% interment in measured tones
[death metal reviews]

     In the name of the father, of the son...from the
parallelograms of heat muted to light I modulated into the darkened
room smelling of stale bread and eroded grease odors.  Above the
thick skin of checkerboarded red and white tablecloth the face of
my friend Ed caught the fractured triangle of reflection, closing
his eye to a squint.  "Barf christ," he scowled.
     "Hasn't been a great day."  These were the days when we could
view days individually, before they began to integrate into
patterns, progressions, marriages, jobs, or various cycles of decay
that we learned to dread our way through.  Right then it was
finding a place, staying, finding a job, moving on.  "So what's new
on your mind?"  The flies clustered like broken petrified logs in
a corner, odd angulars into a society.
     "Not that much.  Some crisis at the radio station, transmitter
melted or something under the force of our air conditioner, they
finally fixed it.  With the condition of most of that stuff I'm
just glad nothing blew up on us.  Almost got a ticket, but - I saw
this in the cop's eye - he saw a black Mercedes pull an illegal U,
and damn, I was off free and he was turning, a bulking steel shark,
off down the street after him."
     "Lucky."  My experiences had been less pleasantly resolved in
recent memories of that area.  Through the suffocating static
smother of the store speakers a hard bluesrock tune came on under
the enthusiastic voice of the female DJ, who had trouble
pronouncing the phrase "coming in concert" over the sound.  Ed
looked up annoyedly at the speakers.  The front of a woman ducked
in front of us to put a couple glasses of ice tea on the table, and
then, folding back the battered paper of her pad, asked us to give
her orders to write down on green and white thick bond.
     Ed looked at me a bit quizzically.  "Chile relleno," I said
starkly.  More silence for Ed to read the bareprinted words above
his finger.  "Two enchilada, dos equis," he said, folding the menus
into her hands.
     In her absence of sudden: "So what's new on your end?"
     I separated the four-ply napkin by twisting a corner with some
sweat from my thumb.  "Um, not much.  Sending in some reviews of
the past three months or so in death metal."  Took in some ice tea,
remembering someone telling me that's it's good for the throat when
you do the hoarse distorted shout most of the death vocalists
prefer.  Ed drank from his as well.
     "It hasn't been a bad few months, actually.  The problem with
death metal is the same thing that initially protected it: the
extremity of it.  When you listen to something where the guy is
vomiting on the mike and the music is all extreme, disconnected,
nihilistic, everywhere, you're initially pulling back somewhat. 
That's what most of the world did.  But at the same time that began
as a mark of death metal's exclusivity, that also became its
primary point of recognition, leading to a generation of fans who
went for anything that followed some rhythmic and vocal elements,
namely percussive and low, respectively."
     Ed nodded.  I didn't sense that he cared any more that day
than normal about death metal, but he gets into it sometimes, and
besides, I was rolling steady.  Also, he had just taken a large
mouthful of enchilada and couldn't protest.  I love a captive
     "For a while there, as a result, it was all the same goo, guys
meeting those qualifications and adding some gimmick, whether name
or appearance.  It got pretty gross, and I was about to throw in
the towel, but couldn't give up my show, couldn't give up Morbid
Angel."  Ed knows how much I like Morbid Angel myself and seems to
enjoy it thoroughly when I play it in his presence, and has also
been a supporter of my show from the beginning.
     "But two things happened: the fan base got huge, but also
spread out the available resources, leaving the smaller labels that
signed crap bands heading for financial consumption, and labels
began getting choosier.  The smarter edge of the fan base got much
more careful about what they bought.  For a while it looked good
again, but soon more of the commercial element came in, with bands
like Sepultura and Entombed selling out, and big bands like
Cannibal Corpse making it big in the mainstream United States.
     The only thing that saves us from these people is that their
music remains fairly insipid and unsatisfying.  Too many fans are
buying tons of music, really digging the aesthetic but unable to
deal with the simplicity and uninventiveness of the music.  A whole
lot of them bailed the scene.  But at the same time the older bands
began to get acquainted with their instruments and starting putting
out better metal.  And the newer crew looks pretty good.
