Svart Crown – Abreaction Review

Svart Crown is a death metal band that came across my radar when they appeared on some of my favorite online ‘zines and blog’s year end lists. Specifically,  their release of 2013’s “Profane” began popping up on some lists made by some writers whose opinions I hold in high regard. At that time, and seemingly still to this day, any country with a large French-speaking population churns out some of the most innovative, interesting, striking, and highly original, yet thought provoking metal acts. These artists aren’t afraid to make a bold statement byt putting their own person stamp on some, often times, tired genres; thereby breathing unexpected life and therefore interest into what many have perceived as stale. I’m talking the likes of Canada’s Gorguts, Thantifaxath, among others; as well as France’s Svart Crown, Gojira, Benighted, Deathspell Omega, Blut Aus Nord (my favorite all-time Black Metal act), and many more. Maybe it’s just the superiority complex that comes with the language. Either way, some of the best new bands to grace multiple metal subgenres during the past five or more years have been from countries and cities where French is the primary dialect.

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One of , if not my favorite, online metal reviewers/writers, Doug Moore, who writes for a varitey of online metal-centric sites and publications, described Svart Crown as France’s answer to America’s underground death metal powerhouse, Immolation. Specifically, back in February, just before the release of “Abreaction,” Moore stated:

“Svart Crown have gradually forged a unique identity out of the basic Immo[lation] features — fluttering black metal blasts, bouncy groove segments that burst in from nowhere to create maximum whiplash, a dour and magisterial sense of melody — over the course of four increasingly compelling albums, including the upcoming Abreaction”

This caused me to check out Immolation, and while I see some of the similarities that Moore mentioned above, I still prefer Svart Crown’s overall approach and sound. Maybe it’s the simple fact that Svart Crown brought me to discover the work of Immolation and not the other way around, but I think that SC, in direct comparison, is a more unique band featuring more diversity in their sound, an aspect that the band has expanded upon moreso recently than on its previous three releases. Moore’s description of the band’s sound, cited above, offers a more concise and accurate summary of the band’s sound than I could produce myself, so rather than attempt to top Moore’s perfect write-up, I will focus on the things that make SC’s newest work stand out among the rest of their catalog, as well as among other modern Death Metal releases.

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“Abreaction” is  quite the progression, a display proving that the group has collectively grown leaps and bounds ahead of anything they’ve released previously, but specifically, their 2013 release, “Profane.” The 2013 record, with it’s rightfully profane (to some. . . I mean, it’s ART) cover art which features a black and white photo of a topless, demonic-looking, sunken-faced, obviously, quite-pregnant woman was a straight forward, in-your-face, and relentless Death Metal assault, “Abreaction” maintains many of the same elements yet expands upon them in unexpected ways. The band abandons the constant blast-beat assuault commonly found, and often criticised, in most run-of-the-mill Death Metal productions. Death Metal records really can’t truly fit the genre without the blast-beat assaults littered throughout, but Abreaction’s tracks also contain more intricate parts that differ from one another; often featring more groove-oriented lines and phrases to seperate, and mix up, the full-on Death Metal blasts. Other ways that the band has expanded upon its trademark sound are difficult to explain, as it’s somthing that has to be experienced by the listener; something that reveals itself as a “feeling,” rather than specific, easily identifiable elements. This album, while still keeping with the in-your-face style of all of Crown’s work, “breathes” more than any of the band’s other releases.  Songs are cohesive, but feature many more distinctive sections that serve as individual per-song highlights: breakdowns, extended intros, elongated bridges, and  the entire work possess an “airy” quality at times; all of which fit each song, serve to set the album’s tone, and set this album apart from the rest of band’s discography.

Just a little over five months into the current year, and I have yet to find a Death Metal release that I like more than (several that I like as much) “Abreaction.” Its heaviness at times borders on that of DM’s cousin subgenre, Brutal Death Metal, and while it’s an intense listen throughout, I recently found myself listening to it while fighting off a pretty intense migraine headache; albeit at a much more reasonable volume than the album deserves, or even requires.  With song titles such as “Orgasmic Spiritual Ecstasy,” SC isn’t a DM band for the prudish, prim, and proper; but is any Death Metal? – Is there Christian Death Metal – the most ironic of all DM subgenres?

