It’s temping to judge the merits of music produced in the developing world through the tinted lens of cultural sensitivity: to let certain matters slide, whether shoddy production or naivety in songwriting, because it’s all so new to them, or they don’t know any better, or some such patronising nonsense. And it’s especially so when musicians from the ‘Global South’ operate in genres that seem diametrically opposed to the prevailing culture, at least to myopic Western minds.
So it’s easy to imagine someone coming to Era of Tribulation—the 14-track compilation gathering the recorded output of Indian death-doom outfit Dying Embrace—and thinking it’s so cool that amid all the Bollywood dancers and slumdog millionaires and sitar-playing Ravi Shankars, there’s a gang of dudes in gory T-shirts with loud guitars and Cookie Monster growls ripping up conventions and blowing minds asunder. But the reality is that the band are a mainstay of a vibrant underground scene in their hometown of Bangalore, which, like all the major urban centres in India for that matter, is a 21st Century metropolis replete with skyscrapers and shopping malls and all the trappings of the west. As such, Dying Embrace stand out in their homeland about as much as, say, Cannibal Corpse do in America, which in 2013 is not much at all.
The only way to be fair to Dying Embrace is to evaluate their music in the context of the genres they move in, and by that standard their efforts are hit and miss. “Blood Rites” kicks things off, the first of two tracks from the 2002 Misanthrope 7″, and it’s meat-and-potatoes stuff, marrying a doom-laden groove with deathly guitar tones and Mortician-style vocal gurgles, and rendered even more amateurish by the crappy-demo production job. “Cromlech of Hate” is more adventurous in structure as it shifts gears between tempos, but the playing is as sloppy as the sound mix. It’s not a good start.
Next up are three tracks from 1998’s Grotesque EP, which at least showcase much stronger songwriting in the acid doom vein of the Rise Above roster. “The Passing Away” and “Grotesque Entity” are dripping with filthy grooves, while the intricately arranged “Oremus Diabolum” radiates with Cathedral-esque swagger. The players—guitarist Jimmy Palkhivala, bassist Jai Kumar and drummer Daniel Marc David—are also tighter here, and only really let down by the awful recording quality, as if someone bootlegged their studio session with a dictaphone.
“As Eternity Fades” leads off the six tracks of the Serenades of Depravity mini-album, also from 1998 and another weak and murky production which shifts the sound back to death-doom, with Vikram Bhat‘s reverb-heavy death grunts contrasting with the classic Black Sabbath groove. “Spawn of the Depths” places a heavier emphasis on the death metal side, with a distinctly Swedish influence as the tempo picks up. “Dagda—His Time Has Come” comes and goes unmemorably in its allotted three minutes, and “D.T’s” is a jammed-out instrumental that doesn’t go anywhere, like the short outro “Elegy for the Damned.” But “Degeneration” stands out with its heady mix of Bolt Thrower‘s percussive blast and weird guitar harmonics with a turbocharged polka groove (strange as that sounds, it works).
The compilation closes with demo versions of the Grotesque tracks that are virtually identical in recording quality, lacking only the official release’s layer of psychedelic guitar swirl, and are pretty much redundant to all except the diehards. And I’m sure there are some who will leap to the defence of the poorly produced studio efforts collected here as some kind of “cult” hidden gems, like the low-fidelity output of the Norwegian black metal scene 20 years ago. But there’s a line between deliberately poor and just plain inept, and sonically speaking, much of Era of Tribulation falls on the wrong side of it.
Here’s some video of a reunited Dying Embrace performing “As Eternity Fades” at the 2011 Undergrind Fest in Bangalore: