(This is the second of today’s two NCS reviews of A Fragile King. The author of this one is Islander.)
Much has already been written, including in our own articles at this site, about what prompted Greg Mackintosh to write Vallenfyre’s music and to bring his friends together to record it. But although the album may have been born from the death of Mackintosh’s father, A Fragile King is anything but sentimental.
At a time when the most popular death metal is all about flash and speed, sonic firestorms calculated to make jaws drop in wonder at the performers’ technical wizardry, Vallenfyre throw themselves back in time to recapture the gory glory of European death metal in its early days, when young dudes who would become legendary were prowling the musical landscape under names like Nihilist, Dismember, and Bolt Thrower. Communing with those grisly spirits, Vallenfyre have produced a master work of doom-shrouded, early-days death metal.
The album owes its success as much to tone as to style. The bass and rhythm guitar are tuned low and heavily distorted, producing that beautifully raw, crushing, gut-churning tone of giant chainsaws cutting through dense old wood. The higher-register (but still distorted) guitar leads and solos provide a piercing contrast to all that mammoth grinding — but the sound is no less ill. The beautifully crafted leads and solos writhe and squirm and bore into the skull like overheated brain drills, the insidiousness of radiation sickness compared to the blown-transformer buzz of the other stringed instruments, but equally deadly.
The percussion rhythms are also something of a throw-back. With minimal use of blast-beats and double-bass, Adrian Erlandsson enlivens the music with fills that are as interesting as they are remorseless (and, of course, we get a healthy serving of tasty d-beats, too). And then, there are Greg Macktintosh’s vocals . . .
Who knew that caged within the guitarist and keyboardist of Paradise Lost lived such a slavering death metal beast, waiting to be unleashed with such ghoulish, roaring power? Ragged, jagged, and cavern-deep, his voicing of the quite-decipherable lyrics is a key component of the authentic tone that Vallenfyre have achieved on A Fragile King.
Wrapping all these goodies in just the right package is an approach to production that’s utterly in keeping with the tone and atmosphere of the music. It’s not polished. The rough edges haven’t been sanded away. Yet at the same time, the distinctive contributions of the musicians haven’t been obscured in muddiness; the balance is as it should be. The mix is also just right, with the titanic bass and guitar riffing dominant, yet not drowning out all the other participants.
I mentioned the atmosphere of the music. It’s dark and ominous, shrouded in the dank gloom of the crypt. But it’s also passionate, often fueled with the passion of a righteous anger (which leaps out of the lyrics), and yet there’s also an undeniable sense that these musicians are reveling in the experience of something they love doing.
Doom-shrouded, yes: Within songs such as “All Will Suffer”, “Cathedrals of Dread”, “A Thousand Martyrs”, and especially “The Grim Irony”, the band drop down on all fours and crawl through cemetery earth or rise up and lurch forward in a golem stomp to the accompaniment of monstrous death-doom chords. But all is not gloom and doom; the thrash influence in early death metal is also on display. “Ravenous Whore” starts with a slavering rampage of d-beat driven, old-world death, and “As the World Collapses” sounds like a chugging train fueled by the souls of the damned and belching the effluent of their consumption.
As Greg Mackintosh implied when I interviewed him for NCS (here), Vallenfyre may turn out to be a one-and-done project. I sure as fuck hope that won’t be the case. In what has turned into something of a banner year for fans of dirty, powerful, old-school death metal, A Fragile King is one of the clear stand-outs.
Now, here’s a song called “Desecration” that was originally premiered by DECIBEL magazine. It may be the most personal composition of all the album’s songs, and is certainly the most melancholy in its sound (though it also includes a head-snapping gallop of a riff). As Mackintosh has explained, “The first verse is about wanting to ease my Father’s pain. The rest of the song, however, is more about trying to come to terms with the idea of never seeing someone again and the gravity of that situation.”[audio:https://www.nocleansinging.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/02-Desecration-M1.mp3|titles=Vallenfyre-Desecration]
Well, that’s the end of this review, but it’s not the end of this post. I’ve got two “bonus” features to add.
First, listening to A Fragile King threw me into a listening spree, sampling songs from bands whose music Vallenfyre brought to mind. I decided to collect a handful of them here. The first group come from the era when Greg Mackintosh was trading tapes, a happier time to which he returned following his father’s death. The last two songs are by influential bands who were around then, too, but I picked more recent releases for them for this “mixtape”.
And then after these songs, I’ve reprinted an excerpt from a column recently written by Mackintosh about the recording of A Fragile King — and about recording and production more generally.
“Revel In Flesh”
Only Shreds Remain (demo 1989)
[audio:https://www.nocleansinging.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/05-Revel-In-Flesh.mp3|titles=Nihilist – Revel In Flesh]
“And So Is Life”
Like An Ever Flowing Stream (1991)
[audio:https://www.nocleansinging.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/04-And-So-Is-Life.mp3|titles=Dismember – And So Is Life]
“The Dark One”
Where No Life Dwells (1991)
[audio:https://www.nocleansinging.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/06-The-Dark-One.mp3|titles=Unleashed – The Dark One]
War Master (1991)
[audio:https://www.nocleansinging.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/07-Cenotaph.mp3|titles=Bolt Thrower – Cenotaph]
“Torn From the Grave”
Into the Crypts of Blasphemy (2010)
[audio:https://www.nocleansinging.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/02-Torn-from-the-Grave.mp3|titles=Interment – Torn from the Grave]
“Knights of the Black Sun”
Sonic Mass (2011)
[audio:https://www.nocleansinging.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/10-Knights-Of-The-Black-Sun.mp3|titles=Amebix – Knights Of The Black Sun]
Now, here’s that excerpt by Greg Mackintosh from his debut column at Guitar World:
“Both recordings [A Fragile King and the new Paradise Lost album] were quite different because of a number of factors—budget and the type of vibe on both records being two of the main ones. Vallenfyre had a relatively small budget, and we wanted a dirty, raw sound recorded as simply as possible. Paradise Lost conversely has quite a sizable budget, and we are looking for a more polished production. What these two recordings DO have in common is the same ethos towards how things are recorded and put together. This ethos is something I learned a long time ago before Pro Tools and the like.
“This can be put simply by saying: rehearse a lot before the studio. Once in the studio, don’t over-think things. Stick to your guns, find the sound you want and COMMIT TO TAPE (this is just a saying these days as many studios don’t have 2” tape machines anymore, but the principle is the same).
“This sounds like teaching your grandma to suck eggs, I admit…But in my experience, producers and bands alike are becoming increasingly lazy and less confident in their own abilities. This is in part because of technological advancements. Don’t get me wrong, Pro Tools and the like are fantastic tools and are a very cost-effective way to record an album.
“But while years ago bands had their own sound, or a good idea of how they wanted to sound, and the producer captured that sound, it seems that in the last few years, bands go in the studio not very well rehearsed (it’s OK because there is always copy and paste right?). The producer records it all DI’d (to replace those sounds with HIS sounds later), quantizes and sound replaces the drums with HIS samples (may as well use a drum machine), so what you get is a sterile version of a band using the producer’s “signature” production. Hence why the lion’s share of metal album productions today sound almost identical.
“I think bands need to bite back. Rehearse, have confidence in your ability to know what sounds suit your playing style and stick to it.”