In Remembrance, We Shall Pray Backwards — 2021

Unfortunately, “isolation” has been an unusually busy time for me, and a consequence of this is that this blog has become a low enough priority that it has not seen an update since its first post. But there is somewhat of a lull now between the activities that have kept me occupied. So I would like now to revive this blog from its stillbirth.

The plan is to make this a first in a series of twelve posts in which I discuss (or maybe at times, drone on about) my favorite albums from each year in the interval from 2010 to 2021, in reverse order. Here is the one from this year.

This is the cover for Imperative Imperceptible Impulse, a work of dissonant death metal by Ad Nauseam.

Although (extreme) metal is easily my favorite (sub)genre of music, it is difficult for me to apply the term “masterpiece” to works from this genre in any way that is not extremely selective. In fact, there are only three albums to which I have been willing to affix this label. One is Mayhem’s 2007 album, Ordo ad Chao, with the caveat that is must be viewed with this label in the time that it was released. Another came out between 2010 and 2020, so I think I won’t spoil it. This release by Ad Nauseam is the third.

There is really a lot here, and this was clear to me on the first listen. What wasn’t clear to me immediately was that all of it is really worth listening to, unpacking, and digesting. I needed a few extra listens to understand this. I think it was the twang of the minor seconds that brought me back to this album after hearing it once. But others might not be fortunate enough to have some strange reason of this nature to come back to this album, if they do not already understand what might be extracted from it. So I want to emphasize certain aspects of this album which deserve to be noticed. Here is one such aspect.

  • There is barely a notion of lead versus rhythm guitar here; there is only left channel and right channel. What the guitars play in either channel are different, usually very different.

The guitars are therefore contrasting in space. The album is supposed to be very dissonant, so this is a good choice. And despite the contrast, they are really complementary from the point of view of this style of dissonance.

It is very impressive to me, by the way, that the music for each guitar was written so well with such contrast. I don’t understand how this is done. The guitars are often so different that it almost sounds like the writing has to evolve out of some improvisation. But the music does not actually sound improvised at all.

  • In the hellscape of dissonant metal, prominent yet distinct roles are played by tritones and by minor seconds, the former often being more prominent. Here the roles seem to be reversed, and this is essential to the atmosphere of the music.
  • The result of the production is an organicity that allows for a lot of subtlety to be placed into the low end.

Often the riffs on either guitar switch between the high end and the low end quite rapidly, and a some of what is played on the low end often almost gets lost in the production. But this is a feature. I think if the production packed more of a punch, in a way which is typical of death metal, much of what happens on the low end would sound too weird and unnatural.

The percussion also deserves a good deal of praise, including the following point.

  • Despite the rhythmic complexity of the drumming, the drum lines themselves are extremely memorable.

Surely this is a more subjective point. Here is what I mean by it: Often in avant-garde metal, the rhythms become very complicated, and a consequence of this is that it becomes very difficult to intuit what the drummer will do while one is listening to the music. This is even true, at least for me, even after several listens for some albums. I don’t experience this with this Ad Nauseam record, however. While the drumming is still very complex and interesting, it remains very intuitive. This must be an extremely difficult balance to strike.

I want to close this post by listing either one specific aspect or one specific moment of each of the six tracks on this album which I feel deserve attention. Look out for these points while listening to the record.

