Archive for May, 2019

Review: Agnosy

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 14, 2019 by Magadh

Agnosy When Daylight Reveals the Torture Scream Records

Every few years the London crust band Agnosy drops another record. They seem to take a little longer between releases than some other bands, but it always seems like it’s worth the wait. When Daylight Reveals the Torture is no exception. As with their first two LPs (Past the Point of No Return and Traits of the Past), this new release is redolent with dark atmosphere. With each recording, Agnosy have managed increasingly complex song structures. They’re not the most melodic of crust bands. They don’t have the spiraling riffs of bands like Martyrdöd or Burning Bright, but they find their way to a happy medium between melody and hard-charging crust that works every time.

I like crust as a musical format, but I don’t find myself reviewing a lot of crust records, and it’s mostly because I don’t have a huge amount to say about them. It’s not hard to sound like Anti-Cimex, but that was then and this is now. So why is it that I find Agnosy so compelling? There are several reasons, but the most important is song structure. If you listen to In Extremis, Martyrdöd’s second record (and the one on which they really found their voice) what you hear is riffs that are longer and more complicated than those of Crude SS and their legion of imitators. This, by the way, is no slam on Crude SS, who were pioneers of crust in the same way as bands like (the aforementioned) Anti-Cimex, or Asocial, or Mob 47, or…well, you get the picture. Crust needed to develop stylistically and In Extremis was a step forward that moved the whole genre ahead.

Since then there have been a lot of very good crust records released, records that have picked up the gauntlet that Martyrdöd threw down. Some of you out there might be reading this and this that I’m getting the periodization wrong, forgetting bands like His Hero is Gone or From Ashes Rise or Tragedy. That’s a fair point, but I think that Martyrdöd’s riff structure is more complicated than any of those bands, much as they are all world-crushingly awesome. To my ears, Wretched of the Earth or Dark Circles are bands that have taken the idea of more complex riffs and song structures forward.

In any case, Agnosy have produced another absolutely raging disc, their best one yet by a ways, and that is really saying something. The guitar sound is crisp and clear, which is always a big question when you’re dealing with down-tuning. It tells you a lot that this disc was mastered at Audiosiege by Brad Boatright. Boatright has made himself into the pre-eminent figure is this line of work by making bands sound awesome without necessarily making them sound like From Ashes Rise. Not that it would necessarily be a bad thing if they did, but his products manage to be both dark and clear in ways that manage to sound original rather than just being copies of what his band sounds like.

When Daylight Reveals the Torture is pretty close to an ideal crust record. It isn’t too long, clocking in around half an hour or so. It leaves the listener wanting more, not less. In a related vein, the song arrangements are good, reasonably complex without losing focus. One of the real failings of a lot of crust music is the need to rehash the same ideas over and over. If you’re going to do really simple riffs, the songs need to be short enough that the people listening aren’t looking at their watches by the end. It’s one thing when you’re playing live and can bludgeon the audience with sound. On record there is a lot to be said for shorter is better. The relatively more worked out structure of Agnosy’s riffs keeps interest quite nicely. The guitars are thick and guttural, but the retain enough tone to make the music sound bright, in a downtuned sort of way. Politically engaged lyrics are a plus, and the singer sounds kind of demented while still making identifiable words. Stylistically they sound a bit like slightly catchier version of Myteri (at least to my ear), or Instinto, or maybe a bit like Warcollapse, although the drumming is a little less far out. Anyway, this release is absolute quality and really stands head and shoulders above what is a very crowded crusty field just at the moment.

