Alcest – Shelter

Author: BD Joyce

Alcest – Shelter
  • Artist: Alcest
  • Album: Shelter
  • Year of Release: 2014
  • Country: France
  • Label: Prophecy
  • Format: Digipak CD
  • Catalogue Number: PRO143

After three albums of wondrous blackgaze brilliance, slowly developing the core sound established on their debut Souvenirs D’Un Autre Monde into increasingly sophisticated and varied songwriting, Shelter seemed to mark something of a new chapter in the Alcest story. From a particularly uncharitable perspective, one might suggest that Shelter bears all of the hallmarks of what some might consider a ‘sell-out’ attempt. The slightly whimsical and (for non-French monolinguals) mysterious French phrases used to title their albums, so evocative of Neige’s childhood journeys into the fantasy world that inspired his music, have been replaced by a single English word; much more direct, and frankly, marketable. The dreamy hand-drawn artwork of Alcest’s sleeves has also been replaced by a less striking and genre-specific photograph, and the elaborate band logo, for so long an aesthetic connection to the metal scene from which the band emerged, is nowhere to be seen, replaced by bold, but generic, block capitals. In some respects, this apparent bid for popular fame and acclaim is unsurprising. Like Anathema and Ulver before them, Alcest found themselves in the slightly unenviable position of making music that is undoubtedly metal-friendly, but which has an obviously broader appeal to an audience that unfortunately treat them with the kind of suspicion that they would usually reserve for Judas Priest or Cannibal Corpse. Although there are few memorable example of former metal bands that successfully escaped predominantly metal audiences (Queens Of The Stone Age perhaps, although only their debut album could potentially be described as metal, and tenuously at that), it is not totally unrealistic to think that Alcest might yet be one of the first bands to make a successful transition, and presumably it is exactly this line of thinking that resulted in a album that is in some respects noticeably out of step with the rest of their catalogue.

If Shelter was indeed an attempt to break out of metal’s, sometimes self-imposed, musical ghetto though, one senses that it was an attempt that fundamentally lacked confidence and conviction. The speed of the return to the band’s traditional aesthetic that followed on subsequent albums Kodama and Spiritual Instinct certainly suggests that the band themselves were craving a return to their comfort zone, as do Neige’s more recent interviews about this period of the band’s career, but in fact, the biggest indication that the band lacked steadfast belief in the course that they mapped out with Shelter, is the fact that rather than fully embracing the indie-rock sound that could conceivably be a natural development for the band, Shelter finds Alcest hedging their bets, and bouncing between identities old and new, not unlike an insecure teenager trying to find a social grouping in which they feel some kind of kinship. This is most obvious across the first two songs of the record (excluding the short introduction ‘Wings’ which does little more than set the scene for what comes next), where we firstly encounter the band working their way through the most lightweight indie track that they have ever put their name to, followed by an immediate retrenchment to more familiar sounds, albeit with the vestigial metallic structures that once enabled the listener to trace the band’s evolution back to their more extreme roots completely excised.

Following the aforementioned ‘Wings’, which is a perfectly adequate, if not exactly transcendent, attempt at building anticipation, ghostly choral-sounding male and female vocals blending seamlessly, as if to emphasise the band’s innate androgyny, the gradually increasing volume and pitch intimating that the sources of the voices are drawing near, ‘Opale’ instantly dashes the listener’s rising tide of hope on the craggy and unforgiving rocks of disappointment. If Alcest’s music has previously evoked either the fertile and hopeful growth of spring, or the comforting glow of autumn, in keeping with the cover art, ‘Opale’ is redolent of the summer, the least mysterious and interesting of all of the seasons, with its uncomplicated surfeit of unrelenting heat and light. Alcest operate most intriguingly in the shadows, with much of their previous musical appeal emanating from the gradual revelation of the magic at the centre of what they do, but sadly ‘Opale’ is the conjurer showing the audience how it’s done. Sadly, rather than uncovering the beauty that can of course be found in simplicity, one feels only the disappointment of the disappearance of the wondrous illusion. ‘Opale’ is awful, a completely inconsequential track that would be derided as flimsy and weak by Coldplay fans, and which is almost totally forgettable and utterly devoid of the enthralling atmosphere that even Alcest’s less impressive songs have previously summoned so easily. Thankfully, ‘La Nuit Marche Avec Moi’ redresses the balance quickly, and reassuringly confirms that Shelter will not, in its entirety, follow the disastrous template of the track that precedes it. It does not match the calibre of the band’s best efforts, but there are enough hints of Alcest’s more enticing qualities to pique interest for the remainder of the record. Most importantly, Alcest’s singular atmosphere is discernible in the more sophisticated layers of sounds that comprise the track, and it is some evidence at least that Neige has not lost his touch, but simply mislaid it.

If ‘Opale’ gave rise to concerns that it could be the start of a precipitous and potentially terminal decline for Alcest, a once special band lost to an inconsequential future of tedious mediocrity, the rest of the album is in actual fact a fairly logical development of the band’s work prior to this album, albeit a development that fails to compel the kind of unconditional love that Alcest previously engendered so easily. On a small clutch of tracks which represent the best that Shelter has to offer, Alcest do in fact come close to reaching the kind of heights that resulted in the previous albums being subject to the acclaim that they attracted so magnetically, but even these are tainted to a degree by the disappointment that has come before. Interestingly though, excluding the failed experiment of ‘Opale’, already covered in great detail above, the most successful moments of the album arrive when Alcest augment the core sound that has served them so well previously with new elements, not straying so far from their usual dwelling that it becomes a total reinvention, but adding just enough novelty to constitute progression. One such example is ‘Voix Sereine’. By an interstellar distance the best track on the album, the song is Neige’s most enduring marriage yet between the indie-rock that appears to increasingly influence his own music, and the metallic shoegaze that first brought Alcest to our attention. The band gradually feel their way into ‘Voix Sereine’, luxuriating in a gorgeous slow build, meditating on what are uncharacteristically jazzy chord voicings, given their historical reliance on simple minor chords. Things really soar, however, when swells of strings replace Neige’s usual synthetic layers, and the beguiling majesty of the arrangement takes on an aura of class and sophistication that organic instruments can’t help but contribute to, while being at the same time thick with emotion and heavy sentiment. Once more, Alcest prove themselves capable of constructing a soothing and completely enveloping cocoon of sound in which the listener can find total serenity, and when the distortion pedal is stomped floorwards in anger for the first time on the album, commencing a lengthy instrumental workout to close the track, a simple but effective vocal refrain elevates the end result to the kind of celestial heights not reached since ‘Summer’s Glory’, concluded their previous album, but this time with the Smashing Pumpkins vibe taking on a distinct Godspeed You! Black Emperor feel thanks to the richness added by the keening strings.

These hints of 1990s alternative rock surface repeatedly throughout Shelter – the sweetly harmonised vocals of the uplifting chorus that enlivens the earnest, but slightly turgid, title track being another such example – and one imagines that Neige perhaps feels that he has earned the freedom to allow a wider range of influences to be heard in Alcest’s music. While it runs the risk of anchoring a band that have previously been innovative and forward-thinking into a specific and non-contemporary timeframe, it does open up new possibilities for a band that have audibly become stuck in a minor rut of over-familiar melodic choices and song structures, which seem to be something an invisible, but powerful constraint for Neige at this point. And while a string of albums that were essentially variations on a theme never harmed Motörhead or AC/DC, for a band less reliant on the kind of strutting rock ‘n’ roll that is vital enough in its pure energy to render issues of self-plagiarism of minimal concern, it inevitably equates to diminishing returns. Therefore, the best interpretation of Shelter is that it is a necessary stepping stone, a staging post on the road of trial and error leading to the more coherent iteration of the band’s developing sound to be found on the band’s next album, Kodama. Thankfully though, even stepping stones can offer intriguing vantage points on the way to something better, and the better moments of Shelter prove beyond doubt that this is the case. There is nothing to match the majesty of ‘Voix Sereine’, but the final two songs in particular close out the album in some style. ‘Away’ adopts a much starker timbre than Alcest usually embody, the lush soundscapes making way for a beautiful, but lonely, guitar figure that is at once comfortingly familiar, but also thrillingly new. The strings make another appearance, this time adding a pastoral richness to Alcest’s tapestry of sound which is entirely fitting to a song that resonates with the same qualities that made Opeth’s Watershed such a highlight of that band’s more experimental phase, and which also finds room for final a tearjerking modulation that could sound hackneyed in less skilful hands. ‘Délivrance’ doesn’t quite hold the listener in the same thrall, with the first half of the track too sedate for its own good, but the string-augmented conclusion is sublime in a slightly low-key way, as it never quite sweeps us away in an unstoppable torrent of emotion, but nevertheless drags us along happily in its current, floating contentedly in the limpid waters of Neige’s imagination.

The satisfying conclusion cannot, however, mask the fact that Shelter is fundamentally a compromise. Although compromise is, of course, the nature of all collaborative art, and not something that we should be automatically suspicious of, the issue for Alcest is that, at their heart, they are essentially the output of a single person. Therefore, compromise in this instance suggests an air of insincerity that it is difficult for Shelter to totally dispel, and that necessarily influences the judgement of the record as a whole. The is thrown into particularly sharp relief given the all-encompassing nature of three previous albums that offered a fully-immersive and brilliantly realised combination of aesthetics, thematics and music, and it is somewhat surprising to see Neige lose his touch with Shelter, and apparently half-heartedly pursuing commercial success at the risk of permanently destroying everything that has been so carefully built up to this point, or at the very least diminishing Alcest as a comprehensive creative force. That this is not the outcome is due to the fact that Neige does not quite have the courage to follow through fully on the overhaul of the Alcest sound that is threatened by ‘Opale’. Instead, we are left with an album that soars in parts, but is too often held back by quotidian and banal atmospherics, and general lack of truly memorable songs. These misgivings mean that Shelter fails to rise above the mediocre, albeit a mediocre that ultimately culminated in the creative renewal of the band on their next release two short years later.

Score: 60%

Alcest – Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde

Author: BD Joyce

Alcest – Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde
  • Artist: Alcest
  • Album: Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde
  • Year of Release: 2007
  • Country: France
  • Label: Prophecy
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: PRO090

The sound of Alcest’s debut album, Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde, is familiar and even run of the mill these days, but this development is testament to the extensive and ongoing influence that the band (or perhaps more accurately Neige, the mastermind behind Alcest and their near neighbour, the short-lived Amesoeurs) have had on the contemporary metal scene. A fusion of black metal and the kind of shoegaze originally popularised by indie-leaning outfits such as Ride, Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine now seems like a completely logical step in the development of extreme music, in the light of the mainstream success of kindred spirits Deafheaven’s Sunbather, as well as the more general incorporation of aspects of the shoegaze sound into the post-metal of Deftones, Mono and many more. This was certainly not the case, however, in the earlier part of this century. Black metal had by that stage of course already welcomed numerous outside influences into its counter-intuitively elastic parameters, despite the protestations of the corpse-painted minority who curse any kind of deviation from 1990s orthodoxy, but even some of the most open-minded genre-hoppers might have baulked at this particular union. Until, that is, they heard the glorious results.

