Review Summary: While not quite a masterpiece, Embrace The Dead is a worthwhile follow-up with its own place in Kekal's history. A definite must-have for experimental black metal enthusiasts.Kekal Discography, Part 2: “Another Year, Another Lesson to Learn”
1999 was a difficult year for Indonesian experimental black metal band Kekal, as it was for many under the spell of the Y2K bug. Their follow-up to 1998’s classic debut Beyond the Glimpse of Dreams
was afflicted with its own share of difficulties, but Embrace the Dead
escapes largely unscathed and, if not quite its predecessor’s equal, a worthy segue into their avant-garde future.
The songs number fewer and longer, show more ambitious inclinations and all point towards a clear progression. One track clocks at just below eight minutes and another precisely ten, where no track on the debut went far beyond six; despite this, there are always enough brilliant songwriting tricks to maintain one’s attention. Styles cross with little suggestion, yet with specific purpose and intelligent attention to cohesion; elements rarely heard in black metal add variety and attention to mood akin to progressive music.
Lead guitarist Jeff Arwadi is responsible for most or all of Kekal’s music and lyrics, and his adaptability and musical sense are all over this album. There are several excellent guitar solos, never overused but inserted into the right locations (listen to their fifth album Acidity
for some real solo madness!); third track The Fearless and the Dedicated
contains a climactic solo following right after an ambient clean guitar interlude midway through, while the slow, keyboard-heavy build of Scripture Before Struggle
(a reworked cover, nonetheless!) exploits beautifully executed glissando notes, achingly sad reverberating bends and speedy trills. Plenty of riffs are scattered around; melodic black metal riffs drive many songs such as the scorching From Within
, though there is always some type of additional section that showcases another style; classic heavy metal is an extensive influence, with the arrangements and relations between guitar parts reminiscent of Iron Maiden
and Judas Priest
. It’s not always as obvious as midway through the opening track, which picks up from a brief acoustic fill into an up-tempo groove, but the spirit is definitely there.
Compared to Beyond the Glimpse of Dreams
, the keyboards are much stronger in the mix and often coat the music hazily, though they also get plenty of time on their own and together with other instruments to create original soundscapes. Bassist Azhar Levi Sianturi gets writing credit on track five The Final Call
, building from series of blackened thrash riffs into a stunning clean chorus and a sweeping symphonic interlude with deep spoken vocals; after such solo disappears in Scripture Before Struggle
, Arwadi delivers somber, despaired spoken vocals and mellower clean singing backed up with methodical drum and guitar marching, which is slowly eclipsed by ethereal, misty synthesizers and a walking, melodic bass counterpoint.
The keyboard armory also includes some native Indonesian elements, highlighted in the introduction to the ten-minute marathon Millennium
which features a gamelan
: the interplay of the ticking percussion orchestra with a stripped-down guitar and drum groove admirably carries the track until it begins proper after about 2:30. The three-minute instrumental Healing
, a largely tranquil piece with acoustic guitars and metal added later, is a welcome moment of rest and can be enjoyed for what emotion it intends to express.
The lyrical expression has undergone some changes, less immediate and straightforward than the debut, maintaining its Christian focus but taking different angles; important to notice is that Kekal is increasing their applications of belief to a degenerating world society. Opener Longing for the Truth
references environmental destruction among other issues and asks where the blame for this must lie; Millennium
is a look at humanity’s development and relation to the divine as the year 2000 approaches - or as the lyrics insist, not development but self-destruction! Each song is its own individual story, passionately performed and filled with intelligent observations about the nature of mankind, which would become Kekal’s main object of expression in later years.
Diversity and duality in musical expression also applies to the various vocal approaches, which has been part of the band’s style and remains so even after the extreme metal elements have disappeared. Vocalist Harry left Kekal to be replaced by Jeff on lead vocals, with Azhar and some impressive female vocalists as backup; Jeff has a great voice for extreme metal, though it’s fairly clear this is his first time singing lead for this band, as his distinct scream is still developing and isn’t always completely consistent. The harsh vocal work on straighter black metal tracks lacks the polish and finesse seen on more technically challenging pieces from the albums to come, hinting that although the vocals are decent at worst, improvements are around the corner as Kekal moves towards a different style that represents their expression more fully. Make no mistake, this is still a superb
release, but it feels somewhat limited for them.
The more obvious limitation on this album is its production, and this is the one that the band had the least control over. The story is publicized on Kekal’s website: among many problems, the recording budget was so pitiful that the band had to borrow leftover studio time, so their multitrack recording device was quite touchy and the sound and mixing levels are different on each track. This can cause difficulty listening earlier in the album; the drum machine is quite flimsy on opener Longing for the Truth
, while the latter half has a solid sound and great reverb that makes it quite believable. The drum machine would be used much less from this point on, eliminating this issue. Improvements in sound, such as the bass tone that also sounds quite tight in the latter half, are also difficult to notice earlier where the bass can be heard but has little impact. This is
still a CD based in black metal, but it sounds a lot better in the latter stretches and fits the material better.
As Kekal began to move further away from straightforward extreme metal and add other ideas, some lessening their heaviness and others increasing it, but always unified under the band’s vision, they touched the style’s outer limitations and soon began to circumvent them. Embrace the Dead
is not Kekal’s best work - it may be near the bottom of their golden discography - but it remains exceedingly close to a landmark release, and it drops hints at the band’s future direction that, taken in context of the Indonesian band’s history, will explain their own place in the discography.