Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Mizmor (מזמור) - Mizmor (2012)

Lo-fi Lowlife

We've just about reached the point where, having once come from the same fecund nest, all subgenres of extreme metal have gone full circle and started incestuously converging again. Death/doom has since quite a while proven to be mutually compatible and has become as much of a genre as its constituents are, while the black/death batallions count so many members that it's honestly a tad disappointing they all tend to sound so alike. It's to the coupling's credit, then, that black/doom lacks such an easily recognizable sound. מזמור (or Mizmor), solo project of A.L.N. from Salem doom cult Hell, sounds nothing like Barathrum's groovy devilry or the expansive ambient tearscapes put forth by Nortt. Imagine something like a stripped-down Rain upon the Impure-era Ruins of Beverast covering Khanate, and you're closer to the mark. And what a mark it is.

Its seventy minutes of feedback-riddled misery divided into four numerically-titled songs running from eleven to twenty-six minutes, Mizmor is an odd and very very sad duck. The body of the songs consists of mournful doom plods, passionate barked wails and the gravest, most pregnant clean chords this side of the Great Depression. All this is held together by a khamsin's worth of reverb, noise and riffless droning, drowning out all musical structure and reshuffling Mizmor's musical landscape when it subsides. Add a very cymbal-heavy drum kit to the mix and you've accounted for all tools present on this album; neither keyboards, nor samples, nor any other newfangled tricks make an appearance to palliate the rough edges.

The album is a journey through dreary wetlands and over dead hills, the noise and static swarms of midges against the backdrop of endless expanses of empty wilderness. The resonant cleans which open "III", standing out against the buzzing like dead trees, etch their mournful melody into you before fading out of earshot again. Every song – from the primarily black "I" to the doom-dominated leviathan that is "IV" – follows a meandering, organic pattern of pensive riffs toiling away amidst their own background noise. Aside from the dignified and melancholic tremoloing opening "I" and "II", the album has very little hooks, and humming along with it would resemble refrigerator droning more than anything. Simple chord progressions and competent drumming, reasonably vivid but never coming to the fore, are what make up this solemn voyage.

Like some old-timey Marlboro gent, this music doesn't particularly care whether you keep up with it or not. It knows where it's going and has its own story to tell – not particularly refined technically, lacking big climaxes and major turnarounds, and on top of that it has no qualms taking its bittersweet time to ultimately arrive nowhere. It's in this field that the comparison to "Rain upon the Impure" really comes into play: although not really sounding a lot like each other, both albums are governed by a similar mulish conviction that if the listener is to get anything out of it, they'd better be prepared to set aside some hours to take it all in at once.

Satisfying as all of this is, the album could've been handled better. The recording is demo-grade; everything sounds more than a smidgen trebly, cymbal splashes have a tendency to clip and the clean guitars in particular are blurry. This is especially noticeable when played back-to-back with any of Mizmor's other releases, on which the mix has gotten siginificantly roomier. Clean guitars sound physical and present, the snare packs a punch and doesn't get overpowered by the noise, and the bass returns un-neutered and persuasive. When stuck slogging through the wastelands of the self-titled I tend to forget these issues, but judged from a distance the band clearly cut some corners which could have heightened the impact. The very samey nature of the songs would arguably benefit from a more dynamic mix, especially in ears of less faith.

Despite the archaic production and limited palette, I can't hide I'm taken with Mizmor. Uncompromising in its vision, challenging to the listener, engrossing while it lasts and you may even go so far as to say pretty unique, Mizmor started out its carreer with a lot of promise, and went from strength to strength.


Monday, 21 March 2016

Yoga - Megafauna (2009)

Pineal Gland Transmitting At Full Strength

There are countless bands producing excellent albums, and countless more that can pride themselves on having a strong, auctorial character, and it's at the Venn intersection of these sets that a release can fulfill the promise implied in its name by piercing through the veil of musicality and dissolving into pure sonic transcendence. Once tuned in to the frequency of such a band (my prime go-to example will probably always remain The Angelic Process, but the French Murmuüre, in all its polychromatic, ritualistic ecstasy, took a valiant stab at that title in 2010), every first spin of an album becomes subconsciously driven by the hope that, maybe, these guys too have snuck in through that tear, or at least frayed open one adjacent to it.

