Monday, December 29, 2014

Ten of the best metal albums of all time - Part V: Winter - Into Darkness

Even in a review series about some of the very best metal albums of all time, a series which is obviously to be loaded with superlatives in every review, there's bound to be one album which stands out the most. And it doesn't matter into how many parts I decided to divide this series - I picked tenrather arbitrarily - but if it were only five, or up to fifty, this one album would always stand out above all others. This album is, of course, Winter's Into Darkness, the pinnacle, the crown jewel in the history of all forms of heavy metal, for all times to come.

"Words cannot describe..." is a phrase that is not only strangely overused in reviews of such amazing works of art, but also contradictory to the purpose of a review itself, since using words to describe is exactly what one attempts at doing in this endeavour. It is however the first phrase to pop into my mind when beginning to try to wrap my mind around how to get the mind-blowing quality of this album across to the reader. I feel like an astronomer who tries to describe the universe in a few drab technical terms, when in reality it takes a lifetime of internalising all its aspects to realise just how amazing and impressive is in its entirety. Into Darkness, likewise, is something I can only sketch out in a few well-intentioned but never sufficient phrases without ever scratching the surface of its grandness, and no potential listener reading this review will grasp the magnitude of what was put on record here by a few general descriptions of the elements that make up the album's sound.

It is no coincidence that I chose an analogy to describing the universe when beginning to delve into an attempted characterisation of this album, because as the universe is unimaginably big in spacial dimensions, Into Darkness is the same in audial ones. There is a gravity to every note played on this album that evokes images of solar system-sized giants pounding down on planets with star-sized hammers. It feels like the perfect embodiment of the sheer heaviness bands have been going for ever since Black Sabbath played the very first notes of their eponymous song, and that only Winter have reached in this magnitude, and one that can never be surpassed. The amazing production of course does a great job of accomplishing this, with its thick and massive guitar tone and the accompanying strong and heavy presence of the bass. But the major credit lies, as always, with the songwriting, as no producer or engineer has ever created a masterpiece in music, only songwriters have.

How to make heavy metal in all its diversity of subgenres as heavy as possible has been a quest from the start, with a myriad of approaches to achieve this feat, but no band ever succeeded to an extent as Winter did right here, and no one ever will again. The ingredients are fairly simple. Due credit has to be given to obvious influences such as Celtic Frost (in the more uptempo parts) or Amebix (when things slow down), but what Winter achieve here is primarily the result of their own, simple, straight-forward, but utterly effective songwriting choices. Every chord is played with just the right amount of power behind it, and sustained for just the right length, arranged into riffs in which every chord feels to up the ante and increase the heaviness of its preceeding chord. The sheer massiveness of these riffs is almost surpassed by how dark an atmosphere they create, something that only adds to their gravity. It once again brings back the analogy to the universe, and objects that are so massive that not even light can escape them.

Not to be outdone by the riffs, the rhythm section acts with the same remorseless dedication to flattening the listener into residue the size of atoms or smaller. The pounding, warlike drumming in particular is a showcase exercise in brutal efficiency. The analogies in my mind vary between a hammer and an anvil, and the chains of a tank, but either of them at a cosmic size. Sparse keyboards help add keep the density intact at any and all times, leaving the listener no reprieve from the suffocating darkness and gravity of the audial maelstrom created. And above all tower the vocals.

What John Alman delivers here is a performance unrivaled in the entirety of the heavy metal genre. Appearing as standard Celtic Frost-inspired barks on the surface, only lowered by about an octave, they reveal an unimaginable depth of emotional power after repeated listens. And trust me, once your mind properly processes this album, there will be many, many repeated listens. Alman's performance creates a variety of mental images, from a war commander of an army of some form of gigantic, horrid creatures ready to conquer the universe and plunge all civilisations across its span into perpetual darkness, to a mad preacher of some ancient cosmic religion shouting sermons of an impending doom for all that lives in the entirety of space and time. The feeling they create is absolutely huge and suffocating, and leave no doubt that the end of all is nigh, and nothing can be done to prevent it.

