It’s hard to know what’s really going on in Valhalla Rising, but you do know that it’s awesome and terrifying and it might make your head pop. Vol. 6 by Seer reminded me of this, but with a bit more story line. Read the Astral Noize review here.
Disclosure: I’m friends with the former bass guitarist of Ithaca. However, objectively speaking, they’re still very awesome.
When folded away, a penknife is a sleek, comfortable item with a reassuring weight to it. It fits in the hand and has seen you out of a few jams. Then you flip out one the blades and you remember how easy it would be to lose a finger.
Possessing the versatility of the humble penknife, Ithaca spring from sleek cleans to riffs that could open a tin. They play the kind of metalcore in which it’s no longer possible to tell whether it’s the hardcore or the metal that’s informing the other, with these clean sections, characteristic of post–hardcore, rippling through (see titular track The Language of Injury or Gilt).
Whilst this sound was present on Ithaca’s two E.Ps Narrow The Way and Trespassers, on debut album The Language of Injury they confirm their own style in that they have taken a hybrid genre and from it developed a signature sound which can no longer be separated back into its parts of origin. Busy and off–kilter in the same spirit as Converge or Holy Roar label–mates Employed To Serve, or even a Hydra Head band (without attempting to be a replica of any of these), unexpected extra beats and sudden start–stop–starts abound. Guitarists Sam Chetan–Welsh and Will Sweet chuck down weaving and unpredictable guitar lines (a possible SikTh influence), with a highly dialled–in guitar tone could strip paint (Youth vs Wisdom). This is also true for vocalist Djamila Azzouz’s low–pitched scream, which brings a collective wallop to lines like ‘The closer I get to you/the further away you go’ (CLSR), ‘I lost my left hand to the right/ Everything that was right left me again’ (The Language of Injury) and
How don’t you know?
A gift from the past is presentation
Affection is an affectation (Impulse Crush).
As such, The Language of Injury is an apt title, and Chetan–Welsh partners up with Azzouz at points to deliver this injury with a dual vocal attack (The Language of Injury, CLSR). The watertight rhythm section of drummer James Lewis and bass guitarist Drew Haycock pack the crazy changes in feel in with the aplomb of an assured mathcore band; Impulse Crush, in particular, inspired a lot of face pulling*. Despite this intensity, this album expands upon the sound present on Ithaca’s E.Ps. Azzouz branches out into clean vocals more regularly (Gilt), finding balance between aggression and melodicism. There’s some expansion into new territory, with Gilt also rocking a trad–metal melody and Better Abuse building into the album outro with strings and trumpet. The songwriting has also developed (Impulse Crush), generally feeling pacier than their earlier material.
As you go further and further down the musical rabbit hole you start finding breathless retrospective pieces on bands who were the most dissonant, extreme, ground–breaking, subgenre–defining reprobates who combined metal, hardcore and weirdness to kick ass and eardrums until they broke up largely unloved and unrecognised (generally accompanied by a photo of what looks like four or five extras from Clerks); Botch, Pariso, Keelhaul, Breach, Kerouac. With the exception of the bit about being unloved and unrecognised, with The Language of Injury it is to this lofty company that Ithaca deserved to be elevated.
*I recommended this album to a colleague some time around 10am. I looked over, for the first of several times, around 10.05am. He had The Language of Injury playing through his headphones. He was rhythmically gurning.
Get some hardcore in your metal and some metal in your hardcore with Judiciary’s Surface Noise, reviewed on Astral Noise here.
In the Mathamatical Deathgrind from France Best Of 2018, I said of Wolfmangler’s Dwelling In A Dead Raven for The Glory of Crucified Wolves:
You’re lost in the Black Forest with wolves closing in.
In way of explanation, it’s a very contextual listen. It demands a purpose – you just wouldn’t listen to this in a neutral or comfortable environment. It is dark, cold and flits past the edge of your vision. A double bass rasps away, a drum pounds, a flute warbles, a bassoon’s doing whatever it is a bassoon does and the vocals consist of a witchy voice mumbling away, maybe in English, maybe in a made–up language. It’s in free time and there isn’t any semblance of structure, melody, riff or rhythm. Terror lurks between the notes like wolves between trees, and in good black metal tradition, it’s just completely unapproachable. As such, I don’t think I’m going to be listening to this on my way to and from work anytime soon (we all feel doomed enough already, right commuters?)
You’re probably wondering why bother recommending what sounds like a complete dirge. Well, as with all good horror, there is a sense of the unknowable to it. Why the hell did somebody make this racket, and, more so, why am I listening to it out here in the cold and dark woods?
