Israthoum – Antru Kald review

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This short (13 minutes in all) EP is a prime example of how can an occult/mysticism (judging from the grandiose layout which shouts «Orthodox» from miles) black metal release distance itself somewhat from the over-saturated orthodox sub-genre. The Dutch band does not go all the way, leaving the umbilical cord connecting it with the Ondskapt/DSO mothership, uncut-yet-somewhat worn. For those who do not know of Israthoum (I was equally unaware of them before “Antru Kald”), they are a band from Netherlands who have been around since 2001, and have released 2 full-length albums and several demo/EP/split works.

«Antru Kald» kicks off with the best track, “Alleviate, Elevate”, which implements some stellar, early-Enslaved influenced hypersonic riffing into an otherwise disharmonic structure, the result being a grandiose blazing opus, with a war-like edge. Vocals are quite varied throughout, moving through whispers, growls, and Ondscapt-like spectral howls. The other two tracks are of a more typical hue, closer to the orthodox frame one can say. The vocals keep their quicksilver character, while guitars tend to move on an array of tempos, materialised in riffing that satisfies but does not surprise (apart from the beginning of the third track, “Deathmasks Inheritor” which is more than reminiscent of a certain “Bridge of Death” intro). Production-wise the EP is almost flawless, with a convincing dark hue permeating the sound. Compositionally, the (mini) album could be a bit more focused, and I would prefer that the band expanded on the first track’s structure and atmosphere.

“Antru Kald” is probably (along with Serpent Noir‘s “Erotomysticism”) the best release of Daemon Worship Productions for this year up to now (Swarþ & Devouring Star unfortunately did not convince me). Its short duration is definitely troubling, but the trio of tracks to be found inside it are totally worth a listen at the very least, especially the addictive “Alleviate, Elevate” opener.

 

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Macabre Omen – Gods of War, at War review

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How does one listen to epic metal? (I limit the question’s scope only on epic metal, since the album in question is a prime example of this sound) With this question, I mean, on what level of immersion inside an album’s concept (including music, lyrics, aesthetics), has one to descend, in order to fully enjoy and experience the album in question? Is just the music, sans lyrics and aesthetics, enough for one to say that he has grasped an epic metal album’s spirit? I seriously doubt that, at least judging from my experience. What would “Hammerheart” be without the Viking lyrics, without Dicksee’s painting, with only the band showing in spikes and leather in “One Rode to Asa Bay’s” video, instead of the visual masterpiece that it is? What if Manilla Road wrote about contemporary Wichita instead of “Necropolis”? Epic metal (as well as black metal, two genres that are not that much apart aesthetically in my mind) is for me, first and foremost, a womb of imaginary thoughtscapes and emotionscapes, which are inextricably tied to an imaginary past, its setting real or fictious, expressed through music, aesthetics, and lyrics. This past’s idealized image usually excites me, creating illogical nostalgic and stimulating emotions within me, illogical because they are focused towards something non-existent, something which only indirectly I have come in contact with. The thing is, that this idealized image (that I tend to crave, due to its emotional effects), if it is concerned with a real-world past, sometimes is not far from the idealized image that has been used by nationalistic movements inside the country in question. I tend to keep the image inside me, for emotional consumption, and actively try to leave it out of my political thinking and attitude, without saying that its effect is non-existent.

This prologue has to do with my response towards Macabre Omen’s sophomore album’s tracklisting; when it was revealed, 2 song titles stood out, causing a certain degree of discomfort upon me: “Man of 300 Voices”, and “Hellenes Do Not Fight Like Heroes, Heroes Fight Like Hellenes” (which also happens to be the album’s best track for me – quite awkward). They both carry a nationalistic vibe, since certain events of (and myths about) Greek history have become a banner under which nationalistic movements have mustered, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party being a contemporary example. A song’s title is quite an important trait of it, close in importance for me to the lyrics itself, since it is the song’s facade, so the bitter taste of these song titles is not going anywhere. Since, however, I have the uttermost respect about Alexandros’ works, both with Macabre Omen and The One, I was not much thwarted by this discomfort, but neither did I left it to dissipate, choosing instead to also check the album’s lyrics, which as a whole are of a high quality. But there are certain phrases that I found to be part of a nationalistic narrative, namely the ones about “worthless, barbaric lives” (in both of the two aforementioned songs), referring to the Persian armies. One could argue about the historical validity(?) of those terms, but the fact is that they could well be avoided. On the other hand, “Alexandros Ode A&B” lyrics are of a postmortem Achillean mindset; that is, doubt about ideals and longing for the lost life of a youth – quite excellent in fact. On the rest of the album, past and sea intertwine in a more than satisfying manner, while the deeply emotional “From Son to Father” contains a poem of Alexandros’ father.

Moving onwards now, the album as a whole is amazing. It seemed quite hard a feat the surpassing of an album as good as “The Ancient Returns”, but Macabre Omen’s second opus is better from every aspect, a monument of this decade’s (at the very least) epic metal. There are very few artists that have managed to distil Quorthon’s epic sound in their own music successfully, and among them only a minority has managed to truly create an innovative work of art based not on Bathory albums’ music but on their spirit. Apart from this album, I can only think of Scald’s “Will of Gods is a Great Power” as an example of such a magnificent work.

What Alexandros has managed to create in this album is the admixture of the grandiosity of Hammerheart-era Bathory (another similarity between the two albums is the Sea opening: “I see the Sea” is the opening track’s title, just like “Shores in Flames” opened Quorthon’s masterpiece), of Scandinavian black metal ferocity (the opening riff of “Gods of War” is pure “Transilvanian Hunger” worship), and of Greek folk music melody (especially island-ish folk), which is is revealed as an extremely effective medium of the Epic. The alternation of the last two components is amazing, creating a monumental atmosphere, that appears ominous as well archaic. An alteration that does not stop only here, but is extended on to the vocals, which are quite varied; from Burzum-like howls (“Athens is on fire!”), to deep, imposing (a la Hate Forest, in a manner), booming recitations, to highly emotional beautiful melodic clean singing, and battle hymnal screams. I said that “Hellenes Do Not Fight Like Heroes, Heroes Fight Like Hellenes” is my awkwardly favourite track of the album, and in this, one can hear all the aforementioned variety. Many of the folkish guitars are recycled throughout the album, not due to lack of ideas, but in order to emphasize the atmosphere and concept nature of the whole album.

Beyond Alexandros, T. J. F. Vallely (of Lychgate) appears as a band member (drums and all other percussion things), while there are guest appearances from Gothmog (Thou Art Lord), Greg Chandler (Lychgate), and Nocternity’s great Khal Drogo. The first two provide additional vocals on certain tracks, while Khal Drogo has recorded guitar solos for the first two tracks. The album’s production is flawless, both the guitars and vocals being on just the right level of volume and clarity, while percussion is oscillating in voluminous presence, depending on the tracks’ necessities.

Not only there is not a filler to be found in the album, but it is almost impossible to find the album’s weak moment; here is magnificence extraordinaire. Clocking just above 60 minutes, its duration is almost non-perceptible. I could go on praising the album track-by-track, but this is beyond the point. Just visit the band’s bandcamp and listen to one of the best albums of the decade.

Highlights: Everything

Check Also: Bathory – “Hammerheart”, Scald – “Will of Gods is a Great Power”, Atlantean Kodex – “The White Godess”

The notion of Progress & RPG’s (part 2)

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First Part here.

B: Tabletop Progress

It could be said that the origins of tabletop RPG’s (and by extension of CRPG’s) can be traced back to tabletop/board games, as well as on storytelling and character acting. Let’s examine how progress appears in each of these:

A game, of any genre and form whatsoever, includes in its structure the notion of progression, of working towards an objective. The objective could be set by the game itself (via existing rules) or by the player, and could be set in stone, or be constantly changing. Whatever its nature, an objective requires a response on the part of the player, leading towards either its completion or its abandonment. A response is a choice and an action, however trivial it may be, physical or mental in nature. The player, responding to an objective, re-establishes his position inside the game’s infrastructure, for better, for worse, or inconsequently.

