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Azrael is one of an increasing number of bands to fall under the somewhat vague classification of "Avante-Garde Black Metal." I suppose that it's a reasonable enough classification in this case-- there is a decidedly eccentric quality to Azrael's brand of despondent sonic darkness...or perhaps I should say "dimness." For you see, for all of the authenticity and professionalism of the record, this group of musicians has forgotten to include or is severely lacking in the single most important aspect of making music--songwriting. There is no reason to this rhyme, and yet there is no compensating madness to the method, either.
Make no mistake--there is comparatively little technically wrong with Azrael in execution. Nor does the band even begin to suffer from that dreaded malady so phobically feared by contemporary listeners--overorthodoxy in approach--this is assuredly a collective with its share of novel ideas. A string-reliant band, the lone electric guitar is supplemented by steel-string guitar and electric contrabass, in addition to the usual percussion and bass. The caustic electric carves out simple, mostly high-speed riffs most reminiscent of the piquant French melodic tradition. This fairly simple stream of sound serves a primarily rhythmic role--most of the embellishment here is done with either the contrabass--which reminds somewhat of the supramagnified and slowed sound of a hornet in a wind tunnel, and usually fills a place where other bands might feasibly use synth--or the steel stringer, which occasionally looses what might be called a "lead", for lack of a better term. This particular instrument is also used to play the few acoustic passages, and its slightly echoing tones grant said passages a subtle air of malice often absent from classically-inspired acoustic pieces in metal. Balancing off these potentially interesting elements is the careless implementation of the percussion and vocals. Drums are very flat, very loud, and very high in the mix--an especially unfortunate and incredibly distracting combination in this type of music. If I didn't know any better, I would assume that all of the drums are lackadaisically programmed solely for decorum by someone with little or no knowledge of (let alone interest in) percussive nuance....but this is not the case. The drums are, in fact, all performed "live" by a human being. This fact makes the bland, perfectly monotonous percussion strangely impressive in its own right--I would not have thought that a sentient being could deliver such a uniform, unerring, and mechanical performance. The vocals are equally distracting; while not inordinately poor per se--they are a fairly standard "whisperscream"--there are simply too damn many of them to fit the relatively simple molds of the "songs." They do not follow whatever lone melody happens to be on display at any given moment; rather, they drone on above and wholly apart from the instruments, the slightly elongated consonants ultimately dissolving ineffectually into the quasi-requisite BM fuzz. Ah, yes. The fuzz. Rather than recording it along with the instrumentation, it sounds as though Azrael has opted to apply the fuzz after the fact to the recording as a whole--a fairly novel but ultimately irritating effect that robs the stars of the show--the strings--of some of extra bite that they almost certainly would've had otherwise.
But, as mentioned earlier, the primary failing of this duo is in songcraft. As my predecessor has noted, the "songs" (it's really not a very appropriate term) tend to be somewhat lengthy. But this length is used to no real effect, as the songs are all completely devoid of any narrative, cinematic, epic, or otherwise engrossing qualities. There is no progression--logical OR illogical--in these "songs." A simple melody, perhaps accompanied by a tenuously related lead-pattern and occasionally counterpointed by some brief, ornamental eloquation from the contrabass plays for two to four minutes; then another, similar, and yet wholly unrelated passage plays for another two to four minutes; then another. Only rarely, if ever, is any one melody, idea, or theme reprised or sustained within a song--there is no subtle nuance, ala Darkthrone; no hypnotic mind-meld, ala Burzum; in these pseudosongs. Repeat five times, and you have quite an accurate sense of the album. In effect, this is actually an album comprised of 30 or so short, unconnected songs, as opposed to seven larger ones. The only respite from the torturous, pointless linearity are the acoustic intro and the contrabass/acoustic/vocal interlude, "Darkness Binds Us All."
For all of its novel qualities, there is very, very little to stimulate the imagination here. Indeed, even the reptilian brain will be hard pressed to find something to fixate on. While Azrael has succeeded in creating a blanket of darkness to envelope the listener, it is not the darkness of the forgotten tomb of a once great personage fallen from grace; not that of a nighted sylvan expanse; nor that of the mortal mind turned inward upon itself in ominous rumination. It is the board-walled darkness of a mass-produced condominium in a failed project, sealed off and abandoned; never knowing any footfalls or contemplations aside from those of the cockroaches and assorted rodents, with their small concerns of "eat-shit-fuck-repeat." Nothing more. "Emptiness", indeed.
Standouts: Intro; Darkness Binds Us All
I am a huge fan of acts 3 and 4, and also act 2, so I wasnt sure what this one would sound like. Azrael definitely progresses with each release and this album is more of a feeling out process it seems like. The productions is pretty thin, but the atmosphere is very dark especially with the excellent acoustic and contra bass parts. The songwriting is a bit rough, some of the songs seem to go on a bit long, but for the most part the song are pretty solid. The guitar is very thin, as are the drums, so it makes it hard to get into this album on the first listen. After I listened to it about 3 times through I started to hear the songs a a whole much easier. This material is well worth the effort of getting used to, and I still hear something new everytime I listen to it.
Overall the album is very solid mid to fast paced atmospheric black metal, but I definitly favor the later albums as it seems Azrael were still searching for their sound with this one. I would probably reccomend buying this album after already hearing the newer albums, it will make you understand the progression of the msic much easier. Excellent and intelligent, this is a very solid debut album by a very solid black metal band.
With Moribund Records hosting such other respected and quality black metal bands as Summon, Arghsolent, Wind of the Black Mountains, Grand Belial’s Key, and Windham Hell, I kind of had an idea of the quality to expect from US black metal band Azrael on their sophomore album, INTO SHADOWS: ACT I: DENIAL.
Azrael’s sound is hard to describe. “Moody Black Metal” is the term that first comes to mind for this mix of death and doom metal.
A four-minute acoustic intro establishes the mood (a lot like something off Agalloch’s THE MANTLE) until “Dawn of Abysmal Crypts” delivers nearly nine minutes of black metal. This track moves through a variety of time and style changes, from melancholic, tortured atmospheric doom passages to faster passages with raw, twisting leads. The end result is something (yeah, taking a risk here in comparing bands) that could be influenced by Immortal, Agalloch, early Burzum, Moonblood, Darkthrone, and Countess. Really, Azrael is a band that is hard to describe and is best experienced firsthand. With the exception of the intro, and the interlude “Darkness Binds Us All,” the album is packed with ponderous songs closing in at 9 minutes (and 3 of them longer than 10 minutes), although none of the compositions on this album feels overly long. Rather, the alternation of bare, raw metal and heavily shrouded atmospheric doom, as well as the change-ups like the thrashy break in the closing minutes of “Into Shadows,” or the simple, biting melodic lead throughout “Shroud of Icy Stillness.”
The production on INTO SHADOWS leans towards the raw side of the spectrum, but I would not consider this album underproduced at all. The guitar tones are as crisp and audible as possible without disturbing the atmospheric balance of the album, and each riff is distinct. That is to say this album is not sloppy, poorly produced, nor amateurish. The only fault I have is that the drums sound a bit thin in several places and would do well to have a more robust sound.
I’m sure that I’m missing something about this album because I do not own a decent pair of headphones, but I’m certain that such an undertaking is necessary to fully appreciate this disc. Even without that experience, it’s safe to say that Moribund Cult keeps up their excellent track record with INTO SHADOWS ACT I: DENIAL. Definitely recommended for black metallers.