So when Yoga's Megafauna first cast its spell upon me, I thought I'd struck upon the work of a spiritual acolyte of Murmuüre. Something in the way the wispy, processed-beyond-recognizability surrogate vocals – were they ever even vocals? – on opener “Seventh Mind” are constantly pitch-shifting, or how you can't tell whether they complement the guitar lines or whether it's the other way around is just so incredibly reminiscent of the French project that I was wholly incredulous and a tad peeved when I found out Megafauna preceded it by a year.

Once past the surface of that first song, however, the albums don't really have all that much in common. Half of the songs on the album can be categorized as a chaotic blend of the repetitive industrial noise rock pioneered by Matthew Bower – keep eyes, ears and mind open for Pure, Total and Skullflower – and traditional minimalistic black metal, while the other half consists of short, soundtrack-ish ambient pieces on which the guitars give way to diffuse keyboards and various indeterminate atmospheric artifacts. The synths and the unceasing, uncanny noise pervading the album are the key to Megafauna's eerie charm: without these, the more rock-oriented songs like “Encante” would have been a simple, unoriginal rehash of the mid-paced black metal of the 90's – this in spite of its fantastically hooky main riff, which Bergtatt-era Ulver would have been jealous of. Yoga, however, clearly prioritize atmosphere over song structure and masks it with a tumultuous cloud of blaring chaos.

This atmosphere is intrinsically tied to the release's larger concept which – the absence of any intelligible lyrics notwithstanding – rises to clarity through the song titles and paranormal cover art: Megafauna is an auditive cabinet of curiosities, showcasing both modern and ancient legends; from Icelandic elf-folk to South-American shape-shifting dolphins and the Amerindian thunder bird. Yoga succeed wonderfully in evoking a dense, swampy and always-progressing murk which doesn't so much sound creepy as it does enticing and mysterious, like some long-abandoned tropical shrine in a mosquito-infested mangrove. Just go ahead and try “Fourth Eye” – perhaps the strongest song on the album: as synth loops gurgle upwards like bubbles in an overgrown bog, the triumphant guitars create a spectral bridge to a hazy sun. As the song comes to its end, the discerning listener can just make out flutes amidst a climax of chanting voices and nondescript noise.

The major weakness of Megafauna is how front-loaded it is, even though it barely rounds forty minutes in length: after the appropriately-titled “Treeman” – four trudging, doomy minutes that shamble by in a positively zombie-like manner but make up one of the less compelling and diverse songs on the album – we're left with the weirdly medieval clarion-driven “Warrior”, the non-song that is “Haunted Brain” and the morose “Chupacabra's Rotting Flesh”, none of which can match the intensity of the previous tracks. It is fitting, in a sense, that an album like this should bleed out like it does…

If we're judging Megafauna purely based on its ability to bring urban legends and paranormal events to life, it still loses out to Megaptera's The Curse of the Scarecrow or Alpha Drone's unsung self-titled masterpiece, but looking at the first half of the album by itself Megafauna's excellence is undeniable; it's one of those albums which sound is uncommon and virtuous enough to survive not being wholly consistent – and as long as Murmuüre stay dormant, beggars can't be choosers.


Saturday, 16 January 2016

Aastyra - Aastral Projections (2007)

Astral Paroxysm
You know, I consider myself pretty open-minded when it comes to outré metal subgenres, but when the crunchy leaves/footsteps/pebbles/sticks and bells segue into chirps, playground singing and flutes one does wonder exactly what Aastral Projections' envisioned target audience is and whether this deranged fever dream doesn't just put them at the risk of going permanently over the edge.

Aastyra, a side project from one of the Canadians behind Prophecy-signed act Finnr's Cane, is a bit of an enigma. One part high-speed computerized symphonic black metal á la Limbonic Art, one part Coil-esque sound collages, some early Tangerine Dream cosmic meandering – and yeah, I'm sure we can fit those high-octane retro synth soundtracks in somewhere as well, bring it on. Oh, and let's keep it wholly instrumental, except for the parts where ethereal female crooning comes floating through. I don't want to do a track-by-track description, but Aastyra's constant genre-hopping antics more or less force my hand.

