Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Keep'n it R'lyeh

Within the heaviest of heavy metals, there’s a sound that's becoming increasingly prominent; that favours odd time signatures, discordance, and slow lurching riffs as much as blastbeats; and throughout it all, sustains a dark and oppressive atmosphere. It crosses the boundaries of death, black, doom, and sludge, heedless of categorization (and the nerds who need it). Death metal OGs Immolation and Gorguts epitomize this sound, as do rising stars Ulcerate and Mitochondrion. The last few years has seen an explosion of new bands like Creeping, Teeth and Abyssal who started on a similar path and crafted their own take. I'm even inclined to shoehorn bands like Blaze of Perdition and Deathspell Omega, who share similar tendencies...but I already did a lot of convoluted pontificating about "avant noir", so maybe I'll leave that alone for now.

I‘ve taken to thinking of these kinds of bands as “R’lyehan death metal”, in reference to the underwater city that houses the sleeping deity Cthulhu in H.P. Lovecraft‘s The Call of Cthulhu. In describing the city, Lovecraft wrote that "all the rules of matter and perspective seemed upset" and that "the geometry of the place was all wrong." Considering the off-kilter nature of this style, not to mention the dread and unease it conjures, it seemed like an appropriate analogy.

Besides, Lovecraft has long been a muse for the heaviest of heavy metals, second only to Satan and serial killers. Entombed, Vader, Ripping Corpse, and Rigor Mortis have all based songs on Lovecraft's work. Cradle of Filth have name-checked both the author and his most famous creation. But no band has done more to infuse the horror icon's work into death metal than Morbid Angel: The Ancient Ones, The Necronomicon, even the guitarist's adopted name - all have their roots in Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. [It's worth noting that most of the bands I've marked "Rlyehan death metal" bear the distinct influence of Trey Azagthoth, if not his namesake; so once again, the term seems appropriate.]

Maybe the seeds for this movement started with Gorguts’ landmark 1998 release Obscura, which saw Luc Lemay, fresh out of a music conservatory, shedding his Death and Suffocation influences and going in a direction that bore little resemblance to the clinically precise death metal he helped pioneer. Maybe the seeds were sown a few years earlier, when Demilich released the less schooled but equally seminal Nespithe - an album that not only delivered all the tendencies described above but also some very Lovecraftian song titles. Without a doubt, Immolation are hugely responsible for creating and shaping this style; building on their Morbid Angel influences, their music quickly coalesced around idiosyncratic riffs full of sudden tempo shifts, buried in a murky production that left most of the guitar playing to your imagination. Cthulhu, dead but dreaming, would be proud.

It's difficult to pin down why this style appeals to me so much. Partly it's because it's progressive in spirit without ever falling into the twee self-indulgence that characterizes so much progressive metal. It's rarely easy listening, challenging for both its creators and listeners alike. And when the pace slows to a crawl down, the musical IQ never drops down to the level of most slow death metal, which is often so remedial that it could be played by people with only a basic understanding of music (and often is).

Also, no two bands are identical; certainly, there's so much ground to cover that even if a band like Teeth or Creeping start at a similar place, it's unlikely they'll end up with the same result. A lot of it is the sheer ingenuity the style brings with it; it demands a certain level of creativity and musical acumen that a lot of death metal just doesn't aspire to.And unlike almost every other sub-genre of extreme metal, it isn’t tied to a geographic location, or recording studio, or guitar pedal. Rather than the willful homogenization that characterizes most of the scene, R'lyehan death metal defines itself with its idiosyncrasies.

I’d love for the idea of “R’leyehan death metal” to grow beyond my fevered imagination.  Like an evil deity slumbering in an underwater city, there’s something monstrous lurking down here, waiting to bring on a new dark age. And like the narrator in an H.P. Lovecraft story, I intend to relay the events to you in hysterical, convoluted prose before I go completely mad. Should be fun.