The Winter of Our Content XIV: The Curse of Ramesses

It wasn’t until I had already bought Ramesses’ Take The Curse that I really took a good look at its front cover. Skeletal figures – check. Ram’s head – check. Runic "ᛋᛋ" bolts – uh…check. Swastikas…sigh…check.

That's not even the front cover.

That’s not even the front cover.

Opening up the sleeve notes, and looking at the figurines arranged into scenes resembling a cross between the Nazi concentration camps and a more traditional representation of Hell, I wondered why Ramesses had shoehorned Nazi imagery into their artwork. The Nazi guards are all suffering the same atrocities as their victims, so it’s not as though it’s a glorification, but I wondered how it could be used as artwork. Obviously The Holocaust has been tackled by art before, but the worthwhile material tends to have a more educational take on things (Maus comes to mind). I know Ramesses play dark music, but this is too…real?

Slayer sang (read: screamed) about The Holocaust a lot, and Lamb of God had a big screen up above the stage at their Wembley Arena gig last November (supporting Megadave and The Deaths) showing footage from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (Megadeth went with something that reminded me of Windows Media Player Visualisations). Amid the the grooving and the breakdowns and Randy Blythe’s stomping I found this disquieting; entertainment ahead, images of war above. Drink a beer. Go mosh. But I suppose part of metal is that it’s not just entertainment; in terms of philosophy, embracing negativity (in a variety of ways) is one of the things that defines and separates it from lots of other music. Black Sabbath started it all off by talking about evil, and three out of eight songs on their best album (Paranoid, obviously – which was going to be called War Pigs) are about war. Since then, metal, across its wide variety of styles, has been preoccupied with suffering. ‘Doom’ as a genre can be about feeling blue, unimaginable terrors, or sometimes just how much you love Black Sabbath, but the artwork here shows it as a definition of death of a sadistic, all–encompassing scale that was imagined and then made real. None of H.P. Lovecraft’s unspeakable terror here, and the effect of this choice of artwork was to really make me think about what I was hearing, and why this kind of music exists. As the case is, a bit of research led to me to find out that the artwork is taken from an exhibition created by Jake and Dinos Chapman called Fucking Hell, and that the victims are actually the Nazis suffering the same treatments they dished out (thanks to this excellent Quietus article here). So, Holocaust glorification, no, but it’s still pretty dark.

On a side (and lighter) note: was this band actually from Dorset? Really?

 

Wailing wind and rain enters. A 4/4 drum shuffle stutters in, and then out, of time. In lurches a guitar, huge but somehow also blown–out. The beat drags, with the pace generally that of some ominous clockwork, ratcheting by in some place unaccountable, counting the nothingness of it all (wicked drum fills though). There aren’t really what most humans would call ‘melodies’; the songs are led by ugly guitars with more mid–scoop than an ice cream parlour in, well, Dorset (really? It just surprises me. I went there once on a family holiday when I was 10. It wasn’t very evil.), and the vocals, croaked and crooked, alternated between reminding me of Lemmy and something that would send a H.P. Lovecraft narrator mad. This is not the enlightening nor the vista–inspiring doom of Pallbearer or Samothrace; this is dirty, blackened doom.

I get the impression Ramesses play this way not because they wanted to play a particular genre, but because they wish to emanate a particular vibe. To clarify, opening track Iron Crow (a crowbar apparently, but made me think of a gibbet) wades crown–deep into sludge at 5.00, and Black Hash Mass starts off fast, blurry and raw; in other words, as black metal (which I usually dislike – ‘Hey! Let’s not write a song!’). It is Ramesses’ faster riffs that draw most explicitly from this genre, but even after the pace slows to that of a batch of fresh tar slowly burying your feet, that raw, hellish vibe, with references to Satan, witches, prophecies and other evil shit, is present and is a presence itself on Take The Curse. This is bigger than genre.

