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zealotry-the-last-witness-coverZealotry first came into view as a death metal project by Roman Temin vowing to create technical yet atmospheric music.  The vision evoked would ideally have arisen from the intricate and distinctively gnarly riffs of bands such as Timeghoul, Demilich and Immolation; the last one of these three turned out to be the dominating influence, and their molding into a new and thoughtful work of metal would be handled carefully taking after the fashion of the craftmanship seen in the early work of At the Gates.  Zealotry’s debut, The Charnel Expanse, served as a first experiment in which we see the creator trying his hand at different approaches to reach a longed for ideal that was yet too abstract.  The result was somewhat incomplete and obfuscated, but promising work that was already imbued with a material depth in the treatment of music that was both focused and possessing its own personality despite the obvious references.

The direction taken by Zealotry in The Last Witness echoes the dense and fairly uniform texture of the last track in The Charnel Expanse, ‘The Unmaking’.  The author’s first impressions of the present album were not particularly positive, since his expectations were, perhaps closer to the titanic.  It was clear that Zealotry had refined its compositional technique, and that a musical voice had been found without a shadow of doubt, allowing for a constant delivery in quality and a very eloquent intricacy.  However, there was no apparent growth in a central concept from which spiritual influence, so to put it, would emanate; and that would allow Zealotry to depart from the condition of endearing pulp horror entertainment.

That said, wherever progress was to be found, it was considerable and more than worthy of mention as a classroom study in metal composition.  That is to say, while there is little conscious philosophical or spiritual communication here, the level of development of learned structures which seek a particular sentiment amount to such an efficient degree that communication of the unconscious feeling generates strong evocation through the sheer power of refined musical composition, if ultimately unclear and buried under layers of word-sounds.

To better understand the magnitude and relevance of what the work of Roman Temin is doing, we need to start from a discussion of the problems of death metal, its position when seen besides black metal, and how Zealotry approaches a partial correction, as well as the unique and exemplary progress it has spearheaded further than the members of the project may themselves realise.

§ The Failure of Death Metal

Out of all the so-called sub genres into which the original heavy metal of Black Sabbath has diversified, death metal is surely singularly capable of a direct emulation of the contrapunctal voice relations of classical music without the element of percussion detracting from it.  Straightforward rock beats in their standard usage, even as seen up to speed metal, turn even good neoclassical allusions into little more than jingles.  The reason for this is that those genres retain a pop mentality when it comes to structuring their songs.  Black metal in its most developed incarnation, on the opposite pole, moves well beyond local-area complications and tends to funnel elements into a pressurized space whose only escape route is upwards into a strongly emphasized spiritual manifestation that spins around a central holistic ray of guitar and percussion melded into each other.

Death metal is peculiar in that it is an explicit attempt to break the chains of rock-derived music through explicit music technique.  Contrast this to the parallel development in black metal of not minding the specific technique so much as its final application, hence black metal can only be understood when considering pieces as journeys.  Death metal’s percussion, on the other hand, took after the developments of the punk tradition in hardcore and grindcore, and even adopted jazz-like techniques that allowed a very spacious and expressive freedom.  Even more importantly, the approach to development was structural and took after what we see in the proper progressive rock of the 70s.

Death metal at large would nevertheless remain chained by its general refusal, as a movement, to step away from purely intuitive methods expressed through brute technical complication.  Most death metal acts of real interest and musical weight shone bright with material for their first release only, in which they distinctively displayed a very clear minded approach to structure which placed intelligibility first backed by structural developments aimed at developing it.  But then things quickly turned from what was a natural way through a structural and modal musical technique that evoked dread and terror, to a blunt imitation of forms without comprehending their refined relations and meanings within their concrete musical context.

This would eventually lead to an erroneous concept of innovation based entirely on how different the package appeared while the core was greatly simplified1.  As opposed to that, Black metal’s ultimate impulse and final differentiation came as a rejection of that ossification and banality that had come to defined death metal.

