Dark Hemyspheres: March 2015
Start with the usual introductory waffle, blah blah blah. Start with some inane comment about the weather, followed by ritualistic blood sacrifices, death and despair, and finally on to Easter bunnies. Next try to be witty and clever but utterly fail on both accounts, before finishing up with a tenuous link to music. You've heard it all before.
The term "progressive black metal" seems all too much like an oxymoron, especially given the freedom with which it is bandied around. To actually find a band both proggy and black is rare enough, but one that is genuinely progressive too? It must be time for the new Enslaved album. Indeed, In Times  is another tour de force that seamlessly combines chilling, malignant black metal with the ambitious scope and technical prowess of prog's finest. There is a dynamism to proceedings as the hour rattles by in short order, yet it is still packed with dark menace hiding in every shadow – one that rarely comes into plain view, but neither quite fully withdrawing. This is an immensely dense piece, one that takes many listens to get under the surface; in doing so however, the rewards are rich.
It was with real anticipation that I approached A Umbra Omega , the long-await new Dødheimsgard offering but there has been much gnashing of teeth and despairing shakes of the head as it completely fails to live up to the band's heritage. Flat and lifeless, the jazz-tinged black metal tries to be far too clever, merely tripping over its own feet. There is not an ounce of malevolence to be found anywhere, a disappointingly dreary affair from folks we know who can do better. These certainly aren't issues faced by France's Nyseius on De Divinatione Daemonium . Drawing upon deeply satanic works and organisations, the camp theatre is largely escaped whilst the more sinister elements carry a record that is thick in atmosphere. The guitars create a wall of bleak, paranoid noise most befitting the subject matter at hand.
A new Ufomammut record is always a bit of an experience, and thankfully Ecate  is no different. A heady mix of thunderous doom swirled with an unhealthy dose of psychedelic synth magic, they somehow manage to pull you both up and down at the same time. The guitars have that raw, thick sludgy feel to them that taps into the most basic pleasures of "really fucking loud", contrasting with the blissful electronic haze that surrounds yet rarely controls the music. On a far more traditional doom tilt is Finnish trio Garden Of Worm. Five years after their self-titled debut, Idle Stones  is made up of four solid dirges that are reminiscent of the genre's founding fathers, yet aren't wholly steeped in regressive nostalgia. Adept at using faster sections to slow the more funereal passages down even further and acoustic interludes to add punch to the heaviness, this is certainly an enjoyable affair, but one that is still a little too textbook.
Over the past few years a very strong collection of savagely violent and monstrously heavy grindcore/death metal crossover acts have emerge from the States, especially out west. The latest are Theories, whose debut Regression  is another fast and furious display of blurred fists and fast-cut destruction. Without a moment to breathe, the thirty minutes race by on the back of machine gun blast beats and bulldozer riffs, with injuries to the neck being a common complaint as a result. Similarly, on their first full-length Mud , Death Engine let rip with a torrent of hate-fuelled bile. However, this is not the single-minded brutality of their American brethren; these Frenchmen add a little more diversity, changes of pace and angles of attack. The result is a more varied, even a more interesting album, but one that lacks that headcrushing impact that has become so prominent of late.
The prospect of Anneke Van Giersbergen and Arjen Anthony Lucassen doing a concept album together under The Gentle Storm moniker, raised as much trepidation as excitement. Two discs of full-on seafaring power prog, one with the album done acoustically and the second in a more familiar prog metal guise, the idea has so many potential pitfalls. Thankfully The Diary  neatly sidesteps the majority of them. The "Gentle" half can fall in between two stalls at times as a multitude of weird and wonderful instruments join the fray, but often feel sidelined and under-used in a bid to be safe rather than really going for it. The far superior version is the "Storm" side, a grandiose, bombastic odyssey full of operatic pomp and deliciously heavy metal. It goes almost without saying that Anneke's vocals are spectacular, and she truly lets rip as the waves of guitars, violins and choral wailings provide a fitting stage for the musical dramatics.
