Thursday, December 3, 2009

Hguols - Epitome (2009)

I like music that is "out of bounds". Material that does its own thing, without regard to convention or the usually arbitrary "rules" of a defined genre. I applaud artists that think outside the box & experiment with their music, even if sometimes it's not all I hoped it might be based upon the experiment. Thus, any time I am introduced to an artist doing something unique or taking an unconventional approach, I flock to their material to check it out & get a bead on this approach, at the very least. Such is the case with Hguols.

Hguols, the reverse of the word "slough", is also pronounced in reverse, or "fulse". With an unconventional name comes an unconventional approach. This is black metal, but there are no guitars. "How can that be?" you immediately say. Well, this is metal played on MIDI. All the instrumentation here is done via the computer and all the instruments are virtual. So while the guitars may not buzz with the same raw energy that a real guitar does, or the music may have a certain "sheen" that most underground black metal lacks, this approach lends itself to the more symphonic & experimental side of the genre, which is generally what I prefer. In any event, this is an instrumental affair, and an interesting one at that.

Opening track "...of Resurrections" begins with a "choir" and symphonic intro, with a touch of piano in the background, that I wish was a bit higher in the mix. From then on, nearly the entire track is an aural assault with some variation & interesting things going on in the background, including some subtle choir and keyboard work, and a few things with the drums & cymbals that are rhythmically different from what is done on the CD elsewhere. "...of Unprecedented Deaths" has a slight guitar intro, followed by what can only be described as a short drum solo, or at least as close to a drum solo as one can come in such a short span of time, via MIDI instrumentation. Otherwise, the song blazes ahead at full speed with blast beats, rolls, fast riffing, and lots of little cymbal crashes here & there. Of course, the harpsichord makes an appearance here and there for very brief respite moments before the song goes on assaulting the listener. There are nice symphonic touches present here & there, buried a tad in the mix so they don't overpower the song. This song has a really cool moment toward the end where the guitars scale down for a really interesting effect not present anywhere else on the album. "...of Threnodies Abided" is probably my favorite track on the album, having a nice dark, minor-chord approach to the riffs, a fair bit of symphonics going on, and some nice harpsichord and keyboard work throughout that just gives the song a very "layered" feel to it. There are also a couple cool stop-start moments here that break up the fast riffing monotony & draw the listener in a bit more. The harpsichord solo as the song begins to draw to a close is nice, complete with choir backing and showcasing a symphonic feel in much of the latter half. "...of Burning Plagues" begins much differently, with a symphonic intro that has several layers of "instruments" prior to the fast black metal assault that takes place. The music becomes even more intense here than in the previous track, mostly due to the constant thump of the double-bass drums and the heavy use of cymbal crashes throughout. This track barely lets up, choosing to obliterate everything in its path, at least until the last 45 seconds comes in & reprises the symphonic intro, which is a nice touch. "...of Sovereign Toccatas" has more of the great MIDI harpsichord sound, including a couple spots where only the harpsichord is playing & really shines, in part because the harpsichord parts not only sound like a real harpsichord is playing, but also because they're written like harpsichord bits you hear in classical music. The harpsichord runs here are also great, because they focus on some non-traditional instrumentation for black metal, which adds a nice unique layer to this song. This track is also fairly melodic, with some subtle piano work in the mix as well.

"...of Winter Moons" begins almost immediatley in full-speed fashion, with fast drum rhythms, riffing, and symphonic elements adding the extra layer underneath. Things change up a bit to a slower overall drum rhythm to keep things interesting, then speed up again to further assault the listener with a healthy dose of traditional black metal rhythmic drive & power. "...of Famine and Decay" has a cool, almost cello-like sound in its intro, and a much lower-key vibe to it, though still fast & furious. The drum work, though programmed, is nicely done, with a lot of layering of cymbals, tom rolls, and just little bits here & there that really showcase good drum composition. The symphonic outro of this track is also cool, though short. "...of Sorrowed Hearts" begins strictly with MIDI guitar, then some drum work bringing the track into full pummel-mode. Plenty of keyboard backdrop to accompany the assault, and more well-programmed drums to keep up the frenetic pace. The primary riffs here have an interesting effect because it's a MIDI sound, and has a unique feel to it because of that fact. The ringing outro is a nice touch here as well. "...of Blackened Skies" wastes no time, and immediately begins pummeling the listener with its MIDI double bass, guitar, bass, cymbals, and keyboard sounds. Right off the bat, though you can tell these are not real instruments playing, some of it sounds relatively real, such as the drums, keyboard sounds, and the cymbals. There's a nice symphonic break about a minute and a half in that uses the MIDI "choir" sound effectively, and some good drum rolls, then blows back into the blast beats and fast riffing. "...of Eternity" immediately starts in with a fairly dark melodic riff, complete with pummeling drums & bass. The "choir" effect adds a nice layer as well here & there, giving the music a more "full" feel to it. The sudden stop nearly a minute and a half in for a short harpsichord interlude is great, then shifts to a symphonic piece with timpani, keyboards, and atmospherics that barely prepare you for the full-speed attack that ensues.