The conclusion brings me back to the initial phrase of words being unable to describe, and while I may have done my best for my words to accomplish anything nearing a worthy description, I must live with the realisation that it is simply not possible to put into words what only many repeated listens of the album can achieve. If there ever was any album that needed to be heard, and needed to be heard as often and intensively as possible, it is Winter's Into Darkness. This is the essential metal classic that requires a spot in every self-respecting heavy metal connoisseur's collection. Were I forced to pick a best album of the entire genre at gunpoint, I would name this as my first choice without hesitation.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Ten of the best metal albums of all time - Part IV: Demilich - Nespithe

You know, in that alternate universe in which time runs backwards, this album would be the world's most derided as having stolen every single idea bands had after 1993. You can think of whatever band in the world in the late 1990s or 2000s having a really great idea, and Demilich will have said "Hah, we'll take your idea and do it in 1993!" Basically, this album is the culmination of all cool ideas in metal from all the years after this album was released, but Demilich did them before they became cool ideas in metal as a whole.

The problem is that from a neutral viewpoint, amazing quality aside, it isn't very easy to sell this album to those not familiar with it. That is because describing the surface elements doesn't leave a very appealing mix in theory. For example, I will certainly never win an award for being the world's biggest fan of technical death metal, so if you came to me praising this amazing technical death metal album you think I should hear, I'd probably ignore you. Moreover, there certainly is no love lost between myself and death metal that infuses a strong sense of melody, so if you praised the great melodies on this album, hell would freeze over before you got me even remotely interested. Then to top things off you may begin to talk to about vocals that sound like a cross between belching and frog vocalisations, and you can be sure to have given me a mental image of an album I will certainly never give the time of day.

It is a bit of an odd thing that I not only checked this album out, but actually gave it enough listens to fully grasp the genius behind it, because I am usually impervious to the fierce word of mouth propaganda that led to my doing so in the end. The right amount of praise, with the right amount of thought put behind it, by the right people, usually not enough for me to budge, but! Combined with the level of intelligence and creativity seen in the songtitles, it was enough for an interest to be piqued. And just as tenacious as the concerns voiced in the second paragraph were prior to my subsequent indulgence, as swiftly they were washed away by the sheer quality of this album's writing and performance.

Nothing could be a greater mistake than avoiding what is being presented on this record based on what its surface elements look like on paper. It is not simply a question of the album being greater than the sum of its parts. That is an expression more adequately used for something the parts of which would have some appeal of themselves and being put together to something of high quality. In the case of the album I am reviewing, it would not only be an understatement, but the entire approach of that type of thinking would be fallacious. Because simply put, it's not a matter of a couple of good riffs strung up into something great. It's far more radical than that. The parts on this album, and that's the beauty of it, are actually anything but good or appealing by themselves. Take any riff, any melody, any bass line, any drum part, any frog belch, by itself it's actually quite awful. What Demilich does is to interweave these awful parts into a radiant piece of art. It's dumbfounding, but that's the power of amazing songwriting.

Both the sheer level of thought behind these arrangements and the keen instinct for their perfect interwoven combinations leave the listener astonished, almost in disbelief over how something so bizarre and unsettling can be made into something so grand. Every note seems to flow into the next as if written in cosmic stone at the beginning of time and discovered by still primitive humans via some bizarre scientific contraption. Every hit on the drumkit alike, and every utterance of vocalisation, it all fits together like a pre-historic puzzle to be solved once humankind has hit the right level of evolution. It all creates a certain aesthetic flow that can only be compared to the beauty of the workings of the universe themselves. It's a work of genius, no less can be said about it.

I realise that it will never be within my writing abilities to properly convey the majesty of this album's songwriting and performance, and that to many it will continue to be a candidate for dismissal based on it supposedly being just anothter faux-"strange" technical death metal album with too much of an emphasis on melody and vocals that to many can't possibly be taken seriously either by the person who performed them or the confused listener wondering what it was they were meant to accomplished. I don't think any of my ramblings in this review will make any difference to those reluctant about giving this album enough listens to fully immerse themselves in it and discover its genius. The fact that this is one of the best recordings in the whole of metal, and possibly music itself, remains.