Avant-gardemetal

01.20.2011 § Leave a comment

How fitting it was, I realized the other day, that although the three avant-garde extreme metal bands I’d been meaning to write about have roots in disparate subgenres, all three of them happen to hail from Francophone regions — remarkable in a genre that is overwhelmingly Scandinavian and American:

Gorguts, rooted in death metal, from Quebec;

Blut Aus Nord, rooted in black metal, from France;

Last Days of Humanity, rooted in goregrind, from the Netherlands.

Then I realized that I’d gotten the Netherlands confused with Belgium, and that I’d failed harder than the gimmick itself. Anyway… yes, still going for this grouping.

I’ve written up the album from each of these bands which finds them closest to genius. The formula should be familiar enough, extreme metal or not: a band begins to grow a brain on its sophomore effort, and by its fourth foray or so their fanbase is divided. “Have they gone too far? Is this still great music, or has experimentation itself overtaken the work?”

* In Gorguts’s case, they quickly balanced their old with their new.
* Blut Aus Nord went completely off the deep end before throwbacklashing to their earliest style.
* Last Days of Humanity just plumb broke up.

In all three cases, though, something wonderful happened along the way.

GORGUTS – OBSCURA

Listen to Obscura

Before Gorguts unleashed the incomparable Obscura upon the metal community in 1998 they had released a demo in 1990 as well as two other full-length studio albums in 1991 and 1993 respectively. This early work is nothing to shake a stick at, and by all accounts it is top tier death metal. One can even detect hints of what was to come in the use of atonal guitar riffing, polyphonic bass, and foregrounding of percussive textural variety.

But despite this consistency in the style of the guitar, bass and drums, there was a complete supporting line-up change between these discs and Obscura! So while Gorguts’s only constant member—singer-songwriter Luc Lemay—must have been responsible for this basic aesthetic model, it is the individual bravado and synergy of Steeve Hurdle on guitar, Steve Cloutier on bass and Patrick Robert on drums within Lemay’s format which elevates Obscura beyond Gorgut’s early work and into legendary status. Looking at the spacing of these release dates—1990, 1991, 1993… and 1998—it is clear that Lemay with his new Gorguts really took their relative time perfecting it.

The most important factor in Obscura’s greatness besides its personnel’s performances is their improved songwriting. During this five year period Lemay was getting his degree in classical music composition at CMQM. In fact, if you visit his personal Myspace Music page you will find not the typical solo synth metal bullshit but rather a violin sonata and a few flute concertos. So the man is certainly competent in the esoteric tradition, but the explanation is not as straightforward as that: the tracks on Obscura do not exhibit obvious classical influence. In an interview with Guitar.com Lemay states that everything he learned about harmony and counterpoint in school he immediately discarded. By writing from the heart without consciously exercising his education, then, it as if Lemay trained only his intuition — a profound plan indeed.

In this same interview Lemay describes how the songs on Obscura were constructed. Each member of the band would come into the studio in the morning with a half-dozen or so original phrases. After a round of show-and-tell—by humming, not playing, to avoid the tendential limitations of their instruments—the band would pare down by popular vote to the best workable subset. Finally, rather than jamming to illuminate the interlinkable motives in these unrelated ideas, the band would sit down with butcher paper and sketch them out in order to physically manipulate the pieces of the song until it satisfied visually. The opening track Obscura, for example, ended up in a bizarre ABABCDCEBAEC form, one I doubt could have ever emerged from a jam session, but which reads tight as hell and I’m sure looked pretty ill on paper. The deliberateness and lucidity of song structure Gorguts’s method achieves can be heard no better than on Obscura’s closing track Sweet Silence, which is a breathtaking instrumental Frankenstein monster of figures from each and every other track on the album.

Moreover, the musical sketches were not made on traditional staffs nor guitar tabs but were literally abstract doodles, dashes and hatches, akin to Penderecki’s scores for Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima and Polymorphia (unsurprisingly, Lemay acknowledges the Polish pioneer as an influence on his Myspace Music page). This unusual graphic notation method left some freedom to the individual performers regarding final note durations and pitch, which explains the noisier, wildly atonal stretches on the album. What may at times seem like utter chaos is actually highly structured aleatory sound which becomes mentally danceable upon repeated focused listenings.