Review: Sutekh Hexen

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , on May 11, 2019 by Magadh

Sutekh Hexen, S/T (Sentient Ruin Laboratories)

What seems like a lifetime ago, I was flipping through the Bandcamp offerings when a came across a new release by a death metal outfit from Barcelona called Cruz. I was mostly curious about them because I have some contacts in the Barcelona hardcore scene, and so wondered what was happening on the metal side of the tracks. Culto Abismal was not rich with novelty. But it was some chunky, riff-driven death metal that was well produced and catchy as hell. It’s still one of my favorite discs to this day. I got it via the Oakland-based label Sentient Ruin Laboratories. As time went on, I investigated some of the other offerings from SRL’s catalog. I think the next thing I got was VRTRA‘s My Bones Hold A Stillness, a weird mix of doom and crust that kind of sounds like Deathspell Omega on ketamine. Then I hooked up The Creeping Unknown by Noose Rot, which is some of the filthiest death metal you’re ever going to hear. I could go on. Pretty much everything that I’ve heard from this label has been weirdly brilliant (or brilliantly weird). The ultimate conclusion here is this: Sentient Ruin releases some seriously fucked up shit.

Fast forward to the present day. Magadh is sitting in his office in the public library, once again flipping through Bandcamp’s offerings in the hopes of chasing the boredom the comes with doing a bunch of repetitive tasks. I’ve rocked a few of SRL’s more recent offerings, especially De Val by the Dutch black metal outfit Verwoed, a real masterpiece of discordant atmosphere, and I start to see a lot of positive buzz around the recently released cassette by Sutekh Hexen. I’m game, I think. I’ve heard my share of black ambiance. This might be the kind of thing that will put me on edge…in a good way. About forty-five minutes later I’m sitting in my chair, eyes open wide, thinking about the place in Beyond Good and Evil where Nietzsche wrote, “Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird. Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein.” [“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”] The abyss seems to have looked back into me, and taken something, and I’m not entirely sure how to get it back.

The opening cut, “Descent,” sounds like the background noise as Charon ferries one across the river Styx: a weird buzzing cacophony in which the screams of the damned echo. This sets the stage for an odyssey that will last the better part of an hour which juxtaposes passages of echoey black metal with long stretches of modulated noise. Sutekh Hexen assaults the senses, most effectively I think because, as a listening, one is constantly trying to make some kind of sense of the aural composition with which one is confronted. But the attempt to turn this into something systematic and comprehensible must ultimately fail. The composers of this music simply will not allow the listener to find any kind of comfort or consistency. These sonic collages cannot really be parsed. They can only be experienced with greater or lesser degrees of psychic damage.

I’ve been listening to this record for a second time in the half hour or so that it’s taken me to compose this review. It’s really starting to freak me out. There are some parts that are just overwhelming. Other sections, like “Segue I: Ouroborus” sounds like what you’d hear while you were waiting for Pinhead to show up with some sort of giant, spinning blade to grind out the contents of your skull. I love this stuff, and simultaneously hate it because there is simply no way to get comfortable while listening to it. This is the lost soundtrack to the first Alien, redolent with horror, and using creeping menace in ways just as effective as the overwhelming walls of sound (which also appear from time to time).

I’ll probably get around to reviewing a number of Sentient Ruin’s other excellent recent releases, including Chasm by Suspiral, which is one of the most strange and depressing black metal releases I’ve heard in years. But for now, I think I need to sit alone in silence and try to recompose the fragments of consciousness that Sutekh Hexen have utterly fucking smashed.

Review: Nervosa

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , on May 3, 2019 by Magadh

Nervosa Downfall of Mankind (Napalm)

As a band, São Paulo’s Nervosa have a lot going for them. To begin with, and clearly most importantly in this context, they play absolutely ripping death metal. Also, they’ve got something to say which, sadly, is not the case with most bands in this genre. Sure, it’s funny to hear songs about zombies gobbling up people’s entrails. But it’s refreshing when you hear a band that deeper ideas than what they saw on last night’s splatter offering…and can back it up with flawless chops.

 

Nervosa are the whole package. Downfall of Mankind, released in June of last year, serves up 13 helpings of blistering Brazilian death metal that speaks truth and takes zero shit. As with a lot of Brazilian bands, Sepultura are an important reference point. On their previous records, Victim of Yourself (2014) and Agony (2016), that similarity was alloyed with a kind of filthiness. Listening to Agony puts one in mind of Beneath the Remains, but as if the cuts were being played by Black Breath around the time the recorded Sentenced to Life.