     Originally, death was concept music, of brutality and a
heaviness nothing else could touch.  The philosophy's expanded, and
a lot of stuff has come in, but not much from the dangerous side of
things, the so-called 'alternative' scene.  When bands want to sell
out they tell us how they're putting in some 'alternative'
influences."  I gulped ice tea with an expulsion of air.
     "But most of the stuff has just gotten more serious on the
musical end, which is fine by me.  For a while there, it was
getting as bad as the punk bands: we play with more 'feel,' etc. 
I think there's feel in music, but I think that feel comes from the
odd collusion of intellect and emotion in a discipline, like making
music.  It's rock, sure, but it's art too if it's serious.
     Varathron was the band that first impressed me.  It's pure
black metal, but the older kind, which is more musical and more
like older heavy metal.  It's harmonic in nature; they play chords
and don't just stream notes at high speed.  It still has the death
vocals, and uses some modern metal elements, but at heart it's
tonal rock, pretty basic but not simple at all.  There's a lot of
variation in riff structure and in song layout, as well as some
interesting experimentation with harmonics, and an ability to
harmonize riffs without them sounding cheesy (a lot of this black
metal stuff makes me think of giant lumps of Swiss cheese
descending on a block of fresh asphalt in a New York summer).
     This is one of the first black metal releases I've been really
enthusiastic about.  It's not Scandinavian at all, from Greece
actually, but it's well-played, not messy, and comes across as
having real thought and intent behind it.  They don't try to be
scary, but the cheesiness comes in the names: Necroabyssious,
Wolfen, Mutilator, and Necroslaughter.  Whatever.  At least they
kept it out of the music."  I lifted my glass and got a brief wisp
of sip of ice tea, and then felt ice cubes against my upper lip. 
I put the glass down.
     "Next thing that I thought was hot shit was Mortuary, from
Mexico.  Really unique stuff, really powerful and fast, an earlier
style of speed metal.  I don't think this is new, but I don't know. 
Got it from J.L. America as they folded into decay.  There's an
obvious Slayer influence in this stuff, but it doesn't sound like
Slayer.  Just sometimes a similar way of thinking about things,
although the approach ends up different in the end.  Playing is
pretty competent for underground metal, and the album overall is
great.  Moves quickly, songs vary, quite a bit of musical
experimentation.  This is far from the norm and the second release
from Mexico to impress me, the first being Cenotaph.
     Another band that blew me away was Doomstone.  I played you
Deceased, right?  The drummer for that band, King Fowley, started
up a side project called Doomstone that recorded this album about
a year ago.  It's called "Those Whom Satan Hath Joined" or
something along those lines.  Pretty pro-Satan overall, but I don't
think it's serious, that is, it's mainly to have some fun with the
lyrics.  There's some serious bagging on the black metal people in
the liner notes.  Fowley's always been a nut, though.  Deceased is
great stuff that makes its way by being tight and musical,
technically challenging while not forgetting the idea of the
listener, of making cool music.
     Half of the problem with death metal comes in that label,
technical.  For one thing, it doesn't mean jack, since 'technical'
means music lessons to most of these people, and since underground
metal isn't known for musicality anyway.  For another thing, the
bands that are spend most of their time trying to prove that they
are because they're so used to people considering them inferior
players and because, un-amazing as they are, they're better than
most of the crowd.  A few stand out ahead, starting with Morbid
Angel and Atheist, but stuff like Deceased really belongs in the
same category, that is, being reasonably competent or better
musicality without being braindead.  Playing songs to make great
songs and to make them artistically challenging, but not just to
try to prove that in a pond full of nobodies you're the best-
trained nobody.  Almost as bad as glam metal in the late eighties,
when the guitar solos started getting long.
     But Doomstone is 'technical,' if we have to use that term,
getting most of its influences from older metal while bringing a
new style of noise- and atonality-influenced music into the mezcla. 
