Dark Hemyspheres: March 2014

The month of March... Spring is in the air, the blossoms are emerging, and the release schedule kicks into overdrive as we shake off the post-Christmas blues. For those of us preferring darkness and bloodshed over cute fluffy bunnies (though I wouldn't say no to chocolate ones to bite a few heads off from), lets rifle through this month's selection box.

The first devilish delight to be unwrapped is the tenth anniversary reissue of 65daysofstatic's seminal debut, The Fall Of Math [7]. The album still stands up as a cornerstone of the instrumental post-rock scene, a phantasmagoria of sounds and influences to keep it interesting from start to finish. Flowing seamlessly from heavy to light and back again, this is so much more than the clichés now synonymous with much of the genre as it drags you along with a vibrancy that can often be found lacking. Also included are both the Retreat! Retreat! B-sides and Hole EP, which show off the more electronic, beat-led side of the band, nicely drawing together this most important of times in a highly influential outfit.

Alaskan are very much at the heavier end of the post-rock spectrum, with moments of relief used sparingly on Despair, Erosion, Loss [5]. The objective remains the same, however: music that is grandiose, uplifting but with a punch that can be devastating if it lands. The results here are mixed, with the album retaining the attention throughout - although with precious few new ideas to contribute.

The debut from Nothing, Guilty Of Everything [4] is an ode to all music shoegaze. Seemingly transported straight from the nineties, the ghostly vocals and reverb-drenched - yet crunchy - guitars don't just resonate with the works of My Bloody Valentine et al, but damn well near imitate them. It's a pleasant enough listen, dreamy and relaxing, but offers up nothing fresh or exciting that could tempt fans away from their classics. Dangerously close to cheap knock-off territory. Sleepy Sun however, blur the boundary between shoegaze and stoner, and in doing so inject much more variety into Maui Tears [6]. The first half remains somewhat introverted, the languid riffs showing hints of the prog and psych that become more prominent as we plunge deeper, climaxing in the spectacular ten minute jam of the title track that closes the trip in joyous style.

Heading into more traditional doom-laden lands, Endless [7] is a fine example of the latest fad of having monstrous, crawling guitars fronted by beautiful, melodious female vocals. Mount Salem bristle with power, a relentless wave of crushing despair coated with a delicious layer of sweet honey to tempt you in. The whole package does hold up as the songwriting is every bit as heavy as the vocals are beguiling, making the band a welcome addition to the scene.

Finland's Kuolemanlaakso don't even bother with the ying and yang on second offering Tulijoutsen [6], instead delivering another fine dose of prog-laced doom that is equally subtle and brutal. The band is something of a who’s-who in the extreme scene up in their homeland, and it shines through as they craft eight wonderful doses of heavy yet surprisingly catchy odes to the dark side. Back on these shores, Conan have created something of a buzz, a hype Blood Eagle [4] fails to live up to. The horrible production is the downfall here, everything being hidden behind a huge slab of saggy and wobbly bass. It is as if this is being played from two doors down – you can hear music with a vast amount of low-end, but you can't quite discern it all.

After last month's bonanza of retro-filled records, March is a little sparser on that front. The stand out is The Oath's self-titled debut, a trans-European ode to the original hard rock scene. The brainchild of Linnea Olsson and Johanna Sadonis, The Oath [5] is a fun ride with big riffs and flawless vocals, but ultimately lacks the inspiration to raise it above little more than hero worship. Alternatively, there is MagnumEscape From The Shadow Garden [3] is no less than their eighteenth album and, as much respect as you have to give a band that have lasted so long, this latest is just like another one off the same old production line. The band had their heyday in the eighties, and by the sounds of things, they still think they are there. Mid-paced and simple riffs are fleshed out with sweeping Casio keyboard patches that are too cheesy to be taken seriously.

Despite all the setbacks they've suffered (including disbanding), Bigelf are at last back with another helping of maniacal prog weirdness. Into The Maelstrom [7] sounds like a 70s giant finally catching up to the present day as Sabbath bullishness meets Genesis-esque whimsy in a bold, astronomical whirl of a concept album. Built around Damon Fox's nostalgic organ, this is an uplifting delight of a record.

Gazpacho are another band not afraid of playing with a spot of strangeness in their music. In Demon [7] there are elements as diverse as Eastern European gypsy dances and heart-achingly beautiful strings, yet they make it all work with a finesse and poise that is breath-taking. This a dark record, the sort of blackness that creeps in unnoticed until it is all-encompassing, and very difficult to forget. On the other hand, Wild Throne are far more frenetic. Blood Maker [6] may only be a three track EP, but the energy and drive here is impressive, and bodes well for any future full-length. Calling to mind the likes of Mastodon and Protest The Hero, there is already the beginnings of a distinctive identity.

