RUDRA – Eight Mahavidyas (2022)REVIEW

Antaḥkaraṇa radiant, the womb-chambered hum of the internal instrument. — Likely meditating upon the Devi-Bhagavata Purana and its dedication to the divine feminine forces of creation and destruction, Singaporean black/death metal legendry Rudra return for their tenth album in a storied three-decade spanning lifetime. Tributing the wisdom of eight goddesses, the eight brilliancies of ‘Eight Mahavidyas‘ approach vital teachings from women spanning well over three thousand years, specifically the 15th century BCE ’til the 18th century, as the band deeper integrate their signature implementation of traditional Indian rhythms and mantra into authentic extreme metal performances. Established fandom should consider this particular record a slight return to their popular ‘Brahmavidya‘ trilogy on some level while the unwitting listener should otherwise consider it an excellent first impression made per their original and enduring sound.

The ten album, three decade history of Rudra began under a loose incorporation of friends forming a tentative death metal trio in 1992 (as Rudhra) who would develop their sound from primitive extreme metal rhythms into a form of melodic death metal by ~1995. We get a clearest glimpse into the potential developed within those formative years within the song “Hiding Behind Shadows” yet the signature of the band would arrive beyond their first demo tape (‘The Past‘, 1994) which was primarily influenced by their interest in late 80’s thrash metal, death metal and peripheral interest in early black/death metal. The idea to create death metal inspired by the rhythms of traditional Indian music, which included Sanskrit mantras, didn’t spark intent within the main founders of the band (drummer Shiva and bassist/vocalist Kathir) until roughly 1996 wherein they’d gotten their gig together, found the right pair of guitarists and produced a self-released, self-titled cassette tape (‘Rudra, 1997) which’d proven immediately popular and soon released as a compilation (under the same title) which included their first demo tape. The genius of the band was evident from their first strike, even if it was a formative statement, as the combination of entirely unique rhythmic sensibilities and ‘old school’ thrash influenced death metal was absolutely potently received by open-minded fans. From my point of view this provenance is essential witness to a band borne from classic extreme metal interest and quickly finding their own original current to contribute, not a simple permutation of influences but a unique addition to the sub-genre.

Among the death metal elite fandom willing to listen to anything past the year 1999 the fan favorite in Rudra‘s early discography is of course ‘The Aryan Crusade‘ (2001) since this is where their most militant rhythms, late 80’s black metal influences and catchiest implementation of melody would arrive. Around this time many folks would compare the band’s sound to that of Arghoslent, not only for the homebrewed sound, unique melodic traits, and classic metal influences but likely for the average “western” audience misunderstanding their use of the word aryan, which the band suggests they knew would be provocative but perhaps only for the ignorant sort. The production values were quite rough but charming on those first three records and they remain collectors items as rare underground gems, my own personal collection of Rudra‘s work began with ‘Kurukshetra‘ (2003) and this was probably the most vital shift into their own plane in terms of style, the face which longtime fans recognize in all of their work since. The ambition of the band to display a bold personality, to double down on their own distinctive traits seems to have been the result of, well, the global music industry becoming gutted of its physical item sales by digital piracy. Making music for the sake of passion and now ignoring sales/commercial success soon gave way to the current era of the band, the age of the Vedic metal epic, and this is where we find the most consistent work from the band.

Since those first three records are a bit lost to time apart from a sentimental few gem collectors nowadays Awakening Records have recently reissued remastered versions of each to celebrate the thirty year anniversary of the band alongside the popular ‘Bhramavidya‘ trilogy of full-lengths that’d soon followed between 2005-2011. From my point of view the precedence for the general rhythmic verve of ‘Eight Mahavidyas‘ was set between the massive battlefields of ‘Brahmavidya: Primordial I‘ (2005) and the tension’d grooves of the thankfully now remastered ‘Brahmavidya: Immortal I‘ (2011). The use of spoken and chanted mantras from the band were key to the full breadth of this third piece of the trilogy, and this is worth pocketing as a note for future recordings, but equally important is their approach of concept albums centered around ancient Vedic literature.

From that point we find the band releasing less frequent recordings with consistent presence from guitarist Vinod and then-added guitarist Simon, wherein I was probably at my own peak Rudra fandom with the release of the Rāmāyana-themed ‘Ṛta‘ (2013), an album which featured some of their longest and most involved songs and more evocative explorations of atmosphere, landing a spot on my Best of 2013 list at the time. Anyhow, the point we will inevitably arrive upon is that these folks have always sustained a certain level of rhythmic identity but the output really depends on where the inspiration of the rhythm section meets up with the guitarists. In this sense we have the line-up of ‘Brahmavidya: Immortal I‘ returned for ‘Eight Mahavidyas‘ and this directly influences the outcome without overlooking the more elaborate aspects the previous line-up had achieved on the somewhat more lead guitar heavy ‘Enemy of Duality‘ (2016). This tenth full-length from the band is as rich with personality and ambitious storytelling as one would expect with such a legacy of exceptional work in tow; Though Rudra‘s approach continues to evolve with each release, their core sound has not too-drastically changed in the space of six years.

