Review: Liturgy – The Ark Work

You know those last thirty seconds or so of a rock concert, when the guitarists start grinding tremolo on the final note while the drummer pummels out a solo? Then the instruments all coalesce and everyone hits two triplets together, declaring “the end” triumphant into your ears? Yeah, then you have a basic idea of what Liturgy sounded like four years ago. Aesthethica reveled defiant on the brink of collapse, a Dionysian exploration of adrenaline that twitched and sputtered in vibrant light. We may still be a long ways from “black metal” conjuring to mind anything but corpse paint and Satan to the average music fan, but the gales of a paradigm shift have tossed this genre into such a frenzy that even the novelties of 2011 can seem ancient today.

(Liturgy’s record label, Thrill Jockey, has rather bizarrely opted to remove all but two tracks from Youtube, as if silence sells an album. You can still listen to The Ark Work on NPR at this link, thankfully, and I recommend checking out the first three tracks/13 minutes–Fanfare, Follow, and Kel Valhaal–followed by Reign Array to get a good feel of the album.)

An assessment of this album could go off on a hundred tangents, and I don’t think that the band would be averse to discussing any one of them. The most standard response seems to be instant revulsion. A lot of big name critics have given it abysmal ratings of 2 or 3 out of 10–slightly lower than Morbid Angel’s Illud Divinum Insanus–following a brief write-off of the album as an attempt to troll us. A few others will point out how the band’s music has managed to ruffle a lot of feathers, and then leave it to the listener to hash out. Both are valid cop-outs that don’t really provide the slightest bit of context for the oddity before your ears.

In a review a few years ago, I wrote off L’Ordure à l’état Pur by Peste Noire as a “troll” album. With its chicken clucks, farts, belch beats, and sound samples of scat pornography, I was not completely off the mark. But I missed the context: a critique of modern-day France that was at once scathing and brimming over with nationalism, embracing and mocking the same things from subtly different angles. The music was actually quite excellent, as Famine’s compositions always are, and it took a special sort of intelligence to bring together revolting sounds into an appealing musical narrative. But the quality was not spoon fed to you. You had to want to find it.

There is nothing quite so blunt in The Ark Work, but the album definitely produces sounds that your ear will not initially be prepared to assimilate. “Fanfare” leads up to “Follow” in a development similar to the introduction to “High Gold” on Aesthethica, but here the sound of a guitar pick scratching above the fretboard has been replaced by an unorthodox merger of MIDI and real trumpets. Visions of Godspeed You! Black Emperor lifting skinny fists like antennas to heaven break to bells, and an electronic power surge suddenly propels you into a brainfuck of noise that seems to streak through your head in a ball of flame, the tremolo guitar and blast beat drums pulsating at light speed as the bells and glitch tones dissolve into nonsense all around you. The drum machine hangs in space above the dashing guitar, accelerating to drive itself back into Greg Fox’s real drums to a roar like a Roman coliseum. The cavalcade of sound is, for better or worse, something you have never heard the likes of before. And as the spectators cull blood into “Kel Valhaal”, the album moves from its raucous birth to the trance of combat. Arguably my favorite song on the album, “Kel Valhaal” is cryptic in its brutality. The perpetually repeating drum and trumpet beat crush you on every note without the slightest sign of distortion, while entrancing you in a wash of bells and glitches and folk instrumentation that I can’t put a finger on–surely that I am not supposed to be able to put a finger on. When Hunter’s vocals come in, trading off “Follow”‘s croons for rap, the album reaches a height of command you won’t hear again until “Reign Array” towards the end. I don’t understand half of what he’s saying, but my brain tricks me into thinking it is surely paramount–some threshold of enlightenment I must reach for with all of my might.

Or you might just hear noise. I did, the first time I listened to it. Jaded is the listener who can take all of The Ark Work in on first encounter. But I wanted to hear it again, and mull it over. What I had that I think a lot of reviewers lacked was proper context. Hunter Hunt-Hendrix earned a world of derision following Aesthethica when he proceeded to discuss his ideas behind the album. The guy appeared to most of the world as a sort of fascinating clown–a feminine child so high on his own farts that he would presume to declare his music its own unique style worthy of genrefication: “transcendental black metal”. He published a brief philosophical treatise on how transcendental black metal offered a higher state of music than its predecessors, and well, you get the idea. Did I mention he looks kind of like a girl? The alternative label of “trap metal” has been thrown around, and his previous band’s name was Birthday Boyz. Liturgy is a metal band, mind you. Their default audience has never been particularly noted for tolerance.

