Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Princ Persii - Princ Persii (2014)

Hyphenated Virtuosity

This album I've been aching to review for a long time. Princ Persii, a now-defunct Saint Petersburg band, took shape after the dissolution of a screamo project sometime in 2010, played a few shows, quietly plopped out a self-titled 25-minute digital release, and promptly disappeared again. Their members are unknown, their internet footprint is a negligible blip on Russian social media, and non-existent in the west; not counting a limited cassette release earlier this year, no labels have ever been in touch with the band. What I'm trying to convey here is that the public eye/ear hasn't been very kind to Princ Persii, and I fear their contribution to the so far predominantly western post-black scene has not yet and will not for a long time receive the acclaim it deserves.

That is a massive shame, because Princ Persii has created a unique, invigorating piece of work here. The sludgy guitar texture and pummeling, low-end riffs characteristic of post-metal – think Omega Massif – are melted down and poured in a mid-paced post-black mould, imbued with crusty/post- hardcore rage redolent of Ancst and tempered in a shower of mournful atmospheric flourishes. You would think a style requiring so many hyphenated subgenres to describe would sound either inordinately contrived or wholly untethered, but by virtue of Princ Persii's meticulous craftsmanship it's kept solid, concise and riff-centric all the way through.

Out of the murk that is “L” – a dark ambient piece with what I'm assuming is a female spoken-word sample from a Russian-dubbed film – a despondent bass guitar arises, etching out “IX”'s simple but hooky main riff, which is then engulfed by the twin guitar surge – rhythm and lead guitars bifurcating in palm-muted chugs and gritty, soaring highs and reuniting again to deliver the key chords. Over the course of two minutes this chord sequence is repeated, tweaked, broken up and filled in, until it collapses in a morose, vocal-driven dirge – never just milling about but always determinedly moving forward, aided by the excellent percussion, which is crisp and has a knack for finding gaps in the rest of the instrumentation to caulk with fills.

While “C” and “F” are more simple, subtle ambient synth pieces – interludes without the ambition or need to be more than that – “II”, “I” and “VIII” tread in IX's footsteps; “II” with less focus on The Big Riff and more on song dynamics – fury and melancholy, hold and release, short bursts of intensity followed by protracted swathes of dark alluvium – while “I” takes this post-rock quiet-LOUD philosophy to its logical end and seamlessly alternates between frenetic episodes of high-speed battering and introspective, clean noodling. It's also on “I” that the vocals – like a less constricted, more slavic relative of Altar of Plagues's rasps – shine the brightest, furiously exhorting and punctuating the guitars and occasionally breaking to reveal the human beneath.

Marks are detracted for the marginally less interesting closer “VIII” – which, in its atmospheric-intro-into-blasting bipolarity, stands out against the dynamic songwriting prevalent in the other songs –, but otherwise Princ Persii is a stellar achievement, exuding a confidence and self-knowledge seldom witnessed in bands so young and underground. The mix helps with this, every instrument getting equal room and utilizing this to the fullest, and while the lower end of the percussive spectrum may occasionally get buried in the action, these blurry teeth do not significantly detract from the engrossing wonder that is following how the fine cogwheels of Princ Persii's watch interlock and swivel. Sound-wise, comparisons can be made to the earlier-mentioned Altar of Plagues and the Czech ██████, but with interesting stuff happening all the time, which immediately brings Vattnet Viskar's self-titled EP to mind: both bands opt for conciseness and heaviness over the atmospheric vistas characteristic of the genre, and manage to convey this with not just aggression but also sophistication.

If metal with any post-elements appeals to you, do your duty and give Princ Persii a chance. 


Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Enthauptung - Adirondack (2015)

Cascadian Dross With Specks of Gold

The three albums I've reviewed so far were chosen based on my appreciation of them and the belief that their obscurity was undeserved; the challenge in their assessment hasn't been so much to point out the flaws as it was to articulate their unicity, of which I was already fully convinced long beforehand. Enthauptung's Adirondack, on the other hand, was laid in my hands as part of a Christmas review swap: I had no earlier knowledge of them, and would probably not have encountered them were it not for my fellow Archiver HeWhoIsInTheWater – cheers to you!

The non-musical aspects of a release should not have an impact on its final appreciation – look only to Brulvahnatu's Menstrual Extraction Ceremony to hammer home why one should judge neither book nor album by their covers – but Adirondack's façade made me skeptical from the onset. A blurry shot of (what I'm guessing is) a nocturnal grove with the RGBY-values tinkered with, the German word for 'decapitation' in a black-and-white logo styled as roots integrated rather lazily on top, and the album title itself in a fashionable spaced-out post-black-ish designer font: the message I'm getting here is that Enthauptung is more than a bit confused as to what they want to be playing and how they want it represented, because of lack of either inspiration or focus. Either way, it lacks vision.

