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Ragana – We know That The Heavens Are Empty

Ragana is one of the bands I keep coming back to. Their mixture of black metal aesthetics, screamo sentimentality and doomy vibes is a treat, but their message is equally powerful and one I gladly receive. This release is titled: ‘We Know That The Heavens Are Empty’ and it’s special.

The title comes from a poem, titled ‘The Toast of Despair’, by anarchist hero Valtairine De Cleyre. A poem from 1892, in fact, from this author. She played a significant role in shaping modern American feminism but was an activist in her lifetime against intermarriage violence and other issues that are still unresolved to this very day. 

The opening is slow, atmospheric and rich in emotional charge. The build-up on the track ‘Waiting’ takes time to reach the point of silence, only to restart again. Ragana was less subtle on their previous work, so as a listener you’ll be intrigued and the wait for that release is a good one. A pained voice cuts through the quiet and pushes the build-up onwards to a dark, thick tapestry of guitars and pained screams that embodies Ragana. The song never fully gets to the point of letting go, of unabated fury, unleashed. We keep waiting. 

‘The Tower’ feels much more powerful, full of threat and looming danger. Yet this doomy track also slowly creeps forward. It’s a slow and tormented track, where the vocals and flow of the song are often opposed, creating a sense of discomfort. It builds to a wail and scream: “Holding, Falling, Holding…” You feel the despair, as the tremolo guitar reaches a high note and stays there, teetering on the edge, almost falling down.

Band: Ragana
Origin: USA
Label: An Out Records

Underground Sounds: Mortuary Punishment – Pride.Power.Punishment

Label: Independent
Band: Mortuary Punishment
Origin: United States

What if your wilderness is the streets you live in? That is what shapes the sound of Mortuary Punishment, who make music inspired by the violence on the streets in Pomona, C.A. It captures something much more raw and random than the wild forest, it captures human life on ‘Pride.Power.Punishment’.

Mortuary Punishment is Bigg o))), and the record starts with the Ghetto bird (the police helicopter) and news samples about the stuff that is going on there on this doom release. The music gently comes up and hits you in the face with a bit of that Latino SoCal Punk rawness to it. It tastes spicy as hell. Not surprising, because the creator is also involved with Xibalba.

‘The Streets I’ is an intro for the record, with all the samples, so we start with the punishing ‘Streets of Death’, which is raw and raucous death doom with a rather lively pace and gurgling doomy vocals. The lyrics offer a straight-forward doom stomper: “Angels marked for death. Weakness will be destroyed. Destroy the light.” Now that’s some heavy punching right there. Sure, musically it’s simplistic, but not less effective.

We soon turn to ‘Chalice of Suffering’. This track picks up the pace after a stop-go introduction song. The repetitive riffing keeps the tension up and you imagine the wall of death to break out any moment, but instead, we move towards a slow, grinding break before we launch into full speed. It’s just bad-ass all the way. Crushing riffs and gut-punching drums, it doesn’t stop. Mortuary Punishment really focusses on the cavemen simplicity. Effect. That’s all that matters. ‘Slaughter the Sheep’ is the crushing final chapter of this crushing, primordial release and what a record it is. Check out this punishing release and get smashed with this dangerous bit of death doom!

Underground Sounds: Vanum – Ageless Fire

Label: Profound Lore
Band: Vanum
Origin: USA

Vanum is a cooperation between members of Ash Borer, Yellow Eyes, Predatory Light, Vilkacis and Fell Voices (and 3 of these names apply to one man). That puts them in a particular bracket of black metal, with pure, undiluted fury. This is their second full length, following two years after the ‘Burning Arrow’ EP and it promises nothing but power.

Vanum is all about the grand gesture, the simplified sweep, over the miserly details. That, in itself, is a testament of their power and maximum delivery and I’m glad to have witnessed this life. ‘Ageless Fire’ is the title of this album and for me its an instant elevation to the status of modern-day black metal deity.

‘War’ is like a marching song, into the flames. Slowly, majestic and strong it comes on and delivers us to a mellow tremolo riff at its ending, which fades gradually. It hardly primes you for ‘Jaws of Rapture’, which follows on the heels of a church bell. Like a cold rain, the song hits you with a wall of contentious guitars. The sky is grey, the air cold, but fire burns behind the war engine that is Vanum.

