IRM – Anthology

IRM – Anthology 2CD Autarkeia 2012

Is it really thirteen years since the then young upstarts IRM burst onto the power electronics scene with their debut ‘Red’ album?  I guess the answer is ‘yes’ as here we are with an ‘anthology’ released to celebrate the fifteen year anniversary of the formation of the group (…time certainly seems to pass quickly).  Starting in 1997 as a two piece and consisting of Erik Jarl on music and Martin Bladh on vocals, IRM issued a single demo ‘The Green Tape’ in 1998, before the debut vinyl only ‘Red’ album the following year.  Likewise in the intervening years they have since evolved into a trio, with Mikael Oretoft joining on bass on 2007 to further flesh out their powerful and oppressive industrial/ experimental/ power electronics soundscapes.

Although very much driven by a standard power electronics framework in their formative years, IRM’s sound was still varied and forceful, and by demonstrating an intelligent if not obsessive streak with their inspiration and conceptually varied themes they quickly garnered a loyal following.  Likewise over the subsequent passage of years IRM have further honed and refined their sound into something particularly unique and individual, consequentially elevating themselves into a league all their own (…refer to the last album ‘Order4’ as evidence in chief).  Referencing their style IRM evoke sound structures ranging from meticulous experimental/ industrial soundscapes (shimmering metallic drones, subterranean bass, echoed percussive elements and an array of other tonal textures), through to harder and harsher power electronics aspects.  One constant however has been the yelled and slightly treated vocals which have remained a trademark throughout.

‘Anthology’ itself is split into two halves, consisting of a collection of studio tracks (CD1), and another collection of live tracks recorded at various ‘live actions’ (CD2).  The studio material includes an unreleased piece in addition to a collation of tracks from various sources, including: ‘Sweetness Will Overcome’ comp, split 10”ep with Skin Area, ‘Four Studies For Crucifixion 10”ep, ‘Nihil’ 2LP comp and two tracks from the ‘The Green Tape’.  With the studio tracks presented here in reverse chronological order, it provides the listener with a clear perspective of the evolutionary arc of the group: from the hard and clinical earlier programmed sound, to the later more freeform framework with a greater reliance on organic sound textures and elements of real instrumentation (freeform bass, disharmonic strings, stilted piano notes, sparse percussion etc).

The first studio track on CD1 is the unreleased 2008 track ‘Order’ and appears it may have been recorded during the same recording sessions for the ‘Order4’ album.  Here the track is intense and domineering in its musical delivery, consisting of slow throbbing bass, seething industrial tones, experimental sound textures and dual tracked spoken and yelled vocals found on more recent IRM material.  Regarding the balance of the studio tracks, it is the ‘Four Studies For Crucifixion’ compositions which stand out as particularly focused, being constructed around pulsating industrial soundscapes, urgent, emotive vocals and disharmonic trombone wails.  These four tracks are also probably most representative of the transitional point between the earlier forceful sound approach of the group, and the burgeoning looser and more experimental focus of later material. However when referencing earlier IRM material, the five tracks from the ‘Nihil’ vinyl only compilation certainly hit hard (…clinical, throbbing, heavy and harsh power electronics on display here), and represent a clear document of why IRM garnered such high praise early in their career.

Moving onto the second disc the thirteen live tracks are derived from seven ‘live actions’ recorded between 2002 and 2011.  The live tracks however are not presented in any sort of chronological order, rather the listening experience has been enhanced by the re-ordering and further mixing of tracks to present a singular flowing set.  Although slightly looser in presentation, the sound is faithful and recognisable as live renditions of their studio counterparts, and in many instances the vocals appear more urgent and unhinged in their delivery.  Referencing a specific live track (and final album track at that) ‘Sebastian’ is a stunning example of live experimental minimalism, constructed with a nonstandard power electronics element of repetitive and sustained disharmonic piano notes, coupled with agonised flanged vocals – an exceptional end to an exceptional release.

