On Modern Japanese Literature

January 14, 2009 at 3:13 pm (Essays, Reviews)

Just what the internet needs. Another American writing about Japanese culture, right? Well, I can tell you that my interest in anime doesn’t go beyond Shinchan, and while I enjoy Pocky, I’m just as content to eat Reese’s cups. My interest in Japan lies outside the realm of sweets and manga . . . and I have zero interest in the next cosplay convention! Some people may assume these stigmatized nerdy interests are all that Japan has to offer but they’d be neglecting decades of fantastic literature that has, via a batch of brilliant bilingual academics, become available to English speakers around the world.

My stack of books

My stack of books

The Dancing Sheep on the Shore, Wearing Clogs of Norwegian Wood, Gazing at Sputnik, Which is West of the Sun After Dark

To start, I’ll say that the very nature of something being foreign allows it more leeway in my mind. I’d guess that I’m not alone in “forgiving the foreign”: sometimes I’m less skeptical of the parts that build a story from a different culture—plot, dialogue, setting, and so on—partly because I’ve been raised in a culture that bends backwards to be tolerant. That may be why my first taste of Japanese literature with bizarre and fanciful Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore I found the absurd plot points, including talking cats, a homocidal Johnny Walker, and a pimp Colonel Sanders, less of a sticking point. I expected something “out there” from a popular modern Japanese author. But there was more to it than a patronizing tolerance given to the product of a culture (not to mention language) that I’d never really grasp. I was also touched by the characters, how they rang true despite their insane surroundings. Plausibility and resolution be damned, my love for Murakami sparked an interest in modern Japanese literature. The fantastic surrealism of Murakami never failed to delight me as I worked through his oeuvre. Well, except for the time I picked up Ryu Murakami’s seedy murder novel In the Miso Soup by accident. That served as an excellent (and gristly!) reminder to always check first names when getting a book at the library.

Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami

After reading many more Haruki Murakami novels (and subsequently failing to impress some well-read friends, who seemed to place Murakami a few rungs above cell phone novels) I branched out. An Oxford book of short stories, along with a class in Modern Japanese literature, enabled me to find those authors who had been canonized and translated. My next deep foray into Japanese literature came from Nobel prize recipient Kenzaburo Oe (pronounced OH-ay).

Oh, Oe

Kenzaburo Oe

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids has been described as a Japanese Lord of the Flies by reviewers. Abandoned reformatory school children battle a plague and malicious adults while finding brief respite in the utopia they create. The novel is set in a rural area, and is as allegorical as you might expect from someone who feels he is a member of the most important group of writers in Japan’s history (the post-war). His work was later reshaped around a less political theme after the birth of his mentally handicapped son Hikari, though he would still consider his work to be focused on the post-war generation. Regardless of the author’s intention, the novel A Personal Matter seems to me a study of personal relationships and parental responsibility that spans generational and cultural limitations. The incredibly brave manner with which Oe examines parental duty strikes the casual reader harder than the politically-charged post-war listless malaise that surrounds the narrator. The novel’s setting in Japan following the end of WWII shapes the novel, but the question that invades the reader’s mind is larger than any political matter: What would I do if I had a mentally handicapped child? A Personal Matter is a powerfully honest book that will leave you ruminating on a dark topic despite the story’s rushed “happy ending.”

I’ve had difficulty reading other works by Oe. The rest of the prose that I have read from him (written post-Hikari) seems to be exceptionally wordy and focuses on descriptive detail as much as plot itself. This can result in painfully slow going. The first time I’ve stopped reading a novel in years was on account of the wordy, obtuse writing of The Silent Cry. These are the opening sentences of the novel that I stopped reading after 75 pages :

Awakening in the predawn darkness, I grope among the anguished remnants of dreams that linger in my consciousness, in search of some ardent sense of expectation. Seeking in the tremulous hope of finding eager expectancy reviving in the innermost recesses of my being—unequivocally, with the impact of whisky setting one’s guts afire as it goes down—still I find an endless nothing. (1)

Painful. I’d like to know if the fault lies in translation or the original text is just as overly complex.