In truth, although elements of their debut are indeed glorious, we should also caution that it is clearly the work of a band finding their feet, and figuring out how to integrate the disparate and even inimical parts of their music into a cohesive whole. Alcest would find a more complete expression of their sound, and attain full glory, across their next two albums, on which they achieve an equilibrium that they do not quite manage on this patchy, but never less than intriguing effort. One should also be wary of overplaying the black metal component of their sound in the rush to acclaim the courage of their genre-breaking intentions. This is not to say that its presence is completely illusory, but that it is subtle enough for one to recognise that much of Alcest’s genuine credibility in extreme metal circles is derived from Neige’s association with, and involvement in, a raft of more overtly metallic bands, rather than because their own music resonates with aggressive black metal fury. It must be noted that these associations include historical membership of the very controversial (and quite possibly very racist) Peste Noire, although there is no suggestion or indication that Neige / Alcest share the political leanings of that particular band, and it would be unreasonable to allow what genuinely appears to be the poor decision-making of a naive teenager to taint the output of a band that do not have any connection to political extremism, lyrically, aesthetically or otherwise.

A far greater influence on the band’s sound is the constant drive on the part of Neige to recapture his childhood experiences of what he claims (apparently with total sincerity) to have been a voyage to an alternative world, populated by fairies, or magical beings of some sort. It’s easy to pour scorn on such supernatural encounters and the likelihood is that Neige has either invented them to generate intrigue and mystique, or (probably more likely, given his unstinting adherence to his narrative) previously entered some kind of hyper-real dreamstate, remembered so vividly and so impactfully that it is been retrospectively rationalised as a paranormal experience. Irrespective of the veracity of Neige’s claims, however, the stories provide a conceptual focus for Alcest, which enables their compositions to be centred around the sonic reconstruction of the far-flung lands visited, and offer a framework for a beguiling and evocative sound in which the band effectively provide the dots, and invite the keen listener to join them together, collectively building a world that hitherto existed only internally within Neige. The thematic thrust of Alcest, perhaps unconsciously, generates a set of rules for what can and cannot work under the banner of their name – shimmering, celestial soundscapes and androgynous, delicate vocals are very much the band’s primary mode of communication. Thunderous brutality, however, is entirely absent, even if Alcest occasionally adopt characteristics of the more extreme sound from which they emerged prior to their first full-length release. The album cover itself is a perfectly realised representation of the music contained within, and demonstrates Neige’s keen eye for imagery that matches the band’s overall aesthetic. The child that is the subject of the photo on the sleeve, looking in some respects like a refugee from Neverland, evoking feelings simultaneously feral and innocent, absent-mindedly plays with a reed or stalk, as if it were an instrument, suggesting a young Neige playing the music of the fairies that he consorted with in the Otherworld.

The album begins, as life on Earth itself does, in spring, with ‘Printemps Émeraude’. Where conventional black metal is the frostbitten sound of the end of all life, Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde is instead the sound of renewal, of fertile and fecund growth, and of bucolic and rapturous reverie. And it has to be said, that belying the band’s background in the metal scene, there is very little about the opening track that qualifies as metal at all. The angular chord progression that commences the album, replete with chiming octaves and twinkling lead guitar melodies is more reminiscent of early 2000s indie, more Bloc Party than Blasphemy, more Interpol than Immortal. As the track progresses though, Alcest deftly begin to join the hitherto vast chasm lying between The Smiths and Sarcofago, with the drums maintaining an understated, but undeniable double-bass rumble, and although harmonically the note selection is very much at the pretty end of the beauty spectrum, it also approximates a black metal tremolo, albeit transplanted out of the grim and forbidding north, and into the verdant Mediterranean south. Brief snatches of metallic velocity, the washed out and trebly distortion of the guitars like a distant memory of Scandinavian black metal, reinforce these links, paired with Neige’s instantly recognisable winsome and angelic vocals, before the track breaks down into the kind of languid, watery loveliness that Smashing Pumpkins always dropped into so naturally in their imperial phase. In fact, Alcest at their best have a substantial amount in common with Billy Corgan’s troupe, fond of deploying heavy guitars, and operating in a space adjacent to metal, but just as often exploring calmer, more languorous sonics. There is enough going on in the track to avoid monotony – a couple of modulations in key see to it that the mood and tempo shift often enough to keep the listener’s attention, and as a clear statement of intent, it’s highly successful.

The rest of the first half of the album continues to build on the spiritually metal, but sonically shoegaze manoeuvres of the first track, each offering slight variations on a theme. The better of the two is ‘Les Iris’, which is a perfectly judged epic, adopting slightly more obviously metal chord voicings, a little more treble in the guitar tone, and something approaching a black metal blast. True to the overall vision of the band though, the blasting is less an aggressive display of dominant might, and more a warm cocoon of mesmerising sound, opening a portal to Neige’s ‘fairy land’, and sheltering the listener in a pastoral paradise of ethereal beauty. Coupled with the redemptive second half of the track, which utterly wrenches the blackest of hearts with its subtle and sophisticated melodicism, ‘Les Iris’ is utterly beguiling and fleshes out the blueprint for a sound that would become fully-formed on this album’s successor Écailles De Lune to spectacular effect. The title-track, which precedes it, is not quite as good, but it does feature the first stirrings of what remains one of the hallmarks of the Alcest sound – clean, twinkling guitars layering meandering melodies like a dusting of snow on a windswept chord progression, with Neige’s slightly distant, androgynous ululations transcending their occasional atonality to galvanise the song as a whole into what is now instantly recognisable as blackgaze, but at the time sounded extremely fresh and novel.

Were the second half of the album as good as the first, Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde might be considered a minor classic, as opposed to the enjoyable beginnings of a band who would go on to bigger and better things, but the final triptych of tracks ranges from mediocre to downright tedious. ‘Ciel Errant’ in particular is an abomination, although in some respects it is actually rather revealing in terms of demonstrating just how skilled Alcest are to mostly succeed in weaving gold from raw materials that can so easily result in something bland and inoffensive. When Alcest get it right, their melodies provide shards of bittersweet beauty amid torrents of violence; too often here they are facile, cringeworthy, and more pedestrian than London’s busiest shopping street on Christmas Eve. The naysayers might argue that Alcest take black metal as a starting point, only to denude it of all danger, presenting instead a sterile imitation; the desiccated husk of what is left once all vitality has been extracted. It’s an accusation that is mostly unwarranted, but when the spell is broken as it is here, the listener can be forgiven for wondering if Alcest are any good at all. If this glimpse of Alcest without the sparkle of fairy dust that ordinarily elevates their music is unedifying, the final track ‘Tir Nan Og’ recovers some of the lost ground. Employing Celtic mythology to cement the links between Neige’s own experiences and more widely known legends of pre-Christian myth-making, the title apparently translates as ‘Land Of The Young’, describing an island paradise of everlasting youth and joy. Not obvious lyrical subject matter for metal-adjacent music perhaps, but from another perspective, one could argue that it is simply a less cynical and more innocent take on the classic metal obsession with fantasy-based subject matter, and therefore directly connected to metal genealogy in a way that is not immediately apparent from the music itself, which is almost entirely upbeat and holds none of even the lurking undercurrent of menace that stalks their best work. Despite this, and even though it is clearly overlong, it succeeds due to it’s immensely pretty melody, and ability to conjure the magical atmosphere missing from the middle section of the album, concluding a curious album in fitting style.

In the final analysis, Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde is notable mostly for what it initiated, rather than what it actually is. By extruding and moulding something that is at least vaguely connected to black metal into shoegaze and post-rock shapes, Alcest provided the catalyst for a generation of bands to combine ethereal soundscapes and pastoral warmth, with some of the sonic characteristics of extreme metal. Furthermore, during the best moments of the album, almost all of which are found in the first three tracks, the combination sounds entirely natural, and even obvious. The effect on the extreme metal scene since the release of this album has been not unlike that caused by Isis in the wake of their monumental Oceanic album, which similarly fused post-rock with the apocalyptic sludge, the quieter parts every bit as compelling as the more visceral heavy sections, inspiring countless bands to introduce a greater sense of dynamics to their own febrile riffing. Blackgaze is now very much a sub-genre in its own right, and even bands that don’t fit neatly into this particular descriptive bracket such as Panopticon, or even Wayfarer, betray similar influences, bringing sounds from outside the genre into black metal in a way that would be more startling had Alcest not travelled the path that they have since their early releases. Purely on the basis of the music itself though, Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde feels overall rather slight and a little ephemeral, passing through without leaving more than a faint trail for others to follow. There are certainly enough glimpses of the magic that would be more substantially realised on the following two albums to ensure that it is not unenjoyable, and it could be edited to an excellent EP, but evaluating the album as the full-length that the band consider it to be, Alcest are found wanting, even if the listener is found to be wanting more.

Score: 65%

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Akercocke – Antichrist

Author: BD Joyce

Akercocke – Antichrist
  • Artist: Akercocke
  • Album: Antichrist
  • Year of Release: 2007
  • Country: UK
  • Label: Earache
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: MOSH347CDL

After four albums of increasingly progressive and free-wheeling death metal, Akercocke clearly felt that it was time to rein in the experimentation, and instead of continuing to expand their sound by incorporating additional outside influences into their increasingly diverse sound, the band apparently felt that the time was right to narrow the focus and deliver what is, at least by Akercocke’s standards, a fairly straightforward death metal album. Of course, straightforward death metal in the hands of Akercocke is still unfeasibly intricate and dynamic in comparison to the more atavistic elements of the genre, but it does mean, for the first time in their career, that the band take a step, if not exactly backwards, certainly sideways. In terms of the quality of the music itself, it is of course significantly better than functional – the band may be cruising in fourth gear, but they are running on an engine built by master craftsmen from the best available materials. For listeners such as myself, however, that had followed the band’s increasingly wild sound with enraptured interest, Antichrist cannot help but be tinged with a small amount of disappointment that Akercocke have not ventured further still into the unknown, instead preferring to revisit familiar vistas and well-trodden paths.

Setting aside the question of whether this is the Akercocke album I want it to be, and focussing instead on the Akercocke album it actually is reveals a core of molten death metal, contained within a succinct and streamlined package. The frivolities and fripperies of their third and fourth albums have been excised completely, and the psychedelic satanic warriors seem to have had the idealism and exoticism knocked out of them, responding with a taut set of muscular and largely memorable songs. The first track proper, following the de rigeur intro, is a perfect example of this. Exploding into life on the back of an extended tom fill that acts as a perfect tip of the hat to the master, Dave Lombardo, ‘Summon The Antichrist’ dissolves prime Floridian death metal into an already heady solvent of technical, but grooving Suffocation-style riffery, and the resulting compound is absolutely explosive. Vocalist Jason Mendonca pours his scornful vocals across the band’s hellish soundtrack, and once again Akercocke demonstrate their mastery of the form, successfully blending vicious aggression with unforgettable hooks, and viscous, chunky rhythmic motifs in a way that is simply beyond the reach of most bands. Where Choronzon or Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone might have used this foundation to build new worlds of progressive metal though, their tendrils reaching out to pull in sounds and tones from more esoteric sources, this track (and the majority of its counterparts across the rest of the album) is a fairly linear journey, the usual twists and turns confined to some fiddly Absu-inspired riffing working in contrast with an unusually rudimentary drum pattern, and a brief foray into the kind of haunting atmospherics that offer a slightly nostalgic throwback to the spectacular days that gave us their career-best The Goat Of Mendes. As undeniably exhilarating as this more sleek incarnation of Akercocke is, it is difficult to avoid posing the question of whether, in casting off the experimentation, something essential has been lost from the core of the band?

