Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Mental Home - Black Art

Mental Home - Black Art
1998, The End Records

This is the kind of record that I think would make most reviewers (no matter how tacitly or secretly their motivations for 'reviewing' or 'critisizing' swim beneath the surface) openly groan when facing because it immediately calls for a number of superlative adjectives - special hoarded treasures from a critic's war chest that he is absolutely loathe to loan out. For an enthusiastic, optimistic, or loquacious critic this album is a wet dream, because it offers so many instances for comment or highlighting. As it is, it took me some time to gather the strength to even contemplate writing about this album. There are some releases that really just defy a 'review' or specialized criticism because by their very nature they spit in the face of specious 'categorization' (the true field of music reviewers) or the attempts to denigrate their lofty ideality. Black Art is such a work...a recording that is almost too rich to sum up or attempt to categorize, and an album that can not really be related to anything that has come before it without falling to completely ridiculous over-generalization.

The first time that I think I encountered the pigeon-holing categorization (subgenre within subgenre - does it ever stop?) of dark metal was with Bethlehem's first album, and the reviews I read of their later work. Specifically, dark metal relates to music that shares influences with black metal bands but which is either too slow, complicated, dreamy, technical, or wide-ranging to be put into that catch-all of black metal (will someone please explain to me what genius described Opeth as 'black metal'?). When I think of dark metal bands I think: Agalloch, Bethlehem, latter-day Rotting Christ, etc. To be clearer: I think the dark metal bands are those groups that include elements in their sound that make them fly beyond the ultra-specific classifications/characteristics of black metal. When black metal bands develop beyond monotone tremelo riffing and harsh lost-in-the-forest vocals they usually find themselves leaping the fence over into this new category. Clear enough? If Mental Home has to be categorized they might as well be placed into this new subgenre, because the boundaries of its exact classification have not been rigidly defined yet. Also they can be linked to black metal bands because of the quality of their melodies: this is a band that is highly melodic, but never in any sense commercial - the songs resonate with emotional messages that just wouldn't be able to gain acceptance on a wide scale or in the mainstream: they are too substantial, obscure, or plainly just too powerful.

Mental Home, I think, can really be set apart from other bands playing this form of music because of their advanced state of development (this is by no means their first album!) and their concentration on writing good, strong, well considered and thought-out songs, above all, filled with clear, unshaded, obvious themes. I would say that they are primarily a song-based band (enter Century Media), switching their concentration on instrumentation and thematic development around to suit the song (and its internal progression) instead of trying to force a few simple programmatic themes or 'aesthetic ideals' upon the sound of the entire album. Their aesthetic program appears mainly in the coloring of themes found in the songs, and doesn't override the musical progression at any one time, swallowing a song's internal development in a turgid attempt at overwhelming 'atmospherics'. Mental Home is a very atmospheric band, don't get me wrong, it is just that the appearance of atmospheric effects appears mainly within the context of each individual track and makes perfect sense in the progression of that song's evolution. To put it simply, this band writes really good songs - tracks that stand out from each other, can be identified based on their own idiosyncratic characteristics, and songs that stand (with their own identities) apart from the general plan of the entire album.

When I think about it, this is one of the most charming attributes or traits of this band...it is a concentration and approach to song-writing that is almost regressive - what bands out there today approach writing music in this way? Isn't this rather something that you would locate in bands from the last decade (I mean the '80s here) like Iron Maiden (I wouldn't hesitate to claim Maiden as a big influence on Mental Home), Priest, etc.? Because of that, and the fact that this band is from Russia, their music writing has a startling novelty to it, almost an intimation of naivete...they seem to be asking 'why is it that bands don't write this way anymore?'

What I like the most about this band is their focus on the exploration of melody - both in the original keyboard work (if you want to listen to how synths should be played in a metal band, as a separate and equal instrument, on par with the guitars, this band is for you) and the more traditional music of the guitars, bass, drums, etc. If there is one defineable Mental Home sound, it is planned this way: strong rhythm guitars, backing up the low-toned thrust of the bass drums and serving mainly to undergird the structure of the song, a roving bass that switches between pulsing beat-backups and guitar accompaniment, a lead guitar that constantly cycles through epic melodic overtones and little flourishes or washes related to the song's theme (akin to Amorphis), and then the keyboards which ride over all of this, either serving as an atmospheric add-on or descending to lead the song through its various developments. A full band, then, with a wide range of modern instrumentation, and a varied, complex, and multi-layered melodic sound.

Particular strong points - almost all the melodies and themes of the songs. Just a few highlights: the intro keyboard work in the first track 'Under the Wing', setting the mood perfectly for the entire album; the drum work from 1:00 to 1:30 in the same song, cycling through several different fill techniques under the same riff; the beautiful Doors-like synth work from 5:20 to 5:50 in the first song where the band loses themselves (5:35) in a melodic overdose, a transcendent moment that I wished had been prolonged; the guitar-keyboard interplay in the intro (second riff) of the second song 'The Plague Omen' (0:33 to 1:01) that segues absolutely perfectly into the third (first main) riff of the song - a riff that really shows off the way the lead guitar and bass play off each other. Stunning. The supremely bizarre fourth song, 'Silent Remembrance', is another highlight, where the keyboards are combined to orchestrate an almost Oriental 'holiday' atmosphere. Then there is the sixth song, 'Pagan Freedom', which has some of the greatest melodic moments (soaring, undeniably epic) on the entire album mixed with crunching rhythm and bass work. There are really just too many high points to list them all in a review. Let it just be said that when it comes to original melodic guitar or synth work, there are very few bands in the world on the same level with Mental Home.

To sum up, I would recommend this album with a great deal of enthusiasm to those of you who love a brilliantly melodic presence in your metal music, or for the fans out there who have been turned away from listening to underground metal because of the prevalence of bands who concentrate on the integrity of their album sound to the detriment of the songs contained within. Mental Home, with the release of this album, have loudly announced their existence to the rest of the world...what follows will be legendary, I am sure...