Saturday, December 3, 2011
Review: Deathspell Omega - Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice
With that obligation out of the way, we can begin.
I was getting seriously into black metal at almost precisely the moment when "Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice" was busy occupying the black metal scene's attention in a sort of artistic coup d'etat. If you weren't around for it, you'd be truly incredulous at the sheer level of fervor this album managed to create in its supporters. Granted, in the years since its release, the overwhelming enthusiasm has waned, settling into a more equitable (but perpetual) debate as to its artistic merits, but go back to around 2005 and it was inescapable. There was a large contingent of the black metal scene who fervently and honestly believed that "Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice" was the harbinger of an entirely new era of black metal. The term "third wave" was bandied about, as though the artistic progression that this album represented was equal to that of the early works of Darkthrone, Burzum, Emperor, and company. While it might seem ludicrous now, such interpretations seemed to compose the standard rather than a strange outlier. It was completely fucking insane, and I don't think there's a week that goes by where at least once I'm not woken up with night terrors over the geography of metal forums during that time. Posts about this album were like stalagmites in a cave: fucking everywhere and liable to impale you if you didn't watch your step. I haven't seen anything like it since in sheer breadth of influence on an entire section of the metal scene. It was inescapable, omnipresent, and due to these qualities started to sort of spin its own legend, making a future of albums created in reverence of this one appear to be an inevitability, whether you liked it or not.
The weird thing about it for me was that, despite the embarrassingly passionate arguments over its merits or lack thereof which dominated black metal discussion for so long, I simply didn't have particularly strong feelings about it. Much in the way that mid-era Nile completely eludes me, I felt as though I was fundamentally missing some key piece of information that would make this album come together as either sheer genius or absolute shit. Well, that's a bit of a rosy display of hindsight- I was immediately prejudiced against it simply due to its massive level of support. I knew then and continue to insist now that near-unanimous support for a modern album in the metal scene is nine times out of ten an immediate, perfect indicator of offensively flashy yet artistically inarticulate novelty. I listened to a few tracks off it and could barely muster up a stronger reaction towards them than a shrug of the shoulders and languid "I don't get it." On a purely musical level, that's where I still lie: curiously searching for what's supposed to make this such a polarizing release, but discovering at every turn nothing but a veneer of novelty and self-indulgent presentation wrapped around unremarkable music. The only thing that's changed over time is that, in the years since its release, "Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice" has, in my mind, become a perfect symbol for the sort of flashy but ultimately soulless music that I think entrances the majority of the metal scene. While it hardly upsets me on a sonic level, what it managed to do to black metal via its overwrought portrayal and unending hype (whether the fault of the people behind it or not) continues to irritate me in a way few other albums can. It's a bloated, self-important, relentlessly boring slog of an album which manages to make up for its prosaic musical qualities in its unbelievable ego. I think that, more than any other, this album is the one that sent the black metal scene moving in such an obtuse, irrational direction, and for that reason (mostly) alone I despise it.
I've struggled for a long time to figure out why this album ensnared the metal scene as swiftly and dramatically as it did, and I've come to the conclusion that there is no single conclusion. It seems to me that this album's runaway success was a combination of cleverly crafted music, good marketing and aesthetics, a fence-straddling design philosophy that got just about everyone on board, and sheer, dumb luck. I'm inclined to think that the last of those qualifiers is the most essential: without unbelievably perfect timing and execution, "Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice" would likely have been lost in time alongside the thousand other irrelevant black metal albums released every day. I think that the place this album occupies could probably have been similarly filled by a dozen other albums released around the same time, but this one ended up on top. The reasons for the metal scene's immediate seizing of it are many: a black metal scene desperately looking for some sort of concrete direction to move in, an ideology that was simple, forceful, and just far enough off the usual to be seen as edgy and unique, and an admittedly brilliant combination of underground and mainstream black metal elements that provided just about everyone something to enjoy. In a period of relative artistic stagnation (supposedly,) "Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice" arose like a leviathan to shock and amaze just about everyone in the metal scene. The way things worked out is remarkably similar to Hitler's rise to power: take an enfeebled group, give them direction, and watch them do the work for you.
