Doomed with Bell Witch at Nambucca

I saw Samothrace at The Black Heart in Camden in May 2013, supported by Bell Witch, who at that time shared a member in bass guitarist Dylan Desmond. My main memories of that gig, besides ‘bring earplugs next time’, are of Samothrace being the auditory equivalent of a mountain range forming, and Bell Witch being good, rather than spectacular. The similarities were there, yet they weren’t the same band with different names, and Samothrace were certainly the more engaging act. With reviews praising their recent release Four Phantoms, released on Profound Lore Records, when I heard about Bell Witch’s London show at Holloway’s Nambucca on Thursday 8th October, with Ulcerate as headliners, I thought it was time to see if they can be more than good. All I had heard of Bell Witch’s recorded output was the odd song here and there, one from their 2012 album Longing and one from their 2015 album Four Phantoms (song names are overrated anyway), so I wasn’t waiting to hear a particular song or riff; I was ready to be convinced. Furthermore, it’s not often the chance presents itself to see a metal band with lead bass instead of any guitars.

I eventually found Nambucca, with a bit of a walk courtesy of London Underground, just as Bell Witch were setting up. They started off loud, low’n’slow, and that’s how they ended, two songs and around 35 minutes later. I was impressed that drummer Jesse Shreibman and bass guitarist Desmond, both of whom also roared away, with some clean vocals from Desmond, remembered such long, slow songs, but at the same time, if the songs are so long, and so slow (a musical combination I usually approve of), that I’m impressed that they can be recalled by the musicians who wrote them…that’s a bit of a backhanded compliment, isn’t it? I would like to say that it was all–enveloping, but I didn’t really feel anything throughout their set.

If you’re a fan of Bell Witch’s recorded material, you’d probably enjoy them live, but if you’re not then the live setting won’t convince you otherwise. I wanted to like Bell Witch, but when there are so many power–of–the–cosmos–divining doom bands out there (YOB, Shrinebuilder and Earth spring to mind), they just feel less inspired. I can’t recall a riff or a beat or the vocals; it’s not noise, but part of this gig was the solid auditory wall. At one point I found myself thinking what if this was acoustic? This is a slightly unfair criticism, as Desmond is clearly a talented bass guitarist, using two handed tapping through each of the songs, and had a monstrous tone, using distortion and reverb to great effect, but I feel that their songwriting is too heavily based upon a concept which doesn’t translate into a distinctive sound.

Ulcerate were the headlining act, and having read good words about them, I was keen to see what they were going to do, partially because they had come all the way from New Zealand. Disappointed after Bell Witch, I gave it a couple of songs, found my mind wandering instead of being drawn in by their death metal, and left. This seems like a waste of a ticket, but I was starting to endure instead of enjoying the gig. Sorry Bell Witch. Sorry Ulcerate. I’ll find my doom and death elsewhere.

Review ‘Em All: Black Breath, Slaves Beyond Death

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Black Breath are back, but not as we know them. Since their 2012 album Sentenced To Life death has brushed by, literally, in the case of drummer and main songwriter Jamie Byrum, and now Black Breath are back to spread the word. And what is the word? No, not the bird. The word is death. Still on Southern Lord, and with Mark Palm replacing Zack Muljat on rhythm guitar, the first hint of change is Paolo Girardi’s cover art. Turn to the back, and ‘Black Breath’ is peeling away in rags, adorned with leathery wings and crossed scythes. The second is the two minute intro to opening track Pleasure, Pain, Disease; that’s not very punk, is it? The third is Neil McAdams’ vocals; lower–pitched than on Sentenced To Life, 2010’s Heavy Breathing and 2008 E.P Razor To Oblivion, now they are more of a gravelly growl than a scream; more roar of an undead grizzly bear or something than howler monkey (who I think would still lose to McAdams in a howling competition). Slaves Beyond Death is very much a move towards death metal, shrugging off a lot of the hardcore punk in the process.

 

But don’t start thinking that Black Breath are getting smart, even if the times are a changin’; this is not a complex nor a technical listen. It’s messy, it revs away like a buzzsaw, and like your finest butt scratcher, it scratches an itch to the highest quality. Recorded at Kurt Ballou’s God City studio, blast beats of the splatty–est (you read it here first) nature alternate with grooves you could use as a half–pipe, Reaping Flesh being an excellent example. For the most part the punk influence that their previous two albums contained is gone; consequently, Slaves Beyond Death doesn’t possess the immediate wildness of Sentenced to Life and Heavy Breathing, and doesn’t have the same instant hook. That said, Black Breath still lurch and charge along with what could be nothing else but Black Breath riffs. There’s what I like to think of as one of their classic ‘diminished charging’ riffs at 4.17 in Slaves Beyond Death, the classic groove with a stop–start in the middle at 4.25 into Seeds of Cain, and the swagger that accompanies ‘I will return!’ in A Place of Insane Cruelty, the layers coming and going very effectively throughout the album. Entombedcore or not, Black Breath have their own sound.