The end result is great.  You can't really sing along, but the
songs move, each is distinctive, and the whole album doesn't have
a bad track.  There's a Grim Reaper cover on here, but I never knew
that band anyway.  A lot of goofy references to cheesy movies about
the occult, including one tune called "Rosemary's Baby."  I have no
idea who the other band members are, but they all have stupid names
like "Urinator of the Holy Graveyards."  I like this one a lot but
most people have no clue it exists.
     Some of the stuff from the Midwest just blows me away.  I
heard about their scene a year or two ago when stuff like
Accidental Suicide, Morgue, and Afterlife was coming out, all of it
pretty musically interesting and technically evolved.  The new
stuff takes this further, with more technical detail (nothing
amazing, but impressive for underground) and power coming in, and
more advanced song structures.  Lyrics have gotten away from the
once-dominant American ideal of proving something, whether anger or
sickness, in the lyrics.  They're demented in their own right, but
with a self-aware humor that's refreshing.  The main act leading
this scene is Oppressor, whose demo I really liked when I received
it about a year ago, for my show.  The power of this music isn't
whatever technical standards it hails to, but the ability to
integrate disparate elements into a working and interesting format. 
There's heaviness in here to compare with the most extreme American
acts, but there's also cool musical workings and internal
structures that support themselves well, producing an aesthetic of
complexity with a percussive speed grind that smears you against a
wall if you catch it at volume. 
     Gutted impress me as much but in an entirely different vector. 
The obvious technicality of Oppressor isn't here; this is a
straight-up rock format with stuff well-encoded into it.  This
isn't even death metal, but speed metal with a death voice.  The
songs aren't as catchy as the more mainstream stuff, but they have
a grasping appeal that's not so much easily understandable as
reflective of coherent assembly.  Some stuff makes your ear listen,
but this stuff gets you involved and then takes you with it. 
There's heaviness to spare here, and some goofiness in the lyrics,
with songs such as "Kickin' the Corpse" leaving me to laugh.  But
it's self-aware, and not stupid, so I have no complaints.  This is
one of my favorites of the year.
     Not from the midwest but from Florida come two of my other
finds.  Neither are that new, or new at all, in the case of Ripping
Corpse, who are one of the few metal bands who could legitimately
wear the label progressive - interesting musical ideas expanded
interestingly, not necessarily as intricate in their song structure
as most bands but exceptionally coherent, in that songs are
completed works and not streams of riffs.  Lead guitar is not often
this well done; for pure musicality this is one of my favorite
works.  Resurrection have a similar approach, taking Florida metal
and making it technically-challenging, rather than just adding
technicalities.  The songs work and are enjoyable on several
levels, leaving the technical work to be assumed and not be the
focus of the entire album.  The only band even close to this is
Monstrosity.  Both of these albums, Ripping Corpse's "In the Forest
of the Dreaming Dead" and Resurrection's "Embalmed Existence," are
first-class death metal.  The former is probably out of print,
Kraze records being defunct in a serious manner.
     From Britain come Malediction, one of the few death metal
bands to legitimately remind me of Morbid Angel, and not through
aping, as their sound is far from the atonal masterpieces of
Azagthoth.  Malediction play intense, not necessarily super-
technically powered, but well-assembled and intriguing death metal. 
The album I have is a live EP, "Chronicles of Dissension," which is
exceptionally well-produced for a live album, with the only clues
to it being live being the pauses before each song where a drunken
British voice talks.  The music is fast, but slows when
strategically necessary; it has a voice that encompasses the song,
and doesn't restrict itself to occasional exposure during a riff or
a solo.  There is a full-length album that I don't have, but if
it's of the same caliber of this material, it should be incredible. 
This is the only British band that's really brought my respect
since Carcass or Repulsion (not forgetting the classic gods Black
Sabbath and Judas Priest, but gods of a previous era, although
timeless in their musical vision).
