Scouring the depths of the Internet for obscure music releases has been an obsession of mine for quite some time, but with the establishment of this website earlier this year came a renewed purpose for these late-night diversions, or at least that’s what I tell myself. Of course, keeping one’s ear to the ground of any and all happenings in the music world should come as a prerequisite to anyone wishing to maintain an air of credibility amidst the labyrinth of Internet music journalism, but I’ve found there to be more reasons than simply this for staying on the lookout for interesting artists who would otherwise fall under the radar for many music enthusiasts. Not only do I see striking a balance between covering mainstream and underground acts as important as touching on as wide an array of genres as possible for those who wish to offer a comprehensive view of the music world, but I’ve also discovered that it’s typically my reviews of more obscure albums that garner the most views. Of course, although this seems odd on the surface, it makes sense when bearing in mind the fact that the lesser known an artist is, the less coverage they will receive, meaning less competition for websites such as mine, and often leads to the artist coming upon the write-up themselves and sharing it on their social media pages. One less easily explicable phenomenon I have observed, however, is the greater success that my metal reviews specifically have of eventually finding themselves posted on the Facebook walls and Twitter feeds of bands and record labels. Whether this is because metal artists tend to value critical opinion to a greater extent than groups of other stylistic disciplines, or perhaps because metal reviews are fewer in quantity than write-ups of more popular genres, I have no idea, but, needless to say, I’m always in the market for an exceptional or, at least, unique release from the deepest, darkest depths of the metal underground.
A recent excavation of the ‘black metal’ tag on Bandcamp exhumed Serpent Column and a new album entitled Ornuthi Thalassa. Researching the band and this new record of theirs for this review divulged a rather scarce social media presence, with minimal activity on their sparse Facebook page and with even the Bandcamp page on which the record is streaming lacking any information on the artist or their material, instead simply reading, “GO, YE, INTO DESOLATION” in the place of an album description. Even in terms of the album artwork, the image provided through the Bandcamp page is a landscape painting, which I had to crop down to a square size myself for the purpose of displaying it in this write-up. Normally, when in need of contextual knowledge on a metal act for a review, the online metal encyclopaedia that is Metal Archives is incredibly reliable for honing in on even the tiniest of details of some of the most obscure groups that the metal world has to offer. In the case of Serpent Column, however, the only new titbit of info uncovered was the fact that the artist is a duo, comprised of American musicians Theophilos and Maya. When as deprived of insight on an act as I am in an instance such as this, reading further into their name can often unveil a lot more than meets the eye at first, and listening to Ornuthi Thalassa revealed just how apt a name a band name Serpent Column is. Across the album’s six songs, the duo unravels serpentine song structures that meander through tortuous rifts of towering riffage reminiscent of the angular approach to crafting melodies of some of black metal and death metal’s more avant-garde songsmiths, such as Deathspell Omega and possibly even Immolation. With a progressive compositional prowess that sees songs pivot gracefully amidst all of their twists and turns, even as the listener is battered by pummelling changes of pace, and with a flair for riff-craft that preserves the monumental apogees of many of these melodies, even as they strike some downright chilling tones, Serpent Column have fashioned one of the most stunning gems to have been unearthed from the metal underground so far this year.