The lyrical subject matter confirms this move towards death metal; generally speaking, the narrator is attacking the listener, hunting them, torturing them, eating them, killing them, so on and so forth. These horror and gore–themed lyrics are not massively poetic or original, but complement the sledgehammer attack of the music. They don’t mention how much they hate Christianity on this album; by this point, it’s more of a read–between–the–lines thing.

Something I did find surprising was the length of the songs. Slaves Beyond Death consists of 8 tracks across 49 minutes and 17 seconds, creating an average track length of 6 minutes and 7 point something seconds. Despite what these song lengths imply, Slaves Beyond Death is an unsubtle album, and in some ways relies on energy to see it through. By seventh track Burning Hate I was beginning to think that if Slaves Beyond Death wasn’t so good, it could be accused of almost being one–dimensional, the aural equivalent of a slasher film. Eighth and closing track Chains Of The Afterlife changes all that. The song builds, and builds, possessing a grandiosity atypical to Black Breath, especially compared to earlier songs like Black Sin (Spit On The Cross) or Unholy Virgin. The dual guitar intro reminds me of Fade To Black, switching into a jaw breaker of a riff before returning to a mournful, marching riff which leads into the best guitar solo I’ve heard in ages. This is epic, and as we all know, if it can be pulled off, being epic rarely fails. As my comparison to Fade To Black suggests, this final track is Ride The Lightning quality. I stand by my statement that Slaves Beyond Death is a slasher, but it’s so good it exceeds such confines. Black Breath are back. The word is death.

Review ‘Em All: Svalbard, One Day All This Will End 

I approached this review not really sure if I liked Svalbard or not. I knew of them from the RE:MIND compilation I reviewed this March and from the Holy Roar roster (to whom they are signed). I was (and continue to be) a big fan of both of these releases, with their emphasis on metallic, emo–edged hardcore, but I didn’t think that Svalbard were one of the best on the RE:MIND compilation, despite Ripped Apart having a few great riffs. Presented with a copy of their newly–released debut full–length, One Day All This Will End, I was keen to see what I got out of it; I knew I wanted something out of it, maybe some kind of answer. After all, this is very much cathartic, heart–on–sleeve music, explicit in originating from and centring upon strife.

 

This is the confessional side of hardcore, as frail as it is heavy through its 33 minutes. What life sometimes reduces us to – alone, bereaving, forgotten – is what writes this music. Avoiding the vagueness oft found in polemic heavy music, on Expect Equal Respect Svalbard hone in on the particular social ill of sexism in media coverage of bands; its specificity, with lines like

Is 50% a minority?
Is my credibility an anomaly?

suggest it’s a personal subject for Svalbard. The lyrics are intelligent throughout the album, encompassing false associations between integrity and misery, the gap between reality and social media presentation, and the difficulty of keeping a band going and seeing enthusiasm ebb in shortly–departing band members.

The vocals, half intelligible and half not, are a hoarse, throaty scream, which sound like they hurt. Tremolo picking features heavily, as does d–beat drumming in verses and choruses of hooks, Disparity being an excellent example. Svalbard don’t overcook their use of dissonance, and use good songwriting to provide just the right amount of resolution. Variations in pace keep each of the eight songs propulsive, and a variation between heaviness and space gives each song its own character, particularly in Perspective. Closing track Lily veers towards post–rock, and before you groan, this really adds to the strength of the album. The harmonised, clean–tone intro, backed up by a half–time to regular–time push by the bass turns into an expansive instrumental, at times veering towards happiness, taking the time to build up.

It’s unusual for anything creative to walk the middle ground and succeed in any lasting capacity, yet in One Day All This Will End Svalbard succeed. The album title itself is ambiguous, it draws equally from hardcore and metal, it is pessimistic yet not nihilistic, emotionally heavy yet intelligent in dealing with the issue at hand, and the voice of loneliness yet invested with comradeship. I think I got an answer out of One Day All This Will End, and that’s pretty good when you can’t even articulate the question. I depart this review assured that I do like Svalbard.