New Releases by Rotting Christ, Cnoc An Tursa, and Ominum Gatherum cure what ails The Metal Pigeon

Despite the newest Darkthrone masterwork only being a few weeks old in my listening rotation, I gotta be honest about feeling like I’ve been going through an all things extreme metal burnout lately. Regular readers of this blog probably won’t be surprised at hearing this, considering that I’m often talking about metal listening cycles in some form or fashion. I find it better for myself to be upfront about these things, not only for the blog’s sake but for my own overall enjoyment of metal’s sake. I don’t — as the road manager interviewed at Wacken in the Metal: A Headbangers Journey documentary claims to — wake up every morning and listen to just Slayer and Testament.

 

In other words, I love variety and diversity within the metal spectrum. Metal is a multifaceted form of music, and I enjoy pretty much most of its subgenres without discrimination. But why the burnout? I’m not sure… could be that I was listening to a ton of death and black metal at the end of 2012, and have frequented a good amount of local metal shows (which in the Houston area are almost always full of tepid, mediocre death metal)… whatever the reason, I knew something was amiss when I started listening to Foreigner on my iPod for my morning pick me up. Thankfully, three new albums from bands of differing styles are doing something fresh with their takes on extreme metal. Whats even better is that they collectively span the three major styles in this broadly tagged “extreme” category: black, death, and thrash.

 


 

In the case of Greece’s Rotting Christ, this was a band I hadn’t listened to in perhaps under a decade and had long ago written off as uninteresting (I’ve since checked out their back catalog on Spotify only to realize how wrong I was). Unbeknownst to me until now, they’ve been steadily pursuing a musical change of direction on their past couple albums, and its all led to the most radicalized experimentation of their career on Kata Ton Daimona Eaytoy (Do What Thou Wilt), their eleventh studio album to date. Quite simply put, I love this album. Its one of the more bizarre imaginings of black metal that I’ve ever heard really. These guys dig down deep into their Greek heritage for some dark musical inspirations that really separate them from the hordes of Norwegian copycats. Unexpected amounts of melodicism, unorthodox percussive rhythms, very inspired blackened vocal arrangements and original songwriting are just a few touchstones to remark upon. The obvious standout for its sheer accessibility is “Grandis Spiritus Diavolos”, a steadfast march in which the title phrase is repeated in staccato rhythm over a bed of ultra-melodic guitar riffs, some Uli Jon Roth-style solo accompaniment, and Therion-ish choir vocals. On “Cine Jubeste Si Lasa”, things get really bizarre with the addition of very ethnic, gypsy-like female vocals of Souzana Vougioukli that intertwine with Sakis Tolis’ ever blackened grim vocals to hypnotic effect. It took me awhile to process what was going on in the track, but its quickly become a favorite.

 

But there’s straight up rockin’ infused in here as well, such as in the title track, where pummeling drums are set against slower riffing guitars that tail off into hard rock styled twists. Its surprising but totally awesome, and it makes you envision someone putting Slash on stage with Abbath and telling him to just interject wherever he can. Oh and if you like your metal with a lot of spiritual-ish chanting in the background, this is your lucky day!  I enjoy black metal for what it is — and its often dense and impenetrable music that demands your studious attention. And those aren’t negative attributes in my mind, they’re a part of the art. That being said its rare to come across a black metal album that is actually fun to listen to, and I can put this record alongside Sons of Northern Darkness in that regard. A year ago, the talk online was about how Norwegian black metal was stale and that American bands were making black metal fresh again (despite essentially rebranding French black metal ideas, but nevermind) with shoegaze and indie influences. Rotting Christ on the other hand don’t subscribe to addition by subtraction — they isolate what they love about black metal and reshape it to reflect their native musical language. And in doing so, they show that you don’t have to remove the metal from black metal in order to freshen things up a bit.

 

 

And then there’s new kids on the block Cnoc An Tursa, who defy cheeky boy-band references with what sounds to me like a perfect melding of folk-infused thrash ala early Ensiferum with some of the most excellent blackened vocals that I’ve heard in recent memory. I’ve seen these guys tagged as viking metal or folk metal, and that’s a gross oversimplification. First of all, forget the Viking stuff, these guys are a Scottish band that emphasize a musical and lyrical focus on their nation’s history and culture in a rather eloquent fashion. They draw upon the well of great Scottish poetry for their lyrical inspiration, as in “Bannockburn”, which depicts the battle that was central to the Robert Burns poem of the same name (and they do so in rather Burns-ian language themselves). On other tracks they essentially set a beloved Scottish poem to a bleak, wintry, blackened folk sound scape as with “Culloden Moor”, which works far better than the idea looks on paper.