With that in mind, three-minute inro “Earth Divider” and its bird samples, accretive layers of warbling guitars and climax-oriented song structure seemed designed to take away my apprehension with regards to the album being scatterbrained: this is cascadian black metal, without frills or experimental tendencies. Ash Borer and especially Fell Voices are some of my most beloved modern acts, so don't take me for a cascadophobe, but if a band plans to play in a style that's both inherently formulaic and long overcrowded they'd better bring some fresh ideas to the table – and it is here that Enthauptung falls short. “Earth Divider” is strong enough, and follow-up “Summoning Ancients” starts out with a hard-hitting tremolo riff and the sort of driving drumming that evokes images of hunting dogs whose leashes they sense are just about to come off, but after that initial peak the song quickly loses itself in mindless blasting and unconvincing, indistinct guitar work. As opposed to the bands mentioned earlier – alongside others more on the post-spectrum, like Altar of Plagues and Vattnet Viskar – the different movements in Adirondack don't flow over into one another but exist as monadic entities, independent and wholly interchangeable, and neither do they get the time or opportunity to develop – as if Enthauptung doesn't trust any single individual riff section to keep the audience's attention, so you're quickly redirected to a new one.

Adirondack's production is another victim of sub-par judgement. While the guitars sound fine – a tad grainy, and they drown out the bass, but such dense layering is a perfectly valid choice given the genre – the drums and vocals are actively hurt by it. Percussion is high-ish in the mix, always clear but also strangely sterile and lifeless – triggered, presumably? They remind me of Nagelfar's Srontgorrth in the way they're kept distinct from the rest of the instrumentation, but the Germans justified this by way of von Meilenwald's phenomenal and creative drumming, which deserves to predominate – the only thing Enthauptung achieves by shoving the percussion to the front is making the listener astutely aware of how boring the dry THWOCK-THWOCK-THWOCK that constitutes blast sections is. The most egregious boil on the face of Adirondack, however, takes the shape of Daniel Drexel's singing. USBM tunnel-shouting is an established trope, true, but this isn't so much a case of lo-fi aesthetics as it is of the vocalist having come late to the recording studio, being locked out, and having had to scream his lines from an adjacent room. The result is a constant monotonous, undynamic background wailing that's always dialed up to 110% concentrated cat-in-process-of-castration anger, regardless of the current tonal mood, and actively detracts from the efforts of the rest of the band. I honestly fail to see what the band was going for with his performance – its inclusion feels more like an arbitrary concession to genre norms than a thought-out contribution.

But not everything in Adirondack is gloom: while I don't feel any of the songs (other than the intro and interlude) work as a whole, some of them contain genuinely rousing sequences. Take the rather cool, varied riffcraft just before “Summoning Ancient”'s third-minute mark, or the misty synths that haunt the doom crawl a few minutes later, bringing to mind Lunar Aurora's Hoagascht – never a bad thing. The warbling, weirdly spectral protuberances at the lead guitar's fringe throughout that same song are something I seldom heard before and probably the most defining feature of the release, and give an album otherwise lacking in personality an edge. Moreover, the titular “Adirondack” features a magnificent break-and-buildup between 4:00 and 6:30 that smacks of promise – presumably helped by the absence of vocals, but, all cynicism aside, it was this sequence that convinced me the band has true potential. How to unlock this? I'm not sure, but ditching the adherence to the formulaic cascadian structure and going for shorter, more focused songs would eliminate a lot of useless fluff, while re-thinking the role of vocals could only help. As it stands, Adirondack is a basket of LEGO bricks that's fallen over, gotten mixed up with Megabloks and arranged to make a house that's already been built far too often. The aggression, speed and technical skill are here – what it's missing is vision, personality and coherence.



Monday, 21 December 2015

The Water Witch - The Heavens in Traction (2012)

Swamp Rave - Optimism Optional

If you're reading this, chances are more than likely you've already come across A Forest of Stars's gentlemanly footprints. Starting out in 2008, all black-and-white, unpolished and mesmerizing, aFoS has since refined their psychedelic, melancholy and oh-so-atmospheric brand of distinctly Victorian black metal into a colourful cavalcade of psychedelic chord sequences, carnivalesque vocals, slatherings of synthesizers and lyrics whose bitter irony would be unpalatable if it weren't for their poetic fortitude. The evolution of the albums' cover artwork serves as an apt visual metaphor for the music's, with the monochrome sparseness over time becoming saturated with colour and crowded with detail. While this constant updating kept their sound fresh and unpredictable, it did make the band push certain ideas with unrealized potential to the back, and the borderline excessive amount of cooks in this kitchen don't always synergize as well as they should.