Regardless, if you’re a fan of the likes of traditional modern Death Metal heavyweights like The Black Dahlia Murder, Dying Fetus, Obituary, The Faceless, and others, then you’re totally missing out on an entire discography of competent and interesting metal if you haven’t given Svart Crown a real listen. It’s Death Metal that stands on its own just as well as the any of aforementioned acts, and even brings some new and innovative, even if subtle, sounds to the table. Svart Crown is a little known band that deserves big-time exposure, especially if you’re a fan of forward-thinking genre-boundary stretching (not breaking) Death Metal. “Abreaction;” is an album that I am certain will end up near the top of my year end best of list, as I can’t get enough of it even after multiple back-to-back listens.  And the next time you’re looking for some new and interesting Death Metal, check out some of the newest exports from your favorite French-speaking country/city (Montreal, Quebec, and France immediately come to mind), as you’re sure to uncover something interesting happening in their metal scenes if you simply dig deep enough.

Mastodon – The Emperor of Sand Review

Before I delve into my personal views on Mastodon’s newest concept album, “Emperor of Sand,” this quote from a very recent interview that Mastodon did with Noisey seems fitting as a prelude to this VantaBlog review. In the Noisey interview, guitarist Bill Kelliher said:

“Our fucking fans are nuts. They pick apart every fucking note, every fucking word, who’s singing what, why this song doesn’t sound like the last song, why this song sucks because it’s different. I’m always trying to come up with riffs and ideas and songs to impress Troy, Brent, or Brann. I’m not trying to do to it to impress Joe Blow on Facebook. I don’t give a shit. That’s what keeps us going. It’s funny when I read these comments on the internet of people saying we sold out by playing songs like “Show Yourself.” Who the fuck are you? What do you mean we sold out? I’ll play whatever music I want to play! I’ll put out a goddamn pop record if I want to. I don’t have to answer to anybody but my bandmates… and my wife.”

While Mastodon records have been leaning a variety of  directions ever since the bands very first demos, and maybe their first full-length, “Remission,” their more recent recordings have been often cited/dubbed as being “poppy” or “poppier” for lack of a better term. That doesn’t mean, however, that the songs fit neatly into formulaic pop song boxes, nor will much of their material be found on modern pop-rock radio alongside the likes of Nickelback or Staind. – Perhaps an unlikely feature on an edgier station that may feature the likes of System of A Down, but Mastodon certainly do not dominate modern rock radio like Korn or Limp Bizkit during the mid-to-late-1990s.

Every since the band made “Blood Mountain” and was nominated for their first Grammy award for Best Metal/Hard Rock Performance for “Colony of Birchmen,” every Mastodon record has had a lead single. Admittedly, every single has been the most listener-friendly track on each respective album. While the most recent two or three records’ singles have been the most radio-ready songs of the band’s catalog, the songs fit the unique vibe of each album (as each album does have its very own themes and vibe/sound each executed in a purposeful manner) and are still distinctly, and unmistakably, Mastodon.

In other interviews featuring Mastodon band members, they discuss how they write songs and the process of becoming better songwriters, along with evolving into more well-rounded musicians. A look at Mastodon’s first two records reveals songs that are distinctly heavier and linear with very few, if any, repetitive themes or choruses. These first few albums were also written by one or two band members at the helm, and usually one member harnessing all vocal duties (commonly bassist Trey Sanders). Nowadays, the band takes a completely different approach to its songwriting; allowing all band members to contribute in a truly collaborative writing process, and it shows. This evolving process is something that the band has been quite vocal about in myriads of interviews they’ve done throughout the past several album cycles. So while some may ignorantly generalize Mastodon’s recent albums as being more “poppy,” “radio-” or “listener-friendly,” etc. a delve into the band’s writing approach, processes, mindset, desires, and goals reveals that these changes are simply a function of these very conscience, yet natural evolutionary aspects of a band trying to be the best band that they can be in a plethora of different ways; all of which serve the greater good – the album, the song, and the individual efforts put forth to make these things happen.