Beyond the music, the packaging is stunning and has been given the special Autarkeia 2CD box set treatment, with distinctive embossed digi-pack / box cover, including colour booklet with lyrics and artwork courtesy of vocalist Martin Bladh.  Ultimately ‘Anthology’ is not a mere collection of scattered tracks, rather represents a strong document of the group’s history and as with all IRM’s outputs this is mandatory listening, made all the more essential by the stunning packaging.

Xiphoid Dementia – Secular Hymns

Xiphoid Dementia – Secular Hymns CD Malignant Records 2012

Xiphoid Dementia have been around for quite a few years it seems (…since 1999 accordingly to the promo blurb), yet this is my first introduction to the solo project of Egan Budd.  ‘Secular Hymns’ is evidently his second official album, yet based on the myriad of tonal aspects covered herein I am finding it rather difficult to pin down some words to describe it.  This comment however is not intended as a negative, as by ignoring genre ‘rules’ Xiphoid Dementia have effectively turned any preconceived expectations I might have had on their head and produced a complex and striking album in the process.  Likewise with the varied and multi-faceted sound of each composition which runs the gamut of multiple genres, it is akin to having multiple tracks within the lager compositional structure.  On the other hand to provide an overly clinical description, ‘Secular Hymns’ blends aspects of noise, industrial, dark ambient and power electronics across four tracks of extended length (10-14 minutes each).

Although the album commences calmly, the droning melodies and choir vocals of ‘Abortion Rites’, are soon enveloped by harsh, blasting, free-form noise (…let’s call this a positive pairing of dark ambient and industrial noise).  Yet the opening track does not remain solely in a noise guise, instead edges into a loose power electronics arrangement complete with heavily treated vocals.  Within its roughly hewn industrial soundscape the second composition ‘My Time Will Never Come’ presents a vague tribal / experimental character, which mid track falls away into a section of meditative synth melodies and further punctuated by metallic echoes and the tolling of a lone church bell.  In a further display of the album’s bipolar tendencies, ‘What We Believe’ heads off on a totally different tangent, starting as a loosely structured experimental / ambient track, gradually building into a harder edged industrial noise and pulsing power electronics piece.  Likewise based on its harsh overloaded bass/ noise production and further use of sampled dialogue, this track is not too far from the lauded sound of Propergol.  For the final of the four tracks ‘Breathe’ commences as a slab of droning, viscous dark ambience that gradually morphs towards death industrial aura through the introduction of sporadic jagged tonal aspects catatonic bass heavy beat and distortion scarred vocals, making this track a focused and passionate ending to a solid album.

With the variation in sound and strong disregard for established genre boundaries, this attitude (along with a few of the calmer dark ambient moments), brings to mind the early works of BJ Nilsen (aka the final Morthound album ‘The Goddess Who Could Make The Ugly World Beautiful’, and to a lesser degree the first Hazard album ‘Lech’), which is high praise from my perspective.  Likewise with its varied and complex scope and the finesse and confidence in which the material is delivered, Xiphoid Dementia is yet another excellent addition to the Malignant Records roster.

Theologian – The Chasms Of My Heart

Theologian – The Chasms Of My Heart CD Crucial Blast 2012

The ever productive Lee M. Bartow (formerly of the defunct Navicon Torture Technologies aka NTT and now of Theologian), returns with his formal sophomore album – although numerous cassettes, CDr’s and digital only releases have been issued in-between this and the 2010 debut ‘The Further I Get From Your Star, The Less Light I Feel On My Face’ (also released on Crucial Blast).

Anyone familiar with Lee’s work to date will be aware of a particular hallmark sound: one which has linage extending back to NTT and now further refined in a less harsh but more bleak and expansive guise as Theologian.  That recognisable sound is obviously on display here, consisting of heavily layered distortion, cyclic drones and orchestral synth textures which are produced as a singular echoed mass of sound, further punctuated by heavy programmed percussion and smatterings of vocals (both choir sampled and semi sung/ semi aggressive power electronics type).  Armed with these elements Theologian ultimately delivers grim, pitch black, sweeping soundscapes which blur the boundaries between dark ambient, death industrial and heavy / power electronics genres.

