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Windham Hell - South Facing Epitaph - 40%

ConorFynes, December 12th, 2011

Windham Hell is an archetypal underground band, even many metalheads already leaning towards avant-garde approaches know next to nothing about them, and yet they are considered legendary by their sparse fans. This was originally a one man act of neoclassical guitarist Leland Windham's, but fellow multi-instrumentalist Eric Friesen also joins him on this debut, and the two would have a productive partnership for the better part of a decade. 'South Facing Epitaph' is one album that polarizes what few listeners it receives, with some lauding it for its experimental zest, and others seeing it as a brutally incoherent mess. Most often when it comes to albums like these, I am able to see the merits of both arguments, although in the case of Windham Hell's debut, I might say that this album is a little too rough, and far too aimless to be the classic that fans make it out to be.

Call it avant-metal, or neoclassical, or anything, Windham Hell has an interesting style to them, although it lacks the direction that would give a lasting impression on me. It is clear that Windham Hell are a band that aren't playing for anyone but themselves, and the meandering, at times challenging nature of the music reflects that; a flurry of neoclassical shred sections contrasted with sections of dark ambiance and excerpts from cult horror films. There are a few sparse sections where the band uses death growls or muffled clean vocals, but for the most part, this is an instrumental band, and that is probably for the best. Windham Hell isn't a band about melody or things sounding pretty. It is a fairly rough recording that promises some very interesting experimental art, but it does come out a bit short. What metal sounds that are here are feel dispassionate and cold, the shredding passes me as a slightly sloppier Yngwie Malmsteen, and the compositions feel like sketches, rather than completed pieces.

The neoclassical, or metal elements of Windham Hell really do little here, the heavier riffs are very basic and are given a very barebones feel to them, and while I'll say that its clear the both Windham and Friesen are good guitarists, their neoclassical shreds are something that has been done in the past, much, much better. The most interesting thing here are the ambient angles, especially when dialogue is used. Hearing garbled dialogue from the cult horror film Jacob's Ladder, with a disembodied voice telling someone that he is dead and in hell is pretty chilling, and the way that the band works in into the music is a little unpolished, but effective.

Windham Hell's debut is like a vast buffet of stale food; there's plenty of stuff to experience and try out, but the experience as a whole is none too impressive. There is reason for Windham to be acclaimed on the underground, but as it stands, I can't call myself a fan of what these guys are doing here.

Bach watches b-grade horror flicks - 96%

TheClansman, September 6th, 2006

Classical music has unfortunately become a crutch of sorts for metalheads in this day and age. Whether they are trying to tell someone they listen to more than just metal, or whether they are trying to give their favorite horsecore band some false sense of 'neoclassical' value it seems theres a constant stream of folk who are willing to talk about classical, and classical influenced metal, but very few who actually make or listen to music that can actually be described intelligently in these terms without resorting to smoke and mirror arguments and pseudo-intellectual blithering. Windham Hell exist on a level worthy of actually being discussed in terms of being neoclassical. While trying to convince one that Windham Hell are equal composers to Bach or Vivaldi, or even to try and pretend that this album avoids simple death metal conceits would be absurd, this album strikes a great balance between the two that creates hauntingly beautiful atmosphere that is rarely found in other music.

The first thing one has to notice upon listening to this album (or indeed any Windham Hell) is the level of technical skill exhibited in the guitarwork. The majority of the music is instrumental, choosing to use leads and guitar solos to progress the music where most bands would use vocals. These solos and leads are typically quite technical shred pieces that are quite clearly the result of the musicians being classically trained. While many bands insert solos for seemingly no purpose at all (perhaps beyond the fact that thats what everyone does) these solos all enhance the atmosphere, neither intruding on the underlying melodies or trying to add something beyond them. This style of creating music (minimal vocals, a lot of time showcasing the guitars) also serves to create song structures that are in most cases constantly evolving and changing which adds an element that I can best describe as organized chaos. The songs remain unpredictable while still feeling structured and strangely familiar. For example, the song 'I Remember Drooling' plays more like a Bach piece than North American death metal (especially NA death metal from a time when Cannibal Corpse and Cryptopsy are considered anything beyond the utter crap they are). The most epic of instrumentals other bands pump out fail to fully encompass the grandness in feel the majority of these 4-7 minute long songs have. Of course, the album isn't all solos, but the parts that do feature vocals are all well done, featuring a fitting whisper-growl of sorts. Most often these parts are just wordless 'screams' (actually, most of these do indeed have solos over them anyway), with very few of the songs on this album actually having lyrics of any real consequence.

While Windham Hell have done an outstanding job in making this music, and the guitarwork is indeed excellent as stated, this does not come without a bit of a price (well, kinda). While everything on this album meshes perfectly, it's not hard to get a feeling of deja-vu when listening from time to time, as there are moments where it seems the artists were more concerned with the leads and solos than the music said leads and solos are to be played over. This isn't to say the underlying riffs aren't solid, however a lot of them have a very similar feel and style, which can make some of the songs seem somewhat monotone at times. While not as monotone as many other bands who are often accused of this, it's hard not to notice in the parts of the songs where the lead guitars are absent (which isn't very often, and doesn't take away from the overall experience to be fair). With the constantly evolving structures and leads these moments tend to not last very long, and just sorta pop up from time to time. Ultimately, it ties the album together as if the entire album is more one piece with various movements, rather than a collection of individual songs. I can see it being annoying for people who like to put albums on random, or only listen to single songs on playlists, but as long as this album is taken as a whole the odd 'recycled' riff should not be an issue.

Beyond the awe inspiring guitarwork (a force which clearly drives the band) it's pretty obvious the band are enjoying making music, and enjoy the horror film aspect of death metal in a wink and a nod sort of manner. This album contains quite a few samples from horror flicks all done in a half mocking style, which are a welcome addition. Most of them are accompanied by guitars or synth and have varying atmospheres to accompany them. Some are meant to seem creepy, others quite clearly comical. All these pieces add something to the overall feel of the album, entirely avoiding ever giving the idea that someone turned a would-be-comedian loose in the recording studio with random samples to sprinkle in liberally. Most of these samples are part of interludes of sorts (roughly 2 minute long tracks) without randomly coming in in the midst of songs where they don't belong, with all the rest that don't fall into this category coming in the 'hidden' final track. While not terribly artistically relative, it's a breath of fresh air to see someone can create good art without being so far up their own asses about their message that they can't have some fun while doing it. Indeed, it's nice to be able to listen to this album with friends and be able to have a good chuckle at the various samples (ex: in a British accent 'well, perhaps someone should call the local law enforcement officer,' {followed in an American accent by} 'STOP YOU SONS OF BITCHES, THIS IS THE POLICE,' in the outro track, seemingly at random) shortly after commenting on the music itself.

While it's almost gotten to the point of being a headache having to listen to metalheads, nihilists, and whomever else has watched 'Fantasia' more than once try to legitimize various artists/albums by blithering on about classical music, it's nice to actually be able to find something that quite clearly is the result of musicians taking direct influence from great composers and applying it to the metal genre. This band quite clearly is highly influenced by the works of Bach and Vivaldi and it shows, without simply being a translation of the style into a different aesthetic. These is a melding of death metal with classical done with the utmost care and precision creating something well worth the listen for anyone who can appreciate either genre. Its creation of atmosphere that ranges from haunting to outright joyful is of the highest caliber, and comes highly recommended to say the least. Aside from the somewhat pointless ambient 'outro' track, this album is from start to finish top notch, and no one should be without it.