This is enthralling stuff, and whats great for these guys is that their original lyrics match the tone and consistency of the historic national poetry that they clearly treasure. My favorite moment is “Ettrick Forest In November”, which is the Sir Walter Scott poem set to a blistering, epic as all hell, Bathory meets Moonsorrow explosion of atmospheric, melodic thrash. I’m throwing that term around a lot — thrash, because I hear it in the vocal approach, and in the attack of the guitars, their crunch and the suitably gritty production that emphasizes it. Its all done without sacrificing the cleanliness of the thoughtful keyboard driven atmospherics. No fronting, this could be surprisingly high on my best of 2013 list come December.

 

 

Finally, there’s been the newest release by Finland’s Omnium Gatherum, a band that I was initially introduced to through their highly acclaimed 2011 New World Shadows album. It took me quite awhile to really sink into that album, not because I found it lacking — the opposite actually, there was so much going on that was just way different from anything else I’d come to expect from melodic death metal. Odd drum patterns, alternately shifting tempos, bleak-washing atmospherics, and of course the obsidian vocals of Jukka Pelkonen. This is a weird comparison, but once I finally broke through with repeated listens, it felt like I had cracked the secrets of a musical Rubik’s cube — suddenly it all made sense and sounded right. So getting a chance to hear new music from these guys with that hurdle behind me has been a real pleasure. Their new album, Beyond, is to me an even better collection of music than it’s predecessor. Whether its on the lead single, “The Unknowing”, with its sweeping arpeggio based musical refrain that is as cinematic as it is memorable, or on the breathy, acoustic laced “Luoto” and its buildup to the hooky rock guitar driven “New Dynamic”; this album delivers with a diverse range of songs that stretch the band’s trademark sound. This is especially true on the clean vocal laden “Who Could Say”, in which Pelkonen seems to draw on equal parts Sentenced and Amorphis.

 

There are of course some classic styled melo-death moments, like my favorite on “The Sonic Sign”, where the guitar work includes beautifully harmonized dual leads playing a melodic refrain that you will not be able to dislodge from your head. The strangest thing about Omnium Gatherum to me is the mood they create with their musical palette — its really hard to describe. I suppose I think of typical melo-death as bringing to mind dark, brooding, ominous, and often metaphysical imagery. Conversely the bright, modern, sleek, and yes even positive sounds of Omnium work to conjure up an entirely different head space, one that takes some getting used to. Or maybe that’s just my own weird way of interpreting things. To say Omnium has been a challenging listen for me is an understatement… there was a time where I was worried I wouldn’t be able to see what others saw about them. I won’t lie, Insomnium is still my favorite melodic death metal band and the one I crave the most, but Omnium intrigue me and keep me coming back for more listens. No one else sounds remotely like them.

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AIyrV5br1aM?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_rYrdiCYPPk?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RsjHvaU5Aik?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

Perception and Acceptability with Amaranthe’s The Nexus

There will be many — so so many reviews, opinions, forum rants, and of course YouTube comments that will take some pretty sharp, barbed digs with the metal pitchfork to this band and their new album The Nexus. Amaranthe offend many with a combination of sounds that hands tallied most metal fans would agree should not have ever been attempted. I’ve seen the old “just because something can be done, does not mean it should be done” line more than a few times in the past couple days. Conversely, this is a band with a surprisingly large contingent of often quite vocal supporters, many of them writing reviews for well known print and digital publications, and of course, they’ll be out there in full force online, equalizing the rebukes and jeers with various expressions of high praise — some of which will be ludicrously exaggerated. So here’s where I’ll step in, to offer a perspective from a fairly neutral middle ground.