So most people reviewing The Ark Work probably either never heard Liturgy previously or thought of Hunter as an accident waiting to happen. Or maybe a troll. His pre-existing image was pretty hard to swallow. The Ark Work, moreover, claims to enhance “transcendental black metal” with “cross-fertilized hardstyle beats, glitched re-sampling of IDM, and occult-orientated rap”. …yeah… You can imagine why people have struggled on many levels to take The Ark Work seriously. People who aren’t familiar with the band turn to reviews for an explanation of what their ears fail at first to compute, and they’re told “troll” at best, given some metal meathead’s rant about insults to manliness just as likely.

But Aesthethica was not inaccessible in the sense of The Ark Work, and no amount of self-mockery negated the fact that tracks like “Harmonia”, “Sun of Light”, and “High Gold” were delightful on first listen. If you actually bother to read what Hunter wrote about “transcendental” black metal, moreover, you can see a clear connection to the music. It roughly paralleled a lot of thoughts that had been floating around in my own head since at least Alcest’s Le Secret in 2005, and the fact that Hunter Hunt-Hendrix was willing to discuss metal’s new frontier while actually pioneering its exploration told me, if anything, that he had a lot more potential than even Aesthethica let on. That album was a sort of burst of passion. I would wager that the band did not devote particularly excruciating time to its finer details, and the result was still one of my favorite albums of 2011. Through separate mediums, Hunter showed the raw capacity for great song writing and the level of reflection necessary for fine-tuning an album to perfection. Merge the two, and you have, well, The Ark Work.

Within the first few seconds of “Follow”, I was pretty convinced that The Ark Work had the potential to be breathtaking. My context for this album placed Liturgy near the top of a wealth of new bands committed to employing black metal towards post-rock ends. I expected that Hunter had crafted every last second of it with painstaking care to achieve his visions. When you listen to something in that light, it’s a totally different experience. Take the vocals. Hunter delved very little into clean vocals on Aesthethica, and where he did–“Glass Earth” for instance–the results were weak. His voice, like his appearance, came off a bit childish, and I think he just ignored that fact rather than putting it to work for him. In the spirit of that album, I can picture a rebellious attitude of affirmation: “This is what I sound like.” On The Ark Work, there’s a more intelligent design. Hunter commits to not screaming once from start to finish, and the voice he’s left to work with is in not at all appealing in any conventional sort of way. But if a central idea behind the album is to barely yet perpetually hold cohesive on the cusp of nonsense, his voice naturally caters to it. He seems to intentionally integrate that notion, controlling in each instance the extent to which we hear his voice exposed. He employs a lot of rap, and the rhythmic flow of his lyrics provide the glue around which his marshmallow mouth forms another tipping point into that abyss of absurdity. On “Kel Valhaal” he manages to project the rhythm with such force that he sounds downright commanding. On “Reign Array” he starts out reminiscent of Thom Yorke (many elements of that song inexplicably remind me of Radiohead), while as the vocal style changes in the triumphal conclusion he remains careful to continue to layer his voice just enough to avoid spoiling the exhilaration.

On “Vitriol”, easily the most divisive track on the album, Hunter exposes everything. The song merges the Aesthethica style of “Glass Earth” with a chanting rap and a fascinating combination of minimalistic percussion and sub-bass. You can understand every word he says, and a lot of the lines are so awkwardly groomed to feed the trolls that you can’t help but think he’s doing it intentionally. “Soon the ADHD kids will quiet down respectfully,” “All the girls will get into art school,” a reference to “primordial gender”… In a way, the song is a caricature of everything critics have accused Hunter of being, followed by the refrain “I turn your ashes to gold, you repay me with vitriol,” as if to say “look how much I’ve entertained you, and you have the nerve to criticize me. Psssh.” I would really like to think the idea crossed Hunter’s mind with a bit of a devilish grin while he wrote it. Yet that, if intended at all, is only a bit of an Easter egg in a song that has nothing to do with it. “Vitriol” is actually pretty cryptic and compelling. I can’t piece it together into a cohesive whole, yet each individual line seems to find a fitting notch in the puzzle. A part of me wants to believe that that is the extent of it, and the accomplishment is to leave you with this unstable understanding that feels like a cohesive message yet contradicts itself. For me at least, “Vitriol” accomplishes lyrically what the rest of the album does musically.

The attention to detail extends beyond vocals and lyrics, of course. The instrumentation is vast, delving into dozens of different sources effectively. Hunter’s electronic repertoire both destabilizes and enhances the real instruments that it frequently parallels. Greg Fox, one of the greatest drummers of this era, returns to the band to offer his brilliance, and the drum machine ties together with him nicely. I wish Thrill Jockey had not made it so difficult to share tracks, but suffice to say I highly recommend this album. It is easily the most intelligent and compelling collection of songs I have heard since Peste Noire’s 2013 self-titled, and most of the reviewers shitting all over it fully intended to before they ever heard it. Its apparent madness only strengthened their resolve. But if ever you begin to have doubts, switch to “Reign Array” and ask yourself whether a song like this can arise by accident. On The Ark Work, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix proves himself to be the musical genius that Aesthethica hinted at. And like Jimmy Chamberlin to Billy Corgan, Greg Fox completes him. So long as those two stick together, Liturgy will remain among the most elite bands in metal for a long time to come.