     Sweden has for the last few generations of death metal bands
lead with innovative and potent metal.  Seance and Fleshcrawl have
released the best albums in recent memory from that area, with the
notable exception of Therion, who, although technically brilliant
and musically exceptional are nowhere in the same league of
heaviness: both of these bands deliver impact power and suffusing
brutality.  Seance produced a guttural, mechanical and distorted
masterpiece in "Saltrubbed Eyes," in which they learned to drop the
many dissonant riffs approach of their first album in favor of a
cohesive approach to song structures which emphasizes bringing out
what is put into the song, instead of stringing it in linearly.  On
their first release they reminded me of a Swedish Malevolent
Creation, but here the sound is much more Seance's own.  The final
track, an instrumental, gets special mention.  The primary work
here is the guitar tracks, which are experimental for death metal,
especially eurometal.  There's a lot of work with shorter but more
definite riffs, and some experimentation in the noise of the lead
guitars, which seem competent although they often choose to be
content with half-noise solos.  Smearing notes and all of that
work.  The distortion on this album is grating to a maximum, a new
height of abrasiveness in guitar.  This is one of my current
favorites from Sweden.
     Fleshcrawl have always impressed me, but "Impurity" outdoes
itself.  Where their first was slow this has achieved a balance,
realizing an aptitude for tempos in different components of the
songs.  Song structures are spread out and varied, although they
don't seek to emphasize these varieties but an overall impression. 
There is a track from Finnish gods Demigod (Slumber of Sullen Eyes,
their one album, is one of my favorites from Scandinavia: heavy but
harmonic stuff, a unique sound that builds itself from out of the
songs, instead of carping songs to follow an aesthetic) covered on
this album, but more innarestin' in the track which isn't a cover,
Inevitable End, which seems to be right out of the book of Bolt
Thrower, albeit speeded up.  The remaining songs are heavy and
satisfying, excepting an instrumental by Dan Swano of Edge of
Sanity.  You can't sing along but who needs to?  this is the
descending blade of heavy metal that's not afraid to be technically
competent, compositionally intriguing, or image deficient - it's
the hardline straight up with no gimmick, and consequently both of
these albums seem to be overlooked in the United States.  (Possibly
in favor of Entombed's terrible "Wolverine Blues," which would be
a travesty of the first order.)"
     Ed put down his empty glass, and flipped two fingers toward
his palm to gesture for more.  With it came our food.  I dug in,
heavily, starving and aggressive.  Ed ate more carefully but with
equal rapidity.  Surprisingly, he wasn't intimidated by my spew
about a genre he could care less about, but was sort of interested. 
Through the corner of a mouth: "So things are looking up except for
the sellouts?  I remember you ranting about that some time ago,
that and Christian metal" (Christian metal being my favorite
oxymoron to pick on, as metal is beyond Christianity and really
should have nothing to do with it - not saying, however, as every
Christian misinterprets this argument, that it needs to go running
to Papa Satan - it just was founded and designed outside of
Christianity and doesn't work with it) " - are there more of
     I poked more chile relleno into my mouth.  "Well," chewing, "I
think more are coming, as it gets easier to throw a little Alice in
Chains into your music.  And that's the band they'll all ape, that
or Helmet, maybe.  Alice is easy because it's one of the heavier
bands in the so-called 'alternative' range, and because with the
complexity of that sound, a band can work a lot in without being
seen as what they'd otherwise be: a metal band suddenly going heavy
bluesrock on us.  Plus, they share a lot of roots, Alice in Chains
and death metal; those people heard Black Sabbath and Motorhead,
too.  Entombed tried the Alice in Chains thing with Wolverine, and
it sucked, but it wasn't a bad shot for a first, from the eyes of
the mainstream, who seem to buy suck music any chance they can get. 
It's a safe sound to assume.  I haven't seen too much of that
lately.  But I've been staying far away.
     It's amazing how sometimes the most obscure stuff is the best. 