With slow pounding beat, wavering drone and maudlin synth melody, ‘Abandon All Hope’ sets the scene, yet still managed to surprise with the introduction of vocals and clean sung vocals at that.  The slightly echoed treated multi-tracked vocals are certainly unexpected, but also work amazingly well to provide a new aspect to Theologian’s sound.  However after the relative calm of the first two tracks ‘My Body Is Made Of Ash…I Live As Ash’ steps up in intensity – here evoking a seething mass death industrial emanations, including slightly Asiatic toned percussion and scorching/ distorted vocals.  ‘We Can’t All Be Victims’ is similarly intense, with its forceful and urgent tribal industrial percussion, sweeping layered drones and quasi choral vocals.

Apart from the prominent droning and sweeping noise / ambient framework, a number of the tracks contain the faint ghosts of a more rhythmic electronica/ IDM sound*, evidenced by subtle programmed elements and/ or rhythmic beat sequencing.  But don’t let this throw you – the sound is still staunchly within the death industrial / heavily electronics genres.

In the most part the eight tracks bleed out over an extend length (spanning 8-14 minutes each), generating a total album play time of a whopping 79 minutes.  Although all tracks have slight variations on the core aspects of Theologian’s sound, ‘The Chasms Of My Heart’ is best taken as a singular harrowing listening experience, rather than ‘enjoyed’ as single tracks.  Visually the six panel oversized digi-pack cover is splendidly designed, displaying the trademark graphic style of Lee, being is suitable visual counterpart to the sonic bleakness within.

* – Referencing such rhythmic electronica/ IDM elements found here, these play a more centrally dominant role on another just issued Theologian album, ‘Finding Comfort In Overwhelming Negativity’, also released in 2012 by Handmade Birds.

Grunt – World Draped In A Camouflage

Grunt – World Draped In A Camouflage LP Freak Animal 2012

The last proper album from Grunt was ‘Petturien Rooli’ in 2009 and although it received significant praise from various quarters, for me at least it was not an album which grabbed my full attention.  Although I can acknowledge it is a solid album (if not somewhat sprawling in scope), on the other hand it does not have that certain ‘something’ to keep me returning for frequent listens (…let’s put it down to personal taste).

So when approaching ‘World Draped In A Camouflage’ I immediately found it to be much stronger and focused but also diverse album, which still inhabits the particular sound which can be ascribed to Grunt.  Likewise despite the brute force sound for which Grunt are known, this comes across a clearly sophisticated power electronics album – and by ‘sophisticated’ I mean it is an album of a diverse range of sonic elements utilised by someone highly skilled in the composition of harsh sound structures.  Thus with regard to the range of sonic elements, the album has been composed with an assemblage of: static riddled tape loops, textural noise, decaying feedback, harsh blasts of distortion and general overloaded noise manipulations, in addition to other more diverse elements such as sampled operatic vocals, orchestral strings and tonal aspects more akin to pure experimental material.  And apart from the constructed sound elements, there is also fantastic diversity with the vocals, spanning the trademark gruff yelled style, through to more urgent and higher pitched screeched variety – some sections being clearly audible, with other highly modified through echoed and distorted treatments.

From the outset the first two tracks illustrate the scope and diversity of the album.  The title track is up first and is quite experimental in tone, with a soundscape of deep echoed drones, layered queasy electronics and sampled operatic vocals, whilst the second track ‘Kansanmurhan Infarastrukktuuri’ is a straight down the line avalanche of searing brutal noise and aggressive vocals.  With ‘Maailmanlopun Mekanismi’ despite the loud, rough and cyclic ‘steel in a cement mixer’ type clatter, it manages to display a meditative quality within its noisy framework, which is also one of the longer tracks of the album at around 6 minutes.  Following track  ‘Dance for the Genocide’ delivers an absolute album highlight, and although its core is a power electronics track, it is also driven by instrumentation you would not typically expect.  Built on a base of controlled distortion and acerbic flanged vocals, what makes this track so distinct are the modern classical elements, including urgent angular orchestral strings and sparse tympani percussion (sounding to be real rather than synth derived).  ‘Ritual of Mortality’ provides a tense almost death industrial base, with later introduced looped flaying noise and trademark heavy gruff vocals to provide a power electronics slant.  ‘Like Dead Dogs’ is yet another album highlight, with its squelching and decaying noise loops, wavering noise and some seriously heavy and unhinged vocals – tremendous stuff.  Late album ‘March of the Titans’ displays a suitable amount of echoed and jagged metallic crunch (built of multi-layered loops), with the later segment having a more ominous tone built on pulsing static, sampled choirs and vocals of shrieking intensity.