 

Cards out, I’ll admit that I do enjoy Amaranthe’s deftly cobbled together blend of Euro-pop/American radio-rock with metalcore-lite dressing on a purely surface level — the same way I enjoy the ear candy pop of say Lady GaGa. In other words, this isn’t music that affects me on any sort of deeper level other than that I have a fondness for catchy hooks set to techno-y dance rhythms, pleasing vocals and harmony arrangements,  and a memorable melody or two. Not exactly the criteria combination one usually takes into account when appreciating a metal album, and that’s exactly the point. Remove the modern In Flames-lite heavy guitar riffing, the growling/screaming vocals of Andreas Solveström, and you’ll be left with whats essentially pure dance-pop.

 

So are we reviewing, criticizing, lambasting, or praising this album as a metal album when at its core its anything but? And if so, to what degree is that distorting our emotional response when we hear this music? The metal-related elements are present nonetheless —- but for what purpose? I suppose really, they serve to make Amaranthe’s music distinguishable from other dance-pop driven acts. No one to my knowledge has really done this kind of mash-up before, and while I won’t suggest handing the band a trophy for innovation, they do stand out as a result of the merging of these two disparate musical genres. Face it, after Finnish polka with death metal infusions, at some point, Amaranthe was bound to happen.

 

I first became aware of Amaranthe after reading the infamous Angry Metal Guy review of their eponymous debut album, a scathing indictment loaded with derision that essentially labeled the album as a record label/producer hit seeking concoction. It was the most scathing review I’d ever read on the site and out of pure curiosity I had to check out what was sure to be a disaster among disasters. Greater than my surprise that I actually found myself beginning to enjoy the album over those initial repeat listens, was the lack of any kind of reactionary feelings towards the numerous folks who were disparaging it. Their reactions were fair I thought, as I could understand all their criticisms, as well as accusations of disingenuous motives of the band/label/producer/etc. But it was what it was, I enjoyed music by a band that was loathed by many, and as it would seem over time, loved equally as much by others. Who makes up those others by the way is really hard to define. Case in point are the striking clips of Amaranthe’s 2012 appearance at Wacken Open Air, in which camera pans across the audience reveal an equal amount of enthusiastic guys and girls, and more than a few of them sporting the t-shirts of some far heavier bands.

 

Most of the attention on the band falls on the obvious eye candy appeal of front woman/lead vocalist Elize Ryd, about whom I tend to agree with the prevailing critical opinion: She’s a pop singer who has been seeking her rise to fame; and hitching a ride aboard the metal train has been a quick way to stand out and get there. Who knows, she may actually enjoy metal but its difficult to believe that she has a metallic bone in her body. That may be a judgmental perspective, but one can infer a certain amount of accurate information from observation. I think she’s actually one of the more uninteresting people in the band’s lineup, as I’m far more intrigued by the back stories of both guitarist Olof Mörck, and clean vocalist Jake E, who in addition to being the band’s founders also work together as it’s primary songwriters (contrary to the speculation that the band must’ve had Swedish hitmaker Max Martin tied up to a chair in a recording studio somewhere). Here are two guys who until now have both languished far and long in relative obscurity within the metal world.

 

 

When you see the term “supergroup” applied to Amaranthe, its a total misnomer. While Mörck is fairly central to the Dragonland project, their music never attracted much notice beyond hardcore power metal devotees, and those of us who were enthralled with their take on Limahl’s “The Neverending Story” (yes THAT song) from 2002’s Holy War album. Mörck’s time in Nightrage has been limited to their post-2006 era, being the replacement for founding member Gus G. and arriving well after the acclaimed Tomas Lindberg era. Jake E. meanwhile is often noted as being a former member of Dream Evil, yet his time in the band yielded no recorded output, being only a brief stint as the band’s vocalist for six months. His tenure with the now-on-hiatus melodic power metal band Dreamland attracted little notice apart from being associated with Hammerfall’s Joacim Cans early in their development. I’ll avoid getting into the blips of time that the remaining Amaranthe members have been in their oft-cited past bands.

