Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Aiming for forever: Krisiun's steady climb to greatness in the face of Metal Myopia

Note: The following post is presented with gratitude to the great Bill Ward, who included Krisiun's Southern Storm among his top 10 metal albums of all time, in a list that he assembled for and later discussed with me in detail — see also this interview drawn from the same conversation, dealing with his current perspective on the Black Sabbath Siatution — thus inspiring me to really delve into this band's work for the first time.

What does a fan of death metal want? After following and living with this style of music for roughly 25 years, I'm starting to realize that there's no good answer to this question. Or at least no all-purpose one. It would seem that so-called extreme metal draws much, if not all, of its strength from its passionate, opinionated fan base — the ones who come to the gigs, buy the records (or at least illegally download them and argue about them on message boards) and T-shirts, and generally wave the flag for their favorite bands in quasi-patriotic fashion. In a resolutely anti-pop, or, one could even say, extra-pop (as in, outside of...), medium, your relationship with your public is really your only currency.

But to circle back, what does that public want? I can only really speak for myself. I'll do so here using my latest death-metal obsession, the long-running Brazilian band Krisiun, as an example. During the past couple weeks, I've worked my way through pretty much their entire discography, and what's been most rewarding about this listening project is charting the band's steady march to what I view as greatness. By this I mean, more specifically, hearing how over the course of 10 albums and around 27 years, they've grown into their own skin, gradually locating what their unique contribution to the rich tradition of death metal might be, and then honing and perfecting that, while — and this part is key — also learning to gaze outward, backward and beyond, as they transcend petty and ultimately arbitrary notions of so-called underground authenticity, enriching, strengthening and clarifying their sound with the goal of making a lasting impact on the larger culture of heavy metal.

Metalheads love to draw lines in the sand, barriers of supposed legitimacy: "Metallica are dead to me after the first four albums," "I only listen to the demos," that sort of thing. (Call it Metal Myopia.) In death metal, the idea behind this logic, as I understand it, is that you want only the purest state of primitivism, the work that stems out of somehow not knowing any better. In Krisiun's case, their first full-length, 1995's Black Force Domain is a good example of this:

I get it, of course. There's something deeply appealing about the way this music smothers the rational mind, storming out of the speakers like some unholy tornado. (I'm a huge fan of Revenge, for example, a band that lives for pure sonic filth, or as I put it here "barf music.")

But in all honesty, there's also something boring about it. Of the 10 Krisiun albums I've listened to recently, Black Force Domain and its 1998 follow-up, Apocalyptic Revelation, were the only ones that felt like a chore to sit through. These records felt like onslaughts to be endured rather than music to be enjoyed. And again, believe me, I get it, the idea that metal is, on some deep level, masochistic. But at a certain point, I tend to want music to go somewhere, to reveal a sense of form, a reason for being. (Not too surprising that the die-hards don't seem to agree; poke around the message boards and you'll find plenty of "It's all downhill after Black Force Domain" proclamations regarding Krisiun's body of work.)

After Apocalyptic Revelation, the band got down to the sometimes controversial business (in death metal, at least) of evolving. On 2000's Conquerors of Armageddon, the feral energy of the early stuff is still there, but the music is starting to take some kind of shape, make some kind of sense. The rabid energy is still there, but you can tell here that the band — made up of brothers Alex Camargo on bass and vocals, guitarist Moyses Kolesne and drummer Max Kolesne — is starting to pay attention to dynamics, to structure, to precision, to the craft of their musical violence.