Noting that the 10 tracks are between 2 and 6 minutes, each piece illustrates individual character yet collectively embodies a fully coherent album and highlights the degree of focus and skill encapsulated within.  As such the complexity, depth and multi-layering of this collection of tracks is exceptional, with all elements having clear purpose and place within the mix.  Although it is far too early to be proclaiming this as a ‘classic’, it is definitely an essential release of 2012.  For either old or new listeners, surely ‘World Draped In A Camouflage’ cannot disappoint.

Desiderii Marginis – Procession

Desiderii Marginis – Procession CD Cyclic Law 2012

Constituting the seventh album for Desiderii Marginis, I have to admit that for no particular reason I have not kept up with the group since their third release.  Upon reflection this is somewhat odd, given I was huge devotee of the group from the debut album ‘Songs Over Ruins’, and additionally featured an interview with sole member Johan Levin in Spectrum Magazine Issue 4 way back in 2000.  Nevertheless, seventh album this is and the first to be released on the respected Cyclic Law label (with the majority of earlier albums being released on Cold Meat Industry).

So, whilst not being able to compare ‘Procession’ to more recent albums, to this ear Desiderii Marginis continue to deliver their particular version of sacral infused dark ambient hymns.  Yet what is also clearly evident is the overall tone is slightly more composed, flowing, mature and confident in presentation.  Whilst I would also say that in the past there was inevitable comparison to fellow Swede Raison D’etre, given the more sparse and abstract directions that Raison D’etre have headed on recent albums, such a comparison today is greatly diminished and further assisted by the honed compositional slant which gives this a recognisable Desiderii Marginis sound.

Although articulating a broad cavernous and echoed dark ambient aesthetic, the album is impeccably produced to allow the varying tonal layers, and individual instruments (piano, violin, moody orchestral synth melodies, sparse choral vocals), to breath and float within the mix.  Notably there is also the occasional interjection of slightly jagged tonal elements (metallic scrapings, clanging sounds etc.) to keep the listener on their toes.

When closely listening to early album track ‘Her Name is Poverty’ I was struck by the parallel which could be drawn to the feel and atmosphere of their debut album (which I mean as a clear compliment), with a similar atmosphere flowing through the following track ‘Silent Messenger’.  Yet this is not to suggest a mere re-tread of the aura of earlier material.  Here the track excels with its morose tone (lone wind instrument floating over a slow shifting moody orchestral base), ultimately representing an artist who has nailed down their sound with self-assured clarity.  Interestingly ‘In Brightness’ manages to achieve an atmosphere that is the polar opposite of what the title might suggest – a distant and bleak sounding composition of shifting droning semi-orchestral layers that are partially grounded with scrapping metallic industrial elements. Excellent to say the least.  Alternately ‘Adrift’ seeks a slow build structure, here relying on cavernous reverb and swelling, bleak piano/ orchestral melodies which rise and build in intensity throughout.  The final of the eight album tracks presents the title piece, representing a great finale due to its distinctive dual intertwining bittersweet violin lines, and slow, echoed dark ambient undercurrent.

To conclude I am glad to say that ‘Procession’ confidentially represents the aural space I expected (…or hoped) Desiderii Marginis to still inhabit, and for me at least amounts to the welcomed return of a familiar yet matured sound.  Definitively worthy of investigation if you have had any sort of appreciation for Desiderii Marginis in the past.