I like the beats and I like the yelling: Vitriolic Sage, Demoniac, Writhing

Vitriolic Sage: Enlightenment (2020)

The current crop of black metal acts emerging from China seem to be marked by a committed grimness (before the word took on its present cliché meme fodder status), but supplementing these darker immersive tendencies with an overarching fragility worked into the melodic tendencies. The debut EP from China’s Vitriolic Sage falls in line with this general intent, but carbon copy of the noise currently emanating from the Far East it is not.

As if resurrecting what little value there was in Burzum’s post prison metal trilogy, ‘Enlightenment’ brushes the dust off these cold, harsh, melodies, rendered through thin yet clear guitar tones, and adds a degree of energy and diversity to this formula. The results, when compared to Varg’s lacklustre efforts of a decade ago, could not be more striking in their lucidity. Vitriolic Sage relentlessly trim the fat away from this Nordic framework; gone are the endless tremolo picked riffs set to mid-paced blast-beats that so often count as filler. In their place is positioned an energetic rhythm section that drives the guitars through rudimentary but effective tempo changes, that work in unison with the shifts in riff and pitch. Simple yet effective tricks when deployed in this minimalist setting.

But the truly ear catching aspects of this album are in the contrast between atonal aggression and sorrowful, delicate harmonies that nevertheless retain the same energy and drive as the passages rooted in punk philosophies. The guitars don’t offer any counterpoint or lead melodies, so it’s really a dual track of two (or more?) rhythm guitars functioning in unison that Vitriolic Sage have left themselves to work with. But they play up to this self-made limitation through the clever use of basic contrasts, and delivering repetition in abundance when it actually counts. This latter technique is also neatly worked into the ambient spaces between the music, as with the outro to ‘Chanson De Raison’ which fades to low ambience which follows on from the closing riff.

We see this contrast again with the ambient track ‘Reminiscence’ that leads into the busy but oddly focused opening riff of ‘Ignorance’, which is an unsettling, idiosyncratic number that leaves one second guessing its scant twists and turns. This, despite the fact that again, both guitar tracks are following the exact same riff patterns with no deviation. But despite its economy of riffs each one drives the music forward through a simple yet effective blend of repetition and development, of aggression and fragility, despite operating within a decidedly ‘grim’ aesthetic framework. And this in turn becomes an analogue for the way this music as a whole operates. Superficially old school Burzum worship (amongst others) worked through a modern filter, but digging deeper reveals its own, very unique character.

Demoniac: So it Goes (2020)

‘So it Goes’ – the second LP from Chile’s Demoniac – is an unexpectedly bizarre concoction of ideas for the proudly limiting realm of blackened thrash metal. It’s true that a good chunk of this album is made up of down the middle thrash riffs and the tight, high speed pummellings we’ve come to expect of South American acts in this field over the years Slaughtbbath anyone?). But this most generic of frameworks is supplemented by a number of…unusual creative choices; some subtly blended into the metal onslaught, not least the distinctive melodic core found in a lot of these riffs, others dancing naked in front of us as found on the Sigh-meets-Necromantia track ‘Extraviado’.

There’s not much to note on the mix besides the clarity. Demoniac are keen to exhibit not just their technical prowess but also the length and breadth of different influences they work into their music; a dirty, old school garage mix would not suffice to fully showcase these layers. Guitars are clear, crisp and tight, with solos jumping out and positioned front and centre, and never a beat missed or buried in the mix for the sake of unnecessary reverb or cavernous distortion. Drums likewise are given little rendering beyond ensuring their complete clarity before the listener. The toms are not covered in echoey, throbbing reverb that would completely wash out the mix with each fill and roll. Just a solid, relentless rhythmic drive. Vocals stick with very traditional 80s thrash stylings, calling to mind the Teutonic school or Death Angel’s ‘The Ultra-Violence’ for its melding of clarity and aggression.

And it’s true that a lot of riffs on here hark back to Kreator or even Coroner of the 1980s, but with a more pronounced sense of melodic development worked into the rhythm guitars as well as the solos. But this is supplemented, indeed elevated, by Demoniac’s mastery of neoclassical techniques showcased in many of the guitar solos. The positioning of said solos front and centre in these compositions – along with their epic scope and highly structured, non-improvisational nature – brings this album dangerously close to power metal’s borders, but in the more serious environment of ‘So it Goes’ this lead guitar work finds new maturity thanks to the competent and sophisticated thrash metal setting. This patient marriage of technique and virtuosity with focused composition finds its fruition on the epic closing title track, which stretches to twenty minutes of progressive thrash metal that grants each musician a chance to shine whilst retaining a degree of focus and purpose that runs to the very foundations of the entire piece.

From one angle, this impressive mastery of technical thrash metal could be viewed as a hitting of the reset button on the genre, as opposed to revolutionising it. This is with the exception of the aforementioned ‘Extraviado’, which is a proggy experimental piece featuring a clarinet (an instrument that also makes another appearance on the title track two thirds of the way through), which drags thrash metal well and truly out of its comfort zone. But these more out-there meanderings are never overplayed, they never completely destroy the momentum of each piece, but rather allow Demoniac to force this music forward through new barriers and intriguing corridors of sonic exploration.

Like any style of metal, thrash has been open to self-indulgent abuse in recent years, on top of its well documented relationship with stylistic stagnation. In the case of thrash, particularly an album like ‘So it Goes’, that sheds the blackened elements in favour of a bouncy, clearer approach; the lurking spectre of Municipal Waste and pizza thrash over more serious examples of this style cannot be ignored. But Demoniac, with singularity of purpose and undeniable talent, side step these pitfalls whilst sharing a lot of the same territory; for the simple reason that nothing seems to stand in the way of their determination to push the boundaries of their musicianship and compositional capacity. The historic influences they reference in the lead guitar work, the rigid and balanced riffcraft, the diversions into overt experimentation; all this is achieved without sacrificing the momentum and direction of each piece. This album transcends mere ‘quirky thrash’, and becomes a work bursting with music that retains an impressive degree of focus; a highly rewarding slab of progressive metal.

Writhing: Eternalised in Rot (2020)

Melbourne’s Writhing landed their brief debut EP late in 2020 (the frantic January catchup continues), the two track ‘Eternalised in Rot’. It’s a solid rendering of where modern death metal is at the moment; at least outside of the overtly technical or caverncore orientated school. They combine nods (or rather windmills) to the colossus that is Incantation, mixed in with a pronounced dissonance. This latter element is a recurring theme that commentates on the conventional riffing, as opposed to dictating the entire basis for these compositions.

The guitar tone is fairly unremarkable, but this allows Writhing to unfold their tapestry of riffs before the listener without distraction. Vocals are a clear, guttural growl, with any treatment in mixing being barely noticeable. Drums offer a tight and characterful commentary on the shifts and transitions of the guitars. Although the performance cannot be faulted, the kick drum is rendered just a little too high in the mix, to the point where it drowns out the snare and toms at times, and even rises above the dominant guitars in the slower passages concocted of ringing chords and drum fills.

That aside however, these two tracks are broad in scope and varied in execution. Despite their influences and techniques being garden variety for death metal circa 2020, they work in some unexpected deviations from the norm; nods to prog, occasional odd chord shapes, fluid arrangements. This drags ‘Eternalised to Rot’ to a level a cut above the current crop in this field, and makes Writhing a death metal act worth paying attention to. Hopefully elaborations abound in the near future on this compact and efficacious little EP.

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