Photo by Andrew Epstein
Head to the Interviews section to see my two latest pieces for A Journal of Musical Things: a record-shopping excursion with The Trews in celebration of their first Greatest Hits compilation, as well as a chat with Tool / A Perfect Circle / Puscifer frontman Maynard James Keenan about his new biography and his experiences north of the border.
It’s taken me a bit of time to process Combichrist’s new album This Is Where Death Begins. Without much warning the formerly beat-driven industrial aggro-tech ensemble has reinvented themselves as an electro-metal punk band. Over the past decade the Norwegian/American act claimed their spot as the next in line to lead the industrial underground in the grand KMFDM-tradition. Some fans had already predicted a shift in direction after the band created a metal-based soundtrack for the game Devil May Cry in 2013. However their following release, We Love You (2014), despite having a few guitar-driven tracks, was a largely electronic affair laden with heavy techno beats. I spoke with band founder Andy LaPlegua about that album, and he said that the mix of styles came from a decision to funnel tracks into Combichrist that would have normally gone into his side projects. It remains unclear as to whether the change in tone on the new album is a result of this.
Generally speaking, is it a good album? Yes. But is it a good Combichrist album? I’m not quite sure (more on that later). To be fair, this album isn’t entirely bereft of electronic music. It’s pretty much the inverse of We Love You, as that album had a few guitar tracks mixed in, and in this case it’s industrial music that makes a guest appearance.
Immediate standouts include “My Life My Rules,” which follows a similar structure as a number of the band’s more upbeat songs except with riffs instead of beats. “Blackened Heart” is a hard-driving mid-tempo rocker that wouldn’t have been out of place on a nineties Ministry album. The ultra-catchy “Skullcrusher” gets by largely on humour, but it’s also pretty damn infectious, despite not really fitting in with the rest of the album.
“Don’t Care How You Feel About It,” with its heavy base and pitch-shifted vocals, is the closest the band comes to their previous style, and the pseudo-title track “Homeward” continues their tradition of dropping a dark and memorable acoustic track on each release. But the best moments come from when the band combines both sides of their sound together. “Glitchteeth” is an understated and surprisingly funky track with a memorable chorus and minimalistic beats, while the brutally heavy and danceable “Exit Eternity” is likely to become a fan favourite.
So yes it’s a good album. But is it a good Combichrist album? I’m going to say yes, for now. How people will remember this album is largely riding on where the band goes from here. As a companion record to We Love You, This Is Where Death Begins actually makes sense. But I’m not sure that it completely makes the case for Combichrist as a metal-punk band. I would be personally happier if they continue to blend styles, rather than one be more dominant than the other. If they do in fact want to carry on in this form, then the pressure’s on, because the next one will have to be a true monster for their current fans to accept the change long-term. Regardless of what shape they take, it’s the albums to come that will most likely determine how this one is regarded.
Photo by Oliver Rath
Combichrist are currently on the “Make Europe Great Again” tour with Filter. This Is Where Death Begins is available now, and you can watch the blood-soaked NSFW video for “My Life My Rules” below.
Directed by David Hall
Written by David Hall, Vivek Venkatesh, Jason Wallin
Screenplay by David Hall, Vivek Venkatesh
Produced by David Hall, Vivek Venkatesh, Jason Wallin, Owen Chapman, Ivar Bjørnson, Jannicke Wiese-Hansen, Kirsti Rosseland
This weekend the touring extreme metal, media, art, and literary festival Grimposium brings two events to the Montreal area. The first, taking place on Saturday July 2nd at the Katacombes, is a performance by Enslaved guitarist Ivar Bjørnson’s dark ambient side project Bardspec. The next day Bjørnson will take part in a panel discussion following the free Canadian premiere of the documentary Blekkmetal, which examines the Bergen-based festival of the same name that took place in late 2015. Blekkmetal (the festival) sought to celebrate the origins of Norwegian Black Metal in an attempt to capture the original spirit of the music, which many feel has lost its significance over the last twenty-plus years. The documentary (an all-Canadian production) features interviews with the festival founders, bands, and fans, plus performance footage from Enslaved, Old Funeral, Taake, Gaahls Wyrd, and others.
The tone of the film has much in common with early Norwegian Black Metal. The opening is very straight forward and bare bones, particularly focussing on fans attending the festival and how they came to find and embrace black metal as their raison d'etre. There is no pontification from the filmmakers, rather they let their subjects set the mood. The most memorable statements in the film come from Hervé Herbaut, founder of the French label Osmose Productions where many bands who became pillars of the Norwegian scene got their start. Herbaut is extremely passionate about the genre, and has an obvious disdain for the commercialization of black metal. Aside from his fiery opinions, his anecdotes on the label’s early releases of bands like Immortal also provides an insight into the sonic qualities that defined the music.
The film also goes deeper into the city of Bergen and shows how the rainy, secluded, artist-driven environment has naturally turned into a hotbed of creativity; the perfect place for cultivating an art-form that often forces the artist to look inward and examine the darker parts of their own being. It also looks at tattooing, which was a major part of the festival, and how its function as a means of personal expression can be the perfect partner for black metal music.
Much like the music itself the final product is a unique blend of high and low elements. On the one hand the interview footage is presented in a very raw fashion, with grainy visuals and warm audio, perhaps representing how the music has defined the inner essence of its disciples. On the other hand the performance footage has a focussed vitality that stands in stark contrast to the interviews. The immense shift in tone emphasizes the emotional and spiritual connection that the fans have to this music, and how it stands apart from conventional rock and metal. Like a clap of thunder before a storm, the performances jarringly remove the viewer from the subject positioning of a standard documentary viewing, and ushers them into a new world where their existence and beliefs are uncomfortably challenged.
The Blekkmetal festival was a one-time affair. Its founders believe that like early Norwegian black metal, it can’t be recreated with the same urgency and vitality (although they encourage others to stage similar events in their own countries to celebrate the different black metal scenes that arose in the wake of the Norwegian bands). The film Blekkmetal functions in a similar way. It represents a singular moment in time and space where music and art came together to create something that was both uniquely beautiful and terrifying. If you’re looking for the standard slick and shiny documentary you will probably be disappointed, because this film doesn’t function as documentation of a particular art-form, but rather an extension of it.
You can catch a free screening of Blekkmetal this Sunday July 3rd at 7PM at the VA114 cinema at Concordia University, 1395 René-Lévesque Ouest in Montreal. In addition to the panel featuring members of Enslaved, there will be an additional panel featuring Director David Hall, as well as producer of the hit Canadian comedy film Bon Cop, Bad Cop Kevin Tierney, and Aisling Chin-Yee of Fluent Films. For more information check out the Facebook event page, and you can watch an extended trailer for the film below.