This is a question that I return to throughout Antichrist, a loose thread that I can’t help absentmindedly playing with, despite the attendant ever-present and irreversible risk that pulling it too hard could destroy the entire structure. The case for the defence rests on a clutch of tracks that, simply put, are unimpeachable Akercocke classics, and spectacular additions to a back catalogue that needs little burnishing. The first of these is the magnificent ‘Axiom’ which would be a fine candidate were one required to select a single track from the band’s discography which most effectively encompasses all dimensions of the band’s wide-ranging sound. Akercocke’s metallic credentials have never been in question, but were a particularly dim-witted listener to challenge them, the punchy, galloping thrash riff that surges into life in a flurry of legato runs and pinch harmonics part way through the track would be the perfect riposte. As ever though, part of the impact of such a thrilling riff is the contrast that it draws in comparison with that which precedes it. Rarely a band to simply put their pedal to the metal in a heads down race to the end, ‘Axiom’ pulls the listener in via the intriguingly incongruous combination of pretty, clean guitar arpeggios and constantly rumbling double-bass work, courtesy as ever of the extremely proficient David Gray. A soaring vocal melody continues this juxtaposition, working against a churning post-metal chord sequence in a way that is obviously Akercockian, but simultaneously somehow novel for the band, before the aforementioned grin-inducing thrash sees the band move from 0-60mph in a fashion marginally quicker, but significantly more satanic than a high performance sports car. If this were not enough, the latter part of the song sees the band giving free rein to their predilection for squelchy electro and dissonant guitars, and this is augmented by an elastic bassline from new member Peter Benjamin. ‘Axiom’ welds clever composition to immense groove and feel in a way that cannot but satisfy even the seasoned Akercocke obsessive. Moreover, the lyrics also stake out a clear philosophical position that compliments the musical vision of the band, elegantly quoting Bertrand Russell with the lines “I believe that when I die I shall rot / And nothing of my ego shall survive”. One might mistakenly read nihilism into a statement that in fact opens up endless possibilities and removes limitations, urging humanity to maximise the pursuit of pleasure during the only life that we have.

Similarly inspiring is ‘The Dark Inside’, which experiments with a much more rough and ready sound than the progressive precision that Akercocke have become known for. The heavily rhythmic, almost mechanised d-beat of the verse is redolent of classic Ministry, spliced with an aggressive punk-metal feel that approximates Chaos A.D. era Sepultura, minus the tribal elements. The unstoppable forward momentum of the propulsive riffing suggests that the guitars are locked on to a track from which there is no escape; every note, every beat is as inexorable as it is powerful. As if to underscore this more animalistic approach, Mendonca’s vocals are some of the most feral that he has ever committed to tape, approaching the intensity of Blasphemy, or even Revenge, not bands that Akercocke typically belong in the same sentence as. Generally speaking, when Blasphemy are desecrating cemeteries in preparation for their nefarious rituals, Akercocke are more likely to be found reclining in the drawing room with a full-bodied Bordeaux, discussing Rimbaud and Flaubert, and it is gratifying here to observe Akercocke briefly allowing prominence to the beast that inhabits all of us, a beast that has perhaps been a little repressed of late. As they tend to at their best, Akercocke then move effortlessly from the bestial to the beautiful, as shimmering indie guitars and honeyed clean vocals transport us immediately into more tranquil climes, before the band return to their roots, unleashing a pulverising syncopated death metal riff of the kind that is positioned in the exact midpoint of the admittedly minimal distance between Morbid Angel and Slayer. The stampede becomes a lumbering lurch, the sound of an awoken giant learning to walk, before destroying everything in its path as the berserker metal of the earlier part of the track returns for a triumphant conclusion.

‘My Apterous Angel’ is further evidence of Akercocke’s mind-boggling versatility, and distinguishes itself with the most jaw-dropping segment of the entire record, a staggeringly clever instrumental section, as a brutal single note caveman riff is dramatically spun into a dissonant and considerably more complex version of the same progression, to ridiculously exciting effect. Were the entire album this dazzling in scope and execution, Antichrist would perhaps take The Goat Of Mendes‘s crown as the band’s greatest achievement. However, although the tracks which complete the album are well-performed death metal, they are not very much more than that, contenting themselves with replicating their influences, as opposed to transcending them. ‘Man Without Faith Or Trust’ demonstrates Akercocke’s enduring ability to compose memorably sinister death metal riffs, but offers little more than catchy brutality, and although ‘Footsteps Resound In An Empty Chapel’ improves on this in a dizzying technical blitzkrieg of prog-thrash, it’s difficult to avoid the nagging feeling that the band are breaking no new ground here. Where once every track promised to journey to unexplored realms, this time round they are returning to familiar destinations, albeit displaying the benefits of the intimate knowledge of the regular visitor, although the wide-eyed wonder of the first-time traveller is now lost. Even the atmospheric interludes feel like a somewhat lazy retread of the evocative sounds of Choronzon, and consequently cannot reach the heights that they ascend to on that album. Even the selection of the tracks covered on the special edition of Antichrist are somewhat obvious – Morbid Angel’s ‘Chapel Of Ghouls’ and the title-track from Death’s Leprosy. There is of course nothing wrong with paying tribute to your forbears, and I suppose it’s possible that these covers introduced some fans to these untouchable giants of the genre, but apart from some spooky synths added to the former, Akercocke play it disappointingly straight, delivering admirable but uninspiring versions of unimprovable songs. How much more interesting it might have been to hear them cover something from outside the genre, identifying and honouring a kindred spirit in ideology, if not in sound.

It is important to clarify in conclusion, that Antichrist is not a poor album. It is in fact an excellent piece of work that even at its most generic conceives and executes extreme metal at a level well beyond the abilities of the majority of death metal acts. However, for the first time in their discography, the only real surprise to be found here is the fact that there is very little surprising about Antichrist, and for a band as ambitious as Akercocke, this feels like the first retrograde step in a career that has hitherto only moved in one direction. Perhaps they felt like they had taken the experimentation as far as they could under the Akercocke banner, and it’s easy to understand the attraction and challenge of creating such a tight and concise statement after several albums of increasingly intricate and progressive music. Seen in this light, Antichrist is indeed successful – an easily digestible blast of pure Akercocke, each track reduced only to its most integral parts. Were this the first of their albums that I heard, it is easy to envisage the delight with which this listener would have embraced such an overwhelming display of death metal dominance. However, in light of the greater triumphs that came before Antichrist, it cannot help but marginally pale in comparison, the band scaling Kilimanjaro, having summited Everest previously. A harsh judgement certainly, but then Akercocke have earned the dubious right to be judged to a higher standard than lesser bands. Expectations were met, but this time, they were not exceeded.

Score: 82%

Akercocke – Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone

Author: BD Joyce

Akercocke – Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone
  • Artist: Akercocke
  • Album: Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone
  • Year of Release: 2005
  • Country: UK
  • Label: Earache
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: MOSH 322CD

In a short space of time, Akercocke had emerged from the London extreme metal underground to become one of the most heralded bands in metal, with an already formidable back catalogue to bear comparison with any of their peers. Over three fearsome, and virtually flawless albums, Akercocke had given an object study in how to successfully develop a core sound, their ever-growing tentacles reaching into increasingly more eldritch depths, while never completely severing the connection to the heart of the creature (or hearts, if we are going to stretch the cephalopod metaphor to its limit). Their fourth album, Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone was, on release, considered something of left turn, the band apparently jumping headfirst into the prog-rock ocean. On reflection, however, this reputation perhaps says more about the conservatism of the metal scene in 2005, than it does about Akercocke’s evolving sonic choices. While it is undoubtedly a courageous album for an ostensibly death metal act to release, it is at all times recognisably the same band that made Choronzon, and even the most progressive moments of this record sound like nothing less than a completely natural extension of everything Akercocke have done to this point. If the previous three records were the assembly of a spacecraft, Words That Go Unspoken… is that same vehicle leaving the Earth’s atmosphere, crewed by the engineers that built it.

The incendiary opening track ‘Verdelet’ initially offers few clues to the more expansive sound of the album, contrasting strongly with its immediate predecessor by eschewing a lengthy introduction, in favour of launching straight into coruscating death metal, which remains an integral part of the band’s armoury throughout. The familiar dissonant, ringing arpeggios, something of an Akercocke trademark, make an early appearance. More unfamiliar though, is the cleaner, crisper mix, and sense of spaciousness offered both by the stripped back instrumentation and more conventional riffing style. Prior to this point in their career, Akercocke have generally favoured a dense, suffocating production, which has resulted in their music seeming uniquely claustrophobic, every guitar figure building patterns on top of the previous one, gradually constricting the life from the trapped, but mesmerised listener. On Words That Go Unspoken… it is as if these walls have suddenly disintegrated, and in its place is a sense of the infinite. Where no life once dwelled, wide open space now appears, the terrain offering fertile soil for fecund growth and new life. The other key difference from what has come before is the move away from the black metal atmospherics that have characterised and distinguished the band’s sound since their debut. Although the album does not avoid the use of synths, their function is more often utilised as a lead instrument, rather than cloaking their intense tremolo blasts in the gothic grandiosity of old. Intriguingly, what we are left with is an Akercocke that are still recognisably Akercocke, but also much more direct in their metallic attack.

The brilliant ‘Verdelet’ is emblematic of these changes, featuring all of the hyperactive tempo-shifts that the band have become known for, forever twisting death metal into seductive new shapes, but also hosting one of the most straightforward and grooving thrash riffs that Akercocke have ever committed to tape – the mid-section of the track is as downright anthemic and accessible as the band have ever been, and as a result, ‘Verdelet’ is almost indecently infectious. The fun doesn’t end there, however, and it’s the second half of the track which really showcases the wide-ranging appeal of this iteration of Akercocke. Picking up the Eastern tones that were utilised more tentatively on the previous record, on Words That Go Unspoken…, the band fully commit to the rich and enveloping synth-based opulence that makes an appearance following the aforementioned thrashing grooves. For a band that have generally favoured multi-part songs playing host to numerous abrupt changes of mood and cadence, it is truly satisfying to hear the band exploring a more post-metal feel, in which small motifs and themes are gradually developed, and pulled and pushed into different directions. If Akercocke were once a highly adept Victor Frankenstein, bolting their monster together from disparate parts, here it feels that they are instead gestating a new being, nerves, arteries and limbs gradually extending outwards, marrying the triumphant metal classicism of the spiralling leads that lead the song into the more familiar wind-tunnel riffing of old, and then on into monochrome grimness, working through chromatic black metal patterns, before finally resting on a progressive death metal conclusion, which finds mid-period Deicide playing Disintegration-era The Cure as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

Leading off with a track that acknowledges no boundaries is a masterstroke of sequencing, as it allows Akercocke to roam into virtually any musical space for the remainder of the album’s duration without it appearing particularly outré, and it all serves to make Words That Go Unspoken… an utterly intoxicating album. This is not to say that Akercocke have abandoned their roots entirely, and ‘Eyes Of The Dawn’ even offers nostalgic fans something of a throwback to the ferocity of The Goat Of Mendes, but it is also undeniable that the most entrancing musical passages to be found on the record are more often than not those that bear the least resemblance to their previous work. Perhaps this is partially because although Akercocke have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to compose superior death metal, the quality of their first three albums perhaps dictates that continuing in this direction can only ever result in diminishing returns, as the startling nature of their take on the genre is lost amidst the now contempt-breeding familiarity of this sound. It is surely also a consequence of the fact that hearing a band as versatile as Akercocke providing their unique slant on a broader array of sounds is never likely to be less than intriguing, and when it is as resoundingly successful as it is here, the joy in the listener being jolted anew by a band that could easily be taken for granted provides the same kind of gratification obtained from their earlier records, but in a refreshingly different way.

