Sep 192022

(We’re joined today by a new NCS contributor, Rob Tamplin, with his review of a new album by Texas-based Gonemage, set for release on September 30th.)

With Handheld Demise, Garry Brents, emerging master of high-concept narrative genre-spanning almost-metal, rounds off a trilogy of albums which started with 2021’s Mythical Extraction.

While it’s difficult to pinpoint the eye of Brents’ particular musical hurricane, the nucleus seems to be Phase Out, Cara Neir’s ongoing trilogy of 8-bit black metal homages to RPGs. The Phase Out cycle is a trilogy of loosely-narrative albums inspired by dungeon crawler games like Neverwinter Nights, Pools of Darkness and Death Knights of Krynn, in which the listener ‘experience[s] a range of bits, bleeps, beats, and buzzing sounds you might hear from 90’s dungeon crawlers and JRPG’s.’

Like its parent project, Handheld Demise presents an entrancing medley of metal and geek culture (the cassette version of Sudden Deluge, the trilogy’s middle-child, came with its own custom printed Magic: The Gathering card). So, If Cara Neir is the main show, then Gonemage is the spin off.

Album opener “Disdainful Stroke” (named after a Magic card) begins with a fragmented fairground stomp. Sinister synths creep over the second verse, and beguiling vocoder vocals bob above the surface, as if an ‘80s ballad about the romance of the desert was being played in the background. The lyrics pinball between dark and reflective and upbeat and naive, as two of Garry Brents’ characters reconnect in a realm of nightmares.

And this nightmare realm, well, it’s sort of real.

Never one to use one high-concept when several will do, Brents has based the lyrics for these songs on listener-submitted recurring nightmares. Over the course of its brief runtime, Handheld Demise has to do three things – tie up the trilogy which began with Mythical Extraction, work in these fan-submitted nightmares, and stand on its own two feet as a unified piece of music.

As with many of Brents’ mythology-heavy releases, Handheld Demise transcends its lore so that casual listeners can simply enjoy an extremely fun album. The sheer amount of formal chaos may frequently threaten to boil the songs into indeterminable goop, but Brents’ canny knack for melody always provides a balm for sore ears. The gonzo vibe of Mr Bungle is never too far away, with songs, frequently devoid of traditional structures, likely to take a left turn into smooth jazz as they are into scorching hardcore.

In “Father Time’s Grandfather Clock”, chiptune synths compete with harsh guitars before a blissed out, almost emo chorus slices the thing in two like a pendulum, which is apt, as the lyrics evoke the dark poetry of Edgar Allen Poe. After a trap middle eight and a brief ambient outro, we’re catapulted into the almost DM-sounding “Weaponless Scream, Laughter Unseen”, which soon lapses into almost campy ‘60s Batman vibes as Brents joyfully repeats the screamed refrain of ‘gonna eat your head!’.

The mix is crystal clear and well balanced, allowing the layered arrangements to shine. The songs, soaring and dipping, equal parts grandiose and clownish, evoke the operatic collage of a band like Sparks (is this the first time a band has been compared to Sparks at NCS?) And sure, even if the music is frequently at risk of tipping over into something like “Frank’s Most Likeable Song Ever” from the movie Frank, Brents’ embrace of the music’s inherent goofiness makes it work. This album is big, smart, self-aware, and it’s never boring.

“The Suffering and Endurance” is a gripping battle between Gonemage’s softer and more hardcore leanings. A thrilling melodic middle section – Brents once again firing up that vocoder – is just one of the ways the song periodically takes a sonic dive towards chilled-out, almost vaporwave territory, before yet more blackened chiptune chaos smashes any delicacy to smithereens. With “Slowly I Watch the Shockwave”, the album settles into a pop-tinged middle section, evoking early ‘00s cheese, as if 808s-era Kanye had got into pop punk instead of Sade. A gorgeous multi-tracked drum fill leads, after a fashion (for nothing is straightforward in the world of Gonemage), into a a driving hardcore section which rocks out without depriving the song of its dreamy shoegazey edge.

Later on, “The Equation to Levitation and the Chase of the Blood Feast” brings the punk back with a dizzyingly harsh conflagration of guitars. But the chiptune synths are never far away, chiming away in the background as the music honors the lyrics’ subject matter – levitating – by going everywhere it can think of. In under two and a half minutes, our ears are assaulted by latter-day Radiohead synths, a hyperactive drum and bass breakdown leading to a false ending, lumbering indie and Bowie-esque wandering classical guitar lines, topping it off with an absolutely terrifying spoken-word outro backed up by discordant 8-bit synths the size of a symphony orchestra. It’s the album in miniature.

Handheld Demise ends with “From Walls to Woods”, a melancholy, wistful melody shrouded in tumultuous frenzy. This particular user-submitted nightmare deals with abandonment and aloneness, and the heart-rending subject matter is offset by a choral, almost gospel, outro, the chiptune tumbling back in in the album’s final minute to reassert dominance and prevent things from becoming too pretty.

With Cara Neir’s Phase Out trilogy coming to an end with their next release, the narrative 8-bit anarchy is set to continue within the Gonemage universe. Garry Brents has been ploughing his unique musical furrow for around a decade, but his recent melding of 8-bit chiptune and black metal seems to have sparked a new level of inspiration for this immensely prolific writer. As with Cara Neir, Gonemage is an exercise in contrast and contradiction: synthetic but organic, tangled in lore but immediately accessible, collaborative but the result of a singular vision, cerebral but punk, obscure but pop, collagic but of a whole. This tension results in some genuinely exciting music. Steeped in wonder, nostalgia, and emotion, Handheld Demise is a delightfully surreal, rollicking rabbit hole of a record.

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