Biogony I, the opening cut from Ornuthi Thalassa, packages much of the appeal of Serpent Column’s branch of melodically and structurally sophisticated blackened death metal into a rather palatable, four-minute piece, packed to the rafters with relentless riffs that rampantly rip their way through the caverns of frenetic rhythms and the two vocalists’ evil, gargled shrieks. Even amidst the tumult that arises from the tangles of textural intricacy, however, remains an odd sense of catchiness, ranging from the potency of the forcible accents that punctuate the beginning of the song to the passages of breakneck blast beats and thrashing riffage. Indeed, despite the overarching musical motifs of Ornuthi Thalassa moving the album more towards the avant-garde corner of the metal map, Serpent Column nevertheless wrap many of these compositions in the hooky melodies and propulsive rhythms that anchor the record in a pure and raw blackened death metal sound that is unlikely to drive away any purists, even in spite of its unorthodox nature. This impressive balance is perhaps perfectly exemplified by a track such as Feldweg, whose piercing melodies and powerful rushes of driving drumming cocoon the riotous rhythmic upheavals, abrupt tempo changes and other turbulent tendencies in a veneer of accessibility that nonetheless doesn’t detract from the merit of the song’s off-kilter complexity. This is particularly true at around the halfway point of the nine-minute cut, wherein the drums break down into a furore of hammering tom-tom fills, whilst the guitars and the bass weave their way through some exceptionally infectious melodies. Likewise, the closing track, Feuersäule, is introduced by some rapid-fire, palm-muted tremolo-picking, punctuated by sudden interjections of clashing, razor-sharp chords, which potentially strike a semblance of influence from Teutonic thrash metal, before devolving into a dizzying disarray of descending, discordant chords that give way to the acute accents that accompany the vile wails during the first verse. Yet, past this point, the composition seamlessly surges into one of the most groove-driven passages on the entire album, during which the guitar melodies also meet some of their most heroic heights from throughout the tracklisting.
Most definitely, although leaning more towards the progressive side of the blackened death metal spectrum, Ornuthi Thalassa seemingly doesn’t sacrifice a more conventional appeal for complete obtuseness, and a great deal of this stems from the production. Consistently across the album, Theophilos’ guitars retain a crisp, crunchy tone that captures a coercive, fuzzy grumble during the musician’s more rhythmic playing, whilst his frenzied incidentals from the high-end of the fretboard cut like a searing knife. Maya’s drums, too, maintain a quality that is nothing short of crushing across the entirety of the record, with the gaping snap of the snare, in particular, being blisteringly vicious. With both the guitars and the drums piercing through the mix so cleanly, the chaotic textures of most of these cuts are nevertheless easy to navigate from the listener’s point of view, with most of each track’s components being potently apparent. Although the bass sometimes falls prey to the raw, black metal production that so commonly swallows up the low-end of the mix, when it is readily discernible, it massively bolsters some of the album’s most vigorous moments.
With regards to criticisms of Ornuthi Thalassa, the record’s admittedly narrow selection of imperfections typically relate to its structure and overall diversity of ideas, as, although Serpent Column’s compositional blueprint is a rigid one that yields excellent results, it is nevertheless a formula that is recycled to the point of leaving the record, as a whole, somewhat one-note in tone. To call any album as compositionally convoluted as this one ‘one-dimensional’ would surely be unfair, but Ornuthi Thalassa could certainly have seen Serpent Column integrate a broader pool of musical motifs into their labyrinthine songwriting style. Of course, given that the record is a concise 36 minutes in length — with two of these minutes being dedicated to the eerie guitar tinkering on Theasis, whose purpose seems largely hinged on offering a sense of respite from the barrage of blackened death metal that bookends the track — it’s not as if the duo’s finesse for finely-crafted compositions and riffs has grown old by the time of Feuersäule at all, with the final two tracks, in fact, being perhaps the album’s strongest. Nevertheless, given how strong a sound Serpent Column carve out for themselves on Ornuthi Thalassa, seeing the band expand the scope of their modus operandi across a more varied palette of ideas could unequivocally produce a more dynamic and detailed style on future releases.
There are always treasures to be found amongst the most cryptic depths of any genre, but metal seems to harbour some exceptionally creative bright sparks in the midst of its murky underground scenes, and Serpent Column have proven themselves to be one of the more eye-catching metal gems to have been brought to light thus far in 2017 on Ornuthi Thalassa. The outfit’s sinuous song structures, immense sense of melody and imposing stylings amount to a thundering uproar emanating from the extreme metal underground that could surely send crashing waves throughout the metal community if enough people were to listen.
The Vinyl Verdict: 7.5/10