Aastral Projections is kicked off by a short, abstract soundscape featuring industrial clanging and blaring that might as well have fallen out of Nurse With Wound's, uh, wound, before the listener is run over by “Interstellar Death Race” – which title, you'll find out, really says everything about both this song and the only two other tracks that are unambiguously metal: although saccharinely synth-dominated – and gloriously so, repetitive but fluid melodies bleeping and blooping their way up and down the cosmic canvas while guitars, almost trumpet-like by virtue of their braaap-y texture, pump the song forward with one-note riffsit's lightning-fast, features machine-gun percussion and even though its cheese requires some suspension of disbelief, it's worth your while. With regards to the other two BM songs, “Xenopia” keeps the synth-monsoon but allows the guitars a tad more freedom and dynamics, while the vicious “The Mechanical Womb” relegates the electronics to the role of background ambience to make space for Thorns-style industrial savagery – complete with apathetic mantras and the only occurence of harsh vocals on the album.

But that's only the sane side of Aastral Projections. After “Interstellar Death Race”'s sci-fi mayhem, we get “Terra”, which I alluded to in the first paragraph: is this muzak for schizophrenics? The heavily jingle-and-loop-dependant structure of the song contrasts starkly with the sylvan scene it's supposed to represent, and brings to mind images of the internet in its puberty, trying to simulate a glade, or something. It's without a doubt the most unique track on the album, but its random nature and tonal awkwardness detracts from its replay value, and after the initial novelty has worn off I can only see it remaining interesting as an ASMR-track, not as a song. Following “Terra”, “Of Spirit And Captivity” takes things back to relative although unimpressive normalcy by presenting the listener with three mournful minutes of ghostly, reverberating wailing, which, while rather dragging (and that at only 3 minutes' length), does set the scene for “Wanderer Of The Postapocalypse” – a pensive, synth-driven ambient piece moving forward at a glacial pace, evoking images of abandoned space stations and distant nebulae. Over the course of nearly ten minutes (the longest running time of any track on Aastral Projections), it gets reinforced by the sighs encountered in the previous song – not nearly as irritating this time around – until, just after the halfway mark, it gets propulsed into a shimmering rhythm, as if the vessel's systems suddenly start flickering into activity again. By the end of the song, everything's online and whirring, and the whole thing just sounds cohesive and cathartic and cool. The most intricate and succesful ambient piece of the album, no doubt.

“Adversary”, then, matches predecessor “Xenopia”'s thrill and pace, but channels this through fast-paced synthwave/electro/whatever, not unlike the French Perturbator – which project, coincidentally, also enjoys quite some popularity amongst the metal crowd. It's well-written, contains lots of little details and, weird piano-loop outro notwithstanding, it succeeds in its retro ambitions. Finishing the album is “Shadowmirror”; a moody synth-fest recalling cosmic carnival tunes (what else did you expect, with such a cheerful title) where some guitars might lie buried beneath the waves of fuzz, but I honestly can't tell.

So, does Aastral Projections work? A comparison to Thy Catafalque – the closest project Aastyra has to a genre-mate – reveals that the album lacks flow: the description should already have made this obvious, but there is next to no continuity in the songs' transitions, which the extreme diversity certainly could have made use of. Many songs on the album also exhibit the curiously contradictory double defiency of both being overly repetitive and causing a sensory overload due to the sheer amount of impulses at any given second, both of which result in headaches. Everything sounds inspired and fresh, to a certain degree; the metal parts are accomplished, the synth compositions are way above arbitrary black metal interlude quality, and there's undeniably a sense of purpose to all of this – the problem being that this purpose has no regard for the listener – but in the end I'm quite ambiguous in my feeings towards Aastral Projections. Give it a listen for novelty's sake if nothing else and, if you're a fan of any of the bands mentioned, maybe you'll find something to like here as well.

Just keep some aspirin handy.