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%

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%