In the vast majority of board games, the whole of action takes place on a single gaming session (which, in extreme cases could be separated in more temporal spaces, but this is purely of a practical nature), the players antagonizing or cooperating towards a number of objectives, which are pre-existing (of the session itself) and incorporated in the whole structure of the game. The game progresses as one, more, or all of the players draw closer to the completion of the objective(s). This progression could entail an increase in difficulty, resources, risk, complexity, or any combination of these. The fact remains, that the players are presented with a goal, which they must achieve, so as to win the game. One could speak about two basic game states: Win and non-Win. The Win state is presented as the desired one, as better for the player than the non-Win one, which is the absence of the Win state, as far as the game is concerned. Thus, the notion of progress appears. One must work towards the improvement of his state. This is not to say that the path towards the Win state is trivial to the player experience of the game; in most cases this path is the game itself, and many players are only interested in this path, in the feel of the game mechanics and their implementation inside the game. But the idea of progress is essential, since it showcases the starting and end point of this path of indulging in the game mechanics.

The difference of progress between board games and tabletop RPG’s lies mainly on the former’s independence of each game session. Progress in a board game is self-contained inside each session. After each session of play, whatever progress has been made (leading to victory, or not) is erased, discarded, so as in the next session all players begin at the starting point, the whole of progress being in front of them (apart from meta-thinking and rules/structure understanding). Thus, progress is contained and remains unimportant outside a particular session. The mental image of a cyclical process is fitting, the linearity of progress being apparent only in each session.

On the other hand, RPG progress is cumulative between each game session, at least as far as the same story (and probably the same characters, but not always) is utilized. Especially the concept of campaign (as a grand story arc, or a collection of adventures) is based upon the characters’ progress inside the story. The lack of “Win” states, in fact the absence of win conditions in the rules, makes it possible for the players involved to keep setting new goals for the characters ad infinitum. Long-term thinking has a definite place here, since the character development is crucial to the evolution of the campaign itself. What has been mentioned in Part A is applicable here. There are of course the exceptions of the one-shot sessions or adventures, which however are not the norm, are more akin to a board game or a small theatrical play, and almost always do not take into account a large pillar of the genre, namely character development (through game mechanics). Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu adventures is a prime example of situations that tend to escalate frequently towards that kind of experience.

Apart from board games (and gaming in general), storytelling and acting/impersonation of characters, are also pillars of role playing games, maybe the most important ones. But progress in storytelling is only a necessary characteristic from a technical point of view: since a story must be told, recited, its external structure must have a beginning and end, though its content can be free of such linear shackles. On no account is the ending to be considered, from a formalist standpoint, as an improvement of the beginning, or vice versa. Still, the gradual revealing of the story’s content, plot, and folds, can be considered a sort of progression towards improvement of knowledge of the listener, concerning the specified story, creating thus a progress through quantitative assimilation. But between that and the betterment of the individual that assimilates the story lies a wide gulf, that is totally subjective and circumstantial.

The notion of Progress & RPG’s (part 1)

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A: A general perspective

The concept of progress is deeply rooted in the RPG genre (pen & paper or otherwise), the most obvious expression of it being the whole leveling structure. A character (or a multitude of them) almost universally sets out (the spatial verb is not ambiguously chosen, for progress is based upon spatiotemporal pillars) as a “low-level” (meaning weak in comparison to most challenges lying ahead) person, who is bound to improve (in an array of personality characteristics – physical, mental, social) as time passes, space is explored, and she indulges in actions that either hone her skills, expand her understanding of the world, help other beings, etc. This improvement is of a practical (as far as the game world is concerned) nature, as will be apparent below. The implication of a forward movement towards this practical betterment of the being is evident.