 

Point is that for Mörck and Jake E., they had put in a decade’s worth of time and dedication into various metal projects that ultimately were fruitless in terms of notoriety, creative and commercial (relatively speaking) success. When they got together and thought up the idea for Amaranthe, I imagine that for them the writing was on the wall that they might not have a lot of chances left; in addition to seeing a potentially golden opportunity with Ryd, who at the time had only guest vocalist appearances on her resume. The gambit worked, and one album and world tour later these two guys finally found their first taste of real success, commercially and even critically speaking. Was it a “sell out” move by both of them? I have a hard time throwing that term at anyone these days, especially within metal where paying your dues means a lot more than just playing jangly guitar in some coffeehouse in the Village. Ultimately its the songwriting of both men that is propelling Amaranthe, and the irony here is that two guys from pure power metal backgrounds are finally finding success only by mingling with pop music (perhaps something they realized had to be done considering the vocal style of Ryd —- operatic, classical… these terms don’t apply here).

 

 

On The Nexus, they seem to be following the don’t fix it if it isn’t broken blueprint, which is shrewd and smart, yet subject to a touch of the sophomore slump. And before I delve into that let me just state that this album isn’t a mind changer by any means. Whatever you felt after listening to that first album is likely what you’re going to feel if you decide to listen to this one. As I mentioned before, I completely understand why so many find this stuff distasteful, and if you’re one of those people, you’d do yourself no favors subjecting your ears to this album. For those of us who did find some enjoyment in their debut, new songs like “Invincible”, “Future on Hold”, “Stardust”, and “Infinity” with its dual lead vocal harmonies offer similarly pleasing melodic ear candy. I’m usually pretty big on quality lyrics, and they’re only serviceable at best here. Sometimes its hard to tell what some of these songs are going on about; but it doesn’t factor into the enjoyment level one way or another.

 

 

There are however a few tracks that seem to be indistinguishable, a misstep that they managed to avoid on their debut. As well as a startlingly awful moment with the utterly misguided “Electroheart”, a song so bad I can’t fathom why no one in that recording studio spoke up to say “guys, this is shit”. Whats even more unfortunate than it’s ultra bubblegum melody at work throughout is the fact that Andreas Solveström finds himself having to scream out the words “Electro Heart!” Its an embarrassing display that simply ends up being more ammunition for their detractors to utilize. Fire away guys… they earned the abuse with that one. Another noteworthy flaw is the overall absence of any remotely organic sound palettes, as this thing is over synthesized to a fault: The highlight of their overall-better debut album was the shimmering solo piano and vocal led “Amaranthine”, a stirring ballad that had space to breathe with a simple vocal melody that was effectively the backbone of the song. The ballad on The Nexus is “Burn With Me”, which while easy enough to envision being played on American rock radio, comes drowned in sound effects and lacks the ethereal nature of its predecessor.

 

Despite the hate and the over the top adulation this band receives, I think one important aspect of their success is forgotten amidst the back and forth. Amaranthe has a place within metal as an accessible gateway band for younger or uninitiated listeners. A teenager who is into regular rock could stumble upon this, get drawn in by the male and female clean vocals, catchy pop hooks, and find the admittedly mild toned screaming vocals easy on their palette. One thing leads to another and they’ll stumble upon heavier bands, perhaps someone touring alongside Amaranthe, or an Elize Ryd connection like Kamelot, and then a few bands later they find themselves listening to Omnium Gatherum, Insomnium, then At the Gates, then Nile… its possible. And a lot more likely than just having that person listen to Black Seeds of Vengeance and think its the greatest thing in the world (I’m sure its happened once but its unlikely). Awhile back I spotlighted a brilliant article written by Tom Dare of Metal Hammer, in which he argued that underground/experimental metal was interdependent with more mainstream/cover star metal.

 

He summarized it succinctly,

New young fans get into metal through the cover stars. I could try and tell you I got into metal through Anaal Nathrakh and Nasum on their debut albums, but I’d be lying, and obviously so… The reality is that metal needs all of its aspects, be they experimental and obtuse, crushing and horrible or catchy as an airborne variant of herpes in the Underworld… You don’t need to necessarily like it yourself, but if you think the end of the metal spectrum you love would be better off without the more/less marketable material, you’re madder than a collaboration between Deathspell Omega and Kate Bush.

– Tom Dare

Steven Wilson’s The Raven That Refused To Sing: A Confessional Perspective

I’ve come to a downer of a realization in that I am experiencing an ever increasing disinterest in the new music being released by one of my favorite artists ever, the prolific and amazing Steven Wilson. He’s worthy of those two adjectives still, the first because its true (Porcupine Tree/ Solo Albums/ Blackfield/ Bass Communion/ No Man/ Storm Corrosion/ various production work), and the second because to me and many others, he’s responsible for some of the most inspired, interesting, and emotive music that I’ve ever heard, regardless of genre, period.

