Our UK contributor Andy Synn returns with another edition of The Synn Report.
A band with a profound, and vastly underrated, influence on many of today’s bands, Norway’s Extol were in many ways the epitome of counter-culture in metal circles at one time. Whereas the majority of their countrymen were quite happy to worship Satan and live out their darkest black metal fantasies, these 5 individuals decided to play a progressive form of technical death/thrash metal with a lyrical bent covering their own shared Christian spirituality. Blasphemy!
Over the course of their career this Norwegian five-piece were never afraid to push the envelope with their sound and playing, their technical skills and song-writing prowess a real testament to their dedicated pursuit of musical perfection and progression. Difficult to precisely define in terms of sound and scene-affiliation, the band is most broadly described as a Progressive Metal band; at times (particularly in the early days) the band were notably extreme.
(more after the jump, including sample songs from Extol’s discography . . .)
Burial – 1998
Clearly the most black-metal influenced album in the band’s catalogue (unsurprising considering their origins and the timing of the release), “Burial” is considered by many to be the classic of the band’s many releases. After an aggressive instrumental intro, first song proper “Celestial Completion” rides into town buoyed by an uplifting melodic lead-line, only to dive into full-speed blasting and tremolo-picked ferocity. The vocals are a distinctive mid-range snarl and, although the production is not perfect, the overall sound is surprisingly sharp and clear – each instrument being given some room to breathe and flex its muscles. The blackened fury of the song is broken up by a series of sharply played, technical thrash riffs and a surprisingly effective mid-song folk section led by flute and keyboard melodies.
The title-track will be a welcome listen to any fans of the Death, Atheist, Decrepit Birth school of song-writing, melding rough and ready death metal riffs with spacey atmospherics and introducing the guttural range of vocalist Peter Espevoll. For “Renhetens Elv” (“Purity River”) the band slows down the pacing, a slow and somber chord and lead progression morphing into a chunky series of inter-locking riffs and tremolo-picked lead lines. The song also utilises an interesting stop-start dynamic as a recurring refrain, dropping in and out of short, clean-picked sections of guitar in contrast to the pummellingly heavy guitar and drum progressions which characterise the majority of the song.
The album continues to juxtapose black-metal led melody lines with off-kilter progressive death metal tendencies. Certain songs are more aggressive than others, utilising a greater amount of gutturals (“Superior”, “Embraced”) or focussing more on the technical death metal aspects (“Justified”) while others push the nascent progressive stylings a little further; “Reflections Of A Broken Soul” spends the first minute and a half expanding the instrumental side of the band and is also the first to incorporate clean vocals, provided by guitarist Ole Børud. The 7:27 “Tears Of Bitterness” cycles through a series of different stylistic approaches, organically shifting between them with surprising agility – the speedy blasting and deft finger-work culminates in a keyboard and violin led mid-section which provides an almost classical feel to the song, before returning to the bumping and grinding metal in which the band has their roots.
In my opinion this is one of the strongest metal debuts in existence, showcasing a band with extreme technical abilities and compositional awareness far beyond the majority of their peers. Standing aside from their black metal countrymen by means of morose, yet uplifting melodies as well as their incorporation of a wide-range of metal styles, the band clearly and authoritatively stamped their own identity on their sound with this release.
Recommended Song – Burial
Mesmerized – 1999
With the “Mesmerized” EP, Extol foreshadowed the changes in direction that would become apparent on their sophomore full-length. Aside from the superior production on display, the clearest improvement here has been in the power and clarity of the vocals of Peter Espevoll, who sounds even more vicious on this release than on their debut.
Opener “Enthralled” begins with a melodic chord progression, leading into a raging guitar and blasting-drum drum assault. The bass nimbly weaves extra nuances into the riff-storm on offer before the band drops into a slower, crunchy bridge section, given extra-character by the superior drumming skills of David Husvik. “The Prodigal Son” begins with a dark, cleanly picked intro section, broken up by waves of crashing guitar and proceeding into a series of technical guitar riffs, first mixing harsh chugging with lead and rhythm interplay and then heading into a much more death metal direction with the crunchy guitar work and dark chord progressions. The band locks into a deadly black metal influenced groove later on in the song, which progresses into some jazzy structures and progressively inclined playing, the band playing hell for leather until the solo at the finale.
