DragonForce

Our innate tribalism tends to typically find an outlet through politics, sports etc – but they manifest within other social spheres also. Art is no exception; metal definitely is not. T-shirts, tattoos and band patches – all signal tribal association. Instinctively adopting a genre identity and defending those musical sensibilities is a commonplace. Labels, artists and the other marketing aspects of the ecosystem are also an accentuating factor here.

Years ago I used to frequent this bar, they mostly played 70s to 90s metal. So you could find a wide variety of old-school metal-heads being regulars there. Before these metallers split into factions, sub-factions and more nuanced quibbling sub-categories – there were two broad species – those who listen to power-metal and those who despised it. Needless to say, each considered the other as poseurs. The polarizing quality of power metal cannot be any more evident. I guess melodramatic compositions and fantasy themes are not everyone’s cup of tea!

It’s difficult to identify sounds which might appease both these battling tribes, but DragonForce is a definite contender. This late 90s British band is a form of anachronism – classic power metal blueprint, but also extremely technical. In short, its power metal with razor-sharp progressions and that sonic intensity of 80s thrash.

Sheer speed of the guitar solos can make passages resemble Super Mario music. Herman Li and Sam Totman’s dual guitar harmony is melodic and maddeningly precise. Aggressive bass lines, blazing leads and blast beats are all quintessential extreme metal elements. While those fantasy themed lyrics, high pitched clean vocals and catchy choruses tailored for large arenas – all indicate Ronnie James Dio/Rob Halford lineage of power metal. DragonForce may not be genre-bending revolutionaries, but they might just manage to placate two seemingly irreconcilable tribes.

By Andreas Lawen, Fotandi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

obZen

Groovy rumble of eight-string guitar, robotic barking, and this blunt calculated tempo variation – all Meshuggah signatures are present here. Built on a musical skeleton forged from groove and death metal, obZen is akin to a cybernetic monster, mechanistic and precise. By constantly adopting math metal, jazz and progressive attributes, the band has always been pushing music into unimaginable territories. obZen is no exception.

Album is an excellent blend of 90s Meshuggah, basically more groove metal than djent. Jens Kidman’s vocals blend in as if it’s another discordant machine in this mechanistic orchestra. Odd rhythmic structures, Tomas Haake’s jazz like drumming, and down-tuned proggy leads – all inspire still reverence – not moshing.

Maximum creative bliss is at the margins, both for the artist and the listener. Meshuggah has been constantly placing themselves at those very structural margins of numerous demanding genres. Habitually creating novel classifications for what’s considered exceptional in metal. obZen is yet another extraordinary dissonant chapter.


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Image Attribution
By Leposava from Melbourne, Australia (meshuggah) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

V: Hävitetty

V: Hävitetty bridges folk metal with an intense dose of symphonic black sound. With songs clocking close to thirty minutes, it’s quite progressive. Moonsorrow elegantly layers their folk compositions with some rich symphonic keyboards. Songs do take the frequent detours down the rabid blast beat-tremolo picking passages, but consistently maintains that mythological theme.  In short, listener should be ready to get teleported to the land of legends and poetry – of ancient Finnish folklores.

“Jaasta Syntynyt , Varjojen Virta” starts with the sound of scorching wood and progresses headlong into an absolute death like aggression — peaking right around the 7 minute mark. Sound of the crackling fire shapes the essential lull Scandinavian winter like ambiance. Song leads to more folk instrumentation, but it’s always interleaved with some biting extreme sound. Mid-paced riffs, screeching black metal vocals and that restrained sonic onslaught — all makes for a captivating thirty minutes.

“Tuleen Ajettu Maa” starts with two minutes of eerie chants and guitar strumming, but rather quickly explodes into riffs. Even here the pattern of composition remains the same – folk instrumentation building up to some aggressive passages — but finally receding back into mellow sophistication.

Scorching firewood, whistling northern winds and pagan chants — all tend to conjure up vivid mystical imagery — almost like we are reading high fantasy. Finnish lyrics, mandolin, accordion and mouth harp – all essential folk elements layered with an Emperor like symphonic artistry. A mandatory listen.

Crowbar’s Dream Weaver

With dragged out progressions and downtuned guitars, Crowbar effectively filters out the sober trance like attributes of the original Dream Weaver. Now add Kirk Windstein’s grating vocals, and this brew of molten sludge metal blend is complete. With this newer darker context, even the lyrics  – “Driver take away my worries of today And leave tomorrow behind…” – seemed depressing.

Crowbar’s atmospheric doom and sludge metal texture effectively leveled those vibrant emotions exhibited by Gary Wright’s work. This transformation sort of spanned the full spectrum – all the way from rainbows to gunmetal gray. Adapting a synth-pop ballad into a grungy wall of sound might be a creative leap, but Crowbar did spearhead sludge metal.

