Oct 24

Steven Wilson – To the Bone

Steven Wilson: singer, songwriter, producer, genius. That’s the sense that I got listening to Porcupine Tree, and finding out more about his extensive works. Yet, this year’s To the Bone is the first time I am actually taking the time to check out his solo works. Not really with much choice actually, since Porcupine Tree seems to already be taking a backseat.

While Porcupine Tree‘s later works seem to move towards a milder direction, the band retained some sense of heaviness, especially with their last works on The Incident. So the pop-rock leanings on To the Bone isn’t very surprising, with some mild touches of progressive rock. Gone are the heavy riffing of Porcupine Tree, and in its place are mellow, almost melancholic, beautiful pieces. Even the heaviest tracks on the album like The Same Asylum as Before only indulges the listener to short spurts of heaviness, with Steve‘s soothing voice contrasting the intensity of the track.

The progressiveness in Steve‘s songwriting especially stands out on tracks like Song of I, with the darkness and the sense of unease he manages to conjure, yet retaining its pop rock structure. Detonation expertly maneuvers a whole spectrum of emotions with its oft-changing tempo, though the mood remains mostly dark even on the softer moments. There are also a whole range of influences from various genres on the album, most prominently being the rather bluesy guitars on tracks like Refuge.

That said, Steven Wilson‘s fascination in technology and its effects are still highly featured in the lyrics. Pariah seems to deal with the bombardment of social media and the internet, along with its isolating effects – feeling almost like a continuation of Fear of a Blank Planet. The raspy vocals of Ninet Tayeb made the track all the more bittersweet, with her beautiful, emotive style of singing contrasting the seemingly depressing theme.

Steve‘s works on bands like Porcupine TreeOpeth, and Anathema show his clean and modern production style, and this is no different on To the Bone. Every instrument is placed perfectly, every tone is pitch perfect, with a wide soundstage that leaves an almost binaural effect on the listener. Songs like Refuge sound huge, and the immersive listening experience is an almost spiritual one at the same time, leaving one overwhelmed with emotions especially as the solos enter and fade out.

While Porcupine Tree may be no more (for now), Steven Wilson has made sure that his musical sharpness has not degenerated. To the Bone is an exceptional album, both for fans of Steven Wilson‘s works, and to any fan of good, but dark pop-rock.

Favourite tracks: PariahRefuge

Gears used:
Schiit Bifrost > HiFiMAN EF2A > Fostex T40RP Mk 3
Calyx 24/192 > Shanling PH300 > Audioengine A5+/Audeze LCD-2

Oct 21

Heresiarch – Death Ordinance

New Zealand black/death metal horde Heresiarch released what could have been my favourite EP in 2011, Hammer of Intransigence. The fusion of the bestial fury of Ross Bay Cult heroes Blapshemy and the war metal of Conqueror made for an aggressive and effective war metal masterpiece.

Their 2014 release, Wælwulf marked a slight shift musically, with the band moving towards a doomier, gloomier sound instead. Yet, the intensity in their music remain uncompromised. 3 years on, the band finally drops their debut full length album, Death Ordinance, leaving fans wondering if the band would carry on in the veins of Wælwulf, or revert to the chaos of Hammer of Intransigence.

However, rather than conforming to either of the styles that they created on their past release, Heresiarch on their debut full length has instead chosen to fuse the speed and aggression of Hammer of Intransigence, and the crushing heaviness of Wælwulf.

Opening track Consecrating Fire picks off where Wælwulf left off, and instills a sense of dread in the listener for the oncoming onslaught. Heresiarch quickly switches gears on Storming Upon Knaves, and from here on out the listener is buried under wave after wave of relentless riffing. While the riffs here may get slightly repetitive from time to time (as do most material of the war metal genre), the execution is flawless with Heresiarch‘s intention to crush being clear from the get go.

Everything that made Hammer of Intransigence such a impactful release, and the hallmarks of the war metal genre, from the chaotic, Conqueror-inspired lead guitars, to the tireless battery, are presented in the listener’s face without mercy. Longer tracks like Iron Harvest and Desert of Ash sees the band incorporating the slower moments that have been introduced on Wælwulf. In particular, Desert of Ash stood out, being probably the most melodic track in the band’s discography, with the bleak melodies conjuring the horrors of war.

As per albums of such genres, I found listening to Death Ordinance on speakers and full-sized headphones to provide the best experience. With full-sized cans like the Audeze LCD-2, Death Ordinance is an oppressive listen, often suffocating the listener under the barrage of crushing riffs. On speakers, the album feels much airier, and the wall of sound effect becomes much more prominent, though slightly less aggressive.

Death Ordinance marks the growth of Heresiarch as musicians and songwriters, and with each release the band ensures that they leave their mark on fans and listeners. Coming from someone who hardly listens to this particular brand of black/death metal these days (aside from the occasional Archgoat), Death Ordinance is one war metal release to look out for.