Ageless Venomous, from '01, goes even further in this direction. It's also an album that sums up a lot of the issues — the word "problems" might be more apt, but I'm being diplomatic — with death metal production from, say, the mid-to-late '90s through the early 2000s. (Death-metal production problems still persist, of course, but what I like to call the Pro Tools Nightmare, that insanely artificial-sounding approach illustrated by recent Immolation and, especially, Suffocation albums, didn't really seem to come into full flower until the 2010s.) Fascinatingly, this band that once wholeheartedly embraced a primitivist sonic dust cloud decided here that they were ready to be fully and completely heard. (Max Kolesne on Ageless Venemous: "It sounds clearer, it shows how precise we can play, there is no blurry parts, everything is there, and that's exactly what we were trying to get.") The album's sound is almost shockingly dry: All sense of sonic space is absent, leaving a weirdly neutered sound that I've actually come to enjoy on multiple listens, largely because of how alien and unconventional it is. The sound only serves to highlight the aesthetic risks the band was taking at this time; see the album's pair of instrumentals: the near-six-minute death-prog workout "Serpents Specters" and dizzying 90-second acoustic track "Diableros," which sounds something like John McLaughlin's Shakti meets Rodrigo y Gabriela.

The band's next album, 2003's Works of Carnage, is, to me, a clear demarcation point in their discography, and the point at which Krisiun really became themselves, so to speak. On songs like "Murderer" and "Wolfen Tyranny," you can hear them embracing this sort viciously precise staccato riffing style that would become one hallmark of their mature style.

As opposed to the undifferentiated, everything-in-the-red approach of the early work, here the band is expertly controlling the interplay of stabbing attack and cold silence. A song like this almost strikes me as the death-metal equivalent of Helmet, in the sense that the sonic blank spaces the band builds in only make the violence of the riffs themselves that much more pronounced. (Venerable metal writer, and my former Invisible Oranges editor, Cosmo Lee was all over this principle in his beautifully written Pitchfork review of Krisiun's 2008 LP, Southern Storm, as solid a summation of the band's appeal as you'll read: "Now their signature is precise machine-gun riffs punctuated by short pauses," he writes. He's also dead-on re: Max's parts sounding like "drum rudiments on steroids." It's noteworthy that Cosmo was all over the online metal beat — and paying close attention to worthy yet wholly unfashionable bands such as Krisiun, to boot — well before the current metal blogosphere took shape.)

You can hear how by this time, the band has essentially thrown out the stock death-metal playbook — the blastbeat is still there, but it's been obsessively chiseled, manipulated, honed. Instead of just surrendering to primal, blasphemous energy, the Krisiun of 2003 is making choices. They're making their music work for them rather than the other way around, and in the process taking steps toward becoming a band that's busy carving out a distinctive and substantial legacy, rather than one that embodies some fetishized idea of primitivism. (Reflecting more on Metal Myopia, I think it's a mindset that values underground cachet at the expense of actual, honest-to-God greatness; witness the common overuse of words like "legendary" in reference to bands who broke up before they even so much as recorded an album, went on tour or, you know, made music worth listening to.)

The upswing continues on the next three Krisiun releases: 2004's Bloodshed (an EP's worth of new songs plus a handful of tracks from the band's 1993 EP Unmerciful Order), 2006's AssassiNation and 2008's Southern Storm. I'm still getting to know these records, but they've nevertheless become instant death-metal core canon for me. Especially by the time of Southern Storm, the band just sounds so in control of its volatile materials, weaving the furious blasting that lies at the heart of its sound into gripping, epic songs. Here's Krisiun playing the opening track of that record, "Slaying Steel," on a Brazilian TV show in 2015 (I highly recommend checking out both full episodes of this show Estúdio Showlivre that the band has appeared on, from 2013 and 2015; incredible to see full-length death-metal performances being documented in-studio like this):

Krisiun may have reached their intensity threshold on Southern Storm, but they still had plenty of growing to do. It's tough for me to pick a favorite record of theirs, but if pressed, I'd go with their next LP, 2011's The Great Execution — a frankly stunning album and one that makes me wonder where the hell my head was at that year when I could have been savoring this upon its release. (I certainly knew of Krisiun and had heard bits and pieces of their work over the years, but this recent listening jag represents my first real dive into their catalog.)

