Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Epoch of Unlight - Caught in the Unlight!

Epoch of Unlight - Caught in the Unlight!
2001, The End Records

It's very difficult for me to write about this band. Not just because they are so elusive, and dodge around easy classifications, but also because every way in which they have been marketed so far has sort of been a campaign of midirection. Smoke and mirrors. I understand this - there are only a few genres of metal that people seem to understand, and when you try to describe a group to others it makes it so much easier to just compare it to what has come before. Epoch of Unlight, for example, have always been labeled a black metal band, even though there is very little in their sound to justify such a classification. I suppose at one time they might have touched borders, on a tangent, with what some other bands were doing in that genre, but at this point in their evolution they've completely left that behind and it's useless for to point towards it unless, as I just have, I use it as a prop for criticism. So let's just bury that idea and move on...

Another reason it's difficult to write about Epoch is because their music just doesn't summon any kind of strong emotions within me, and I don't know whether or not these guys consider their art to be emotional at all. I doubt it - or if so, it's on a plane so far removed from me that I can't feel any empathy with it. That's fine. To me, at least, it's much more cerebral than sentimental. On their website, Epoch have a telling picture of guitarist Jason recording some guitar tracks while sitting in a chair with a pair of glasses on, as if he was a professor lecturing to a circle of rapt students. The analogy holds: as I listen to this album I am constantly being diverted by the structures, forms, and twisting cacophonies the guitar(s) create, but it never really touches me in a way other than that of abstracted curiosity. Again, because of this it's difficult to get 'caught up' in the melodies and just enjoy them viscerally. There's always the intercession of one's mind to deal with. Although, even while saying this, there is never a doubt in my mind that Epoch are extremely capable musicians (I mean, just listen to this thing, it's technical ecstasy) but it just seems like they put very little of themselves into their music. Are there any melodies in here that they can point to and say 'ah, that reminds me of...', etc. - where it reflected something in their own lives? I don't know. And because I am convinced that they most definitely proceed with a purpose, I have to conclude that this concentration on a chilling 'otherworldliness' or the 'anti-human' in their music is something they decided to accentuate.

There is also the fact that, other than the eloquent lyrics (which mainly seem to be influenced by Lovecraft and Poe - what other writers ever used the word 'eidolon'?), this music is almost joyful compared to what I usually listen to...there is so little true darkness in their sense of melody...but I don't think that's what they are concentrating on at all. Or it could just be the fact that these guys are so original that they aren't referring to the traditional language/forms of 'darkness' and so I'm missing the point completely. It wouldn't be the first time.

A lot of this confusion is caused by the production on this recording...that has to be admitted. It sounds almost exactly like In Flames' early work...so, say, prime Studio Fredman, even though this was recorded in five days at Festival Studios in Louisiana with Keith Falgout, who is known for getting a much 'thicker' guitar sound than what appears here. Maybe it's just the bands he's worked with before.

Epoch of Unlight have that Swedish sound in the guitars, a completely American concentration on the drums, a vocal style (courtesy of guitarist Jason Smith) that is constantly on the verge of being black metal but which can't (or doesn't want to, really) commit itself, a decidely anti-establishment method of songwriting, a uniquely bizarre form of personal melodicism, and almost no 'image' at all. Beautiful. Could it all actually just be about the music? How refreshing...

Anyway, after about twelve listens now, what this band really seems to be is a sort of workshop where experiments are planned and carried out in the name of thrash guitar innovation. Like the symbolic import of this record's cover, which features a Thor/Vulcan icon either kneeling or running away from a volcano in the background (it's hard to tell), Epoch are involved in a metallurgic alchemy of the highest sort, down in their laboratory forging new elements from traditional ingredients. Because there is only one guitar the emphasis is on rhythmic complexity instead of building atmosphere through six-string interplay, very similar to what Kreator (and the rest of the German speed metal scene) were doing about 10 years ago, but carried to the point where the tempo changes and sheer number of riff permutations are so numerous and constant that it's almost ridiculous. If there is any kind of interplay or instrumental communication happening here it is solely between the rhythm guitar and the drums. So, connected to that, what will really draw your attention in all of this is the drumming, which is disgustingly expert, and which also seems to almost always drive the other two instruments. Listen to the brilliant 'Hounds of Tindalos' (which is one of the best lyrical treatments of a Lovecraft theme I've yet read), for example, where the drums control not only the pace and direction of the material but change the form and meaning of the music when they come across a rhythm they enjoy. Interesting. At about the 2:45 mark Epoch pull out all the stops and, believe me, your jaw will hit the floor when you hear how fluently they stream between riffs from here until the end. This is the best two minutes on the entire record. It's beyond me, once again, how the drummer Tino and the other guys in this band keep track of where they are in a song. Ten minutes into this album and I'm lost, swirling in a sea of muted chords, directional changes, and almost random drum breaks...and where most other 'black metal' groups seek to alienate you through the temperature of the tremelo riffing, this band just knocks you on the head with so many dizzying eruptions and shifts in the music that you are spun around and around, around and around...the effects of these two approaches are strangely similar.

To be fair, there are exceptions...the seventh song, 'Ululant Cries' (beginning with a sample from the movie 'Gladiator') is about as straightforward as these guys get, even though the drumming is all over the place...but in the beginning they just put their heads down and grind out one of their most vicious segments ever. Here in the introduction, at least, the melodicism is charming, although they then segue into a riff that is taken almost verbatim from Arch Enemy's last album. Was this on purpose or another example of 'unconscious' influence? Or did two bands come up with the same rhythm at the same time? Is it all synchronicity?

My main question is: how does Tino decide when to blast and when to follow the guitars? Is it just instinct, caprice? Is it completely random? Is it an offering to chaos? I know it can't be, and yet...

Another question I have is this: seeing how Epoch have carved out a unique niche for themselves in the world scene (especially in the US, there isn't a single band here that sounds like them - that's definitely something to be proud of), exactly where are they going to take their sound from here? With all of their concentration on rhythmic labyrinths and an almost 'anti-melodic' (not that they disdain melody, far from it, they just don't 'conjugate' it in the same way that most bands do - but that's a good thing) stance in the music, will they choose to go backwards and build upon the milestones they have erected here, or will they continue to push it forwards? How they will push it further, if they do - that's what is interesting to me. For example, there are melodic ideas that are tossed out here in the course of the songs that they could have explored in a deeper fashion, if they wished to...and yet that doesn't seem to be their purpose - they just touch on things, as if to tell you they know they're there, and then they move on...the point men, the vanguard, the scouts, the reconnaissance figures of metal, ladies and gentlemen, seeking, noting, and just maybe: destroying. Amazing, sick, and for me, at this point, wonderfully confusing...