What follows after that is the 10-minute epic ‘Eternity’, which feels like a long baptizing of fire. While furious in its delivery and barked vocals claw at you with maddening fervor, the melody is leading the track. When it drops back to a slower pace, you can even feel a bit of a rock groove emerge. Yet never does it relent as soaring guitar melody enters and carious onwards. By the time you reach ‘Under the Banner of Death’, you’re battered and tired. Yet this track, with its melancholic opening salvo, digs even deeper as we go into the trenches once more.

The music of Vanum always carries both. There’s an overly epic aspect to it, a grandeur and unmistakable beauty, as we hear on the title track. But it always carries the fires of war and the eternal fog arising from it. ‘Erebus’ is then the finalizing track, the last notes, where suddenly a blissful calm has been reached. Has the fire burned everything, or are we in the fire?

Neither flesh nor fleshless,
Neither from nor towards.
Spirit terror in the mortal abyss
Rise through the nexus as the wheel turns.

Underground Sounds: Vilkacis – Beyond The Mortal Gate

Label: Psychic Violence Records
Artist: Vilkacis
Origin: United States

Made in New York, but with roots in the dense woods of the Baltics, the project Vilkacis is like no other. Single-minded, unrelenting and filled with vicious vitality, it rends and tears at you with its sonic splendor. This is the second full length by this singular entity, featuring similarly mesmerizing artwork as on the preceding ‘The Fever of War’. This is ‘Beyond the Mortal Gate’.

Vilkacis is a project by Mike Rekevics, who you might know from Fell Voices, Vanum and ofcourse the generally praised Yellow Eyes. The lupine theme is ever present it seems in his work, which always has a particular flavor and sound, that can hardly be confused for anything else. It took quite some years to bring forward this new release, but it’s well worth the wait.
One think I notice, is how the rhythm really drives the sound of Vilkacis. Rekevics is after all a drummer, and his knowledge of the way the beat effects the total song clearly is vast and used to the best possible effect. After the intro, ‘Defiance’ launches in all its depravity, yet this is restricted to the lyrics. Musically, the song stands like a rock against the tide. Grand, rigid riffing and a regal elegance to the sound. It’s defiance with a backbone, with force and strength. The vocals could perhaps be sharper, but their burly, brusk delivery fits in with the whole vibe of the record.

The trick would seem, is to avoid any of the regular pit falls of black metal. The harmony and beauty needs to emerge from the chaotic rumble and decrepit sound, the lo-fi aspect makes it hazy and eases in that unity. There are no keyboards on a track like ‘Sixty Three’, no polished production, but the raw splendor that is black metal that is carved out by Rekevics like a true craftsman.

In the following two songs, the flow of the music takes on an even more atmospheric shape. Yet, it lacks the mournful, meandering elements. Vilkacis blazes on, regardless, yet still manages to capture the right emotions in the music. The title track becomes the crescendo to a mighty piece of music.

Hardcore Sounds: Bloodclot – Up in Arms

Label: Metal Blade
Band: Bloodclot
Origin: United States

This is a bit of a special little thing for me because Bloodclot is not a new band. It’s old as fuck and it revives a sound that is very dear to me. Raw, straight up hardcore with a metallic tang in its delivery. Bloodclot originates somewhere in 1981 and revolves around hardcore royalty, Iron Man athlete, vegan activist and Cro-Mags frontman John Joseph.

Joseph rekindled the fire of this band due to a chance situation, where AJ Novello was unable to play and Todd Youth (Agnostic Front, Danzig) was called in to fill in on guitar. Nick Oliveri and Joey Castillo (Queens of the Stone Age) joined up and here we have an all star band. In the previous incarnation in the noughties (2008) the band featured members from Bad Brains, Cro-Mags, Biohazard, Sick of it All, Dead Kennedy‘s and Monster Magnet.

So this is a band full of people that have seen it all but are still keen to play snotty, in your face hardcore music. They do it so well on ‘Up in Arms’, which is a whole record of fun, fury, and groove. Clocking in just under 30 minutes, from the opening riff of the title track on, you’re hooked. Joseph sounds clear and venomous. The energy and drive in the music are frightening. Blistering guitar work, high paced drumming and lyrics that actually have something to say race by.

Sure, this record lacks that ratty vibe of early hardcore. These are musicians who lay down solid tracks, but that also means that they channel their frustration in much more effective and to the point ways. That’s exactly where this record shines brightest. It’s where Joseph lets his voice go in overdrive on ‘Manic’. When the guitars just leave you on edge, waiting for the explosion.