The first of four stories in Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness is even harder to follow on account of a Faulknerian stream of conscious narration. The short stories anthologized are still much easier going than The Silent Cry. The third and fourth pieces in the collection were the ones I enjoyed most. The short story called Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness is my favorite piece of Oe’s work. Predictably, it deals with a father and his mentally-handicapped son. The two share a daily ritual that involves biking to a Chinese restaurant for “pork noodles and Pepsi cola.” The lunch ritual is deeply moving in its honorable, yet futile goal: the father has tried desperately to escape his impending hereditary insanity by grasping at a bond with his son as a life preserver.

It is uncommon for a novel’s characters to wear the many masks that a society requires. Many characters in literature are mere sprites that serve a plot function. And yet here, in a 48 page short story, Oe has created a protagonist that must engage with the cruelly indifferent world as a father, son, husband, and as a member of society. He copes with each interaction in a correspondingly different way, though his meek manner and fierce, unrealistic love of his son remains the same. To summarize the crushing conclusions reached by the father at the story’s end would weaken the efficacy of Oe’s piece. I can’t recommend this short story strongly enough!

Difficulties in Translation

It is important to note in any discussion of foreign literature the importance of translation. Japanese is very different structurally than English. A translator’s duty then is not simply word substitution, but also preserving an author’s voice, diction, as well as altering idioms and cultural references in to not hinder a story’s flow. Hundreds of footnotes in a Shakespeare play are welcome, but in modern fiction they would serve as a distraction. The difficulties of translating Japanese are compounded on these universal translation problems. Japanese lacks definite and indefinite articles – “the” and “a.” There are also indicators in address and speech about who is speaking and in what manner which have no direct English equivalent. A prime example is Natsume Soseki’s novel I am a Cat. The Japanese title “Wagahai wa neko de aru” uses an exceptionally formal tone of reference for comic effect that is lost in the English translation. But a great translator is able to work around the honorifics in Japanese and create a text using English to express the nuances. For these reasons, translators deserve far more credit than they receive for their work.

Mishima’s incredible life and death

Yukio Mishima

Yukio Mishima

In the modern times of education many authors work directly with their English translators. Both Kenzaburo Oe and Yukio Mishima worked with Professor Johnathan Nathan. Mishima was a jack-of-all-trades. A body builder, playwright, short story author, novelist, movie actor, militarist, and more. But, his legendary death precedes his life. After a failed military rally Mishima committed ritualized suicide and cemented his position as staunchly conservative right-winger.

He is undeniably important as one of the first literary superstars to emerge from Japan via his consistent output and translation-friendly work. Personally, his work doesn’t hold my attention as much as other authors. I respect his obvious passion in learning, however, and his submersion in the topics he was writing about showed a commendable love of knowledge. His first novel Confessions of a Mask deals with a narrator who struggles against his homosexuality. While it was not meant to be an autobiography, the novel is an undeniably believable tour through the difficult realizations that come with sexual identity in Japan. It is no stretch to see the vicious circles of denial and desperation as autobiographical because of the detail and realism with which Mishima wrote. A biography by Professor John Nathan, Mishima’s translator, would be the first place I would turn if I wanted to read more on the life of Mishima.

Kowabun-, I mean, Kawabata, dude!

Yasunari Kawabata

Yasunari Kawabata

The only Japanese author to receive a Nobel prize besides Oe was Kawabata Yasunari. The introduction of Snow Country praises his delicate use of haiku-like contrasts. In fact, I challenge you to find a review of Kawabata’s work that doesn’t contain the words “delicate,” “elegant,” or one that doesn’t call him “quintessentially Japanese.” I enjoyed Snow Country, particularly when I slowed down enough to focus on the oft-mentioned contrasts in descriptive passages. Truly majestic writing (or translation, perhaps) would draw my attention without conscience effort. But sometimes I don’t mind working for pleasure, and this form of disciplined, conscious reading seems appropriate for the personal dramas that Kawabata wrote.