The title track is most emblematic of the band’s new approach, containing only homeopathic traces of the band that made Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene. Tribal drums beat an opening tattoo, joined by meandering guitar figures, draped in roomy reverb, which gradually builds into classic metal guitar flourishes, not unlike the shades of 1980s metal that occasionally peak through the progressive metal of Ihsahn’s early solo albums. A little less like the Emperor mainman, this is the prelude to a thumping electro section verging on dubstep, which brings the digital side of the Akercocke sound to the fore with a greater degree of assurance than they have ever displayed, before a supremely arrogant Coroner-style tech-thrash riff obliterates any listener that remains unconvinced by Akercocke circa 2005. Sweeping clean guitars round out a majestic track, re-imagining the sound of Cynic’s Focus, minus the distinctive vocals of that particular album, and once again it seems that the band have effortlessly achieved the ingestion and seamless assimilation of almost the entire history of rock and metal, re-configuring a bewildering arsenal of lethal weapons into something entirely of their own, and it’s difficult to avoid being swept up in the sheer audacity of it all.

One could easily pick out almost any track other than the customary atmospheric interludes, themselves an irresistible call to pray at the altar of this mighty band, as a highlight, each one containing some nugget of triumphant majesty, or yet another alchemical combination of seemingly incompatible musical ingredients. Although Words That Go Unspoken… could not be said to be front-loaded, the tracks that, together with ‘Verdelet’, complete a stunning opening triple-whammy are rather special. ‘Seduced’ is a never-ending stream of dismembered ideas that all land as intended, initially combining black metal note selection with precise death metal riffing, as if Satyricon were covering Carcass, before channelling the major key hippie death metal of Lykathea Aflame to bafflingly successful effect, and even finding the time to resurrect the guitar-synths of Pestilence’s unfairly maligned Spheres for some ingenious lead guitar runs. ‘Shelter From The Sand’ tops this, with arguably Akercocke’s most epic track yet. The opening sections are the kind of dissonant death metal that has long characterised their sound, but the final third is a blissful blend of shimmering prog guitars, stark piano lines, and deft vocal melodies. Each fragile note is a sliver of beauty, like lone trees on a barren mountainside, and the band appear at once nakedly vulnerable in a way that they have never allowed themselves to be seen before. Commonly Akercocke’s music has been an ego-filled display of elite supremacy; ‘Shelter From The Sand’ transcends ego in favour of something more cosmically infinite, and less earthbound – spacegaze in place of shoegaze. Once again, we find Akercocke sonically prefiguring some of the extreme metal trends that have seen increased popularity in the 2010s and beyond, bringing together the kind of dreamy post-black metal of Alcest and Deafheaven and the sci-fi death metal of Blood Incantation and Cryptic Shift into a singular sonic brew, some years before these distinct takes on extreme metal solidified into the more focussed sub-genres that we see today. Elsewhere, penultimate track ‘The Penance’ feels almost like the culmination of everything that Akercocke have achieved thus far, perfectly packaged into a seamless display of magnificence. Within the first minute of the track, stuttering, off-kilter death metal has birthed spidery prog, which in turn gives way to chromatic, Marduk-style relentless black metal blasting, spliced with the grandiloquent melodicism of Opeth at their best, the frostbitten North intruding from a parallel dimension into warmth of the near East evoked by the Arabic-sounding intervals utilised in the track’s main melody. Few metal bands display this level of ambition, and fewer still have the skill to pull it off in the way that Akercocke do with insouciant ease.

Somewhat frustratingly, as they did on Choronzon, Akercocke choose to close the album in perplexing fashion, with ‘Lex Talionis’. Although there is something amusingly contrarian about their tendency to opt for the atmospheric comedown as the final track over the mounting epic of metallic might that they could so easily choose, it also leaves the listener with a sense of loss and slight disappointment, when the knowledge that the perfectly sequenced and fulfilling alternative is so close at hand. ‘Lex Talionis’ itself is an interesting track, the heat of North Africa and the Middle East palpably permeating the band’s lift of Black Sabbath’s ‘Spiral Architect’, creating an enticing and enveloping atmosphere, but it’s ultimately a desultory journey, travelling, but never arriving. While it would have worked perfectly as an interlude, after the all-conquering fury of ‘The Penance’, it is unavoidably anti-climactic. This should not unduly affect our evaluation of Words That Go Unspoken… as a whole though. Although not the complete departure that some would have us believe – at its heart, this is an Akercocke record that exists in a clear relation to the discography that preceded it – it is an album on which the band utilise the total freedom that their mastery of the metal genre affords them to produce an extravagant and progressive triumph. It’s not quite their best; that honour remains bestowed upon The Goat Of Mendes, but it is a vital addition to their catalogue that bears virtually endless repeated plays, and conclusively proves that artistic evolution and the expansion of an extreme metal band’s sound need not come at the price of the band’s soul, which remains resolutely intact.

Score: 90%

Akercocke – Choronzon

Author: BD Joyce

Akercocke – Choronzon
  • Artist: Akercocke
  • Album: Choronzon
  • Year of Release: 2003
  • Country: UK
  • Label: Earache
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: MOSH277CD

During the early part of the 21st century, along with Nile and Cryptopsy, Akercocke were one of a small number of bands releasing death metal which offered a fresh take on the genre, as opposed to simply gazing wide-eyed at the numerous classic releases spewed forth by the US and Sweden a decade previously, and then slavishly imitating the tones, but not the wondrous, alchemical magic of Left Hand Path, Blessed Are The Sick, and all the rest. This is not to criticise too harshly the bands whose aims are simply to emulate the sounds of their heroes, and keep the flame burning for certain iterations of the genre – there will always be a place for the kind of solid genre practitioners that fill out mid-afternoon festival line-ups, and the lower reaches of multi-band touring packages. Equally though, we must remember that much of the brilliance of the classic death metal giants was a consequence of the fact that these bands assimilated the traditional heavy metal and thrash that drew them into the extreme metal realm, and twisted it into new and exciting forms. If we still wish to discover the excitement of the novel and ingenious within death metal, it requires that bands continue to fuse their interpretation of the music of their forbears with a desire to conquer new territory, and in 2001 there were realistically precious few bands doing this, particularly in comparison to the black metal scene of the same period, which was going through a dazzlingly creative phase. At the turn of the century, bands such as Akercocke’s compatriots Anaal Nathrakh, and Norway’s Thorns, Dodheimsgard and Ved Buens Ende all birthed fascinating albums which were ostensibly black metal, despite the fact that they had relatively little in common with De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas, or In The Nightside Eclipse. Aside from the stellar music, it was this context that made Akercocke’s first two albums such essential listening, evoking the spirit of the classic death metal, but with a sound all of their own.

With the passing of time allowing us the benefit of placing Akercocke’s third album, Choronzon, in the wider context of their discography as a whole, it becomes clear that it is, in some ways, a transitional album for the band. This is not to say that it is in any way a misstep, or indicative of a drop in the calibre of their output, but it does seem to occupy the role of a connecting bridge between the intricate, but vicious extremity of their early years, which moved from the huge potential showcased on Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene, to the flourishing of this potential on its monumental follow-up The Goat Of Mendes, to the spectacular, but more refined, progressive metal of Words That Go Unspoken, Deeds That Go Undone. On the latter, despite the more free-wheeling nature of the material, Akercocke tread their path with total conviction and deep understanding of their position in the universe. On Choronzon however, the overriding impression is that they are attempting to find their way from one destination to another, but without a map, or clear idea of what the destination is, possessing only the hope that they will recognise it when they get there. Consequently, the album is all about the journey, and the inevitable detours that they pursue on the way, and thankfully it’s a voyage that is intriguing, experimental, and mostly full of magnificent metallic music.

Chorozon commences with a fairly lengthy horror sample, not unlike the kind of thing that one-time touring mates Mortician have made their trademark. Superficially, this appears to be Akercocke falling in line with a standard death metal trope, but in fact, rather more thought has gone into it than might be immediately obvious. Akercocke, despite their personal Satanic philosophy, which seems aligned to a LaVeyan form of irreligious Satanism, eschewing any kind of literal belief in the antichrist, their music is full of allusions to the many demonic forms in which a more Thelemic form of Satanism would suggest that evil can manifest itself. Choronzon itself is one such form, essentially described by Aleister Crowley (another mainstay of metal thematics) as a demon of chaos. The sample that precedes the opening track ‘Praise The Name Of Satan’ is taken from an episode of the seminal British horror serial ‘Hammer House of Horror’, the plot of which is based around an invocation of Choronzon, thereby linking in perfectly with both Akercocke’s own aesthetic of the decadent English gentleman, and the central theme of the album itself. Of course, once the sample concludes normal service is resumed, by which I mean that Akercocke treat the listener to a scorching epic, integrating virtually every facet of their far-reaching sound into a thrilling fire and brimstone concoction. Expertly utilising mysterious dissonance as always, the guitars conjure a series of unusual chord voicings, with Jason Mendonca’s black metal screech adding a frightening additional texture. Almost immediately, the aggression drops off, and creepy arpeggios underpin a synth backdrop, beneath which David Gray’s unfailingly accurate double-bass battery continues to rumble forwards, evoking the threatening menace of an entire division of tanks. Then, as if to demonstrate that they haven’t mellowed three albums into their career, a grim, icy blast reminds the listener that if Akercocke are nominally a death metal band, they are a death metal band that have the ability to adopt the speed and modality of prime Gorgoroth when the mood takes them. As satisfying as this all is, it is also largely what one would expect from Akercocke, even if the electronic element of their sound feels even more natural that it ever has before, and not the afterthought that it might be in the hands of a less capable band. The latter section of the track, however, sees the band take flight into spacy prog-goth realms, which exhilaratingly feels like the first tentative steps into the direction that they would commit themselves fully to, just a couple of short years later. Once again, we see an already mature band continuing to evolve before our very eyes.

Another part of this evolution sees Akercocke exploring the scales and tones of more Eastern-sounding music, expanding their palette to encompass their variation on the lush and sun-scorched sounds of North Africa and the Middle East. This is introduced via the brief interlude which transitions smoothly into ‘Leviathan’, one of the pivotal tracks on which the album as a whole turns. ‘Leviathan’ picks up the Eastern theme for the closing phase of the track, although it twists its way through a maze of dazzling motifs before it gets there. Initially, the vaguely danceable (and slightly dated) feel of the mid-tempo goth-metal feels like giant step towards the kind of accessibility that opens up the band to the kind of sell-out accusations that the underground enjoys throwing at any band that dares to periodically operate on any setting below white noise. The stabbing guitar figures and electronic thrum recall Pitchshifter’s stompy snarl, and the comparison continues to be apposite, as Akercocke again display their ability to seamlessly meld metallic riffing with David Gray’s interesting drum ‘n’ bass-influenced drum patterns. Fascinating stuff, but the track solidifies its status of one of the band’s most satisfying as a result of the lush psychedelic section which finally resolves the uneasy dissonance of the first few minutes in a lengthy and beguiling synth-based workout, which suggests a productive meeting of minds between Tool and The Cure, and utterly alters the complexion of the track. Finally, the warm, enveloping sounds of the aforementioned closing segment of a bewitching track conjure the kind of opulence that Opeth adopted so effectively on the most evocative tracks on Ghost Reveries. Not for the first time in their career, Akercocke have demonstrated the ability to conquer new territories and integrate a diverse array of sounds without the kind of clumsy incongruity that often afflicts similar attempts by lesser bands.

