Splitsville: What Makes a Truly Great Metal Split?

Barghest/False
Untitled
Gilead Media
2012-09-18

Gilead Media is a record label based in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Founded in 2005 by Adam Bartlett, the label deals primarily in vinyl releases, although it has an active Bandcamp page for those less inclined to spin the black circle. Bartlett handles all the aspects of Gilead Media’s operations, dealing with the endless minutiae of running a DIY label. Underground labels like this, run by dedicated music fans, form the backbone of the metal scene. For little, or more commonly zero, financial reward, such labels provide the all-important skeletal framework onto which the metal scene affixes its muscle.

The determined spirit that Gilead Media and its many kin exhibit has always nurtured the metal scene. In that underground the most interesting ideas and sounds germinate and come to fruition. One of the more bountiful crops, reaping fantastic yields and providing fans with extra sustenance over the years, is split releases. The best metal is all about tilling the artistic soil for ideas, working hard till your hands are calloused, and hopefully cultivating rich and nourishing results. What have any of these farming metaphors got to do with Gilead Media? Well, the label has harvested a prize-worthy release with the new split release from black metal groups False and Barghest.

Splits 101

Split releases have played a crucial role in highlighting metal’s varied and increasingly cross-pollinating sub-genres for decades (as they have for a variety of genres — punk, electronica, or otherwise). Historically, acts usually contributed a few tracks each to a split, divvying-up the running time fairly evenly. These days, it’s not unusual to find acts providing a single mammoth track, and all manner of permeations pervade.

Keeping track of a band’s discography can prove difficult if it happens to be prolific, releasing material on multiple labels in multiple formats as well as self-releasing works on the side. Splits add to the confusion, because in many cases they are limited physical releases–although the digital age has done much to negate the difficulty of locating them. Splits comprise acts of similar and dissimilar sonic brogues, and with metal’s wanton commingling, conceptual and philosophical similarities are often the binding traits.

There are many advantages to sharing a split release. Aside from reducing costs–an important element in a genre filled with struggling artists and labels–a split also allows a band to promote its work to another’s fan base (and vice versa). Bands can also link themes across splits, or indulge in a little competitive one-upmanship, seeing who can out-brutalize or out-dazzle the other. That makes the listening experience even more stimulating, as you mull over whose contribution you favor. Splits are often beautifully packaged, an opportunity for visual artists, labels and bands to collaborate more adventurously, especially on limited edition releases.

Of course, splits are not always put together with the best intentions; some are mere stopgaps between releases, some are bootleg cash-grabs of no benefit to either artists or fans. Others are comprised of previously unreleased tracks that should have stayed that way. Still, when they work well, mystical or more temporal motifs combined with barbaric, intricate or catchy hooks make for stellar splits. Obviously, those very same qualities are crucial for a full-length too, but given the succinct format of a split, there’s little time for filler.

Splits 102

The metal genre is replete with classic split releases. Many are formative, seminal works, routinely cited as hugely inspirational and offering the first (sometimes only) glimpses of bands that would go on to define metal’s various sub-genres. There are untold thousands of splits in the annals of metal, and whittling those down to a chosen few is near impossible. Splits are usually (but not exclusively) subterranean releases, and also deeply personal works for fans, often hidden from the mainstream and spoken of in whispers.

Accordingly, it’s difficult to judge the artistic hierarchy of splits. Cleary, ’89’s Napalm Death/S.O.B split, and ’99’s Thorns/Emperor release are important in a historical context. But are they more important to fans than, say, ’05’s Graves at Sea/Asunder split, or ’04’s Xasthur/Leviathan and Agalloch/Nest releases? Katatonia and Primordial’s 10-inch split from ’97 might represent the perfect combination of acts for some. But so too might ’11’s Creeping/Glorior Belli 12-inch, Rites of Spiritual Death, or S.V.E.S.T and Deathspell Omega’s collaboration from ’08, Veritas Diaboli Manet in Aeternum. (Yet others might point to ’89’s Metal Duck/Lawnmower Deth’s Mower Liberation Front/Quack ‘Em All as a true highlight.)

Ultimately, those personal reactions to split releases make the format so fascinating. The Celestiial/Blood of the Black Owl split from ’08 might be something you cherish, and will argue the merits of ad infinitum. However, this year’s Year of No Light/Altar of Plagues and Funebrarum/Undergang splits are equally important–and why isn’t everyone still hollering about those Ash Borer/Fell Voices and Panopticon/Wheels Within Wheels releases?

A genuinely great metal split not only provides fantastically thundering music; if you’re lucky it also sparks a fire of debate. If there’s one thing a metal fan loves as much as some thoroughly bruising music, it’s a damn good tussle over who bests who in the riff-wielding arena. Which brings us back to Gilead Media, and a look at five recent collaborations, with the aim of deciphering and illuminating some of the elements that go into making a great split release.

Barghest/False

The recent release from Barghest and False is not the only split Gilead Media has released in ’12 that left metal fans frothing at the bit and reaching quickly for their wallets. Resurrection Bay, from prolific swamp dredger Thou and fellow sludgy drone-hound Hell, offered a glimpse into everything that makes a split a success–enthralling tunes, beautiful artwork, and word of its release spreading rapidly through the grapevine. The Barghest/False release continues that lesson.