My largest complaint with Kawabata’s work is something I’ve never encountered before. I noticed that there are very rarely declarations of “he said” or “the geisha quipped,” or any sort of reference to who is saying what dialogue, nor must there be in the Japanese. I frequently found myself re-reading mundane dialogue in an effort to find who was speaking. Assigning characters via even and odd lines to a section of dialogue certainly hurt the overall effect of his writing. Perhaps someone with a background reading plays would have an easier go of Kawabata. For my own part, I didn’t dislike the books and they were brief enough to be read and ticked off my ever-growing “should read” list with pleasure. He is possibly most known for his semi-autobiographical short story “The Izu Dancer,” though of all his short stories I most enjoyed “Silence” which can be found in First Snow on Fuji. His life and work certainly merit your time.

What have I missed? A lot.

There are authors I haven’t mentioned and authors that I’ve never even read. To think that I could ever “complete” my readings in this area is foolhardy. Nevertheless, I hope to continue exploring with further reading by Kobo Abe, Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, Shusaku Endo, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Natsume Soseki, Osamu Dazai, and more. If you have any suggestions I would be delighted to hear recommendations for or against any authors or translators. I am currently reading, and enjoying, Masuji Ibuse’s Black Rain

Naturally enough, my interest in the Japanese language has been sparked by all of this reading. Due to a full schedule and the huge learning curve, however, I have only recently begun to learn the kana and have no great plans to read any of these works in the original. If you have any recommendations about learning Japanese, please, let me know!

Note

I have written this expository piece with the voice of a scholar who has been immersed in the texts for years. In actuality, I’ve been reading Japanese literature for less than a year, and always in English. I owe a great deal of my information, along with little tidbits that I’ve peppered in, to a very informative class that I’ve taken. I hope to encourage others to explore into this great, but manageable, field of reading. I hope that if I have made any factual errors or unfair representations that a reader will correct me. Please leave a comment with any kind of suggestions regarding things I should read, or comments on my writing style. I would love to add to this piece as I continue to devour Japanese lit.

Note also that I have put the surname second and “first” name first, as you will find these authors in American libraries and book stores. I have also omitted long vowel notations, such as Ōe, as this will not impede any understanding in English.

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Matti Johannes Koivu

September 14, 2008 at 8:31 pm (Essays, Reviews) (, , , , , , , , )

Helsinki, photo by me

Helsinki, photo by me

It was a frigid February night in Helsinki when I first heard Matti Johannes Koivu. I was traveling with my brother and staying with Helsinki natives, one of whom recommended we go to Tavastia to see a show that evening. I don’t remember much about the walk, because it’s hard to focus when it’s so cold your jeans harden in a matter of minutes. After the opener, a DJ for Radio Helsinki, did his part, Matti and his band took the stage to perform. I was thrilled to have literally stumbled (hey, it’s icy in Helsinki…) into such a great show. You might chalk it up to the fun of travelling and maybe the Karhu, but the impression Matti left on me has remained more than a year and a half later.

At the time of the gig Matti was playing songs off of Kovat Piipussa and Puuhastellen. I didn’t buy the CDs there, but the song “Kiitokset” made such an impression that I remembered it weeks later when I found Matti’s myspace. I’ve since had a kind Finn buy and mail me Kovat Piipussa, though for those who are impatient or don’t want to pay 30 dollars for a cd, his albums are available on iTunes.

Photo from the gig I saw, taken by me

Photo from the gig, taken by me

What does Matti Johannes Koivu sound like? Well, the unifying theme for his music is a man’s voice and acoustic guitar. The backing is sometimes lively, reminiscent of old American country. Sometimes there aren’t be any drums at all. Matti sings with a soft, medium-range voice, occasionally in duet with a soft woman’s voice. He sounds as at ease as most people do speaking, but if you try and sing along to a song like “Autopihaltaa Kohoaa” you’ll find he actually has a good deal of sustain in his voice. The guitar parts are often capo’d, plucky acoustic chords while a glassy slide guitar plays another melody on top. His most recent album, Irwin Goodmanin Lauluja, is almost all acoustic guitar and singing. Irwin Goodman is a well-known Finnish folk singer, though I much prefer Matti’s earnest and gentle voice to the harsh nasal tone of Irwin Goodman’s originals.

You may at first consider it a hindrance that the songs are always in Finnish. In fact, I have never seen Matti use English, not even on his website. But Finnish is a beautiful language with uniquely trilled R’s and unbelievably multi-syllabic words. You don’t have to be a linguist to appreciate the language, though, and the mystique that the songs have in an unintelligible language is wonderful. The melancholy of songs like “Esineet ja Aikataulut” (“Things and Schedules,”) or “Se Oli Eilen” (“It Was Yesterday,”) is only helped by the language. How better to hear emotion in music than through only the tone? Besides, I guarantee you’ll be singing along after a few listens regardless.