Gears used:
Calyx 24/192 > Shanling PH300 > Audeze LCD-2/Audioengine A5+

Standout tracks: Storming Upon KnavesDesert of Ash

Oct 17

Progenie Terrestre Pura – Oltreluna

Few bands make me as curious as Italy’s Progenie Terrestre Pura. With their debut promo in 2011, the band laid the foundation of their music with sci-fi, space, and the future being main topics, and the musical style a unique brand of ambient black metal. Despite their ambient/atmospheric black metal tag though, the band couldn’t be further away from your typical black metal act with the themes and polished output. For instance, 2013’s U.M.A. was an ambient masterpiece, with an immersive futuristic soundscape that leaves the listener enchanted.

This year’s Oltreluna, their sophomore full length album, showcases the continuing evolution of the band’s musical style, this time injecting a heavier dosage of black metal than on their previous material. While U.M.A. had some lighter moments that almost brought about some post-rock sensibilities, Oltreluna presents fewer of such moments, and the band opts for a heavier, more intense route instead.

Rather than that ambient introduction on U.M.A.Oltreluna hits hard from the get go, with relentless riff after riff hitting the listener. Fans of U.M.A. might feel somewhat disappointed as the band begins to lean towards the more traditional, clichéd black metal style on [.Pianeta.Zero.]. However, the band soon enough brings out their progressive edge with the incorporation of elements ranging from dubstep to industrial to enhance the experience of Oltreluna. Furthermore, each track brings the listener through different movements and emotions. Aggression quickly turns into melancholy and contemplation, with strings helping to give that additional emotional edge like on [.Subluce.], often before the crushing finale that closes the track.

The intensity on the album is also presented not only in the form of the increased leaning towards traditional extreme metal playing by the band, but also in the electronic/industrial elements thrown into the mix. The rather relaxing ambient on U.M.A. has been replaced by dubstep-inspired beats and industrial overtones like on the title track.

Production on Oltreluna is excellent as usual, with an epic, expansive soundstage on most of the tracks with varying depths of the tracks making listening to the album an immersive, almost binaural experience. This is most evident on title track [.Oltreluna.] with its tribal/folkish interlude. The layers that go into each of the tracks are intricately mixed, and there are many moments where subtle instrumentation could be heard in the background, further enhancing the listening experience.

Perhaps the only gripe that I had while listening to Oltreluna is the guitar tone, which while having a rather industrial, clinical tone to it (though fitting to the style on the album), sounded somewhat thin.

Progenie Terrestre Pura‘s Oltreluna marks a rather drastic shift in style for the band, yet remains one of the standout releases of recent times with their unique and coherent blending of different genres.

Gears used:
Calyx 24/192 > Shanling PH300 > Audeze LCD-2
FiiO X5iii > Heir Audio 4.ai s

Oct 14

Akercocke – Renaissance in Extremis

Ak-RIE-2LP-VILELP636NoText-ForGoldI remember my first foray into extreme metal. There were two particular music videos that left lasting impressions on me (or scaring the shit out of me, to be really honest). The first being Dimmu Borgir‘s Sorgens Kammer – Del II. The way Shagrath peeled off his skin completely creeped me out, and the first exposure to Satanic imagery did little to quell my fears. Over the years, I eventually outgrew the symphonic style of Dimmu Borgir.

The other music video that had a similar effect was Akercocke‘s Axiom, with the dark and gothic imagery sending chills down my spine.

I eventually grew to appreciate the avant-garde/gothic/progressive style of black/death metal that Akercocke played, with Choronzon probably being my favourite release of theirs. The image of the band definitely helped in making them stand out from the sea of extreme metal bands that have popped up over the years as well.

Akercocke 2015

Unfortunately, the band went into radio silence after 2007’s Antichrist, with David Gray moving on to form Voices, which while having some similarities with Akercocke, I never really fancied. So in what may be the most unexpected comeback of the year, Akercocke finally returns from a 10-year hiatus with their brand new album, Renaissance in Extremis.

With Renaissance in Extremis, the band seems to have shed their Savile Row bespoke skin, opting instead to go for the conventional death metal look. Fortunately, apart from the change of visual imagery, it is business as usual for the band, music-wise. The first moments of Disappear are already unmistakably Akercocke, with the percussive blasts of David Gray and the frantic lead guitar. The second Jason’s almost undecipherable growls come in, one feels at home once again, knowing that the bad has not lost its edge at all despite the long break.

On Renaissance in ExtremisAkercocke seems to have upped their thrashy edge. Throughout the album, there are countless riffs of Paul and Jason that bring to mind the speedy style of Slayer, like on First to Leave the Funeral, and it helps that the lead guitars on the album are often chaotic as hell, adding to the thrashy goodness.