The notion of Progress is deeply rooted in western thought, as much as is the linear concept of time. Those 2 concepts are irrevocably intertwined in the mental construction of evolution through time, namely the idea that as time progresses, so civilization as a whole evolves, improving in comparison to its past aspects; not necessarily in every single time step it takes, but on a macro temporal level – for example: “civilization (and through it humanity) has improved during the last century, it has moved forward”. It seems that our linguistic mentality has connected the spatial (and subjective) term “forward” with the future (though on a subtler level this is not always the case – see for instance the phrase “winter has moved on”, which refers to a past season as having moved on, implying forwards). Still, it is good to remember that progress is not a humanity-wide idea (the Australian Aborigines for instance have no concept of it).

Returning to role playing games, let’s trace progress inside the mechanics of the genre. As mentioned, leveling is perhaps the single most obvious mechanical structure that is tied to the progress wheel. The whole leveling process is usually depicted in tables, in which a direction is specified as that of progression through the levels (usually from top to bottom, but not always so). Story matters aside (though even there we say that we want to see how the story unfolds or progresses) one of the reasons that we play RPG’s is to improve our character. How is that achieved? It depends on the game system, but in most of them, the experience point gain is central. Experience point: the word experience refers to a past event, experienced by the character, that has in a certain way enriched the character’s being, thus making it more “powerful”. All past experiences that matter (a thing decided both by the rules and by the dungeon master – in the tabletop/pen & paper variety) are enumerated and categorized, each translated to a certain number (or fraction possibly) of points. These are added up, summarized, and the specific nature of the event experienced is lost once turned to points (we do not usually have many categories of XP – for instance social, combat, etc). Thus, knowledge (as experience) is revealed in the game as cumulative and progressive, always adding upon the existing corpus of experience, as it was considered by science before quantum physics (and philosophy) came in to view. Whatever one experiences (apart from certain niche encounters – as are the level-draining undead in D&D for instance) contributes towards this character’s betterment.

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Thus is leveling made possible through the adding up of past experiences, leading to the Level-Up! Moment, the culmination of the effort and time invested (see below), and an improved character. But what is exactly entailed in this improvement? Most, if not all, of the character improvements are of a practical (as far as the game world is concerned) nature. Incoming damage threshold (aka hit points) is increased, more skills are added to the character’s arsenal, some innate powers could appear or be awakened, and inherent stats (corresponding to physical, mental, or other abilities) are improved. The practical nature of the improvements is necessary, in order for the player to fully reap the fruits of his labour. If the improvement was of a theoretical, conceptual or mental nature, then they would simply serve the character and not the player, apart from situations of great identification between the two. To clarify this, how can a player feel, understand, and experience an attribute improvement, for example the rise of his character’s Intelligence by a number of points? Only through indirect means, by application of the new attribute or attribute bonus in situations where it is required to overcome an obstacle, or through the empowerment of a spell, the acquisition of a new one, etc, since direct perception of the improvement is out of the question (the player’s intelligence, if such a thing exists, is obviously not raised by the raise of the character’s one).

Thus, one ends up leveling through the accumulation of experience through a number of encounters experienced by his character, in order to improve the character, so as to be able to see the change in the overcoming of more encounters, which are required to level furthermore; a hamster’s wheel of sorts, that obviously does not take into account the desire of the player to experience a story or a game world. My focus here concerns the leveling mechanics and their progressive nature, which is somehow reflective of the frantic and vain quest for progress that permeates the western thought, at least from the Enlightenment paradigm shift onwards.

Of great importance is the idea underlying the whole aforementioned structure, that one can improve through devoting a quantity of a “currency” towards that improvement, whereas the currency is time, effort of thought, hand-to-eye coordination (in certain cRPG’s). This exchange (one could say investment, though an investment is an exchange nonetheless) is in the core of most RPG’s. Time improves the being. Improving it in a way that is meaningful for (and is subservient to) the situations arising inside the game worlds, governed by the game rules. The progress framework is set by the game itself, and the character follows this (more or less) linear course through it, a course whose end point is occasionally the level-cap.

Second Part here.