Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Seducer of Hearts - How Bölzer Rapidly Conquered the Underground

Few bands in metal have snatched the mass attention of the underground metal faithful as rapidly as Swiss black/death adherents Bölzer last year following the release of debut EP 'Aura'. Formed in 2008, the two-piece's first musical output was demo 'Roman Acupuncture' released in 2012. Fast-forward two years and Bölzer have already played or are booked tosome of the world's premier metal events (Hellfest, Maryland Death Fest and Party San to name but a few), effortlessly making it to almost every extreme metaller's best releases of 2014 list without the backing of a major record label or even an album.

Bölzer was conceived in 2008 when vocalist and guitarist KzR returned from New Zealand to his native Switzerland and met drummer HzR. The two formed a formidable friendship and an energy that was not shared with the two or three bass players that they attempted to collaborate with at their start. The word 'bolzer' translates in German roughly as a striker in a game of football or an individual that hits something at force. However, in Swiss German, the male noun 'bölzer' is infrequently used formally and has a more violent connotation. KzR chose this word as his band's moniker as: " was ambiguous in that sense. I could apply it to a lot of lyrical themes and my philosophy in general." [1]

Demo 'Roman Acupuncture' (its title "a bit of an avant-garde term for crucifixion", laughs KzR [2]) was the world's debut exposure to this Swiss act and created notable ripples in the subterranean metal scene. Despite having just two members, Bölzer's three song emission was gargantuan and defiant in sound, hybridising death metal violence with black metal's devouring thick atmospheres. Opening against anguished shrieks and shouts, the first song and title track propels its listener into a nightmarish soundscape, not to dissimilar to that of Antediluvian or Mitochondrion although nowhere near as suffocating or maniacal in approach. The death metal riffs are akin to Bolt Thrower's belligerent style and the black metal comparable to a more focused and caustic Blut aus Nord yet with a style that would become recognisably idiosyncratic. The lengthier 'Soul Eclipse' boasts dirty death metal rhythmic riffs and black metal's subtler sense of foreboding in the guitar work, while cymbals interestingly take precedence over the bass drum. Closing number 'Zeus - Seducer of Hearts' is the finest moment on 'Roman Acupuncture', unabashedly drawing on the lightning theme the band employ. Guitar leads are clean and memorable while the almost despairing clean shout emerges in their strongest form on this song among the rasped growls. The release ends abruptly, clocking in at fewer than fifteen minutes long.

The following year would birth 'Aura', the first of two conceptual EPs, thematically concerning itself with male energies. Like its predecessor, Bölzer's sophomore effort was another three-pronged attack but significantly more sophisticated and multi-faceted than their demo. The guitar sound is crushingly thick, their black metal sentiments now more restless and peppered with an abrasive sludge approach. The pained clean wails return to punctuate the songs alongside the familiar rasps and guttural growls. HzR's drum work is explored more on this release and its organic sound compliments the muscular guitar tone. 'C.M.E.' is a torrent of battery counterbalanced with haunting music at a slower tempo, while 'Entranced by the Wolfshook' positions extremely heavy riffs interspersed by shrill guitar flourishes during its verses and 'The Great Unifier' explores hypnotic territories in its ten minute duration. In short, 'Aura' and its expansive riffs and relentless blastbeats yield an unforgettable listening experience that is content with tracing its own path, demanding repeated listens and rightfully forcing Bölzer into the underground metal world's consciousness and the subject of envious reviews.

Given the runaway success of 'Aura', 'Soma' released this year had titanic shoes to fill in regard to expectation. Mirroring 'Aura' and dealing with themes concentrating on female energy, 'Soma' is bisected into two tracks - 'Steppes' and 'Labyrinthian Graves'. The EP opens with KzR's raspy shouts and fresh (for the band) riffing that is heavy enough to feature in a brutal death metal song, isolated tremelo picking, spoken word narration and drumming centred on the rhythmic all surface in 'Steppes'. 'Labyrinthian Graves' is an introverted and cavernous number espousing a negative mood and takes its time unweaving its musical tapestry, more cerebral than the opening song. On both songs, the atmosphere remains consistently crushing or sinister throughout, acknowledging all of Bölzer's signature moves and steeped in an almost tangible atmosphere. 'Soma' is certainly less active than 'Aura', going for a cerebral and calculate approach rather than the dynamism of the first EP. The mood is direction is different but the Swiss two-piece remain as dynamic as ever and this release was still universally lauded.

2015 will see Bölzer release their first full-length album and KzR says of it: "The intention is to make a not very long full-length. For me a perfect album length is like 40 minutes. We’re not going to make an hour-long record. No way. It’ll be around the six or seven song mark. And there will be an exciting cover in there as well." [3] Given the pair's consolidation of mass approval in the metal scene and their impressive ability to redraw the the pre-conceived limitation of extreme metal, it is likely this album will appear in many best releases of 2015 lists.

[1] Stereogum interview, 2014
[2] Noisey interview, 2014
[3] New Noise Magazine interview, 2014

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Metal Evolution - Extreme Metal: The Lost Episode Review

Sam Dunn is the anthropologist behind the 2011 VH1 TV series Metal Evolution, eleven episodes that aim to inform an audience on the story behind metal's various subgenres. Unfortunately, only four of the episodes concern metal subgenres (NWoBHM, power metal, thrash metal, progressive metal) with grunge, shock rock and pre-metal among others pointlessly depriving the series of space on a topic that needs more than eleven relevant episodes.

Much like Dunn's 2005 feature length documentary Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, the response from the uninitiated was fairly positive, whereas metalheads were frustrated about the overwhelming amount of inaccurate information and Dunn's ignorance to bands' paramount contributions to their genres (for example, the progressive metal episode unbelievably failed to mention the first prog metal band Fates Warning or latter day successors Opeth). One of the biggest points of contention for metal fans was the absence of any extreme metal genre besides thrash metal. Dunn stated that VH1 were not interested in these genres and went on to crowd-funded a project for this episode. Enter Extreme Metal: The Lost Episode.

The 50+ minute episode is certainly less offensive than other Metal Evolution instalments with fewer mistakes too, although saying France is not known for metal (despite pitching France's Hellfest as the backdrop for his documentary) is certainly a glaring one (Deathspell Omega, Alcest, Peste Noire, Mutiilation, Vlad Tepes, Belenos, Vokreist etc.). Positioning the narrative with Venom and Celtic Frost, Dunn goes on to interview a member or two from Napalm Death, Carcass, Death (although there is no mention of their seismic musical shift) Morbid Angel, Cannibal Corpse, Mayhem, Dimmu Borgir, Emperor, Enslaved and Gojira. The inclusion of the latter two feels nothing more than a sycophantic excuse for Dunn to get some of his favourite bands on camera. Why these two acts were chosen instead of the more influential Opeth is a real glare (possibly because Dunn wrongly considers Opeth goth metal ala his Metal: A Headbanger's Journey flow chart). It also seems astonishing that Possessed are not even name-dropped as the widely accepted first death metal band.

Opening with an appearance at Hellfest, an open air festival in France that covers all kinds of rock and metal music seems to foreshadow the haphazard approach that breathes through the remainder of the episode. Surely a festival that trades exclusively in extreme metal would have been more ideal with equally good interviewees (Party San Open Air, Neurotic Death Fest, NWN! Fest, Under the Black Sun, Hell's Pleasure etc.) but it seems unlikely that Dunn is even aware of festivals like this, much less has any experience at them. Close up shots of generic alternative subcultures at Hellfest is wrongly used to illustrate the physicality of a death or black metal fan.

The impression that Dunn gives is that death metal began to stagnate and Gojira are the saviours of the movement, which is ludicrous - particularly since the creation of technical death and progressive death metal are omitted from the documentary. It is understandable that all the subgenres of death metal and extreme metal cannot be listed due to time restraints but there would definitely be more film left if Dunn stopped referencing his feature length film, spending too much time on questions to bands/journalists that do not contribute to the core of the documentary (Cannibal Corpse's Ace Venture appearance comes to mind) and his idiosyncratic ego masturbation.