“Emperor of Sand,” in my opinion, is Mastodon’s best work since 2009’s highly regarded, yet mind-blower of a concept album, “Crack the Skye” – arguably Mastodon’s most prog-influenced, and complexly themed, album to date (seriously read the story behind the album’s themes in this Wikipedia article). “Emperor” marries the two sides of Mastodon in a way that makes the band more appealing: the song-driven side that’s been evolving since the bands inception, but most notably over the course of the bands past few albums; and the progressive behemoth that’s been harnessed in the band’s early years that’s been constantly tamed, and refined during recent years.

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From a musician’s standpoint, there are some blistering instrument-performance portions that are going crazy underneath pristine vocals; including subtly shifting rhythms, spider-finger riffing, and blazing solos that may go unnoticed by the casual listener who may often only recognizes a great song.  So, it’s certainly not a situation in which Mastodon is attempting to appeal to pop-rock-radio in any way, shape, nor form.  The above quote from Kelliher, that leads off this review, best sums up that the band really answers to no one except each other, and that radio play is the furthest thing from their mind(s) when writing a songs that fit within the concept of any given album. Considering that the band’s initial recording contract was with extreme metal underground mainstay label ,Relapse Records, it’s hard to believe that Relapse execs were pushing for a lead single to show off at MTV Music Awards (this is simply a guess; what does this writer know?). The misconception of this particular band “trying” to be radio-friendly is simply a result of their desire to become better writers, players, musicians, and band members.

The songs on “Emperor of Sand “fluidly move from one to the next, and the overall song arrangement is quintessential to the album’s feel. It kicks off with a simple cymbal-laden intro that delivers the desired desert vibe (a staple recurring theme throughout the record) in a smooth and subtle manner before kicking into traditional Mastodon sludge-rock on “Sultans Curse.” The first few songs flow well into one another and continue to further develop and solidify the desert wanderer theme quite well through instrumentation and lyrics delivered in the freshly developed, and ever-evolving triple-vocal assault that has been a mainstay since “Skye.” As evident on the latest effort, the more these vocalists write and sing together the more cohesive they become with each vocalist delivering their part(s) in their own uniquely striking style. Even more impressive are the stacked vocal harmonies that really take a front seat on this album more than ever before. While Mastodon’s first works really focused on the elements: fire (“Remission) water (“Leviathan“), earth (“Blood Mountain”) and aether (“Crack the Skye”), I was expecting Emperor to focus on air (the only element around which a Mastodon album has yet to be based) – possibly focusing on the themes of wind/sand/desert/erosion, etc.

Emperor, however, has a very different set of themes that are evident through paying close attention to the lyrics which tell a story of an unfortunate soul who has been forced to wander the desert for all of eternity as a punishment for some unnamed slight against some kind of high power/desert ruler – a metaphor for cancer and death that has recently effected many individuals close to the actual band members in recent years between records.

The album ends on quite the heavy note when guest vocalists Scott Kelly (of Neurosis fame), and Mike Keneally (of Frank Zappa fame, among other projects) step in for album closers: “Scorpion Breath,” and “Jaguar God,” respectively. While these two tracks are among the album’s heaviest, and “Jaguar” is the album’s longest cut, at just over seven minutes, they fit the overall vibe of the album, ad to its charm, and work great as a way to perk up listener ear drums as the album ends with a bang.

Whether one is experiencing Mastodon’s heavy metal-sludge-stoner rock cross over sounds for the first time through Emperor of Sand, or the work is being experienced through the ears of veteran listeners well versed in the previous works of the world’s most hard working, down-to-earth metal band, it’s a great listen. Sure, it may take veterans a few spins before they really get what the band is going for, as it is easy to write off as all of the things the review previously described after a half-hearted attempt at this newest Mastodon product, but once one really takes time to let these songs steep in one’s mind, ears, and soul for a while “Emperor of Sand” delivers the best work since the ever-so-prog “Crack the Skye.” As the band continues to put in obvious work individually, through other projects, and with one another, it leaves listeners excited at what the band has in store for future recordings, as each release takes Mastodon fans (those willing to take the ride, at least) on a journey to distant fictional worlds that no one – fan or casual listener – could have ever predicted. Don’t let the shiny production fool you, Mastodon are the same unwavering, heavy metal sludge machine they’ve always been it just takes a little more patience to uncover it – and isn’t that how any real work of aural art should be? – Continually delivering new and unnoticed subtleties upon each subsequent listen?