Thursday, May 13, 2021

Grave Miasma - Abyss of Wrathful Deities

A meandering fart-cloud of non-riffs

It might be easy to forget if you weren't around at the time, but back in Grave Miasma's heyday they were a Big Fuckin' Deal.  The term "caverncore" has fallen out of favor in recent years (likely because it sounds like a pejorative, though personally I use it value-neutrally) but when that style was first really blowing up about a decade ago, Grave Miasma was one of the earliest bands to really show how to do it well.  Heaps of influence from Incantation, murky production, chaotic songwriting, particular attention paid to atmosphere, all the tropes were codified in part by these guys back when the wave was beginning to swell.  Their debut full length, Odori Sepulcrorum stands as a classic in the little microgenre they occupy, so their long awaited followup, Abyss of Wrathful Deities, has been one of the most anticipated albums of the year for death metal fans.

I'm five or six listens down at this point, and what this has really done has reaffirmed my belief that Grave Miasma was always the least interesting of these early studs.  Obviously they can't sniff the socks of Incantation, but when it comes to their peers, the two they are most often compared to outshine them in every way.  Dead Congregation and Cruciamentum seem to be spiritually tied to Grave Miasma, all three of whom are examples of early bands showcasing this new breed of Incantation influence and having an agonizingly slow release schedule, but the former two are a hell of a lot better when it comes to crafting memorable experiences.  Dead Congregation throws curveballs all the god damned time, never tipping their hand as to what the next section of music is going to bring, lurching frantically between fast and slow moments and clobbering you over the head with morbid nastiness at every turn.  Cruciamentum hunkers down into vicious grooves and rides out musical anxiety attacks with razor sharp riffage cutting through the thick atmosphere.  Grave Miasma, on the other hand, is just that, a miasma.  It's thick and noxious and just kinda floats around without any real purpose.

It's a shame because obviously I really enjoy bands that are very similar to this idea, it takes very little tweaking to change an album like Abyss of Wrathful Deities into Graves of the Archangels, but those tweaks haven't been made here.  There's very little actual excitement to be found on this album.  I personally hate the argument of "it all sounds the same!" because it's almost always said by somebody who has no idea what they're even looking for, but man it's true this time.  Like, sure there are tempo shifts across and within songs but they all somehow sound like they're the same speed.  "Rogyapa" starts with an incredibly intense drum fill before flying into a screaming Kerry King style solo, but the riff underneath is just some walking tremolo patterns while the drums technically fire away with high speed double bass, but the snare and cymbals are placed very far apart in the pattern, giving the illusion that the section is moving much slower than it actually is.  This could be a neat effect but it feels so woefully misplaced when the rest of the album is actually as slow as this particular section feels.  It's rare that the tempo truly feels above mid paced, instead meandering between strolling and trotting and as a result the whole thing just drags.  It feels like it's holding itself back whenever it tries to break free.  It turns the album into a hazy slog where thirty minutes can pass by without me noticing a single interesting thing happening.

Grave Miasma is the type of band to focus on atmosphere above riffs, and while that isn't necessarily my preference, it's still totally valid and can produce some excellent shit (see the other bands I've namedropped here).  The problem is that the atmosphere on display here is very monotonous.  This is the same fuckin' problem I have with Ulcerate, we do not need 53 minutes of the same damn idea in a row.  The actual elements change of course, they aren't literally playing the same riffs in the same order at the same speed on every track, but when the effect of each song is functionally identical then they might as well be.  My old analogy about a long rollercoaster applies here as well; there may be a lot of twists and turns and starts and stops but at the end of the day you're really just doing the same loop-de-loops on the same track over and over again.  I'm always worried when every track on an album is basically the same length for this exact reason and that's the case here as well.  Of the eight non-interlude tracks, six of them are within the six minute window, while one is ten seconds short and the other ten seconds over.  They wind up playing with the same ideas with the same tempos for the same general length of time on each track and holy shit why should I be invested in that for nearly an hour?

I wish I liked this, because I adore Grave Miasma's peers and influences, but they've always managed to whiff the execution for me, and eight years after Odori Sepulcrorum I find myself up against the same problems again.  This is overwhelming in a negative way, just the same brown air languidly wafting back and forth for an extended period of time with no actual punch to direct it in any real direction.  And that's just really, really, really fucking boring.


Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Lunar Shadow - Wish to Leave

A trendy move, but a good one
It always takes a few years for new trends to catch on, and I think we've recently been seeing the ripples left by In Solitude's third and final album, Sister, becoming a roiling surge years later.  Shortly after their abrupt left turn from Mercyful Fate styled heavy metal to a dark, downbeat gothic rock/metal hybrid with heavy influence from goth staples like Bauhaus and Fields of the Nephilim, we saw Tribulation abandon death metal to hit a similar sound, and in the years since we've seen more and more bands adopt the style.  The biggest one is undoubtedly Idle Hands/Unto Others in my circles of the internet, but I can only foresee more burgeoning into the spotlight as it becomes more comercially/artistically safe.  
Of all the bands to hop on this trend, I don't think there was a better candidate than Lunar Shadow.  I'm using the term "trendhopping" in a value-neutral way here, despite knowing that it's typically a pejorative.  What Lunar Shadow did here was shift their sound to more closely emulate a style that is trending positively, that is a trendhop, pure and simple.  The reason I'm not upset with it this time is because it turns out this is exactly what Lunar Shadow needed to do to properly play to their strengths.  Unlike high profile shifts that I vocally hated, these Germans didn't abandon their strengths with the shift, and instead directly enhanced them.  Enforcer traded being the best speed metal band in the world to become an average glam metal band.  Skeletonwitch traded being one of the only consistently relevant American thrash bands that didn't form 40 years ago to become the ten trillionth mediocre atmoblack band.  Lunar Shadow, on the other hand, traded being a mediocre trad metal revival band that simply "had potential" to become something that fully unlocks said potential.  That's the key difference here.

Far from Light and The Smokeless Fires were both novel curiosities to me.  They were rollicking heavy metal in the typical Cruz del Sur vein, but there was always something a little more interesting/frustrating about them.  Both albums were great and terrible at the same time.  Great riffs but bad vocals, cool atmosphere attached to songs that didn't really suit it, production that was interesting but not exactly good, touches of black metal influence that never really got to shine or recontextualize the songs, et cetera forever.  Max always struck me as a great guitarist with great ideas but was constantly saddled with shitty vocalists and couldn't seem to get his cool ideas to manifest in a way that worked.  And that's why Wish to Leave works so well.  It turns out the problem all along was that he was simply writing in the wrong genre.  The atmosphere was always so damn strong on those first few albums so it makes total sense to shift to a genre that focuses much more on atmosphere in the first place.  The riffs were always cool and melodic but never really went anywhere, but that's not a problem here since this dreamlike wateriness allows the riffs to breathe and wander freely while clean arpeggios over the top keep things grounded.  The vocals always kinda sucked but that's fine this time since they're less a focal point and more of a background element that adds color to the atmosphere instead of distracts from pummeling riffage.  The Smokeless Fires sounded like a decent album that was unsure of itself but Wish to Leave sounds like a definitive statement by a band that finally found their calling.

The majority of the album is very laid back and cool-toned, but there are a few elements of fire near in the back end.  "And Silence Screamed" is the obvious example, starting off with double bass and a very twisty Iron Maiden style melody that used to be the band's bread and butter, but after four tracks of more relaxed psychedelia it hits pretty hard and feels like a fun diversion from the mopey sadness that the album had been wallowing in, despite lyrically following the same threads.  This is also where the album's biggest flaw shines through to a degree though, and that's that the new approach has led to a very soft guitar tone and distant, echoey drums, which works excellently on tracks like "I Will Lose You" and "To Dusk and I Love You", but is shockingly ill-suited to galloping heavy metal riffs.  It feels like an odd but intentional aesthetic choice on "And Silence Screamed", but there is a random heavy bit that pops up occasionally in "Serpents Die" and it sounds hilariously dinky there.  "The Darkness Between the Stars" should be the worst offender in this regard since it's the lone track where their sparse black metal influence unexpectedly returns, but the blasting comes from out of nowhere and thanks to the very wide open snare drum sound it winds up sounding overwhelming and dramatic instead of incoherent and confusing.  The fact that Lunar Shadow didn't go whole hog and just rip off Idle Hands completely despite that being a very obvious influence here is fantastic and helps a lot when it comes to my previous point of them enhancing their strengths.  The odd off-genre bits used to be cool but weren't effective, whereas this time they saved them all for the final song and it ultimately works beautifully and turns the song into the most monumental one on the album.

Idle Hands is an obvious comparison since they were such a surprise hit two years ago and Lunar Shadow is obviously aiming for that same crowd here.  Basically every issue I had with Mana isn't a problem on Wish to Leave.  Instead of the weak vocals being the focal point and vessel to deliver every hook, the wimpy vocals are mostly a textural element that shines occasionally but usually cedes ground to the atmosphere.  Instead of the riffs being contractual afterthoughts they're quietly creative in very evocative ways.  Instead of the lyrics being dumb sophomoric poetry that made my 15 year old self cringe, the lyrics don't even matter to me because the music is actually fuckin' interesting and paints a perfect picture without the need for words.  

tl;dr - Lunar Shadow finally got it right by completely shifting their approach to songwriting.  Of all the bands I was expecting a hit from, these guys weren't on the list at all.  Wish to Leave is by no means perfect (it tends to blur together and the songs typically don't stand apart from each other all that well, and the vocals do still suck, they're just less prominent and easier to ignore now) but I am very pleasantly surprised.