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Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Reviews: Monochus Diabolos, Dopefight and Winter Storm

Monochus Diabolos - Monkeys Of Satan (metal)

self released, 2011, CD EP, 41m, £5

As the American accented news report begins to recount the misadventures and civilian casualties of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, you expect the insistent and doom-laden 6/8 groove it floats over to erupt into a verse, or a big chorus, with a lyric that spells out exactly what the band thinks about it. Well, I guess that’s what does happen, but the commentary they offer is directly to the point: ‘Murder One’ is the name of the song, and that’s its only lyric, grunted in an angry snarl.

Most of the songs are songs, but they have that same directness. This trio does not beat about the bush: they take their musical enthusiasms, and without bothering about conforming to any particular set of conventions, they blend them together into a sound that seems familiar, but doesn’t bear a close resemblance to anything else. 
Sticking mostly to a mid-tempo groove, Monochus Diabolos’ material runs the gamut of heavy rock textures, from static chords floating on a sparse drum and bass framework, to crunching unison riffs; vocals are predominantly clean, impassioned and soulful, but sometimes boil over into growls and shouts that acknowledge the more extreme varieties of metal, and also betray the punk attitude that lurks just beneath the surface of much of this music.
Si Green (guitar and vocals) is not a shredder: his solos are not stratospheric displays of speed and technique, but carefully crafted stories told with texture and melody. This is really what makes this band outstanding: it’s the variety and sense of development in the guitar, which when it steps forward doesn’t always play something that sounds like a solo as such. While it isn’t ever quite as experimental as Tom Morello, it takes a similar approach, and if there’s one band I would pick up on to draw a comparison, it’s Audioslave.
You’d be unlikely to listen to Monochus Diabolos and think ‘oh, that sounds like Audioslave’, but they build their musical house from the same materials: a tight and solid foundation of deep, funky bass and drums grooves; a sonically rich and varied palette of textural guitar work, with a wide dynamic range; and a vocal delivery that is utterly committed and sincere (not to mention tuneful and explosively powerful).
All of this comes together with the maximum dramatic impact on the EP’s closer, ‘Death Brings Peace’. The track opens with a sample of Robert Oppenheimer’s chilling 1965 speech in which he quotes the Bhagavad Gita in relation to the first detonation of a nuclear bomb. As the sample concludes, a dark and ominous groove develops, starting with the drums, and the song (which is a long one) stays on the one chord, as it visits every degree of intensity between dead calm and raging storm. The guitar solo is a masterpiece of sonic manipulation, throwing great wailing sheets of noise across the groove, and doing what every solo should: stoking up the intensity of the song to breaking point.
There was not much money spent on recording, mixing or mastering this, and it really plays to the band’s advantage: this music is so raw and heartfelt that over-production would kill it. The measure of a good mix is how alive it feels: regardless of how good the individual instrumental sounds are (and I have to say that the bass and drum sounds are a real pleasure to listen to, not just the guitar), a mix can still fall flat, and feel lacklustre. Not this one: the balance is just right, and allows the very fine performances from each player to blend coherently into a thunderous whole, which has been compressed and normalised enough to reproduce it, but not to tame it. Excellent material, solidly and creatively performed, with no frills and a whole lot of passion.

Dopefight - Buds (sludge/ stoner metal)

self released 2010, CD album, 50m 45s, £6

There’s a select group of bands that bridge the gap between sludge metal and stoner doom: if you’ve heard outfits like Bongzilla or Electric Wizard then you’ll know what general ballpark you’re in, in terms of approach and texture. The guitars are filtered through an extreme, rich, thick distortion (from which the genre of sludge metal takes its name); the riffs are slow to mid tempo, heavy and ominous, although often pretty funky; and vocals, when they come in, are a hoarse, angry shout, nearly submerged in the mix.

This is very heavy music, almost brutally so, but it is not designed for drunk people to go wild to: it’s designed for very stoned people to methodically beat their brains out to. The savage, bass heavy impact of the riffery has a bewildering, physically pulsating effect, that blurs the listener’s sense of reality: this is earth moving music, like heavy dub, which shares dub’s hypnotic throb, and its simplicity. Any unnecessary complication would undermine the rooted inevitability of its juggernaut groove.