My Top 10 Metal Albums of 2013

It’s that time again. In spite of 2013 being pretty much the worst year of my life, I found it a lot easier to select a top 10 list than in 2012. Odd-numbered years almost always seem to produce a wider selection of good music, and I can confidently state that each of these at least border on excellence. Here goes:

10. Ihsahn – Das Seelenbrechen (track: Regen)

There was never a bad Emperor album. Ihsahn’s solo career hasn’t been quite as consistent. The Adversary was an outstanding start, but I barely noticed angL. After was a blast, Eremita something of a bore. Well, what do you know; the cycle continues, and Das Seelenbrechen is outstanding. Eremita seemed all about rhythmic grooves and eclectic interludes, neither of which painted a grand picture for me to take hold of. Das Seelenbrechen, without reducing any of the progressive rock peculiarities for which Ihsahn is famous, reinvests its tension in song structure and the subtler stuff of atmospheric appeal. At times it delves heavily into the world of drone metal, with Tobias Ørnes Andersen pulling off his best Atsuo impression and Ihsahn showing that his unique vocals are pretty well suited for the genre as they stand. The most impressive track on the album might be “Pulse”, if only for the fact that Ihsahn was able to stray so far from his comfort zone and still pull off an excellent song, but my personal favorite has to be “Regen”.

9. Ash Borer – Bloodlands (track: Oblivion’s Spring)

I missed out on Ash Borer’s acclaimed 2011 debut and the 2012 full-length to follow, but the Bloodlands “EP” (it’s still 35 minutes long) found itself well embedded in my subconscious this year. Like many of my selections, I never really sat down and gave it my undivided attention from start to finish. It was a busy year, and most of my albums were experienced as background music rather than a main event. I was kind of surprised to find just how many times I’d listened to this album throughout the year. It was never really on my radar, but I kept playing it time and time again. A twisted, bleak, highly atmospheric recording, Bloodlands successfully captures a traditional black metal vibe that is neither overly passionate nor distractingly aggressive. It’s a pleasant break from the otherwise welcome trend towards a less sinister, more humanizing approach to the genre.

8. Westering – Joy (track: This Will Quiet Us)

Joy is definitely the weirdest album I’ve heard this year that actually worked. Bryan Thomas’s second release as Westering is a cracked window peering into folk, industrial, and maybe even 80s pop scenes, sensible to melodic appeal yet firmly rooted in black metal tradition. To label it another “shoegaze black metal” album would hardly do it justice; the warbling walls of distortion don’t angelicize the metal, but rather demonize the more direct pop elements, creating a final product basked in darkness yet awkwardly catchy and familiar.

7.Ensemble Pearl – Ensemble Pearl (track: Island Epiphany)

It’s sad that this album has gone almost completely unnoticed in 2013. It’s sad that people regard it as another Boris album, or as “Boris and Sunn O))) Part 2”. Because, while it shares much in common with Altar, the cast is quite different and the end product surprisingly even better than its predecessor. While Atsuo Mizuno and Stephen O’Malley reunite, Takeshi and Wata are out, as well as Greg Anderson. Michio Kurihara steps up to the plate along with a fellow I’ve never head of–Bill Herzog–to complete the lineup. The sound these four have managed to assemble is flawless. Smooth as glass and black as night, Ensemble Pearl is a compelling example of music’s capacity to paint a scene more vivid than sight can ever offer.

6. Paysage d’Hiver – Das Tor (track: Macht des Schicksals)

Like Ash Borer, Paysage d’Hiver provided ideal background music for me throughout the year. With a similar appreciation for late 90s/early 2000s atmospheric black metal aesthetics, Das Tor presents a significantly noisier, more trance-inducing break from current metal trends. I fell in love with this album’s capacity for endless repetition as the backdrop for work, reading, and just about any other activity that requires concentration. This particular style of black metal has always really zoned me in and helped me to focus, and Paysage d’Hiver’s take on it is substantially better than most.