Lastly, Lemay was adamant that riffs that didn’t make the day’s cut never reappeared on later dates. “Keep moving forward,” he says, “Always forward.”

This bottom-up approach to songwriting as opposed to top-down (like, say, thirty-two-bar form) results in music which often fails to be described in terms of time signatures. You could claim that the title track Obscura opens with a riff in 23 time and follows it up with one in 17, but you’d be glossing over the internal logics within those riffs: that 17 is more like a 3’/2+3’/3’/3+3’, and the 23 is more like a bunch of 3’s that pivot by overlapping each other to cross downbeats with upbeats. When I rock out to Obscura I rarely have any strong four-on-the-floor base to headbang to; mostly I just flail around to scattered threes and twos, kind of like freeform Bulgarian folk. But a closer analysis of these piecemeal rhythms reveals a more additive approach to the composition, more as in Carnatic music, an Indian classical tradition centered on singing and in which the various types of strikes on the tabla are given syllabic names. That Lemay describes even the percussion on Obscura to be “singing” reinforces my certainty that Carnatic talas were a compositional influence.

Lemay also took incredible poetic strides on Obscura. The lyrics are English with splashes of Latin (the title Obscura is Latin for “dark,” as in camera obscura, “dark chamber”). Compared with his earlier anti-religious rhetoric and artless emo, which I don’t deign to even cite here, Obscura’s oblique lyrics are leagues deeper (save a brief relapse on track 9). I wouldn’t say they’re the stuff of greatness, but are certainly tolerable, and I do thank Lemay for bringing the word “obnubilate” to my attention.

Concordantly, the anguish in Lemay’s voice is compelling as fuck. The poor guy is in palpable terror at every moment in his performance on Obscura. There is no point at which he demonstrates an inkling of aggression, a point which for me divides his work I enjoy and don’t enjoy: on every release before and after Obscura Lemay postures himself much angrier, and anger is a passion which rarely resonates for me in song.

It should also be noted that the production on Obscura is superior to Gorguts’s earlier releases. The fuller, warmer sound bolsters the thick bitonal bass. And even Obscura’s album artwork is significantly more imaginative and evocative than the cheesy and cliche earlier discs.

After Obscura Gorguts released an album called From Wisdom to Hate. The bassist Cloutier stood by Lemay while the drummer and guitarist were again overturned. While the songwriting style is comparable to Obscura, if not even more refined, there is just something missing. The guitar solos on the opening and title tracks are, dare I say, wankish. The production is flat and overclean, downplaying the bass. Perhaps worst of all, the track Quest for Equilibrium opens with synthetic strings and timpani playing a silly doom diddly, as if Lemay had degenerated to self-parody. Overall the album feels like a step back from the disoriented psychosis of Obscura to the unfounded conviction of Lemay’s earlier work. Give me unhinged paranoia any day.

After From Wisdom to Hate, Gorguts temporarily disbanded, and Lemay joined another project called Negativa led by guitarist Hurdle, which bore a measly three tracks, forgettable at best, Obscura knock-offs at worst. Lemay then started up a woodcarving business, which has supported him to today. Now, with yet another total supporting line-up change, Lemay is exhuming the Gorguts name for a new album, purportedly this year. I’ll try not to get my hopes up too high.

Listen to Nostalgia

Though I highly recommend giving Obscura a spin from start to finish 50+ times, for now I’ll leave you with just one other personal favorite of mine, track 4, Nostalgia, which is perhaps the most stylistically divergent piece on the entire album insofar as it has several stretches in unmistakable 3/4 and 4/4 time. If you know anything about my music taste, you know that I fucking love low pitch bends such as are found in the opening riff. At 1:05 Gorguts invoke two variations on a bumblebee sun of a Rite of Spring esque phrase, then 2:12 collapse under their own gravity by incorporating tempo bends into the composition. 3:48 finds them, after mocking some blues structure, bludgeoning expectation by throwing a coda midway in a measure. By looping back to the start of the song right in the middle of a strongly reinforced ostinato, Gorguts have created what may be one of my favorite moments in all of music. The first time around the rug is pulled right out from under you, but once you grasp this cut it becomes the heaviest slam ever.