Don’t expect a world tour from Matti Johannes Koivu. While some Finnish-only bands can break through to a multinational market, I have a feeling that Matti will remain a well-kept secret within Finland. Nevermind, though, because between Youtube, iTunes, Myspace and Last.Fm you can stay abreast of most anything. It’s hard to recommend an album in particular, though I would suggest Kovat Piipussa for the incredibly powerful “Kiitokset” and the playful title track. It’s his most varied work containing Americana style folk as well as ballads, so if you’re in the mood for consistency get his first album Puuhastellen instead. None of the albums will disappoint, however. His songs show the universal nature of music, which is perhaps why I have suggested him to anyone who will listen. If talent like Matti Johannes Koivu and his band are playing in small Helsinki bars unbeknownst to most, music in this over-saturated and jaded market is a long way from dead. There’s hope yet. Paljon Kiitoksia, Matti.

Links:

Official Myspace with song samples

Official website (In Finnish, Google translation here)

Youtube live clips (pro-shot):

Kalatehdas

Isän Vanhassa Talossa

A personal note:If you’re into his music, whether you’re a Finn or not, please leave a comment and let me know what you think and how you found out about him. If any of the translations here are off, it’s entirely my fault, as most of the translations are recalled from memory.

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At the Gates – Slaughter of the Soul review

July 24, 2008 at 8:11 pm (Reviews) (, , , )

At the Gates - Slaughter of the Soul art

At the Gates - Slaughter of the Soul

Slaughter of the Soul is one of the most important metal releases of the 1990s. The production style, atmosphere, and most importantly riffs forever changed melodic death metal. “They’re just At the Gates rip-offs!” is one of the most commonly heard criticisms of derivative melodic death metal bands. But when you write the book, you have to expect some sentences to be copied…

Slaughter of the Soul is their last album, but At the Gates have a respectable back catalogue of work. From more primitive, visceral Swedish death metal ala Entombed or Dismember on the Gardens of Grief EP to the very ambitious With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness full-length, their progression was slow but persistent. The EP before Slaughter, Terminal Spirit Disease, hinted at what would appear next: the oddly-picked rhythm guitars, Tomas’s increasingly desperate vocals and creative drumming were present, but the ingredients hadn’t solidified.

The first thing you notice about Slaughter of the Soul is the production. The drums are very apparent, the cymbals are bright and the bass drums have enough treble to pull them out of the muddy swamp that engulfs too many metal drum sounds. The snare cracks viciously while the toms are perfectly balanced. The guitar tone, product of a homemade speaker cabinet, is thick and deep while still distinct. The production has a definite clean, almost industrial feel. Aided by the machine-tight musicianship the album speeds forward with mechanical precision. The production is even more impressive after watching the “Making Of” DVD. It shows how low-budget the recording process was. For example, Tomas was forced to run towards a microphone while screaming in order to create a “fade in” effect.

Tomas’ vocals are perfect. On the previous albums his voice sounded forced and a little tiring, but here he performs with undeniable authority. He delivers lyrics with conviction and desperation. My favorite moment on the entire album is the break in “Cold”: the guitars drop out and Tomas pleads “Twenty-two years of pain/And I can feel it closing in…”. The lyrics are claustrophobic, simultaneously isolated from and overpowered by society. They paint images of modern day chaos: “There won’t be another dawn/We will reap as we have sewn” and “Only the dead are smiling”. Many of the lyrics repeat song titles from the album, lending Slaughter more lyrical cohesion. Other Gothenburg bands may have similar riffs and production, but no other Gothenburg album is as lyrically powerful.