5. Mechina – Empyrean (track: Anathema)

Fear Factory’s 1998 opus, Obsolete, was the last industrial death metal album to really blow me away. A lot of bands go there, but few, at least in my experience, are willing to fully nerd out into uncompromised sci-fi fantasy. There is something about the death metal mentality that inclines most bands to play with their nuts out, and it rarely works in their favor. Mechina don’t fall for that. They have no qualms whatsoever about employing clean vocals, dramatic symphonics, and operatic hymns to serve their end. Empyrean paints a lush vision of a futuristic world of technology and galactic combat on the brink of apocalypse. Really stellar stuff. … ha..ha… hmm…

4. Summoning – Old Mornings Dawn (track: Old Mornings Dawn)

It took Summoning seven years to release a new album. I would not be surprised if they were hard at work on it that whole time. Not quite as perfect as Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame, Old Morning Dawn is nevertheless an instant essential within the Summoning discography, never wavering an inch from the solid sound they forged a decade ago. I can’t think of too many albums I’ve anticipated for this long that didn’t let me down (Falkenbach’s Tiurida in 2011 might be the most recent exception), and for that, coming from one of my favorite bands ever, Old Mornings Dawn easily slides in towards the top of my chart.

3. Cara Neir – Portals to a Better, Dead World (track: Peridot)

I remember when I was first getting into black metal and a friend of mine was doing the same with screamo. They seemed like two incommensurable paths at the time. We’d trade the best of what we found, and I love a lot of screamo because of it, but that was his genre and this was mine. There just wasn’t all that much in common between Carpathian Forest and City of Caterpillar.

Times have changed, and much for the better. I’ve tossed around “screamo” and “black metal” in the same sentence before (Roads to Judah), but this is certainly the most raw realization of the two as one that I have heard so far. Portals to a Better, Dead World is another fine product of a new era of metal artists informed beyond their flagship genre. It might not achieve the fame of Deafheaven’s Sunbather, but the two go hand in hand.

2. Deafheaven- Sunbather (track: Dream House)

And that brings us to the most hyped metal album of 2013. Sunbather turned more heads than Roads to Judah, and certainly more than Liturgy’s Aesthethica or Krallice’s Diotima back in 2011. But while the mainstream world regrettably failed to recognize that year as the grand coalescence of heavy metal’s mid-2000s paradigm shift, on Sunbather we reap its fruits. This album is not the novelty many would like to make of it; it is an affirmation of things already come to pass, and a glorious one at that. Music seems to come in sequences of waves, the reluctant undertow of their predecessors slowly dissipating beneath the growing weight of those rushing to shore. Sunbather basks in a new era of aesthetics and ingenuity first dreamed by the likes of Ulver, pressed into form by Agalloch and Alcest, and finally swept into the mainstream three years ago. Love it while it lasts, and amuse yourself with the die-hards that will rip this to shreds rather than embrace it.

1. Peste Noire – Peste Noire

And then there was one. I proclaimed Peste Noire the best album of 2013 about an hour after it leaked back in June, and nothing since has come even close to shaking that resolve. I’ve been doing a “top 10 album” list now every year since 2002, and Peste Noire is the only band to ever take the #1 spot twice, but never mind that. Ballade cuntre lo Anemi francor has absolutely nothing on what you will experience here. Let’s try “top 10 metal albums ever recorded”. I have never heard anything quite this clever, filthy, intelligent, and depraved in my life. Famine’s “black ‘n’ roll” sound has never been better, and Peste Noire can rightly be regarded as the refinement of all of the finest features of his past four albums rolled out into one.

The album is heavily enhanced by Famine’s new willingness to tell us what it’s all about. Up through the release of L’Ordure à l’état Pur in 2011, it was anyone’s guess what Famine’s peculiar album antics were all about. He was completely inaccessible as an individual, and his lyrics have always been in French. The man behind the music has since emerged full-formed as an internet personality, conducting interviews, approving lyric translations, and responding to forum inquiries in surprisingly fluent English. He’s revealed himself as an extremely culturally and musically informed character with a sardonic sense of humor that seems to abate the more offensive features of his image, and he completely reformed my view on L’Ordure à l’état Pur–an album I’d initially disregarded, but have since grown to love.

I tried to give Peste Noire a fair review over the summer, but I couldn’t quite do it justice. This article does. Skip to 20 minutes in the above video if you care to hear my favorite track on the album: “Niquez Vos Villes”.

Enjoy, and Happy New Year!

Horror Music

I suppose if I asked most people what music they identified with horror, John Carpenter’s “Halloween Theme” and Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” (The Exorcist) would come up first. After that, you’d get a lot of Rob Zombie and Glenn Danzig. So right off the bat, you’re looking at an enormous variety of sounds and styles connected mainly by association. While John Carpenter’s work was intentionally composed for the film in which it appeared, “Tubular Bells” was originally a 50 minute progressive rock opus that was anything but sinister or foreboding in its full form. Misfits was a goth punk band that happened to favor horror themes. White Zombie’s horror imagery was more a matter of crudeness and vulgarity in the spirit of GWAR; their sound was a frontrunner in the emergence of industrial groove metal, and the greatest “horror” associated with Rob was the countless terrible nu metal spinoffs. A couple of “top ten horror songs” lists I stumbled upon even list Bobby Boris Pickett’s “Monster Mash” and Richard O’Brien’s “Time Warp”. I mean, “Monster Mash” is a fun Halloween song, sure, but horror? Really? And the Rocky Horror Picture Show does make me want to vomit, but we have to draw the line somewhere.

Suffice to say, “horror” music is not a genre at all. Simply associating a song with a scene or theme is enough to relate them; Huey Lewis and the News will probably make me smile and think of Christian Bale chopping people to bits in his apartment for the rest of my life. But there are definitely certain musical attributes that conjure in us a less glitzy feeling of dread than Hellbilly Deluxe. That skittering cockroach beat in the background of Halloween is completely unnerving; Carnival music is way creepier than Stephen King’s It; Black Sabbath’s appreciation for diabolus in musica virtually invented heavy metal; and it took a firm dose of the blues in 1988 for Danzig to capture a sense of the sinister that Misfits could never convey.

I don’t believe that any particular musical formula is the coalescence of evil. The music we find most haunting is derived from association too, but it connects in more subtle ways than say, the fact that a particular song appears in a horror film or mentions witches in the chorus. The real deal distorts what comforts us, denies our sense of order, and pries upon our innocence. Through a musical medium as through any other, horror focuses on shattering the lens through which we perceive reality as an ordered, logical construct. It reminds us of the real nightmares in life while nullifying our means to counteract them. It takes us to the world of the child, where emotional extremes enhance our senses of comfort and terror alike.

The carnival tune and music box are prime targets, conjuring in our minds a time when fear was more potent. The brief piano loop, the simple hum, the monotone drone–these bring us to solitude and isolation through minimalism. Effective horror themes offer no comforting symphony or rock ensemble to encase us in a nuanced world. They surround us with something singular and far from warm, or with nothing at all. The wind chimes warn of a storm; when none is coming, the darkness is all the more unnatural. The cathedral bell, a sign of fellowship on a Sunday morning, also tolls for death. A twitch, a buzz, a repeated knocking, a bit of static–things that would otherwise annoy us–exploit the close connection between discomfort and tension.

Or else we can completely overwhelm the senses with noise that strips away the familiarity which typically diminishes extreme music’s effect, leaving us a nervous wreck. When Blut Aus Nord chose to employ programmed, industrial blast beats in their 777 trilogy, they effectively eliminated the one element of the music that would have sounded too familiar to disturb. Instead, the epileptic guitar finds companionship in a persistent, unnatural clatter designed to place us permanently on edge.

Other bands have found other means to the same end. Peste Noire’s unique “black ‘n’ roll” sound enlivens a standard formula for “evil” music with a pep and a grin, giving the brutalizer a human face in the spirit of medieval sadism. Sunn O))) are inclined to drone on for ages, developing a false sense of comfort before infusing their deep buzz with a caterwaul of shrill pitches and clattering chimes. (I actually had a guy start freaking out on me at work one day when “Cry For The Weeper”, which he didn’t even notice playing, hit the 3:55 mark.)

And lastly, we can’t forget the power of lyrics to render a song gruesome. The stereotypical lines of a black metal song–nonsense about necromoonyetis and an appeal to Satanism far less disturbing than the average Christian commentator on Fox News–are pure cheese, and they entertain us in a manner similar to your typical zombie flick. But when you first heard Smashing Pumpkin’s “x.y.u.”, you probably got a feeling more akin to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

Horror in lyrics is something a bit the opposite of horror in sound; it strikes us most deeply when we can be convinced that there is absolutely nothing supernatural about it. There are certainly a few exceptions–Townes Van Zandt’s tall tale in “Our Mother the Mountain” chills me to the bone–but generally speaking, the real atrocities committed throughout human history far exceed the limits of our imaginations. Vlad Tepes was worse than any vampire, and from Elizabeth Bathory and Ariel Castro to Hernando Cortes and Adolf Hitler, we are flooded by examples of direct personal cruelty and dehumanized mass slaughter. When a song manages to make us think of these individuals and events beyond the safety blanket of historical narrative, an authentic feeling or horror is hard to deny.

Ten Years #44: Peste Noire

Decade of scrobbling countdown:
44. Peste Noire (721 plays)
Top track (65 plays): Ballade cuntre les anemis de la France, from Ballade cuntre lo Anemi francor (2009)

Peste Noire is probably the most French thing to ever happen to metal. Famine has frankly stated, if the interview excerpts I saw were properly translated, that he intentionally aims to make his music as terrible and possible. This is something quite successfully achieved in the nearly unlistenable L’Ordure à l’état Pur, released two years ago. That album seems to me a big “fuck you” to everyone who failed to give Ballade cuntre lo Anemi francor an abysmal rating on Encyclopaedia Metallum. Its unprecedented levels of tastelessness successfully mock modern consumerism through an acute awareness of that about popular culture which inclines us to lose all faith in humanity. (Famine even traded in his traditional black metal/skinhead garb for a nu metal image in the packaging.) Maybe Ballade cuntre lo Anemi francor, released in 2009, was intended to be a parody too, but in that instance Famine let his actually incredible song-writing abilities and aesthetic awareness get in the way of producing anything which can honestly be regarded as terrible. I am rather inclined to call it one of my favorite albums of all time.

One of the most interesting people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing was a highly educated skinhead obsessed with extremely racist, nationalistic bands in the punk/skinhead/RAC sphere. He didn’t share any of their ideologies in the slightest, but he was able to set aside disgust in what they stood for and tap into the sort of raw emotion that drove average working-class individuals to proclaim such extreme views. Ballade cuntre lo Anemi francor might be said to mock this sort of music by maintaining the emotional appeal while deflating the fictionalized history typically necessary for its evocation. It embraces French nationalism as a parody, presumably. At least, it presents a raw, ugly image of the past that hardly meets the standard conditions for pride or beauty. Yet Famine’s vulgar vocals and lo-fi, distorted, “black and roll” instrumentation come coupled with an intense feeling of nostalgia that persists throughout the album. The parody, if it can be called a parody, stems from the presentation of nostalgia for something grotesque, but towards this end Famine committed his artistic talents without restraint. It is a nostalgic ode to a sick, sinister past, juxtaposing musical representations of unjustifiable violence and intolerance to a feeling of warmth and comfort. On the one hand it is deliciously dark, and on the other it is a legitimate embrace of nationalism in its most honest clothes. Ballade cuntre lo Anemi francor is an album that has always fucked with my head, and I love it dearly.

Review: Hail Spirit Noir – Pneuma

Do you know how many albums I’ve reviewed in 2012 so far? One. Comparing that to 2011, when I had pumped out well over 40 by this point in the year, you might say I am a bit behind. It was somewhat inevitable this year, with my video game music project taking up the grand bulk of my free time, but it’s not too late to catch up where I can.

And why not start with the obscure? Hail Spirit Noir is a band from Thessalonika, Greece. The person who introduced me to this album described it as “progressive psychedelic black metal”, which I don’t necessarily agree with but should certainly uh… pique your curiosity.

Mountain of Horror

My apologies for this video. I wanted to include the opening track, and the only copy of it on youtube commits the double idiocy of presenting a fake music video and cutting off the last 30 seconds of the song. While it actually syncs up with the music quite nicely, I have no reason to believe it is anything but a fan project, and it should be duly ignored.

I think there is a general bias among metal fans to label anything black which possesses the slightest traces of the sub-genre. To call Pneuma black metal is a bit of a stretch. The elements of black metal it incorporates are all on the fringe of the genre, and at the end of the day it is far too broad to place any single label on. What you get in “Mountain of Horror” is a combination of that “black and roll” vibe that Peste Noire perfected on Ballade cuntre lo Anemi francor, a heavy dose of 70s prog keyboards, and a progressive black break that falls firmly within the sort of sound Ephel Duath pioneered–more avantgarde than “progressive black” in the sense that recent Enslaved and Ihsahn might call to mind.

Against the Curse, We Dream

And what do you know, another fake music video. Oh well. What you might start to notice as this album progresses is a semblance of stylistic consistency underlining the disorganized madness. Black and roll meets traditional black metal meets psychedelic/70s prog meets avantgarde doodling, mouthful though it may be, is definitely the order of the day.

The Peste Noire vibe is definitely the selling point for me, and in Against the Curse, We Dream it syncs up particularly nicely with the prog synth. The Ephel Duath-esque avantgarde bits leave a lot to be desired, but really, when does avantgarde music ever not leave a lot to be desired? Its presence is at least relatively minimal in the broad range of Pneuma’s sounds. The disorganized nature of the songs is also not particularly problematic, in so far as a standard rock beat sustains to hold the vast majority of it together.

The only thing that kills it a bit for me is the lack of dynamics. From the most break-neck blast beats to the calmest, coolest prog grooves, the album maintains pretty much the exact same level of intensity. It is very much even keel from start to finish. That is more a vice of prog music, which Hail Spirit Noir ultimately choose to place above the metal side of their sound. Much like practically all prog that I have encountered prior to the past ten years, it never opts to overwhelm, feeling relatively dispassionate at the moments where intensity is in highest demand. Consider the staccato break at 5:34 in this video, and how much it could benefit from the level of tension System of a Down applied to similar passages in their early albums. The aggression which follows is somewhat lost to the vibe-killer that the previous passage did not necessarily need to invoke. The avantgarde outro is a disappointing end to a relatively creative song that, enjoyable though it may be, fails to move me to the extent that I feel like it ought to have. This is, of course, to place some unfair stipulations on the band; that the overall atmosphere isn’t what I would have chosen doesn’t mean it fails to capture the vibe Hail Spirit Noir were aiming for.

Haire Pneuma Skoteino

The closing song, Haire Pneuma Skoteino, is by far the most accessible song on the album, and I was pretty surprised by how well I remembered it, having only heard the song one time before, when I first picked up the album half a year ago. I suppose a poppy, catchy outro track is well in keeping with Hail Spirit Noir’s consistent inconsistencies.

At the end of the day, I have mixed feelings about Pneuma. It falls victim to being the first new release I’ve listened to in the better part of a year, and I’m no doubt being a lot more critical than I would have been this time last year, but I just feel like the execution leaves a lot to be desired. On the other hand, it is definitely an impressive and well-informed debut from a band on an obscure label from a country not exactly famous for its metal scene, and the shortcomings I hear suggest I am instinctively holding them to a much higher standard than I would other bands with similar backgrounds. Pneuma isn’t an album I’m likely to revisit, but it has convinced me that this band is a world of potential. I’ll be keeping an eye out for their future releases.

Review: Peste Noire – L’Ordure à l’état Pur

“The verb troll originates from Old French troller, a hunting term.” I kind of want to end right there. But I’ve read reviews of 2009’s Ballade cuntre lo Anemi francor, one of my favorite albums ever, that basically accused Famine of making something intentionally horrible. To just say no, Ballade was a work of genius, L’Odure is their intentionally horrible album, without any justification, would be a bit naive.

I don’t think I can really say what I want to say about L’Ordure without taking a good look at Ballade though, so let me start with the opening song of their 2009 album.

La Mesniee Mordrissoire (on Ballade cuntre lo Anemi francor)

Following a short introduction track, La Mesniee Mordrissoire kicks off perhaps the most dark and disturbing album I’ve ever heard. Famine’s infamously twisted vocals, the peculiar, unnatural way in which the album is distorted, the unity of all of its seemingly random features, the cackles, the ultra-nationalistic chants, the contrast of all this to riffs and beats that are sometimes happy, sometimes longing in an entirely human sort of way, everything about this album is warped beyond belief. And it just gets “better”. I wish I was a psychopath just so I could have the fulfillment of jabbing my victims with a red-hot poker while dancing to track 3. … Ok well, anyway…

I refuse to believe that this album was a fluke. I refuse to believe that Famine’s real intention was to create something really awful and he just by accident shit out a masterpiece. Sure, it might have vastly exceeded his expectations–works of this caliber often surpass their creators–but it was not a complete accident.

At the same time, a lot of what you hear on Ballade couldn’t have been recorded with a straight face by a normal person, and I have no reason to believe Famine isn’t one. I for one don’t think I could chant “sieg heil! sieg heil!” or sing a chorus of “la la la la lala” without busting out laughing regardless of how well it fit my artistic vision. I typically see Famine being accused of immaturity, not of being a radical, but I fail to see why he couldn’t have taken the album seriously and still gotten a kick out of the elements of it which, when taken out of context, are completely ridiculous.

When I say L’Ordure à l’état Pur, translated to something like Garbage in its Pure Form, is horrible, I’m saying that I think Famine intended it to be horrible. I think it has next to nothing conceptually in common with its predecessor. It’s like he’s saying “No, this is immature. Do you see the difference?”

L’Ordure à l’état Pur came packaged with an image change for the band that might clarify the difference.

Cochon Carotte Et Les sœurs Crotte

This is the only song I’m going to sample from L’Ordure à l’état Pur, because I think it’s all you really need to hear to decide whether you want to pick up the whole thing or not. If you can appreciate sound samples from scat pornography, belching noises substituted for drum beats, Famine doing his best impression of an irritated chicken, and really bad techno, maybe this album is for you. Hell, maybe you can kid yourself into thinking the band is making some statement about society. But for me, Famine is just trolling here. Maybe he wanted people to derive some sort of meaning from it all, or maybe he just wanted to sit back and laugh at all the people who try to. I think I’ll not risk falling victim to the latter.

L’Ordure à l’état Pur has a few really great features, but by and large it’s awful. Take the album title literally. You might think there is meaning buried beneath the joke, but that is the joke.

Ten 2009 Albums You Should Listen To

What is a year-end list anyway?

Can a truly fair assessment really be made? Like any other year, 2009 offered a vast assortment of great albums across many genres. How does one weed through all the hype to extract them? I for one listened to over one hundred new releases in 2009, yet the top 30 I compiled out of this fell into very few other lists. With so much music available these days, my year-end list is like picking up a handful of seashells and calling one the prettiest in the entire ocean. What I want to do here instead is couple my own experiences with two other sources and come up with a more balanced top ten of what we should all go back and listen to, whether I’ve heard it or not.