Downfall of Mankind still recalls Sepultura but asserts its own sound. The recording is crisp and clear, allowing guitarist Prika Amaral to drive the music forward with a mix of rapid back picking and triplets. Luana Demeto’s drumming is absolutely rock solid, using a mix of single and double bass techniques to keep the music at maximum warp without letting things degenerate into chaos. Fernanda Lira provides thundering basslines and vocals that absolutely hit the sweet spot between intensity and being able to hear what she’s saying.

 

The latter is important. As this story from Blabbermouth.net (and the accompanying interview clip) clearly illustrate, Nervosa are smart enough to recognize the fucked up politics of their homeland (and elsewhere) and articulate enough to put build that into their air without compromising either in any way. This is a hard mix to get right for even the most experienced bands and artists. Watching these young women at the top of their game, politically aware, unapologetically feminist, and fearless, is pretty amazing.

 

They’ve done a number of videos, which mostly involve them playing the songs, and are mostly pretty good. For my money, the best is this one for “Raise Your Fist.” Lira, grinning wickedly, opens with “This one goes for the activists! This one goes for the militants!” in a hyperaggressive growl the lets you know that she means fucking business. The video itself features live footage interspersed with clips of from well-known scene figures (you know who they are when you see them) and average people engaged in struggles for freedom, equality, and human dignity. The picture of the little kid in a t-shirt that says, “Strong, resilient, indigenous” is too awesome to be fully expressed in words.

 

Nervosa are currently on tour in Europe. I want to see them here, now. So come to North America, because we need you here too. Nervosa are propaganda of the deed of the highest order. They absolutely stick the boot into the deathmetal boys club, and that’s a good thing. This is the kind of thing that you want every girl to see, to feel her power, and to know that her strength and her truth can blast their way into the world.

 

P.S. For those interested in a deeper dive, here are a couple of videos that Napalm posted of the band talking about the songs on Downfall of Mankind.

The Dark City

Posted in Articles with tags , , , , on May 1, 2019 by Magadh

Dark CityI am riding, alone, in the dark city. The city is vast. Sometimes I see it in daylight, but it is dark in the sense that film noir is about atmosphere. It comprises fragments of all the cities that I have ever inhabited: Portland, Seattle, Boston, New York, Berlin. Or, perhaps, it is more correct to say that they are manifestations of a place that only exists in totality elsewhere. I don’t know where I’m going. Or I do know where I’m going, but the topography has changed in unexpected ways, and somehow my errands become knit together with other stories that don’t conform to the linear structures of the workaday world. Most compellingly, I can glimpse at a distance the outlines of people I know, some of whom I haven’t seen in years, some of whom have sloughed off this mortal coil entirely. But I can’t find them, and once again the tides and momentum of the dark city carry me on to other avenues.

I dream like most people. Or at least I think I do. I’ve had the standard dreams that you hear discussed: showing up unprepared on test day, falling, getting chased and not being able to run, dreams of desire and satisfaction, dreams of fear and terror. When I was working on my PhD and had occasion to make a deep dive into the literature on the Holocaust, I began to have (and still occasionally have) dreams of pursuit by Nazi goons or mass executions. I think these must be, in some sense, normal. The trauma of surplus horror needs to be discharged somehow, and the sleeping brain causes it to coalesce in order to dissipate its force.

I have been told that it is possible to retroactively affect your dreams. More than one person has told me that, after waking, it is possible to think through the dream, employing this is or that strategy that would have resolved the problem. Freddy Krueger chasing you through the night? Just wake up and imagine yourself armed with an M-32 grenade launcher and see how threatening he looks once you’ve vaporized everything but his little finger knives. I don’t know how this is supposed to help in the case of showing up for the test completely unprepared. Maybe I should get up and read a book. In any case, I’ve never actually been able to make this work. The existential aura of the dreamscape remains until the fragments of the dream have disintegrated like ashes in the wind.

dc4

I’m riding alone in the dark city, in a part of town that looks like a cross between Belltown in Seattle and the far south end of downtown Portland. The streets are mostly empty and the streetlights illuminate the streets in the sort of harsh glare that makes everything look kind of yellow. I know that I am working, and this I have jobs on. Far ahead of me, I see Henry Hellbender, OG from the Portland punk scene of the early 80s, long time bike messenger, my friend from years ago in my courier days. Henry died several years ago, in his sleep, from a problem with his meds or something like that. I’ve felt his absence ever since. Like an amputated limb that keeps aching.

