Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Loss - Life Without Hope... Death Without Reason

Life Without Hope... Death Without Reason is the first demo release from the American band Loss. They play a style of Funeral Doom that shows strong influences from Worship and Mournful Congregation. Originally released in 2004, this demo came with a razor included in the package.

"Coffin Nails (Intromancy)" begins the demo with random feedback, screeching and a few stray bass chords. Perhaps the band was attempting to set the tone for the songs to follow, but it is rather pointless and adds nothing to the release.

The first real track is "Conceptual Funeralism Unto the Final Act (of Being)". It begins with a very mournful riff that takes the best parts of the bands that influenced them and creates something dreary and depressive. In a way, the style of riffs is more reminiscent of early My Dying Bride, as the sound is a little more dynamic than bands like Thergothon or Skepticism. The overall quality is fairly good, considering that it is a demo. It's clear enough for each riff to stand out and really have the desired impact, yet it still retains somewhat of a rough vibe. The vocals are the only real weak point. The style is that of a very deep and guttural whisper, similar in a way to old Incantation yet not as distinct. The band would have benefited from a vocalist with more range and ability to convey emotion through the vocals. Despite this, the song is very good for what it is. Later on, there's a riff that has an almost uplifting feeling and utilization of the typical Doom Metal drum fills. This is followed by a more sombre guitar melody that reaches into your chest and begins to crush your heart. The feeling is very epic and one can tell that the musicians have a very good understanding of what they were setting out to accomplish. Even the lyrics fit well with the music, though the actual delivery being the main setback. However, this is actually something that is common to the sub-genre.

The second, and final, song on the demo is "Cut Up, Depressed and Alone". From the very first note, you realize just why this release originally came with a fresh razor blade. The miserable guitar riffs wrap around you and begin to squeeze the life right out of you. Somehow, these melodies call forth every sorrowful moment that you have ever experienced, and it all washes over you at once. Even without the lyrics and the sub-par vocals, the music itself speaks to the listener on a deep level. You can feel the hopelessness and utter emptiness. After a few minutes, things become very silent and only a clean guitar remains, playing a very simple yet effective melody. Without realizing it, you may find that you've taken the razor and opened up your flesh. This transitions to another epic and depressing riff, as the blood escapes your veins.

The only real fault here lies in the execution of the vocals, but many other Funeral Doom bands are guilty of this as well, so there's no need to point a finger at this band, alone. Musically, the songs are very well constructed and dynamic enough to hold your interest while still being slow and lifeless enough to convey the feelings of despair and misery. Life Without Hope... Death Without Reason is a solid demo that is, unfortunately, the best work this band ever came up with. None of their subsequent releases have managed to live up to the potential shown here.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Burzum - Belus (2010)

This has to be one of the most anticipated albums in recent memory, comparable to the feeling that preceded the release of the last Dissection album. However, unlike Jon Nödtveidt, Varg Vikernes was repeatedly denied parole, thus his incarceration dragged on. It seemed as if it would be endless. Then, last year, he was finally free. He had been speaking for the past few years, with regard to a new Burzum release, stating that it would most likely sound like Filosofem. Regardless of which album was preferred, most fans were relieved just to hear that he intended to return to the Black Metal sound of his early works. While Dauði Baldrs and Hliðskjálf certainly warrant attention, they simply weren't the same. And so, in the winter months, Varg returned to Grieghallen to record his first album in over a decade. For many of us, this had been a near-unbearable wait. For others that had only just discovered the band, there was still a great deal of interest. Could the album possibly live up to the expectations that everyone had for it? Some were ready to praise it, no matter what it sounded like, out of loyalty to Burzum. Others were prepared to lambaste it, before even hearing it, because they dislike Vikernes as a person. For better or worse, many had shifted their attention to Belus, released on 8 March.

The album begins with "Leukes Renkespill (Introduksjon)", which is a brief intro that features the sound of a hammer hitting an anvil. Similar to Dauði Baldrs this album deals with the story of Baldr, though with a more developed approach. The sounds heard in the introduction are a part of this, but it still fails to prepare for what is to come.

"Belus' Doed" begins with an eerily familiar melody. This first song is a reworking of the track "Dauði Baldrs", and Varg has done an incredible job of maintaining the dark feeling present in the original and adding so much more to it. The first thing to notice has to be the vocal performance. Many people seem to have a difficult time with the vocal style from the early albums, though I actually prefer that sound to anything else that he has done. Incredibly, Varg himself looks back on these previous performances with some amount of disappointment. At any rate, there was much speculation regarding how he would sound, all these years later. Thankfully, the extremely distorted style used on Filosofem does not return. The vocals are similar enough to the old albums that one can instantly tell who this is, but they are a little deeper and more controlled. With that said, the vocals are very powerful and filled with conviction, matching the dark atmosphere of the song. The brief spoken word parts also add another dimension, accentuating the dismal mood. The production is a bit fuzzy and definitely not overdone, though the digital recording removes the openness that was present on the early albums. This mid-paced track is dominated by brilliant tremolo melodies that play over somewhat thrashy rhythm guitars. The bass is audible, though seeming to follow the main theme. If certain elements of this album have to grow on the listener, through a few listens, this song is absolutely the exception to this. The melodies and vocals are haunting and they permeate your subconscious on the very first listen. You will hear the death of Belus in your dreams.

