Friday, May 21, 2010

Nokturnel - Fury Unleashed

Nokturnel - Fury Unleashed
2001, Nokturnel Eclipse Records

I'll be honest, I've greeted the resurgence and reawakening of the death metal scene lately with an instinct approaching dire suspicion even in the best of moments. The fact that death metal, as a genre, style, reserve of creativity, and outlet of expression, had already been on the ropes long before the ascendancy of black metal (in the role of dark horse, a shadowy contender) never escaped my notice, and at the time when the faint rumblings were first beginning to be heard from the forests and fjords of Northern Europe as the ethic of extremity-for-its-own-sake began choking the life out of the death metal scene, I was already so jaded with death's limitations that I was ready to toss the entire genre all together - to consign it in my memory as something ventured with little or no gain. Like any other form of music, death metal has seen a very small cadre or inner cabal of truly creative, original artists, and then the hosts or legions of imitators that covered them like a carpet of parasites...looking back, one is apt (and this is excusable) to confuse the two separate (but never equal) sides of the scene, as tunnel vision fixates on the strongest proponents of certain variations or fluctuations within death's aesthetics, not necessarily the originators of the same. As anywhere else in life, those who shout the loudest have their voices heard. So, after ten years now of black metal's dominance (yes, it really has been that long), what has come down to us through the hazy filters of hindsight when we turn our minds back to death metal? Who will be remembered? And even more important - is the genre still valid, does it have anything to say? Anything left in terms of ammunition, the ability of its aesthetics to impress, convince, or - at the very least - allow for music that does not collapse under its own weight of cliches? In the coming years, as I prune my music collection of all the dross and jetsam that has accumulated there due to failures in my own diligence, how will I decide what to flush and what to keep? Will it just be based on my own emotional reactions to the music? Memories, associations, nostalgia, or is there a code by which I can actually judge these things as being worthy of listening sessions in the future? I dwell on this...only because with the turning of the millennium there has been a turning within the death scene, within the framework of the entire zeitgeist - what is seen (or thought) to be allowable, what is worth pursuing in death's own aesthetics. To deny feeling this paradigm shift is to admit one has completely lost contact with the movement's swaying all together.

The utterly bizarre status of the matter is that...even now, there are still bands in this genre worth listening to, and with the scene's resurrection more and more are arising from silence. Without a single concession, these bands look to the past in determining their own stylistic vagaries or moments of strength, and it is because of this concentration that I can suggest that there are certain elements of the genre that are simply 'classic' - as in motives, methods, and deliberate concentrations in creative construction that are timeless, permanent, eternally valid...if only because they were 'perfected' some time ago, and have been passed down to us as a secret communiqué, as bits and pieces on separate albums, open and virtuous moments in different bands' careers. We, as the heirs of this massive tradition, must remain open to these high points of the music we love, or we lose completely the entire impetus for the genre's once-strong ethics in the overwhelming barrage of homogenous oversaturation - true originality and emotional impact in the music is lost beneath the genre's own obvious self-destructiveness.

For a band like Nokturnel, however, headed by Tom Stevens (formerly of Incantation, for a time, and other bands), and in this incarnation featuring Tophetarath of the impressive USBM group Fog (and also Dark Horizon Records) on drums, these ideas, these pure motivations and traditions of death metal run strong and clear. Unfettered, death metal's adamantine skeleton of communication-for-its-own-sake, that ethic of riotous expediency, appears on the stage without trappings or costume changes of any kind...and we can see, for a time, the length of this album and the space it takes in one's memory, what is truly permanent in this genre, what forms and structures are most conducive to holding together a framework of music that is not being used for any purpose other than the delivery of caustic emotional states.

The most impressive part of the artillery, of this cache of battle-worn weaponry (shining true due to their constant use, never allowed to rust one would think), are the guitars - schizophrenic, embittered, chaotic, constantly spitting forth novel forms and sculpted avenues of melodic transgression, climbing, falling, opening and closing, in the mind's eye they spin and circle constantly, emitting alternately light or darkness. Like the best of death metal's transcendent guitar players, Stevens seeks to create an amalgamation of our pitiful constructs reflecting the eternally productive nature of chaos and unleashed, boundless energy...those forms of creativity that are irreducible and indivisible, at the very center of a musician's remorseless passion for the radiation of pure sound. Ideas, beliefs, comments, asides, all are converted to abstractions, rhythms, melodic fragments, and then ejected at light speed through the medium of the guitar. The 'pure' forms of death metal, those rhythms, idiosyncratic cells of song structure, and traditional licks and quotes that point always backwards - to what has come before - here they transcend the cold nature of a genre's (in itself) jealously-guarded powers and become Stevens' own reserve of lyrical (in the sense of his instrument's almost random creation of beauty) effusions. What is eternal in metal becomes the personal, and works through the guitar to sponsor and produce ever-original flights of fancy, the cold steel of tradition thrown into the acid bath of one person's understanding, galvanizing what it finds there, and producing an electrical charge that in turn flows through his mind and fingers to become a Rorschach print of his personality, his desires, his history, the emotions he can not release any other way. To put it another way: in Nokturnel's music, we hear a soul bleed, excoriated and lashed half to death by its own process of self-becoming...