§ The guitar ensemble as classical quartet

Zealotry now take an important step in elevating death metal to an art of composition with the purpose of evocation.  It aims at this by consciously elaborating through the use of refined classical composition techniques2 which permit it to expand in synthetic statements without losing a strong sense of coherence as a result of tying distinct sections through the relations of their seeds in a manner that could be described as rational and logical.

Results brought forth through it can vary quite widely, and in the case of Zealotry, an asphyxiating counter-melody-based and baroque texture was selected.  Zealotry hereby create beautiful shapes through the interaction of the two guitar lines which do not rise and fade from prominence as did those of At the Gates With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness, but rather saturate the spectrum.  If we are to look for some sort of comparison, it would be more accurate to bring to attention the work of Abigor in an album like Supreme Immortal Art in its comparatively loose arrangement which also maintains an obfuscating and unrelenting attack through very distinct and complementing guitar lines.

Temin has learned much from dark modernist quartet appreciation, and he lets the guitars breath with respect to each other, so that while the listener himself is given little pause, the density of the overall texture does not become overbearing because of the sensibly planned balances between saturation and spacing.  This is referred to as letting the music breath, for it literally does that.  Without this, the result is sterile.  In The Last Witness, however, Zealotry lost its temper at the last minute, and we see little distractions filling certain parts of the bass and the drums.  These are traditionally the joy of technical instrumentalists, but if not carefully integrated, they stand out as expressions of childishness, thereby detracting from the value of the whole as they infect spaces that would normally allow more breathing space for the music.

§ Caudal drumming

As the guitar lines arch and bend, push and pull in what reminds us of the magnificently forceful manner of Beethoven and the troubled mentality of Stokowski, drums try to match the intricacy of the guitars, but they miraculously manage to stay out of the way, leaving their own say until after the guitar has finished speaking.  Percussion is definitely not understated, but even in its technicality, it holds on first and then rushes after the guitars instead of competing for attention with them.

It is hard to tell if the merit lies in the drums themselves, which sound like a pretty standard approach to soft punch technical death metal drumming, or in the careful arrangement of the riffs, which only give a particular set of options for the drumming.  Whatever the case may be, the drummer did respond to the implied motions of the guitar riffs, and the original composer was also attentive enough to provide this spaces, even if only in a technical and rather sterile fashion.

§ Distractions, Detractions

What separates great music art from highly proficient musicianship and composition by themselves is degree of communication accomplished by the former.  Here lies the defeat of technical death metal in the face of the more expressive yet less crowded old school Swedish or Finnish variants.  This is not to say that death metal cannot be expressive, but in its name lies the key to understanding its limitation: it is focused on “the material”, so to speak, and it equates the adding of more notes and layers to an accomplishment in itself.

While Zealotry goes beyond mere appending or complication, The Last Witness is still afflicted and held back by a lack of clear  narrative curves as well as having too much of everything most of the time.  In short, the album is too uniform, despite its obvious inclusion of even small acoustic interludes.  These little sections are more like additions and, while forced into the rest of the music by justifying their relation through motif tying, are not representative of the usual variation throughout the work.

The narrative and progression of themes, the leitmotifs and such, are buried under blurry tech so much of the time that it is very difficult to appreciate them.  The beginnings of songs are clear in their statements, then they proceed through a couple of interesting changes, until they seem to dissolve into technical exercises that ultimately lead to no conclusion or particular place.  That several songs end in fade outs and codas in an album whose baroque music boasts of such intricate control and detail is a very telling sign of impairment.

If the album is so proficient and its composition methodology so exemplary, then where does the sin of which it is accused here lie? So the reader might ask.  The Last Witness is a milestone in death metal, reaching a degree of attention and study to its composition that is, as far as the author knows, unprecedented in the genre. This does not mean that it is perfect or that it was able to locate and defeat the source of failure of all technical death metal3, for it is clearly afflicted by it.

