Fractal Universe – Rhizomes of Insanity & Rhizomes Live

Out now on Metal Blade Records

Live albums in 2020 is a curious prospect. With youtube being host to thousands of hours of live footage from the farthest reaches of the international music scene, spending label money to mix and release an official recording of a live performance seems meaningless. This is nevertheless what Fractal Universe has done with their 2020 release on Metal Blade Records, Rhizomes Live. Corresponding with their stint opening for Obscura throughout Europe this month, Rhizomes Live is a live performance of their 2019 album Rhizomes of Insanity in full. As a preliminary to seeing them perform in Oslo on March 4th, I am taking a look at both versions of Rhizomes.

            Fractal Universe is a technical, progressive Death Metal band from France with an album and an EP to their name, apart from the releases discussed in this review. Having a clean and modern sound, the band is situated on a separating line between classic technical Death Metal (Obscura, Gorod) on one side, and more groove-based 10’s bands on the other. The tapestry of their sound is highly detailed and includes lots of little digressions into satellite-genres without cluttering the bigger picture. Minimal djent-chugs, Tool-like landscapes of clean guitar and rolling toms, and Melodic Death Metal riffing all find little corners to snuggle into on Rhizomes, all held together by the uniform and spit shined production. 

            The level of detail on this album is baffling, pertaining to both the construction of ideas and riffs, and the bigger soundscapes they find themselves in. Being immensely proficient on their instruments, the band sculpts immaculate riffs and combines them with compositional fervour. This rich mosaic is facilitated by the production, which leaves ample space for the pieces to interconnect, while still having a somewhat sterile, Axe-Fx-ish sheen. Despite the daunting breadth of elements fighting for attention on Rhizomes, Fractal Universe never loses track of the song. The structures are neatly shaped, reining in the creative chaos to fit into well-known frameworks.

            The songs vary from relatively pure-blooded Technical Death Metal tunes like “Flashes of Potentialities” and “Masterpiece’s Parallelism”, and more MOR modern metal like the opening track and “Fundamental Dividing Principle”. Despite this perceived divide, there are no single tune that adheres completely to either category. “Flashes…” features verse vocals reminiscent of Katatonia’s Jonas Renkse, and “Oneiric Realisations” has a bridge section all awash in prog and vocoders. “Rising Oblivion” scampers onto the scene like a mountainous cyborg polyrhythmically scanning a ravaged city for signs of life, and “Architectural Aberrations” drops a shamelessly st00pid breakdown on us like said cyborg discovering only a few scattered flocks of Veil of Maya fans.

            The album has a mild pacing issue, in addition to accumulating some redundancies over the span of its runtime. Each song is jam-packed with different ideas competing for space, but their variety is hemmed in by song structures that generally follow similar progressions. After six songs of technical metal interspersed with crystalline soundscapes ala Cynic, the constant shifting between the two starts to feel a bit played out by the time “Madness’ Arabesques” noodles out of the speakers. This problem translates onto the macro plane, as the album’s arc suffers from the interchangeability between the songs. 

            At least the closing “Chiasmus of the Damned” manages to conjure an air of finality, providing the album with a convincing conclusion. Rhizomes of Insanity as a whole shows tremendous promise, highlighting an upgrade in both the sound and material from earlier entries in the band’s output. With a few more stand-out ideas and a more engaging album structure, they might be able to compete with their more seasoned tour mates in Obscura. Rhizomes of Insanity is still highly recommended for tech-nuts, containing enough twists and riffy conundrums to keep your Guitar Pro 7 window aglow for weeks.  

            Rhizomes Live is a release that constitutes a complete enigma to me. One might suppose that live albums should either provide some alternative perspective on studio material or show off the organic interplay and happy accidents of a live performance, but …Live doesn’t really do any of them. Fractal Universe’s style of music is too tightly coiled to lend itself to live tinkering, and the musicianship of the guys is so advanced that the playing is close to identical to the source material. Even the vocals –usually subject to change from studio to live stage in underground metal- are performed meticulously, resulting in the only difference from …Live to the studio album being one of fidelity. If anything, the release seems to only exist to tell the world that “oui bois, we can perform this shit live”. Even though I enjoy the listen, I would much rather listen to Rhizomes of Insanity with its spacious and punchy production. That being said, I do look forward greatly to seeing them in March!

Rhizomes of Insanity: 7.0/10             

Rhizomes Live: 4.0/10  

Svarttjern – Shame is Just a Word

Out now on Soulseller Records

Having been born and raised in Norway, the sound of Black/thrash is as comforting to me as the sound of a crackling fire, the lively spritz of an opened beer can or the voice of a loving mother. Being fed records by NekromantheonAura Noir and Condor through my umbilical cord has –apart from severely damaging precious internal organs- helped me relate to my fellow countrymen where more obvious cultural rally points have failed. In other words, it’s pretty much impossible to write a black/ thrash record and ship it to my tarn-side dwelling without me enjoying it at least a smidge.