Although possessing black metal’s evil spirit (I don’t think those mumbled lyrics are Hail Mary’s, somehow) Wolfmangler aren’t really a black metal band – they use instruments atypical to the genre, are as slow as doom, and overall feel like a soundtrack to a surrealist silent film (something like Le Sacrifice). I will certainly never be able to tell these tracks apart. I will certainly never leave these cold, dark woods.
Ithaca have been the crazy metallic hardcore band to watch for a while now, so if you’ve ever found yourself wishing Botch would reform and turn up at a basement gig near you soon, read the Astral Noize Ones to Watch 2019 piece on Ithaca’s forthcoming debut album The Language of Injury here, alongside pieces on Full of Hell, Redbait, Hallas, Closet Witch, Sleeping Witch and Saturn, Mastiff, Tomb Mold, Baroness, Kapil Seshasayee, Employed To Serve. Haast’s Eagled, Blood Incantation, Chelsea Wolfe, Code Orange, Inter Arma, King Woman, Carcass, Cattle Decapitation, Dryad, Ragana and Sunwatchers.
Have you ever gotten lost in the woods at night and managed to convince yourself that the Blair Witch was about to turn you into a pile of twigs and stones? No? Well, when you do, take a deep breath, remember your training, pull out your Walkman and put track #2 of side B of The Great Cessation on.
A cymbal crashes, a guitar starts feeding back, then someone/thing starts screaming and it’s all happening so slowly. It’s in free time, heavy on the feedback, drones away, and with no riffs to speak of is a mood piece rather than a song. It’s more ugly and drone–like than it is funereal, but if this is half–drone then the other half is at the funeral¹.
The distortion on the vocals makes them even more incomprehensible than is normally the case for Yob, but upon reading, the lyrics are not exactly posicore. First line: ‘War obliteration war’. The next three lines:
Within the whole
Sow seeds of sorrow
Sow the morrow’s first death
To be blunt, it’s hard to sell Silence of Heaven – it’s ugly, oppressive, uncultivated, lacks nuance and is relentless. It feels its 10 minute running time and communicates in the unfriendliest of ways. This is very much in tune with the sludgier vibe of The Great Cessation; Yob just aren’t trying to make friends here. I like it, but only some of the time.
Have they ever played this live? An archive of Yob’s set lists doesn’t exist in the same way that Metallica’s and The Grateful Dead’s do, but they didn’t play it the three times I have seen them (London shows in 2014, 2016 and 2018) and I’m willing to guess that after touring this album in 2009/2010, Silence of Heaven was quickly dropped from Yob’s regular live numbers (there is one video of them performing this, at Roadburn, in 2014). To be fair, the length of their songs restricts how many numbers they get through live anyway, but that must have had the effect of quickly weening out any filler.
Lyrically, one thing I did enjoy is a little bit of (possible) wordplay on Yob’s part. In the Bible, silences generally precede God smiting the ever–loving shit out of every man, woman, child and cattle from Nazareth to Skegness. However, bearing the 1) heretical lyrics in mind, 2) that this track follows on from a track called The Lie That Is Sin and 3) that this is not your Grandpappy’s Bible class, it’s more likely that Scheidt, being the scholar that he is, inverted this trope².
Heaven remains silent and you’re still lost in the woods. Maybe this wasn’t the best choice of song.
‘And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven’. – Revelation 8:1.
¹The other half. At a funeral. It’s funeral doom. It’s a joke. I’m trying to be clever.
²Because, y’know, Heaven is silent. When it should so something. About what’s happening on Earth. Yob are trying to be clever.
The Lie That Is Sin continues The Great Cessation’s sludgy streak on from preceding track Breathing From The Shallows – to begin with. The intro riff pours out of the speakers like a keg of cement washing over your prize Lego set, slow, thick and heavy. (Mine was this bad boy) Then a weird, clean, discordant, jangly, single–guitar break enters. It takes a while to figure out why this sounds as weird as it does – and it’s not because of the dissonance. It’s because it’s clean, a tone which had not been used by Yob up until this point. Tones have either been distorted, echoed or in some way made to sound like more than a guitar plugged into an amp. This is quite a shrewd move, and it’s also the point where the sludgy streak is broken. The jangly tone continues briefly when the rhythm section enters in a kind of 6/8 shuffle, and although it doesn’t last long, it does make its mark. The tempo also picks up when this clean guitars enters, a lot faster than preceding track Burning The Altar, and then the chorus is almost uplifting, with Scheidt cleanly singing;
What always was
Always will be
Will be no one
All will remain
Throughout the song the lyrics present philosophical, abstract ideas, and despite the ostensibly anti–religious title, the lyrics are generally indirect or deliberately obscured, like how System of a Down might be singing about socio–economic concerns, but might also just want to know where you left goddamn car keys. Lyrics like
Strain in the smile
combine kinetic imagery and Biblical tales of destruction. At first, despite some new ideas, I didn’t find this to be a particularly captivating song; the sludgy intro was hard to swallow after the density of Burning The Altar and Breathing From The Shallows. However, the strengths of this track become very much apparent with time, with some cool chord progressions and lead guitar after the second chorus, and the way it moves through these ideas endows this song with distinctly separate sections, not something commonly true in slower forms of metal.
