(Although Andy Synn hasn’t completely recovered from his recent debilitating injury, he’s well enough to continue forging ahead with reviews, and brings us three more today.)
Continuing with my Sisyphean task of attempting to cover each and every album which I don’t think has received enough attention or acclaim over the past several weeks and months, today I’m both pleased and proud to present the Progressive Death Metal delights of Cellar Vessel, the crushing Cosmic Doom of Hexer, and the alchemical Black Metal assault of Skáphe.
CELLAR VESSEL – VEIN BENEATH THE SOIL
What a fascinating record this is.
The long-gestating debut from this Montana trio – Jake Schreuder (bass, guitars, keyboards), Chris Navarro (drums), Dario Scotto (vocals) – hits an unusual sweet spot between Progressive and Technical Death Metal that obviously owes a distinct debt to seminal superstars like Opeth and Necrophagist (powerful, yet poignantly progressive opener “Murk” in particular) but which also wouldn’t sound that out of place on a playlist alongside more modern fare such as Allegaeon or The Faceless, despite possessing a much darker and dirtier sound than either.
This latter comparison rings true the most during the techier, more tangled strains of “In A Regal Age Ran Eye” – although truth be told the band’s blend of spitfire blasts, beefy riffs, and lithe, eclectic lead parts (not to mention some impressively intricate and prominent bass lines and outlandish progressive embellishments) is even more reminiscent of the work of Prog/Tech philosophers Inanimate Existence – however the level of gritty riff-craft and sense of structural dynamism is pure Cellar Vessel.
“Narcissus” is another short but singular slab of proggy, techy Death Metal which doesn’t skimp on the “Death Metal” side of things, no matter how complex or cantankerous some of the riffs and bass lines get, while also adding a touch of bombastic, down-tuned bounce to the band’s already impressive repertoire, after which “Slither” delivers almost nine-minutes of menacing, riff-driven Death Metal which progresses through multiple movements – some of which count amongst the most technical, or the most atmospherically ambitious, or the most crushingly heavy of the album so far – while also throwing in a veritable smorgasbord of massive riffs and equally massive hooks, as well as some shamelessly outlandish/indulgent progressive moments (there’s a truly magnificent sax and piano interlude near the song’s end, for example) while somehow still remaining totally (and tonally) coherent throughout.
The band save the best for last though, as the phenomenal (and slightly Ihsahn-esque in places) “Of the Earth” is all that, and more besides (the moody, simmering acoustic work is absolutely sublime, for example), in a way which manages to make its eleven-minute run-time feel like it slips by in the blink of an eye, leaving you breathless and hungry for more.
It may have flown pretty far under the radar but this really is a dark horse contender for Prog/Tech Death Metal album of the year.
(PS: someone help me out… the vocalist… who the hell does he remind me of? It’s right on the tip of my tongue/brain but I can’t quite work it out.)
HEXER – REALM OF THE COSMIC SERPENT
Of the three bands featured here today, Hexer are the only one I’ve written about before, but still probably require a little primer before we get started.
As Doom bands go Hexer are certainly an oddity. For one thing the band’s line-up consists of just three individuals – one vocalist/guitarist, one drummer, and one synths/samples coordinator – none of whom, as you may have gathered, is a bassist. But they certainly don’t lack for low-end heft, as this part of their sound is provided by the heavy, pulsing drone of the synths, giving every track a sort of eerie, sub-conscious, sub-sonic aur(or)a.
There’s also a subtly blackened feel to the trio’s particular brand of drone-infused Doom (most notably on tracks such as “River of Blood” and “Typhon”) as well as a slightly psychedelic sense of melody, the combination of which occasionally recalls the dearly departed Jóhann Jóhannsson’s ominous, acid-drenched soundtrack to Panos Cosmatos’s madcap masterpiece Mandy.
All that aside, however, Hexer still know how to bring the riffs and, in the absence of any natural bass, they make sure to bring the riffs hard, marrying the heft and swagger of High On Fire with the intricacy and intensity of Bölzer in a way that fools your ears into thinking there’s a whole host of guitars at work, rather than just the one.
Much like its predecessor, Realm of the Cosmic Serpent is hard to neatly fit into one particular box.
There’s a sense of both doomy density and haunting, hallucinatory headspace to opener “Ethereal Blitz”, for example, which defies easy categorisation, while “Jaguar Knight” showcases a heavier, more aggressive sense of groove (and percussive power) while also making room for a more haunting (and haunted) use of atmosphere and ambience which allows the shimmering synths and rumbling sub-tones to really make themselves known.
“River of Blood”, as already hinted at, is one of the darkest, and more “blackened”, pieces of esoteric doomery on the album, but also conceals some of its moodiest and most abstract melodic moments, while the fantastically-titled “Celestial War Command” (following on from the take-it-or-leave-it interlude of “Miasma”) stomps and gallops and broods its way through eight-and-a-half minutes of pounding drums, powerhouse riffs, snarling vocals and humming synths in a way that makes the whole Blackened Drone-Doom thing seem to make a lot more sense.
Concluding with the Avant-Black meets Prog-Doom hybrid of “Typhon”, Realm of the Feathered Serpent is the sound of a band really coming into their own and developing a unique sonic signature which should, all things being well, last them a lifetime.
SKÁPHE – SKÁPHE3
Let’s get one thing clear – Skáphe3 is one of the best Black Metal albums of the year.
Of course if you’ve been following the career of this American/Icelandic collective for any significant length of time (especially since they metastasized into a full band) this shouldn’t be a surprise, but it’s still astonishing how they continue to push the boundaries of Black Metal while still remaining true to its deepest, darkest roots.
In comparison to its predecessor, the band’s third album is noticeably less cavernous in sound and less chaotic in structure, yet still retains that signature sense of wildness and unpredictability which has been a key feature of the group’s music since the very beginning.
But whereas previous records practically revelled in their own murky discordance, Skáphe3 opts for a far sharper, yet still painfully raw, approach whose blend of seething dissonance, hammering percussion, and disorienting anti-melody sits somewhere between the ear-gouging intensity of Rites of Thy Degringolade and the chilling irradiance of Sinmara.
As twisted and terrifyingly contorted as many of these songs are, however (and make no mistake about it, Skáphe may have found a new sense of focus, but they’re still as unorthodox and unstable as ever), they each possess a distinct sense of identity underneath all the abrasive, acid-drenched riffs and howling vocal lunacy.
“IX – The Lowest Abyss”, for example, is built around a keening, pseudo-melodic lead hook which threads its way through the track with predatory grace, while the Ulcerate-esque “XI – The Ocean of Fire” augments its scorched-earth dissonance with a series of hypnotic, undulating bass-lines.
“XIII – The Shrill Cracks and Moans” marries the nerve-jangling melodic malice of Blut Aus Nord to an almost stream-of-consciousness procession of spine-wrenching savagery and unsettling ambience, after which “XIV – A Spiritual Bypass” shocks the system by transitioning from the malformed, almost Mathcore-esque, chaos of its first half into a series of unexpectedly moody and poignant passages of doom-laden, atmosphere-heavy riffs and haunting, clean-sung vocals.
Yet as good as all these songs are individually (and I haven’t even touched on the cacophony of pulverising fury and inchoate ambience that is “XVI – Glass Sarcophagus”, or the multidimensional malevolence of stunning closer “XVII – Rebirth of Synthesis”), what really makes this album special is the way it all fits together as one seamlessly constructed work of ambitious blackened artistry.
Each song ebbs and flows into the next, aided and abetted by a series of carefully placed interludes (“Sing Lament to Thee”, “Buried In Dark Earth”, “Oblique Axis”) which serve both as a coda to the previous section of the album and a primer for what is to come.
I could go on and on about all the things which make this album so great – the ways in which it constantly challenges and upends your expectations, yet never loses its visceral grip on your mind and body – but perhaps it’s better if you just put aside some time to experience it yourselves.
I promise you won’t be disappointed.