Nihil Mortum is a sort of a progressive black metal band that formed a few years back in Finland. The first that I heard of them was when a song of theirs appeared on a Metal Hammer CD a few months ago. I put them on my short list of albums to acquire, and when I found them hard to come by, I contacted guitarist/vocalist Baal directly; thankfully, he still had a few copies on hand. They sound like Page Hamilton (from Helmet) joined forces with Emperor-era Ihsahn, but without the shitty constant and unvarying double kick bass drumming that plagues so many black metal bands.
Architectural Blasphemy is the first song on the album, and it starts off with a catchy little riff, only to abandon it after 30 seconds or so for a folk-ish bit of guitar picking, only to abandon that after another 30 seconds or so for the real meat of the song. This is a prog-death tune, with excellent hoarse vocals that fall short of true CMVs, and a twisted elaborate musical pathway. There’s enough catchy parts tho that on repeated listens, I keep thinking “oh cool, I like this part” and “ooooh that part is coming up”. The song, like the album, really lends itself to repeated listens.
The next song, 6/12/2007, is probably my favorite from the album. This is Independence Day for Finland, but that’s not what the song is about. Instead, the song is about how the band needed to drop a member. It’s an exploration of the emotional and logistic bedlam that ensues when 3 people decide that things aren’t working out with a 4th person. The song starts with that Hamilton-esque lead guitar sound that Amon does so well, and then settles into it’s groove of ferocious torment, changing and evolving over 5 minutes without ever losing the essence that it had at the start. This song pretty much pummels everything in it’s path for it’s entire 5:37 length. My guess is that the guys had some serious issues with the guy they had to drop from the band, and judging by this song they worked out the kinks that were cramping their style. Can’t say enough about how much I like the lead guitar in this song; it totally fucking rocks!
Masterpiece of Unknown Art, the song, starts out with what might be a tribute to Zamfir, but quickly segues into a churning maelstrom of demonic vocals and pounding black metal, with a constant weirdly-fitting lead line soaring over the top of it all. There are no straight lines in this music; it’s all twisting and flailing and swooping and fist-pounding action like a tornado full of hammers in a slot canyon. I have no idea what the song is about, but when I listen to it I like to imagine that The Residents and Laibach finally got together for that collaboration album that I’ve always dreamed of. It’s twisted and glorious and frightening and malevolent and I can’t tear my eardrums away from it.
Although it starts out with an organ part that sounds like it was left over from In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, Kansakunnan Kuolema is a different sort of epic. This is Nihil Mortum‘s take on The Kalevala, which is pretty much the Finnish national epic. It’s credited with helping to give birth to Finland as an independent nation, and so it’s a tale of a struggle against seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It’s also, in an allegory kind of way, a tale of a man who was so bad-ass that when he went to Hell, his very presence started riots and made the demons go crazy and start tearing shit up. You read that right: it’s the story of a man who fucking ruined Hell. That’s fucking awesome!
The album closes with Satu Ihmisestä, which is kind of an exploration of the reality and fantasy of human existence. The same superlative lead guitar work here stands out like a beacon guiding the way through this mournful tale of hope, lost innocence and the struggle to come to grips with the root of our nature.
Most of these songs, in case you didn’t get it from earlier descriptions or from listening to them at the links provided, are less-than-straightforward musically and have even more twists and turns than most “prog” metal bands. Gojira seems downright easy to listen to after the contortions that Nihil Mortum go thru, but they do it all so well and so smoothly that they are never so jarring as many bands seem to try and be and never repeat themselves enough to get bored with anything (I’d compare them favorably to Ihsahn‘s stuff or even Yakuza). This makes the album very easy to listen to over and over, and rewards the listener with new musical relationships in each song often. I’m constantly taking note of how the bass line compliments the lead, how the drums peel back to let the vocals take front stage, how the vocals relax and let the guitar work shine, etc. I’ll anticipate a solo I like only to find that I’m noticing this time how the rhythm guitar work effortlessly finds it’s way into the mix, helping to propel the song onward and into another new part.
For a first effort, especially one recorded without a drummer, this album is terrific. Excellent production work helps, as this is complicated music. My only complaint (I’ve always got at least one, don’t I?) is that I thought Amon’s solos could have been a tiny bit more out front. This is a small complaint tho, as the way they’ve mixed this the music does have a lot of texture, and I’d hate to lose that more than I’d like to hear those excellent lead lines just a bit louder.
Baal tells me that the band has, in fact, settled on a new drummer (in the person of Thextera) and they have a new bass player (Roope) since this was recorded. Hopefully they are able to start working on new material and make it back into the studio soon. This album displayed a decidedly different and engaging take on what progressive black metal can be, and I’d like to hear more of it.
A discussion over on the Straight Dope Message Board led me to decide that I should go ahead and re-post all my hard work here too. We were talking about “experimental” music that’s being made today, and after I mentioned Jandek and Puff Tube and Bruce Haack and Steven Reich, I threw in some metal bands (or at least bands that vaguely fall into the metal genre.
Shining is a deathjazz band from Norway. They combine aspects of jazz and death metal, including awesome sax parts into an aggressive and technically demanding style of music. Here’s The Madness And The Damage Done and a live video for Fisheye that shows them performing for Norwegian National Television. Both songs are from their 2010 album Blackjazz, which was excellent. The sax player, Jørgen Munkeby, also contributed to Ihsahn‘s last album, 2010′s After. I wrote about this album last year.
Other metal bands that might fit the experimental label include some of the math metal bands like The Dillinger Escape Plan (Panasonic Youth, Sick On Sunday), and Meshuggah (Pineal Gland Optics, Pravus) as well as some of the deathcore bands like Suicide Silence (Suffer, Unanswered) and Trigger The Bloodshed (The Scourging Impurity, The Soulful Dead). These bands take a noticeable lack of respect for traditional song structure and voicings and basically go nuts with the freedom they find having shed those shackles. Their music is abrasive, raw and caustic. Sometimes it’s so jarring that it feels like being slapped upside the head hard enough to rattle some fillings loose; live shows are an epic experience.
Other bands that kind of defy easy characterization but are way cool include Arsonists Get All The Girls (The 42nd Ego, Shoeshine For Neptune) and the awesome Iwresteldabearonce (Tastes Like Kevin Bacon, See You In Shell, Danger In The Manger). For bands like these, it’s not just the music that’s jarring, it’s the way they change from one genre to another mid-measure. One second it’s all death metal, suddenly it’s smooth jazz, then it’s grindcore blast beats. Vocals go from CMVs to pop chanteuse and back again. For many people it’s too confusing, too harsh and undanceable; for others it’s a beautiful example of jaw-dropping complexity with sterling execution.
Yeah, my version of “experimental” is heavy on the metal side; it’s what I listen to.
Taste the sin. Embrace the madness. Unleash the wrath. Twist the knife. Smell the glove. Okay, that last one isn’t a title from the latest offering by this Savannah, GA power trio, but it sure could be. When it comes to that aspect of their craft, these guys aren’t showing a whole lot of imagination (other songs include The Take Off, The Ride, and The Crash, in order).
The album cover art (from fellow Savannah resident & Baroness member John Dyer Baizley) is certainly attention-grabbing, and knowing and (mostly) liking Mr. Baizley’s band, I decided to give these guys a shot. I popped it into the stereo in The Big Yellow Pill as soon as I left Zia, only to be disappointed by the terrible production work. Muddy vocals swamped under the mix, guitars with no high end and precious little mid-range, and drums that sound like wet cardboard being slapped with a fish make this album a lot less fun to listen to than it should be.
I mean, check out Embrace The Madness. It starts out with a decent enough riff, and the pace of the song is great, and I like the yelling, but I can’t hear the vocals well enough because the album has no high end. It sounds like the vocals were recorded by standing 15 feet away from the mic, then hanging a couple of layers of packing blankets in between. The guitars are all smushed down to the low mids and low end, along with the vocals, which just makes each of them indistinct. The drums have no high end at all, just low mids and bass, but not the BOOOOOOOM low end that would make your gut do flipflops, just the muddy low end. After a strong start, the amateurish production just makes me want to fast forward to the next song, even tho this tune is only a little over three minutes long.
I can’t really say much more than that about any of the other tracks on the album. Take Twist The Knife, for example. Wow, another song that starts with a fade in, then becomes a lot of low-mid thudding with vague, indecipherable yelling in the background. And hey, isn’t that a Pixies or a Nirvana riff or something at the start of the song? I mean, they were great bands and all, and I know that imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, but this is a little too similar, a little less imitating, for me to not hear it.
