Elis -- GRIEFSHIRE [Napalm Records]
Elis come from Liechtenstein, a tiny German-speaking country sandwiched between Switzerland and Austria that's known to Americans (if at all) as a tax haven. The band itself has a distinctly Teutonic flavor to its progressive goth-metal, with Wagnerian vocals courtesy of Sabine Dunser (who unfortunately died of a cerebral hemorrhage in July of 2006; she has since been replaced by Sandra Schleret). The band is keyboard-heavy, but the backbone of drums and guitars are heavy and driving enough to keep things firmly in metal territory, despite an obvious leaning toward pop structures and commercial accessibility. The band favors highly melodic bombast and the canny juxtaposition of sweet-sounding keyboard washes with crunchy guitars; inventive production touches and strong songs help make the band stand out from the horde of similar bands vying for attention in European metal circles these days. Fans of Evanescence, Lacuna Coil, and similar bands will appreciate this album.
Funeral -- FROM THESE WOUNDS [Candlelight USA]
This is doom metal, yes, but it's the kind of doom that's heavy on the use of keyboards, which may not be everyone's cup of java. Even those not into keyboards, however, would be well advised to check this out, for it's an excellent album, possibly the band's best, and certainly one of the best doom albums to appear in years. Pioneers of doom and innovators as well (they were one of the first doom bands to use female vocalists, and one of the first to move to a more symphonic sound), this is their first release in four years after their original bassist committed suicide, calling the band's future into question. (More recently, original guitarist Christian Loos was found dead at home in October of last year, another fateful blow that might well have ended a less dedicated band.) Drummer Anders Eek is now the only original member left, and it fell upon him to rebuild the band and spearhead the making of this album. Aided considerably by the addition of new vocalist Frode Forsmo, whose sonorous and melancholy vocals are a perfect fit for the band's beautiful but bleak songs, he and the rest of the band have created a crushing masterpiece of dark, lumbering doom every bit as influenced by opera as by traditional metal. The nine tracks here all unfold at a stately pace, and while the keyboards and song structures are appropriately filled with symphonic bombast, the more Wagnerian moments are offset by heavy, guitar-driven passages full of neck-snapping crunch. The judicious use of acoustic guitar and moments of subtle minimalism, as well as a wildly varied palette of sonic textures, gives the songs a depth rarely found on more traditional doom albums, while the beautiful, crystalline production and inventive, carefully composed songs present the band at its finest. This is not just an impressive return to form after a difficult period in the band's history, but an epic and highly-polished work that sets a new standard for progressive doom.
Marduk -- ROM 5:12 [Regain Records]
The Swedish purveyors of blasting, hateful Satanic metal return with more audio punishment. Marduk have always had the unenviable problem of having to live up to their first demo, FUCK ME JESUS, one of the most deliberately blasphemous releases ever -- really, after you've released something like that, what else is there to do? If it had been my band I would have disbanded and left it at that, but Marduk obviously didn't -- since 1991 they've released a totally ridiculous number of albums, EPs, and other audio grimness -- and now they come forth bearing their latest black homage to Satan and blood and death. The big difference this time around is that they abandoned their previous tactic of shoveling on many, many guitars (for that big blur of sound) and stripped it down to something much simpler, with the guitars on two tracks only, panned left and right, with the bass down the middle, resulting in a much more direct (and heavy) guitar sound. They have also varied their attack a bit; whereas they used to just blaze full-on, this time they are leaving more space in the songs, with sections that are just bass and drums before the guitars come back in full blast. And make no mistake, when they pick up the pace and blaze, they do so with furious abandon. This is also arguably one of the band's most diverse recordings; whether that was their intention or the result of personnel changes is hard to say, but Marduk fans who've complained in the past about the sameness of certain albums should find this a highly positive development. Did I mention that the album is also really, really heavy? The production is also considerably better than any of their previous albums that I've heard, which is nice. Bonus props to the drummer, who's not only absurdly heavy but really fast without being sloppy. Previous listeners can expect to be surprised; first-time listeners will just be crushed into dust.
