May 25, 2018

Skogen - Skuggorna Kallar

By Hera Vidal. About three weeks ago, I wrote about Vallendusk’s Homeward Path and I mentioned that the band has a comforting, atmospheric black metal appeal and a tendency for cohesiveness and musical experimentation. For their third album
By Hera Vidal.


Although atmospheric black metal can easily become saturated, it’s always interesting to hear elements of other genres embedded within the structure of the primary genre. Granted, bands are not required to be innovative to be considered part of a genre, but they should be able to bring their own identity to their music. In the case of Swedish band Skogen, they bring a lot of their form of folk to their brand of atmospheric black metal in their newest album, Skuggorna Kallar.

Skuggorna Kallar (“Call of the Shadows”) is one of the most direct, succinct albums when it comes to scope. For one thing, they give you exactly when you expect: folky black metal that is both dark and fun to listen to. The musicianship involved is of high caliber, and it shows in the placement of the instruments – they create a melodious overtone that easily becomes the selling point of the album. They also have varying dynamics, creating a heavy yet highly atmospheric quality that simultaneously minimalistic and majestic.

What you get is music that you can relax to, yet never fails to show just how heavy it can get. However, what stays constant throughout the album are the vocals. Whether they are howling or clean, the vocals are the driving force behind the music and they are striking. I am surprised that there are a lot of clean vocals in comparison to other albums I’ve listened to. Perhaps they are moving in a new direction and are cementing their roots now so the new ideas and tones can be explored at a later time.

Photos by Robban Kanto.

However, I do have a problem with the production. Everything about the music is great - from the moods set in each song, to the vocal interplay, to the overall atmosphere - but the mixing sounds disparate, as if they didn’t take the time to fully mix the instruments well. There are a lot of lo-fi elements here that could work very well, but they aren’t mixed properly and, instead of contributing to the atmosphere, sometimes they take you out. Note that this may be due to the fact that I am so used to listening to black metal with a cleaner production.

Overall, Skuggorna Kallar is an excellent album that is direct and succinct in both scope and length. Personally, I am interested in their clean vocals and their continued use of folk elements, and I would like to see where this can lead. Hopefully, they are able to conceive a larger scope that works well both in their favor and in their themes.

May 23, 2018

Kekal - Deeper Underground

By Calen Henry. Kekal are a long-running Indonesian avant-garde metal collective that I had never heard of until they contacted me about their upcoming record, Deeper Underground. They play an abrasive amalgamation of metal and electronic music
By Calen Henry.

Artwork by Levi Sianturi.

Kekal are a long-running Indonesian avant-garde metal collective that I had never heard of until they contacted me about their upcoming record, Deeper Underground. They play an abrasive amalgamation of metal and electronic music that hearkens back to the early to mid 2000's drum machine heavy aural assault of bands like Genghis Tron and Agoraphobic Nosebleed but share more aesthetically and thematically with anarcho and crust punk.

They are a bit of a musical oddity, mixing hyper-speed programmed drums, howling, growling, and clean vocals, melodic not-quite-traditional-metal riffs, and synths for a sound that’s Genghis Tron meets Cormorant by way of Neo Tokyo. The sound is simultaneously futuristic and caked in grime favouring hard edged rhythms layered over top of dreamy synths, with a mix that skews trebly. There’s an eerie familiarity with which the music flows. Riffs sound like something heard before, but just weird enough that it can’t be placed, then it's gone into the next one. It’s an oddly compelling mix that will no doubt prove polarizing.

The work is clearly a passion project for leader Jeffray Arwadi. Packaged with the download is a complete lyrics book as well as a book of essays, one for each song, as well as individual artwork for each song file in the download. Lyrically the songs are a mix of scathing criticism of the state of the world from lack of attention paid to climate change, to wealth inequality, and the corruption of spirituality by religious dogma. But, in contrast to much metal, these are interspersed with tracks about pushing through and refusing to give up hope in the face of adversity.

It’s certainly not an easy listen, and those who insist on keeping their metal apolitical will be turned off. Anyone feeling musically adventurous and who has been watching the state of the world, trying to balance crushing doubt with nervous hope, will find much with which to engage in Deeper Underground.

May 21, 2018

Grayceon - IV

By Justin C. Grayceon, at full tilt, sounds like the work of at least seven people, but in reality, they're a trio. Drums, guitar, and cello. There are other metal bands out there that use violin or cello, but for my money, none of them makes it sound as
By Justin C.

Artwork by Pelham Houchin III.

Grayceon, at full tilt, sounds like the work of at least seven people, but in reality, they're a trio. Drums, guitar, and cello. There are other metal bands out there that use violin or cello, but for my money, none of them makes it sound as seamless as Grayceon does. They do this not by burying the cello in the mix, using it sparingly, or treating it like a guitar or bass replacement. It's always present, fully integrated, regardless of whether it's carrying a melody line or working as rhythm.

You'll see the band described vaguely as "progressive," but as in many cases, that's just for lack of a better description. On their newest, IV, the slithery guitar riff that opens the album in "Sliver Moon" does have a proggy feel, but it's meaty and catchy in a way that a lot of so-called "progressive" metal doesn't touch. "Scorpion" goes for a more straight-ahead rock/doom feel. The lyrics, "She waits like a scorpion, finding the perfect time to strike" might not be the most original metaphor, but Jackie Perez-Gratz's soaring, harmonized clean vocals elevate the line. The whole song puts me pleasantly in mind of classic Heart, if not exactly in sound then definitely in spirit.

Perez-Gratz doesn't just stick with clean vocals, either. "Let it Go," which in lesser hands might be a cheesy ballad, is energized by her vicious screams of "LET GO!" competing with the chorus. Contrasted with the cleanly sung "When you find the one you love, don't let go," it's a bit of a mixed message in terms of dating advice, but it's very effective music. The contrast, plus the lovely melody and pure earnestness is hard to resist.

If I had one nit to pick--and it's a small one--it's that the band occasionally adds what I'll call "codas" to songs that don't really need them or don't have the length to support. I feel like "Scorpion" wants to be a straight-ahead, straight-to-the-point rocker, but one can be tricked (as I was) into thinking the band has moved on to another song when it ends with a slower movement, and "Sliver Moon" uses a similar structure. The musicianship is nothing short of stellar in the main parts of the songs and the codas, but they feel just a touch disjointed in songs that are only around the four-minute mark.

That said, I can't imagine anyone who liked their previous work not liking this album. Though no huge departure from All We Destroy, IV gently incorporates some of the changes found on Pearl and the End of Days. There's a refinement and a polishing you can only get with talented musicians collaborating for well over a decade. They've been a bit quiet for a while--this is their first new material in 5 years--but even on first listen of the promo, I was immediately sucked back in by their charms.