The experimentation with more laid back and melodic sounds continues throughout an album that is impossible to pin down – every time the listener feels that they have figured out where Akercocke are going, they abruptly introduce a new dimension to their sound, the 2-Dimensional map suddenly gaining a third dimension, and the perspective shifts accordingly. ‘Valley Of The Crucified’, for example, intrigues. An immersive gothic ballad, led by delightful synth melodies which bring a deep grandeur to the band’s sound, emphasising textures and deft harmonic interplay over churning tremolo riffing, and gradual development over the stop-start structures that the band usually favour. If this gives the impression that Akercocke are maturing just a little too much, the way in which the same track builds to a bestial slice of symphonic black metal shows that they have not moved on from the kind of extremity that made their name, but have simply learned how to accommodate some lighter shades within what was previously unremitting darkness. ‘Son Of The Morning’, towards the end of the album is another of the touchstone tracks previously mentioned. While Akercocke have always featured electronic sounds across their albums, generally in a subtle way, this track sees the band truly embrace this aspect of their personality, the buzzing electro providing a firm foundation for the vaulting vocal melodies of the verse. Potentially, the band could have opted to truly play against type here and maintain this sound for the full duration of the track, but the band’s restlessness means that it is not long before this streamlined version of Akercocke flourishes into a progressive metal masterpiece that operates primarily and uncharacteristically in a triumphant major key. The shimmering guitars, and dextrous riffing suggest an exciting update to Cynic’s early 90s sound, or even Jane’s Addiction discovering blastbeats. The whole thing is utterly majestic, and totally compelling.

It’s not all free-wheeling exploration, however. ‘Enraptured By Evil’ returns to out and out brutality, showcasing breathtaking velocity and pulverising death metal that perhaps surpasses anything that the band have ever recorded in the heaviness stakes. The endless variations of the band’s familiar whirring, gymnastic riffing style that develop the main themes of the track, are frankly mind-boggling in the precision of the execution, and as ever, Gray’s drum performance is a masterful blend of instrumental proficiency, power and feral intensity. Akercocke have an incredible gift for creating memorable hooks from complex rhythmic ideas, which prevents their intricate musical web from ever becoming too much of a triumph of technique above all else, and this is fully evident on this fantastic song. ‘Scapegoat’ and ‘Becoming The Adversary’ are also magnificent examples of the pure metallic fury that Akercocke are still capable of whipping up, when they are not recreating the Byzantine sounds of the ancient Middle East. The former sees the band substitute their usual preference for Altars Of Madness-era Morbid Angel for the more sickening lurch of the Blessed Are The Sick incarnation of that legendary act, before the band drop into an insanely infectious thrashing mid-section that is a total departure for them, before culminating in the kind of dizzying tech-death that Cannibal Corpse have been trafficking in for some time now. The latter covers a huge amount of ground, from pure Norsecore minor-key blasting to cosmic Mithras-like psychedelic death metal, and the fret-melting wizardry of the latter half of the track make it probably the highlight of the whole album.

‘Goddess Flesh’ brings Choronzon to an odd close, a synth-pop ballad built on a staccato string loop, which is in keeping with the ambience of the record, but something of an anti-climax after the white-hot pinnacle of ‘Becoming The Adversary’. This, however, should not cloud our judgement of what is another sublime album in the Akercocke discography. Once again, the band continue to mine a rich seam of blackened death metal, while simultaneously growing their sound into new areas in a way that feels like a perfectly natural extension of their core sound, as opposed to gauche trial and error. Their ability to generate all-pervasive and immersive soundscapes, while still dominating the competition with their superior metallic firepower is matched by Nile alone of that era. If there are flaws to be found in Choronzon, we should point to the fact that it is not quite as coherent an album as The Goat Of Mendes, and as such does not quite compel the listener’s unwavering attention with quite the same relentlessness. However, it also contains some of the band’s best work, and should most fairly be evaluated as a necessary step on the road to its mighty successor, which succeeds in pulling all of the wild threads of experimentation initially woven on Choronzon into a single cogent expression of progressive majesty. The destination is wondrous, but the journey there is also supremely enjoyable.

Score: 88%

Akercocke – The Goat Of Mendes

Author: BD Joyce

Akercocke – I’ll Get My Goat…
  • Artist: Akercocke
  • Album: The Goat Of Mendes
  • Year of Release: 2001
  • Country: UK
  • Label: Peaceville
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: CDVILE95/610952

Many a band has foundered in the face of following up a brilliant debut album of the kind that Akercocke had released in 1999, in the shape of Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene. Relatively speaking, bands have a lifetime to write a debut and almost no expectation or external pressure. Suddenly finding themselves at the forefront of cutting-edge extreme metal, with the eyes of a newly-formed fanbase on them, The Goat Of Mendes would very much determine whether the promise of their debut could be fulfilled, or whether they would simply become another band who burned like a match, brightly, but momentarily, before the fire is extinguished. The plethora of ideas contained on their debut, together with the hints of a greater musical versatility that they were unable to fully explore on the previous album certainly boded well for the future, and suggested that it was unlikely that they would run out of steam quickly. It takes only minutes for The Goat Of Mendes to confirm that this is indeed the case, and in fact the band’s second album exceeds its predecessor in all respects, building on already solid foundations to create a monument capable of comfortably weathering the corrosive passage of time.

As if to underscore the fact that The Goat Of Mendes very much takes everything that worked so brilliantly on the previous album to another level of sophistication and intensity, the opening track ‘Of Menstrual Blood And Semen’ commences in a way that is eerily reminiscent of ‘Hell’ from its predecessor, a maelstrom of painfully dissonant guitars quickly giving way to aggressive, speed-laden death metal, with their trademark schizophrenic, overlapping vocals trading deep guttural growls with higher-register black metal screams. And where Rape Of The Bastard Nazarene was marred, at least in part, by it’s weak production, there are no such misgivings this time round. The guitars retain their trebly, almost Morrisound crunch, the flashes of synth add sonic depth to what otherwise might feel a slightly dry mix, and most importantly for a band for whom complex rhythmic patterns are such an integral part of their sound, the drums are crisp and powerful, and now weaponised to the level that David Gray’s skilful contribution merits. The sheer energy and vitality of this (and virtually every other) track on the album is hugely invigorating, but there is much more to enjoy than merely the simplistic brutality of warp-speed tremolo riffing. Akercocke have a wonderful ability to ally the linear riffing of early-90s death metal (particularly Morbid Angel) with the kind of tension-filled unusual chord voicings of prime Godflesh, which lends a modern, almost urban feel to their metallic assault, and this is particularly apparent on this opener. The inchoate songwriting ability of the debut is allowed to fully flourish on The Goat Of Mendes too, and many of the best tracks are spectacular epics that contain numerous memorable sections, but move fluently from one section to another. After the frenetic start, ‘Of Menstrual Blood And Semen’ is the first such example, moving through a complex instrumental segment, which recalls Absu with its use of Eastern-sounding modes, before the guitars make way for a lascivious-sounding electronic section, Akercocke’s broad range of genre influences coming to the fore, before everything comes to a majestic conclusion after seven captivating minutes.

The Goat Of Mendes is rarely anything less than spellbinding, but its status as a modern-day extreme classic hinges on a trio of songs that are superficially quite similar in their utilisation of the band’s newly confident ability to deploy catchy clean vocal melodies, far outstripping some tentative steps in this direction on Akercocke’s debut release. Of course, the incorporation of clean vocals into the armoury of almost any extreme metal act has long been viewed by some as indicative of a craven shift into more commercially viable territory and therefore as a kind of betrayal of true metal values, but this kind of thinking is tedious and simple-minded. It is of course undeniable that Akercocke enjoyed greater success after the release of The Goat Of Mendes, and the more palatable nature of some of their tracks in a mainstream metal setting may indeed have had something to do with this, but just as likely is the simple fact that their first album had been acclaimed in such a way that a greater level of hype and anticipation for its follow-up would inevitably translate into sales, This was also greatly assisted by the fact that it was released by Peaceville, a significant and credible metal label with strong distribution. Additionally, it should also be stated that the antipathy towards clean vocals in metal is both laughable and hypocritical, given the line that can almost always be drawn from any extreme metal band back through thrash, NWOBHM and eventually to Black Sabbath, where clean melodic vocals are of course an integral part of the genesis of metal. Clean vocals are simply another colour to paint with, another texture that can be used to increase the number of possible paths that any given song can explore. Clearly, depending on a band’s core sound, there will be some paths that might remain perpetually off-limits – it’s difficult to imagine any parts of the back catalogues of Autopsy, Cannibal Corpse or Von being improved by contributions of an operatically-trained tenor. However, for a band as versatile as Akercocke, adding another string to the bow can only enhance what they do, and that is resolutely the case here.

The first of this trio of parallel universe hit singles is ‘A Skin For Dancing In’. The title alone, at once both alluringly salacious and primitively animalistic, is enough to draw in the listener, and the musical content more than matches its promise, a perfect aural creation of the decadent images of the nocturnal bacchanal that it evokes. This track runs virtually the entire gamut of the Akercocke sound, but as ever, the band’s ability to combine what should be disparate and incongruous elements into a single glorious whole prevents things from becoming in any way disjointed. The drum ‘n’ bass rhythms that have been hinted at previously are in full effect in the first section of the song, with the chunky understated guitars taking a back seat through the electronically-augmented verses, before what could be seen as the second movement sees the band blast for Satan as enthusiastically and ferociously as they ever have, frontman Jason Mendonca sinisterly intoning ‘Escape into the woods’, and adding to the atmosphere. From there, the song takes flight through a series of complex rhythmic changes, David Gray’s drumming once again propelling the band to new heights, and otherwordly guitar harmonies decorate the brutality of the riffing. Finally, the chorus releases all of the pent-up tension in a rush of gothic grandeur, lush synth instrumentation recalling the wave of late-90s melancholic metal, where it seemed that a small section of the scene discovered goth and prog simultaneously, resulting in the glorious, sweeping weirdness of bands such as Tiamat, …In The Woods, and Winds. Approximately five godlike riffs later, a song of quite outlandish brilliance comes to an end, and one imagines that they can’t possibly repeat the trick once more, having surely exhausted their well of ideas.

For many bands that would be the case, but Akercocke are not many bands. ‘Horns Of Baphomet’ is the sound of lightning striking twice, another multi-part epic this time operating in a slower, more stately tempo, Mendonca’s plaintive alto a suitable match for the sombre melodies of the chorus. ‘Horns Of Baphomet’ demonstrates the band’s growing ability to create beautifully layered music, with the subtle use of gossamer light acoustic guitars blending almost imperceptibly with crunching arpeggios facilitating fluid transitions through the many dimensions of the track, before Akercocke show their ability to master death metal of a slow and grinding nature, as well as the blasting tremolo that tends to be their preference. ‘He Is Risen’ completes what feels like a trilogy of monstrous scale, again showcasing the band’s magnificent ability to combine complex and intricate death metal riffing, with dissonant chords, and black metal vocals and atmosphere. The horn-assisted pummelling blast that drives the song relentlessly towards its conclusion is possibly the high point of the entire record, standing as a testament to the manifestation of a grander vision than most bands can even aspire to, let alone realise.