With new vocalist Jón Aldará coming into the fold, I was expecting something different from Barren Earth, but I wasn't expecting this. On Lonely Towers  retains the schizophrenic nature of modern progressive metal, the "growls" being not far removed from earlier work, although the band lean even more so towards raw death metal in these sections. It is Jón's clean vocals that have added a completely different face to the beast. Powerful and crisp in a classical manner, there is a strong gothic air to proceedings now - a straight, well-dressed and decidedly chilling dimension. On the shorter songs that front the album, this does not work so well – it all sounds a bit 1980s. But get amongst the more epic numbers in the second half, and suddenly it all comes together brilliantly. Time is given to let the tracks breathe and evolve, flowing majestically through all manner of dark moods as the record finally takes flight.
Two of experimental music's leading ladies, Jarboe And Helen Money, have joined forces in a harrowing 30 minutes of twisted, gorgeous sonic exploration. The backbone of their self-titled effort  is the interplay between the former's rapier-like vocals and the latter's abuse of her beloved cello. Never has this instrument suffered such torture, so distantly removed from the sweet sounds it has produced for centuries, yet the abrasive and distorted results are mesmerizingly beautiful. Another hypnotic collaboration is Behold , the second such meeting between Oren Ambarchi & Jim O'Rourke. Two sides of slowly shifting krautrock-tinged ambient drones, the second half in particular could be some lost 70s relic from one of their kosmische heroes. The gentle rhythmic pulsings fading in and out throughout slowly draw the listener in to this admirable study of meditative tones, but ultimately this falls too close and too short to the genre's innovators to be little more than a passing curio.
Post-rock has come a long way since the early days of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a scene now often blighted by over-indulgence and recycled ideas. So it is very pleasing to hear the Canadian pioneers strip away much of the fat and produce a wonderfully crafted forty minute exploration of textures and melodies in the shape of 'Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress' . A body of work that has been explored and refined on the road in the old-fashioned way, the trials have paid dividends as what is left is visceral and sharp. The central core is a dark, menacing drone that slowly morphs and builds to a shattering crescendo; an experience that is haunting, unsettling and completely exhausting. But ultimately it is cathartic as it bursts into the euphoric final release of 'Piss Crowns Are Trebled', a return to more melodious but no less emotive or demanding waters. This is a tremendous album, one that grabs you and makes sure you feel every high and every low on its mountainous voyage.
I might not have been a fan of the acoustically reworked album that prompted the tour, but the new Katatonia live DVD Sanctitude  is truly wonderful. Filmed at the stunning Union Chapel in London, it is everything the studio equivalent is not: emotive and heartfelt. The quality of the songs from right across their vast back catalogue shines through in a setting befitting the pain and agony rife throughout. Everything is so fragile that a mere sneeze might shatter the entire evening, but by living on that knife edge this becomes raw and alive, a visceral experience that so few bands appearing in these ranks could ever hope to achieve. The closing pair of 'Evidence' and 'The One You Are Looking For Is Not Here' (the latter with Silje Wergeland reprising her guest appearance) are simply spellbinding, perfect examples that metal can also be heartbreaking in the right hands.
Enslaved – In Times (9th, Nuclear Blast Records)
Dødheimsgard – A Umbra Omega (16th, Peaceville Records)
Nyseius – De Divinatione Daemonium (30th, ATMF)
Ufomammut – Ecate (30th, Neurot Recordings)
Garden Of Worm – Idle Stones (9th, Svart Records)
Theories – Regression (23rd, Metal Blade Records)
Death Engine – Mud (2nd, Apocaplexy Records)
The Gentle Storm – The Diary (23rd, InsideOut Music)
Barren Earth – On Lonely Towers (30th, Century Media Records)
Jarboe And Helen Money – Jarboe And Helen Money (2nd, Aurora Borealis)
Oren Ambarchi & Jim O'Rourke – Behold (2nd, Editions Mego)
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – 'Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress' (30th, Constellation Records)
Katatonia – Sanctitude (30th, Kscope)