Barghest, of Louisiana, and False, of Minnesota, have both already released well-received (and well worth acquiring) debuts for Gilead Media. Spawned from the diverse US black metal scene, both bands have a different accent. Barghest concentrates on crustier, old school, vile bursts of black metal, while False, no less an abrasive entity, takes a more serpentine route before letting loose the savagery.

Barghest’s contributions, “Shifting Sands” and “Inhuman Hatred”, are both fetid ruptures of misanthropy and bile–the iniquitous, clotted putrescence of heinous Southern metal drips from each track. Counterpointing that, False offers something initially subtler. With more overt Scandinavian influences, the band’s 17-minute “Heavy As a Church Tower” crawls forth at first. Shimmery tremolo riffs and sinister keyboards sculpt a desolate vista, before things become perfectly pitch black as rasping wrathful vocals arrive.

The disparity between the two approaches, and the commonalities of the two acts, makes the split extremely successful. These two relatively new black metal bands reveal the breadth of the contemporary US scene. Both clearly owe a debt to the genre’s forbears, yet each transforms those influences into something wholly its own–the perfect illustration of a classic split.

Alaric/Atriarch

Often, the attraction of a split release is the overriding thematic connections between acts. Such is the case between California’s Alaric and Oregon’s Atriarch. Their recent split represents two distinctly different stylistic approaches. Yet both bands retain very similar ritualistic and esoteric themes, circling an intersecting core of gothic ruminations.

Alaric released its debut self-titled full-length in 2011 on revered label 20 Buck Spin. The deathrock band, comprising veterans from the Bay Area punk and crossover scenes, plays a blend of post and anarcho-punk combined with icy avant-rock. While certainly not ‘metal’ in any traditional sense, Alaric’s debut was welcomed by fans of heavy rock. Its intensity and atmosphere was unrelenting, similar to the best morbidly toned work of Killing Joke or Christian Death. Atriarch also released its debut album in 2011 on the excellent label Seventh Rule. Forever the End was a heavily ceremonial mix of blackened doom, post-punk and off-kilter black metal. It too was widely acclaimed in both metal and non-metal circles.

What makes this split so special is that it was crafted specifically as a joint release, with both bands aiming to complement each other philosophically and sonically. Atriarch has concentrated on mid-tempo dirges, while retaining every ounce of its apocalyptic feel. Its two tracks, ” Oblivion” and “Offerings”, are resoundingly grim. “Offerings” slathers on the suffocating doom before robotic post-punk appears, and the band smothers it all with a surge of black metal.

Alaric’s three tracks are no less cataclysmic. “Memory Assault”, “So Far Down”, and “Weep” exhibit a wonderfully bleak ambience. Tribal percussion, and a guitar tone that drifts from hyper to hypothermic, are blended with thick textural waves of ’80s atmospherics, resulting in a steadfastly melancholic mood throughout.

The Alaric/Atriarch split represents two bands merging homologous threads to craft a potent mix. Each band faces the same precipice of desolation, and though each has taken a different path to arrive at that point, they both provide nuanced works that are resolutely bound together in their totality of darkness and despair.

Adversarial/Antediluvian

That powerful collaborative fusion, where the result is greater than the sum of its parts, has made for many a great split release. This year’s Initiated in Impiety as Mysteries LP, from bestial Canadian death metal groups Adversarial and Antediluvian, is one of the best examples of the dark energies of two bands coming together to sculpt a singular work of thematic and musical prowess.

Both bands take a side each of the 12-inch to explore different representations of monstrosity. Side ‘Leviathan’, features three new tracks from Adversarial. Unlike the band’s ’10 debut, All Idols Fall before the Hammer, which suffered from a fairly jarring production, here the band delivers the songs with the thickness and solidity they deserve. Dissonant and muddy, but not murky enough to obscure the technicality, this is the band’s strongest set of tunes so far.

Antediluvian tackling the ‘Lucifer’ side of the LP couldn’t be more apt. The band’s ’11 full length, Through the Cervix of Hawaah, was one of the year’s best–an eerie purge of abhorrent death metal and sacrilegious blackened noise. On Initiated in Impiety as Mysteries Antediluvian’s three tracks continue the band’s esoteric and arcane examinations. They combine distorting, filthy riffs with guttural spews and discordant dirges–transforming frostier black metal bursts into swampy, suffocating noise.

Adversarial bring the obliteration, Antediluvian bring the corruption, and where they meet the resulting desecrations are oppressively atmospheric and seamlessly dark. Splits such as these are rare, but it says much about both bands that they’re willing to work together for the greater evil. This release is a consummate amalgamation of all that is devilish and remorseless about metal.

Cara Neir/Ramlord

A split release that draws attention to the commonalties of the groups involved, be they thematic or musical, often makes for a magnificent brew. But a split that contrasts bands can be just as successful as one that compares–underscoring the attraction of particular sonic articulations and highlighting each artist’s abilities. Case in point: the recent split from experimental black metal duo Cara Neir and crusty stenchcore trio Ramlord. Available on digital download and limited edition cassette from label Broken Limbs Recordings.