The conclusion drawn is incredibly thin and cuts the documentary off too abruptly. There is also a gargantuan contraction; Dunn states Enslaved and Gojira as two bands innovating in an otherwise largely stale extreme music scene but then he wraps the episode by saying that extreme metal is still highly creative.

Once again, Dunn proves his knowledge of the metal scene to be incredibly elementary (despite laughably describing himself a metal expert in the documentary). It appears he does not conduct any research before planning his episodes and thus delivers an episode that does not answer any interesting questions or even questions that have not been asked before. It feels as if Dunn considers himself the best metal authority in existence and nothing else can consolidate his knowledge. This was just another wasted opportunity, particularly considering the high quality production values.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Viking Machine: The Never-Ending Success of Amon Amarth

Originally written for

Amon Amarth’s star has been rising rapidly, dominating the melodic death metal circuit without arming their music with a metalcore approach as favoured by others, successfully conquering the picky American market and performing in India. With the release of their ninth album ‘Deceiver of the Gods’, it is clear these Swedes are in the pole position, understanding what their fans want and consistently delivering. Bassist Ted Lundström discusses what makes the Amon Amarth machine work after nearly ten albums of melodic death metal victory.

The strength of Amon Amarth lies in their adherence to a formula that works for them: heavy yet atmospheric metal paired with belligerent melodies and vocalist Johan Hegg idiosyncratically growling a colourful Viking narrative. New album ‘Deceiver of the Gods’ is as loyal to the signature as any other release. “It’s basically Amon Amarth; nobody is going to be surprised with the new album. It may be a bit more thrashy since we chose a different studio for this one. It’s just the follow up from the last album.”

Some consider metal most beloved Vikings to be repeating themselves and growing stale with a deficiency in variation and exploration. Striking the balance of retaining a signature sound while keeping the music fresh and interesting enough for the listener is in the consciousness of the band: “Of course you want to do something new; you don’t want to get stuck. At the same time, you want to keep your roots. So far, it’s worked out really well for us. We always manage somehow to create a new piece that we’re all happy with.” And the audience are obviously delighted with too if the large portions of the crowd singing along to the new tracks is anything to go by.

For many, the appeal of Amon Amarth is their fixation on Viking and Norse themes. The Swedes are very aware of this and like their music will cohere to what they know best, the lyrics will follow suit: “It’s a never-ending source of inspiration. I don’t think we’ll run out of ideas for stuff like that. Our fans would not like it if we would [stop singing about that] because we have been doing it for such a long time now so if we change and start to sing about something else, that would be weird. I guess we’ll somehow stay in the Northern mythology.”

‘Deceiver if the Gods’ focuses on Norse trickster god Loki, a compliment to Amon Amarth’s previous albums studying Thor, Odin and Surtur. “We just tried to find a character that is interesting enough to actually do an album about and Loki maybe came natural with the new ‘Thor’ movies and stuff. He’s more famous now because there is not too much about him in the mythology. People know about Odin and Thor of course because they’re famous guys. Now with the movies, he’s more out there so I guess that’s one of the reasons.” Marvel’s ‘Thor’ films may indeed help elevate Amon Amarth to new audiences but the mythology explored in the comics and films are not congruent to the actual source material. Nonetheless, this fails to detract from Lundström’s enjoyment: “Actually, I saw [Thor 2] last night. It was good, it was fun. Actually, I think it was better than the first one. I love the first one too but I guess they don’t need enough time to present the characters now when the first is already out. It goes straight into the story. It was a great movie.”

The ninth studio effort does not entirely ape previous Amon Amarth efforts; this is the first time the melodic death outfit have joined forces with famed English metal producer Andy Sneap. “He’s a good producer. We loved his work with other bands. That was a no brainer for us. We were looking for something new because we already did three albums with our previous producer Jens Bogren. Andy was first on our list of what we would like to work with and we asked him if he was interested. We had a little meeting with him on our previous English tour and we had a good talk. We had the same kind of ideas how to do it so it felt good. You don’t want to work with a producer who’s not interested in it. You want to have someone who says ”This is going to be cool.” It’s important. It makes it much easier. You’re always a bit nervous when you come to new studios. You don’t know what kind of routines Andy has and how the studio is set up but we had a very nice time. From the first day, we go along really well with him.”