One thing that the MIDI format provides that a lot of real underground black metal lacks is clarity. Indeed, you can make out the melody here much more clearly than you can in much raw, under-produced black metal. Even when the melodic element is much more sparse or dissonant, it's still easily discernible. This gives Hguols a unique opportunity to do some very interesting & unique things, as well as exploring some of the riffing conventions of the black metal style, while giving the untrained metal ear perhaps their first taste of some of those conventions in a manner that they may be more apt to decipher.
The ride cymbals here, and for the most part, the high-hat work actually sounds fairly realistic, and the snare & tom work sounds much like triggered drums in the studio, so whatever MIDI set Tom is using here is definitely a winner from a drumming perspective. What I found as a listener is that this is much more dense than most MIDI compositions, so a patient listener will get much more out of this upon several listens, rather than expecting to simply be immediatley rewarded.

What the MIDI format lacks, obviously, is true guitar heaviness or bite. This is apparent throughout the listening experience, however, it doesn't completely detract from the album. In some ways, it fully embodies a black metal aesthetic, as the MIDI format has little or no ability to be "warm" like guitar tones can sometimes be, so it retains that "cold" feeling that much raw black metal strives for. That is probably the greatest strength of the MIDI guitar here, that it has a "colder" feel to it. The biggest drawback of this format is that all of the riffs feel like they're played at the same speed. This is necessary, in some ways, to generate the overall effect of listening to a distorted guitar, because without that constant motion, the MIDI guitar sound becomes a bit too sterile, lacking the power that a real guitar boasts. This limitation of the format is overcome, somewhat, by the interesting use of very minor chord melodies that help detract from the synthesized feel of the guitar. Because of the nature of the riffs here simulating the tremolo picking as well, the riffing is somewhat repetitive & the songs suffer slightly because of it. If there were more instances of slowed down bits, or areas where some songs could "breathe" more, it would create more interest. The other obvious thing missing is vocals. While I understand the concept of all MIDI for ease of recording, I do think this stuff would be great with some shrieks or rasps over top of it all. However, this is a minor complaint and not a deal-breaker.

Ultimately, this is a mixed bag that is mostly very good. I think perhaps Thomas (the sole member of Hguols) should either consider finding a more varied MIDI instrument set, perhaps with a more realistic distorted/metal guitar sound that he can tweak for maximum effect, or perhaps consider moving from the MIDI format to the MOD format, in which many MOD tracker software programs can more accurately capture the feel of a real instrument. Indeed, many Commodore Amiga games in the 90's had soundtracks that are still highly lauded today, because the MOD format allowed for much more expansive soundscapes than what the Microsoft Windows MIDI format could produce. There are a number of games, as well as individual MOD compositions that have a more realistic distorted guitar sound, to give more of a heavy rock/metal feel. Of course, this could also be seen as a detriment to the sound of Hgouls, considering the "cold" and "distant" feeling that black metal is designed to evoke. Either way, I think an expanded instrumental palate on the next release would be in order, so as not to overdo the formula too quickly. All in all, much like the a capella metal band Van Canto, this is a very unique, interesting, and listenable project. I look forward to what Thomas does in the future with this project, because I think this CD shows he has the capability to produce something very unique, interesting, and engaging. Recommended for anyone into black metal that enjoys, or perhaps prefers the non-traditional diversions of the genre, rather than for genre purists who prefer nothing but straight-up, old-school black metal with no frills.


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