             Seemingly pleased with the odds, Svarttjern has done exactly that with their latest record; Shame is Just a Word. The consistently enjoyable outfit has been ping-ponging between black and thrash over ten years and four albums, the defining factor of each usually being whether it accentuates the ping (Black) or the pong (Thrash). They continue this display of athletic prowess on their 2020 project, refusing to let either sound take full hold of the reins.

            Barrelling out of the gates like a flock of burning geese comes “Prince of Disgust”, the punchy and concise first single from the album. Featuring to-the-point riffing interspersed with some dissonant flirtations with headier sounds, it reeks of love for both the past and present of the subgenre. Hansfyrste (vocals) rasps and hollers like an absolute madman throughout the song, recalling a Nocturno Culto feverish with night terrors. The songwriting is strong, hampered only by a loose and wandering bridge and a questionable fade-out. 

            After this relatively ping affair, we are met with a strong pong-ping-pong combo. “Ment til å Tjene” thrashes away in brilliant manner, turning up with some big riffs and sneaky grooves. “Melodies of Lust” is by far the most impressive track on the album, managing to cram in so many different sides of the band it makes most of the other songs on the record superfluous. After teasing the listener with a requisite clean-guitar and bubbly-porridge-on-the-stove introduction, they open the doors to greatness through some towering riffs, structural sleight-of-hand and a melodious expanse towards the end that awes like a more temperate Borknagar.

            After this breath-taking vista, we’re thrown back into the snus- and piss-filled pits of “Ta dets Drakt”. While enjoyable enough taken by itself, as a follow-up to the pine-scented “Melodies…” it fails to leave a distinct odour of its own. “Frost Embalmed Abyss” tries to correct the course by way of its wonderfully upsized intro- and verse-sections, proving that ambition seems to wake something primal in this band. Unfortunately, the bridge of the song stumbles into the same non-descript thrash of the previous track, and ‘unfortunatelier’, so does the rest of the record. “Ravish Me” is easily the least effective track of the bunch, and the inclusion of a growled cover of Exodus’ “Bonded by Blood” does little more than spotlight the familial connections between Thrash and Black Metal.

            After the batshit power-organ/vocoder(?) solo at the end of the title track, we’re left sitting in our half-emptied crate of beer, wondering why this crisp slice of black/thrash didn’t knock us over as hard as the packaging promised. While the first couple of spins showed promise, the lustre started to dim little by little throughout subsequent listens. As “Melodies of Lust” and the first half of “Frost Embalmed Abyss” shows, there lives a beast within Svarttjern that longs to stumble out of the musty dive bar and into the majesty of the Norwegian wilderness, unbeholden to the tenets of the mosh-church. If they could unshackle this adventurous impulse and let it flail around unrestrained, I would not rule it out of their capacities to produce an end-of-the-year contender. But as it stands, Shame is Just a Word fails to stand toe to toe with the rest of the their peers in the norwegian league of black/thrash.

6.0/10

Hellgoat – Death Conquers All

Out on Boris Recordings

Hellgoat is an American black metal band from Atlanta delivering raw, trebly black metal to the ravaged masses. They have stayed more or less true to the ethos of the second wave through a smattering of demos, EPs and LPs, only stopping once or twice along the way to up the fidelity by marginal amounts. Death Conquers All is their second full length, originally released in 2011 by Graveless Slumber Records, but recently released by Boris Records. 

            “Slay the Lamb” starts off the proceedings by strategically scaring away any person not fully devoted to the blast. The track is a pure second wave assault; Scorching white noise guitars riding on a drum track that stays blasting for 90% of the song. The bass faithfully sticks to whatever the guitar is doing, while a Grutle Kjellson-like rasp guides the troupe through the blood red fog. This track is as straight-forward as it gets when it comes to black metal, but fear not, Hellgoat has a lot of unexpected tricks up the sleeves of their sacrificial robes.

            Already by the second track, the Trve is starting to give way for more adventurous impulses. The track is more low-end heavy, and breaks up the regularity with some irregular bars and a discordantly doomy bridge. The song structure also treks beyond the three-part simplicity of its preceding brother. By the beginning of “Summon Him”, I’m already starting to envision clichés of black metal iconography slightly warped. The ceremonious intro creates a strange atmosphere, conjuring the picture of an altar on wheels being rolled out in front of a rapaciously worshipping congregation. The wheels are a tiny detail separating the scene from any ordinary satanic worship, and so it is with Hellgoat’s music. The details separating this album from any other bare-bones black metal album are tiny, but they’re present.