To my ears, this is the album where Krisiun really graduated into the realm of the death-metal elite, populated by some of their key influences such as Morbid Angel and Deicide. Before, they were masters of speed, intensity, tightness. Here, they focus more on dynamics and variety — without losing an ounce of their patented ferocity — and the results are magical, one of those death-metal albums where the subgenre tag seems entirely superfluous. Think of a record like Morbid Angel's Domination or Death's Symbolic, albums that bear obvious "extreme" trappings but that present their ideas in such clear, accessible fashion that any metalhead with open ears can easily hear the brilliance on display.

Songs like "Blood of Lions" and "The Extremist" feature blast sections as fierce as the ones on unremitting speedfests like Conquerors of Armageddon, but here they're framed by tasteful set-ups and ass-kicking breakdowns, and topped with catchy-as-fuck choruses. You can hear Krisiun reveling in the fist-pumping power of metal that really and truly rocks. Songs like "Descending Abomination" place half-time riffs front and center, and the results recall the best of Morbid Angel's slower moments circa Domination, or the groovier bits of Sepultura's Chaos A.D — like The Great Execution, albums that marry the fury of the underground with the crowd-savvy accessibility of more mainstream acts. (The fact that Execution is the best-produced album of Krisiun's career to date — big ups to Andy Classen — doesn't hurt one bit.)

As you can see from this 2004 Moyses Kolesne quote — emphasis mine — from the Works of Carnage period, the band had been thinking along these lines for a while:

You gain maturity after touring a lot. We've learned so much. We play so much better now. We've played for such huge crowds. We've seen how people react; we've seen how the dynamics of the groove works. We've learned to work more into the groove, into the dynamics of the music itself. We used to only go for the fast wild stuff all the time. Works of Carnage is easier to understand, its easier to get into. I think the other albums were a lot of chaos. We're still chaotic but there's more of a groove and we tried to achieve a heavier production. It's really straightforward, not so many riffs. The musical structure is simpler. I don't know how to describe this. I just know that we've grown up a lot.
More on that theme from Moyses in 2012, following the release of The Great Execution:

When you’re young, you just want to go really extreme, y’know? You don’t really care about your roots; you just want to play as aggressive and fast as possible, because that’s the driving feeling you have inside. But once you start getting older, you feel that if you just keep doing it the same, things can get a bit boring. So instead of just taking influences from the trends in music nowadays, we decided to look to the past, to stuff we grew up with, like the old Maiden, old Black Sabbath, old Metallica, old Sepultura stuff, and put it in our music. It came out really satisfying, I think.

This kind of thinking — in fact, the act of thinking at all — these ideas of progression, development, refinement, audience-consciousness, communion with your musical predecessors, etc., are anathema to the rhetoric of the underground, to the Metal Myopic concept of remaining "true," i.e., stunted and essentially amateurish, at all costs. This exchange, from a 2014 Alex Camargo interview with, is telling in that regard: …when someone hears the term “death metal,” they tend to think of one thing. So the challenge is to turn death metal into something bigger than that one thing.
You got it, man. If you make it your career… I mean, we’re here forever. I’ve got nowhere to go! [Laughs] We have to try to expand it, make it bigger, no matter if people give a shit or not. But we have to try. If people like it, that’s killer. Death metal isn’t as popular as melodic heavy metal, so it definitely is a challenge to stick around while playing fast and hard. We do it because we love it; otherwise we’d sell out or just stop doing what we’re doing. We wanna keep doing it, man. We wanna keep having a good time, keep feeling good. That’s what it’s about; as long as we’re motivated to do it, we’re good to go.
There you have it. The progression is about feeding the music, helping it grow and, God forbid, reach new ears. These guys are lifers — professionals, moreover — and unlike the many extreme-metal musicians for whom music is not a full-time gig — including members of relatively big-name bands like Immolation and Suffocation — they don't have the luxury of being content with the status of back-patch/message-board legends. Krisiun will likely never be as big as an Iron Maiden, a Mastodon or even a Cannibal Corpse, but that doesn't mean they're going to build some kind of aesthetic ceiling into the music itself. The Great Execution is the sound of a band saying, "We can retain everything we were before and be so much more at the same time."