BLUT AUS NORD – THE WORK WHICH TRANSFORMS GOD

Listen to The Choir of the Dead

Beginning in 2003 with The Work Which Transforms God, Blut Aus Nord’s guitarist Vindsval plays a fretless guitar, which frees him to hit any frequency on his strings rather than leaving it quantized to a tempered tuning. While he still generally follows the Western twelve-tone tradition as a violinist would, he opens himself to incorporating smooth, slow slides into his pitch vocabulary. And rather than articulating solid triads, Vindsval tends to max out at two pitches, gliding in and out of and past each other, converging and diverging from unison into discord and back again. From this first moment on The Choir of the Dead, Blut Aus Nord probes the pain in closely tuned but not identical pitches, an effect known as beating frequencies: it creates a “ghost” wave, an incredibly low and unsettling frequency spanning the distance between each LCM of the two higher ones.

But don’t get me wrong: I wish the emphasis to fall on this style’s augmented expressiveness, not its technical impressiveness. Before I even learned that Blut Aus Nord’s bassist goes by GhÖst, I’d been describing this as music for ghosts. The effect is at its best when flickers of normal human music foil the freaky shit, for example at 2:56 in The Choir of the Dead: a brief but pure and justly tuned Arabic chord progression is immediately undermined by a nauseating whole tone see-saw.

Blut Aus Nord used no studio drummer on The Work Which Transforms God, so all of the percussion sounds heard here have been programmed. I find this impressive on multiple levels. First, their production is matched quite well to that of the recorded guitars, a feat comparable to getting the lighting identical on two filmed images spliced together. Secondly, when not blast-beating in a panic, the industrial-influenced drum patterns are quite varied and reflect significant thought and interplay with the guitar riffing; they are even plenty danceable. Thirdly, the synthetic drum sound affords for the integration of unnatural effects, such as the giant booming drums debuting at 3:42 in The Choir of the Dead and recurring occasionally throughout the rest of the album.

As for the vox, there is no better word for Vindsval’s voice than nightmarish. He has proven to me that there is a point at which, even when affecting a scary face, one can still be scary as shit. He somehow captures both the victimized and the victimizer in his excruciated snarl, backing it up with vile howls.

Listen to Our Blessed Frozen Cells

Listening to The Choir of the Dead and Our Blessed Frozen Cells provides an ideal cross-section of The Work Which Transforms God, touching on each of its three main modes: panic, down-tempo, and lush. Choir of the Dead covers panic and down-tempo, while Our Blessed Frozen Cells kicks off down-tempo, takes a breather (literally, blustering winds), then starting at 4:12 goes into lush mode, boasting some of the most gorgeous sound waves ever to have shaken my ear drums. In the higher pitched riff the reverb is so thick that one can’t even hear the pick; each note blends into the next, even across an octave interval, sounding like the music is coming from the netherworld. And note that in every other iteration of the lower riff here, the third “chord” is actually two closely tuned pitches—an example of one of those aforementioned interference beats (compare 5:16 with 5:23)—lending a poignancy to the tune that stills my heart. In its first half, as well, Our Blessed Frozen Cells exemplifies Blut Aus Nord’s penchant for gradually introducing both chord and discord into a monolithic progression. If you enjoy this track, then I highly recommend you check out the closing track Procession of the Dead Clowns, one of the best named tracks I’ve ever heard of — it’s not carnival music, but yet another ravishing dirge, its repetitiousness taken beyond excess to a point of both rhetorical and sonical bliss.

Blut Aus Nord has been rather prolific, with three full length albums before and four more after The Work Which Transforms God. The immediate follow-up to The Work Which Transforms God is called MORT (French for DEATH), and as with The Mythical Beast of Rebellion, the album just before The Work Which Transforms God, Blut Aus Nord skipped track titles in favor of “chapter” numbering, in Roman numerals of course. But unlike The Mythical Beast of Rebellion and the two albums before it, MORT is no typical black metal excursion. It is an impenetrable sewer of distorted microtonal sludge. It is not fun. Nobody likes it. Recognizing this, or perhaps just getting over whatever trauma was plaguing them from 2003 to 2006, Blut Aus Nord pulled back for the next few albums, starting with Odinist, a fairly straightforward black metal album with only minor flourishes from the fretlessness.