It seems to me that those who most fervently love this album and lay such lavish praise upon it are black metal fans of a mostly mainstream variety. A lot of times, they're not "black metal people" in particular, rather than general metalheads who dabble in it periodically. It comes as no surprise that the less experience with black metal one has, the more remarkable this album seems to be. Owing to the members' pedigrees as underground musicians, "Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice" is, in essence, a fairly mainstream black metal record with stylistic elements informed by underground knowledge. In short: this album was the first exposure many had to tropes of the deeper reaches of the black metal scene, refined and presented in such a manner as to make them palatable to a more mainstream audience. I say with the utmost certainty that there's nothing on this album which hasn't been done before and better by other artists; however, it was usually done with worse production, inferior technical skill, or isolated within its particular stylistic sphere, rather than presented alongside a hundred other little elements much like it. When someone only kind of acquainted with black metal hears this album, they're struck by what sounds like dozens of new musical and aesthetic ideas emerging from nothing, rather than a very delicate process of copying and pasting from a thousand different reaches of the black metal scene.
Just about any individual element of this album can be traced to another band. As a simple example, let's break down the riffing. While technically adept and significantly more ornate than the usual, the bulk of the demonic, malevolent tremolo riffing that makes up this album's guitarwork is based off the sort of basic melodies that Dark Funeral would use. Despite the band's French origin, most of the more dissonant and aggressive riffing on the album is carved directly from the Swedish school, but intentionally gussied up with more elaborate, roundabout fretwork and a slightly grimy guitar tone which suggests more is going on than there actually is. The languishing, wailing melodies of "Carnal Malefactor": Hellenic melodic work ala Varathron but presented in a more stately manner. The impressively darting and oddly joyful slashes of melodic tremolo that dot the "Sola Fide"s? A very obvious reference to Taake, and, ironically enough, Hirilorn in fits and starts. Even the more turbulent, openly dissonant, dungeon-like material is just a reinterpretation of Leviathan and other grumbling USBM artists. It's not that Deathspell Omega have a brilliant, multifaceted style of their own: it's that the members of the band are excellent craftsman who know how to weave different parts of the black metal scene together into a relatively convincing whole. There's not a single moment of truly unique melodic thought on this record; every last riff is an alteration of one heard elsewhere, or the principles of another black metal scene repurposed for Deathspell Omega's context. It's a black metal Lady Gaga: a sort of "Robocop" album composed of other, more obscure records and artists.
What Deathspell Omega truly have going for them is their ability to tie these seemingly disparate elements together into what appears to be a unified whole- but still, I think that's more trickery than skill. The sheer bulk of the album's running time isn't really indicative of just how much brilliance went into it so much as a calculated attempt to let their pieced-together, strangled compositions breathe. The "Prayer" tracks, the Gregorian chant interlude of "Carnal Malefactor," and the dozens of other little squeaks, pauses, and breaks that dot the album are there precisely to maintain the illusion of a grandiose, classically assembled work, when in actuality, they're stalling tactics to prevent the listener from noticing just how much the band is repeating themselves and how awkwardly much of the material is assembled. If you were to cut out the obviously extraneous filler sections of the album, you'd be left with a release probably two thirds as long, but also one missing many of its most "impressive" aesthetic elements- but more on that later.
No more obviously does the band's clumsiness in actually assembling straightforward black metal songs emerge than on aggressive, simple tracks where sound effects and other clever distractions aren't an option. A fantastic example: "Drink the Devil's Blood." One of the simplest and most traditional songs on the album, it becomes immediately apparent that Deathspell Omega are at a loss as to how to properly create and release tension through composition alone. The riffs are stripped down to avoid dicey melodic maneuvers, but the clumsy way in which they're connected end to end tells the whole story. Beyond the flash and overblown aesthetics, Deathspell Omega's raw songwriting ability isn't very far above average. In fact, as a result of being spoiled by the band's aesthetic allowing them to artificially manipulate song structures, it feels like they've actually suffered as a result. Frankly, without the extras loaded on every conceivable surface, the actual black metal on this album is below "Infernal Battles" in structural intelligence. While that album was a simple slice of Gorgoroth worship, it still possessed leagues more elegance than this one does insofar as the relationships between riffs and the motion of the songs overall. Another fun example is the truly bizarre, punkish closing of "Sola Fide II," where a rocking, midpaced transitional passage is established only to abruptly end in the most unsatisfying and awkward way possible. It's the musical equivalent to being asked to solve a problem on the board in 9th grade while in the midst of a spontaneous adolescent erection: regardless of how you try to hide it, every guy in the room is going to know what's going on, and as soon as you're out of class you're going to get ripped into by everyone within earshot.