At the heart of the temple, “Sanctum Sanctorum” approaches with an immediately readable guitar riff, a motif or melodic strain translated from the framework (Rāga, if we can be generalist) integral to what makes Rudra‘s fairly simple approach to integrating the natural rhythms of Indian traditional music into the linear modulation available to heavy/extreme metal and its dependence on scales for coloration. Though their work is likely based more on feeling and the intense, intuitive textures of black and death metal grooves rather than the detailed vocal/narrative traditions available to Indian music, the alluring phrases available to the very broad raga vernacular are yet deeply built into most every piece herein on some level. This is doubled down upon in the form of the opening mantra repeated and its string of ascending/descending phrase acting as the skeleton for rhythmic interest, a striding arrival which soars and glows at once as the band emerges. For the unindoctrinated, this song signals a very healthy resurgence of this riff-oriented side of the band and an unexpected surge of energy up front.

Patience will yield the best results in steeping oneself in the ~64 minute tea of ‘Eight Mahavidyas‘, not only in interpreting the lyrics but in parsing these eight very different droning rivers of guitar driven pulse. “Apprehending Through Negation” is a fine example of the band’s own form of rhythmic mastery as one of the more lengthy and serpentine pieces presented up front. The stamping of its main reflexive grooves have a sort of chunking ‘Breed the Killers‘-sized gallop to their rush, as such you’ll understand why comparisons to Absu have been frequent over the years, though the laid black scaling of the rhythms toward early 2000’s Immortal sized rhythmic hooks later on speak to the comparatively less frantic mood one would assume on paper. Here we find one of many examples of Rudra‘s enduring extreme metal fandom translating their own cultural voicing into the not-so universal blender of black/death metal, their core spiritus is still thrashing black/death metal. This is significant when we consider the typical use of “oriental” melodies and scales as dressing for bog-standard extreme metal elsewhere, the discerning ear will quickly understand why Rudra do not actually sound like Melechesh, and that the droning qualities of their work should not be so quickly reduced to a continental sound. In the past the average surface level metal listener didn’t have the patience to meet the artist on their own terms but I believe ‘Eight Mahavidyas‘ makes an engrossing, easily read argument for their unique rhythmic divergences. At least it should be clear enough what depth is available within those first two songs.

The hazy, humming drone of cloud-borne enlightenment begins to lift as we soldier on and begin to see developments upon Rudra‘s legacy rather than the bold face of it otherwise. “Venerating Primordial Passion” is the ice-breaker, the first half dominated by higher-sped riffs and a few angular ducks into memorable leads. This culminates at the mid-point with an evocative run-on lead ~3:30 minutes in, a somewhat traditional outburst which signals the complete evolution of statement before transitioning into the stumble-paced send off for the mantra which ends the piece. A bit of delayed gratification for folks who’d been hoping for more of these moments where the fusion inherent to the band is given a broader spectrum exploration. From there we find what I’d consider rhythms which will generally suit folks who’re attuned to the heavy metal influenced strides of Greek black metal (see: “Awakened and Skyclad”) again pulling in the rock-imbued presence of guitar solos to keep the pulse swinging forth, yet not exactly militant.

The final third of the album pulls us back into the droning gallop of its first act without quite as many riffs jammed into every moment, such as the laid back stampede of standout piece “Marching Against the Monarch”. There is some argument to be made here for Rudra knowing where to simply ride a solid heavy metal groove and when to dive into a bit more minutiae though I don’t think “Auspicious Widow” necessarily rounds out the album well enough with its careening stride, it only seems to belabor the full listen with one additional task rather than a vital arrangement now that the ear is well-conditioned to the rhythmic language of the band. Excess serves ‘Eight Mahavidyas‘ well overall, though I’d found this was an album that required an afternoon rather than a moment to fully feel.

As a returning fan who’d experienced at least two of the three available decades of their evolution per each full-length revealed there is some great mounding joy experienced in hearing Rudra return steeled and substantive in late 2022. Though it’ll be some time before I have parsed the particulars of these lyrics and enjoyed the very detailed booklet included I can say that this is one of the finer moments they’ve managed to date as a repeatable experience and per the expression of their unique work. Not to mention practical consideration for the generally high quality of render available here, which we now find consistent thanks to remastered versions of past works. For the not-so indoctrinated listener ‘Eight Mahavidyas‘ is certainly one place to start though the ‘old school’ extreme metal mind should pull back to 1998 and the nowadays listener should evaluate the precedence provided by the Brahmavidya trilogy before fully appreciating this work as the result of the path opened therein. Brilliant work and an exceptional surprise here at the end of the year. A very high recommendation.

Very high recommendation. (84/100)

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.
ARTIST:RUDRA
TITLE:Eight Mahavidyas
LABEL(S):Awakening Records
RELEASE DATE:December 22nd, 2022

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