Unless you are already a black metal fan, I do not think you will have much interest in Blut Aus Nord’s earlier work, which lacks the industrial influence and mindful production. I mean, 4:55 in The Choir of the Dead, right channel — just check out that distant, dissonant, sinister guitar! The older Blut Aus Nord, unfortunately, is no exception to the notoriously and proudly shitty black metal production paradigm. Odinist has icy production values and the catchiest songwriting Blut Aus Nord has ever achieved, but for me it doesn’t get any better than the stark, dessicated beauty of The Work Which Transforms God.

LAST DAYS OF HUMANITY – PUTREFACTION IN PROGRESS

Listen to A Divine Proclamation Of Finishing The Present Existence

Last Days of Humanity has been around since 1992, and I do not refer to it as a collective noun because since then it has seen an absurdly high number of lineup changes; no one member’s name is on the label of every release. It could be said that Last Days of Humanity is mostly William Van de Ven on guitar, Erwin de Wit on bass, and Marc Palmen on drums, but notably, even these three core members have swapped instruments within the band, and all three of them have done vocals at one point! I would consider them multi-talented, but I don’t think they want to be seen as a band who puts a whole lot of talent into their work.

2005’s Putrefaction in Progress is the most nihilistic music I have ever heard, and this is coming from a guy who listens to noise on a daily basis. It consists of 40 tracks which average 33 seconds a piece in length boasting titles such as Sewing Up The Abdominal Rupture For The Successive Acts Of Degradation, Slithered Limbs (Adorable Congestion Of Body Remnants), and Fragrant Facial Purulence. Despite the variety of body parts titularly mangled from track to track, they all sound nearly indistinguishable from each other. This is topped off with one final track, number 41, clocking in at a relatively whopping 3 minutes and 11 seconds of yet more indistinguishable grinding, rendering itself the only track on the album that one needs to listen to in order to determine if one is interested in listening to the rest. Here, however, scatology is eschewed for eschatology: A Divine Proclamation Of Finishing The Present Existence. Given that this song stops and starts throughout its runtime in ways that would merit track division anywhere else on the disc, it is as if the band included such a song for no reason other than to acknowledge the silliness of the other track divisions. This is a huge aesthetic step forward from their previous album, which seemed to take the mini-tracks’ lengths seriously by demarcating them with samples from porn and horror film. While this totally works for Pig Destroyer, for example on Prowler in the Yard and Terrifier, in Last Days of Humanity’s case the songs proper are so similar that they have much more to gain from the self-mockery and hypnotic relentlessness of uninterruption.

Last Days of Humanity would not hold any pretenses of being avant-garde, as Gorguts or Blut Aus Nord might. Putrefaction in Progress advanced grind music not by branching out but by taking the subgenre’s fundamentals to their illogical extreme. The drums are perpetually either blasting or breaking, the guitars are so fuzzed out that you can barely tell different notes are being played, and the vocals are processed to sound like singing through a straw into the last bits of drink at the bottom of the cup. If you listen to the album over and over like I do, you may start to pick up on their tiny distinguishing bits, but I’ve yet to match those bits with song titles so this record still plays like a single 25 minute long song for me.

If I had to describe what I go through when I give myself over to Putrefaction in Progress, it is like being flushed feet first down a sewage drain, clawing at the grooves between pipe segments, slowing myself just enough to witness every obscurest memory of mine whizzing past. I know that this isn’t the Unnecessary Surgery Land imagery they imagine, but when it comes to grind I’ll take core over gore any day. You should not be surprised that in an interview Marc mentioned his favorite film being Flower of Flesh and Blood, a Japanese production famously (and falsely!) reported by Charlie Sheen to be a snuff film. I found the film pretty amusing myself, but it’s definitely not for everyone.

Since 2005 Last Days of Humanity have released only a Best Of disc, but word on the street is that they have an original album coming out soon. Get amped.

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