Friday, September 30, 2016

Alcest - Kodama

By Justin C. When I first heard a new Alcest album was coming, I was unreservedly excited. Of course, one of my first questions was how the new album would compare to Shelter. Would Alcest continue in a more pop direction, or steer back toward the blackgaze they pioneered?
By Justin C.

Artwork by Førtifem

When I first heard a new Alcest album was coming, I was unreservedly excited. Of course, one of my first questions was how the new album would compare to Shelter. Would Alcest continue in a more pop direction, or steer back toward the blackgaze they pioneered? Then I heard that the new album, Kodama, was Japanese inspired, and I had no idea what to think. Plenty of artists decide to dabble and/or delve into different cultures and music. Done thoughtfully, you get a sublime triumph like Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain. Done carelessly, you get Avril Lavigne's irredeemable piece of garbage, made up of bits and pieces of half-digested Japanese culture barfed up on top of what might have been a decent pop song if anyone had put any effort into it.

I was confident that Alcest would create something closer to Miles than Avril, but even after I first heard Kodama, I was a little mystified. I was pleased, as it’s a fantastic album, but still mystified. There's no mistaking the opening strains of the album for anything other than Alcest, with waves of guitar soaked in melody washing over you. But where was the Japanese influence? I'm no expert--I've played a few classical guitar works from Japanese composers--but I was pretty sure I recognized hints here and there of a Japanese musical sensibility, particularly in the title track. But beyond a few hints and the clearly anime-inspired cover, where was the influence?

Photo by Pedro Roque.

I try to avoid other press about an album before I review it, but I broke my own rule this time to learn more. Kim Kelly interviewed Neige and Winterhalter over at Noisey, and from that, the picture became a little clearer. The duo describe the album as being inspired as much, if not more, by the spirituality and culture of Japan than any particular musical style. Neige mentions an anime film in particular, Princess Mononoke, that deals with themes of environmentalism vs. human progress. The themes of that movie seem to fit well within the themes that Alcest has been about all along--a duality of sorts, feeling a pull between two places but not feeling exactly at home in either.

With a better understanding of that aspect, what about the relative softness or hardness of the album? Well, you don't have to get far into the album to find out. The second track, “Eclosion,” is another melodic gem, but the guitars start to get aggressive early on. There are also those fantastic clean vocals, sometimes with aching harmonies, that appear and then drift off over the horizon. But it turns out this is a build up to a long section of Neige's black metal rasps, mixed with anger, frustration, and sorrow. They play right over the beautiful melodies, and the combination gives me goosebumps. Therein lies Alcest's greatest strength--playing the harsh against the beautiful.

Photo by Pedro Roque.

You'll find even more of this musical-duality-mirroring-lyrical-duality throughout. "Je Suis D'Ailleurs," which translates to "I'm from Somewhere Else," continues with yearning clean vocals and the music gaining in ferocity. It's really part of a multi-song arc of building intensity, peaking with "Oiseaux de Proire" ("Birds of Prey"). The harsh vocals here are some of the most intense you'll hear from Neige, and the instrumental build toward the end of the song is to die for.

Does all this mean a "triumphant return to form," as some will say? I'd actually say no. As I explained in my previous love letter to Alcest, the band has stepped away and back toward the black metal aspect of their sound before, but the core of their musicality is always there. Kodama, while re-emphasizing some elements that weren't present on Shelter, pushes that core sensibility yet another step further in this band's fantastic catalog. No one's infallible, but I haven't seen any signs of fatigue in this band yet.


Tagged with 2016, Alcest, Justin C, Pedro Roque, post-metal, Prophecy Productions, shoegaze

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Wretch - Wretch

By Karen A. Mann. When Jason McCash of Indianapolis doom legends Gates of Slumber died a few years ago, his bandmate and longtime friend Karl Simon knew that he had to create new music to both honor McCash’s memory and effectively process his own grief. The result is a new band, Wretch, and an eponymous debut
By Karen A. Mann

Cover art by Branca Studio

When Jason McCash of Indianapolis doom legends Gates of Slumber died a few years ago, his bandmate and longtime friend Karl Simon knew that he had to create new music to both honor McCash’s memory and effectively process his own grief. The result is a new band, Wretch, and an eponymous debut (out now on Bad Omen Records) that feels almost overwhelmingly gloomy and visceral in its pain while continuing down Gates of Slumber’s Godforsakenly doomy path.

The album opens with “Running Out of Days,” which begins with a squalling guitar, out of which a heavy grooving riff forms. Recalling the chilling, warning tone of Black Sabbath’s “Hand of Doom,” Simon sings about losing ground, images slipping away, and finally about “a sad song sung again, the needle stole away my friend.”

Photos by Carmelo Española.

The rest of Wretch is equally grief-stricken and confessional, while musically mining old school doom and heavy rock for inspiration. They even include an inspired cover of the early Judas Priest gem “Winter.” Even when Simon isn’t singing, you can feel his sadness, as in the delicate instrumental “Grey Cast Mourning.”

Wretch is at their best when they go full bore with the riffage, which they do magnificently on the Obsessed-inspired “Icebound.” The album ends appropriate with the lumbering, dirgelike “Drown,” which also features some of Simon’s most despairing lyrics.

Promises that I made were lies, all lies, and the hopes that I had died, they all died,” Simon sings. “Waves that pull me under, I’m going to drown.”

Such raw emotional honesty, coupled with that heavy groove makes Wretch one of the most promising debuts of the year.