Enough theorizing, however, let's get down to describing the music in detail. What mainly drives Nokturnel forward (and that is an important ethic in their sound, always forward motion, always new creation) is their reliance on melodic fragments that spin and weave solid song structures around a few key riffs in each work. Much like Morbid Angel or The Chasm, Nokturnel's music can be reduced to simple structures if one looks only at the way the base melodies progress throughout the course of the traditional song, the underlying engine that drives the entire thing forward. However, also like the aforementioned groups, this is not in any way the actual focus of the pieces, it is only what is left behind when a cursory dissection of structure is initiated...what is most important here are the extra elements, the segments that allow Stevens' creativity to shine forth. Like many other guitarists in this genre, he allows the song structures to remain basic and relentless only in order to drive home the emphasis of the lyrics with passion and power - to make a point, in effect - and the real 'meat' of the music is what is added on top of this. In the case of songs like 'Legend of the Wolven', for example (or, let's be honest...all the tracks here) it is the constant evolution of melodic fragments over the overdriven rhythms that makes an impression of originality, the way riffs cycle over and over, with little variations being run into, examined, dropped, opened, tasted, and then tossed aside again. I love this style of guitar playing, mainly because it gives the impression of musicians that have so much to say that they can not control their own speech...

The irony here, of course, is the fact that this 'chaos' in the music is just an illusion at heart. Beneath the constant creation of the melodic sources in their sound, the traditional song structures hold everything together so well that there really isn't any way for you to lose your way. This conflict - the notions of chaos, indeterminacy, 'pure' creation, a soul spinning out of control and releasing expression at every angle - coming into direct interaction with the driven, pointed, motive-obsessed structures beneath these ideas, is the heat and friction that powers everything, that moves it remorselessly forward, forward, forward.

I also like the way, on this album, something of an overarching concept is hinted at. Looking at the lyrics as this record runs through its entire thirty four minutes (and that's with a bonus track, there isn't any filler material here!), we encounter the themes of the songs, in order, as: lycanthropy or 'bloodthirst', rapaciousness, a lust for life; the hunger for revenge, hatred taken to the grave and providing the entire impetus for living; the ideal of the 'survival of the strongest', merit and strength-based existence; a questioning of religious ideals, the self-determination of atheism; ideas of the afterlife, the passions of purgatory; out of body experiences, escaping life into what lies beyond, transcendence based on the ability to 'go past' the limits of the flesh; the basic fear-influenced psychology of religion; and lastly, a tale of rebirth and a conviction of duty in Dionysian destructiveness. Eight songs on this album proper, the first four circling around the ideas of life and hunger, the second set of four concerning themselves with death and, at the very end, a rebirth, a return to the beginning basic cycle. So, much like the music itself, the themes of the album's lyrics form a constantly generated and rebounding ouroboros, a vortex, creation and destruction swirling around each other until they become one...or, seen in this way, each song in itself is a microcosm of the album as a whole, and the melodies, the nature of the guitar playing, is itself a demonstration of the entire theme of the work. Amazing.

But in the end, it is the sheer breathtaking violence and uncontrollable anger of songs like 'I Remain Faithless' - monstrous in its overflowing venom, its unleashing of hatred - that just make this album worth its weight in gold to me. I haven't heard this much aural violence released on a death metal album in a long, long time, and it is incredibly soothing to my tortured nerves, it brings new life and breath to erode my ever-stronger conviction that originality within the genre has all but disappeared. I raise a glass to Stevens and his assembled legion, wishing him the best of luck...with the direst hope that his group and its mission will be successful, and that the massive outbreak of infernal energy on this album will detonate on the stale, corruption-ridden fragments of the death scene like a hellbound warhead, and blow it to pieces...