Surma is a collaboration between Czech vocalist Viktorie Surmová (Bohemian Metal Rhapsody) and Faroese vocalist/guitarist Heri Joensen (Týr). Their debut album, The Light Within, was released on Metal Blade Records in late 2020. The band’s sound will instantly appeal to fans of symphonic metal, particularly the Dutch sound of the early 2000s. There are also moments that evoke the Scandinavian symphonic acts, but overall, Surma leans more towards the gothic and progressive side of the style, as opposed to a more folk-tinged sound. So much so that tracks like “Downfall” and “Until It Rains Again” are more comparable to bands like Amorphis or Tristania, as opposed to bombastically symphonic bands like Epica or After Forever. Also, in a gothic power-move that would make Lydia Deetz blush, all their lyrics are inspired by sculptures from around the world.

But mostly the album is characterized by songs like “Fire and Wind” and “ Lost to Time,” short-but-sturdy compositions filled with lush, layered vocals, and tightly-packed melodic riffs and solos. Combine the rock n’ roll sensibilities of Within Temptation with the earthiness of Midnattsol, and you wouldn’t be too far off from where Surma has landed on their strong debut.

Surmová is the main vocalist through most of the album, but it’s the intensely contrasting moments with Joensen that stand out the most vocally. “The City of Winds” rocks with an orchestral swing, with Joensen delivering a strong mid-track soliloquy, while the unsurprisingly-heavy “Cages of Rage” finds the 2 trading lines in an epic pre-chorus. The peak of The Light Within arrives with the penultimate track, the afore-mentioned “Lost to Time,” where Surmová and Joensen combine all their best moves into the album’s most memorable song.

If you’re fan of symphonic metal, The Light Within is very easy to get into, but it got repeated listens from me because it takes chances where they’re needed. Most symphonic bands choose their lane within the style and stay there. Surma’s extra touches go a long way to making the album a more varied experience. It’s an extremely welcome addition to a subgenre that had become slightly paint-by-numbers.

Surma: Heri Joensen (left) and Viktorie Surmová (right)
Photo Courtesy of Metal Blade Records

Surma will be featured in an upcoming Zombitrol At Home article. You can streamThe Light Within in full below.

Photo Courtesy of Listen Harder

Hard rock supergroup A Perfect Circle are currently on tour in North America. It’s a tour that’s serving more as a reminder of their existence than anything else. Last week at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, the band made their moody re-introduction ahead of their first new album of original material in fourteen years, promised for release in 2018.

The evening featured a few new songs, including their current single “The Doomed.” Although their debut Mer de Noms was touched on, the set was weighed heavily in favour of 2003’s Thirteenth Step. Intentional or not, it’s perhaps a statement about picking up where they left off, as the new material seems to be a natural follow-up to that album.

After a deep voice twice reiterated the band’s widely-reported intense phone policy (take your phone out and get the boot), they began the show shadowed behind a vast white curtain, which dropped once they slammed into the first heavy chord in Step opener “The Package.” 90s rock radio staple “The Hollow” then drew a huge response, and that carried over into “The Noose,” and “Weak and Powerless.”

The band’s trademark dry sense of humour was also on display, with vocalist Maynard James Keenan making a few quips about his personal tour routine during their ode to self-pleasure “Thinking of You.” James Iha (bass/keyboards) also drew a surprisingly enthusiastic response by calmly asking “Is everyone having a reasonable time?” before launching into an amusing stage ramble, that ultimately led into “The Outsider.”

Although the focus is often on Keenan because of his other job in Tool (also, he stands backlit on an elevated platform), it was guitarist and composer Billy Howerdel who turned in a flawless performance, with older riffs elevated above their recordings, and new songs sounding current but not wholly detached from his signature style.

Visually the band mostly remained in shadow throughout the set, although Keenan’s occasional politically-tinged remarks did remind the crowd that those were indeed people surrounded by performance-art projections and gothic lighting. But with an arena tour it was perhaps a bit too detached as many of the scattered attendees in the lower bowl didn’t seem fully connected to the experience. Between that and ticket prices that were more in line with a larger production, it’s possible that they overestimated the strength of their return. After all Mer de Noms is still their most successful album, and it received very little attention during the performance. As one fan pointed out on Facebook, the only fan favourite they didn’t play was Noms’ first single and arguably their heaviest song “Judith.”

But that seems to be A Perfect Circle’s M.O. They are in charge of the presentation, and very little seems “for the fans.” That’s their choice, and it’s one that their devotees eat up like crazy. It’s not a matter of “I hope they do this,” it’s more of a “What are they going to do next?” That being said, regardless of their abstract approach to rock music and releasing albums, it was evident that a good chunk of the audience that night were there for the big songs, and stood/sat quietly through the album tracks and new material.

A Perfect Circle’s current tour shows that their core fanbase is still strong and don’t necessarily need to be reminded that the band exists, but now as they prepare to release a new album into a music culture that’s changed drastically since they were last active, it’s uncertain if their more casual fans will continue to follow them for more than nostalgia. But perhaps at a time that finds Keenan apologizing to a bunch of Canadians for the state of his country (albeit without mentioning anyone in particular), maybe the point is to shed a little deadweight.

A Perfect Circle have four dates left on their North American tour, including tonight in Vancouver, before they head to Europe. Watch the video for “The Doomed” below.

A Journal of Musical Things

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.