Having blinked in and out of existence between the activities of each members' other bands, Twilight have become elusive even in a genre overwhelmed by isolationists. III: Beneath Trident's Tomb [6] sees a black metal outsider in the form of Thurston Moore joining in, not that you would be able to guess from the output. A solid but unspectacular affair, this is a fine take on modern black metal but one that fails to raise any bars, despite the illustrious alumni. Even more plain is Feeding The Crawling Shadows [4] from Sargeist. Competent and big sounding, it is also incredibly monotonous, resulting in it become background noise all too swiftly. It remains cold and ferocious throughout, but to anyone desensitised to the simplistic harshness that plagues much of the scene will find little excitement here. More memorable is Tomorrowillbeworse, as Down The Road Of Nothing [5] switches pace to build and release the freezing tension. Although it remains decidedly clichéd and stuck to the stereotypes, there are far worse examples being pushed out every month.

First and foremost, death metal must ooze gore like pus from a septic wound, and Carnifex do it with panache. Die Without Hope [7] is a very modern take with its clinical, almost surgical finish and odd (in both senses) harmonious string and piano segments but the blood-crazed nastiness abounds. This is guttural and primeval, a rallying cry that finds the primitive deviant in us. Shroud Of The Heretic remain old school in their approach, but Revelations In Alchemy [5] is tired and wan by comparison. The record plods along without any real menace or direction, the thunderous bursts of speed petering out before any momentum builds up. Taking the more melodic route, Ancient Ascendant manage to make Echoes And Cinder [5] feel like a compromise. Devoid of bite, the overly long tracks drag their feet and fail to elicit any devilish joy. And in that there is the overriding impression left by the album – it is simply dull.

They've made something of a name for themselves in their homeland on the back of energetic and positively scary live shows, and now Japan's Gezan are being introduced to the rest of the world. Their debut It Was Once Said To Be A Song [3] is first out of the blocks, a noisy, glitchy but primarily disjointed affair. Full of punky angst tied with that familiar Japanese psychedelic distorted guitar sound, it is the irritating electronics and inability to sit still for thirty seconds that leaves it feeling cold and needlessly random. Far more focused are Epistasis, and the reward is a much more palatable record in Light Through Dead Glass [6]. Still largely built on a foundation of punk and noise, there appears to be far greater care taken in crafting a finished product. A slew of genres inform the music beyond its skeleton, giving it a rich diversity, but always incorporated with a degree of intelligence.

Unlike last month, I have had to think long and hard over the latest dark star award. One album very quickly became a firm favourite, but I'm still not convinced it is actually the best on offer here. Still, Bong have won me over (again) with their Lovecraft-themed Stoner Rock [8]. Comprising just a pair of 35+ minute tracks, this is a colossal undertaking to sit all the way through, but for those so inclined the gargantuan distorted guitar drones are a highly enjoyable and remarkably blissful experience. Stoner Rock leaves no room for thought as it obliterates the neural pathways, leaving only a wave of sheer terror after the quoted passages from the stories the two tracks take their names emerge out of the noise. Like the best horror stories, whatever their medium, this is spellbinding, terrifying but gripping; as soon as you dip a toe in, Bong grab hold and pull you under, never to let go...

65daysofstatic – The Fall Of Math (24th, Monotreme Records)
Alaskan – Despair, Erosion, Loss (3rd, Alerta Antifascista)
Nothing – Guilty Of Everything (3rd, Relapse Records)
Sleepy Sun – Maui Tears (17th, Dine Alone Records)
Mount Salem – Endless (3rd, Metal Blade Records)
Kuolemanlaakso – Tulijoutsen (3rd, Svart Records)
Conan – Blood Eagle (3rd, Napalm Records)
The Oath – The Oath (Rise Above Records)
Magnum – Escape From The Shadow Garden (24th, SPV)
Bigelf – Into The Maelstrom (3rd, InsideOut Music)
Gazpacho – Demon (17th, Kscope)
Wild Throne – Blood Maker (3rd, Brutal Panda Records)
Twilight – III: Beneath Trident's Tomb (17th, Century Media Records)
Sargeist – Feeding The Crawling Shadows (31st, W.T.C. Productions)
Tomorrowillbeworse – Down The Road Of Nothing (3rd, Avantgarde Music)
Carnifex – Die Without Hope (10th, Nuclear Blast Records)
Shroud Of The Heretic – Revelations In Alchemy (10th, Blood Harvest)
Ancient Ascendant – Echoes And Cinder (3rd, Candlelight Records)
Gezan – It Was Once Said To Be A Song (24th, Important Records)
Epistasis – Light Through Dead Glass (31st, Crucial Blast)
Bong – Stoner Rock (3rd, Ritual Productions)

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