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Lessons Well Learned - 90%

OlympicSharpshooter, March 4th, 2008

Blarg. Gralb. Death metal smash poseurs. Have riff, will travel (to Sweden, Florida or Quebec). How many beats can a beatnik blast if a blastbeat could Chuck Schuldiner.

Over death metal's twenty-odd years in the game, we ears-a'-bleedin' fools have witnessed people trying to be the heaviest, fastest, most sound-like-I'm-playing-the-guitar-backwardest in the land. We've also witnessed a not inconsiderable number of individuals trying to drag the form up (down, sideways) to the level of “art”. Most of these have, unfortunately, come to the conclusion that, to be truly artsy, bands must operate on a pay-by-note basis, with odd time signatures acting as some sort of arcane multiplier on the profits. The three bands most commonly venerated/castigated as the progenitors of this sort of thing are Atheist, Cynic and Death. And indeed, these choptastic acts did provide the basic inspiration for this uniquely snobby subset of death metal. Alas and alack, what most of the bands following their example lack is any element of true artistry.

Art can best be described as something that, through its aesthetic properties, improves the world. In other words, it must be beautiful. Hieronymus Bosch, named for the fifteenth century painter who found beauty in the suffering of man, were as wise and subtle in their choice of moniker as they are in their understanding of the lessons taught to them by the old death metal masters. Ostensibly this could be described as late-period Death worship, with a smattering of Cynic's organic psychedelia, but Bosch manage to transcend such a reductive description. Their compositions are, at times, damn near classical in terms of their structure.

I don't mean this in the sense that the band adorns their basic sound by peeling off a bunch of stock neo-classical runs to show off that they know Mr. Paganini very well thank-you-very-much, but rather that their entire approach to songwriting exudes an uncommon class and adventurousness. Songs like "Practical Criticism" and "Blind Windows Stare" often assign one guitar the duty of playing in standard tech-death mode, giving their compositions a solid foundation upon which to build (as well an easy in for the primal headbanger in us all). The other instrumentalists, often utilizing multiple guitar tracks, then weave more complex melodies around and above this central axis, expanding upon ideas and riding them to their completion or abruptly introducing new motifs as the song demands. The sheer technical skill of the players is mind-boggling, but what's more important is that they seem to have used the long expanse of time between this record and their first, 1995's competent but forgettable The Human Abstract, to grow into those skills.

Much like Atheist, who began playing a sort of itchy sub-Watchtower thrash and developed over about five years into one of the 90s’ most intelligent and heartbreakingly great bands in any musical genre, Bosch turn their view inward and began writing music more reflective of their own philosophical views. While Bosch's lyrics are not nearly as impressive as those of Atheist, what's important about this change in perspective is that is provides a better framework through which to create challenging music. The Hieronymus Bosch who spent most of their last album writing odes to their namesake's paintings could not have written something like the awe-inspiring song that closes Artificial Emotions: "Heartbeat Seismology".

Throughout the record Bosch have chosen to break up the longer, heavier tracks with short melodic intervals, a device Atheist employed on their own masterpiece Elements. All of the shorter numbers on the record are commendable as being strong individual compositions and useful aids to the album's progression, but the last of them is the most important of all for the stage it sets. "Whispers in Bedlam" brings the energy down to its lowest ebb, mercury-drop bass lines flowing and sorrowful fuzz-drenched lead guitars create a general mood of melancholia. As "Heartbeat Seismology" begins, the listener is be able to detect a definite Sound of Perseverance-vibe to the opening section of the song, but the band is can’t quite resist opening up into a brief suggestion of the sweeping, melodic sounds to come.

As the song progresses, the band plays everything straight, but there is a perceptible increase in activity, everyone playing busier and busier, the bass growing louder and louder. Vsevolod Gorbenko's approach to the bass resembles the melodious warble of Sean Malone or Tony Choy, and thus by nature more prominent bass means a more airy and effervescent atmosphere begins to encroach. By the time the track has wound down to nothing more than a haunting piano and the sound of a human heartbeat, the band has packed a wild fusion-jazz guitar solo, some nifty bass harmonics, acoustic guitars, several subtly tweaked reprisals of the main riff and a soul-replenishing outro riff into the space of three minutes. Without losing the feel of the song, without succumbing to unproductive wankery, without overplaying their hand. And all of this, they manage, because they are writing about the unity of the human race, even if our togetherness is symptomatic of a collective futility. You cannot write music like this without belief, a white-hot passion for what you do.

In my last review, of Vàli's Forlatt, I made reference to a poem by John Keats in which he claims that beauty is truth, and therefore all one needs to know about in life is beauty. Hieronymus Bosch, to me, demonstrate how much of the ability to achieve beauty (and truth) is a process. Throughout this review I've purposely only made direct comparisons between Bosch and three bands (If you don't know the bands, you're just skipping to the end of this review to see which songs I liked best. Which is cool and all, but at least pretend you're paying attention to this pretentious pap). I could've compared them to other technical metal bands, but what's the point? Those bands are almost all derivatives of that same trinity of pioneers. What makes Hieronymus Bosch special is that they have reconstructed the elements of the bands that came before them in such a way that they have pushed the sound into new places without sacrificing the essential beauty of the form. That, dear friends, is truly a contribution to death metal art.

Stand-Out Tracks: "Heartbeat Seismology", "Third Half", "Practical Criticism"