Akercocke – The Goat Of Mendes

If the aforementioned tracks heralded the arrival of Akercocke as a world-class metal band that could stand comparison with any of their peers, this is not to imply that the rest of The Goat Of Mendes fails to impress. In fact, the album is remarkably consistent, and there are thrilling moments to be found throughout. ‘Masks Of God’ benefits from the record’s smart sequencing, surprising with intense, Suffocation-style technical death metal from the first beat, contrasting with the slightly more measured approach that the band tend to adopt to building a song ordinarily, and the groovy thrash feel that runs through much of the rest of the track uncharacteristically emphasises the rhythm guitars, at times even approaching the mechanised rattle of Fear Factory, before a pyrotechnic instrumental section brings us back to more familiar territory. Even the brief classical interlude of ‘Fortune My Foe’, a mournful piece of chamber music, is in keeping with the overall mood of the album, and skilfully serves to connect Akercocke’s music to something less obviously rooted in the 21st century, suggesting that they are able to tap into an ageless evil, in the same way that the classical guitar pieces on Black Sabbath’s Master Of Reality add an arcane mystique to the sound of another legendary British metal band.

Reinforcing the perfection of the album’s sequencing, it is hard to imagine The Goat Of Mendes concluding with any other track than ‘Ceremony Of Nine Angles’. Running to nearly nine minutes, the track is an almost unbearably intense epic that pushes the band’s bombastic ambition further than ever before. The tremolo blast is a common feature of the band’s sound, but the technicality and choice of notes tends to draw from classic death metal, rather than the kind of icy, minor key modes that characterise black metal. On this track, however, Akercocke dive headlong into black metal territory, attacking the opening riff with the kind of fevered mania of Impaled Nazarene, circa Tol Kormpt Norz Norz Norz…, gradually building to a symphonic climax that recalls Emperor or Abigor. The band truly slip the leash across the ferocious final minutes of the album, with Gray’s tom rolls going off like artillery rounds, and layered choral drones generating an overwhelming wave of sound that finally breaks as Mendonca is heard speaking a final incantation: ‘Thou art my master: Satan!’. The whole thing is nothing less than an ecstatic hymn to the power of the horned one, and displays the kind of awe and power that one imagines would satisfy him.

The Goat Of Mendes is nothing short of a monumental achievement. Deservedly hailed as such on its release, if anything, it has improved with age, so rarely has it been surpassed since, within its milieu at least. Frequently, one cannot help but feel that contemporary extreme metal albums sometimes opt for duration over quality, as if the mere passing of time denotes epic scale and scope, and what could have been an excellent 40 minute album instead becomes a 75 minute test of endurance. Akercocke’s second album, however, is a 60 minute album that is hugely grandiose, and yet feels like a tight, concise album of the type that Death or Deicide would have released in the halcyon days of classic death metal. Lengthy tracks fly by, primarily because of the strength of the material and the fluency of the composition, which ensures that what could seem cold and calculated in fact feels organic and (in)human. This album is a towering classic that fulfils the huge potential of Akercocke’s debut, in a disdainful display of metal might for the ages.

Score: 92%

Agoraphobic Nosebleed – Agorapocalypse

Author: BD Joyce

Agoraphobic Nosebleed – Agorapocalypse
  • Artist: Agoraphobic Nosebleed
  • Album: Agorapocalypse
  • Year of Release: 2009
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Relapse Records
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: RR 7037

It’s difficult for the initial reaction to Agorapocalypse not to be one of disappointment. Through three albums, and innumerable split releases and EPs, Agoraphobic Nosebleed had developed into one of the most extreme and uncompromising bands ever to commit their noise to tape, refining an insane melange of drug-addled grind and electronic noise into ever more psychedelic and mind-bending shapes, assisted by entirely programmed drums which allowed the band to experiment with the kind of velocities and dense instrumentation rarely found in music rooted in rock and metal. This reached an apotheosis on the utter madness of Altered States Of America, which took the band’s supercharged grind to it’s logical conclusion on its release in 2003. Having manoeuvred themselves into a position of strength, from which they could strike out in almost any direction, it is therefore something of an anti-climax to discover that their next full-length is little more than a standard issue death-grind record, displaying a considerably more conventional approach to song structure, and dialling back the white-hot intensity of their earlier output for a more measured, and riff-based sound. What is left is far from poor – indeed much of Agorapocalypse is high quality grind – but it is frustrating to witness such a distinctive and singular band intentionally retreat into the pack that they had so artfully distanced themselves from, when one imagines that any number of alternative, more interesting paths were available to a band that had virtually total freedom from conventional genre constraints.

All of the above theorising, however, is a long way from the listener’s mind when the brief guitar pyrotechnics that introduce the first track (excluding the usual hidden song at track 00) give way to the aptly-named, crazed grind of ‘Agorapocalypse Now’. It may sound rather contradictory, given the above misgivings about the prospect of ANb releasing a straightforward grind album, but paradoxically, the most frustrating facet of their previous albums was the fact that when the band occasionally alighted on a thunderous riff, the extreme brevity of the tracks meant that the listener was denied the opportunity to truly luxuriate in the satisfying feeling of a guitar figure or groove that truly hits the spot, something which represents one of the greatest pleasures that metallic music can offer. Therefore, although this album’s approach is less innovative and less individual than their recorded output to date, it is also undeniably gratifying to hear ANb for once eschew some of their wilful obtuseness, and simply barrel through a couple of minutes of ordinary punk-metal, gleefully riding a groove; teetering on the edge of chaos, like a surfer cutting a swathe through a gigantic wave. This song, along with a number of other tracks on which Kat Katz contributes her intense vocals to an already intense sound, benefits from the fevered mania that her high-pitched scream brings to proceedings, and serves to compensate in part for the distinct lack of electronic sounds this time round. Sadly, Katz would leave Agoraphobic Nosebleed in 2018, departing in a flurry of not-very-strenuously denied and not terribly surprising accusations of misogynistic behaviour, following the release of her segment (Arc) of an intended and as-yet incomplete series of EPs based, Kiss-style, around the contributions of one of the band’s members.

Agorapocalypse contains a number of tracks that are the equal of the opener, but as a whole can’t help but feel a little disjointed, as it strangely groups the speedier grind workouts as the first and final thirds of the album, together bookending a somewhat stodgier middle section, which focusses on a more mid-tempo death metal assault. We’re not quite talking Bolt Thrower or Amon Amarth levels of steady, unyielding barrage here, but certainly by Agoraphobic Nosebleed’s own standards, the velocity is noticeably dialled-down from their normal breakneck pace. Although this does contribute a new sense of dynamics to their sound, the odd sequencing of the tracks means that this is not as effective a device as it might have been. Still, before the album hits the skids during the middle third, there is plenty of ingenious grind to get one’s teeth into first. As unpleasant as it may be, the completely over the top pornographic lyrical content of the otherwise excellent ‘Dick To Mouth Resuscitation’ is impossible to ignore and undeniably memorable; and due to the unusually prominent vocals rendering the words audible for a change, it has to be said that the band actually stand a chance of offending an unsuspecting listener for once, not that there can be too many of them stumbling upon a band as resolutely anti-commercial as ANb. ‘Moral Distortion’ is even better, and possibly the highlight of the entire album – relentless and riffy, the white-hot grind bears some similarity with early 21st century era Napalm Death, and the fact that it would sit comfortably on their stellar Enemy Of The Music Business album is testament to the calibre of material that ANb are capable of producing when the urge takes hold.

As we enter the second third of the album, and perhaps as a consequence of the band pulling back the throttle this time round, it becomes increasingly apparent that the overall mix seems considerably less harsh than on their previous enamel-stripping efforts. While this has a detrimental effect on a drum-sound featuring a hollow and overbearing snare which raises the unwelcome spectre of St Anger during ‘Timelord One (Loneliness Of The Long Distance Drug Runner)’, it has huge benefits for the bottom-end of the band’s sonic spectrum. The same track is home to a filthy distorted bass tone which ensures that the overall production is more rounded, and covers a wider range of frequencies. This helps, to a degree, to plug the gap left by the conspicuous lack of the snatches of power electronics that the band have utilised so well before. Initially, it is intriguing to hear the band exploring sludgier, noisier territories. The down-tuned guitars of ‘Hung From The Rising Sun’ are simultaneously sharp and thick, like razor blades cutting through treacle, and sounds like Meshuggah covering early Immolation. Similarly, the palm-muted guitar runs and staccato, syncopated riffing of ‘Question Of Integrity’ holds the attention even before Scott Hull signs off with an amusing programmed drum solo, which, unlike many such historical examples, is exactly as good an idea as it sounds. By the time we hit ‘Timelord Two (Paradoxical Reaction)’ though, the album starts to drag horribly. The hackneyed heavy metal-themed lyrics are frankly tragic (“Seventh bastard son of the seventh bastard son / Locust abortion technician with deicidal tendencies”), and the knuckle-scraping riffs are not interesting enough to overlook such embarrassment, however much the intention of the band might be to mock this kind of self-referential metal trope. Thankfully, the magnificently-titled ‘White On White Crime’ immediately redeems this error, and although it doesn’t herald a return to the warp-speed grind that best serves ANb, the chromatic climbing riff is possibly their most memorable to date, applying ANb’s off-kilter approach to extreme metal to the kind of riff structure that Pantera specialised in on Far Beyond Driven, layered with the kind of brusque, brutish noisecore favoured by the criminally underrated Unsane. If one listens carefully, some jazzy lead guitar is even buried in the mix under swathes of other sounds, suggesting that there is a level of musicality at play here that the band only occasionally deign to display tantalising glimpses of, and potentially it provides a sketch of some alternative possibilities for ANb to flesh out more fully as they continue to evolve.

As interesting as it is hearing Agoraphobic Nosebleed slow things down and experiment with other textures and compositional techniques though, the reality is that on this evidence, other bands simply do this kind of thing with more compelling results. Cephalic Carnage, for example, jump more effortlessly between extreme metal genres, without losing their sense of authenticity, and Botch, and even Isis, blend left-of centre noise with pulverising riffs in a way that feels more natural than ANb’s own attempts at jagged sludge. What the listener really wants from an Agoraphobic Nosebleed album is the kind of smoking grind that can reduce a building to dust in seconds. Gratifyingly, this is exactly what we get from the closing section of Agorapocalypse. As if suddenly tiring of the more measured approach that they had briefly adopted, the final three tracks of the record are the sound of ANb throwing all of their ideas against a wall simultaneously in a blur of maniacal action, and magically, almost all of it sticks. The mutant thrash of ‘Druggernaut Jug Fuck’ absolutely slays, successfully assimilating the more drawn-out tones and seasick harmonics of the slower tracks into the dizzying rush of modern grind, and ‘Ex-Cop’ briefly returns to the kind of complex, mind-melting grind that littered the brilliant Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope. Saving the best for last, the stop-start blasting of the majestic ‘Flamingo Snuff’ is more than enough to satisfyingly close the album, even before the band unfurl an almost triumphant classic metal riff, before whirling chugging prepares the listener for a final, cleansing blast of grind, completed by manic finger-tapping lead guitar blazing an unstoppable path to the stunning conclusion of an occasionally excellent album.

