Tuesday 19 March 2013

Doom from the tomb: Dying Embrace's 'Era of Tribulation'

This one’s been a long time coming.

What can a compilation of demos, EPs and one full length recorded, often on very primitive equipment, a decade and a half ago, mean to us today? Is it just a piece of nostalgia for the early days of Bangalore’s metal underground? Something mainly meant for the obsessive completist? Not really, not when the songs stand on their merits so definitively. Music isn’t necessarily an evolutionary continuum, and while the material on ‘Era of Tribulation’ isn’t always the best recorded or produced, the songs are far from dated or obsolete.

Dying Embrace’s early years saw a trajectory from straightforward death metal influences into a death/doom hybrid, but the transformation was not a radical one, as can be seen from the first track on the compilation, ‘Blood Rites’, written when the band still went by the name of Misanthrope. The opening riffs are already firmly in slower, doomier territory than a pure death metal band would venture into and the one-two assault of Vik’s unearthly growl and Jimmy’s supple, assured riffing is already firmly in place. The lead guitar work is more reliant on dive bombs and whammy bar abuse than would later be the case, but it’s obvious that Dying Embrace entered the songwriting game at a very high level of assurance and skill. In fact, this song and ‘Cromlech of Hate’, which has more uptempo sections among the doom-deah trudge, hold together so well and create such a pervasive atmosphere of sick dread and foreboding that I wonder if there are more songs from the early years that were never recorded, and how they would hold up if they were resurrected today. The rhythm section isn’t especially clear on these early songs, but David’s drumming is clearly both heavy and groovy while Jai nails the bottom end of the sound.

I don’t know what the DE squad were drinking or smoking when they wrote the songs that make up the ‘Grotesque’ EP, but I hope they’ve preserved some of it in a cellar or basement hydroponic installation somewhere and are willing to share. To call these songs a leap in everything – songwriting, originality and musicianship – might seem to belittle what went before, but these songs are just that good. Jimmy gives free rein to his epic, melodic influences on ‘The Passing Away’, a song that has to be experienced live to fathom its fullest depths, but still makes a great showing here with wailing, bereaved melodies soaring over implacable arpeggio and a snaky, menacing bassline. The solo is a watershed moment – it’s pure classic rock melodicism, and it still fits perfectly into the song. ‘Grotesque Entity’ slinks in on a plucked melody with shreds of phased and then heavily distorted guitar evoking a 70s horror movie theme song. It then moves into possibly my favourite DE riff, a vast, elgiac musical motif that positively drips with morbidity and doom. Vik’s vocal approach on these songs open out into a more raspy high end in addition to the grunts of the ‘Misanthrope’ EP and the better (but still not that great!) recording quality lets us hear just how tight and propulsive the drums really are. ‘Oremus Diabolum’ brings this landmark set to a close in fine form with a mid-tempo intro that segues into a slow, off-kilter melody built that paves the way for more doomy riffing overlaid by a variety of uncanny vocalizations. The contrast between the almost traditional doom riffs and the over-the-top extreme metal vocals was what struck me most about the band the first time I heard them, and it’s a combination that hasn’t lost its confrontational yet fascinating quality. About halfway through, the song settles on a gloriously old school melody that would not have been out of place on a Black Sabbath or Pentagram song, interspersed with bluesy wailing on the lead guitar. Like the other songs on the EP, ‘Oremus’ moves seamlessly between sections, taking the listener on a well-rounded musical journey into the inferno. 

The next 6 songs are from the band’s first, and so far only, full-length, ‘Serenades of Depravity’. I remember borrowing this tape from a friend and being both confused and fascinated by how the band blended riffs and melodies that would not have sounded out of place  on a Candlemass album with death grunts and growls. Remember, this was when most metalheads in town were mainly into NWOBHM and thrash and full-on growling still kind of scared us, and double bass drumming was something the drummers we jammed with only dreamed of aspiring to. Historical context aside, the album picks up where the preceding EP left off with the dark, sluggish riffing on ‘As Eternity Fades’ conjuring vivid end-time visions emphasized by Vik’s crazed vocals. ‘Spawn of the Depths’ is a fitting paean to evil best left buried and continues with the trend of killer melodies spewing from the band at this point, memorable and tuneful but undeniably sick and morbid at the same time. ‘Dagda – His Time Has Come’ is another stone cold classic with its majestic riffing and stately pace conjuring a vivid Samhain nightmare. I tend to rate metal bands by their ability to conjure an atmosphere even more than their chops, and this song can make the inside of a Bangalore pub feel like some wild place where dark Celtic rites are being carried out. The instrumental ‘D.T.s’ lets the band strut their stuff with a more thrashy vibe. It leaves room for both Jai and David to show that they aren’t just make-weight band members but fine musicians in their own right. ‘Degeneration’ ushers us back into the darkened halls of the damned and doomed, weaving a nightmare vision of insanity. After a drawn-out doomy build-up, this song takes us back to DE’s death metal roots with growly verses over faster riffs, although the tempo does shift back to the lunatic lurch of the opening at opportune moments. The closing instrumental track, ‘Elegy For The Damned’ lives up to its name and brings the album to a deeply satisfying conclusion. 

The last three songs, constituting the ‘Dying Embrace’ demo are re-recorded versions of the ‘Grotesque’ tracks. This time around, marginally improved recording lets you pick out more nuances in the music, especially the bass work. If you’re listening to this music for the first time, I suggest you skip forward to these versions of the songs first. 

So there you have it. Music that sounds as fresh and immediate now as it ever did, at least partly because it was always ‘primitive death/doom’, always a style and a mood unto itself with no regard for the fleeting trends of the metal mainstream. DE’s commitment to its own vision is finally gaining something like the recognition it deserves and I hope this excellent re-issue from Armee de la Mort (best experienced as a vinyl LP in a glorious gatefold sleeve) will pave the way for a wider awareness of the garden city’s finest and first doom patrol, as well as new releases from their rejuvenated line-up. 

Visit the Armee de la Mort/Legions of Death site

Listen to 'Grotesque Entity':

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