Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Spawn of Possession- Incurso(2012)

Spawn of Possession- Incurso

Since we last saw Spawn of Possession in 2006 with Noctambulant, the landscape of Death Metal has seen a drastic change.  Let's step into the Way-Back Machine, to a different era with a different sound.  It's not quite the TARDIS, but it will do.

When Spawn of Possession were in their heyday during the early part of the century, Death Metal was a genre where pushing the limits of speed, technicality and tempo were the standard, not the exception.  Bands like Necrophagist, Augury, Lykathea Aflame and Anata were the modern Titans, and most Death Metal fans( at least the ones I knew) worshiped at the altars of Suffocation, Gorguts, Atheist and Cryptopsy.  Death Metal didn't just flirt with Jazz and Classical music, they were starting to become attached at the hip.  Rampant experimentation was commonplace, and the sheer technical prowess of the musicians in these bands rivaled musicians in any genre.  Death Metal was becoming a bit of a thinking man's genre, much to the chagrin of old-school purists, who quickly and loudly decried the end of Death Metal.

But the times have changed, or perhaps more accurately reverted.  Those temples to the likes of Suffocation and Gorguts have long been sacked and torn asunder.  Now the land is once again filled with monuments to Incantation, Angelcorpse and Entombed, and Death Metal has largely returned to the sounds of the late 80's and early 90's.  Experimentation still exists, but even these bands have roots in classic, well worn sounds long ago established by a group of aging musicians, whose bands now seem to be reforming left and right(Purtenance, Dominus Xul and Uncanny have all returned from the grave very recently).

Now, I'm not going to argue about whether this is a good or a bad thing(in this writers opinion, it's both), but it is the reality of the current Death Metal scene.  And needless to say, it's strange timing for Spawn of Possession to return with their first new material in six long years.  It begs the question: does anyone care anymore?  Recent forays by many current Technical Death Metal band closer to the sound Spawn of Possession helped establish have been at best sub-par.  Artist like Obscura, Anomalous and Archspire have not done much to help set up Spawn of Possession's glorious return to the realm, and with Old-School Death Metal now so trendy, how could these members of the Old-New-Guard do much to make an impact?

Incurso does make and impact though.  Boy does it ever, mostly by reminding everyone that the "Death Metal" part is still more important than the "Technical" part, no matter how brain-meltingly technical an album is.  And trust me, Incurso is just that: inhumanly precise,  Jazzy and wonderfully complex.  Tempos and riffs shift at light-speed, tearing across a galaxy of immeasurable complexity, eviscerating quasars and spewing their luminescence across the galactic horizon.  The bass work is, as to be expected, is beyond compare: Erland Caspersen dominates this record, and the intro to "Spiritual Deception" is just incredibly awesome thanks to his effortlessly technical style.  The rest of the instruments follow suit, and there is little doubt that the members of Spawn of Possession are some of the finest musicians on the planet.

Still, there are a lot of amazing musicians out there, and just because you can play doesn't mean you can write.  But it's the writing on Incurso that makes stand head and shoulders above many of the bands modern contemporaries within this style of Death Metal.  For starters, Incurso stays brutal, heavy and aggressive through-out.  Sure, things get Jazzy and melodic, but the album never stops being heavy and nasty from a song-writing perspective.  Spawn of Possession also find a way to keep things drenched in a layer of atmosphere, effectively using dissonance, melody and even the rare electronic or keyboard segment to give the entire album an air of cosmic creepiness.  "Apparition" makes the most effective use of these elements, and it proves to be one of the most atmospheric and creepy songs on the album, evoking a chorus of alien horrors in a chapel made from the dead husks of ancient moons. From a technical and song-writing perspective, Incurso delivers where releases from bands like Obscura and Fleshgod Apocalypse have failed miserably.

The same issue I had with the unquestionably brilliant Noctambulant rears it's head once again on Incurso however: an obnoxiously clean guitar sound that takes more from the album than it gives back.  I understand why this happens: if you work this hard and this long on writing some of the most complex riffs in existence, you want people to able to make out each note without losing any in a sea of reverb or distortion.  But some of the very best Technical Death Metal albums in history, if not the best, featured a filthy and nasty production sound: Nespithe, None So Vile, Effigy of the Forgotten, Onset of Putrefaction.  Even Spawn of Possession's first full length album Cabinet was no where near so clean or sterile sounding.  Thankfully, Incurso is not quite as slick sounding as Noctambulant and the drum triggers are far less obnoxious, but Incurso is clean enough to be occasionally annoying

That said, beyond the guitar sound and the ugly cover art(I really cannot stand these Dan Seagrave-inspired covers so many Tech Death and Brutal Death Metal bands use), Incurso is a wonderful return to form for Spawn of Possession.  Death Metal as a scene has no doubt changed since they left, but quality Death Metal will always be the rule that we all go by.  Without a doubt, Incurso is an album of unquestionable quality, brutality and complexity.

Rating: 9/10

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Great Old Ones- Al Azif(2012)

The Great Old Ones- Al Azif

How strange it is that one of the most influential creative forces that has helped shape Metal in all it's forms would  be a long dead horror writer from Providence, Rhode Island with one of history's truly great ironic monikers.  H.P. Lovecraft and his cosmic, esoteric Cthulhu Mythos is among the most referenced subject's in Extreme Metal's historically limited lyrical pantheon(also featuring a little cloaked man with horns and various naked, mutilated women), yet seems to carry a certain air of class about it.  Anybody can write a song about Satan or goats or gore, but in order to Lovecraft-up your lyrics, it means you had to actually read what is now considered classic literature(though Lovecraft was only mildly successful in his own lifetime).  Pretty classy, and the main draw behind The Great Old One's newest album, Al Azif.  Though French, The Great Old One's sound is distinctly American; specifically, the new breed of atmospheric, Shoegaze-and-Doom influenced Black Metal popularized by the likes of Weakling, Wolves in the Throne Room and Krallice.  Being French and all, you would hope that The Great Old One's would have some fresh new ideas to bring to a very trendy, very popular genre, other than the whole Lovecraft thing.

Well... no, not really.

Frankly, Al Azif comes and goes, leaving little in the way of extra-dimensional terror or cosmic infestations.  Hell, it barely lifts a tentacle as it plods along at typical Depressive Black Metal tempos and thick, admittedly inviting Black/gaze/Krallice riffs rule the day.  This is just very typical, very mild stuff The Great Old One's are showcasing as dynamic, progressive Atmospheric Black Metal.  Song's follow predictable progressions, usually alternative between a soft intro followed by lots of fast bits, with softer compositions popping in just on time to break the monotony before the fast stuff starts again... usually for excessively long play-times.  Memory fails when trying to find a single highlight in the haze, and the haze itself is pretty bland: more a smokey, smelly mess then a true thickening of the air that causes the lungs to struggle against inhaling it.  The only aspect of the album that stands out in anyway is the wonderful production: I'm a big fan of the thick, static heavy approach to Black Metal, and it does work here, if only to provide the lone bright light in a sea of dimness.  Al Azif struggles to give the listener much of anything: riffs, atmosphere, or even delivering on the promise of it's subject matter.

This is the thing I understand the least about Al Azif: why even bother going with a Lovecraftian theme if all you are going to write are typical, generic Blackgaze songs that Leucosis and Ash Borer did better last year?  Truth is, I know little about Lovecraft as a writer, but it seems to me the man had a really cool vision.  The whole idea of cosmic horror and esoteric, ethereal old spirits slowly devouring our souls and minds sounds pretty fucking twisted, especially considering the age in which Lovecraft wrote these stories.  If your concept band is going to make a concept album about this kind of shit, it better be as demented and perverse as the concept itself.  Compare this tripe to Brown Jenkins, another Lovecraftian themed Atmospheric Black Metal band(now essentially called The Ash Eaters), and it's like comparing an infant wearing a Cthulhu mask to the real thing's massive, tentacle cloaked member.  We could compare this also to the works of Thergothon or Catacombs, but it's pretty much the same result.  Al Azif might as well be titled Al Franken or Al Capone, because in the end there will be no "visions of R'lyeh" to haunt your dreams after listening to this chore.

Al Azif is not a poorly played album.  It doesn't sound bad, in fact it sounds utterly fantastic.  And it really isn't even a poorly written one.  It follows all the established guidelines of the genre to their well-tread ends, on time and with gusto.  It's that none of it feels unique, memorable or intense in anyway: everything is a blur, and the twisted chants of the star cult are completely obscured by the dime-a-dozen Blackgaze eclipse wonderfully suggested on the albums (brilliant looking) cover art.  The rites of Cthulhu this is most certainly not.

Rating: 3.5/10