Orchid

Opeth’s debut album is a rare blend, it’s good old British metal melody, but decked with prog, folk, black and death metal signatures. It’s the most accessible elements of metal combined with the least. Compositions effortlessly transition from murky black metal ambience into deathly blast beats to melodic folk passages — and they are interestingly devoid of that punk like dissonance which is integral to this genre.

Guttural riffs, acoustic melody, raspy growls and clean vocals – all stitched together into 10 minute epics – it’s basically progressive metal at its intriguing best.

Not surprising that Dan Swanö is the producer, Edge of Sanity is reflected all over the long and meandering eclectic passages. The most infamous ‘Thomas Gabriel Fischer’ like curt grunts is also frequent and numerous. Opeth weaves that Celtic Frost like textures into the more accessible 70s and 80s metal progressions. Orchid is essentially composed of two divergent heavy metal strands, but spun into one grand morbid symphony. Examine long enough and we can discover Black Sabbath to Bathory to jazz elements – even for early 90s metal, this is avant-garde. With drawn out extreme metal sound, but illustrating the quite melodic classic metal roots, Orchid can comfortably slingshot a casual metal listener straight into the abyss of 90s Scandinavian scene.

Left Hand Path

“This is so hardcore”, responded one of my colleagues at work. At that time, ‘Left Hand Path’ CD was running in my Jeep stereo. So, along with the engine, ignition turned on some Swedish death metal also. My usual reflex is to adeptly switch the channel, but he insisted on listening. Perception is really an evolutionary product; going headlong into the margins of a genre might just inspire bewilderment, not fascination. So, without that musical context, he was also quite puzzled about the incoherent riffs and that defiant buzz saw guitar sound.

Early death metal is a blend of punk like structures with melodic guitar. But, 90s Swedish scene exhibits significantly more punk influences. Someone evolving from hardcore punk to metal would certainly find Entombed and Dismember more familiar than Obituary. One of the main hurdles to grasping Entombed is also that punk like dissonance. It’s that same dissonance which separates Slayer from Metallica, and also Motörhead from Judas Priest.

Pitch and tempo progressions will sound chaotic; it sort of contradicts our mental conception of melody. These compositions will simply not progress in those familiar comforting directions. 80s crossover thrash also seems to be a part of this whole cross-pollination. They illustrate similar blast beat and riff patterns, but with significantly less speed and distortion. In fact, last month D.R.I played at SF, and it was difficult to ignore the striking similarity across these seemingly different genres.

Entombed’s first two records are absolute death metal classics. Especially ‘Left Hand Path’, it’s an unrelenting train of melodic guitar hooks, heavy down tuned riffs, exploding drums and deep growls. Even the leads are down tuned and always layered with grinding riffs. But, in between endless growls and distant echoing screams — almost like an accident – we have a full total of two seconds of desperate clean vocals. Undoubtedly, lyrics are even more morbidly tailored, and intended to finish off anyone who does manage to survive this buzz saw assault.

Entombed

Within this broad genre, Entombed is an icon. I had actually weathered 60 miles of rain storm and flu on a weekday night to see them live. A relatively small venue, crowd was sparse and probably not more than a few dozen. Set list was dominated by songs from their first two records – it was an absolute head-banging feast. Swedish death metal legends, tiny venue, and tickets priced at an affordable $19 — the perks of listening to sounds not many care about.

IMAGE Attribution:

By commons: Lilly Mpl.wiki: Lilly Mreal name: Małgorzata Miłaszewska (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Symphonic Prog Meets Black Metal

“As Fire Swept Clean the Earth” blends multiple and in a way polarizing influences. Old 70s Genesis is pervasive, but layered with that most infamous variant of Norwegian artistic intensity. Quite like an elegant time warp, the delicate 70s prog intro launches headlong into 360 beats per minute drums and inhumane screams. Transition from the high of symphonic prog into this turbulent abyss cannot be starker.

Lead guitar and keyboards are textbook 70s prog. Enslaved blends that melancholic overtones of ‘The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway’ with the ferocity of Viking metal. Subtle use of electronica is a wonderful prelude to more relentless drums. But this frenetic pace does eventually get reined in by that towering proggy lead guitar. Even the album artwork mirrors this aesthetic — calmness set atop absolute mayhem.

Unusual that the lyrics do contribute to the grim atmosphere, because it’s actually decipherable — “I close my eyes. As Fire Swept Clean the Earth. Nothing left to strangle. As the cords were torn from our hearts”.

Enslaved is arguably among the most accomplished metal bands, but even for them, the aesthetics of this track is an unmatched creative act. We can safely state; abstraction of the quirky melodic aspects of a ‘Selling England by the Pound’ and placing it within the context of 90s extreme metal has now been accomplished – with captivating surgical precision.