Final track (yes, I’m ignoring the pointless remixes) “Storm Of Disillusions” begins with a short acoustic section, before diving into a choppy series of guitar riffs overlaid with some well-delivered clean vocals. The song proceeds back and forth between flowing, technical guitar work and progressively-oriented chord progressions, mixing harsh vocals in with the initially dominant cleans. Towards the middle of the song the heaviness increases dramatically with the harsh vocals taking the lead at this time, albeit maintaining a sense of constructive and expansive melody. The solo at the end of the song is short but perfectly written and performed and provides a fitting send-off for a great song.
Recommended Song – Storms of Disillusions
Undeceived – 2000
For me this is the real gem in Extol’s back-catalogue. Although ostensibly operating under the banner of “Melodic Death Metal” (although less perhaps by choice and more perhaps by the grace of proximity of sound), I find this album to be far greater in scope and sound than such a convenient tag might suggest.
Opening with the mournful violin and cello intro of “Undeceived”, which is suddenly interrupted by an assault of raging death metal fury, the band mixes in a variety of melodic ideas into the song without compromising its overall heaviness, and the overall sound is far grander and more powerful than ever before. David Husvik is a hugely under-rated drummer, grounding the band in both the technical and extreme realms with ease, his power-house performance allowing the band to explore a variety of different textures and styles.
“Inferno” immediately presents itself as a whirlwind of technical guitar playing and nimble drum-work, before breaking into an unexpected violin-led section, backed up by some simple yet effective guitar work. Before long, however, the band explodes back into full-pelt once more. The violin pops back up a few times, providing a melodic counter-point to an otherwise particularly extreme song, and the ending tech-out also benefits from some great bass work rounding out the sound.
“Ember” moves from an insanely technical introduction to a melodically introspective verse section, utilising the clean vocals of Ole Børud to great effect, yet also manages to switch into full-on heavy mode at a moment’s notice. Moving through sequences of complicated and progressively structured riffs the band utilises the violin again to great effect, segueing back into the melodic verse section before building to a suitably epic climax. Later on, “A Structure Of Souls” also once again showcases the band’s superior grasp of clean vocal dynamics, effortlessly welded onto a storm of furious guitars and emotionally charged screams.
Following beautiful instrumental “Meadows Of Silence”, “Shelter” is a dark death metal flavoured treat, it’s depressive atmosphere tempered by a soaring lead refrain and a wah-drenched solo section at the end. “Of Light And Shade” is a tech-death extravaganza that also contains some of the most vicious vocal work on the entire disc, along with some much needed variation in the incorporation of carefully placed guttural growls. The drumming here is also masterful, providing a real edge to the song and showcasing the sheer tightness of the band’s writing and performing style. The end is reminiscent of the work of Cynic, mixing distorted vocal styles with clever guitar work and heavy, rhythmic drumming.
Closing track “And I Watch” is perhaps the most obviously black metal influenced song on the entire disc. Huge sections of this song see the band blasting away at full pace, guitars blazing whilst the drums attempt to reach escape velocity. At other times the band sees fit to unleash their sheer musical prowess to great effect, never displaying technicality purely for its own sake but rather to attain a specific goal of mesmerising the listeners, drawing in and focussing all their attention on the shifting tempos and tightly written interplay of all the instruments working perfectly as one. The lead guitar work is impeccably tasteful on this track, varying from shredding to subtle in its approach, with the use of melodic guitar leads serving to underpin the song as a whole.
For me, this albums stands out as an absolute masterpiece of progressive metal, organically incorporating all the best elements from a number of different styles and utilising a variety of non-metal, jazz-based approaches, to create a truly phenomenal piece of work.
Recommended Song – Undeceived
Paralysis – 2001
The “Paralysis” EP begins with an ominous instrumental intro (entitled “Paralysis”) that builds and builds the tension until it explodes with a vengeance on “Your Beauty Divine”. Propulsively driven forward by the drumming of David Husvik, the song manages to mix the melodic and the extreme in a manner that is neither clichéd nor expected; clean vocals appear where no clean vocals should be, atop blast-beat led sections and juxtaposed against vicious screams, whilst strangely melodic chord progressions dominate much of the proceedings. The bass is given a nice amount of presence in the mix, providing some warmth and beef to the low end of the scale – nowhere is this more evident or more important than during the pre-solo and solo sections (beginning around the 3:00 mark). The ending is gorgeously heavy, building and cycling around a hypnotic riff and circuitous drum pattern to great effect.
“Shadow Of Death” is a cover of American prog-thrashers Believer and, although performed in Extol’s own inimitable style, is clearly not as natural a fit with the rest of the material here. However, the song is well played and given some real energy and weight by the band. Closing track “Human Frailtie’s Grave” begins slowly and calmly before hammering away at speed for a series of thrash-tastic riffs. The song continually speeds up and slows down throughout its 4:32 length, dynamically shifting the focus between the instruments whilst maintaining a consistent and natural flow. Although thrashier than is traditional for Extol, the song maintains a sense of continuity with their past work through its use of off-beat technicality and an ear for a distinctive melody.
Recommended Song – Your Beauty Divine
Synergy – 2003
With their third album, Extol took a reasonably drastic shift in sound and direction. Gone is any remnant of black metal. Gone too are the majority of the death metal elements of their sound. Although the progressive elements of their sounds (musical experiments and complex arrangements) still remain in place, the focus now is on technical post-thrash metal riffs and more overtly jazzy constructions rather than the deathly aggression prevalent on their previous albums. The production is much drier and less epic in scale, the band seemingly having turned in on themselves with this release, although this does suit their new direction.
Opener “Grace For Succession” is a perfect microcosm of the new Extol sound – technical thrash riffing mixing with jazzy drumming, leading to a soaring melodic chorus. Although the guitar work is noticeably less aggressive than on past releases, it is no less technical and also allows the drum work to really shine through as something special.
Follow-up “Paradigms” takes the interesting step of employing dual male and female melodic vocals right from the very start, before breaking down into a skilful display of stop-start guitar work and anti-melodic guitar runs, over which Peter Espevoll continues to spew his spiritual invective – albeit in his more scratchy, thrash-friendly vocal style. “Psychopath” moves from an aggressive opening to a dark and moody interlude and back again into a punchy series of dissonant riffs. The teasing, stop-start solo section in the bridge is a nice change of pace, as is the full-on display of flashy solo work which it leads into.
Songs such as “Blood Red Cover” (with its mid-section clean vocals and slow, uplifting solo), “26 Miles From Marathon” and “Confessions Of Inadequacy” (with its prominent clean vocals and sliding, melodic bass lines) show a more considered technicality than previous releases had portrayed, the greater emphasis on mid-paced material allowing the different instruments more chances to weave in and out of one another and to build up multiple layers of sound which reward the repeat listener. It also allows each song to spend more time building towards a series of less numerous, more contained goals, meaning that the reduced average length of each song does not necessarily come at the expense of the proggy structuring so important to the Extol sound, but merely that each song is now more carefully constructed with a more concise approach in mind.
“Scrape The Surface” features the most aggressive vocal approach to be found on the whole album, Peter Espevoll utilising the mid-range death metal vocals from the Undeceived-era for the first time. The clean singing sections (in the middle and end of the song) serve to enforce the fact that such vocals need not necessarily come at the cost of reduced complexity and technicality in the music behind them, and the whole song continues to benefit from a nicely prominent bass sound.
The chugging, heavy intro of “Thrash Synergy” morphs into a headlong rush of furious riffs and technical drums, offset by the recurrence of melodically inclined chord progressions, and is one of the heaviest songs on offer here. By contrast “Aperture” is a simple, stripped down mix of clean vocals and perfectly intertwined acoustic guitar lines which provides a welcome breather and a beautiful moment of calm amidst the spiralling vortex of notes contained in the rest of the songs.
“Emancipation” toys briefly with the quiet-loud dynamic before settling into a groovy, off-kilter series of riffs and odd a-melodic runs. The clean vocals are strangely placed in this song which, it has to be said, is probably the weakest on offer. Still, it has some good, well-executed ideas; it’s simply that the whole is not as consistent or as interesting as the ideas contained within.
It does, however, lead straight out into final track “Nihilism 2002” very naturally. This final track encapsulates the technical-thrash approach the band has adopted on this album extremely well, interesting and adept drumming offering a firm foundation for the band’s mix of winding technical guitar runs, melodic progressions and shredding guitar solos.
Not as great an album as either “Burial” or “Undeceived” (which were both nigh-on flawless in my opinion), this album still has more ideas to offer than a lot of bands ever manage at all (cliché I know, but still true). Whilst some may find the shift towards progressive-thrash to be a little off-putting, particularly in the vocals and production style, the best tracks on here are extremely strong and extremely interesting, even if they are also extremely different.
Recommended Song – Grace for Succession
The Blueprint Dives – 2005
With their fourth album Extol took an even more extreme directional turn, certain to alienate a good proportion of their fan-base (even those who had stuck by them following their metamorphosis in the “Synergy” era). Much of the metal elements have now been completely exorcised from their sound; in their place we have shimmering alt-rock which recalls a more proggy version of some of Deftones’ later work. Although the majority of the vocals are now clean, the screamier sections still carry some heft and the heavier moments still provide a nice balance and a palette cleanser after the post-Tool/post-Cult Of Luna soundscapes have perhaps become too all-encompassing. The song structures, whilst still progressively-minded in intent, are far shorter and more direct on average, and the instrumentation scaled back in its technicality, focussing on producing waves and layers of interlocking sounds.
“Gloriana” begins with some heavy (although far less technical) guitar work and some nice screaming from Peter Espevoll. However, it soon changes tack entirely, ringing guitar chords providing a base for cleanly sung vocal parts (handled solely by Peter Espevoll himself), leading up to a hugely uplifting chorus. The song is still extremely well-written and one of my favourites from the album. It is, however, hugely different from anything that has gone before. Initially more familiar to the listener, “Soul Deprived” brings back the screaming, Peter’s voice sounding fuller and less dry than on “Synergy”, whilst the song as a whole is more overtly heavy and technically minded — the technicality coming more from the structuring and interplay of the guitars and drums rather from the blazing of a million notes found on their previous albums. Even “In Reversal” and “Essence”, the most stereotypically heavy and relatively direct tracks on offer, still manage to incorporate some clever melodic digressions into their calculated aggression.
The middle of the album showcases a number of slower, more considered tunes; “Pearl” is a beautiful number that recalls the grandeur of the best material of A Perfect Circle, Espevoll’s vocals shining brightly atop a guitar backing of shimmering sounds and effects. “From The Everyday Mountain Top” uses tortured screams to offset the clean vocal lines and incorporates an acoustic and string-backed mid-section, culminating in a reverb-laden, minimalist solo. The bass-driven “Another Adam’s Escape” takes awhile to really get under the skin, the strange vocal patterns and oddly disjointed guitar riffs only really revealing their pattern and purpose in the context of the song as a whole.
Although this change may seem somewhat abrupt, it is, on closer examination of the band’s previous works, less surprising when one recognises the continued preference for specific guitar phrasings and chord patterns which provide a linking thread through all the band’s work. Their focus on progressive, jazz influenced stylings has not diminished either, nor their use of often unusual (yet always flowing) song structures.
Recommended Song – From the Everyday Mountain Top
Burial/Undeceived era Extol is Recommended For Fans Of : Decrepit Birth, Obscura, Edge Of Sanity
Paralysis/Synergy era Extol is Recommended For Fans Of : Believer, Atheist, Cynic
The Blueprint Dives era Extol is Recommended For Fans Of : Deftones, Cult Of Luna