You'd think more people would catch on, but it doesn't seem so -
take Obliveon as a case in point.  If you can get past the dumb
name, this is spectacular progressive death metal from Canada.  For
once the bass is used as a lead instrument in metal without
becoming cheesy - it makes its presence felt, but without being
either a leading pop element or an attachment for the sake of
additional hooks.  Integrated structurally, the bass-guitar
interaction of this band is incredible, nailed to a precision drum
track to make this a tight setup, with incredibly players lending
to the tightness with the right-on instrumentation that any fan of
speed metal would love.  But this is death metal, albeit a very
unique interpretation of the genre musically.  It's not
particularly heavy in the original sense, but cool - in the way
that a jazz or progressive band would be.  But it's heavy, and it's
amazing, and not effete like "progressive metal" acts like Dream
Theatre.  It stays true to the core of metal.
     More obscurity in the form of Alastis, one of the few "doom
metal" bands worthy of the title.  There is real musicality to
this, good tempo variation, impressive drumming and cool riffs to
package a slowing majesty of falling darkness.  Vocals are a
subdued version of the death/black metal voice, and fit well into
this music, which has elements of both the modern and the older
styles of metal.  Impressive at the least.  With an entirely
different sound but a musically impressive output is Demilich, who
are Finns playing harmonically-intricate death metal; it reminds me
of the sounds of a funk band without the annoying elements in the
way Demilich slide and cycle through the castles of tones they
build on "Nespithe."  It's not musicianship showing off, either,
but a unique look at metal with a real experimental eye to it. 
This is one of my favorite releases of this year.
     But the core of metal remains the heaviness, and the emphasis
that places through its rhythm and timbre.  Loudblast fulfill this
with the musicality quotient that any lover of the above will
enjoy.  Heavy, with real death and speed metal elements
demonstrating the band's superb songwriting.  Not superb judgement:
this album has a fourth track of some of the most annoying female
vocals ever to hit vinyl.  But the music is outstanding.  Another
harder to find but brilliant band is Goreaphobia, who despite the
stupid name create impressive death metal, with intense variation
and a preservation of well-conceptualized mood and vision pervading
throughout all three tracks on this album, "Omen of Masochism" (one
of the nicely cheap Relapse underground releases).  The cover
illustration is a bit annoying (half-clothed woman consorting with
devil) but the music is phenomenal, and heavy, having a lot of the
better elements of death and grindcore musically while remaining
so.  A good sense of energy to this as well.
     Stupidity has always been a part of metal, and the silliness
continues.  Demented Ted caught my ear despite misgivings about the
stupid name; this is good stuff, solidly heavy and technically
intricate, although not as progressive and experimental as it could
be musically.  That would be the greatest failing of this album,
but it survives it as good speed/death metal.  The greatest area of
foolishness, while we're on the topic, would have to be black
metal, and one of my current favorites, Sacramentum, is a proud
member of that arena.  Yet it's phenomenal music, with a good
melodic sense (this is modern black metal in its stream of notes
incarnation) and a more conventional than usual adherence to sound,
although without being cliche or uninventive.  Highly recommended
to black metal fans.  Actually," I said, wiping my upper lip on
disposable napkin, "all of this stuff is, and I'd have trouble
deciding what to leave behind, but that's just because this is what
I've found after listening to tons and tons of this stuff.
     We're not out of the deep water yet.  There's a lot of crappy
metal out there, as there always will be.  But I think a lot of the
stuff I see coming up is great, especially as bands learn that
learning instrumentalism doesn't mean they've sold out, or that
they suck.  The greatest underground today is in the growing
category of progressive or near-progressive metal, as it's too out
there for most of the mainstream death metal fans and too musically
subversive to ignore."  Ed wiped his mouth on a similar napkin. 
The sun had set and the air hung almost liquid in through the cold
glass.  The stillness of daysend and the fullness of our stomachs
slowed our thoughts, but soon we paid, and left to wander between
pedestrian and building alike, stretching our thoughts through the
networks of modern life without particularly attaching to anything.