Bloodclot sounds fresh, it sounds like hardcore sounded when it was good and meaningful. There’s no room for any ego’s, just for great and powerful music.

 

 

Underground Sounds: Couch Slut – Contempt

Label: Gilead Media
Band: Couch Slut
Origin: United States

Couch Slut is an interesting band name, but it simply fits. You can almost sink into the rolling waves of sound like you do on a couch. This is useless information, but I’m trying to express how vast and full on the sound of this band is. The group from New York knows how to shock and hurt a crowd with their sound on Contempt.

Landing on the scene with a bang in 2014, their debut My Life As A Woman crushed. Not just the shocking artwork, but the whole sound of the band was mesmerizing.  Somehow the gang sounds familiar, but also completely overwhelmingly new and free of any boundaries. This is grindjazznoise with fierce vocals for all I care, just listen to this amazing piece of music.

The music of Couch Slut often gets described as noise rock. I get that, but take it from me… that barely does justice to the ferocious hale storm of sound that assaults the listener who dares to just dip their toes in that maelstrom.  Spiteful and abrasive, Couch Slut violently attacks with a saxophone blurting underneath a pile of pitch black noise on ‘Funeral Dyke’. The vocals of Megan Osztrosits are savage and full of fuming rage. It’s as if Converge is jamming with Skinny Puppy at times, particularly on the battery that is titled ‘Company Picnic With Dust Off’. It has the intensity of grindcore and the bravado of punkrock, bringing a mixture of Sonic Youth and Today is the Day to the table. I just try to give you a feel of what they are like here…

To me, the music of Couch Slut is a primitive piece of violence. The riffs are menacing, always offering anticipation that gets turned upside down in the end. The vocals are completely raw outbursts of emotion. They slap you in the face like cold water. Then suddenly there’s an almost militant rhythm to nod along to, like on ‘Summer Smiles’. The music sounds harsh and direct while retaining atmosphere and detail. The flagellating, distorted guitars build walls that crash into the listener. Are those fucking church bells on ‘Penalty Scar’?

The band uses various instruments that are not completely traditional in this sort of sound, but perhaps that is exactly how they manage to create a sound unlike any other. Every cranny and nook is filled with squealing, buzzing and hammering music, while the frantic vocals of Ostrosits keep on coming. From start to end, this is a record of catharsis and punishing force. Both smartly done and with a brawn, Couch Slut leaves no contenders in violent music standing.

 

Underground Sounds: Green Druid – Ashen Blood

Label: Independent
Origin: USA
Band: Green Druid

Doom Against The World

Green Druid is more than just some music, it’s an expression of its times and a way to deal with the world for the members involved. I like that sentiment, even more so because it produces some excellent traditional doom music by this Denver, Colorado group. The band seems to be most amazed themselves by their output.

In 2015 Green Druid releases an EP with some interesting artwork, which would not have really promised the music you’ll find on this amazing release with great artwork. Brad Smalling at Evergroove Studio did a great job in making this record sound as solid as it does now.

Three slabs of songs, clocking a good 30 minutes in total take you along for a ride with some excellent riffing and heavy hitting drums. Opener ‘Pale Blood Sky’ comes on slowly with the toiling, massive riffs. The vocals for amoment seem to not live up to the expectations, but as soon as they catch on to the harmony of the guitars it all melts together in its crestfallen, bleak unity. For almost ten minutes you ride those waves. The sound grabs you with force and does not allow you to tame it.

You can taste the stoner roots in the full, hazy sound of the band and comparisons to the mighty Trouble are therefor not so strange, though I’d add the great Cathedral to that mix. ‘Agoraphobia’ picks up on that thread, but the vocals here sound even more desolate and tormented at times. The slow progression and sheer heaviness of the sound is intoxicating. Green Druid might not be doing completely new things on their debut, but what they deliver is very, very well made.

Crushing riffs take you to the end of ‘Dead Tree’, the final track of the album. The track also had some more gentle passages, but never losing that looming threat in the sound. I think this band might be one you’ll hear about more in the future.