  1. The outro of Sub Specie Aeternitatis is lain over an “endlessly ascending” string riff; this is merely a loop during which the pitch does ascend, but the high end becomes quieter. This should be compared to the percussion during and just before this loop, which slowly accelerates, though not through tempo, but more discretely through duration of each note.
  2. Inexorably ousted Sente ends with a very interesting but brief passage wherein all instruments repeat every three quarter notes, but they do so on an off-beat mark, 11/16 into the measure. This creates a strong “record skipping” effect, possibly disorienting until it terminates.
  3. The passage before the outro of Coincidentia Oppositorum is possibly my favorite moment on the entire album. In it, the guitar in the right channel plays a chaotic riff in 9/4 timing which exists mostly in the mid-to-high end, something which is more or less standard on this album. But it is underscored by low end pulses emitted simultaneously by the bass and the guitar in the left channel. The thing to note here is that these pulses are quintuplets, but they may sound at first like they are in intervals of 3/16 (even though, were this the case, it would leave too much extra space at the end of each measure). This possible confusion might result because the drumming in this section is still in intervals of powers of 1/2, and certainly not 1/5. While this all sounds extremely disorienting, this passage somehow remains sufficiently coherent to be listenable. This demonstrates a masterful control of rhythm.
  4. The title track of Imperative Imperceptible Impulse is, at least at this moment, my favorite on the album, and there is a lot one can note here. But I want to draw attention to the progression of the entire track. Throughout the song, the music itself very slowly takes on a more positive attitude, which particularly begins to shine during the final third of the song. But then it is smothered in the outro, bringing us back to where we began.
  5. In the outro of Horror Vacui, the prominent riff is played by the guitar in the right channel, and it is borrowed from the passage just after the intro. These two passages containing this riff should be compared; at least to me, they sound significantly different, despite the fact that what is played by the other instruments, while different amongst these passages, is maybe not significantly so. I think this is due mostly to subtleties in the percussion. In the first of these two passages, the drummer plays a straightforward blast beat in triplets, while in the second, the accentuation of quarter notes is prominent, giving it a kind of “third-tempo” effect.
  6. Human Interface To No God is the most chaotic track on the album (until it becomes the least) and the way this chaos is accomplished is worth noting. The song is slower than the rest, and this gives the guitars room to move more than on the other tracks without becoming incoherent.

I can’t promise anything, but I hope to keep this blog alive from this point, or at least on life support. If this was a worthwhile read, keep an eye out for the post on 2020.

Two albums that took time

This blog doesn’t need an introduction. Not because anyone was expecting it, or because anyone was looking forward to it, but because giving it one would only be an exercise in futility.

I’m going to discuss two black metal albums that I have grown to like very much, even when this was not the case upon the first few listens, and I’m going to talk about why they grew on me. Both of these albums were well received in the underground black metal community. I don’t claim to see in them what the community saw in them; maybe I have come to enjoy them for other reasons.

Akhlys – The Dreaming I

The Dreaming I by Akhlys was released in 2015, and I had quickly became aware of it just through browsing black metal on platforms like Youtube. The cover might give some first impressions and set some expectations. I probably expected something dark, dissonant, avant-garde, etc. But upon listening this is not really what I found.

Actually the album begins with a dark and heavy stream of ambience which lasts a few minutes. I may or may not have skipped it on first listen, trying to get to the meat of the album. But when the metal starts, the riffs are not so dissonant. They’re actually a little, I don’t want to say melodic, but maybe brighter than expected, despite the darkness of the reverberating guitar tones. And they’re repetitive. The drums too; a lot of blast beats with nothing much more interesting.

So I got a little bored and left this album. But I understood that it was well-received by many others, so from time to time I would try it again, get bored, and then once again leave it. I eventually learned that I would have no interest in this album and stopped clicking the link whenever it came up.

Now in late 2018, Debemur Morti released a compilation album by many of the artists on that label. I bought it, looking forward to the Blut aus Nord track on it. But the track before that one caught my attention, much more so than any other track on the album. Here it is:

Dark, even a little dissonant, like I like it. The artist is Aoratos. I had never heard of them at the time, so I did some research. Turns out it was a new project by Naas Alcameth, who fronts a lot of bands from Colorado who play a certain style of dark/demonic/sometimes “orthodox” black metal. These bands include Nightbringer, Bestia Arcana, and, as you might already expect, Akhlys.

I learned a couple things then: First that these bands were all fronted by the same person. I had known of Nightbringer and Bestia Arcana for a few years, and I had enjoyed the albums they released in 2017. This encouraged me to look into Akhlys again on the Metal Archives. When I did, the second thing was what The Dreaming I was supposed to be about, and hence what kind of musical goal it was trying to achieve.

The Dreaming I is, as the title suggests, about dreams, and the process of dreaming. It is about the lucid and dark conjurations conceived in the mind of the demon-human Naas Alcameth during his slumber.

I thought that writing a black metal album about dark dreams and about the process through which they are conceived was an excellent idea. So I approached the album one more time, but with completely different expectations. Don’t look for violent darkness or dissonance, but for some kind of still but streaming (un-)consciousness, spawned from an otherworldly abyss. Listen:

So again, the album begins with a dark and heavy stream of ambience, which lasts a while. This actually serves well to set the dream-like atmosphere. Then the blasts come in, and the tremolo-picking. It’s repetitive, but now that’s appropriate; the dream is unfolding slowly. The tone of everything is what it should be. The guitars reverberate into the void they create, and the drums have a depth to them that reflects the depth of that void. The brightness that’s present in the melody is only such that the mystic nature of dreaming is expressed well and thoroughly.

The album continues with another four tracks after this opener, each oneiric in their own way. The second track is a little more sinister, the third is somehow void-like, and the fourth brings back a mysticism akin to, but distinct from, the first. Then the ambient exit.

This album has been able to conjure certain kinds of imagery for me that no other album has been able to summon. But it took knowing the theme to understand what to expect, and to put myself in the correct mindset to conceive that imagery.

The dreaming I has been in my heavy rotation since late 2018. This is long for me. We will see if the next album will last like this…

Mgła – Exercises in Futility

Having already nodded to this album in the first paragraph, it is now time to talk about it. Mgła is a Polish black metal band (whose name is pronounced “mgwah” and translates to “fog” in English). I learned about their album Exercises In Futility in much the same way as The Dreaming I, just by browsing. And also similar to The Dreaming I, Exercises In Futility was well received by the community, but boring for me, even after many tries.

Obviously that would come to change, and this will be our point of departure from a storyline that mirrors the one above; it is not the case that knowing what this album was about caused me to change my mind. Actually I knew what this album was supposed to be about. It is nihilistic; it is an exploration of useless endeavor and meaninglessness, as the title suggests. But this didn’t strike me in the same way as the idea behind The Dreaming I.

I really wanted to like this album; there was obviously something there, even if that something was nothing. But I couldn’t convince myself it was worthwhile. Attempting to enjoy it was to me an instance of what its title describes, and everything was coming full-circle in an appropriately unsatisfying way…

Now in the later part of last year, I had became aware of a band called Kriegsmaschine. They have two members: One plays drums, and the other plays the guitars and does the vocals. They play a very dissonant style of black metal, exactly my kind of music, and almost immediately their 2014 album, Enemy of Man, became an extremely common part of my rotation.

Listen to the drumming as well. I have never heard a black metal album being held together so well by the percussion, even when the guitars already have so much intensity to offer, or when the vocals have an such an excellent nihilistic, blackened lowness. The Drummer’s alias is Darkside. You would do well to watch him play this excerpt of the first track from their 2018 album, Apocalypticists.

Actually, despite the quality of the drumming, which is even better on Apocalpyticists, the album Enemy of Man appeals to me more. It is more violent and intense. By contrast, a friend of mine once described the music on Apocalypticists as “good for focus.” And I sort of see it; despite the dissonance and the technical drumming, the vibe of Apocalypticists is less intense and more nihilistic than that of Enemy of Man. Actually I have grown to like this aspect of Apocalypticists much more in the past months with each listen.

So, what happened to Mgła? It seems that this suddenly transformed into a post about Kriegsmaschine. Well, if you click the Metal Archives links for both of these bands from the paragraphs above, you can deduce that they are actually comprised of exactly the same two members. And this is where we return to Mgła.

The music produced by Darkside and his collaborator, alias M., is significantly different when it is done so under the name Mgła than when it is done under the name Kriegsmaschine. They are both black metal, but Darkside’s drumming is much more tame and the guitar work of M. is much more traditionally black metal under Mgła than under Kriegsmaschine.

What Mgła has to offer is much more subtle than what Kriegsmaschine gives you, but in my opinion, the serious nihilism that’s lurking in on Apocalypticists is also present on Exercises In Futility. And since I have grown to like this a lot about Apocalypticists, suddenly Exercises In Futility has become significantly more appealing.

Each track on Exercises in Futility presents this nihilism differently. For example, track IV has a melancholy character, tinged with a glimmer of hope. Track III is more sinister, and certainly darker. My favorite track is the fifth one (and I believe I am far from being alone on this). Darkside gets to shine here more than on the rest of the album with some impressive cymbal work, and this is what attracted me to this song at first. But now it is my favorite because it is this track’s instance of the album’s nihilistic vibes speaks to me, more so than that of the others. The quickly marching tones of the rhythm guitar are what accentuates this most clearly.

What underlies Exercises In Futility and makes it great is subtle, yet it becomes extremely potent with some time. The futility expressed in the title and reflected in the music is indeed exercised extremely well, even if it takes some getting used to.

Let me exit now and leave behind one last instance of Darkside’s talent. Here he is playing Exercises In Futility V.