EP Review: Deadspace – “Gravity”

Some metal genres just cannot escape stereotypes, no matter how hard they try. Take glam metal, for example: if you bring up the genre to most people, the first thing that will spring to most people’s minds is musicians with ridiculous clothing, silly hair and being chased by groupies, completely forgetting that there were glam metal bands out there who didn’t do the ridiculous clothing side of things, were Christian and that there were artists out there who actually put out constantly great music rather than just one or two hits before disappearing forever. Indeed, nowadays, most glam metal bands have dropped the clothing aspect, arguably making it easier to take the genre seriously if you give it a fair shot.

Black metal has a similar problem in that most who think of the scene tend to judge it as much on the behaviours of fans (who basically epitomise all of the negative stereotypes connected to metal fans and do it while looking completely silly to the average person) and the musicians (need I bring up the church burnings, Euronymous’ behaviour after Dead’s suicide and Faust’s conviction of murder?) as much as the music (which, to the untrained ear, sounds just like a horrible noise). Although one would certainly have a good reason to judge the behaviour of the musicians as less-than-morally upstanding and the fans do not really tend to endear themselves to most people, the music itself is such that, once you develop an ear for it, it does actually grow upon you, although it certainly is not easy to appreciate to the average person. Much like its extreme metal cousin, death metal, part of the challenge with appreciating black metal is that what it is built upon is being harsh and actively avoiding anything that most people would recognise as traditionally good music: it doesn’t aim to be catchy, the lyrics don’t aim to talk about topics which are of interest to the average person and the primary vocal style of the genre is pretty much best summed up as an inhuman shriek that is unpleasant to listen to.

So why do people like black metal, then? Well, much like avant-garde music, once you get past the surface layer of it, there usually is a lot of interest going on which makes it actually really interesting to listen to once you realise the skills and techniques being used. For instance, the vocal style, much like with death metal, isn’t really there to be sung along to, but is itself basically an instrument to add to the environment. It also is A LOT more difficult to do than it might sound, because it can easily ruin your vocal cords if you try to do it poorly and WILL do damage over a long period of time, irrespective of how good your technique is. It does have the unfortunate reputation of being seen as an alternative to singing by those who can’t sing, but that in no way detracts from just how difficult it is to do those vocals well.

Australia’s Deadspace are a newer band to the black metal scene, having formed in 2014 and playing a style of black metal that is commonly referred to as depressive black metal, which basically means that the music has a ultra-depressing atmosphere to it and features lyrics that focus on themes related to depression (not that you’d usually notice that aspect anyway, as black metal vocals can be pretty difficult to understand). It is a style which often overlaps with ambient music and doom metal as a result, which probably makes it the most varied of the standard styles of black metal without entering progressive territory of including folk influences. Being a highly prolific band, Deadspace have already released two albums so far: 2015’s The Promise of Oblivion and May’s In Ecstatic Sorrow. This release, Gravity, is their second release of the year and is an EP that runs for just over half an hour with four songs.

Being completely honest, while I will admit to not normally being that fond of black metal or longer tracks, this release did actually catch my interest in a good way and, while I doubt anyone who isn’t already interested in black metal will want to give this a go, it’s still a pretty solid EP that seems very promising to me. It does have its problems, but the overall presentation more than makes up for its flaws!

cd-cover

I technically covered the band’s sound two paragraphs ago, but, for the benefit of those who aren’t familiar with any of the styles of music mentioned, I’ll quickly sum it up. Unlike the usual stereotype of black metal being very rapidly played, Deadspace instead play material that is more akin to doom metal speeds, although they definitely have their moments when they go for the typical black metal sound. There are a lot of atmospheric moments in the tracks as well, where the music is left to stand for a good period of time with minimal instrumentation and without vocals, which can really help to develop the atmosphere that the band are going for. Despite the genre name, the material isn’t really that depressing to listen to: if anything, the ambient moments more help to create a softer contrast in comparison to the rest of the music, resulting in a sound which is equal parts soothing and unsettling to the average listener. Whether this will be seen as a good thing by the black metal purists is probably up for debate, but, for me personally, I think it creates a great contrast and it actually makes the heavier moments stand out more as a result, because the ambient moments are so atmospheric that the black metal parts do feel far more unsettling by comparison.