Another new feature of the album is the appearance of legendary Candlemass vocalist Messiah Marcolin, providing his doomy vocals on the track ‘Hel’ alongside Hegg’s barks. “We’ve been talking with him a couple of times before saying it would be cool to do something because we’re big fans of the old Candlemass albums. When we did this album, it turned out we had a song that would fit him because he has a special voice. We had the opportunity so we asked him to come over to England. He’s also an old friend of Andy’s. It was a nice couple of days when he came over and recorded. We had good times, it was fun.”

Naturally, touring with this album will be extensive as Amon Amarth seem to be constantly on the road. However, there are further plans for a music video. “We have one that’s hopefully coming out soon. It’s still in progress, ‘Father of the Wolf’. It’s been planned for a long time but a lot of stuff has to come together to make it happen. Our part is already done. They’re just putting everything together. It should be out soon.”

With tour dates frequently listing ticket availability for Amon Amarth shows as ‘sold out’, these Vikings harbour the conquering spirit of their ancestors, cultivating an enviable and loyal fanbase worldwide – particularly impressive concerning the Norse-centric nature of their lyricism. Amon Amarth t-shirts are among the most common at metal festivals worldwide and although their fame truly starting coming over the past five years, they have illustrated that persistence and not compromising is imperative for personal success.

A Glipse Through the Portal: Cynic's Paul Masvidal Offers Insight on Album Number Three

Originally written for

Florida progressive metallers Cynic have always happily inhabited a position outside the traditional metal box, refusing to remain comfortable occupying an area within the walls of habit or predictability. Next year sees the release of album number three ‘Kindly Bent to Free Us’ and given the nature of the opinion-dividing ‘Carbon-Based Anatomy’ EP, no one can say what path Cynic will forge this time. That is, no one except Cynic themselves. Soundshock were fortunate enough to catch up with Cynic frontman Paul Masvidal while he was out trekking on the Death (To All) tour.

“I’d say it’s a true trio record,” Masvidal states on his third full-length observation wearing the Cynic banner. “The previous one had more multi-faceted components with second guitar parts and the whole vocal thing but this feels like it’s drier, it’s more present. A lot of ‘Traced in Air’ for me was built around a lot of two part ideas so there was always this complex motion happening. This record has more of a direct riff; it’s a main idea. It’s propelled very much by the drum and bass. The guitars are playing a different role. The songs feel more realised and more melodic. It’s more of a celebration record to me. It’s a different head.” The aggression factor follows in the vein of ‘Carbon-Based Anatomy’ with no growls and the metal nature of the music notably depleted. “‘Traced in Air’ had them a little bit but it felt like the growls represented a certain kind of aggression whereas with this record, I thought it was represented musically and we didn’t need that through that instrument. It just wasn’t part of a vibe.”

The title ‘Kindly Bent to Free Us’ is a variation on a meditation trilogy of books ‘Kindly Bent to Ease Us’ by Buddhist teacher Longchenpa, remaining consistent with Cynic’s preoccupation of spirituality and the mind: “For me, it was just giving it my own twist. ‘Ease’, ‘free’ – they’re the same realm of an idea. It creates a larger scope and it’s a bigger, vaguer idea. It’s referencing the mind. It’s this thing that we can’t trust [laughs] that’s there for our benefit if we can actually get a hold of it. So there’s a little bit of that, actually a lot [laughs], in the record.” Also remaining loyal to Cynic’s themes is the album art, again by American painter Robert Vernosa. Masvidal is a long time fan of his work and something about Vernosa’s psychedelic imagery connects indescribably with the musician. “He’s just brilliant. He had a degree of precision where it looks like a computer generated image but it’s not, which is amazing.”

The new album art appears to be a hybrid between a tree, a brain and a mushroom cloud. “Obviously, he had all these ideas in mind of the brain because if you look at it, it has the pineal gland in the centre. The name of the original piece is ‘Atomic Blossom’. The most painful states of mind, like depression and suffering, are really juicy states. In some ways, they are like mushroom clouds, they’re very explosive. It’s about learning how to utilise them and steer them. Choosing album art is a precarious weird, mysterious process. I don’t know why I gravitate towards various things. A lot of the time, this stuff makes sense later and I get why I made that decision.”

The writing process differed to previous Cynic efforts in that Masvidal’s guitar work took a back seat in order to focus more of the attention on the rhythm section: “A lot of early Cynic stuff was rhythmically driven by the guitars and busy riffs, like 16th note pickings; that’s kind of what we were known for on ‘Focus’ and even ‘Traced in Air’. With this record, my thinking was to reduce that. For me, it’s a bold step to go. It’s stepping into a certain insecurity. Because it’s a real trio record, I thought there are moments where everybody comes up. It has that shape to it where there’s no one’s really featured. There’s just moments where everyone has their voice. It’s a drum and bass-centric record for sure. In some ways, I feel like my rhythm section guys are more prog rock than I am [laughs]. They’re the ones that do every Rush lick and every King Crimson song they’re were dissecting. I was too but I wasn’t perhaps as nerdy as they were about it. It’s a showcase of that kind of component for them. It’s all about trusting your gut and neither of us are really editing each other. I feel like we’re all in service of something and there’s a kind of instinct there that is innate.”

‘Kindly Bent to Free Us’ lyrically is the most personal album that Cynic have worked on. Masvidal elaborates on how this is not a straight-forward process for him: “In some ways for me, lyric writing is always about trying to get to the most naked and honest way possible. It’s really hard to do that. It’s hard to strip all the layers away and really find a way to say it without any embellishments or any pretension. I feel like this record gets closest to that in terms of touching something really honest. There are moments on other records where you get really close but it’s this thing that you’re reaching for. I don’t know if you ever arrive but it’s a process, a journey inward and outward [laughs].”

Not only do the lyrics deal with a personal touch but Masvidal states that each of Cynic’s releases have concentrated in the crushing beauty of death and the finality of life. “I feel like I’m always trying to reference some end of life perspective with everything. I think it’s trying to realise that life ends and that everyone you know will go away, including yourself at some point. There’s a preciousness to that that rips my heart open. It’s a beautiful fear because it’s the tragedy of living and it’s the heart of sadness. If I can remember that, then everything’s on track! Everything else is topical.”

This forthcoming album is undoubtedly one of the most highly-awaited in the metal sphere next year. Like all other Cynic releases, it will be praised as something daring and creative by some yet will probably dislodge some fan’s loyalties to the group. Either way, Paul Masvidal and drummer Sean Reinert have always musically challenged what has come before and although the new release is sure to stay true to the Cynic vessel, there will be a plethora of fresh ideas and atmospheres.

Friday, 25 January 2013

...of 2012

This needs to be done, especially since I am back into metal properly again.

Best Album
Dying Fetus ~ 'Reign Supreme'

Fuck, Dying Fetus are on form again! After the mediocre (at least by Fetus' standards) 'Descend into Depravity', the Maryland techies scale back the brutal death metal riffs in favour of more orthodox US death metal guitar work. The slams are infinitely more pronounced due to this stage and the variation of track's identities works favourably. Technicality is still high on the list of priorities and the dual vocal assault of Sean Beasley and Jon Gallagher rhythmically compliment the music so sublimely that picking up the lyrics becomes  a simple task. Nothing came close to reaching the summits of awesomeness this year. Gruesome!

Honourable mentions: OSI ~ 'Fire Make Thunder'; Blutmond ~ 'The Revolution is Dead!'

Best Song
Dying Fetus ~ 'In the Trenches'

From the opening riff, you know this song is going to be intense. Surging through a variety of different tempos, Dying Fetus reveal that there are several ways to aurally assault a listener. Bass following guitar loyally, neck-breaking slams and colourful tech death spurts mark this one of the highlights of the albums. Catchy, vicious and triumphant.

Honourable mentions: OSI ~ 'For Nothing'; Katatonia ~ 'Undo You'

Biggest Disappointment
Nile ~ 'At the Gates of Sethu'

Nile have always managed to find ways to infuse a new album with something they had not tried on previous efforts, or at least an expansion on an idea that was explored all too thinly on another release. 'At the Gates of Sethu' is album number seven and the Egyptologists have evidently ran out of new ideas, delivering a bog standard Nile release. Clean vocals is a new addition here but it fails to truly delivery anything particularly noticeable.

