Thursday, 22 March 2018

BAND SPOTLIGHT: Kosmogyr defy conventional methods to create "Eviternity"

By: Daniel Jackson

Kosmogyr is a long-distance collaborative effort between Shanghai resident Xander Cheng and former Shanghai resident Ivan Belcic, now living in Prague. Their potent black metal brew is one of both melodic grandiosity and colossal sonic weight, that added heft given from the judicious use of deep, churning melodic death metal. The band displays a clear understanding of what’s made these styles work so well over the last twenty-plus years, while still sounding very much a part of the here and now.

In that sense, Kosmogyr acts as a musical counterpoint to the idea of post-black metal. Its existence is proof of how black metal has necessarily grown and adapted rather than morphed into something else altogether. There will always be plenty of bands holding down the fort for traditionalism, and the genre still thrives even within those rigid boundaries. But it’s the genre’s ability to blend with new sounds and seamlessly interact with different musical contexts that makes it so creatively viable more than twenty years after its original peak.

The Process

That Kosmogyr have accomplished what they have on ‘Eviternity’ despite the expansive distance between Shanghai and Prague helps define Cheng and Belcic’s drive and passion for the music they’re making, when so many others would likely have tried to find new outlets, rather than commit to a more complicated system for making music. Thankfully, Belcic offered to help explain the collaborative process that went into making the album:

“The typical Kosmogyr song begins with a collection of riffs from Xander, along with rudimentary drums underneath to give me an idea of what he has in mind. He’d send me a set of riffs that belong together, and I’d go through them to sort out which feels to me like a chorus, which has more of a “main riff” vibe, and so forth. I might ask him to flesh out a section, or bring another riff or two in, depending on the direction I’m seeing for the arrangement.

“After coming up with a first draft of the arrangement, I’d bounce it back to Xander for his feedback, and based on that, we’d make whatever final changes were needed before arriving at the final song structure. After we locked it in, I’d go back and write all the detailed drum parts with fills and such.”

An approach based on one artist rearranging and fine tuning the pieces put forth by another isn’t one you’re likely to come across very often, at least not in black metal. It speaks to a selflessness in Cheng that he’d create riffs to be put together in ways he may not have imagined himself. It also speaks to Cheng and Belcic’s symbiotic musical relationship even across such a great distance. That’s especially impressive given black metal’s history with one-person projects and inflexible creative methods.

 The Humanity of Drum Programming

The use of drum programming as opposed to a live drummer has, and will continue to be, a subject of debate among metal fans. Some fans are strongly against it, regardless of whether it’s done out of necessity, born out of lack of resources, reliable musicians, or anything else. For some listeners, the circumstances surrounding the use of drum programming don’t factor in at all. But like anything musical it’s all about how it’s executed. Someone who is generally against non-human drumming might still be a fan of albums released by Type O Negative (from 1996-2003), Anaal Nathrakh, Agoraphobic Nosebleed, Limbonic Art, or Summoning.

Often, the best programming will come from someone who understands drumming to begin with. It’s extraordinarily helpful to know how a drummer might accent certain notes or how to use dynamics to give programmed drums a more human groove element that a lot of drummerless albums lack. Belcic describes his own approach to programming:

Though I am a drummer, I am sadly one bereft of the chops, stamina and discipline needed to pull off this style of music with perfect timing and finesse. The programming on the record is what I would play, if I could play it at the required level.

The drums were programmed note by note using the same MIDI composition software as the songwriting. Despite this, I tried my best to take as natural an approach to the drum programming as possible. I’d listen to the riffs and air-drum along to the drum parts I’d hear in my head, and so that’s how I’d figure out what each riff would get. The same goes for fills — I’d listen along, and anytime my brain-drummer threw in a fill, I’d transcribe what I “heard” with the software.

That existing knowledge of how drums should be played shows in the end result. While the tones themselves still have a somewhat mechanical sound to them, the beat selection and natural flow to the programming makes the experience much more genuine than it would be otherwise. I asked about specific drummers Belcic might have looked to as an inspiration for his programming style, but there wasn’t as much direct influence as you might expect:

There was only one time I remember purposefully grabbing influence from a specific drummer, and it was after spending an hour or so in a YouTube rabbit hole of Anup Sastry videos. I think it was while doing the drums for “Iridescent,” so if you hear any fills in that song that sound particularly badass, that’s why. Anup, if you’re reading this, thanks for slaying.

Crushing Sounds, And The Voice They Require

Turning our gaze back to the guitars, one of the things Kosmogyr brings to the table that few others do is a robust and heavy guitar tone. The closest black metal comparison I can think of is the tone on Gorgoroth’s ‘Twilight of the Gods’, though it’s not as murky. Cheng is inclined to view it as an obvious, natural choice:

For me as a producer, the guitar sound is not about taking influence from which bands or which genres — it’s all about creating a rich sound that is enjoyable to hear. For the audience, a rich sound overall is more fulfilling than an unbalanced mix, even with excellent songwriting. I wanted the music to be welcomed by a wider group of people, so before I started the production, I’d already created my concept for our sound and our mix.

For posterity’s sake, Belcic adds “Those fat chords under the main riff in “Eviternity,” though, that was all me. It’s my one actual bit of guitar writing on the record, and the world must know”.

When it comes to vocals; it goes without saying that every band is going to be different. While strictly-defined vocal limits might work for bands as different as Meshuggah or early Darkthrone, Belcic’s more varied approach on ‘Eviternity’ is just what’s needed. Having found plenty of extreme vocal space to explore between his caustic highs and thundering growls, Belcic sheds some light on his vocal approach:

I’ve always been drawn to vocalists who utilize a dynamic range of textures, and it’s the type of vocalist I try to be. It was important to me that our songs be given this sort of treatment, as opposed to more of a one-style-fits-all approach.”

And as to whether this was something mapped out in advance or played out by ear, Belcic clarifies further:

“The vocal choices were made on a very instinctual level. I wasn’t consciously making decisions so much as responding to each passage of a song with the vocal style that it evoked. It came down to how each riff affected me as I listened to the songs, and how adjacent sections would complement and contrast with one another.”

His range didn’t come easily to him, though:

“For many years, the high-end black metal shrieks have stubbornly been the toughest vocal style for me to grasp, and so it was an inspiring challenge to hack my way through these recording sessions. I did all the vocals in the bathroom of my apartment…I can’t imagine what my neighbors must think of me.”

The Last Word

Lyrically, Kosmogyr prefer to remain something of a closed book. Where some bands have created a captivating musical identity by wearing their political beliefs on their sleeve; Belcic is tight-lipped, preferring to let us all sort these things out for ourselves. Knowing that Kosmogyr recently appeared on the socially-conscious ‘Crushing Intolerance’ black metal compilation series, I’d wondered if their political views had found their way into their lyrics at all:

“I don’t want to characterize or contextualize our lyrics in any sort of overt way, because I think everyone should be able to create their own sense of meaning for the songs. I can say that while I’m quite open about my views online, and while we’re proud to have been included on last year’s Crushing Intolerance compilation with Black Metal Alliance, our album isn’t an explicitly political record.”

With that left to our imagination, Kosmogyr has given us more than enough to process and appreciate on ‘Eviternity’. It’s not just the devastating waves of sorrowful melody, the gorgeous atmosphere provided by the ambient lead guitar work, or the multifaceted vocal performance giving the album the voice this music demands. It’s also about all the effort and patience that went into it, as a long distance collaboration of this sort would have required. That the album ended up being so damned good must have made all of that work worthwhile.

“Eviternity” is available to buy here

Band info: facebook || bandcamp