Sadly, this all gets crammed into four songs, which ends up making the songs feel like they’ve got too many ideas put into them and are executed in such a way that the ambient moments feel like they would be better as the starting points to other tracks. Now, I will be fair here and admit that I don’t usually listen to a lot of depressive black metal, so this might well be a typical thing for the average band in the genre, but I generally felt that the ambient moments felt more like they were concluding a track and, as such, whenever I heard them, I usually was surprised to notice that all I had heard was about half of the track, which definitely was the big problem with “Life” and “Death” for me, although “Rebirth” has a similar problem in that it drags out the ambiance a bit too much at the end of it. This isn’t to say that the material itself is badly written, just that the band probably could have done with trimming down the material a bit or better utilised the ambient moments to avoid the feeling that they have reached a conclusion when they actually haven’t. That all said, though, the individual parts of the songs themselves are actually pretty well done and the contrast does work, so I could see this probably going down well with fans of depressive black metal as a result, despite it not really being executed as well as it probably should have been.

The instrumental performances don’t really do anything that breaks too much from what might be expected from a genre which combined doom metal, ambient music and black metal together, but they aren’t really bad at the end of the day, just somewhat typical for the genre. Shelby Jansen’s bass playing is decent enough and it actually has a decent presence in the mix, but it’s not really going to blow anyone away on a technical level. Oliver Royer and Nish Raghaven both do decent jobs on the guitars, with some actually interesting lead guitar playing which avoids the usual “as many notes as reasonably possible” style that a lot of lead guitarists fall back upon, actually having a proper structure to them which fits in with the band’s music, but they don’t really do anything that unusual for their style of music on an overall level. Drummer Ben Stanley has quite the job for him on this record due to how many different approaches to his drumming he has to utilise to fit in with the band’s music and, to be fair, he doesn’t do a bad job at all, but it is still a performance which feels like it wouldn’t be too out of place on any other depressive black metal record. There’s nothing really BAD here, but there’s nothing here that feels like it would stand out from the pack.

Chris Gebauer handles most of the vocals on this record (Nick Magur, the vocalist of the bands Amadus Exul, Feralian and Greytomb, appears on “Life”, but I honestly didn’t notice him) and…well, he’s not bad, but the overwhelming thought I had was that his black metal vocals seem a bit one note. Granted, it is hard to do black metal vocals and make the listener not feel like they’re being shrieked at for however long the release they are listening to is, so this isn’t really a flaw with his vocals so much as the nature of the genre being played, but, comparing his vocals to those of other black metal vocalists like Abbath and Nergal (and not on their classic records: I’m talking Hordes of War and Evangelion here), he does unfortunately come across as noticeably weaker by comparison. I don’t think that he does a bad job overall, though, as he fits in with what the band are trying to do and he does capture the inhuman shrieks that one would expect from a black metal vocalist very well, it’s just that he doesn’t really do a lot else beyond that aside from a few (very quiet and easily missed) clean vocals and doesn’t really change the pitch of his screams much. Say what you will about the state of Dani Filth’s black metal vocals nowadays, but it’s hard to deny that he doesn’t at least offer a diverse performance to keep things interesting, while Gebauer feels like he’s basically doing the same basic thing for the whole run time, which I think only doesn’t get old because of the ambient moments meaning that he isn’t actually providing vocals for all of the run time.

The production on the EP is actually pretty solid and one of the few times where I think the loud mastering job it has received for the black metal parts of it (the ambient parts don’t have much mastering, for reasons which are probably very self-explanatory) can be fairly called an aesthetic choice: extreme metal in general is meant to sound harsh and unpleasant, so a louder mastering job actually is somewhat fitting, as much as I would normally grumble over it. The mix is pretty good, giving a decent amount of space to the bass while still not letting any of the instruments dominate the others (although the vocals probably are a bit on the louder side of what they should be doing). The material has pretty clearly been recorded digitally, but I would argue that this fits better than an analog recording would because of the natural coldness of a digital recording in comparison to an analog recording. If I’m honest, I don’t actually have any real criticisms of the production beyond the mastering (which I accept is an justified aesthetic choice for this style of music, hence why I’m not making so much of a fuss over it) and the mix having the vocals so high in it (which isn’t even done to extremes, so it’s not really too big an issue overall), so huge props to everyone involved on the production side of things, because they did a great job!

Overall, I think Gravity is a release which, while flawed (and which I seem to have spent a good amount of time ragging on for those flaws), is actually fairly good. While depressive black metal isn’t really my personal thing, it’s hard to deny that Deadspace have the potential to do well on the international stage and that the only major issue I have with them is that I think that they might want to refine their songwriting a bit to avoid the feeling of their songs dragging and maybe improve upon their technical skills a little bit more to help them to offer performances which make them stand out from the crowd a bit better. There’s a lot to appreciate on here if you happen to like black metal or are willing to approach this with an open mind, so it’s certainly worth a look into if those apply to you. It’s not a flawless release, but there’s definitely a talented band here who, with some additional effort, could go on to big things in the future.

Gravity was released independently on the 15th of September. A promo copy of the album was provided for review purposes.

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