Thursday, August 3, 2017

album review: 'oltreluna' by progenie terrestre pura

So if you've been following along for the past couple of reviews, you've probably noticed that I've been more forgiving towards certain tones and textures that call to mind sci-fi or space - chilly, brighter synths, slightly alien effects, if you saw my Starset review a few months back, you know I'm fond of this sound but also pretty damn critical when the acts don't stick the landing. But considering I like this sound and I also tend to like black metal with a more atmospheric or ambient touch, surely there'd be something in this vein that came out in 2017 that might catch my interest, right?

Enter Progenie Terrestre Pura, which loosely translates from Italian as 'Pure Sons of the Earth'. They made a splash in 2013 with their debut U.M.A. by blending in elements of ambient space rock with black metal, and while I wouldn't quite say it's among the best black metal I've ever heard - some of the song structures don't quite hit the same dramatic climaxes as I'd personally prefer - what I could translate in the lyrical content was indeed intriguing, exploring dichotomies between man and machines and where a soul might fit in between. And while I wasn't exactly wild about the more ambient electronic experiments of their 2015 EP Asteroidi, I wanted to check out their newest album, described as a prequel to U.M.A. showing humanity at a more primal state and their search for the divine among the stars, leading to a test of that humanity... or at least I hoped so, given that I was having a devil of a time finding any sort of lyrics, in English or otherwise! But hey, it's black metal, I can work around this, so what did I find on OltreLuna?

Okay, well the good news is that thanks to one of my followers who I think originally requested this record on Patreon, I actually did manage to get a scan of the lyrics in Italian and translate as much of them as I could, so many props and thanks in that department. And yet for all of the work put in so I can work to decode this record... I wish I liked it more than I do. Oh, don't get me wrong, it's far from bad - in terms of black metal it's some of the most diverse and unique I've heard thus far in 2017, and from what I can tell it did execute its thematic progression pretty well... but there are some sonic and lyrical choices that hold it back from true greatness, at least for me.

But the key to understanding this record's progression and sonic choices actually starts with the lyrical content, which falls closer to a band like Epica in exploring high-concept existentialist questions in poetically bombastic language. Granted, this is coming from a pretty rough translation on my end, but corroborated with interviews, the basic arc of this record begins on an 'Earth 0' vantage point, naturalistic and embracing organic textures and roots but technologically advanced enough to look to the stars for something greater, be it finding more life in the wastes or some higher plane of existence. And that journey into the blackness to find new planets or life advances the main question of the album: in order to find that higher power, greater integration with technology might prove necessary, and if that experience transcends the flesh, the line between man and something potentially more evolved becomes blurry, so what even is that element that makes us who we are. Are we bound only to flesh, and if so, can technology further enhance that evolution, or is there something greater to that human consciousness that further integration with technology could diminish, or is that greater consciousness transcendent above whatever form we might take, spanning the gap between man and machine and sanity be damned?

Now these are not questions that are directly addressed by the writing - maybe it's an issue of translation, but much of the lyrics read as more impressionistic than directly philosophical, presenting enough of the questions but using language to suggest interpretations more than outright stating them. And the music also picks up a fair bit of the slack too, for while the record starts by integrating more elements of African hand percussion and flutes and even throat-singing on the title track, as the record progresses the more organic instrumentation gives way to heavier, more industrial synthesizers or even dubstep breakdowns - although what's interesting is that it never really feels programmed or placed in lockstep - the synthesizer layers and loops are as freeflowing as the surging tides of tremolo-picked guitar and cacophonous blast beats, with only a few incidents of triggered drums within the mix to imply that mechanical element. If anything, it seems to suggest that organic, chaotic human presence to a greater degree than most art exploring similar themes, and that's a presence in the composition that'll last all the way to the progressive liquid guitars that bookend [.Proxima-B.]. And there's a part of me that really likes that, the music naturally mirroring the thematic progression of the writing, and when you factor in the band bringing the most aggressive riffing and guitarwork of their careers in order to anchor that sound, even as the composition and percussion lines can recall elements of both death and even doom metal at points, I can't really deny there's virtuoso performances on display here.

And I wish it came together better than it does, and if I'm going to point a finger at where the problems are, it's the production. Say what you will about U.M.A., but when that album integrated its synthesizers, the progressions actively contributed or even drove parts of the melody, whereas outside of specific cascading breakdowns or industrial passages on the back half of this album, the synthetic layers pile on top of the rhythm or main guitar lines with a tinny insistence that certainly doesn't help the melodies already struggling for air! And that's before you factor in the less-traditional instrumentation - it sounds like a saxophone was added to one of the blast beat segments on the title track, and instead of contributing to melodic interplay or a solo, it feels like additional texture for a mix already overstuffed with it. And I get that not all space-leaning metal has to sound expansive or empty, but considering how often the blast beats and cacophonous cymbals hang in the mix, you'd think that the band would give their lead guitar a little more room to breathe, or allow their bass grooves to pick up momentum. But momentum as a whole on these tracks feels pretty haphazard - the crescendos rarely get the breathing room or space they need to intensify the tension, the mix often shudders to moments of quiet before jerking back into gear, both [.Planeta.Zero.] and [.subLuce.] have fast-picked melodic codas that could have really used the expansion whereas the drippy, half-assembled midsection of [.Deus.Est.Machina.] goes entirely too long - all of it reflects a usage of time that does nothing for the record's flow... and when you have multiple songs over the eleven minute mark, that flow and balance matters. And contributing to all of this are the main vocal line... which is nearly always insultated in a thick layer of distorted fuzz that feels both gratuitous and thematically questionable - after all, if you're going to show humanity slipping into technology as the record progresses, wouldn't you want to reflect that in your main vocal line beyond just the symphonic backing touches and throat singing that just go away entirely on the back half? As it is, the layer adds more texture to further clash with the main guitar line, and without a firmer low-end bass to really add muscle to the rhythm guitar, it leads to a cluttered mix that doesn't have as much melodic character.

Or to put it another way... man, I really wanted to love this record, because it does a lot right. Big existential philosophy, set in space with huge black metal riffs and diverse instrumentation that fits thematically, this should be right up my alley... but the production and execution of some of these ideas just didn't click for me, and the whiplash transitions reflect a lot of ideas but not always enough to temper and refine them into a more cohesive flow. Now I definitely see why this record has its fans, which is why while I'm giving this a light 7/10, I am going to recommend you check this out if only because I know fans of more technical composition will find this pretty potent. But for me... fascinating journey, I'll say that - I just wish I was more on board.

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