"Glemselens Elv" is next, and the title translates to "The River of Forgetfulness". It begins with a tremolo riff alongside a loud bass line, before the drums and another guitar enter and carry the song forward. This is a nice way to build some tension and anticipation. As one would expect, this song is also rather mid-paced yet the tremolo melodies weave in and out of your mind, lulling you into a trance. At nearly twelve minutes, this is the longest song on the album and maybe the most hypnotic as well. The vocals feature a combination of harsh and clean, simultaneously, though the clean vocals are a bit lower in the mix. Everything about this screams Burzum, from the drumming patterns to the riffs, themselves. It's long been said that Varg has been one of the most copied musicians, ever, and yet no one has ever been able to recreate the magic in the same way. One can imitate the overall style, attempting to match the guitar tone or the vocal style, but not one single band has ever even come close. After about four minutes, the pace changes and another brilliant tremolo melody arises from the blackened depths. There's a refrain of clean vocals, used almost in a chant-like manner. The feeling is abysmally dark and dreary. A few minutes later, another soul-murdering riff emerges from the shadows and brings to the listener a slow death. On the first listen, this song was a bit difficult to sit through, as I was eager to get to the rest and hear what I'd waited for, for a decade. After repeated listens, the brilliance has unfolded, lured me in and enveloped all. It is also worth noting that, on this album, all of the lyrics are in Norwegian. In the past, of course, Varg utilized English as well, but it seems that he has rejected the use of the "international language".

The next song, "Kaimadalthas' Nedstigning", starts out with great intensity. The riffs are fast and thrashy, though still repetitive and somewhat droning. This continues the trance-like feeling present on the previous track. The energy level has increased and the urgency found in the vocals adds to this. There are calmer moments, with a single line spoken in a grave and serious tone. There is nothing uplifting about this. The sombre atmosphere of darkness and dread is ever-present and the cold hand of doom stretches out from the shadows, reaching for you. As the song progresses, the pace slows down and the riffs possess a cold and dreary feeling. You can feel the empty black hole growing within. As the song concludes, one line is repeated again and again, in an eerie manner.

"Jeg reiser til mørkets dyp der alt er dødt."

"Sverddans", meaning sword dance, tells the tale of winter coming under attack from the foul and disgusting summer. This song has its origins in the pre-Burzum project, Uruk-Hai. Clocking in around two and a half minutes, this one is the shortest proper song on the album. Some seem to feel that it is out of place, though it seems to make perfect sense, regarding its placement. The album has built in intensity, over the course of the previous songs, reaching sort of a climax with this track. Similar to "War", from the debut album, this merely adds another dimension to the album and displays yet more versatility on the part of the musician.

The next song possesses on the best riffs of the entire album. "Keliohesten" slowly rises from the nothingness, and then unleashes a brilliant tremolo melody upon an already exhausted listener. The drumming is fast-paced, suiting the main riffs, and the vocals are lethal in execution. The lyrics tell a depressing story, as the snow melts and winter is fading away. The horrible summer spirits celebrate their triumph. The cold riffs convey a deep sorrow, or perhaps they bring this to the surface; that which already resides in the dark recesses of your spirit. By the middle of the song, there is a thrashy riff that only serves as a transition back to the cold and deathlike atmosphere of the main theme. Though the sound isn't very similar, the structure of this song is somewhat reminiscent of that found on Hvis Lyset Tar Oss, to a small degree.

"Når snøen smelter gråter vi
vinteren har blitt beseiret"

Just when you feel safe from the utter black and the freezing emptiness of absolute oblivion, "Morgenroede" comes to plague you with such a life-draining and hopeless feeling that death soon calls your name. The song marks the slowing of the overall pace of the album, as it now makes its funeral march toward the end of all things. There is a sense of urgency in the first riffs, then turned to emptiness and sorrow with the coming tremolo melody. The pulsing of the bass is almost like that of the heart beating for its final moments, pumping out the remaining blood and bringing on lifelessness. Nothing lasts forever. All that which one finds meaningful in this wretched world will succumb to decay and death, in one form or another. Just like the snow will melt and winter recedes, all hope will fade to nothingness and emptiness prevails. After a few minutes, the final words spoken on this album then give way to a new riff, one filled with utter despair. The drumming reminds of that found later in "Tomhet", yet the atmosphere here is similar in its desolate and miserable feeling. The riffs become very repetitive, building the sorrowful aura and draining you of any and all life. One sees through illusions of optimism and positivity. There is none. These things are not real. They never were. They are but creations of man, much like gods, to try to trick ourselves and to avoid facing the bleak and harsh reality that is existence. It is meaningless and empty. The melodies found in this song are like freezing knives, carving the listener more viciously than the subject of an autopsy. You are laid open and bathed in misery and the horrible truth of the world.

And, finally, the album reaches its end with "Belus' Tilbakekomst (Konklusjon)", which is an instrumental that features very simplistic chords and riffs, yet it builds on the desolate feeling created by the previous song. It's very droning and repetitive, serving as the final journey into the endless graveland. Your corpse is dumped into the cold earth, forgotten and nameless, as your spirit is consumed by the great abyss of suffering and eternal torment. This isn't the end. This isn't the beginning of the end, yet the end of the beginning.

Belus may be the final death cry of the legendary Burzum, as Varg Vikernes may opt to disappear into obscurity. However, it may very well be a rebirth. While the overall feeling is undoubtedly Burzum, the sound is not identical to the classic albums. It seems, very much, like a time capsule from an earlier period and is about as close to the old output as any of the Norwegian bands are likely to get. Forget about the legions of bands that have attempted to imitate this style, over the years. Burzum has returned.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Katatonia - Jhva Elohim Meth (1993)

Jhva Elohim Meth... the Revival, was basically the reissue of a previous demo tape, now released on CD in a limited slimcase version by Vic Records. The material had been recorded a year prior, in the summer of 1992. At the time, this must have been quite a peculiar release. While the cover art is vague enough to have suited several different sub-genres of Metal, the overall aesthetics would seem to indicate that this was meant to have some relation to the Black Metal scene, which was growing in popularity throughout the region. There is a pentagram in the logo, the band members have pseudonyms (Lord Seth and Blackheim), and they are photographed wearing corpse paint. Even the song titles seemed to fall in line with this manner of presentation, and it all comes off as very odd. Of course, it is all merely a minor curiosity now. However, at the time of its release, this E.P. must have confused some people. Despite this misrepresentation, this isn't a bad release of Paradise Lost-influenced Doom/Death.

It opens with the brief intro, "Midwinter Gates (prologue)". The acoustic guitar and keyboard effects (handled by producer, Dan Swanö) do well to set a somber tone.

"Without God" is the first proper song. The mid-paced doom riffs are very reminiscent of Gothic-era Paradise Lost. There's also a bit of keyboards, which are louder than they need to be. This was corrected on the version that was recorded for the full-length. There is a hopeless feeling running through this, which would have been accentuated even more had the band slowed the song down a bit or done away with the more upbeat sections. This was always one of the drawbacks of early Katatonia, as the feeling wasn't always consistent. It may have been for the purpose of showing contrast between the two and making the more down-tempo riffs stand out that much more, but the execution of this idea was flawed. All in all, the song is memorable and possesses some nice riffs, but it leaves something to be desired regarding the oppressive feeling of doom that should have been the primary focus.

The next song is "Palace of Frost", and the influence of The Cure is quite evident in the first riff. It works well to create a sorrowful atmosphere, which is promptly interrupted by the riffs that follow. They're not bad, but they have no real feeling either way. Near the middle, another doom-laden riff appear, accompanied by a small touch of keyboards. There's a brief transitional riff that leads into a much more hopeless melody. Unfortunately, these moments are all too ephemeral. Where the band truly shines are the moments of despondency and utter despair. Instead of capitalizing on this, they are too quick to jump from one riff to another, losing the overall cohesion in the feeling of the song.

"The Northern Silence" is another track that could have added to the mistaken thought that this might be some Black Metal release, based on the title. A slow, depressive riff begins the song, before things speed up. The bass is loud in the mix, needlessly so. Again, the song goes from something with the potential to be dark and gloomy and morphs into something rather pointless. There is a dreary section where Lord Seth's raspy, near-Black Metal, vocals have a nice contrast with the clean singing of Dan Swanö. Unfortunately, the song is too brief and the actual doom element is not the dominant theme.

The E.P. ends with an outro, "Crimson Tears (epilogue)". This is a decent way to end the release, similar to the way it began. Ultimately, it doesn't add a great deal to the proceedings.

Jhva Elohim Meth... the Revival is a strange release, for a number of reasons. It has potential and is enjoyable. However, it lacks focus in several key areas. The aesthetics of their presentation are reaching for a Black Metal audience, for some reason. The music has its moments, but fails to make the most of the true moments of darkness and misery found here. The rifs are passed over too quickly, in favour of others that are infinitely inferior and serve only to disrupt the flow. They would go on to learn from their mistakes and to come much closer to making brilliant Doom/Death Metal on Dance of December Souls, though the same faults are found on that release as well, only somewhat contained.