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  

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

Scáth Na Déithe – Pledge Nothing but Flesh

Out on Vendetta Records

Scáth Na Déithe (Shadow of the Gods) is a death-ish black metal duo from Ireland. Consisting of drummer Stephen Todd and multi-instrumentalist Cathal Hughes, Pledge Nothing but Flesh is their second release after dropping a four track EP in 2015. Pledge was originally released independently in 2017, but the German label Vendetta Records saw the potential in the band’s bleak vision and released it anew this year. The first release of the LP in 2017 went largely unnoticed, despite Pledge’s obvious appeal to fans of dark and expansive black metal. Let’s hope the label involvement manages to correct this situation, as this band is a valuable addition to the Irish black metal scene.

            Scáth Na Déithe plays an unendingly bleak and punishing variant of death/black metal. The soundscape feels saturated with dark shades of gray and brown, the black and the death elements almost perfectly balanced. The production is earthy and organic providing the lengthy compositions with indelible grit and character. The lyrics are filled with the hopeless reflections of a tortured mind; self-loathing and desperate in the search for a way out of a hopeless existence. Taken with the four expansive tracks and the short interludes, the whole package feels epic in scope, like combining the dark mythos of Agalloch’s Faustian Echoes with Dante’s Inferno.

            The record is clearly separated into an A- and a B-side, each front-ended with a short interlude. “Sí Gaoithe” wafts through the speakers like wandering apparitions traversing a dead forest, seguing into “Bloodless”’ trudging intro. The abundance of low and mid frequencies in the mix reminds me of the destructive blackened death of Aosoth’s An Arrow in Heart, one of the most successful meldings of black and death metal in later years. The track soon picks up speed, the harsh and unintelligible vocals sounding the feral cries of a trailing woodland beast. The track flows nicely, with a couple of stand-out moments peppering its 10-minute run time. “Bloodless” is quickly followed by “This Unrecognized Disease” which explodes with a cloud of dissonant shrapnel, before sprawling out like a far-flung field of wet, disintegrating leaves.

            After 20 minutes of relentless bluster, Pledge offers its only moment of respite. “Fáilte Na Marbh” is like a stark clearing in a dismal forest, a place still somewhat graced with the memory of light. This glimmer is immediately whisked away with the arrival of “The Shackled Mind”, which is both the harshest and the best track on the album. The track sounds like a cataclysmic event driving entire communities into exile; a rumbling, flailing vortex of death and misfortune. After chasing destruction for 9 minutes, it closes off with an ominous clean section resembling the damp dungeon climes of The Ruins of Beverast.

            The album is unfortunately closed off with a ten-minute track that, despite a moment of spacious beauty towards the middle, largely retreads the ground of earlier tracks. This is but a slight tarnish on a record that is otherwise an impressive display of gravelly vision. The band has worked their way into a sound that is both comfortably familiar, yet filled with enough character and variation to sustain the interest across a full-length effort. This sound has the potential to be whittled down into an even more refined product, a process that could well create a modern masterpiece. Pledge Nothing but Flesh deserves to be admired by a bigger audience, so if you have some shelf space left for a quality death/black release, I recommend giving the online store of Vendetta Records a visit.

7.5/ 10

Soilwork – Verkligheten

Out on Nuclear Blast Records

What is it about the surströmning-eating cretins in the country of Sweden that makes them so great at writing melodies? From the world-conquering ABBA to the modern pop goddess Robyn, the umlaut-spouting northeners seemingly can’t stop themselves from writing their way into the hearts and the charts of people around the world. This natural inclination even influences the most extreme variants of musical exports the country has to offer. Be it black metal or cybernetic gore-grind, you know it’ll only be a matter of time before the swedes has packaged it into a technicolor extravaganza fit for the biggest outdoor festivals in Europe.

            This is exactly what they did to the then-young genre of death metal in the 90s. In Flames, Dark Tranquility and At the Gates took the brutal bashings of death metal and combined it with more listener-friendly elements pillaged from NWOBHM, before gracing it with their native country’s supernatural ear for melody. Soilwork was also an integral part of that early scene, and along with the aforementioned bands they’ve forged on through the years, releasing albums at a clip while steadily becoming more accessible (notable exception is At the Gates, who even after an extended break sounds more or less like they did in ’95). For bands like In Flames and Dark Tranquility this commercialization dovetailed with a decline in the quality of their artistic statements. For Soilwork, the trajectory has looked a little different.

            As a matter of fact, my favorite album of theirs was released in 2013, 15 years after their debut full-length. The Living Infinite was a flawed but incredibly engaging and ambitious venture, being as it were a double album with a run time closing up on 90 minutes. The album combined the usual blasting ferocity and sky-cleaving leads with a healthy dose of bluesy rock riffs, a sound that has been continued into the present day.

            Verkligheten is cut from the same cloth as The Living Infinite, although with a more reasonable running time of 50 minutes. The tracks are still adhering to verse-chorus structures, Björn Strid is still alternating between his classic scream and soaring cleans, and the band is still chucking out hook after hook like their Swedish citizenship will be revoked if they don’t manage to rack up those streaming numbers. The production is incredibly crisp and streamlined, leaving just enough space in the mix to accommodate some baroque flights of fancy.

            The intro produces a sense of occasion; pounding drums, piano and slide guitar building up an anticipation for the band to come storming in “Spectrum of Eternity”-style on the real opener, “Arrival”. This opening proves appropriate for the album in question, since most of the tracks on Verkligheten starts off with a similar configuration of atmospheric lead guitar, piano and tom hits, before blasting off into the song proper. 

            “Arrival” is a fine Soilwork track, the aggressive thrashing spiked with an ample helping of melodic uplift. The following couple of tracks enters more arena-oriented territory, while introducing some riffing that comes dangerously close to summon the duck-walking spirit of Angus Young. This progression reaches an unexpectedly extreme conclusion, when the verse of “The Nurturung Glance” rides in on a star-spangled riff that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Ted Nugent record. The perplexity is quickly offset by the arrival of track number six, “When the Universe Spoke”.  This track is better than any modern melodeath bop has the right to be, and is a perfect distillate of all modern Soilwork can be. From the fiery verses, to the evil Judas Priest pre-chorus, to the mother of leads rearing her head during the intro and chorus; there is no reason to not lose your shit when this jam blares out of the speakers.

            The second half of the record does not scale the same heights as the first six tracks. Their commercial notions threatens to overwhelm the material on tracks such as “Stålfågel”, “Witan” and “The Wolves are Back in Town”, the latter being the biggest offender of them all. It doesn’t help that the surplus of clean vocals on Verkligheten shines a light on Strids lyrics, which seem hell-bent on communicating something to the listener, but struggle to actually puzzle out what that something might be. Add some unflattering studio touches like strings ostensibly ported from a Game of Thrones flash game on “Needles and Kin”, and the under-utilised features by Tomi Joutsen and Dave Sheldon near the end of the record, and the last 20 minutes starts to pale.

            This is still an impressive effort from the swedes, and well up there as one of the better examples of big-stage melodeath done right. Even though the formula is familiar, Soilwork still shake the template up enough to make Verkligheten a mostly entertaining, sometimes engrossing listen. I don’t think this album will knock The Living Infinite down from the position as Soilwork’s best effort, mostly because of the sheer audacity of the latter. It is nonetheless very satisfying to see a band in a comfortable spot still willing to try on new costumes, pushing and tweaking familiar formulas in search of the perfect song. Out of all the formative melodeath-bands that are still operative today, Soilwork seems to find the most joy in creating.

7.0/ 10