Now, the root of this shortcoming can be seen when we ascend one more level in the analysis of music.  The problem with discussing this level is that many are under the illusion that music can be divided into an objective and a subjective domain, when in truth everything is related, even if in a complex manner that is not directly perceivable.  Here we finally discuss the action of tightening and releasing, a pull towards form and stability and then a push towards chaos and a new surge of energy.  This takes place in several ways including but not limited to the variation of textures throughout a song, and the change of harmony or the density and speed of the notes, all of which is enhanced and affected by the element of percussion.

In The Last Witness, Zealotry maintain a fairly uniform texture throughout the whole song, the releases of which are attenuated by the encroaching dissonance that never even pretends to leave the premises.  Throughout a whole song, what you will hear are counter melodies in one mode, there is no play of harmony either explicit or implied, which accounts for another level of high-level stagnancy.  The drumming does not balance out the guitars and simply follows in matching intensity that is never an obstacle but does not have much to say or regulate on its own despite its flamboyant performance.

It seems now incumbent upon the author to bring the attention of the reader (and hopefully that of Zealotry) to the most important point here.  That is, the path upwards does not lie only in correcting these technicalities which have just been briefly described.  Each of the problems reflects a blockage or eventuality in the mental or spiritual, if you will, state of the composer.  It is not merely a matter of rational attention, though it greatly aids to have that helping hand as well.  While the spiritual source (which is the true source of all art, above rationality and not merely capricious sentiment) of Zealotry remains stagnated in the tar-pit of vague and inebriating murky feelings with no definite ideological extremism that twists and transforms the being of the composer himself, the music will remain the pulp fantasy entertainment and curious attraction it currently is4.

§ A Triumph of Tradition Assimilated

Held back by more spiritual matters, Zealotry has nevertheless managed to create a work that is surely far more than the sum of its parts.  It is not technique or construction that stands in their way, but the lack of a deeper well of inspiration. The great triumph of The Last Witness is, then, entirely based on a thorough study of metal worthy of the respect of any serious musician and would-be composer.

Temin went further than just studying the source of technical excellence in the classics or specific works he was interested in, he applied lessons and observations from classical music to help extend the variations of the metal form and its shapes.  Especially when it can be appreciated directly from the music that the present work is devoid of heavy abstract content or any form of strong spiritual tendency, is that we can see how far this study and correct processing of the technical aspect of tradition can take the work of an artist.

In The Last Witness, Zealotry gives us an amazing work that shows the power of tradition when use to develop an artistic voice.  This voice was found by Zealotry throughout the course of The Charnel Expanse and it was here used eloquently to demonstrate the richness of a riffcraft that is neither conservative nor avant-garde, it is healthily progressive, though not entirely natural.  Might we yet see Zealotry rise above the materialism that holds it back?  Let’s hope we may at least see other bands learn from the monuments to metal composition technique that have been built in The Last Witness.

1 Inner simplicity (vacuous meaning and mundane purpose) and outer complication —an inversion of the ideal outer simplicity and inner complexity. For a clear example, see the evolution of Gorguts from the progressive tour de force that The Erosion of Sanity was versus the comparatively stiff and clumsy Obscura.

2 Such as the growth from a minimal motif, the actual use of leitmotifs throughout song and possibly album, and the melody to counter-melody relations which Zealotry uses more than standard counterpoint.

3 Demilich does not count as a technical death metal band; historically, it antecedes that post-climax development and belongs to the so-called old school, the inner technique of which is also at the heart of Demilich’s music. Demilich is a quirky “old school” death metal band, not a tech death band. Something similar might be said of Timeghoul, whose famous second demo should be classified as a theatrical experiment through death metal.

4 It might serve the reader to contrast these faults, along with their corresponding accomplishments, with the much simpler and pop oriented Ananku by Serpent Ascending, a work with a great sense of musicality.  A closer example may also be found in Starspawn by Blood Incantation.