Saturday, June 23, 2012

Grave Upheaval- Grave Upheaval(2010)

Grave Upheaval- Grave Upheaval

Grave Upheaval is the side project of Ignis Fatuus and Omenus Fugue, the men behind Impetuous Ritual, and who also play in the legendary Portal.  A massive pedigree no doubt, but Grave Upheaval goes well beyond recognizable names.  It's not a project that needs to piggy back on the larger bands that have come before it.  Mainly because this, the project's self titled demo, is without a doubt the finest album this storied duo has produced.  From the first listen Grave Upheaval blew away any of the duo's previous material and entombed me in it's light-devouring darkness.  Ritualistic carnage devoid of any sympathy for the listener, Grave Upheaval is full contact inhumanity.

Grave Upheaval is not really a massively different project from Impetuous Ritual in terms of genre.  Both projects deal in Doom-laden Death Metal inspired by the New York Death Metal sound and the primitive East-Coast sounds of bands like Imprecation and Killing Addiction. But while Impetuous Ritual delve into chaotic and explosive compositions with a slightly more technical edge, Grave Upheaval are more sunken and sulfurous; a truly primitive and ancient evil that crawls from the Earth to wreak terrible works.  The music itself is fairly simplistic at the individual level, with lots of repetitive, Doom-y riffs and lumbering rhythms.  It sounds to me heavily inspired by Raw Black Metal with the heavy repetition and supreme focus on atmosphere over technical prowess, and the masterful duo pull it off perfectly.  The production and atmosphere is massive and thick; a swarm of plague-bearing insects that bathes you in disease.  The album personifies evil, and does so without any real cheesiness.

The focus of ritualism is what makes Grave Upheaval so powerful.  The drums thunder and blast across the empty expanse of the megalithic production while the demented vocals imitate the chanting, demonic rumblings of a mad witch doctor.  At any moment, it seems a portal straight to Hell will open up inside your head, the beckoning calls of Grave Upheaval drawing them closer and closer to the tender under-belly of your skull.

Being both genuine and skillfully performed, Grave Upheaval is one of the most impressive atmospheric achievements I have heard in Death Metal in a long time.  It attaches itself to the darkest, most primal emotions and draws them forward, drawing as many visceral head-bangs as well as more then a few moments of gloomy introspection.  It's Death Metal done right: nihilistic, genre-destroying madness.

Rating: 9/10

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Muknal/The Haunting Presence- Split(2012)

Muknal/The Haunting Presence- Split

The Black Twilight Circle are no doubt divisive, and I am not really going to get into all that with this review.  Yes, the whole thing is on the pretentious side, but then again it's impossible to ignore the sheer quality of the bands and releases from this shadowy collective of musicians.  The Black Twilight Circle, along with related record labels Rhinocervs and Crepusculo Negro, has become the center of the American Black Metal scene not through style and image, but by releasing some of the best Black Metal on Earth.  Muknal and The Haunting Presence represent new territory for the BTC however. It may seem that Muknal's cavernous, suffocating miasma of New York-styled Death Metal and the reverb choked, balls out aggression of The Haunting Presence don't really fit in with the rest of the BTC and their atmospheric, genre challenging terrorists.  But in fact they do: both bands create gloomy, rotten atmospheres of dust and insects, giving one the sensation of being forever sealed in an ancient tomb.  This focused, effortless atmosphere is a trademark of the BTC, and the true strength of this transfixing little split from two of my favorite acts in modern Metal.

The first two tracks belong to Muknal: this was the side of the split I was most excited for, as Muknal have already released the best Death Metal album of this year a few months ago with their s/t demo.  That demo has remained one of my favorite releases this year, and the chance to hear more material from the band was exciting.  I am not disappointed: "Hecatombs" and "A Winged Emblem of Evil" are the definition of subterranean evil and cosmic devastation.  Drawing heavily from New York gods Incantation and Immolation as well as the fiendish Imprecation and the demented Infester, Muknal are all about spawning suffocating atmosphere's of spiritual horror.  Muknal are not merely happy being another "Incantation-clone" and like Dead Congregation and Grave Upheaval, seek something greater for themselves and their music: dissonance and effective use of sampled sounds and gloomy electronic noises gives the two tracks a very ritualistic intensity that most imitators couldn't evoke in a dozen releases worth of material.  It's all so expertly crafted and effortless, and even more impressive when you consider that Muknal appear to be developing a more technical sound.  "A Winged Emblem of Evil" in particular has a strong, atmospheric technicality to it with the complex guitar play and fantastic drum work.  Both songs are certainly more complex then the material found on the s/t demo, and may signal a departure from the bands primitive roots.