The notion that The Great Cessation is Yob’s sludge album still stands true, what with being followed by the relentlessly ugly Silence of Heaven, but much of The Lie That Is Sin is the caveat to that.
Julian Marchal states in the liner notes of Insight IV that each of its ten pieces are titled only by number so that listeners find their own insight into the music. This blank slate philosophy, combined with the use of just a single, unaccompanied piano for the duration of the album (the same as the previous three Insights) makes it a daunting prospect not to tread on the toes of this carefully–nurtured intimacy by trying to shoehorn it into words. (This is true for all music but truer for some). However, besides Marchal touching on the limitations of language here when it comes to describing music and emotion – dancing about architecture, so to speak – his philosophy also neatly points out that the feelings that Insight IV inspire are bigger and deeper than the everyday. As is maybe a cliché for classical music, even at its most dramatic Insight IV is both a cleansing and empowering listen. The mood generally hovers between melancholy and a brooding ambiguity (XXXVIII) and at points (XXXVII and the pickup melody of XL) Marchal’s playing is reminiscent of composer and pianist Ludovico Einaudi. (To explain – the tracks are numbered continuously on from the three previous Insight albums). Marchal shows a similar knack for melody (XXXV), and even when busy, avoids flashy playing (XXXVI) whilst also avoiding wispiness even at his most delicate (XLII). Opening number XXXIV starts the album by using similar phrasing to XXIV, from previous album Insight III, with sections throughout the piece referring back to this earlier number, a clever way of using this connection as a springboard to something new.
In terms of mastering, the album is panned so that the treble and the bass sides of the piano sit, respectively, on the right and left. With hindsight, this seems like an obvious choice, as it naturally duplicates seeing a piano being played, but to someone unaccustomed to classical music, figuring this out is quite exciting, a bit like hearing double kick for the first time or finding out that the singer of Rush was actually a man. Insights can come in unexpected forms. Which will you find in Insight IV?
Insight IV is out in February 2019 on Marchal’s label, Whale Records.
I have listened to a broad church this year, and not all of it the Church of Satan. I began writing for the zine Astral Noize in the summer, and as such my choices of the best albums released in 2018 are available here (numbers 99 and 84) and here (numbers 71, 64, 61 and 55). Featured below, in no particular order, are older releases or other new ones that didn’t make the Astral Noize list. Entrants from my previous best of lists have been left off, because you shouldn’t live in past, man.
A Storm of Light, Anthroscene (Translation Loss Records)
‘The narrowing of their sound is both a focusing and a limitation, and this makes Anthroscene a powerful, muscular listen, rather than a hugely exciting or daring one; the exploration is over. Nihilism on the nose.’
Jack Johnson, In Between Dreams (Brushfire Records)
Happy yet also thoughtful acoustic music.
Faustus, s/t (Navigator Records)
Folk music full of dark nights and terrible weather and dramatic harmonised singing.
Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon (EMI Records)
C’mon, you know this one, your Dad insisted you listen to it and you actually liked it. Glassy guitars, sax solos, roto drums, it’s deep, it flows, it’s about time, it’s a balance of everything, fuck it, it’s perfect.
Yob, Atma (Profound Lore Records)
The Yob: Song by Song pieces on this album will be coming soon(ish), but after the sludge of The Great Cessation, the more melodic nature of Atma is a welcome variation.
haarp, Husks (Housecore Records)
As a child you dreamt of driving a steamroller. They adorned your wallpaper. You graduated summa cum laude. You moved to the city. You have one of those green office lampshades. You stare out of your corner office window at the tiny cars, so far below. The mere thought of country fairs has come to haunt you. You’ve come to realise you will never drive that 1915 Aveling & Porter Britannia. Listen to me – you can do it. The path of a thousand miles starts with a single footstep. And that single footstep is listening to Husks by haarp. Low, rolling, intense sludge from New Orleans, thick enough to lay roads and heavy enough to crush all beneath.
Wolfmangler, Dwelling In A Dead Raven For The Glory Of Crucified Wolves (Aurora Borealis)
You’re lost in the Black Forest with wolves closing in.
Isis, Not in Rivers, But in Drops (Ipecac Records)
This is a single, consisting of two tracks culled from In The Absence of Truth. I’m still deciphering the hidden patterns of Oceanic so haven’t heard In The Absence of Truth, but if this is what got cut, I’m looking forward to having my mind blown. Drops of what? And why drops? Why not rivers?
Biffy Clyro, Infinity Land (Beggars Banquet)
They call it alternative rock. They call it experimental rock. They call it post–hardcore. But as The Ting Tings should have actually said, this is prog. Even having been released 14 years ago, Infinity Land is still some of the weirdest rock music going. Really weird.
Palms, s/t (Ipecac Records)
‘Characterised by reverb, shimmering guitars, light drumming and Chino Moreno’s clean vocals, Palms is mellow to the point of inducing slow motion.’
Martyrdöd, Elddop (Southern Lord)
Crusty D–beat which finds a balance between the assault of punk and the engaging quality of a melody which sticks. The lyrics are screamed or maybe in Swedish.
Mouth of The Architect, The Violence Beneath (Translation Loss)
Melodic, aggressive, hefty, raw and beautiful post–metal, featuring the platonic ideal of a roar and a highly inventive reinterpretation of Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes.
The Atlas Moth, An Ache For The Distance (Profound Lore Records)
If The Atlas Moth played cricket (does anyone play cricket in the U.S?) they would bowl medium–slow curveballs (I know, I’ve just brought baseball into this analogy, but you get the idea). It sounds huge, with multiple wheeling guitars panned side to side and the black metal screeches and gravelly clean vocals often developing a call and response pattern (Holes in the Desert).
Ahab, The Call of the Wretched Sea (Napalm Records)
Intense funeral doom album which translates Moby Dick into audio. Where Mastodon’s Leviathan painted in broad, energetic strokes, the oppressive, foreboding atmosphere of The Call of the Wretched Sea emphasises the horror story aspects of Moby Dick, conjuring images of Ahab (as in the captain of Pequod) throwing the sextant overboard. The music booms around whilst still crushing down like the weight of the sea, and it’s hard to associate the vocals, as gutteral as they, with coming out of the mouth of a human being.
The Pogues, If I Should Fall From Grace With God (Pogue Mahone/Warner Music)
A mix of traditional Irish folk, Shane MacGowan’s punk singing and a diverse array of world music. I want to be a Pogue.
Pelican, What We All Come To Need (Southern Lord)
Driving, instrumental post–metal. It can be hard for instrumental guitar music with no vocals to be memorable, but What We All Come To Need feels like the complete package. When The Creeper and Strung Up From The Sky kick in it brings that ethereal feeling of feeling like king of the valley.
Avenged Sevenfold, City of Evil (Warner Brothers)
Despite sitting at the commercial end of the spectrum (well, map) of metal, there is a strong element of the epic to City of Evil, consisting of 11 songs over 73 minutes, which vary in length from five to nine minutes. It’s flashy and fun – guitar heroics litter the whole album, which, whilst verging on cheesy on their other albums (particularly their self–titled 2007 album), are perfectly balanced here. The whole of the album, even dourer tracks Seize The Day and Strength of the World, are energetic, helped by the big production values, and the way that the intro of opener Beast and the Harlot gives way into that double kick pattern has become a landmark of modern metal.
Rise Against, Long Forgotten Songs (Interscope Records)
B–sides and covers in Rise Against’s punchy punk rock style. The covers include two of the best I have ever heard, Bob Dylan’s Ballad of Hollis Brown and Black Flag’s Nervous Breakdown
Inter Arma, Sky Burial (Relapse)
Sky Burial doesn’t take the genre–agnostic approach that Inter Arma would display on their later album Paradise Gallows, focusing a lot more on doom, but elements of this approach are clearly in their genesis, with death metal, Americana and a Pink Floyd influence mixed in with the aforementioned doom.
Deafheaven, Ordinary Corrupt Human Love (Anti–)
There’s a certain breed of wispy indie music in which there seems to be a competition who can have the most boring album art (not to mention the music – play a riff, goddammit). The cover art of Ordinary Corrupt Human Love threatens to take this title. An unfocused black and white photo shows what might be guitarist Kerry McCoy wearing sunglasses and a scarf walking down an even–more–out–of–focus city street. Given the distinctive artwork that adorned their previous three albums, and Deafheaven’s well–known focus on aesthetics, this is surprising. Have Deafheaven morphed into shoegaze, as their prior albums so often hinted they would? Well, yes and no, but what’s definite is that this transmutation has worked. Overall, it’s lighter than previous album New Bermuda, with more acoustic sections (You Without End) (which also includes a piano), clean vocals (Canary Yellow) and extended moments of ethereal reverb (Glint), but the shrieked vocals, tremolo picking and blast beats steer it well away from wispiness to strike a balance of light and dark.
‘I can’t believe it’s not black metal.’
Death, Individual Thought Patterns (Relapse)
More melodic than Death’s preceding album Human, this is metal that deliveries on all that technical metal promises without falling into its pitfalls. In fact, in terms of longevity, Death can be mentioned in the same breath as Metallica in how much they were ahead of their time, in the the scope of their influence and in the range of their evolution, with 1993’s Individual Thought Patterns a demonstration of each of these. There is a lot to unpack within these 10 tracks, with lots of of riffs, shredding and a watertight rhythm section including independent bass lines from Steve DiGiorgio on his fretless bass. Progressive, experimental death metal firing on all cylinders physically and intellectually.
‘I leave the known roads.’ – Chuck Schuldiner
The Great Cessation is the only Yob album I own on vinyl. Four 180g slabs of smooth, spinning, confusing, doom. Confusing, because, for some reason, on this 2010 Southern Lord reissue, Breathing From The Shallows has been moved from the fourth to second track, pushing The Lie That Is Sin, originally the second track, into third place. I don’t know if this was deliberate or a mistake – having listened to it in the newer order, the jangly break of The Lie That Is Sin breaks up the rolling thunder a bit, but doesn’t hugely alter its flow. However, much like how the back gate artwork of my copy of Sabbath’s Vol 4 was inserted into the jewel case upside down (true story, and please – no further questions), I’m going to embrace the spirit of wabi–sabi and review the album in this order. With no further ado, let’s get ready to ruminate.
Breathing From The Shallows is a stylistic continuation of opener Burning The Altar. Slow and thick, this is one of Yob’s discordant, oppressive tracks. It reminds me of Electric Wizard in that this track revels in its own filth; the intro is discordant, the bass tone is cranked and fuzzy, Scheidt’s all like ‘urgh’ and there’s a weird oscillating background noise. This track is ugly and can’t be bothered to be otherwise. Continuing this comparison to Electric Wizard, alongside the reverberating guitar sound, the reverb on the vocals bestows it with a psych–rock feel. The low–mids have been cut on the latter, giving them the same nasal, Ozzy–esque sound as on Universe Throb, Clear Seeing or Aeons, until Scheidt roars ‘DIE’ (…roaring nasally isn’t possible) after the first verse.
At first the lyrics read as a critique of greed and unfettered money making, rather than Yob’s normal sparring partner of religion:
Where you going with your greed?
Sharpened razor’s edge
burst at the seems
Then the second verse starts with ‘Where you going with your pride?’ I wondered if each of the deadly sins was going to get a slap in turn, but hereafter the lyrics turn to back to greed:
‘[…]eyes like magnets
ambition like cancer
stomach like a drain
I wondered ‘what breathing from the shallows’ meant, and why it had been chosen as a title. The closest phrase to it in common use is shallow breathing, but this is similar in semantics only. The lyrics are about over–consumption – so in this context, maybe they’re about a choice being made to exist rather than to live, through which ‘man becomes the ghost of his own creations’.
At first Breathing From The Shallows was hard work, coming after the density of Burning The Altar, but it grew on me. Its oppressive atmosphere hangs lower than the clouds over Britain in November, and it’s structured so that its seven and a half minutes feels just right.
Some artists are known for their phases. Metallica evolved from thrash to straight up heavy metal and beyond. Tom Waits went from drinking man’s–singer–songwriter with a piano to jazzy beatnik to that weird Island Record trilogy. Miles Davis moved from bebop to cool to orchestral to hard bop to fusion. Mastodon were crusty then prog and now hard rock. Fuck knows what Swans were and fuck knows what they are now but they keep on changing. Although it’s a bit much to call just one album a phase, The Great Cessation does feel like Yob’s foray into sludge, especially when compared to their more melodic recent material on Clearing The Path To Ascend and Our Raw Heart. Their next album, 2011’s Atma, was to be far more euphonious than the semi–tones and discord that dominates the majority (although not quite not all) of The Great Cessation. Breathing from the shallows, wallowing in the sludge, and it only gets uglier.