Also, what’s up, with the, punctuation, in the, lyrics? Was there a sale on commas at the Piggly Wiggly that week or what?
The songs are good; these guys definitely have some chops and some skills, but the recording, mix and mastering is so bad, I can’t stand to listen to this. I hope Andrew, Athon and James can afford a RTSA next time they record, because I can hear the potential for some serious ICE headbanging shit; I just can’t enjoy it when it’s lodged firmly in a wall of mud. I really wanted to like this album, and hoped it would grow on me the way a lot of other albums with, ah, questionable production did, but I just can’t move past it. For the band and for all of us I hope their 4th album is a better deal. I’m impressed enough with the songs that I’d be willing to give them another shot, even if this album won’t be spending much time moving air at my house or in my truck.
Somehow, back in the early 1980s, a bunch of great music escaped from places like Minnesota and Wisconsin. I mean, these are frigid lands of dairy cows, populated mainly by hockey playing people of Swedish descent who wear cheese wedges as hats. It’s not like anyone is ever expecting great art to come flying out of that environment at any moment, but it does happen; witness Tar Babies.
Bucky Pope (guitar, vox), Robin Davies (bass), and Dan Bitney (drums, vox) formed the core of the band, eventually adding in the awesome Steve Mackay-meets-Cannonball Adderly saxomophone of Tony Jarvis (and his whole bag of tricks, really: tenor and alto sax, clarinet, flute, guitar, vox, & piano. This is how I feel, too: if it can be used to make noise then dammit I will make noise with it!). The band has no respect for conventional song structure, instead providing us with a controlled chaos who’s easy, comes-naturally feel disguises the complex riffs and structures being employed.
Srsly, on the one hand they sound like they just barely make it out of “jamming” mode to having actual songs, but they also sound like one organism that makes music, not 4 guys just jamming. Think about the best R&B backing bands you’ve ever heard, how tight they were, how they respond to each other almost instantly, letting someone who’s feeling it run with it and then reeling them back in before their fingers falter; that’s how tight this band is.
No Contest was actually their second release for SST. I’m not sure how I came across it, prolly something at the college radio station. This band fits in with Greg Ginn’s love of wacky jazz-tinged rebellion, so even tho they aren’t a punk band, they were a part of the SST sound, to me. I think this album was largely overlooked, prolly because of the funk and jazz elements, making it a difficult fit even for a lot of college radio at the time. Aaaaaand I doubt the excellently provocative name helped them get any airplay or advertising. It’s a shame, really, because this is some of the best music of this genre (you know, upbeat funky psychedelic big band jazz rock).
The album starts out with Lay Of The Law, a mellow intro funkfest that questions authority, both legal and moral. The guitar and drums serve as the propulsion here, with the sax steering us through the melodies with a couple of killer swirling riffs. Later the vocals become a tribal chant over the din, then the instrumental voices all resolve and work together again, pushing everything forward. It’s a laid back but lively interplay that sets the tone for the whole album.
Link In A Chain starts off with a cranking little guitar riff, segues into another, and then morphs into a riff that by all rights should be peeling my fingernails off. That guitar is just frikkin’ sweet, and he never lets up the intensity. The bass thumps right along with him, the drums keep rocking, but it’s the guitar that keeps my ass moving in this song. And the song is about moving: it’s a call to action, a call for cooperation among like-minded people to work together to change the world. This revolutionary attitude permeates the whole album and I like how the lyrical content fits the music. In every way, this is truly music of dissent and insurrection, smashing musical genre conventions while preaching for an uprising, an instrumental and vocal appeal for upheaval in order to forge a better future. Hear that nice little interlude that starts at about 3:02? Okay, now listen as the guitar just builds and builds and builds out of that until it’s freaking on fire and exploding over a furious renewed pounding on the drums, only to keep freaking building and getting more and more tense and intense, the guitar just crashing down like molten steel all over the furious tribal jazz rhythms being jammed relentlessly by the rest of the band to finally crash back into the body of the song like a wave going under another wave. It ends with a recitation of the themes of the song by all parts, with the vocals doing a particularly nice job of providing some melodic release before the whole thing finally closes like a hurricane fading to a soft breeze. Yeah, this is prolly my favorite song on this album; how did you know?