If you were in any doubt as to this music’s direct address to a specific biochemically induced perceptual state, the album’s title and especially its cover should set you straight. Those buds in the photo are not tulips on the point of flowering. And the chinese take-away on the back cover is not the kind you have because you’ve worked hard all day and you’re really hungry: it’s the kind you have because you really enjoyed the one you had ten minutes ago. Or wait, was that yesterday? My mouth is awfully dry all of a sudden.

Precision is not a characteristic that is usually associated with this psychic state, but it’s something this music needs, and has, in spades. Or maybe precision is the wrong word: unity is perhaps a better term for the single, gestalt, geological togetherness of this band, as they generate a wall not so much of sound, as of masonry. I’m not saying that they’re bricklayers, but their music has a great deal of solidity and impact.
This material does not place great technical demands on the players that execute it, but it’s not everyone that could play it, as it is born of a specific set of skills. Sonically it is the product of a finely tuned awareness of instrumental timbre and the technological means of tweaking it into shape; and expressively, it is laid down righteously deep, with total commitment and belief. These players are having fun, and playing the music they love, but there’s a real artistic integrity here: this is a band that walks the walk. There are some really juicy, blockbuster riffs on this recording, and they play every one of them like they mean it.

Winter Storm - Serenity In Darkness (gothic/ melodic metal)

self released, 2010, CD album, 50m 2s , £10

Winter Storm play slow to mid paced metal, with plenty of heavy, but nothing too extreme, garnished with sweeping, melodramatic female vocals. The band themselves specifically name check gothic metal as an influence, although their music is a lot less doomy than that might lead you to expect.

There’s a variety of bands in the broad areas of gothic and symphonic metal I could namecheck to give you some sense of where Winter Storm sit in the spectrum: Within Temptation, Epica (to some extent), Nightwish, Lacuna Coil (to a small extent) all bear some resemblance. The symphonic element is in the dramatic sweep of the compositions and arrangements more than the instrumentation, and in Hannah Fieldhouse’s sometimes operatic vocal delivery; the gothic element is in the mood and lyrical content. There’s nothing revolutionary or groundbreaking, but the band is pleasingly distinct in its style: once you know their sound you’ll be able to identify it. Where they stand or fall is in their songwriting and performances.
The melodies in this collection of songs take ear pleasing paths through the chords, and are delivered with a pure, rich and powerful voice. Really good melodies can take your breath away, by taking one turning when they have set you up with an overwhelming expectation that they will take another: once they grab you like that, they’ve got you at their mercy, and they can take you anywhere they want. That doesn’t happen here: the tunes are far from being pedestrian, but they can be a little obvious to my ear. The songs are good overall, however, with dramatic structures, a strong scaffolding of well crafted riffs, and expressive chord sequences.

The band are very accomplished and professional sounding, delivering some driving, muscular metal grooves with a good deal of relish and energy. They’re not going to drop jaws with their technique, but that’s not what they’re about: Fieldhouse’s lead guitar work is all about the sound and melody, and pays refreshingly close attention to texture and timbre, something which is not on the radar for a lot of otherwise interesting metal soloists.
The overall sound of this recording is very full, but I have to say its apparent dynamic range is far too limited for my liking: it has a polish and sheen that is impressive, but it sounds to me to have been squashed flat in mastering, which is a shame, because it robs it of a lot of the drama that is such a strong feature of the songwriting. It is also very bright overall, which as a bass freak I struggled with initially, but on reflection I think I like the effect, which runs counter to current convention in heavy rock, and it certainly doesn’t make for a thin sound.
So overall, I’d like to hear some more melodic risk-taking in the composition, and I think the production could have a lot more space and life in it; but this is a band with some sincere, well structured songwriting, that brings a real sense of darkness and melancholy, which is driven home like a thunderbolt with some very tight, heavy riffing.

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