The guitar parts on Slaughter of the Soul are unparalleled. Many bands harmonize intelligently while alternating between open strings and pentatonic notes. But the guitarist’s years of experience result in the some of the best riffs and song structure in the genre. Part of AtG’s unique sound is a product of picking style – root notes are sometimes simply alternate picked, or double picked, or “galloped” like Iron Maiden. Pay close attention, sometimes the guitars are picked with a mix of styles, a strange shuffling pattern that flits dangerously around the simplistic “Slayer beat” of the drummer. The songs are streamlined, usually with only four or five riffs. Slaughter of the Soul is perfectly lean. The band only allowed the best material on the album. A bonus track on the re-release called “The Dying” did not make the final cut, despite being better than most melodeath tripe released today.

A few beautiful instrumental interludes tie the album together perfectly, providing an ominous respite during the chaos. “The Flames of the End” works perfectly as the album closer. It plays out like the end credits to a movie. The album would be too jarring with out the closing track. It’s the final song after the musical soundtrack to the Apocalypse. As the ashes are settling the tension mounts one last time before the album returns to darkness. We are once again blind to the worlds within us, waiting to be born…

Links:

At the Gates myspace (includes current US tour/Euro festival info)

Link to official At the Gates guitar tablature (.zip file)

At the Gates official site

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Malevolent Creation – Retribution review

June 26, 2008 at 4:13 pm (Reviews) (, , )

Retribution front

Roadrunner/Roadracer Records were essential to the early 90’s metal scene. Gorguts, Atheist, Deicide, Exhorder, Pestilence, Obituary, and Malevolent Creation released some of their best material on Roadrunner. After the commercial peak of death metal in the early 90’s Roadrunner dropped most of their roster in favor of radio-friendly rock. Metal fans will never forgive Monte Connor, the face of A&R for the label, but a record label is a business, not a foundation for the arts. Instead of being bitter, lovers of extreme metal should rejoice: without Roadrunner bands like Malevolent Creation wouldn’t have had the money to record in top studios like Morrisound in Florida.

Malevolent Creation had worked with Morrisound Studios to record 1991’s The Ten Commandments, but in 1992 they recorded what I feel is one of the best death metal albums ever. The production is unusual for Morrisound: the guitars are blurry and bass heavy while the drums sound have a more wooden resonance, unlike the usual clicky drum sound of the ’90s. The bass is spongy and wet, easily heard occupying the lower register. Bret Hoffman’s vocals are frighteningly upfront, with heavy reverb only applied at appropriate times. Bret doesn’t sound like the “cookie monster”, it doesn’t “all just sound like a bunch of unintelligible yelling”. The usual death metal vocal clichés just don’t apply: Bret is easily understood, and his voice sounds all-too-human.

The band talks of this album’s recording experience being one of their most laid-back. Phil Fasciana, lead guitar, has mentioned in interviews that it was essentially a 2-week party with microphones, but the result was a very tight and disciplined effort from a group of obviously skilled musicians. Every individual performance is extraordinary. But what makes this album above average is the final combination. The guitar parts are heavy at the right times, fast at the right times, but they would lack their attack without Alex Marquez’s drum performance. Retribution catches Marquez at his absolute peak. Retribution shows his ability to blast comfortably as well as perform catchy drum rolls that are guaranteed to have you air-drumming after a few listens. The drum patterns are essential for the rhythmic feel of the album, but Bret’s vocals compound the mesmerizing cadence of songs like “The Coldest Survive”. Sometimes the album’s tempo launches vicious surprise attacks, other times it lurches slowly and powerfully. Check out the groove at 1:09 in “No Flesh Shall Be Spared”: every individual part is good, but the combined result is mind-blowing.

“Slaughter of Innocence” and “Monster” have become live staples, but they aren’t the only good songs on the album. The undeniable groove of “Coronation of our Domain” and “No Flesh Shall Be Spared” compliments the ferocity of faster songs. “Mindlock” opens with my absolute favorite vocal pattern of all time, the combination of drum and vocal patterns make it undeniably catchy.

Malevolent Creation are tireless death metal workhorses, but have never come close to topping this album. Retribution simply set the bar too high. Bret’s voice would never again sound as thick and hateful. The guitar parts would never be as catchy. Marquez continued drumming for Malevolent for one more album, but soon after he lost steam and dropped out of the metal scene.