And now I can see him, as I so often did, spinning along smoothly on an Eddy Merckx road frame. And I know that I can catch him, because Henry never moved that fast, probably because he never wanted to seem like he gave a fuck. Just a few hard spins and I will be up to him, and we can meet again on the dark streets, and I can tell him that I miss him, and thank him for all the things I learned from him. But I can never quite close the gap. There is traffic in the way, or I see somewhere that seems like my destination, and when I look up again he has darted off down a side street and is gone again. In the dark city, resolution is always tantalizingly close, but always out of reach.

I dream, as people often do, of times long gone. I think that these dreams are like the revenants in old ghost stories, desperately trying to work out the residuum of unfinished temporal business. One of the most common settings for my dreams is the campus of Reed College, where I spend my days as an undergrad, or its environs. I have the normal range of failure dreams (today is the last day of class for a course that I haven’t managed to attend all year), but more often I dream about the series of decrepit houses that I lived in during that time. And, as usual, I dream of people that I haven’t seen since then, many of whom I will never see again, and I’m still looking for a way to reply to something they said that showed how much smarter than me they were (and probably are).

I dreamed of a town that could have been Walla Walla, Washington, where I grew up. I saw people I knew there, but as adults, going here and there. But all the time the dream centered on a cave that looked like a crack in the bank of a fallow wheat field that I knew we had all hung out in back in the long, long ago. Something terrible had happened there, but I couldn’t remember what, and I was drawn to it an repelled by it in equal measure. In the end, there was no resolution. Just long drives down empty roads on the outskirts of the dark city, where its suburban reaches give way to a vast emptiness.

I am riding alone it the dark city, in a part of town that starts out like inner southeast Portland, but then turns into the Rixdorf section of Berlin, a place where I never road a bike in my life (although I lived there). It’s raining and as the scenery shifts to Berlin I notice that the streets are cobbled, so I need to mind my p’s and q’s to keep from going over. It is twilight and the lights and neon signs from businesses along the way wash the shining streets in color. I realize that I have just passed Big Frank, sitting astride his bike on a street corner, as I so often saw him when we were messengers.

Frank, wearing the Vietnamese peasant’s broad-brimmed hat that he often wore (never a helmet). Frank, who was half in the bag a lot of the time. Who showed up at my apartment one time with a half rack of Rainier and a bottle of Vikings and who, after how down two pills and four beers in half an hour I had to tell that if he was intent on suicide he would really be doing me a solid by croaking somewhere else. In all the time that I can remember, he never got so much as a skinned knee, which was weird because every bike messenger falls occasionally. And then he sobered up and became an actor, and tripped on some stairs at a workshop in Columbus and died. And I thought, “How fragile is the flame,” for all the reasons just mentioned.

I see Frank on the corner, sitting on his top tube, legs akimbo, watching the cars go by. Square jaw, dreadlocks, ebony skin, and a smile that could be kind of threatening, at least until you got to know him. I want to talk to him, about Marx, or Heidegger, or the Bulls, or Shakespeare, or any of the hundred things that used to chase our friends away. But I can’t stop, because braking on wet cobbles is a recipe for a fall. So I decide to go around the block, But by the time I come back around I’m somewhere else and Frank has disappeared into the twilight.

dc5The dark city is not in all my dreams. But there are dreams when I know I’m there, when I know I’m in a twilight landscape that is both familiar and deeply uncanny. From all my visits there, I cannot escape the suspicion that perhaps I have things backwards. Perhaps it is the dark city that is true, and that all the landscapes and environments that I inhabit in waking life are but fragments of the totality that contains and combines them all. Perhaps the living and the dead, the waking and the dreaming are simultaneously there and elsewhere, or are only there and flash in and out of the daylight world. Somewhere, in some corner of the dream time, my true self is spinning, trying to make that one last delivery before the offices close, or my ride breaks, or the lights go out.