The last two tracks are from The Haunting Presence, one of the first bands to really stand out from the BTC collective genre-wise.  With a sound clearly influenced by Blasphemy, Demoncy and Archgoat, The Haunting Presence seems like the exact type of project that would be leading an anti-BTC charge.  "Malignant Curse From Beyond" and "Hideous Faces of Unknown" are two reverb drenched abortions, viciously thrashing about in a muck of biowaste and sulfur.  Alternating between destructive speed and oceanic trenches of darkness and doom, The Haunting Presence show a masterful control of the bestial barrage without sounding like a cheap imitation.  This is also easily the best produced material the band have released, sounding both balanced and well mixed yet utterly caustic and raw.  The low end rumbles and roars and the riffs spew grime and gore while the demonic grunts of Ghastly Apparition echo above the Hellish aftermath. And once again, the bands super-primitive veneer is challenged a bit on "Malignant Curse From Beyond" which adds a small layer of complexity with some dynamic rhythms and complex drums.  I would not call The Haunting Presence anything less then primitive and dessicated however, so don't expect too much complexity.

As much as I love this split and the bands involved, I have no doubt that both projects will struggle for the notoriety they clearly deserve.  On one side you have hardcore BTC haters who, even if they like the music, will refuse to support any project involved.  On the other side we have the hardcore BTC fanboys who may look at Muknal and The Haunting Presence as the ugly ducklings on the collective, playing unrefined genre's that have long grown stale.  I sincerely hope it doesn't come to this(Fact: if you are a Death Metal fan and not into Muknal, you are missing out), but it's hard not to feel like this is a possibility.  For those of you who could care less about collectives or genre elitism, then this split will gladly devour your soul and you will be glad to offer it.

Rating: 9/10

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Rahu- The Quest for the Vajra of Shadows(2012)

Rahu- The Quest for the Vajra of Shadows

Drawn to it from positive word of mouth and the brilliant cover art, The Quest for the Vajra of Shadows was the ultimate shot in the dark for me.  I've never heard of this Finnish two-piece, though I am familiar with Atvar and his project Circle of Ouroborus, nor am I an any way familiar with Hindu mythology.  But this made the thrill of discovering fresh brilliance all the more satisfying, as The Quest for the Vajra of Shadows is a dynamic, well constructed and immersive Black Metal.  Rahu don't completely re-invent the wheel, so much as deconstruct it, moving the various pieces to and fro to fit their compositional desires.  It's such an expertly done album, which feels both fully realized and warmly familiar without being derivative.  Rahu have landed in  the sweet spot of creativity and craftsmanship, and do so with such confidence and skill that it's impossible not to be impressed.

Featuring a raw, space-y production, The Quest for the Vajra of Shadows sounds great and makes a strong first impression that eases you into the deeper, darker aspects of the album.  The Finnish influences are pretty strong with an evident Horna and Sargeist vibe, threads of chilling melody strewn amongst the fleshly and raw Black Metal riffs, but the dependence of hypnotic song structures and pure crushing blackness brings to mind Darkspace and even Burzum at his most raw and sleepy.  It's a powerful combination of traditional demonic practices with the ethereal darkness of modern atmospheric Black Metal, complete with all the nihilism and somberness left in tact.  The Quest for the Vajra of Shadows is firmly an Atmospheric Black Metal record, but it touches on a lot of different styles and atmospheres and feels both real and focused.  It's an album that comes about when a couple of talented, learned and visionary musicians get together and create: the perfect storm of creativity and credibility.  I wouldn't go so far as to describe The Quest for the Vajra of Shadows as ground-breaking, but it's not far off.  The influences are there but they never overwhelm the bands vision or identity and the album feels unique throughout.  Rahu sure didn't invent the disparate elements on this album, but they have without a doubt come up with a new way of operating them.

There are no real complaints for my part: The Quest for the Vajra of Shadows is a complete album and a full-contact listening experience.  Though perhaps not quite and overwhelming as Darkspace, who seek to swallow you in the massive gravitational force of their riffs, Rahu present many of the same ideas in a more diverse and vibrant way.  Rahu are masterful in their use of melody, always a tricky thing for most Black Metal, composing both eerie whispers and soaring, epic leads(or in the case of the opener "Ordeal of X," both).  The twosome also demonstrate complete control of atmospheric song-writing, as repetition is used to create hypnotic atmospheres, but never abused to the point of boredom.  The Quest for the Vajra of Shadows makes use of a lot of tricky, difficult elements: melody, repetition, rawness, extreme song-length.  All of these things utterly destroy lesser acts and albums, yet all feel absolutely essential to the greatness of this album.  It's utterly amazing when you think about it: Rahu took all of these elements that consistently ruin other bands, and then crafted an entire album around them with masterful precision.  It's as if the band were trying to win a bet, and if there was a wager on whether a band could pull all of these concepts off on a single album then somebody needs to pay up.

I honestly cannot recommend The Quest for the Vajra of Shadows enough.  Black Metal is a genre that can be so diverse that it's hard to find those albums that every Black Metal fan can enjoy.  Some want keyboards, some want epic, some want grime and ghouls and some want to be eviscerated.  The Quest for the Vajra of Shadows provides a little bit for all while being as focused and professional as one could ask for.  I don't know whether this album will be remembered for years to come as some classic or if like many great albums it will disappear into the bowls of obscurity, but for this moment, The Quest for the Vajra of Shadows is an epic undertaking worth the struggle.

Rating: 9.5/10