(Dis)Honourable mentions: Sabaton ~ 'Carolus Rex'; Fozzy ~ 'Sin and Bones'

Best Cover Art
Sigh ~ In Somniphobia

Decadently grotesque, this colour piece speaks for itself. Truly eye-catching and defiant among contemporary metal album art today.

Honourable mentions: Testament ~ 'Dark Roots of Earth'; Les Discrets ~ 'Ariettes Oubliees'

Best Lyrics
Dying Fetus ~ 'From Womb to Waste'

These lyrics are repulsive but not because they're pure horror-themed gorefests but because they're real, addressing foetal termination and unlucky births in our society in a myriad of ways. Including drug-addled mothers, rape births, coat-hanger abortion, an obese mother unaware she was pregnant etc., Dying Fetus release a song that actually goes hand in hand with their band name. Some of the best lyrics they've penned since old bassist Jason Netherton expressed his rage at the world.

Honourable mentions: OSI ~ 'For Nothing', Katatonia ~ 'Undo You'

Best Live Show
Dangerous Toys, Shout it Out Loud Festival, Mulheim, 10th March

Dangerous Toys are a band that I only discovered a couple of years ago (despite being on a "To check out" of mine from 2005) but immediately fell in love with. It seems they only play a one off show in their home town of Texas each December. However, something magical happened when Quiet Riot dropped off the Shout it Out Loud Festival (co) headline slot. Oddly enough, relatively obscure Dangerous Toys filled in the gap. Naturally, I headed to Germany for the event. Singer Jason McMaster's (ex-Watchtower) vocals sounded considerably better than recent Texas shows and it was the one and only time I got a headrush from a gig, as I stood in the front row, destroying my voice to every song. Even McMaster himself congratulated me on knowing all the lyrics.

Honourable mentions: Doro, Relentless Garage, London, 20th November; Immolation, Underworld, London, 29th September

Best Festival
Party San Open Air 2012, Flugplatz, 9th - 11th August

The line up for Bloodstock was incredibly dull for me so I decided to finally go to Party San, which I have been considering for a few years but the BOA clash usually prevented me from doing so. With a stunning line up of premier extreme metal, it as difficult to find reasons not to attend - Both Thrower, Nile, Immolation, Arhgoat, Nifelheim, Skalmold, Cattle Decapitation, Gospel of the Horns just a few names worth watching. Sadly, Rompeprop pulled out (one day, I will see this band) but were replaced with goregrinders Rectal Smegma, which remained fun. The people at the festival were very friendly and adorable. Very few English there too, although I'm not surprised if that changes this year when people see the BOA line up is poor again. 

Honourable mentions: Shout it Out Loud Festival, Mulheim, 10th March; Fimbul Festival 2012, Dettelbach, 14th - 15th September

Best Discovery
Children of Technology

While I was on my metal hiatus, I noticed that crust has been getting particular attention in the metal scene. One such band in this genre is Children of Technology, a perfect blend of careless punk and trashy metal. Violent, dirty and catchy, 'It's Time to Face the Doomsday' is a balls out, fist to the face of a release that takes no prisoner and is unforgettable. Unfortunately, most crust bands don't weigh up as strongly as these Italians but who cares?! Need another full-length soon, guys.

Honourable mentions: Blutmond; D.R.I.


This year is setting itself up to be quite an interesting one for metal, most notably the new Carcass album. There's also the Neurotic Death Fest, which is showcasing my favourite old school death metal bands. Oh, and the new Immolation album is something to look forward to.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Book Review: 'Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal and Grindcore' by Albert Mudrian

In Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal and Grindcore, author Albert Mudrian aims to detail the birth, rise, near-downfall and revival of the death metal and grindcore scenes, beginning in Birmingham and venturing to Florida and Sweden among other places on the death metal map.

The book is competently written and full of ample black and white photographs and historic concert fliers with a foreword by the late John Peel. Bands including Napalm Death, Carcass, Death, Morbid Angel, Entombed, Repulsion and Possessed are discussed in microscopic detail with interviews and anecdotes that will raise a few eyebrows and shed light on complex relationships and situations.

