[24 January 2014]
PopMatters Assistant Editor
Generational biases in music can be irksome. The notion that one period of time, be it a year or a decade, necessarily holds a monopoly on “the best” or “the true” variant of a genre requires a degree of clairvoyance that seems unlikely for anyone to be able to possess, even the most knowledgeable of music historians. There does come a time, however, where questions along the lines of, “What the hell happened?!” are perfectly legitimate to ask. Such is the case for heavy metal in 2013, a genre whose most acclaimed album of the year is the excellent (albeit annoyingly hyped) Sunbather by Deafheaven, which for every black metal scream and heavy riff offers up gorgeous, unheavy guitar tones and dreamy shoegaze textures. Those who swear by Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, and Mercyful Fate as the gatekeepers of heavy metal’s legacy are unlikely to let Deafheaven pass the kvlt test with flying colors. Hybridization can be exciting, but ontology is a legitimate frame of reference for those who truly love a genre and are perplexed by the divergent directions it has come to take. Metal’s continual splintering into new (sub)genres finds a philosophical parallel in the sand heap dilemma: if one begins to pull grains of sand from a heap one by one, at what point does it stop becoming a heap?
Of the many irreducible features that one might extract from the ever-changing heavy metal formula, one undoubtedly essential one is The Riff. (There’s even a festival devoted to it, headed up by the riffmasters behind Sunn 0))).) There’s something to a heavy metal riff that goes beyond a normal rock n’ roll lick, much in the same way one can, to some degree, distinguish between the classic rock of Led Zeppelin and the doom metal of Black Sabbath (though, of course, the influence of the former on heavy metal is undeniable). This quality of the riff is one deeply understood by Swedish traditional heavy metal up-and-comer Noctum, who on its sophomore LP Final Sacrifice hones in on a deep understanding of classic rock and heavy metal to produce a set of songs that from start to finish pay tribute to the mighty wonders of The Riff. Highlight cut “Liberty in Death” takes a groovy riff and plays it through a basic twelve-bar blues structure, a simple yet effective trick that highlights how sometimes the greatest things about a style don’t necessarily have to be highfalutin and complicated. There’s something indescribable about a good riff, something that goes beyond its technical aspects, beyond the particular distortion or the pickups on the guitar; whatever that ineffable quality is, Noctum has as fine a grasp on it as anyone.
Like In Solitude, whose own 2013 release Sister became the late-year critical darling in metal, Noctum has been chided for what is perceived as an over-reliance on the sounds of metal luminaries like Mercyful Fate. The comparison is fair, and indeed obvious, but like In Solitude—whose method of differentiation on Sister came with the incorporation of goth—Noctum doesn’t merely throw itself at the feet of the altar of heavy metal and call it quits. Like a jazz troupe offering up its own take on a genre standard, Noctum knows how to take a tired-but-true formula, be it the twelve bar blues or the ABA song structure, and remind its audience why they are so timeless in the first instance. “Deadly Connection”, an instrumental cut that might just be Final Sacrifice‘s shining moment, wields the guitar shuffle of Stevie Ray Vaughan in tandem with the bluesy, sleazy swagger of Aerosmith at its best. “The Revisit” morphs from a plodding Sabbathian bass to a chugging riff backed by double bass, a method that may be easy to predict but is nonetheless supremely satisfying.
What makes Final Sacrifice further enticing is how it captures the sound of a band not yet at its peak. These mighty Swedes have clearly studied up on their sonic progenitors, and while on this LP they’re displaying these influences to an impressive effect, there is still much work to be done in expanding them. The way in which Noctum explores both classic rock and heavy metal together allows them room to expand either one. This Sacrifice is a fine offering, but hopefully it’s far from final.