Let me qualify each.
*The Pitchfork Reader Poll – Pitchfork used to be the most widely respected source of music news around, and while their editing staff has fallen into irredeemable disrepute, the reader poll maintains a degree of legitimacy that few other sites with a 10,000+ voter base are likely to attain.
*An anonymous music group’s poll – My anonymous source requires a level of interaction, diversity of taste, and depth of exploration that qualifies the bulk of its hundred or so voters as thoughtful individuals with enough experience to make legitimate choices.
*Me – I’m a metalhead with indie inclinations, and completely distanced from media hype. (No, I don’t read Pitchfork, and I only realized Phoenix were popular when I heard 1901 playing at a Steelers game.)

So here are ten albums of 2009 you should go listen to. Never mind what styles they are. Never mind that I haven’t heard half of them:

1. The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
This ranked as my second favorite album of the year, #9 in my anonymous group, and #28 on the Pitchfork reader’s poll. Why should you hear it? Pitchfork’s reviewers gave it a pathetic 5/10. This album got voted in because it was so damn good that no amount of negativity could stop the masses from voicing their opinion.

2&3. Mastodon – Crack the Skye
and Converge – Axe to Fall
I placed Crack the Skye at #6. My music group gave it 14th, and Pitchfork 33rd. Axe to Fall got 15, 25, and unrated in the top 40 overall but #2 in metal albums. Why should you hear them? Metal doesn’t get much attention these days, but unlike Wolves in the Throne Room, these two bands rose to celebrity status through quality releases. Sure they ranked high due to hype, but I can attest that both are good, albeit not the best, metal albums of the year. It’s safe to assume you’ve already heard them if you’re a metal fan, so I speak to everyone else in saying these are your best bets for sampling what the genre had to offer in 2009.

4. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
In the top 5 on both sites, I haven’t heard it myself, but a metal fan who I respect marked this as the best album of the year. That’s enough to tell me that hype alone didn’t place them so high.

5&6. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
and Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Both placed #1 on one site and in the top 5 on the other. Both were also hyped more than perhaps any other releases this year. But I have heard and enjoyed WAP, not on any provocative level but enough to recommend it. Animal Collective have released decent enough albums in the past that I am confident this one would have at least made my top 30 had I heard it. With music this hyped one has to ask “is this actually great, or am I just fooling myself?” Well, I can safely count these two as “pretty good” in their own right. Great? You be the judge.

7. Peste Noire – Ballade cuntre lo Anemi francor
This French black metal masterpiece is hands down the best album of the year that I’ve heard, but it didn’t make any group charts so I respectfully held it until #7. Here is my reaction the day I first heard it: This is brilliant, fascinating, unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. Their ambiance of hate is gone. What replaces it is something I can’t quite define, but it’s captivating. If Famine hadn’t coined it “Black’n’Roll” I think the term still might have popped up, but it’s also a whole lot more than that. The 60s-70s rock and roll styles it incorporates, while similar in construct, conjure nothing of the sort to mind. Instead, it gives this sort of ironic (I hate that term applied to music criticism, but it fits here) lively essence to a dismal, filthy Dark Age. Take my irc reaction: “Track three feels like I’m dancing circles around someone in a torture chamber randomly sticking hot pokers into them and really enjoying it.”

8. The Fiery Furnaces – I’m Going Away
I placed this album at #4, and again no one else gave it attention. I have no idea why. I haven’t heard any of their other albums. Perhaps their earlier releases are even better? This jazzy indie disc contains some of the catchiest songs I’ve ever heard. Just listen to the last track, Take Me Around Again, and try and tell me you don’t walk around singing the barely sensible lyrics for weeks on end.

9. The xx – xx
Here’s another album I haven’t heard yet. The reviews I’ve read of this really make me think I’ll hate it, but as the only other album that made both polls’ top 5 there surely must be some merit to it. I said the same thing about M83 last year, and Saturdays = Youth became a staple album for me in the months that followed. Maybe I won’t be so lucky this go around, but love it or hate it I would be doing my music sensibilities an injustice to not check it out. The same goes for you.

10. N.A.S.A. – The Spirit of Apollo
Has this discredited my entire list? Maybe. It didn’t place in either poll, but the Pitchfork editors gave it a 1 out of 10, so there must be something good about it. They went so far as to write up an eight paragraph review about how impressively unpretentious it is. “[The] beats on this album are total washed-out dorm-room funk . . . “The People Tree” is an excessively polite bloopy organ groove. “Way Down” is the reason acid jazz no longer exists. “Hip Hop” is a horribly boring attempt at ca. 1998 sunny smiley-face West Coast indie-rap. And on it goes.” In other words, this album ignores all expectations of taking music to a new level and just gets down to business with fun, catchy, simple songs that anyone can enjoy. You mean hip-hop doesn’t have to be angry or arrogant? Amazing! I ranked it my 3rd favorite of the year.