However, despite the prominent focus on Earache Records bands and the aforementioned acts, other later death metal bands are merely name-dropped with no further investigation. The writing becomes flimsy and cursory after 1994 compared to the earlier years, for instance Death's eventual success after infusing progressive metal into their sound is largely ignored. The book would have additionally benefited further with the inclusion of the classic New York death/slam death metal scene, technical death metal, and modern (post-1994) grindcore bands - all paramount to the current death metal scene (although melodic death metal receives a few pages). Besides, it seems strange for a book concentrating on death metal and grindcore avoids examining goregrind - a hybrid between death metal and grindcore.

Nonetheless, this is a solid read for those new to the genre or veterans wanting to supplement pre-existing knowledge. Highly recommended reading that remains as interesting as the music it studies.

Friday, 30 December 2011

Cynic's 'Carbon-Based Anatomy' - For Those Who Know

No aliens to the metal world, Florida's Cynic adopted a new perspective on progressive extreme metal and remain a fundamental part of technical metal history. The heart of the band is Paul Masvidal and Sean Reinert who were part of Death for the seminal Human recording. Cynic released the universally-lauded Focus before disbanding in 1994. However, like many thrash acts from the eighties and early nineties, a reunion dawned in 2006. Traced in Air was the debut's successor, with material strong enough to be considered superior to Focus. Last year, the American due released Retraced, an EP containing alternative take on songs from Traced in Air, reformulated to embody a very modern and emotive rock shape, albeit with as much thoughtfulness as their original takes. The final track was new number 'Wheels Within Wheels', which shared the same musical DNA as the other tracks. This year, Cynic polarised opinion with Carbon-Based Anatomy, a EP bearing all new material very different to what adherents were expecting.

Carbon-Based Anatomy is essentially three full-length songs conjoined by three embellishing interludes. The most striking comparison to their older works is the complete erosion of any metal elements. Once bequeathed with death and thrash metal teeth, Cynic's music has embodied an idiosyncratic progressive rock form. Astral soundscapes and off beat drumming remain but the signature vocal decoder has been substituted for a clean Steven Wilson-esque vocal effort from Masvidal, as heard on Retraced. The solos are less unorthodox than the Focus days but the release comes across as a personal one, more interested in depicting emotive flares rather than metal complexity. The lyrics certainly feel more personal. From 'Box Up My Bones':

Haste to cure the old despair,
No antidote, still I repair.
Someone said that bird has no wings,
But I've seen it fly, I've seen it fly in dreams.

On my way to love someone,
On my way to love the one.

The level of atmosphere has been dramatically increased; Masvidal explains that this is due to an appreciation of the ambient works of Brian Eno and Eno's vast and lonesome atmospheres are evoked on this release. Additionally, in truly being progressive, the introductory 'Amidst the Coals' is from an Amazonian tribe's Icaro - a song said to have had healing properties.

This release is a sign of Cynic's maturity and a testament to their desire to do what they wish rather than be directed by trends or what the fans expect. Masvidal states that his music references his life and is naturally going to become "more interesting, expansive and colourful." [1]. Some detractors consider Carbon-Based Anatomy to be closer to an Aeon Spoke record than a Cynic one, but Aeon Spoke are more folk inclined and devoid of the celestial musings prominent in Cynic's music, including this EP. It is fair to conclude that the negative attention that plagues Carbon-Based Anatomy is predominantly from metalheads wishing for Death-hangover, interested in Cynic because of the shared members and are frustrated Cynic have no metal tendencies any more [2]. Masvidal stated that even in the early years, Cynic attracted may who listened to jazz and were completely ignorant to metal [1]. New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratcliff believes Cynic's music to be better understood outside of a metal vessel. Perhaps this is true.

The vigour of 'Veil of Maya' may be absent but the tenderness of 'Textures' remains. Either way, Masvidal does not intend for Cynic to be a nostalgia act so those desperate for the old Cynic should stick to Obscura. Or listen to Focus.

[1] Metal Discovery interview with Paul Masvidal, 2011.
[2] A similar argument can be made for the split opinions on Opeth's Heritage album.