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1349’s Massive Cauldron of Chaos Simmers But Never Boils

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It’s near impossible to press “play” on an album I’m reviewing without holding on to some sort of preconceived notions. Debut albums are a lot more fun because you don’t have the same established status to break away from, but by the time you get to a band’s fifth release,  it’s rare for anything but an exceptional album to significantly alter your perspective on the band. Massive Cauldron of Chaos, the fifth full-length from Norway’s 1349, is more compelling than many bands’ fifth albums in that it’s forced me to rethink my opinion of the band entirely. I don’t hate this band the way I used to, because the brief demonstrations of control and expertise on Cauldron made me go back and reconsider the earlier discography of the band. Those impressive moments allowed me to see what Cauldron could have been under perfect conditions, but also made me lament the fact that the album couldn’t reach that status.

1349’s last couple records proved that experimentation with ambience and sampled sounds isn’t the best fit for their sound, so they’ve decided to go back to a more straightforward black metal with a death-y structure closer to the likes of Hellfire. But they have trouble finding middle ground between haphazard and banal – Cauldron is nearly as flat as Revelations of The Black Flame was disorganized. You get a few glimpses of the bands’ creativity: the lead work in “Slaves” slaloms around the rhythm riffs like a skier navigating so many moguls, while the chords underneath hint at curious pathways for further exploration. But “Slaves” is followed by the thoroughly mediocre “Exorcism,” an almost 6-minute slog whose hackneyed riffs and constant blast beats whip back and forth without moving in any particular direction. The same goes for “Postmortem,” which sets off with a peculiar crush of chords before devolving into something we’ve all heard hundreds of times before.

That’s a theme that permeates the whole album: brutal, powerful articulations mixed with lukewarm cliches. 1349 know how to experiment entirely beyond the bounds of black metal, but they’ve got a hard time working with the genre’s established tropes of tremolo and harmonic-minor octaves without making them sound dated and phoned-in. They straight up use those foundations instead of alluding to them indirectly or approaching them in a different context the way an artist like Altar of Plagues or Alraune does. Cauldron isn’t as directly brutal as Hellfire, either, so the album sits uncomfortably between that landmark and the band’s more tempered recent work.

It’s encouraging to see 1349 grow, and that they’re not afraid to make drastic changes to their sound between albums. But it’s still not enough to ever make me want to promote this band over the myriad other options available these days. 1349 have grown within a confined set of lines, while the zeitgeist of black metal has expanded far beyond polygons. Massive Cauldron of Chaos is significant in that it’s an excellent barometer for 2010’s era black metal: not good, not terrible, but certainly not memorable. There’s little value in listening to this album more than once or twice through, and that’s how I’ve come to see 1349: more than capable at their best, but tedious and redundant at their worst.

1349’s Massive Cauldron of Chaos comes out September 29 on Season of Mist. You can stream the de facto title track here and pre-order the album here.

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