Dark Hemyspheres: August 2013

Summer still very much seems to be the "in" thing with the music industry this month, judging by the lack of releases hitting my inbox (although September already seems to be stacking up to be a bit crazy…) Yet there are a few bits and oddbobs that need listening to - and a number to be avoided - so once more unto the breach!

The first effort to be tackled is the long-awaited Watain LP. This is a band that inspires such devotion and fanaticism in otherwise rational beings. I'm yet to fall fully under their spell myself: there is still a lot to admire about The Wild Hunt [7] as the ferocious wall of heavy black metal delivers a thunderous blow, made all the more powerful by the clever use of mellower passages to balance things out. Despite the childish satanic image they try to portray, elements of Pink Floyd and King Crimson seep through the facade and the music speaks far more forcefully than any of their silly props ever can. The same cannot be said about Front Beast unfortunately, as there is a stark contrast with their monotonous effort. Demon Ways Of Sorcery [4] is as cliché-ridden as its title suggests, the mind-numbing mid-paced Venom worship wearing the patience very thin in short order. A hollow record, both in terms of originality and sound, this is easily forgotten – and best done so.

Italians Fleshgod Apocalypse are another band not afraid to dabble in the theatrical. With a very symphonic take on death metal, Labyrinth [6] is a dense and rich record that revels is being completely over the top. A relentless clash of furious guitars and huge banks of stringy synths, raging along to the blitz of the maniacal drums, this is a whirlwind of aural destruction that flies by almost too fast to take in. And therein lies its downfall, the singular pace of the whole piece becomes too monotonous, flattening the life out of it despite the fun the album initially holds. On the other hand, Exhumed are far more traditional. Necrocracy [5] is a dirty and gory little listen as per all the old school classics. Gravely vocals pushed into the blood-soaked wounds caused by the chainsaw guitars is the usual messy fun, but in truth there is nothing overly exciting here - just another standard death metal album.

Southern Lord offer up two fresh signings this month with quick-fire blasts of punishing hardcore. Easily the better of the pair are Centuries as Taedium Vitae [8] deftly adds a spot of melody to the tempestuous onslaught. But don't be fooled into thinking this means they have compromised in any way when it comes to laying down a few salvos; this is most definitely a truly devastating twenty minutes of aural violence. With twenty two songs lasting less than twenty four minutes, Dead In The Dirt don't hang around either. Blind Hole [6] squeals and shrieks its way through the bite size blasts, but lack the continuity and power of their new label mates. I must reluctantly admit the Americans do this brand of music a lot better than us Brits, as CB6 sound almost pathetic by comparison. Also just starting out with their debut, Succession [4] misses the unadulterated menace, hatred and speed of their peers over the pond. This is not a terribly bad album, but I know who I'd rather have on my side in a brawl.

Mysterious Oregon quartet Merkstave produced just two doom-laden demos a couple of years ago before disappearing back from whence they came. Now tweaked and brought together for a wider release, Merkstave [5] is a ponderous affair as it slowly shifts from glacial riffs to morose acoustic interludes in the finest doom tradition. A suitably heavy and funereal offering, it never quite breaks out of this age-old cycle that has become de rigueur for such bands, and so never rises beyond the merely average. Leila Abdul-Rauf sails in bleaker waters still with her first solo record, Cold And Cloud [6]. Inspired by the insipid San Francisco summers, it is a beautifully sparse and relaxing album as the gentle drones suit her ghostly voice to perfection, their feather-light touch sending shivers down the spine. But as good as moments like 'In This Dream' and 'Will I Be Sane' are, the music slowly drifts off into the background the deeper in you delve.

It has been a while since I've heard much from Front Line Assembly, but the sudden appearance of Echogenetic [7] filled me with an unexpected excitement. This older, wiser incarnation might not have the raw exuberance of youth fuelled by a feeling of injustice and rebellion their classic early albums had, but what we have here is a superbly crafted record filled with an aged darkness. The band show a deep understanding of how to translate this gnawing desolation into music that is both enjoyable yet deeply unsettling, a twisted trip down old alleyways and past mistakes. Recent years have seen certain elements of the electronic scene, especially Stateside, try to take on a harder and more extreme edge, but in one fell swoop Front Line Assembly have shown them all just how far away they are from pushing any boundaries.

To sit through the entire three discs of the new Horseback collection A Plague Of Knowing [5] is something of an endurance challenge, especially given the 42 minute title track that makes up the final part is just a short, dense psychedelic space rock riff repeated over and over and over again with no relief. The rest is a haphazard mix of gloomy experiments in ambience, drone and rock, brightened by some magical moments such as the MILH/IHVH 7" and a twenty minute live rendition of 'Impale Golden'. A smidge shorter, the two part blast of Gunslingers' Massacre-Rock Deviant Inquisitors [6] really is as mad as it sounds. The French trio channel those crazy outer limits of Japanese psych rock with a sharp, if somewhat unhinged touch. But with just sixteen minutes of what is essential the same riff (...again...), this mini-album feels a little unfulfilling.

This year has thrown up nothing quite as surprising as A Gourd Of Gold [8]. The latest in the excellent Latitudes Sessions, Arbouretum choose to give four songs from Canadian folk legend Gordon Lightfoot a droney, reverb-soaked makeover. As good as the other three covers are, including a wonderfully mesmeric and ambient version of the pop hit 'Early Morning Rain', it is the twelve harrowing minutes of 'The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald' that reduces me to a sobbing mess. The unforgiving despair and loss imbued in this saddest of tales haunts you long after the extended outro fades. Gentle distorted guitars and slow wailing lead lines transport the listener out into the howling winds whipping across Lake Superior in mid-November, the rhythmical drums inextricably leading towards the watery graves of twenty nine desperate souls; "The legend lives on..." Alas, there is no copy of 'The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald' currently available online, so you’ll have to make do with this!

Watain – The Wild Hunt (19th, Century Media)
Front Beast – Demon Ways Of Sorcery (19th, Hells Headbangers)
Fleshgod Apocalypse – Labyrinth (19th, Nuclear Blast)
Exhumed – Necrocracy (5th, Relapse Records)
Centuries – Taedium Vitae (5th, Southern Lord)
Dead In The Dirt – Blind Hole (5th, Southern Lord)
CB6 – Succession (5th, Self-Released)
Merkstave – Merkstave (19th, Pesanta Urfolk)
Leila Abdul-Rauf – Cold And Cloud (19th, Saadi Saati)
Front Line Assembly – Echogenetic (19th, Mindbase)
Horseback – A Plague Of Knowing (19th, Relapse Records)
Gunslingers – Massacre-Rock Deviant Inquisitors (5th, Riot Season)
Arbouretum – A Gourd Of Gold (26th, Latitudes)

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