It seems rather strange to suggest that an already short album would be improved by editing it further, but oddly, Agorapocalypse would be a considerably better album were the worst tracks omitted from a flabby middle section, and the track-listing of the remaining songs reconfigured to create a more varied flow of sonics and tempos. As it is, the exhilarating buzz of the undoubtedly high quality grind that wraps around the slightly more turgid and less thrilling tracks that dominate a substantial chunk of its running time cannot mask the fact that it is an album that falls short of the high bar that their previous releases have set as often as it manages to vault clear of that same barrier. Agoraphobic Nosebleed have earned the right to experiment, and to criticise a band, particularly one as capable as ANb, for trying to do something different is pointless, particularly given the numerous bands that repeat themselves endlessly to diminishing returns. But we must also recognise when achievement doesn’t match aspiration, and, on balance, it has to be said that overall this is the case here. Agorapocalypse is very much worth hearing – ‘Flamingo Snuff’, ‘Druggernaut Jug Fuck’ and ‘Moral Distortion’ are probably the best tracks they’ve released thus far, and indeed some of the best grind released by any band in the 21st century, but sadly, when considered holistically, we must conclude that it is little better than average.

Score: 63%

Agoraphobic Nosebleed – Altered States Of America

Author: BD Joyce

Agoraphobic Nosebleed – Altered States Of America
  • Artist: Agoraphobic Nosebleed
  • Album: Altered States Of America
  • Year of Release: 2003
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Relapse Records
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: RR 6533-2

Agoraphobic Nosebleed’s previous album Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope remains one of the most startling and high calibre grind albums of the 21st century, cleverly combining the visceral thrill and buzzsaw guitars of classic grind with elements of modern technical death metal, and electronic noise. If that album was still relatively conventional in its presentation, Altered States Of America sees the band not just jumping off the deep end, but completing an elaborate and flamboyant diving routine before hitting the water, quote possibly while wearing a clown suit. Altered States Of America sees ANb offering their own chemically-enhanced state of the union address, and it’s very much a sick parody of the American dream. It is ostensibly the band’s third full-length, although this description is something of an oxymoron, giving the 20 minute run-time. Not for the first time, Agoraphobic Nosebleed seem to be having fun with the classic tropes of grind recordings, while also making a performance art statement. A 20 minute album, at least in this genre, is not especially remarkable. This particular 20 minute album though, features 100 tracks of extremely short duration, all contained within a single 3 inch CD. Were it not for the sheer fevered intensity of the music that comprises the album, it would be easily to conclude that at this point, ANb are having a joke at the expense of anyone foolish enough to invest in such a ridiculous artefact. And of course, they clearly are taking the piss, at least in part. However, Altered States Of America is far from devoid of musical merit, and in many ways takes their particular brand of grind to some sort of logical conclusion – once a band has released something this heavy, this fast and unrelenting, verging so close at times to unstructured noise, in many ways it opens two possibilities – annihilation, or alternatively, total liberation.

In reality, while far from the conventional albums that it might be compared to, Altered States Of America is not exactly 100 discrete tracks. While it’s true that the album does contain a multitude of miniscule songs, almost as if the listener is looking at grindcore through the lens of a powerful microscope, there are also longer sections which function as separate movements of a single piece of music, or ambient interlude. The album covers many of the same touchpoints as previous record Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope – pornographic sex, extreme violence and enough drugs to fuel a South American civil war, but, as indicated by the title, the emphasis this time round is very much on the pharmaceutical dimension of that particular trifecta. If Woodstock and Altamont represented the end of the hippie dream in a haze of marijuana and bad acid, Altered States Of America is the American dream turned sour 40 years later. The water supply is contaminated with hallucinogens, and humanity is turning on itself against the backdrop of a lysergically-animated landscape, slowly circling the drain before the final descent into oblivion.

Prior to the first thematically linked suite of songs, Altered States Of America actually commences properly (after an annoyingly difficult to find track 00) with a solid slab of grind, following a more traditional compositional structure, a track which would not be out of place on their less outlandish album of 12 months previous. Running to very nearly an entire minute, ‘Spreading The Dis-Ease’ is very much the ‘Rime Of The Ancient Mariner’ or ‘2112’ of this particular record, and gleefully careers out of the traps, courtesy of a rolling, almost swinging groove riff, which recalls prime Nasum or even Terrorizer, albeit featuring a drummer sporting a pneumatic drill in place of a pair of sticks. This is followed by ‘Ark Of Ecoterrorism’, which continues the unexpectedly gentle descent into the acid-fuelled madness of the majority of the record, consisting entirely of an infectious mid-paced mosh section, which would undoubtedly spark an energetic pit if played live, for the 13 seconds that elapse before it concludes. Presumably, these tracks are the sound of Agoraphobic Nosebleed waiting for the drugs that they have imbibed to take effect, because from track 3 onwards, the remaining 97 tracks pass by in a nauseatingly psychedelic blur, as if the listener were force-fed mind-altering narcotics, before being strapped into a centrifuge and spun for the remainder of the album.

As a succession of micro-blasts hurtle by, ANb alternate between grind played at the kind of manic velocity which transforms it into formless noise, and shards of something that is recognisably heavy music, riffs and breakdowns occasionally emerging through the static to make a brief impression, before the listener is overwhelmed by the noise once more. The classic metal twin guitars of ‘Guided Tour’ raise a wry smile, as does the spidery thrash riff sported by ‘Ten Pounds Of Remains’, while ‘Honky Dong’ displays the mind-boggling dexterity of Dillinger Escape Plan, and ‘Removing Locator Tooth’ answers the admittedly not oft-asked question of what Nile would sound like, were they to channel their labyrinthine technical modalities into 6 seconds of white-hot grind.

The first set of connected songs (the track divisions are essentially relevant for administrative purposes only, and also, one assumes, for pushing the overall track count to a round century), concern the Tokyo subway Sarin attacks, perpetrated by adherents of the Aum Shinrinko cult. Under the provocative (and, it has to be said, reprehensible) heading ‘Free Shoko Asahara’, 14 tracks are occupied by a soundtrack of drones and power electronics, over which distorted vocals intone portentous lines such as ‘”Japan’s Aum doomsday cult / that masterminded / the fatal nerve gas attack / on Tokyo subways / considered spraying the drug LSD / from the sky”. Given ANb’s determination to shock and offend, the extent to which they truly endorse the cult’s chemical weapon attack which injured thousands of innocent commuters is debatable, but one assumes that they do at least align themselves philosophically with Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg, in their enthusiastic advocacy of the merits of strong psychedelic drugs. Regardless of whether or not the listener chooses to partake in such activities or not before experiencing this album, the churning noise and scattershot approach to grind that Altered States Of America represents is likely to render the listener unsettled, confused, and not a little exhilarated.

The second set of interconnecting tracks is the centrepiece of the album, a succession of tracks detailing the band’s own 12 days of Sodom. Unsurprisingly, this is lyrically an exercise in outrageous, and frequently abhorrent profanity, and musically the tracks are virtually indistinguishable – a drum fill, a couple of seconds of warped grind, and garbled vocals screaming frequently nonsensical tirades, the most amusing of which take aim at the rather pious Boston hardcore scene exemplified by the excellent, but easily mocked, Hydrahead Records. As the twelfth near-identical song ends, it is not difficult to wonder whether Agoraphobic Nosebleed have simply concluded that due to the fact that it exists primarily to evoke an instantaneous and visceral emotional reaction to primal noise, and to evoke that same reaction every single time, musical variety in grind is ultimately redundant. And if that is the case, then why not simply release an album that endlessly repeats the same 5 seconds of noise, ad infinitum? The joke here is very much on the listener, however much they believe they are laughing along with the band.

After abnormal service is briefly resumed with ‘Poland Springfield Acidbag’, the remaining 10 minutes of Altered States Of America oscillates between light-speed grind, and sheet-metal noisescapes. No song lasts for long enough to merit the description of a highlight exactly – even as the listener is forming an opinion on ‘For Just Ten Cents A Day…’, which is the sound of Slayer filtered through a building site, or the odd amalgam of drum ‘n’ bass and Cephalic Carnage-style schizophrenic death metal of ‘Neural Linguistic Programming’, or even the laughably unfathomable grind brutality of ‘Shotgun Funeral’, several more songs have been and gone, each filled with complex rhythmic ideas, overwhelming programmed drums, and monumentally heavy guitars. It’s a whirlwind of noise, and no amount of repeat plays can commit more than a few seconds of the album to memory. To do so would require a level of repetition which simply cannot be found on an album that is predominantly comprised of songs that are over more quickly than the average Olympic 100m final. Arguably though, this does give rise to one of the more interesting facets of the album – almost every time it is played, it is experienced differently, as the ear alights momentarily on something previously unheard or overlooked amid the unrelenting and unremitting maelstrom.

It is, perhaps, a relief when the anti-climactic closing track ‘Placing A Personal Memo On The Boss’s Desk’ completes an album that is less considered musical statement, and more a succession of hands entirely constructed from extended middle fingers. Although Agoraphobic Nosebleed apparently hate everyone, it is difficult not to conclude that they reserve their harshest loathing for their own listeners, such is the endurance test that they subject them to. And yet, Altered States Of America is grimly fascinating, a drug-addled freakshow that it is impossible to tear one’s eyes and ears from. It is not unusual for metal, particularly traditional heavy metal, to take as its lyrical and conceptual theme the heroic crusade of the courageous warrior, standing alone against impossible odds, armed only with a longsword, and the strength of his convictions. Musically, the triumphant heroism of the music is designed to match this image. Agoraphobic Nosebleed, on the other hand, are the sound of this warrior slowly realising that humanity is doomed, before making sure of it in a blaze of machine-gun fire, and finally turning the gun on themselves. This sound is sometimes staggeringly impressive, sometimes forgettable, and sometimes even painful and irritating, but perhaps it is the sound that we deserve.

Score: 71%

Abigor – Fractal Possession

Author: Brendan Blake

Abigor – Fractal Possession
  • Artist: Abigor
  • Album: Fractal Possession
  • Year of Release: 2007
  • Country: Austria
  • Label: End All Life
  • Format: Digibook CD
  • Catalogue Number: EAL 052

Abigor mainstay P.K. returns after a six year absence (since 2001’s somewhat lukewarmly-received Satanized), re-recruiting drummer T.T. and new vocalist A.R. for 2007’s Fractal Possession. Abigor are quite rightly held in the highest regard within the pantheon of black metal artists, in large part because of their incredible mid- to late-90s output. This took the core backbone of early 90s Norwegian black metal, with a faintly “medieval” twist, but never felt like a direct lift of greater bands, owing to their prodigious talent and almost ADHD approach to song-writing that I have described previously as “chaos black”. Understandably there were huge expectations when a new album was announced, with many fans yearning for a return to the early Satyricon- and Emperor-influenced sounds of yesteryear, rather than Satanized’s more futuristic take on the genre. However, pandering to the kvltist fanbase has never been what Abigor are about.

