471 · 5 February 04
By far the simplest explanation for the astonishing density of detail and obvious diligence of conception evident in Texas extreme-metal trio ABSU's 2002 album Tara is that it is about something. The band themselves have gone to great lengths to encourage this idea, both by action and assertion, beginning with their dogged insistence that their music should be carefully classified as "mythological occult metal". Whether anyone has taken the time to sit down and explain to them that we don't generally bifurcate musical genres along subject lines, I don't know for a fact, but I'm guessing such a conversation wouldn't go very well. I rather fear that they are even prepared to list the differences between mythological metal and occult metal, on the way to explicating their own clever and unlikely synthesis of the two. If it were me conducting this inquiry, I would feel a mystical compulsion to point out that they seem by implication to be dividing up metal into so many subtle distinctions that they are beyond bifurcating metal into deci-furcating it, except that this is a band who think nothing of an earlier album title that I defy you to pronounce any other way than "Bathroom Vitriol", so probably handing them a new word that combines the sonorities of decimating, desecrating and defecating only constitutes encouraging them.
And not that encouraging them would be improper a priori, but it does seem rather wildly unnecessary. They already play their instruments faster than I can readily credit, the lyrics are exhaustively labeled and annotated throughout the booklet, and there's even a six-page, fifty-four-entry glossary at the end clarifying the characters, locations and terminology (and warming up the typesetter, if not the reader, for the four pages of exhaustive album credits and acknowledgements). In their pursuit of mythology and magic, ABSU have at least understood that the soul of a mythology is the explanatory completeness of its world-story, and the corresponding crucial element of the performance of magic is the violation of what otherwise seems like a complete competing explanation of the world. Tara recrosses metal territory I thought I knew, redrawing long stretches of the borders near Slayer and Emperor. I'm prepared to say that there are axes along which I have heard no further outlier than this. There are angrier, louder and heavier bands, and maybe even a band or two who are almost as fast, but I don't know of any band that spews out detail at a more relentless and voluminous rate. I listen half-paralyzed by the fear that if I inadvertently jerk my head towards the speakers the added relative velocity between my ears and these sounds might flick me irretrievably past the event horizon into the rapidly accumulating graveyard of all the universe's scrap metal and regrets.
Sadly, volume of detail is not quite the same thing as depth of content. The closer you examine this album, the dumber you will realize it is. I don't just mean that it's laughable, because smart things can also be laughable, but that it lacks intelligence even within the context of its own aims. The writing begins by confusing diacritical marks with personality, and quickly proceeds to confusing vocabulary with craftsmanship, hoping obscure words can distract from inept grammar (which ironically is pretty much exactly counter to the Celtic creative ethic). The pervasive intertitular labels in the printed lyrics are an awkward acknowledgement that the verses and choruses by themselves do not so much tell stories as brag about the alarming qualities the stories would have if they were told. The notes quote heavily from actual ancient literature, but select uniformly mundane passages that gain next to nothing from their provenance. The "lexicon" pages are a fine and appropriate idea, given how little the audience is likely to know about the subject matter and how interested the band claims to be in teaching them about it, but the entries are unenlightening and unedited, and drag the whole endeavor away from mythology and tradition and culture towards the same kind of mindlessly inane juvenilia as the cover art on early Voivod records. "You are holding an actual piece of Pagan history in your hands", the liner notes declare at one point. But being an actual pagan means forming a spiritual bond with nature, not just rubbing it on yourself and then running home to practice spelling all hard-"c" words with "k"s.
Of course, you don't have to examine this album closely. Leave the booklet in the case, never mind the botched history, and just listen. You can listen as intently as you like, in fact, since you're unlikely to recognize more than two or three words in guttural succession. ABSU may be dolts, inspired by ill-grasped inanity, but the musical form their inspiration takes is certainly distinctive. Arguably Tara is a rendition, in modern extremist idiom, of the provocative impulse that fifty years ago inhabited Conlon Nancarrow's player-piano studies. This is, admittedly, a fairly superficial argument. Nancarrow wrote music you couldn't even pretend people were playing by hand, in the only medium available to him where composition needn't be constrained by performers. ABSU just play really fast. Producing the first music people could hear but couldn't play was revolutionary, and producing incrementally faster music than the last-fastest obsessives is merely surprising. But then, in a self-consuming culture revolutions are almost impossible by definition, so maybe surprise is all we can rationally demand.
Bathory: Nordland I/II
To be perfectly honest, in fact, I believe the drummer in ABSU is faking it with studio tricks. I might be wrong, but I don't think I mind if I'm right. After all, my favorite dark-metal band these days is Bathory, in which one man in a garage shamelessly pretends to be the sound of the gods etching the fjords into the side of Europe. Nordland, a two-hour epic released on two separate discs over 2002 (I) and 2003 (II), is probably the grandest evocation of northern cultural patriotism since Sibelius. Except, of course, that Sibelius had the wit to stick to symphonic wordlessness, so we never found out how mundane his thoughts really were. Quorthon makes the mistake of trying to put his into text, and ends up with a lot of rather underwhelming stuff about cold lands and grey skies and raising cups with your brothers. Splitting the thing over two releases doesn't work much in his favor, either, since the two discs have exactly the same tone (and essentially the same cover art), and no appreciable plot to create anticipation for the second installment.