Of course, Deathspell Omega were fairly careful to design their overall aesthetic in such a manner that the filler elements seem more integral to the overall effect of the album than they actually are. A lot of fuss is made over the "Prayer" tracks, and oddly enough, I don't have a lot to say about them. If a slow, instrumental black metal song laced with samples is supposed to be particularly impressive, consider me a jaded fuck, because neither compositionally nor aesthetically do they seem particularly beyond the average dark ambient artist. If what makes them significant is their proximity to more "normal" black metal songs, I can't think of much of a response outside of the person impressed by such a juxtaposition desperately needing to hear more black metal records. They don't come off as particularly convincing or malevolent, considering how relentlessly upbeat many moments on this album tend to be, and in and of themselves they tend to be repetitive and not particularly gripping on an atmospheric level. Between these tracks and sound effects draped over excessive repetitions of the same riff, or even more impressively, full-fledged abdications of the song structure (ala "Carnal Malefactor,") an alarming amount of time and energy is spent on pulling the listener AWAY from the songs themselves in order to manufacture a sense of unity and cohesion that would be otherwise absent.
Beyond these major structural deficiencies, though, all the other lauded elements of this record are merely reflective of uncritical minds with musical tunnel vision. The drumming is lauded as a cut above the average for black metal technically, which it is, but it's simply informed by pretty basic death metal technique- nothing a decently capable extreme metal drummer wouldn't be fully aware of, and it's just a preponderance of lazy black metal drummers that gives the listener the impression that this particular performance is exceptional. Mikko Aspa's vocals tend to be somewhat more theatrical than the usual, but nowhere near the degree that even Attila Csihar reached on "De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas," which, amusingly enough, mostly leaves him in a no-man's land where his average is neither aggressive and forceful enough to match up to the instruments around him nor unusual enough to rise above the morass. Coincidentally, the much-lauded production style, with its warmer, bassier tone and acoustic richness, is nothing more than a more modern interpretation of what was also present on "De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas": the spacious reverb on the drums and the cloudy yet warm guitar indicate that that album was a clear point of reference for mixing. While the production is more aesthetically unified than a lot of underground black metal albums, it's hardly a move towards the unusual considering that this sonic style was pretty standard before cold and thin became the norm.
Really, though, all the technical and structural issues of the music are secondary to the album's greatest flaw: a distinct and omnipresent lack of atmosphere- ironically, a point that most of this album's supporters reverse entirely and view as its greatest strength. Unfortunately, due to the oddly tactical nature in which the album is plotted, many opportunities to generate true atmosphere are lost. In the interest of straddling so many lines- dissonant versus melodic, raw versus refined, technical versus droning, among others- Deathspell Omega intrinsically sacrifices the aesthetic focus and intensity necessary to build a truly distinct and gripping atmosphere. While the album has balance in spades, it comes at the cost of true personality. The guitar tone is sloppy and overdriven but the overall production is pretty clean. The vocals are dramatic and stately, but never so much that they run the risk of alienating a more tenderhearted listener. The riffs are technical but deliberately restrained so that no one will be lost attempting to follow them. The album is an exercise in obsessive gear-switching and shortcutting, which in my eyes, leaves it completely unable to properly suspend my disbelief and soak in the hellish, blasphemous vibe that the band is so obviously desperate to craft. In their pursuit to establish a refined spearhead for a new era of black metal to follow- all black metal, not a specific style- Deathspell Omega has systemically sanded off all the edges of their music, leaving it safe, nonthreatening, and mawkishly flailing in the wind, unable to determine a real direction or an authentic artistic ideal to pursue.
The failure of "Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice" is a microcosm of the failure of Orthodox black metal as a whole: in its feverish pursuit to document and perfect the "whats" of black metal, the more ephemeral "whys" have been left behind, and along with them any opportunity the album, or the movement itself, had to truly define itself. Like a first date with a girl who thrusts last month's negative STD test results at you before you've even shared a kiss, this album is so caught up in its mastery of ritual and decorum that no real connection has a chance to flourish. It's not that "Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice" is an unlistenable album (though its unbelievably long running time certainly gets taxing,) but despite its following of established patterns and tropes from all corners of the metal scene, it fundamentally fails to compel the listener in any significant fashion. It lacks personality, presence, and longevity, and only by the grace of a generally unobservant and willfully ignorant musical community has it been granted the status it's somehow managed to achieve. "Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice" is not merely a failure, it's the arch-failure: the beautifully concise example of how a math problem where the process of solving is followed to the letter can still be completely wrong when performed by a student with no understanding of the underlying reason behind the steps he takes. You can't fool all the people all the time, and over past seven years, the truth has finally started to set in: that "Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice" is a shallow, artless, and ultimately disposable album, doomed to be nothing more than a footnote in black metal rapidly passed over in the pursuit of greater things.
Buy this album on Amazon