balance to manage, but I've gained much from it. I hope it can do the same for you.
Monday, August 17, 2020
Today Black Metal & Brews brings you the debut of a brand new musical endeavor from a group of musicians whose other work you probably already know. Common Cruelty is one of the few things of beauty that has blossomed out of the murk of the prolonged lockdown in the United States during the current pandemic. What began as synthesizer wizard/producer/guitarist/vocalist Mike Mare of Dälek stealthily sending files to friends (without telling them who else was involved) quickly evolved into a larger project, ultimately rounded out by Kenny Appell of Goes Cube on drums and synthesizer, Tyler Wilcox of Forces at Work on bass and vocals, and David Obuchowski of Goes Cube and Publicist UK on guitar and vocals. With many creative minds, three different people singing, and a history in bands whose works are often confrontational, the sound of Common Cruelty is unexpectedly gentle, although not without its patches of darkness.
While some artists in more extreme music scenes tend to form a passion project on the side as a means of diving directly into another interest with specific genre constraints (just take a look at all the heavy metal cowboy bands or the ex-hardcore dudes who've gone darkwave in the last decade), this project feels simply like close friends exchanging ideas freely and fearlessly. There are touchpoints of shoegaze, trip-hop, dream pop and other identifiable sonic roots of the '80s and '90s alternative and underground communities, yet this isn't music to pigeonhole or place into a "for fans of" category. Some songs here are for drifting and dreaming, while others feel like small ways of making peace with an unkind world, yet each of them has an ethereal electronic core that makes even the most disparate elements feel united.
One of the most exciting things about Common Cruelty as a listener is the sense that this can't be placed on one particular musician. While Mike Mare serves as the creative hub and producer, there isn't a single individual voice that sticks out above the others, allowing for songs to develop in ways that are non-linear and rich with layers to uncover on repeated listens. From percussion that seems to fold into itself to vocals blended from all three singers to form a hazy specter of a harmony, the entire thing swells and pulses with a sense of togetherness.
It is an honor to share the world premiere Common Cruelty, with a song from their debut album. Selecting a single song to share felt like quite the challenge, yet "Close My Eyes" touches upon both the serene and the jagged elements of the band as it spreads itself out. From the punchy drumming that opens to the serpentine guitars and the sublime, soft singing, the band creates tension and diffuses it at the same time. Warped synthesizers feel like a fever dream as they creep in and the whole thing sways between haunting twists and comforting warmth. In addition to the song premiere, please read on for an introductory interview to help get you acquainted with the members of Common Cruelty as we discuss the project's roots in spontaneity and collaboration.
Thursday, July 23, 2020
It's unprofessional to write reviews with "I" as the subject, but I'm a blogger and professionalism isn't my strong suit. There's your disclaimer, here's your review. I've been a black metal fan for nearly twenty years. For much of that time, I've had to deal with the disappointment of knowing that right-wing politics of a pointed, hateful nature are often associated with this genre. NSBM and childish edgy behavior aren't a dominant force, sure, but everybody's aware of their existence. To my surprise and relief, the last few years have led to an uptick in political black metal from the leftist end of the spectrum. Red and anarchist black metal have always been a thing, but it's often been kept off to the side and not really highlighted. With this recent surge of left-wing black metal, however, I've been mostly disappointed. I get that unity is important, but I can't pretend to enjoy bands when their politics seem more rooted in gimmicks than action or when their ideas are aligned with mine but the music just doesn't really hit home. Thankfully, there are gems that hit all the marks, like new Dutch black metal act Soyuz.
Soyuz announced its existence on May Day (appropriately enough) with the release of Red Blood, White Frost, an album of mostly mid-paced atmospheric black metal that pays tribute to the Red Army in its fight against Nazi invaders. I'm no political scholar, so I can't dive deeply enough into the subject matter to do it justice, but the mix of leftist might and a sound that actually matches my embarrassingly large collection of demo cassettes is exactly what I needed. While artists don't need to be explicitly left-wing to win my love, it's nice to know that critics who say they listen to right-wing bands because the left doesn't have the riffs are clearly and specifically wrong. As with the last demo reviewed on this blog, the rawness may get in the way for some listeners, but I cherish it. I live for finding the beauty amid the static, and there's just enough clarity in Soyuz's sound for everything to be deciphered without leaning into sterilized production.
While the whole album feels like a valiant war march, the two real highlights are "An Arduous Battle Awaits Us" and closer "Funeral March - Lament for the Fallen Comrades," which have the melodic warmth of the early A Pregnant Light demos fused with a blown out sound that calls to mind some of the hauntingly raw production of some of the more obscure LLN acts or even some of their modern Dutch peers. The latter of the two songs even touches on some of the more beautiful aspects of DSBM without falling into cheeseball melodrama and leads into a haunting use of a recording of the Soviet war march "You Fell Victim." It's this clear love for the genre in all its eras rather than paying tribute to a single style that makes this really hit home for me. Even if we cast the politics to the side entirely, (which all you "separate the art from the artist" types are so good at, right?) this is an absolute ripper of a debut. When I can also throw this in the direction of lefty metalheads who are concerned that black metal might be overrun with nazis, it just fills my heart with joy. Of note: melodies and lyrics from Soviet anthems and war marches are incorporated in a few songs, yet it's done in a fashion where it just blends in rather than feeling like a forced inclusion. Make no mistake: this is gimmick-free and cuts to the core. If you profess a love for raw black metal, it's for you. If you like knowing the musicians can actually play, it's for you. If you're sick of being told that the right-wing acts are the ones with the riffs (and let's be honest, they almost never have them anyway), this is for you.
Long live Soyuz. Let's hope there's more output (and maybe physical releases) to come from these comrades soon.