Underground Sounds: Botanist/Oskoreien – Green Metal / Deterministic Chaos

Label: Avantgarde Music
Band: Botanist / Oskoreien
Origin: United States (both)

The band Botanist is a one man metal project, that steers black metal into the realm of plant life. The apt name for that side of the split is not without reason ‘Green Metal’. The sound of Botanist has captivated me, even more after seeing them perform life on Roadburn. It’s vibrant, unrelentingly different and in its own sphere of existence. It’s use of instruments is also peculiar, mainly the use of a hammered dulcimer. I love entering that verdant realm of Roberto Martinelli aka Otrebor.

Oskoreien is less familiar to me, but the band has their roots in viking metal. This is also a one man band. Jay Valena has more moved towards black metal with a slightly philosophical theme to it. The two tracks of Oskoreien are under the title ‘Deterministic Chaos’. I’m a bit puzzled why these two artists have come together, but it makes sense soundwise and lets be honest, both are fairly strange acts in a league of their own.

a0354701907_16
Oskoreien version of the cover

The tracks of Botanist are marked by a peculiarly frantic percussion and lack of the blazing guitars. The harsh barked vocals are in sharp contrast with the often harmonious and very beautiful tones. It’s a bit like drifting through Wonderland, where a mad plant-man starts barking at you in the midst of the green overgrowth. It’s rare to use the word vibrant for black metal, but the blissful tones of ‘Varkoor’ evoke no other feelings.  The epic lyrics describe plants and their reproduction in grand terms, like ‘Clathrus Columnatus’: “Lord of the flies, In pilgrimage they come, To its altar of slime, Gathering its children, Spores to arise anew”. 

The final track by Botanist is an almost shoegaze affair, where only the vocals stand as the extreme metal element.’Saprophyte’ fades into another track, where that weird, hammering percussion is again on the forefront. This playful, lively sound is in sharp contrast with the noisy, distortion laden sound that Oskoreien delivers, including some big riffs by the way, to keep the rock element high. Droning, gritty sounds with melancholic guitars woven through is what you hear on the title track ‘Deterministic Chaos’. Though it feels black metal, it has a sludge/drone sound going for it that is so utterly bleak that the harsh vocals are all that gives life to the tune.

The most surprising track is the Placebo cover by Oskoreien. It’s like a long stretched, doom-gloom version of the track with tormented howls instead of the nasal Brian Molko. An improvement many would say, but what an unearthly emptiness does Oskoreien invoke with their cold soundscapes. Harrowing and haunting, combined with those tracks by Botanist, this makes for an excellent record exploring the far of realms of black metal.

Underground Sounds: Black Tomb – s/t

Label: Graven Earth Records/Hellas Records
Band: Black Tomb
Origin: United States

Black Tomb is a rather new doom band that seems to favor a color scheme of black and orange on their outings, which results in an exquisite image. That’s the first thought I had, checking out their stuff.  Little information is available about these guys, who sound like their experience extends beyond this self titled debut.

Self described as New England Doom, the band recalls the sound of something between Hooded Menace, Electric Wizard and Graves At Sea. It’s a bit like a swamp of tar, while the forest is burning brightly orangy around you and everything is turning to shit. I think that captivates the sound of Black Tomb pretty fittingly.

The sound of Black Tomb reminds me a lot as well of Black Tusk, the dirty, gritty fury and the rawness of it all. There’s little subtlety and it’s constantly in your face. These gentlemen lack the surging energy of the latter though, but every riff sounds like if you could touch it, you’d want to wash your hands after. Slow, sticky and oh so pitch black, this is not the record to listen to when you’re already down and depressed. The irony is that the band included knives in the special editions… so yeah.

The tormented vocals, for example on the harrowing ‘Eyes At Midnight’ are a ripping, crushing delivery of screams. It’s bleak and relentless, full of pummeling riffs, that surge like a muddy avalanche. Man, what a debut record. I love this stuff, with its vicious sound and heaviness that may not push the genre forwards, but unites the best bits!

It’s always keeping you on the balls of your feet, ready for anything with the heavy bass and tons of groove and fuzz. There’s a constant anticipation or even threatening note to the music, that never fully erupts but definitely places these guys in the heavy weight category.

Imagine this on a fuzzy tape, playing in the dark. Hell yeah!

Sounds of the Underground #35

Boy, what records to be found in the underground this time, with Downfall Of Nur, Skuggsjá, Cormorant and Fuath. Great music for great listening!