But if you were against Bathory repeating themselves, you'd probably have given up on them long before this. In my case I didn't manage to get a copy of I until shortly before II came out, so I have mostly taken them as a single long set. Although the two halves don't differ from each other, the pair do have their own personality within Bathory's range of modes. Nordland is slower, more somber and more disciplined than Destroyer of Worlds, and if Quorthon doesn't manage to convey the character of his landscape in words, maybe he does better in music. Concussive machine-drum fusillades sound more like the implacable math of rockslides and glacier calving than like a person pistoning limbs. Massive, slab-like guitar arrangements incline even further towards tectonics. Quorthon sings like a person, not a monster, and although the lyrics don't add up to much as epic poetry, they function fine as the basis for melodies. Folk motifs and ominous choirs rise through these compositions like hall timbers grown in place. In a way Nordland could represent the logical extrapolation of Black Sabbath's Heaven and Hell and The Mob Rules into cultural isolationism, and certainly Bathory are a heavier band, in Iommi's sense, than ABSU or many other metal extremists. And if ABSU's error was thinking that "atmosphere" is the collective plural of allusions, then Bathory understand that the feeling this kind of music aspires to engender is really far simpler. Magickal ephemera is restless scrabbling on the surface of the earth, not connection with it. Nordland, whatever it lacks as a literal encyclopedia of Scandinavian cultural identity, at least finds a voice in which to say what it feels like to stand on a wind-blasted cliff as midwinter dawn splinters towards you across frozen wave crests. These are songs for old-growth forests and unspoiled mountainsides and skies we haven't crammed all our cacophonies and glare under yet. These are epics that remember when we had the patience for epics, and firelight havens that know the warmth is precious but temporary and the cold outside is the arena in which we will define ourselves.
Stratovarius: Elements Pt. 2
The problem with releasing repetitive two-part albums, though, is that at least a few of your fans are bound to get the first part when it comes out, and by the time the second one appears you're going to have a hard time explaining why it isn't more different. Elements Pt. 2 ought to be the Earth and Air sections to go with Pt. 1's Fire and Water from earlier last year. The cover, at least, stays on theme. The songs don't, but unless you have a weird Platonic fascination with the four ancient temperaments in their referenceless abstract, you're probably not going to care, and even if you do, after Aube's Millennium we can probably go another thousand years before anybody really needs to come up with anything new to say about them. Stratovarius's talents are for quick, effusive, engagingly shrieky metal anthems, and this album has nine more of them. If your old Scorpions and Helloween records take you back a little too far, Stratovarius make shiny new records with the many of the same swaggering virtues recast in state-of-the-studio-art extravagance.
The title does leave us in a rather puzzling state, though. Pt. 2 is perfectly unambiguous about its sequelness, which makes it hard to pretend that we don't notice that it represents no stylistic advance of any sort for the band. It's tempting to conclude that they realized, when they got back together to write Pt. 1 after their year off, that they were out of new ideas and unlikely to think of any in the foreseeable future, and so bought themselves some time in advance by simply declaring a no-progress era. If so, then credit to them for picking a procrastination that can't easily be stretched to three. Although if a Finnish metal band actually did discover heretofore-unknown fifth and sixth fundamental elements, a lot of teenage boys might spend more time opening their science textbooks than drawing band logos on the covers.
But if the reason you aren't listening to old Scorpions records isn't that they're old, and ABSU don't seem quite fast enough for fast to be a sufficient quality, then maybe you'd rather be surprised some other way. Japanese heartthrob auteur Gackt is not a metal artist per se, but the loud moments of these crypto-operas often veer into the style, and the mannered way the quiet moments bow back out again are similar in attitude if not amplitude. Crescent, his fourth solo album, skitters from stadium strut to shattered acoustic lullabies to noise-and-orchestra raves on the order of Trent Reznor covering "Silent Lucidity", and although you have to tolerate Gackt's superhumanly histrionic vocal delivery to get to the engrossingly intricate music, as a creative technician he's on par with Peter Gabriel reincarnated as Elric, or a sulky anime Prince haunting By-Tor and the Snow Queen's entombed court. You won't be able to understand his lyrics if you don't speak Japanese, but you won't be able to follow ABSU's no matter what you speak, and you don't really need to pay much attention to Bathory or Stratovarius's, so take a break from worrying whether you should care. "Dybbuk" is a demented half-rap thrash, "mind forest" surges and quivers, "Tsuki no uta" ("Moon Song", but it really doesn't matter) twinkles and defers. "Kimi ga matte iru kara" ("Because You're Waiting"?) twists and feints like an architecture mime, "Solitary" is an acoustic-guitar trifle, and "Hoshi no suna" ("Star Sand"?) switches to sad piano. "Lust for Blood" pushes past NIN towards HIM, and "white eyes" is a giddy rampage that refuses to vandalize anything cheaper than stained glass and velvet. "Last Song" has boy-band crossover potential, "Birdcage" sounds like a nightingale hitting a turbine, and "Oranji no taiyou" ("Orange Sun") shimmers and crinkles like Penguin Cafe Orchestra and Queensrÿche doing "Solsbury Hill". And the careening advance-track hyper-anthem "Kimi ga Oikaketa Yume", which was one single, one EP and a download away from being my song of the year last year, holds up the middle of an album just as firmly as it held its own. Plus, Gackt has one of the most talented package designers in all of music, and this time you can even remove the CD from the tray with only two hands. Maybe Japan, in the end, is no farther than Texas, but we lose ourselves where we find ourselves.