Over the course of 21 years and 10 full lengths, Malevolent Creation have had three vocalists, five guitarists, eleven drummers and seven bass players pass through their ranks. Retribution closes with a quote from hitman Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski discussing his killing M.O.: “I’ve done it all ways, as far as you’ve known, or heard…there isn’t [sic] too many things I haven’t tried…”. With an endless supply of musicians coming and going, Malevolent Creation have tried many different formulas, but they’ve never topped the lethal combination of musicians on Retribution .

Pictures of the Japanese edition:

Retribution Japanese edition

Retribution Japanese edition

Retribution Japanese edition back

Retribution Japanese edition back

Links:

Malevolent Creation Myspace

Malevolent Creation Homepage (out of date)

Retribution Front and Back high-res scans

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Children of Bodom – Blooddrunk

June 25, 2008 at 10:19 pm (Reviews) (, , )

Blooddrunk

It is nearly impossible to write a review of a recent Children of Bodom release without mentioning the band’s past. Beginning as a melodic death metal band on their impressively well-developed Inearthed demos, the Finns soon released what most feel are their best works. The group’s first two albums feature a fairly heavy-handed classical metal style. Think Malmsteen mixed orchestra hits and black metal screeches. Follow the Reaper showed the beginning of CoB’s progression towards more accessible, less classical, metal. Hatecrew Deathroll was received with mixed reviews. It was at this point the band, after losing guitarist Alexander Kuoppala, really began to grow in fame and change direction.

Trashed, Lost and Strungout sounded far more rhythmic. The production was very industrial and harsh. Gone were the organic production and dynamic guitar leads of Something Wild, replaced with condensed and chunky riffs with the occasional lead over top. Are You Dead Yet? was the band’s last chance at redemption. Most long time fans were disappointed, though hardly surprised. Alexi and co. had stuck with the money-in-the-pocket industrial aggressive metal, featuring more strained singing, more obscenity, and far more rhythmic chord and low-end riffs carrying the melodies, rather than the memorable leads of early CoB.

This brings us to Bloodrunk. While many are screaming “sell outs!” at this album, you have to admit the progression certainly has been slow and deliberate. It’s impossible to know if CoB are really trying to cash in, or if this is what their creative process honestly results in. But what we’re left with is the most unsatisfying CoB release yet. The production is almost impossible to distinguish from Trashed,… or AYDY?. There are even less leads carrying the melodies. “Hellhounds on my Trail” has a melody that contains a particularly unpleasant batch of notes which sound out of key and make the song nearly unlistenable to my ears. “Tie my Rope” was previously released in a compilation, but it’s the album’s strongest. It has some interesting leads and song structuring. “Done with Everything, Die for Nothing” has a great chorus with octave chords and a tense synth background.. The rest of the songs,however, are interchangeable. Screechy screams, sometimes hoarse singing, juvenile lyrics, and tons of filler riffs. The drumming is competent, but unimpressive. Alexi’s once fluid, lyrical, and overall memorable guitar solos have become inconsistent, predictable and boring.

Live Bodom is just about the only Bodom worth paying for at this point. Blooddrunk isn’t even really good compared to the other “sell-out” CoB releases. Use your money to support a band that needs it, as Children of Bodom will glean plenty of money from young poseurs without a clue.

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Portal – Seepia review

June 20, 2008 at 10:41 pm (Reviews) (, , , )

Portal band photograph

The Australian Portal have a small and devout fanbase, but remain mostly obscure even within the already obscure realm of death metal. Even though Australia has an active metal scene, it’s difficult for bands to leave and tour due to travel expenses. Therefore, Portal have a relatively low chance of ever being a household name. After a hiatus, Portal have resumed playing gigs in Australia, but even now they remain (willfully?) in the shadows.

I remember the first time I heard this cd, I had received it in a shirt trade with the band’s old bassist Werm. What he sent was actually the remastered version, though on my first listen in my car I was instantly put off. Even with the best sound systems, the guitars sound scratchy and flat. Their other releases, including a more recent full length, Outre, retain this signature guitar sound. The drum sound on Seepia is what pushes the production from unique to frustrating. The bass drums are all but non-existent, and it sometimes feels more like a noise cd than death metal. I believe the band captured their best production on the Lurker at the Threshold EP, which has more powerful drums and a slightly more controlled sound. The easiest way for me to describe the effect of this CD is to compare it to the video game series Silent Hill. If you remember, those games always had a faint layer of static obscuring the horror, some fuzz blocking out the monsters. Sometimes what you can’t see, or hear in this case, is scarier than what you can.