            The band continues to mine a sound combining the unrelenting but hooky power of Gorgoroth with occult doom bridges in the vein of old Candlemass. Completing the elixir is the rare speck of punk-ish snarl, like the straight-outta CBGB riff that is well hidden behind the blast-beat-as-side-chain section of “Summon Him”. The band varies up their attack every so often, toying with the familiar style in subtle ways so as to not tire the listener. At the record’s B-side, the band opens up its sound to include slightly more noticeable detours, injecting the latter parts with vigor. “Feast of the Goat” has a bridge where the bass actually gets to lead the flock for a couple of bars, while “Behold the Tempter Spoke” inserts phaser effects and bass arpeggios, progging up the proceedings substantially. This evolution crests naturally with the longest song of the record, “March of the Corpse Rats”, where Enslaved-stomp and gently twisting 777 Sect(s)-lite riffs entwine in musty lovemaking.

            Death Conquers All presents enough subtle twists to entertain the knowledgeable and corpse-painted cretin looking for crinkles in the black metal carpet. The production, while beefier and more listenable than the mix on their debut, is still pretty rough if you’re not into the demo-quality of most second wave projects. But if you’ve spent a fortnight under the freezing moon, and still find the boreal valley as appealing as ever before, then the searing noise of Hellgoat can prove a worthwhile companion through the night.

7.0/ 10

Imprecation – Damnatio ad Bestias

Out on Dark Descent Records

In the many years since the genre of metal was dragged kicking and screaming onto the international stage in the late 70s, there’s been quite a lot of turning stones going on. The trusty metal wayfarers have dug their shovels into every seemingly fruitful mound of earth across the lands, making entire subgenres, waves and local scenes out of the resulting produce. But while there’s almost no such thing as an unturned stone in metal anymore, some stones have been turned more times than others. 

            Gleefully old-school, satanic as a church-burning Norwegian second-waver, and filthy as the boys in Cianide dragged through the amorphous mass of flesh on the cover of Mental Funeral; Imprecation has found their hallowed stone and are content with turning it over until Sisyphus has finished pushing his. This putrid form of death metal will continue to spread its malignant wings throughout the continents as long as there are humans walking and breathing and willing to perform the necessary rituals. There are no expectations of originality whenever you put on one of these discs, the only thing that matters is whether the band in question manages to rumple your work suit and offend your neighbors.   

            Imprecation is definitely up for the task, untidying suits and upsetting the countenance of neighbors with fierce determination. The band of black-clad brothers have delivered two previous full-length helpings of blasphemous barf* before venturing on the task of bringing us the latest one, Damnatio ad Bestias. The formula hasn’t changed to any considerable degree; the band is still pumping out grimy death metal colored in at the edges with some atmospheric keyboard and samples. The most substantial upgrade from the previous records to this one might be the production, which is noticeably beefier and fuller on the new record. With the production on their side and two previous albums behind them, Imprecation set off into the world to wreak havoc on the uninitiated.

            “Temple of the Foul Spirit” Kicks off the proceedings with some dour and crawling OSDM, commencing the ritual in a suitable manner. The snaking, mildly off-kilter riffs turns the mind to the more calculated evil of Necrot, while the slower trudges reminds me of the dungeon-crawling cretins in Vastum. The tempo veers all over the spectrum throughout the record, making for a constantly exhilarating ride. The latter half of “Morbid Crucifixion” Bolt Throwers its way out of the speakers like an armored tank trawling around the seven planes of hell, before “Baptized in Satan’s Blood” sprinkles some black metal fairy dust over the infernal concoction. The keyboard is used sparingly but effectively, always bringing something extra to the track when it decides to rear its head.

            The record continues in this vein for its 37-minute span, letting the diversified riff-attack make up for the lack of true variation. Along with the winding structure and the dynamic treatment of tempo, the band comes a long way without really needing to change up their core components. What does end up missing is the stand-out moments needed to push the band from good to great. The only song that really sticks out from the bunch is “The Shepherd and the Flock”, with its grinding slow parts and a guitar solo that sounds like Satan relieving himself of a particularly stubborn tapeworm. Delivering more tracks like this might make Imprecation a bigger competitor when it becomes time to take stock of which 10’s death metal bands managed to turn the stone most skillfully. 

            If you have an unending hunger for the rancid meals offered by the grotesque chefs of the underground death metal scene, then Damnatio ad Bestiasis as good enough a recommendation as any. The band obviously has a burning passion for fiery racket, so throwing some coin in their direction is a great way to assure them that there are still cave dwellers out there willing to receive unholy sermon. Imprecation probably won’t instigate any paradigm shifts any time soon, but within the walls of the ever-turning mills of death metal, they are definitely pulling their weight.

*This is nothing but a compliment of course.

7.0/ 10