Obscurus Advocam -- VERBIA DAEMONICUS [Battle Kommand / Southern Lord]
Formed by members of Glorior Belli, Temple of Baal, and Wolfe, this French black metal band, while obviously influenced by early black metal (especially Burzum), mixes a lot of different elements into its progressive vision of blackened misanthropy. Songs mined from traditional black metal territory are infused with surprisingly blues-laden guitar solos, and while the overall feel is heavily indebted to the more cult strains of black metal, the production is considerably sharper and more modern. The band favors a driving, spirited attack for the most part, complete with frenzied tremelo guitar and relentless drumming, but then there are tracks like "Endarkenment" that are less frantic (but no less heavy) and feature guitar sounds and solos one might expect to find in a more traditional rock context. The band manages to forge a bridge between the more purist strains of original black metal and progressive rock (and to a lesser extent, doom metal) without sacrificing its power or bleak, misanthropic feel, and their sound is potentially more accessible to listeners unfamiliar with the tropes of black metal. At the same time, the band never forgets that they are first and foremost a black metal band, albeit one whose minimalist riffing and fuzzy guitars are often put to unorthodox uses. The band is operating in the same general ballpark as Deathspell Omega, and fans of that excellent band will want to investigate this.
Striborg -- NEFARIA [Southern Lord]
Striborg has an aesthetic firmly rooted in the lo-fi "bedroom" sound of early black metal -- blurred, teeth-gnashing guitar, painful shrieking vocals, near-nonexistent bass, droning keyboards straight out of a Hammer horror flick, simple and primitively-recorded drums, and (of course) more pained shrieking -- and this album is no exception to that rule. The best thing about Striborg has always been the masterful use of simple but effective keyboard drones, and there's plenty of that here (especially on "Permafrost forest" and "Lament"), but the grim, frozen guitar sound that permeates the album with dark sickness is every bit as "kvlt" and blood-freezing. This is cold, primitive, lo-fi black metal with all the light leached from its northern skies and a fiercely monochromatic sound. As with the band's previous release on Southern Lord, the seven new tracks are augmented by nine extra tracks comprising the 1995 demo TRAGIC JOURNEY TOWARDS THE LIGHT, whose severely raw and poorly-recorded tracks approach white noise at points, making the new material sound like overproduced Wagner by comparison. No trends or commercial accessibility here!
Suishou no Fune -- AKATUKI - THE SKY GRAYED AND THE DAWN CAME BEHIND THE FOG [self-released]
This four-track cd-r, with a running time of just under an hour, was released by the band and is mainly being sold on tour. The opening track, nearly seventeen minutes long, lives up to the disc's title with hypnotic, repetitive bell-tones and a muted swirl of abstract sound very much like fog creeping across the ground at dawn; the pace is as glacial as it is inexorable, the sound muted and reverential, and when Pirako's breathy vocals finally come in halfway through the song, they just add another layer of mystery to the sonic cloud. On "Hikari Ahureru," where the occasional vocals are provided by Keago, that same hypnotic and subdued approach eventually spirals upward into piercing guitar wails and explosive bursts of interstellar noise like sunspots emitting bursts of radiation. The amp hum and buzzing, bee-like guitar that opens "Itosiki Yani" morph into droning and endless guitar notes that abruptly turn into shrieking near-white noise nearly eight minutes into the song; at the same time, rumbling bass drones provide an anchor to keep the cathedral-like sound from floating off into the clouds. The final track, "Nanikaga," is the only one with drums, and over a simple beat, Pirako and Keago lay down drifting sheets of reverb and pealing guitar that don't drown out Pirako's evocative vocals. While the band's look and approach invite comparisons to Fushitsusha, their raga-like approaching to drone (with its distinctly middle-eastern vibe) and sheer emotional content is considerably more reminiscent of Kadura. What's so amazing about this band's sound is that they are able to say so much with such minimalist music, and how consistent they are in creating a readily identifable aesthetic out of what appears to be almost nothing. Highly recommended, especially for those already entranced with the band's album on Holy Mountain.
Suishou no Fune
Throne of Katarsis -- AN ETERNAL DARK HORIZON [Candlelight USA]
Formed in Norway in 2003 by Varldalv (drums) and Grimnesse (guitars, vox, etc.), this band's sound is a deliberate throwback to the early, pioneering efforts of Norwegian black metal of the early 90s (the vocals in particular are heavily influenced by early Mayhem). You can already imagine the sound -- primitive, lo-fi fizziness and a largely monochromatic vision, usually featuring simple but effective guitar riffs swaddled in barbed-wire tone to match the pained shrieking. They are not slaves to the original vision, however; while the feel of the material is very much indebted to the likes of Mayhem, Bathory, and Burzum, there are moments (such as the acoustic guitar that appears halfway through "Under Guds Hand" and later appears in the background to complement the caustic electric guitar riffing) where the band takes off in unexpected directions. For the most part, though, it's definitely an exercise in old-school thinking, complete with blazing drums and frantic guitar slashing on "Under Guds Hud" and lots of heavily-reverbed atmospherics. "Symbols of Winter" is every bit as forbidding, and like the rest of the songs, cycles through several distinct movements (the atypical acoustic guitar turns up here as well at one point), varying the sonic intensity enough to prevent the song from becoming nothing more than a protracted blur of endless motion. (That's the purpose of the title track, which closes the album with a sociopathic display of speed and misanthropic fury that would not have been out of place on Burzum's FILOSOFEM, although that relentless rage shifts into slower and more melancholy sections before returning to shave your skull clean.) In the spirit of "true" and old-school black metal, the production is dark and lo-fi; you'll have to turn up the volume to get the full impact, but doing so will definitely bring grim and alienated rewards. Special bonus points for managing to work in the acoustic guitar work without diminishing the metallic rage.
Throne of Katarsis
Total Slitting of Throats -- AN HNW AUDIBLE MANIFESTO [PACrec]
Originally issued as a limited-edition cd-r on Militant Walls in 2005, this disc is one long (over sixty minutes) track of destructive sonic filth, with absurdly loud and painful juggernaut noise tracks from The Cherry Point, Mania, The Rita, Sewer Election, and Treriksroset all piled on top of one another to form an impenetrable avalanche of white noise. The label calls it a "powerful minimalist deconstruction of the harsh noise object," but what they really mean is that it's like being held down by angry gorillas hellbent on erasing your face with sandblasters while the building caves in around you as a sky full of jets drops bomb after bomb on top of the building. There's no "musical theory" or "artistic progression" or even "meaning" here, just an hour of pure, obnoxious, violent white noise. Seriously, I dare you to listen to this at high volume for the full length of the disc. I fucking dare you. Just don't blame me if you can't hear anything at all for a week afterwards. Limited to 500 copies.
Richard Trosper -- THE OCEAN (3-inch cdr) [Public Eyesore]
Now this is kind of an interesting concept... it sounds like Trosper's gone and made an ambient soundtrack of sorts mainly using the sounds of skipping cds. The thing is, he's not using the obviously skipping parts that go CHUNG CHUNG CHUNG, but the parts were passages were sped up, resulting in a high-pitched, kaleidoscopic sound... and he's layered bits and pieces of such snippets and loops into a droning, shifting seascape of sound that really does live up to the title. (Rumbling noises that may or may not be perverted, heavily-reverbed bass help suggest that tidal motion and sound.) At times the sound is akin to a flooded warehouse full of toy pianos coming to life, only to be washed out to sea. Snippets of crackling noise begin to show up about halfway through, adding a more gritty texture to the hypnotic and bell-like tones. This is a deeply mysterious and entrancing piece of work, aided considerably by its brevity. One of the most intriguing experimental releases I've heard in a while, and highly recommended.
Xtatika -- MY HEART IS A KNIFE [Detention Span Records]
There's some interesting soundwaves emanating from the four-song cd demo (available from CD Baby, as it happens) of this New York City duo -- singer Haena Kim is obviously influenced by Siouxsie and Diamanda Galas, hell, probably even Yoko Ono too, but the programming (courtesy of Bill Mattinson) is all over the electro-industrial map. The one thing the songs all have in common is a dark electronic groove that's catchy as hell and brilliant vocals, plus the ability to make you get up and wiggle around the room like an eel. The duo manages to channel the spirit of old-school goth and EBM without sounding overly retro, and the quality of the material makes such distinctions irrelevant anyway. The best thing about them (outside of Kim's alluring vox) is that they never forget that it's all about the almighty beat. The only thing wrong with this disc is that it's not anywhere near long enough. I sure hope they're going to fix that problem, and soon...!