Thursday, June 25, 2020
When a band releases a self-titled album, it's easy to take it as a statement of intent and identity, and it's clearly the case on Axis of Light, which is also the first full-length in nearly a decade of the band's existence. While the compositional muscle of songwriter and multi-instrumentalist T.L. has clearly grown over the years, the thread from By the Hands of the Consuming Fire to Axis of Light is strong and consistent: shrill vocals over shockingly melodic guitars and drums that are so distorted they sound like a blanket of static half the time. They've always been the perfect band for those of us who enjoy our black metal raw but also like to know there's actual musicians behind it rather than clowns using atmosphere as a shield for lack of originality. In a way, it's no stretch to claim that artists like this served as a bridge for many curious metalheads to find the appeal in harsh experimental noise, simply as a factor of production and atmosphere without having a token "noise guy" in the group.
As for the album itself, well there's a lot to take in here despite a typically brief run-time. While the drums are slightly more defined than on past releases, that familiar blanket of fuzz presents itself almost immediately as peaking vocals and blazing leads accompany the consistent rhythm of "On Whom the Red Moon Bleeds." While the mid-paced (almost march-like) segments are always a thrill and allow things to really breathe, it's sometimes the fastest moments that allow the band's greatest strengths to show themselves without being over the top: even the simplest of riffs dazzle and feel much denser than a single guitar track should and the vocals from A.B. are nearly inhuman in their anguish. "Scowl," for example cuts in with some of the finest guitar work to come out of the black metal underground in ages and does so without accompaniment. It's easy to impress with a full band to support an excellent riff, but T.L handles it directly and expertly on his own here on what will easily go down as one of 2020's finest metal moments in any subgenre.
Even if this album didn't contain that one furious track, each song on this album has its highlights that surprise and catch even these seasoned ears off guard (big nod in the direction of the latter half of "Black Combe"). It's so easy for me to tune out black metal after decades of listening to it and nearly a decade of reviewing it, yet Axis of Light manages to grab and maintain my attention throughout its duration every time I revisit it. You should give it a listen and see how it works out for you. If you see fit to download it, the band is giving all bandcamp donations to English environmental and animal causes (although they indicated to me their current focus is more towards causes addressing current social inequity for obvious reasons). If you're more of a cassette person, keep an eye on the Pristine Blight store for the tape, out soon.
Thursday, May 21, 2020
Do you have a taste for the bizarre? For the grotesquely heavy? For the kind of twisted death metal only Finnish bands seem to have mastered? For experimentation that includes but isn't limited to harsh noise? If any of the above even remotely suit your fancy, then it's high time you became acquainted with Oksennus (Finnish for "vomit," naturally). While savvy fans of the extreme and unconventional might've caught wind of this act with releases on Caligari Records and Nuclear War Now! Productions, it seems that news of a new Oksennus album isn't yet making the kind of waves it should in the underground. Perhaps people are put off by the (brilliant) art depicting surreal creatures and root vegetables, or by the self-appointed "antifascist occult metal" tag that may cause purists and the apolitical to scoff, or perhaps it's just that there are simply too many bands playing death metal that we sometimes need more than one friendly nudge to get us to check out a band. For every new act releasing obscure yet challenging, worthwhile music like this, there seem to be a dozen others building up hype online either through label associations or flashy album art that looks great when posted on instagram. Let this be a plea to you, dear reader, to let Oksennus cut through the static and enter your ears.
While this review is focused on the newest release, Työn orjat sorron yöstä nouskaa, an EP released on May Day to "celebrate and empower the prisoners of starvation, the wretched of the earth," I need to take a moment to make it clear that what you get on one Oksennus release is not going to remain constant throughout the discography. While many elements are shared, the band's dizzying yet oddly clean take on death/doom on Sokea Idiootti is reimagined as a sparse, freeform album with no distortion (or vocals) at all on Paholaisten yö, and there's that whole carroty album from 2016, Kolme toista, which has three tracks of exactly the same length yet varying feel and style with manic and often improvised structures. It's safe to say that while the new EP sounds like a new Oksennus release, it also sounds different. As it should.
Continuing in something of a tradition for Oksennus, Työn orjat sorron yöstä nouskaa consists of two tracks of even length, each of which are titled with half the album's title. Opener "Työn orjat" lurches in with squealing static and furious, crushing death/doom energy. Cymbals seem to crash out of nowhere, almost as if edited in mid-hit rather than played naturally. It's this sense of something familiar being altered and given a fresh, albeit filthy, new form that makes this more than just another "slow and heavy" type song. The band's sole member, K. Olavi K.virta, takes the song slower and lower until it feels as if it's just all brown note until about halfway in, when a sudden shift sees things move up in pace, although still at a crawl, and things open up with chanting, sustained notes on the guitar, and a general sense that somehow things have grown even darker despite the shifting upward in tone. It's disgusting, it's gripping, and you might just like it. The accompanying track caught me off guard, despite my love of the artist as a shape-shifter. "Sorron yöstä nouskaa" is 13:12 of pure harsh noise wall. It's a genre that most either love or hate, although your author here is one of the few sitting in the middle. I truly enjoyed it in this context, although part of me is so hooked on the strangely cerebral sounds of Oksennus in a more conventional sense that I spent my first listen waiting for something else to come through. Once I realized it wouldn't, I was able to spend future listens in a contemplative state. I love a good rumbling wall, and for an artist who typically works within a different framework, seeing such a masterful approach to the sound and focused fury of harsh noise wall is a welcome surprise.
There were apparently tapes of Työn orjat sorron yöstä nouskaa on the day of the EP's release, but they vanished before I even noticed. More will be printed at some point, but for now you should visit the artist's bandcamp page and explore the wonders contained within.