Tagged with 2016, Bad Omen Records, Carmelo Española, doom metal, Karen A. Mann, Wretch

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Dark Descent Spotlight: Blood Incantation, Nox Formulae, and Ghoulgotha

By Craig Hayes. Colorado-based label Dark Descent celebrated its 7th anniversary recently, and while there are plenty of other great underground metal labels around, it’s rare to find one
By Craig Hayes.

Colorado-based label Dark Descent celebrated its 7th anniversary recently, and while there are plenty of other great underground metal labels around, it’s rare to find one that’s sustained such a consistently impressive run of releases over the years. Dark Descent’s success obviously owes a lot to the astute curating of its roster, but it’s also worth noting that the label’s never bought into trends or fostered any unnecessary drama in order to sell a few more records from yesterday's favourite band. That’s meant Dark Descent has maintained a reputation for delivering authentic music from authoritative artists. And that’s certainly true of the three releases below.


There’s been a great deal of online praise orbiting Blood Incantation since the death metal band released their Interdimensional Extinction EP back in 2015. It’d be fair to say Blood Incantation don’t sound like a band who really care about a bunch of ‘internet’ opinions, as such. They're analog, old school, and more otherworldly than digitally hip. But they’re going to have to get used to hearing a lot of online praise nonetheless, because the band’s much-anticipated full-length debut, Starspawn, is here, and come 2016's end of year list season, that album is going to be talked about a lot.

No question, Starspawn is one of this year’s best metal releases. It’s murky and filthy, and features chaotic abstractions and musical madness taking a 35-minute rocket ship ride into the farthest reaches of outer space, and steep dive into the deepest depths of your own minds too. Starspawn stands out in death metal’s rotten ranks because it sounds utterly unique, and while Blood Incantation have an uglier and more violent sound than death metal legends like Gorguts or Atheist, Blood Incantation have clearly been inspired by those band’s innovational approaches.

The dark void between the stars seems to be a catalyst for Blood Incantation’s creativity, and the band draws a connection between us and the wider cosmos. However, Blood Incantation also deal in the, “inner world of endless dimensions, astral projection, telepathy, remote viewing, walk-in souls, etc”. So their vision is a far cry from stock-standard death metal scenarios.

In essence, Blood Incantation underscore that death metal doesn’t have to be a blunt conceptual instrument. And their cryptic cosmic aesthetic is matched by mind-melting music that smashes open portals to…well, pick your own deranged dimension/destination.

Starspawn is built on a skeleton of macabre vocals and churning old school death metal; and in that sense Blood Incantation’s music is primitive and battering. But the band also hurl complex technical flourishes in amongst doomier and more ambient passages, which brings elaborate –– and I’m guessing, bong-fuelled –– progressive elements to the fore.

There’s jaw-dropping instrumentation and imaginativeness exhibited throughout Starspawn. Welcome to the death metal album to beat this year.




Mysterious Greek black metal band Nox Formulae consider their debut album, The Hidden Paths to Black Ecstasy, to be, “a true sonic grimoire...equal to an actual book of Dark Magic”. I’m guessing that’s good news, if occult communiqués matter to you, but even if they don’t, it’s certainly clear that Nox Formulae are deadly serious about their diabolic mission.

Musically, the band follows a fitting path to deliver their dark missives on The Hidden Paths to Black Ecstasy. Nox Formulae’s sound is orthodox, solemn, and even heavily gothic in parts, but it’s most obviously indebted to the raw tremolo and treble attack of black metal’s second wave. Expect pitch-black melodies, an icy atmosphere, lacerating riffs, and a fair few spine-chilling moments on The Hidden Paths to Black Ecstasy. But Nox Formulae’s real talent lies in getting under the skin.

That’s no easy feat these days. Metal is drowning in more-evil-then-evil posturing, and supposedly ‘satanic’ bands are now winning Grammys. But Nox Formulae shape ritualistic rites into insidious odes. They write songs that worm and worry at the edges of your psyche. And their tracks linger in the mind, tempting you to return.

The Hidden Paths to Black Ecstasy is a deep dark well of music and esoterica. It has all the hallmarks of classic Hellenic black metal, with its power to unnerve while unlocking forbidden secrets. A rare and devilish treat, indeed.



Cover art by Mattias Frisk.

To Starve the Cross is the second full-length album from Southern Californian death metal trio Ghoulgotha. The album is markedly off-kilter, and atonal, but for all it’s eccentricities, To Starve the Cross never becomes lost in its own self-importance.

Like Finnish gloom-mongers Hooded Menace (Ghoulgotha’s most obvious peers), there is a heaped helping of graveyard insanity to Ghoulgotha’s music. To Starve the Cross certainly tips its hat to classic horror themes, and Ghoulgotha inject a heavy dose of aptly vintage and black-hearted doom into their death metal. But while that’s all a mix of metal motifs very well-acquainted with each other, Ghoulgotha are still adept at delivering the unexpected on To Starve the Cross.

Ghoulgotha twist and turn their songs on the album inside out –– launching into bursts of impressively technical riffing, only to excoriate that with a wall of noise. Ghoulgotha take those doom and death metal tropes we’ve heard a million times before and deliver an album that’s familiarly barbaric, in one sense, but entirely idiosyncratic and unconventional in another.


Tagged with 2016, black metal, Blood Incantation, Craig Hayes, Dark Descent Records, death metal, doom metal, Ghoulgotha, Nox Formulae