A loopy riff followed by a goofy footstomper opens Cure It All, quickly followed by a laundry list of possible remedies for all that ails us. The cartoony carnival-ish music belies the more intricate things going on here, but frankly once the band gets really rocking I just kind of lose myself in that sax solo until the whole thing finally ends like a souffle collapsing on a carousel (don’t ask me how that image is the one that comes to my mind when I hear this song).
The album closes with Real Time, a trippy beat jazz musical tone poem thing that not only helps mellow out the harsh from all those dizzying sax riffs and the non-stop 95mph guitar, but will also scramble your brains at the same time. I’ve been “relaxing” to this song for more than 20 years now, and it still somehow manages to be both mellow and adventurous.
This band recorded one more album for SST, 1989′s Honey Bubble, and then called it quits. I know that Dan Bitney moved to Chicago and to his current gig with Tortoise (another band that practically has their own genre, and they’re damned good at it), but as you can see from the link up above, Tar Babies still keep a web page and a couple of the guys have been known to perform as Bar Tabbies. I’m not sure what caused the band to fold, but if it isn’t a Total Hate Situation™ I really wish they would see if the unique and mesmerizing vibe that they once had can still be struck. This is great, fresh, exciting glorious booty-shaking music that hasn’t aged a day since it was recorded.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that most people have never heard of this band before. I’m going to stay out on that limb and predict that none of you will ever hear about them again. That’s because this band doesn’t exist anymore, and hasn’t for about 20 years.
Back when I was in college, I was the audio guy at the campus club. We did shows Friday and Saturday nights, sometimes during the week as well. Because we served the entire campus community, our acts varied widely from salsa to blues to rock to comedy to classical to jazz. We used to get a lot of unsolicited stuff from bands looking to put together their own tours, which is how I came by this CD. We never did get the band to play there, being a couple of thousand miles away, but the quality of the songs on this album is just amazing and I’ve held on to it and listened to it ever since. In fact, it’s one of the most listened-to discs in my collection, to the point that I know every song now just by heart, I know most of the parts to each song by heart.
It starts off with a quick Introduction track, where we hear one club act ending before the MC introduces the band to less-than-thunderous-applause. They launch into a smooth-as-silk jazzy opener, Old Nick’s Laundromat. Tight, crisp, professional playing; this sounds like a late night jazz combo at a smoky club where they don’t serve beer, only liquor, and everyone’s in a suit or a smoking jacket. Baby’s Dropping A Bomb Tonight continues the jazz vein, going uptempo and adding some great backing vocals. Paul Dubois’ voice just soars over everything, wailing with just enough grit to let you feel that somehow you’ve stepped into a noir album.
But then the album changes gears with Kink-A-Thon 680. ”It’s got to be funky!” says the sampled intro clip, and from the backbeat to the wah guitar to the Elwood-style call and response that starts the song, you know this is gonna be upbeat. Once the song kicks in, it’s a restrained screamer about unlikely people and even more unlikely acts.
And then the darkness settles. From the opening klezmer lines of Little Town Lothario, you know this isn’t going to be sunshine and fist pumping, and it isn’t. The band sounds like they’ve seen fellow SF area legends The Residents once or twice as they lay down this wicked groove for a song about 2 wicked people who see each other for what they are, but can’t stop themselves from obeying their basest impulses.
(I Can’t Pay For Your) Pony is a rocker, flat out sweeping a listener along like a flood. Dubois sounds kinda pissed, and the band sounds steamed too, as he details just why his girl’s issues aren’t his fault or his problem to solve. It’s an excellent tune expressing a point of view not often seen in rock: a rant from a man who isn’t misogynistic, simply weary and wary and determined not to get trapped in a bad situation not of his making. The band is on fire here, moving flawlessly from their brand of incendiary rock to mournful carnival music to furious breaks. The drums are impeccable and wicked, especially, while the twin guitars of J2 and Morris Vaughn Samuel III soar and spark.
Butchie And Billy starts with a nifty walking bass line, a sweet searing guitar over the top, and back to that sweet jazz combo sound as we listen to a tale of a relationship destined to crash and burn.
Then, for no reason at all, we get to the single greatest cover of Mack The Knife that I’ve yet heard. I can’t even describe it, except to say I’m confident you’ve never heard this song done like this before. It burns like lava flowing down the side of a mountain.
Another cover follows, the immortal Fever. Again, the strange rock/jazz combo aspect of the band comes out and it’s perfect for this song. For 9 minutes, they sizzle and snake their way thru the tune, complete with horns, and if anything it still ends too soon. This thing positively smolders, I tell ya.
The album closes with Tequila With A Cube Of Sugar/Slap My Fanny, a wacky little clarinet-oriented instrumental that sounds like jazz greats wanking after hours (and after getting themselves in tune, ya know what I’m sayin’?) and producing amazing almost free-jazz type jams before morphing into a tight little riff progression that focuses on the melodic interplay between clarinet and guitar.
The dénouement is just a little Exit, with a quick voiceover from the jazz club’s personnel: ”How’d we do tonight boss?” ”Eh. Not bad. Not bad.”
Throughout, the musicianship on this album is of an incredible quality. These are people who are truly in control of their instruments and their voices. The songwriting is exceptional as well. The band deftly maneuvers around pop song structure to bring strong lounge jazz influences to the forefront. They bring the funk at a moments notice and veer off into psychedelia a la Gong convincingly. They seem to know just how much repetition to use in order to let you hear something enough to develop an earworm without ever getting sick of it. They’re a very talented and versatile group and now, twenty years on, I’m still stunned that they weren’t picked up by a major label or didn’t at least have some independent success.
But check this out: the album enters genius territory when you realize that it’s not just a nifty collection of songs. It’s actually a post-modern-neo-whatsit rock opera; a slice of life at a cool, sleazy, steamy, possibly vaguely illegal club. It’s simply the band describing the people in the room watching them, creating unique musical portraits to fit the fanciful, at times pathetic, tales of the people in this fictional club. After a while, it’s like I could look around the room and see the people in my mind’s eye. Think of it as the last hour at this club, listened to at near real time. After they get done giving a nod to the patrons watching, the band rips into some old favorites and I do mean they rip ‘em, before toning it down and bidding a musical farewell and good night. It just needs a decent tour and this would be gold baby gold I tell ya!
So, now we get down to the nitty gritty. I’ve had this album for 20 years, have listened to it and dissected it and just generally enjoyed the hell out of owning it all these years (I consider the album to be one of the gems of my collection), yet I know very little about the band and it’s members:
Paul Dubois – vocals and clarinet
J2 – guitar, red socks and white loafers
Morris Vaughn Samuel III – guitar, backing vocals
Cheese S. Mitchell – bottom end, 88s
Oliver Sudden – skins
Back in 2008 or maybe 2009 I did some searching, made some phone calls, sent out emails, and did my best gumshoe impersonation. I found a couple of people at various SF local magazines and altpapers who remembered them and even managed to contact the guy who owned the studio where the album was recorded. The record label, Your Name Here Records is long gone and was prolly just set up for this one release (the CD’s catalog # is TOM 1001). Weirdest of all, there’s no publishing information at all: no ASCAP, no BMI.
I never did manage to find any of the guys in the band, or find out what happened to them, to the best of my recollection. In a quick search while prepping to write this, I discovered that I’ve lost most of the notes I made during all that painstaking research, so I’m almost back at Square One again.
Just to be as complete and clear as I can, what I remember learning is that the band existed for 3 years or so in the SF Bay area. I recall a couple of people mentioning that they thought drugs or alcohol took their toll on more than one band member. The one report of death I heard thought that drugs or alcohol might have been involved but couldn’t remember which of the guys it might have been (I’m thinking he said a guitarist, but really can’t recall).
They recorded their album at Richard Sutton’s studio in Atascadero, CA in either 1989 or 1990, and then somehow imploded. I’m sure I have more details in my notes which are now missing (prolly due to last years Great Clean Up™ where I sorted through a lot of old stuff (my writings from college, years of old tax stuff, correspondence, etc.). I threw a lot of stuff away and re-organized the rest, but it was quite a project and so now there’s a lot to go thru to be able to find that particular notebook.
Anyway, this project gave me a way to share this music with people. For all I know, I could be the only person in the world with this CD, with these songs. At least now other people can find them and hear them and appreciate them, and maybe, just maybe, information will trickle in and I can finally find out who these guys were, why they chose the style of music they did when they were surrounded by metal bands and the like, and why it was that despite an incredible self-produced, self-released album, they never had any real success.
If anyone remembers or knows anything about them, or if you just liked their music, please feel free to drop me a line and let me know what you know.