Much like Gilead Media, Broken Limbs Recordings has steadfastly maximized the potential of the digital realm via a fantastic Bandcamp page. It has also invested heavily in providing aesthetically and artistically challenging physical releases. Mandatory purchases from the label are Avulse’s I Am the Liquor and We Are Code, a stunning self-titled debut EP from Vattnet Viskar, and the recent Cara Neir/Ramlord split, which features two bands with markedly different accents to great effect.

Cara Neir is an experimental black metal band, though post-metal, sludge and punk also play a role in its sound–the prospect of being restricted by genre parameters is clearly abhorrent to this outfit. Stagnant Perceptions, the band’s ’11 album, was widely acclaimed. Its contributions to the new split, three raw and blazing tremolo onslaughts, are equally as good as anything from their previous full-length. Chaotic and frenzied, yet unafraid to amplify the despair with cleaner, more isolated passages, the injection of mystifying melodies takes nothing away from the vicious lo-fi screeds.

That same raw energy continues with Ramlord’s track. The 10-minute “Affliction of Clairvoyance (Part One)” draws in doom, sludge and crust punk, and smears it across the track with no thought for seclusion or shelter. As on Ramlord’s ’11 crusty full-length, Stench of Fallacy, the band deals in harrowing, unrefined brawls. Feedback-soaked punk, hardcore and crust are melded to a chugging metallic tempo on the epic song they contribute to the split.

Both bands gaze upon the heart in which punk and metal meet, yet each looks from a vastly different perspective; Cara Neir from the tundra where its forbears roamed, Ramlord from the sweltering heat of a million punk bands playing a million squat shows. Each band is distinctive, but as the offspring of such raucous progenitors they show the best attributes of metal and punk: willfulness, and a staunch desire to disobey.

Converge/Napalm Death

Split releases were born from the world of the 7-inch, and today you’ll still find an abundance of searing tirades satisfying fans and vinyl aficionados. Top of the pile of recent 7-inches, certainly in terms of anticipated works, is the new Converge/Napalm Death release. At a succinct 7.37 minutes long, you’ll not get much briefer, or fierier.

A split from Converge, US metal and hardcore legend, and Napalm Death, British grindcore pioneer, is a match made in heaven. The result is fittingly obstreperous and brutal (with beautifully dour artwork from Converge frontman Jacob Bannon). Converge’s personal narratives are explored on “No Light Escapes”. A cacophonous and bruising 52-second deluge, the song is set to be included on the band’s upcoming new full-length, All We Love We Leave Behind. Also included on the split is a cover of Entombed’s classic, “Wolverine Blues”, delivered in a “We are the World” fashion with guests Tomas Lindberg (Disfear, At the Gates), Aaron Turner (Isis, Old Man Gloom) and others joining the shout-along blitz.

Side B, or track three if you’ve gone for the digital download, features Napalm Death doing what they do best with “Will By Mouth” and “No Impediment to Triumph (Bhopal)”. The latter directly engages the horrors of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, with vocalist Barney Greenway’s vicious expectorations firing though the dissonance, and the former is 86 seconds of perfectly battering grindcore. A fine follow-up to the band’s outstanding ’12 album, Utilitarian.

Both bands are famed for thoughtful commentaries and each has released a raft of splits before. What makes this one of ’12’s very best? It’s simply 7.37 minutes of two legendary bands firing off strident broadsides. There’s nothing complicated about it at all; it’s the extremely brief summation of a metal fan’s dream. And often that’s all it takes for a split to work: the concise fulfillment of wishes (no matter how dark, nightmarish or fiendish they may be).

Death and Taxes (and Splits)

The wealth of artistic effort that goes in to creating musically and visually impressive splits ensures they will always have a ready audience–be that from dedicated collectors, or fans lucky enough to uncover a particular treasure. The proliferation of easily downloadable music has reduced the obscurity of many splits, and made sourcing them infinitely easier, at least in digital form. Whether that’s positive or negative is debatable, but it has certainly increased the overall allure of splits.

The split release remains one of metal’s most enticing mediums, for good reason. Whether coalescing the similarities of bands, or providing a forum to explore common themes, the benefits of a split are many. From a creative viewpoint, splits represent the compact encapsulation of the very best attributes of metal. Crucially, they serve as a lure–encouraging fans to dig deeper, discover more bands, and indulge in ever more steely hedonism.

New splits arrive in abundance every month, and there’s no room to cover them all here, much as I’d love to. Recent splits from the likes of Coffinworm/Fistula, Grave Upheaval/Manticore, and Wheels Within Wheels/Merkaba might all deserve a mention, but they form just a part of an increasingly long list that has added girth to metal’s prodigious proportions over the years. And therein lie the real rewards of a great split: the obvious sonic satisfaction, and the pure joy of discovery.

Metalheads are already some of the biggest collectors of vinyl, tapes and merchandise, and digging around in the underground for a damn good split is ceaseless fun. Such pursuits usually prove to be financially ruinous in the end, but hell, you can’t take it with you, and you might as well fill the time before your demise with as much furious noise as possible.

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