Words by Greg Walker
Since their inception in 2020, Belarusian’s Massen have dealt with near-constant oppression – first the Covid-19 pandemic and then the Russian invasion of Ukraine threatening the daily stability of the entire Eastern European region. Rising from the ashes of Massenhinrichtung, the shortened moniker differentiates between the former straightforward Pagan Black Metal and Massen’s modern infusion of all things Black, Death, Folk, Thrash, Rock, Symphonic, and well beyond. The political and human situation wrought upon them, and their people is more than unfortunate, but coupled with their ever-evolving melding of genres has birthed something so ferociously beautiful in new album Gentle Brutality.
Hailing from capital Minsk, Massen’s debut ContrAesthetic was a game changer and propelled them into the metal public eye. My album of the year in 2021, I was gifted with their lyrics in English which helped me complete their overall masterpiece. I approached their newly released full-length Gentle Brutality without any interpretation of their seamless shift between English and their native Belarusian, choosing to experience the interspersed mix of gendered vocal styles as another instrument. Alex Yarmak’s barking harsh vocals spat as an extension of the percussive brutality juxtapose Nastya Kozel’s voice oft representing the Gentle… in the album title, at times sultry, inviting, but with much power lurking beneath that deceptive surface.
Opening with a supreme barrage, a lesson in measured chaos hurtling full tilt through the intro behind melodic overtones and a fearsome bellow, Energy System showcases all that Massen is capable of and more. From the unhinged yet frighteningly precise speed harkening back to Massenhinrichtung, to the morose strings and now-trademark female vocals that possess a power and emotional depth that is reminiscent of Heart’s Ann Wilson (which is high but worthy praise of Nastya’s abilities). Energy System is at once driving yet perfectly controlled, bleakly melancholic yet strangely triumphant. A giant rock moment mid-song resplendent with “oh woah oh” chant beckons maximum audience fist-pumping participation before closing out in a flurry of ruthlessness.
First single Corps De Ballet, released three months ahead, served as a forewarning of what to expect and illustrated perfectly the aptness of the album title, demonstrating the weight of emotion in Massen’s compositions from the frenzied verses to the anthemic choral melodies accented by flowing strains of keyboards and strings.
Disgusted starts out with a catchy bounce but transitions quickly into a hectic pace heightened by frantic strings, all gently caressed along the length of the post-verse by haunting female vocals. Again, the breakneck speed threatens to derail the whole thing at any stage yet remains entirely controlled by design.
Nastya’s exceptional vocal work continues into second single Together Alone and is quite literally the gentle to Alex’s brutality. The female vocals on Gentle Brutality are a more prominent focal point than ever before, a much bigger but welcome presence than the debut ContrAesthetic and follow-up EP Chaos Leading To Harmony. I am in awe of the extent of Nastya’s power and range; she’s able to segue effortlessly into a soft siren call enticing you closer to the rocky shores of what Massen do best, before striking with her powerful delivery. Building tension eventually bursts forth in the song’s climax after Alex’s clean vocal input, his cleans a fitting addition and an insight into his raw talent. Some more of this would be welcome in future material!
Askoma (Sorethroat) kicks off with a surprising and out-of-character industrial beat that is jarring in its sudden presence after the toned-down Together Alone, but immediately makes sense when the music bursts forth. Beginning with a driving chugging riff, Askoma (Sorethroat) is absolutely peppered with tempo and section changes, different segments existing long enough to impress and move on before the attention can wander. Possessing a chorus punch with a different personality, Askoma (Sorethroat) is as much an example as any song here that this is very much a riff-driven album, but requiring as much credit to Alex’s drumming as any other aspect. With such a controlled method to the percussion, he is able to pummel yet step back to support the sublime ending with a soft cymbal approach to see the song out. Definitely my top pick of these tracks, this song alone makes the entrance fee worth it.
Throwing The Stones exhibits classic death metal elements naturally morphing into symphonic artistry with the simple addition of strings soloing and mirroring the guitars’ melody lines, adding a beauty amongst the almost mechanical pounding, the strings weaving in and out of the violence to bring a truly melodic angle to the forefront.
The exquisite production quality is no more apparent than on Dym Idzie (Smoke Is Going To The Sky), the depth of the guitars begging you to fall in as Nastya choruses with her incredible range soaring over the top of sombre strings. The mix is perfect, allowing all aspects of the soundtrack to shine without neglecting the complexity and clarity of the rich recording. Close your eyes as you are lost in this moment, perhaps the most touching piece of their short but prolific career.
Song title Our Melody Is Not Dead states the bleeding obvious, as much of a musical statement as the band has ever stamped on their career, this massive closer is a culmination of all Massen’s material composed thus far. Stirring strings entwine faultlessly within the insistent drum work, enhanced by melodic vocals weaving within the harsh barks, emotive violin layered perfectly with chugging guitars, all combining to take us out on an extended musical journey steaming along on railway lines made of double kicks; this outro left me wanting so much more.
A natural progression from ContrAesthetic and Chaos Leading To Harmony, this collection of songs showcases a natural growth of the melodic and softer side of Massen, having more of a presence now than ever before. But there’s no fear of them abandoning their extreme metal roots, that are a very present part of their DNA as evidenced in a career best effort on Gentle Brutality.
Their future now lies in persisting to perfect their already impressive strengths to continue to come out with truly phenomenal compositions unrestrained by genres or pigeon-holed labels.