Downfall Of Nur – Umbras de Barbagia
Avantgarde Music

source: bandcamp

Seldom have I heard music, blending folk and black metal, that feels so full of yearning for something lost as I did with Downfall Of Nur. The band is a one-man project by Sardinian musician Antonio Sanna, who moved to Argentina and there started making his music, inspired by the Nuragian society, which inhabited the island of Sardinia since the old days and still show some traces in the wild central parts of the island. So, the band is based in Argentinia where the young Sanna released a demo, an EP and this full lenght.

The music is a mixture of two styles, but balanced in such a way that you hardly feel the transfers from one to another. The production is phenomenal and the sound completely captures the forlorn spirit of its topic matter. The eerie screams of Sanna are haunting in the sometimes completely overwhelming waves of bleak, black metal. The special touch is the folk instruments, which start the album, but also help it to close of in a similar manner. This way the album becomes a unity, instead of a collection of seperate songs. It’s an absolute masterpiece, that combines the best of the atmospheric black metal bands of nowadays and folk music.

 Skuggsjá – A Piece For Mind And Mirror
Seasons Of Mist

source: bandcamp

The magical collaboration between Einar Selvik (Wardruna) and Ivar Björnson (Enslaved) was already succesful in its limited run of live shows. I had mixed feelings when it came to an album version of it, due to its temporary and unique nature, It was an event, a once in a lifetime thing, but now there’s an album. I have to retract any objections, because this is a music for the ages. With many collaborators on this piece of heathen heritage appraisal, it’s a work like no other. The Norwegians have tried to captivate its essence on this recording.

Though labeled as a blend of metal and folk, it feels more like a ritualistic bit of music. The changing of Selvik is combined with the riffing of Björnson en Grutle Kjellson. Mystical foggy fjörds are being painted with words and music. Through the mist of traditional instruments you journey into the Norway of a long forgotten past. It’s music that makes your heart pound, that makes you look at the stars with a new sense of wonder and embrace the forgotten past. The wide range of instruments comes together for something monumental and grand, but also dreamy and nostalgic for a time in the past. Thre’s hardly any true metal in the music, which is surprisingly not making it lack in power. It’s hard to really go into it, because it knows no equal. I’m for one very glad this music is available on vinyl now.

Fuath – I
Fortriu Productions/Neuropa Records

source: bandcamp

I’ve had this record on my shortlist for reviewing for a while, but somehow dropped it for a while, due to its musical nature. The post black metal that praises the land of the Britons has often represented in my reviews so I let it simmer for a while. That did not diminish anything of the beauty that Fuath has to offer. Andy Marshall knows how to make this kind of music. The Scot was also responsible for the work of Saor, Falloch and various others. Where Saor and Falloch are mellow, representing the wide heathers and hills, the music of Fuath is more harsh, more overwhelming and seemingly more about the deep forest.

The name Fuath translates as ‘Hatred’ in Gaelic. That tells you quite a bit already. The sound is more streamlined than the previous efforts and relies on that stream to create an atmosphere of a misty forest and being lost in its foggy depths. It invites you in, takes you into its warm embrace. Only then you feel the eerie cold and the fury behind it all in icy riffs and cold, distant drumming. Vocals are howls, raw and filled with hatred, in the background. Ever seen that scene in the old BBC Robin Hood serious where Guy Of Gisborne runs scared through the haunted forest? This was the soundtrack of that bit.

Cormorant – Dwellings
Self released

source: bandcamp

Yeah, this is something else. Cormorant is a black metal band that can trace its roots to the melodic and grandiose sounds of Emperor and Satyricon in the early days of the genre. Where the focus of bands is lately much on returning to its roots, like the Icelandic and Nidrosian scenes, this band returns to its mystic, fantastic origins. Think Bal-Sagoth, but without the cookie monster gutturals and and He-man like landscapes. The Bay Area band of Americans have released this album in 2011, but it crawled up on bandcamp for a bit and I had to check it out. I was amazed.

You think progressive usually takes a more agressive, extreme angle, but interestingly enough these San Francisco boys have taken it to a more traditional folk/heavy metal direction. More riffing, more soaring guitar parts and that galloping rhythm you’ll find in the power metal corner. Maybe even a bit of Iron Maiden? It creates a unique sounding band, that unites the cravings of angered D&D players with the need to stand bare-chested in a forest wearing corpse paint and wielding swords. It is not filled with hatred, but with longing for that other worldliness. On top of that, they do what they do in a magnificent manner. What an album! They did release a new one in 2014, but I’m most keen for more.