Jason’s clean vocals, while admittedly not the best that I’ve heard, help to provide the dark and haunting vibe that the band’s music is known for. The effectiveness and the ease with which the band does so can be heard on songs like Insentience, with an orchestral backing to boot towards the end for added dramatic effect.

Like their previous works, Akercocke indulges in a rather progressive approach in their songwriting and structures, and on most tracks, the band switch styles and time signatures with ease. This is most evident on A Particularly Cold September. The transitions between different movements on the track are numerous, and true to its title, A Particularly Cold September seems to be the most bleak and emotional track on the album, with the closing guitar solo being rather melancholic, breaking free from the controlled chaos that the band set in motion, making it a fitting closer to the album. Heck, there is even the appearance of a saxophone to add to that avant-garde edge.

The band’s attention to detail can also be heard on the production. David’s drums in particular makes full use of the left and right channels, with the drum rolls often panning from the extreme left to the extreme right for the maximum immersive experience for the listener, like on Insentience. Guitar solos are also placed prominently in the mix, almost in-your-face, further leaving the listener with a sense of unease. And even on less bassy eaprhones like my Heir Audio 4.ai s, the bass isn’t buried in the mix, and is mixed in such a way that it creeps up especially during the quieter moments.

To say that Akercocke has just returned with yet another record is an understatement. Renaissance in Extremis may easily be one of the best works in their discography, and speaks for the experience they have accumulated over the years. For those looking for haunting, yet brutal black/death metal with an avant-garde edge, Reniassance in Extremis is the record to check out.

And to end things off, here’s a clip of Akercocke vs Christians a mere 10 years ago:

Favourite tracks: Unbound by SinA Final Glance Back Before DepartingA Particularly Cold September

Gear used:
Desktop: Calyx 24/192 > Shanling PH 300 > Audeze LCD-2
Portable: FiiO X5iii > Heir Audio 4.ai s

Oct 11

Archspire – Relentless Mutation

Archspire - Relentless Mutation

Archspire [Canada]
Relentless Mutation
Full Length
Season of Mist
Technical Death Metal

To date, Archspire‘s The Lucid Collective remains one of my favourite tech-death albums. The technical prowess of each of the individual members, along with the intense songwriting on the album left me subconsciously going back for more every time there’s a need to release some pent-up frustration (Seven Crowns and the Oblivion Chain, anyone?).

The band this year drops their third full-length album, Relentless Mutation. Prior to the release of the album, I was already excited with the first previews, and things were already sounding to be even heavier, faster, more technical, and more intense than The Lucid Collective. The band is in top form over here, and just as naysayers were wondering if it were possible to go even faster than The Lucid Collective, Archspire quickly proves them wrong.

The entire instrumental segment is clean and precise as hell, but the one who really steals the show on Relentless Mutation is vocalist Oli and how he easily keeps up with the speed of the band. The standout track that perfectly showcases Oli’s prowess is on Calamus Will Animate, where the band samples Tech N9ne‘s Stamina, at the same time hinting towards the influence that the rap genre has on Oli’s vocal styling and techniques.

Rather than a complete brainless speedfest, like on their previous material, Archspire incorporates quieter interludes on the album. The opening of title track Relentless Mutation, or the songs like The Mimic Well often have clean moments, posing a stark contrast to the organised chaos that they have created, while giving listeners a much-desired break before another round of aural assault.

As a test of how intense Relentless Mutation is, going back from closing track A Dark Horizontal to Lucid Collective Somnambulation (opening track of The Lucid Collective) left the latter track feeling slightly sluggish. And to think that The Lucid Collective was already one of the heaviest record that I love, Archspire indeed brought things to a new high (or rather, crushing low) with Relentless Mutation.

Production, as per most releases of the genre, is top-notch. Like all good music, Relentless Mutation is best enjoyed with a decent pair of cans. On faster cans like my closed-back Fostex T40RP MK3, the aggression hits the listener hard, though the rather revealing nature of the cans does make the album feel somewhat tiring after repeated listens. On the other hand, on the warmer and darker Audeze LCD-2, Relentless Mutation becomes a crushing, if somewhat suffocating listen, albeit in a good way for the genre. Bass on tracks like A Dark Horizontal also leaves one feeling enveloped by a wall of sound. Furthermore, the open nature of the cans makes quieter moments like on the opening of the title track, or A Dark Horizontal feel more immersive.

With their previous album, Archspire had already amassed a legion of loyal fans, evident from the slew of “Stay Tech” tattoos that the band often showcases on their Facebook page, and Relentless Mutation is the perfect specimen of the insanity of the band.

Favourite tracks: Relentless Mutation, Calamus will Animate, A Dark Horizontal

Archspire on the internet:

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