The production is so strange and creepy it really hides the actual music. The guitars are generally just a wall of scratching, as though they have the gain on 10 and are just sliding their hands up and down the fretboard. This will continue for minutes until finally, like in “Tempus Fugit”, they stop palm muting and hit some chords. Even scarier is when they accurately tremolo pick individual notes at the song’s end. After so many riffs of just scratch and hiss, the isolated notes are jarring and attention grabbing. I haven’t ever paid much attention to the vocalist, who calls himself The Curator. This band’s music has no place for a Frank Mullen, so his indistinct and monotone vocals fit perfectly.

If you go to the band’s website, myspace, or flip through the liner notes, you’ll see that there are no faces to this music. They hide who they are and their appearances. The band wears garb that looks like a mesh between Steampunk and the Silent Hill monsters. I’m not one for theatrics ala Behemoth or Immortal, but in this case distancing themselves from this music was a great artistic choice. This album is definitely better when digested as art more than music for listening purposes. There’s no standout single, no riffs you’ll remember, or anything like that. Listening to Seepia is more akin to running through a series of shadowy rooms, catching glimpses of ghastly things here and there, but in the end you’ll emerge without any distinct memories. All you retain after Seepia is the sense that you stumbled into something that is horrifying and unsettling.

Note: I’ve included some digital pictures of the digipack version of this CD. I think it’s pretty hard to come by, and the layout is really cool. I didn’t photograph every page of the booklet, but this will give you a feel for the vibe the band creates. Click these for super hi-res photos (they’re a bit blurry, sorry).

Seepia frontThe booklet opened up
Seepia CD Open digipack

Links:

Portal myspace

Portal Official Website

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Bloodbath – Unblessing the Purity

June 19, 2008 at 8:30 pm (Reviews) (, , )

Unblessing the Purity art

The arrival of Bloodbath’s latest four-track EP seemed to surprise everyone. In January of 2008 Bloodbath released a press release stating that Per Eriksson had joined on guitar, and Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt had re-joined the band after departing in 2003. In February 2008 the band released the cover art and tracklisting for Unblessing the Purity. And by now, mid-March of 2008, the EP has been circulating for days.

Unblessing the Purity‘s production immediately grabs your attention. It retains an intense thickness, with clearly and brightly triggered kick drums, an absolutely massive guitar and bass distortion sound, while remaining very cohesive. Åkerfeld’ts voice sounds horrific. Deep, wet, thick and commanding, every time he vocalizes he steals the show. Mikael has written some fantastic vocal patterns for these songs.

No longer an early Swedish DM tribute band, Bloodbath have evolved into modern death metal in its most commendable form. The guitar riffs are catchy, harmonized, and intense, without the muddy bassy “sunlight studio” quality emulated on Bloodbath’s first two releases. Martin Axenrot provides some very interesting cymbal and double bass work. When “Axe” blasts, it sounds completely comfortable and perfectly timed, making the blast beats worthy of anticipation as opposed to sloppier players (ahem, Flo…) who you wish would just stop blasting.

Anders Nyström writes some excellent heavy low-end riffs, but the standout moment on this EP comes in the second song “Mouth of Empty Praise”. Anders releases a haunting and captivating lead at 56 seconds into the song that is guaranteed to grab your attention. It melds beautifully with the rhythm guitars, before melting back into an instantly likeable stop-go assault of a riff. Anders has written some great songs for Katatonia, but his melancholic and haunting leads at their most effective over the canvas of Bloodbath’s brutal death metal.

While all of the individual members made obvious contributions to the four songs on this EP, what’s most important is the overall effect. The songs feel completely cohesive, brilliantly structured, and are the perfect length. Much like Suffocation’s Despise the Sun, Bloodbath’s Unblessing the Purity is ideal at its length. While these four songs are stunning, it was a smart move to quit while they were ahead. The end result is a mouth-watering taste of modern Swedish brutality. If you think the EP is too short, just put it on repeat… you’ll be “Blasting the Virginborn” for hours!

Links:
Bloodbath Myspace
Bloodbath Official Website

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