Krisiun set an exceedingly high bar there, one that, to my ears, they didn't quite meet on their most recent LP, 2015's Forged in Fury. My current impression of this one is that it's a very good album that lacks the breathtaking command and confidence of The Great Execution. You can hear the band trying out still more new ideas — Forged is definitely the proggiest Krisiun album to date, in the sense of unexpected time signatures, varied dynamics and intricate arrangements — but while on Execution, their fresher elements sounded seamlessly integrated with their old, unrepentantly extreme ethos, on Forged, a bit of awkwardness creeps in, especially when it comes to Camargo's vocal delivery. On earlier albums, he had always sounded rivetingly intense and wholly unfazed; here, there are times when he sounds like he's struggling to fit his trademark gruff roars over the songs' rhythmically thorny arrangements. Forged isn't a bad record by any means — great riffs still abound, for one thing — but it's one that strikes me as more of a transitional statement; accordingly, I have high hopes for whatever Krisiun does next.

It's likely that the message-board police won't be listening either way. I found this section from the 2012 Moyses interview to be an extremely apt, wryly funny illustration of the "plight" of a band like Krisiun — one that at this point in their career is neither a critical darling (probably because their work exists completely apart from the style of death metal that's currently in vogue, one that privileges arty, in some cases pointlessly or inconsequentially so, weirdness over intelligible, effective songcraft and traditional — or to put it another way, Wacken-friendly — heavy-metal values) or a favorite of the wearisomely orthodox underground-til'-death die-hards.

A couple people have said, “What, are you guys wimping out, or something?” And “The record’s not a hundred percent fast,” and shit like that. Kids, man. They need to bitch about anything. And some critics back in time have said, “Oh, Krisiun’s so boring, they just play the same shit,” and we put the new record out and some say, “Now I can listen to them.” So nobody has the same opinion, but we’re gonna feed some hungry kids that like extreme metal, like me when I was a kid. I just liked blasting stuff back then. I mean, I always liked all kinds of metal, but I REALLY liked the blasting shit. So I know there are kids out there that like that stuff, and we’re there for them. And if a critic just listens to “soft” metal, sure, he ain’t gonna have any clue about us. We play for us, for metal – not for critics. So if you like the music, you like it, and if you don’t, you don’t, but you don’t need to be out there spreading bad news about bands.
The funny thing is that the Metal Myopic "kids" he's referring to are really, at this point, often just tediously close-minded adults. But the point is well-taken. The metal scene is at once an oasis of support and positivity and passionate engagement and a cesspool of stunted, dismissive thinking. To any clear-eyed, open-eared observer, a band like Krisiun is as "true" as they come: three musicians deeply invested in underground values (that adolescent part of one's self that "REALLY liked the blasting shit") but also thoughtful enough to leave room for growth, for progression, for the no-shortcuts-allowed cultivation of a long-term aesthetic arc, the kind that marks the careers of all the true, deserving legends — the Metallicas, the Maidens, the Mastodons.

Krisiun is a band that's daring to aim for greatness, for a spot in the pantheon, not in that lower tier of cult favorites but in the realms of the etched-in-the-stars elite (as Moyses puts it, "...whatever comes or doesn't come for us, the music stays here forever"). Following high points like Southern Storm and The Great Execution, they're still on the upward ascent, and you can bet they'll be climbing as long as they can.


*Another awesome artifact from Brazilian TV: a near hour-long 2015 sitdown with all three brothers in which they tell the complete story of the band.

*Alex's perspective on Morbid Angel's Illud Divinum Insanus, an album that was of course burned in effigy by the message-board police (and, let's be fair, most everyone else) upon its release, is refreshing and apt, given M.A.'s status as a band that's long been subjected to "They're dead to me after X album" treatment by the underground peanut gallery: "It took me some time to get it and understand the point, but I got it, man."

*Max on the awesome drum-centric "video podcast" drumtalk.

No comments: