Nine Circles ov…High Dynamic Metal

nine circles ov high fidelity metal

Straight talk:  it doesn’t matter how you consume music.  Listen any way you want: use the earbuds that came with your phone, $1,000 studio monitors, a sound bar…whatever.  If you’re enjoying it, you’re doing it right.  I’m not here to tell you you’re doing it wrong.  That being said, there is a certain pleasure to be derived from tweaking and upgrading, searching for the right combination that takes the music you love to the next level, shorting your synapses and inducing a synethetic delight.  So after numerous discussions with our resident Finn and audiohead Zyklonius I slowly began to improve my at-home listening experience.  I invested in a modest pair of planar magnetic headphones and a headphone amp (the ones above, actually: the HIFIMAN HE-400i and the Schiit Magni 3) and took my first steps into the murky world of the metal audiophile.    

From there the talk went on to great sounding metal records, which then moved on to albums released in Full or High Dynamic Range, many of which are readily available on Bandcamp.  So armed with a detailed list of suggestions and my (new) trusty headphones, for this edition of Nine Circles ov…. I present to you a bunch of high dynamic metal albums* you can sink your high-res ears into.

Morbid Angel – Altars of Madness:  Earache has been steadily releasing Full Dynamic Range Editions of their ridiculously classic back catalog, so you can take your picks of barnburners from the likes of Carcass, Bolt Thrower, and At The Gates.  I jumped at the chance to get my brain melted from Trey Azagthoth so, Morbid Angel it was.  From “Immortal Rites” straight through to the chaos of “Evil Spells” everything is sharp and clearly defined, with none of the wicked riffing lost in the chaos.  Everything is as vicious as ever, but how could it be otherwise with one of the progenitors of the genre?

Mithras – On Strange Loops:  Death metal that moves into odd, progressive frequencies, On Strange Loops was a killer release back in 2016, hitting a number of Best Of lists (including Zyklonius) for a reason: listen to how the drums play against the full stereo spectrum and leave space for those delay driven guitars on “Why Do We Live” before charging into the molten lurching core of “When the Stars Align.”  Mixing psychedelia and cosmic wonder in bludgeoning death metal makes for comfortable bedfellows, and the dynamic range takes advantage of the quieter moments slamming against the concrete in jarring fashion.

Vainaja – Verenvalaja:  Speaking of the Finnish, this slab of punishing death/doom from Zyklonius’ motherland sounds brutally cold and frigid, in which the vocals and high end (listen to those cymbal hits) are particularly alive.  There’s an angry drive to the beginning of “Sielu” that dips down to the bowels of the underworld.  Vainaja manage an almost mechanical precision to their music that never feels dialed in on a laptop.  I love doom that is morose and evil without being sloppy, and this does the trick nicely.  Or, as Zyklonius said in his notes to me, it has “massive impact and girth” so make of that what you will…

Monolithe – Nebula Septum:  Straddling a line between the lengthy doom of the earlier records and a more cosmic black metal attack, Monolithe’s seventh album plays with hidden codes and meanings both in the presentation of the music (seven tracks, each in a different key, each seven minutes long) as well as within its myriad riffs and passages.  Each track has a slew of ideas rising and falling within its composition, and the HDR version (purchasing the digital copy on Bandcamp nabs you both versions) really does a lot to bring to the surface the stretch in volume between ideas on opener “Anechoic Aberration” and the seething bass line that slithers just below the surface of “Burst in the Event Horizon.”

Eschatos – MÆRE:  My experience with Eschatos comes from the mechanized death/thrash attack of their 2013 albums Hierophanies.  That in no way prepared me for the gorgeous attack of the MÆRE EP, which came out in December of last year.  Although not technically listed as High or Full, with a DR rating of 13 be prepared for a stunning ride of melancholic death where drums breathe and guitars have a tactile presence.  This is anything but a weak album – there’s enough fury in the second half of “Luminary Eye Against the Sky” and the three part “The Night of the White Devil” to cleanly part your head from your body.

Serpent Garden – Book 1: Genesis:  Deep and dank sludge metal that doesn’t sound particularly dynamic despite the claims (using the TT Dynamic Range Meter it only comes up as a 7) but it’s not a bad little slice of stoner dirt.  You’re not likely to get a lot of subtle shadings here but what is present is clear and vibrant and apt to fill your insides with soft peat.  If that’s up your alley then I suspect Serpent Garden will work its charms accordingly.

Darkened Spawn – Daggers of the Ghostly Heathen:  If there’s an argument to be made for releasing Full Dynamic Range versions of lo-fi black metal albums, I don’t think Darkened Spawn makes it.  There’s some nice piano juxtaposed between the buzzsaw attack at the end of “Denounced” that’s quite lovely, but that’s more in the composition than the production.  Still, lots of credit to the band trying something off the beaten path with their orchestral segues and start/stop riff attacks to keep things from devolving into simple second wave retreading.

Be’lakor – Of Breath and Bone:  Typically vinyl masters have a bit more dynamic range than albums mastered for CD – this ripping slice of progressive death metal from Australia’s Be’lakor sounds fantastic, with guitar lines dropping in and out of the mix to accentuate passages, drums having a sense of room and weight, and bass that is unobtrusive, just doing the heavy lifting and making the riffs thick and meaty.  Even without the benefit of a really tasty master, Of Breath and Bone is a great treat of progressive metal and just more proof that there’s some wicked magic in the waters of Australia.

Mesarthim – The Density Parameter:  OK, also not technically an HDR record but measurements show an average of 9 with tracks hitting 11, so this latest offering from the mysterious entities from – you guessed it – Australia more than qualifies for this list, and it further gives me an excuse to hype one of my favorite discoveries of the past few years.  Bridging the atmospheric black metal and pure electronic/synth laden music the band has put out previously, The Density Parameter is a career highlight and one of my favorite releases for 2018, so sit down, relax, and turn up “Ω” confident in the knowledge that not only are you getting a dynamic track, but an excellent one as well.

Dynamics is more than just loudness wars and understanding what makes a mix or master “good.”  It’s using volume to accentuate and emphasize moments.  It’s understanding that the give and take in music isn’t relegated simply to tempo; it’s the nuance that comes with instruments rising and falling in ways other than pitch.  It’s frankly more than I can adequately convey with my limited experience, but trust me that no matter how you listen to your music (and somewhere this started as simply a list of HDR records, so I apologize) there’s something to be gleaned by listening closer, and maybe trying something other than those buds that came with your phone.

Or not.  It’s up to you to make the music you consume your own.  Enjoy your engagement in whatever level it takes you and I’ll see you next time.

– Chris

* It helps to have people who have already submerged themselves in the nuances of high fidelity and dynamic range in metal, so rather than try to summarize I’ll just direct you to the series of great articles from Metal-Fi and Angry Metal Guy, who combined have some of the best writing on the web when it comes to great sounding metal.  You can do a lot worse than start here and work your way through an education.

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