The first thing to say about Fractal Possession is that it is really, really good. The second thing to say is that, despite the obvious quality on display, it is hard not to feel that Abigor are a little bit late to a party that peaked some years previously. Fractal Possession fits firmly within the Moonfoggery of mid-period Satyricon, Dødheimsgard, Thorns et al. and even to an extent Mayhem’s Grand Declaration Of War (although it is not as daring as the latter). The album kicks off with a vaguely industrial opener (‘Warning’), all robotic voices and radio sounds, which sets the scene for much of the rest of the album – in fact the subtle use of electronics, samples and keys is a real strength of the album. Abigor have never been shy of a good sample or keyword line, but this time they are used differently, creating a colder, more mechanical sound in keeping with the band’s new lyrical stance – still blasphemous and in praise of Satan but now with a technological spin (stand-out track ‘3D Blasphemy’ references the “biomechanical Antichrist”). Again, there is clear influence from the likes of Mysticum and Aborym here, although Abigor embrace industrial to nowhere near the same extent as either, using those influences as flavour more than an outright genre-shift – this is still very clearly black metal, despite its experimentation.

New vocalist A.R. puts in a solid performance – his slightly lower-pitched black metal rasp (in comparison to Silenius’ for instance) suits the music perfectly, and it’s actually nice on this occasion to be able to make out the lyrics; his experiments with clean vocals and the Maniac-style declaratory stuff is more of a mixed bag. When it works, it briefly reminds of Garm or Aldrahn, but when it doesn’t, it sounds out of place (the close of ‘Vapourized Tears’ is suspiciously like latter-day Katatonia – a band I love, but this just doesn’t fit with the rest of this album). The layered guitar sound retains some of the sense of melody from older Abigor, and is unquestionably tightly arranged and performed, and I personally like the slightly stop-start nature of some of the riffing. Also in common with older Abigor are the sheer number of riffs being utilised across the whole album, even if it sounds superficially more straightforward, owing to the impressive production that renders everything audible, which was still a bit of a rarity in black metal in 2007. The drumming of T.T. is predictably incredibly varied and impressive, and he has admirably turned his hand to the mechanical sound of the New Abigor.

This isn’t perfect and could easily be dismissed as an example of bandwagon-jumping by a previous innovator within the scene. I’m more charitable and think this is an excellent example of third-wave black metal embracing new influences and creating something of musical worth. Even if Abigor at this stage were not doing anything wildly ground-breaking, that doesn’t detract from the fact that this is an exceptionally solid set of songs that hang together as a coherent album and represent an impressive return from the proverbial grave for a band many had written off towards the end of the 00s. Recommended.

Score: 78%

Agoraphobic Nosebleed – Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope

Author: BD Joyce

Agoraphobic Nosebleed – Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope
  • Artist: Agoraphobic Nosebleed
  • Album: Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope
  • Year of Release: 2002
  • Country: USA
  • Label: Relapse Records
  • Format: Jewelcase CD
  • Catalogue Number: RR 6530

Agoraphobic Nosebleed, if the name alone were not clue enough, have long been arch provocateurs of the grindcore scene, taking the basic template of the genre – warp-speed riffing, relentless blastbeats, and short, sharp songs lasting seconds rather than minutes – and deconstructing it, before feeding it piece by piece into a psychedelic blender, and lacing the resulting slurry with a liberal (and quite possibly libertarian) dose of offensive, irreverent humour. Grind is often a form of extreme music infused with the (generally left-wing) political ideology of its creators; bands such as Napalm Death, Brutal Truth and Insect Warfare have commonly used both their lyrics and public statements as a platform for their beliefs, advocating strongly anti-capitalist and pro-animal rights ideological positions. However, almost as a direct reaction to both these viewpoints themselves, and also perhaps the po-faced and sometimes overly earnest stance of much grind, there has long been a strain of the genre which has sought to embrace the inherent absurdity of sounds which are, due to their extremity, unintelligible and frankly unpalatable to all but a small proportion of music fans, translating this sonic absurdity to the lyrical content. Probably due to their none-more-offensive name and song titles, Anal Cunt are the most well-known and notorious proponents of this version of grind, and it is fairly easy to draw a straight line from that now unavoidably defunct band (two of the Cunts are dead) to Agoraphobic Nosebleed. Not least because the single consistent member of ANb, guitarist / drum programmer Scott Hull, spent a couple of years as the Anal Cunt guitarist, presumably because he shared both that particular band’s musical and thematic preferences. Of course, much of the evidence suggests that despite Anal Cunt arguably aiming to position their outrageous themes as some kind of post-modern artistic statement, deploying racism and homophobia in deliberate provocation of liberal sensibilities, not unlike punks embracing Nazi imagery in the 1970s, in actual fact they meant much of what they said, and were fundamentally just objectionable, abhorrent individuals. The same cloud of suspicion cannot help but hang over Agoraphobic Nosebleed, and not unlike their distant cousins, they actively welcome and even weaponise the antagonism, in a blaze of gross-out humour and hyper-sexualised lyrics and samples that litter their albums, including this, their second full-length.

Even in the hands of extreme metal bands, the album tends to be a device that is aimed very much at guiding the listener through a carefully planned exploration, traversing the peaks and troughs that can be created by a judicious use of dynamics, tempos and song arrangements. If Agoraphobic Nosebleed are taking the listener on a journey, however, it is a one-way joyride downwards, through a progressively more hideous hellscape, during which the vehicle reaches terminal velocity almost instantaneously, before finally immolating itself and all of its flayed passengers in a thermonuclear explosion that frankly comes as a demented relief from the demented soundtrack to the apocalypse that Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope represents. Like landmarks seen from the window of a speeding bullet train, which loom into view momentarily, before evaporating in a blur as the landscape continually reconfigures itself, the songs pass by so swiftly that it is almost impossible to grasp them in any kind of meaningful way, riffs and drums piling on top of one another in an unending, shapeshifting perpetual motion.

After a brief intro, second track ‘Bitch’s Handbag Full Of Money’ sets the tone for the rest of the album – guitars like razor blades work through 30 seconds of taut warp-speed grind riffing, while the programmed drums offer a passable impression of an indiscriminate assault by machine gun. Indeed, the replacement of the more conventional human skin-beater with a drum machine, is one of the key points of difference for ANb, in comparison to the average grind band. In fact, one can’t help but feel that, in keeping with their enfant terrible aesthetic, this is another way in which the band use their position within the grind scene as a platform to poke fun at the rest of the scene, so fond of boasting of the (undeniably impressive) superhuman prowess of drummers like Dave Witte of Discordance Axis, who are able to blast their way athletically through song after song of insanely complex noise. In place of the all too superhuman timekeeper, ANb instead opt for a truly inhuman mechanised backdrop to their grind and, due in no small part to the masterful programming abilities of Scott Hull, it is hugely successful. What Agoraphobic Nosebleed lose in the feel and visceral thrill generated by a four-limbed drummer operating at the limits of their capacity, they gain in the manic intensity of a the relentless pounding of a drummer whose energy never wanes. There are also songs where the electronic capabilities available to the band allow them to push the envelope in ways that conventional instrumentation do not permit – ‘Hungry Homeless Handjob’ utilises a cold, throbbing techno drum part which pushes the tone and velocity into gabber territory, well outside the standard parameters of grind, and the delightfully titled ‘Shit Slit’ comes close to the kind of pure white noise that it is virtually impossible to produce organically. It is in these moments that ANb transcend their sometimes inherently gimmicky nature and transform into a more substantial, and frankly more interesting proposition than they may appear to be at first glance.

In fact, the more attention that one pays to each individual slab of grind mayhem, flying by at something approaching the speed of light, the more apparent the complexity and ingenuity that underpins many of their best songs becomes. In many respects, the grind of ANb is less the hardcore punk taken to its logical conclusion of their forbears such as Extreme Noise Terror or Napalm Death, and in actual fact more the kind of technical death metal popularised by a slew of Relapse label mates in the late 1990s (Dying Fetus, Origin etc), albeit compressed into the sort of dense and concise explosions of fury that tend to characterise grind. The death metal leanings can be detected with ease in the impenetrable drum flurries of ‘Ceremonial Gas Mask’, the churning Immolation-style riffing of ‘Dead Battery’ drenched in lugubrious pinch harmonics, and the energetic, chromatic thrashing of ‘Repercussions In The Life Of An Opportunistic, Pseudo-Intellectual Jackass’, which features a vocal cameo from Pete Ponitkoff of Benümb, a band that ANb show frequent similarities to in their less schizophrenic moments.

There are, of course, a number of tracks on which the more technical elements of the band’s sound are dialled down in favour of pure, heads down grind madness, more in the vein of a less crusty, and if we’re being truthful, less good Nasum. ‘Kill Theme For American Apeshit’ is malevolent grind, a fuzzy, almost black metal, guitar sound adding a woozy, seasick quality to the disorientating interweaving guitar lines, all of which acts to set the stage for a ‘Siege Of Power’-style mosh section to decimate the second half of the track. Similarly, the crunchy chugging of ‘Crap Cannon’ the tremolo-picked urgency of ‘Protection From Enemies’ and molten wall-to-wall blasting powerchords of ‘Double Negative’ offer plenty of opportunities for bug-eyed speedfreaks to get their conventional grind kicks, ANb packing an incredible amount of almost steroidal energy into galactically heavy bursts of high-velocity rage.

But, as previously mentioned, it’s the left turns and more off-kilter experimental moments that really catch the ear on Frozen Corpse Stuffed With Dope, and elevate the final result above the legions of 20 minute blastfests and split 7 inches that comprise the average grind act’s discography. This is not to criticise such releases, very much the lifesblood of the grind scene globally – Agoraphobic Nosebleed themselves have a typically labyrinthine back catalogue full of the kind of output that poses a severe challenge to any self-respecting completist. However, the format of a full-length studio album on a prestigious extreme label such as Relapse demands something a little more sophisticated, and ANb’s ability to combine the generic traits of grind with facets of power-electronics and noisecore ensures that they deliver on this count. Standout tracks in this vein include the electronically-augmented hyperblast of ‘Bovine Caligula’, bouncy punk-metal soundclash of ‘Time vs. Necessity’ (which is oddly reminiscent of Atari Teenage Riot), and precision legato guitar runs adoring the Dillinger Escape Plan stylings of ‘Ambulance Burning’, Most startlingly of all, ‘Organ Donor’ offers an alternative take on early-80s post-punk, before abruptly changing tack and unfurling the kind of monstrous, monolithic riff that Botch once made their speciality. Indeed, this is probably the only time that the album proffers anything catchy enough to be described as a hook, with the honourable exception of a maniacal cover of Nuclear Assault’s classic ‘Hang The Pope’, which features that band’s Dan Lilker assisting ANb in pushing the already extreme velocity of the borderline grind of the original to the point at which it triumphantly becomes indistinguishable from the band’s own material.

As ‘Fuckmaker’ closes the album with yet another contrarian gesture – a couple of minutes of completely incongruous trip-hop after 37 tracks of breakneck grind, followed by a couple of minutes of silence before the album expires in a haze of rapid-fire blasting and a final unpleasant sample – it is difficult not to conclude that Agoraphobic Nosebleed have contributed a work of high calibre that, while not exactly genre-smashing, does develop and progress the genre in some exciting directions. It doesn’t have the coherence and elite level songs of From Enslavement To Obliteration, Extreme Conditions Demand Extreme Responses or World Downfall, thus missing out of top tier status, but it does deserve to be considered one of the better modern examples of grind, and has been surpassed by relatively few records within the genre in the nearly 20 years since its release.

Score: 82%