But what if they had taken a different path – one not leading to Dickens's bustling marketplaces, where the hypocrite priest and morally bankrupt industrialist walk amongst the deluded masses, but rather one snaking its way between dewy marshlands and dark woods, beyond the reach of the city's illusory stability? The Water Witch, founded and led by original aFoS guitarist Jon Cumiskey, seems to have sprung into life as a way to explore these alternative roads – and 2012's The Heavens in Traction marks the first expedition. Cumiskey's repetitive, drawn-out riffs, which had all but disappeared by the time A Shadowplay for Yesterdays came around (the fact that he didn't play on this album is one reason for that, but the more hectic song structures and shorter lengths simply didn't allow for a whole lot of atmospheric repetition), are given room to breathe: songs like “Winter's Burden”, “The Soul of the World” and “Wilderness” revolve around but one or two uncanny, hypnotic riffs that serve as backbones, acquiring more and more sonic detritus as they glide through the paranoia-inducing marshes conjured up by the additional layers of wailing guitars. While keyboards do seem to make sporadic background appearances, oblique, foghorn-like guitar noise serves as the primary atmospheric padding – and, on instrumental interlude “Akasha Aflame”, takes the front stage. “Teeth of Oak”, as the penultimate song, does a marvellous job alternately alternating and combining morose violins – courtesy of Katie Stone, fellow aFoS'er – and harmonious unisex vocals with vicious, dissonant riffing and abrupt tempo shifts. Throughout the whole album, the drumming is accomplished and tight, varied without being overly flashy, and – thanks to the great production job – never muffled or overbearing while driving the songs along at an average-to-fast pace.

The vocal lines are quite noteworthy too. Mister Curse, aFoS vocalist, lends his considerable laryngal talent to this release – although it's never wholly clear who sings when, due to the eclectic performances of both –, with results ranging from clean, quivering monologues seemingly straight out of radio drama, snarls which straddle the line between shouts and black screams, and ghastly bellowing. The delivery of the lines gels really well with their lyrical content, and their pronunciation is clear enough to not require you to pore over the booklet, so that when you come across the following in “The Heavens in Traction”...

“I have seen the machinery behind the clouds
Vast cogs turning
Powering the night
Great skyships, carrying who knows what to who knows where

Enclosed in the mechanism we are
Ghosts in the machine and of the machine
I don't know what this means
...but I do know that this is fear.
There is fear.”

… it might just actually give you goosebumps. Mention is often made of how black metal singers primarily use their voice as an instrument instead of as a semantic vehicle, but here, The Water Witch manages to re-cross that gap by both making the delivery compelling and, you know, making the lyrics matter. I'm not going to go off on some ignorant sycophantic tirade about how black metal texts have only ever been shallow devil-worshiping or edgy hippy-ism and this hip new band will drag you from the bog of lyrical mediocrity, but TWW clearly establishes itself on the more original and thought-out side of the spectrum – or at least with this song. It's weird, but the simple fact that it doesn't clearly allign itself with a certain tradition – “Winter's burden” hearkens back to nonspecific pagan cultism and both “The Heavens in Traction” and “Teeth of Oak” touch upon the struggle between the natural and the artificial; by themselves not uncommon topics, sure, but they don't tread the same ground and neither can they be relegated to a single train of thought – that simple fact makes the more essential aspects of the lyrics stand out that much more: uncanniness, uneasiness, not-being-at-home in the world. Unheimlichkeit.

That this queasiness is supported so well by the instrumentation leads me seamlessly to my single piece of criticism: the album never really gives you a break. The Heavens in Traction isn't so much a descent from the city to the swamp as it is a tour of the marshes, never leaving its perimeters, and the only thing on the menu is soggy peat. Each song has its own perspective and disposition, but the setting and atmosphere remain constant. If you like to binge-watch David Lynch's more spectral or dream-like works I reckon this won't be a deterrent to you, dear reader, but I find myself not always able or willing to finish the album in a single session.

I won't do The Water Witch the discourtesy of writing it off as just a darker, less exuberant version of A Forest of Stars: it's not completely unwarranted, but the album has succeeded in constructing its own identity and is self-confident enough to step out from under the other band's canopy and be seen on its own terms. What it did remind me of was the German Fyrnask – both bands juggle visceral black metal and despondent (if not depressive) ambient vibes, not counting on immediate hooks but rather on the atmosphere – with an intuitive nose for not neglecting a single detail. The Heavens in Traction is a professional, cohesive and focused black metal record with a whiff of progressiveness and a peculiar atmosphere that I cannot recall having felt with an other album. Individual riffs may not stay with you for days on end, but the aggregate of their damp imprints will. Looking forward to more!