Lots of bands have made ugly music, but as the artwork would suggest, Ramesses have made something that feels sincere in its darkness. It’s not played to fit a style, as a throwback to 1970, nor as a love letter to Sabbath; it’s played for atmosphere. Ramesses didn’t use artwork of a crow up a tree in a graveyard or of themselves in front of an old castle wearing bell bottoms or of an evil–looking goat making a magick symbol (whilst wearing bell bottoms); they put the Nazis being tortured in their own concentration camps. The impression given is not that of just wanting to sound and look like Sabbath. They carry the flame on into darker places.

By chance, listening to Take The Curse during my commute into work, my train stopped so that my carriage was half–in half–out of a tunnel. It was dark, dirty and overgrown, and combined with the smashed windows and gaping doorways of the abandoned brickwork buildings, the environment had an air of neglect and abandonment. This urban decay struck me as a very suitable place for this music. What is it that lurks in the dark? That’s where you’ll find Ramesses.

Review ‘Em All: Black Tusk, Pillars of Ash

 

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Black Tusk are a minimal band in the same way that Motörhead are were (Motörhead + past tense = strange). A 3 piece who knock together punk, rock and metal much the same way they have since forming and releasing When Kingdoms Fall in in 2005, they have stuck to their ‘swamp metal’ sound and made it their own style, with a we’re–all–doomed–let’s–party attitude and untampered heavy metal appearance.


Even the intricately detailed artwork, this time provided by Jeremy Hush and Jacob Speis in a change from former illustrator and Savannah neighbour John Dyer Baizley, still completes the checklist of skulls, naked women and swarming insects. But after the death of bass guitarist, founding member and friend Jon Athon in November 2014, it might be expected that Black Tusk would rein in their lyrics about death and destruction. However, as an album name like Pillars of Ash suggests with its unavoidable connotations of decay, that is not the case. The lyrics blend nihilism with metaphysical musings:

Quenching my thirst, nothing will end this
Searching, one is all I need
My life falls apart
Driving me insane
Save me from this hell (Still Not Well)

Now compare to:

You will never know, true believers see
Altars left in time, shadowed in secrecy (Walk Among The Sky)

They have kept to their unfussy, raw sound; recorded and mixed by Joel Grind (the latter twice; once at Cloud City Studios and then fine–combed at Falcon Studios), Pillars of Ash has a fuzz similar sound to Black Tusk’s previous material (mostly recorded at Jam Room Studio by various producers), and features the final recordings of Athon’s bass playing and gruff, hoarse vocals. The vocal duties are split three ways, but can all be described as shouting, which is fine by me; opening track God’s On Vacation enters with

Here
we go
again

And they’re not wrong. In Desolation In Endless Times the pace is always pushing forward, and even as the intro of Bleed On Your Knees moves in and out of half–time the twist of the accelerator is never far off. With that said, there are few bands greasy enough to contend with Black Tusk grooving in half–time, such as in the verse of Damned In The Ground and interlude of Walk Among The Sky. I would have liked for them to have used this touch a bit more, but after a week of listening I’m still instantly pressing ► at the end of Pillar of Ash’s 34 minutes and 40 seconds.

The classic Black Tusk touches are all here; Damned In The Ground is full of Andrew Fidler’s chunky riffs and James May’s drumming and Still Not Well lurches forth with a great stop–start riff at 2.00. The intro riff of Born Of Strife stands out by the merit of it being a shredding guitar line on a album heavy on rhythm and light on melodies (even the vocal pattern this track is far more rhythmic than it is melodic), and the guitar line in the verse is great. I wasn’t sure about cover Punk Out at first; apparently a Tank 18 song (a Savannah band who I found a grand total of one mention of outside of the sleeve notes here) it certainly explains the crossover element of Black Tusk’s sound, but with repeat listens the double vocal attack, two–step rhythm and awesome bridge fit into the album really well. Given the brawling approach of the half hour that precedes it, the use of a piano in the mellow outro of closing track Leveling sounds very adventurous, but as a metaphorical last act of remembrance it make sense (it sounds good too, it’s just unexpected). Black Tusk don’t plan for this to be their final album, but if it was it would be a great departure and remembrance for for Jonathan Vincent Athon.

Planets align tonight, stars are shining bright
Time is drawing nigh, hold the chalice high
Just a sip away, faith the only way
We’re prepared to die, walk among the sky.

– Walk Among The Sky

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