 

But I suppose its fair to say that most of that music comes within the context of Porcupine Tree and Blackfield, and the former is on hiatus and Wilson’s songwriting involvement in the latter has waned incredibly with their third release. It seems his priority for the past few years has been his solo work, and I actually enjoyed a good bit of Wilson’s first solo album, Insurgentes. Soon after came his second solo set, Grace For Drowning, and I was surprised to find myself loving only a couple of tracks from that album (the sparse ballads “Postcard”, “Deform to Form a Star”, and “Like Dust I Have Cleared From My Eye”). And well… its the internet dammit — so you see loads of people on social media everywhere proclaiming the sheer genius, the great artistry of the album and think to yourself, “Huh, it must be me then”. Yes, a selfish, naive, and maybe melodramatic perspective, but an honest one still. I’d read interviews with Wilson where he’d be discussing the more jazz centric role he was investigating with his new band on that album and silently yearn for something else from him that was… well, not that.

 

So while I wondered like many others if Wilson had sown his solo oats and would be dutifully reuniting with his Porcupine Tree brethren, it was announced that his third solo album was finished and would be released relatively soon. Well, things are what they are, and if this is what Wilson is doing these days, so be it. He’s one of those artists in my musical world from which I’ll easily buy an album without hearing a note beforehand, he’s come through for me so many times (and one thing about buying Steven Wilson albums is that he delivers the goods on the packaging). So, The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories) arrives with a flurry of mainstream attention and critical praise from all corners that is unlike anything a Steven Wilson project has ever seen, even with Porcupine Tree. And to get right to the point, there are some really spectacular moments on here that I quite enjoy, but they’re often sandwiched between what I’ll just politely call A.D.D. moments where my mind wanders and I’m distracted by Reddit yet again. So I’m probably going to be the one to spoil the party a little bit, and say about the album: I don’t love it.

 

 

 

 

Maybe you’ll be along with me in the minority, and find yourself agreeing when I say that the sublime moments here seem isolated, remote, and often fleeting. I’m referring to moments such as the beautiful, sparsely strummed mid-section of the opener “Luminol”, the classic Wilson-esque balladry of “Drive Home”, or the best moments of “The Pin Drop” and “The Watchmaker”. The album closer title track is certainly haunting in its lyric, yet I find the music somehow lacking… atmospheric yes but emotive all its own? I’m not so sure. And I fail to understand the excitement and hype about the album centerpiece, “The Holy Drinker”, a ten minute plus barrage of wild instrumentation with no coherent order among any of it. Do people really get off on free form saxophone? I’m not trying to be pedantic, I’m really curious… I find the instrument irritating most of the time. My overall feeling about the album is hard to put into perspective because on the whole I think that I may be finding more to enjoy here than on the chaotic, free-for-all that was Grace For Drowning, as its a much more song driven affair (no real jazz odysseys to be found here… thank god). Yet at the same time, I feel that I really love those few aforementioned Grace For Drowning cuts whereas I merely like the albeit, greater amount of good material here.

 

And I guess whats alarming as a fan of the guy is that the deeper he goes into his solo prog explorations, the further away he’s getting from what drew me to him in the first place. I’ll admit, I found Wilson’s music through Porcupine Tree’s heavier, more metal-inflected albums starting with In Absentia and Deadwing, but I went backwards in the catalog and loved everything from the Pink Floyd-ian The Sky Moves Sideways to the pure pop of Lightbulb Sun. The conduit through all of those albums was I suppose, relatively linear song structures, where even the intensely prog-rock moments and ambient soundscapes were held in check by a commitment to either a rock/metal backbone, or a pop songwriting driven focus. He loses me musically with the jazz perspective, and while I wish I could say I’m able to clue into that world, I simply can’t. The aggravating head-scratcher about The Raven That Refused To Sing is that it actually is a careful step back towards relative linearity… so where does that leave me?

 

P.S.: I want Porcupine Tree back.

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n8sLcvWG1M4?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

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