A Dusted Review: Eyehategod by Eyehategod (August 28th, 2014)

If you told the members of Louisiana’s Eyehategod back in, say, 1993 (when their masterpiece Take As Needed For Pain was released) that they would, 20 years later, be seen as the founders of a whole genre and a heavy metal institution, they’d have probably laughed in your face. Then sent you packing with expletives and violent threats ringing in your ears. Then got back to downing their cocktails of booze and drugs, happy to be perennial outsiders camped out on the dusty forgotten back-roads of music history. But the vagaries of musical fashion have a tendency to throw up surprises, and Eyehategod’s progression from underground sonic terrorisers to global cult stars is one of the bigger ones out there. And now, 14 years after their last studio album, Confederacy of Ruined Lives, they’re ready to take advantage of some of this built-up love with a new self-titled release. It’s appropriate for the band to have named the album Eyehategod because, after such a long absence (on record, at least), they needed to make a statement. The preparations for the album’s release were thrown into disarray last year when drummer Joey LaCaze died of respiratory failure, although he had managed to record his drum parts before passing. With such a key figure gone, the remaining members perhaps felt the need to close ranks (apart from bringing in a new drummer, of course) but also to carry the flame of LaCaze. As a band and individuals, they’ve been through hellfire and sorrow, drug abuse and insanity, but they’re still here, and Eyehategod seems to have been so named to affirm this. Oh, and it contains everything that makes Eyehategod the unique proposition that they are. It’s an Eyehategod album in excelsis, if you like.

I wasn’t sure it would live up to expectations when I first heard it, mind you. Some of the tracks seemed too fast, too close to the hardcore that had always tainted Eyehategod’s sludge but never before been allowed to dominate. Shock, horror — was it me or did some of the tracks, such as opener “Agitation! Propaganda!” sound a bit clean? A bit, dare I say it, mainstream? Of course, I was an arse. This is what Eyehategod do: they blend all their influences (Sabbath, the blues, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Black Flag) in the most belligerent and in-your-face manner possible. “Agitation! Propaganda!” and “Parish Motel Sickness” might have initially sounded a bit Pantera-esque, but Eyehategod could never keep something so structured up, could they? Tracks that start off like chugging SUVs rapidly collapse into walls of soggy feedback and loping drum beats. “A Quitter’s Offensive” is almost 1970s-like in its initial bouncy moments, but before long it becomes a torrent of extended riffs, malformed solos and plodding rhythms.

Above all, Mike IX Williams is still at the helm on vocals. Constantly imitated but never emulated, Williams is one of metal’s greatest singers, a precursor who doesn’t get the recognition he deserves. His anguished shriek is like a reflection of all the hatred, pain and dread that anyone has ever felt, as if he’s pulling the words straight out of the head of an asylum patient. Compared to Mike Williams, all those corpse-painted growlers fronting the endless roll-call of black metal bands are about as imposing or unsettling as Justin Bieber. And his voice hasn’t aged with its owner. It’s still beyond raw (and beautifully, terrifyingly given centre stage on the album’s standout track “Flags and Cities Bound”), still sounds like a blueprint for Alan Dubin or The Body’s Chip King.

Eyehategod doesn’t quite climb the heights of Take As Needed For Pain or Dopesick, but that’s not really the point. The point is that the band is still the hardest, meanest, most brutal metal band in the South, and a good contender for the world crown. And still going strong, despite everything. Eyehategod lives —  that’s all we need!

A Dusted Review: I Shall Die Here by The Body (August 15th, 2014)

I Shall Die Here sits at the confluence of different genres without ever sounding confused, incoherent or ill-defined. Quite the opposite in fact: these six tracks are as solid as a boulder slamming relentlessly towards you down a mountain side. I Shall Die Here is, put simply, the most brutal and unforgiving album released in many a year, one whose sheer extremism even puts most black metal to shame.

And it is a metal album at heart, but drummer Lee Buford and singer/guitarist Chip King made the bold move to pitch their traditional-sounding heavy doom into a black hole of new found textures, turning in the process to The Haxan Cloak’s Bobby Krlic. On paper, the two-piece’s taut riffage and plodding drums might not have lent themselves to Krlic’s more subtle, shadowy and echo-laden world, but by working so closely in tandem (it is generally hard to tell whose input one is hearing at any given time, beyond the drums, vocals and guitar), the result is a spectral nightmare vista where The Body’s metal is opened up from the inside and spread outwards, the resultant spaces filled with murky textures and morose electronic drones.

It’s a bit of a cliché for doom metal bands to ladle on misanthropy and despair like custard over an apple pie, but few do it as well as The Body. The album and track titles all allude to pain and misery: “To Carry the Seeds of Death Within Me,” “Alone All the Way,” “Hail To Thee, Everlasting Pain,” but the duo (and Krlic) resist the temptation to just hurl anguished screams and overdriven riffs at their listeners, instead exploiting the sense of emptiness and desolation that has become the hallmark of much of the post-dubstep electronic scene, from Logos and Wen’s urban dystopias to Krlic’s own oppressive electronica.

“To Carry the Seeds of Death Within Me,” for example, opens the album with a distorted scream (I can’t tell if it’s electronic feedback or a heavily manipulated vocal, but either way, it’s unsettling) and monolithic, repetitive drum crashes from Buford. The use of repetition locks the band and the listener into an oppressive cycle, enhancing the sense of unease as mauled guitar sub-riffs and incoherent vocalisations by King join the fray. The track builds up, but also ebbs and flows, with Krlic’s shimmering electronics upsetting the rhythmic forward motion and incremental voume increase, destabilising any sense of familiarity as full-on metal makes way for echo-laden near-silence and metronomic electro beats. It’s disorientating, and all the more emotionally potent for it, especially when a last choked scream from King segues into the muted sampled voice on “Alone All the Way.”

On the face of it, “Alone All the Way” is a more “traditional” metal salvo, but again, the rhythm is constantly shifting, and King’s voice is little more than a distorted shriek, all meaning lost to the winds. Buford really shines, as another quasi-dubstep middle section makes way for a rolling martial drum-beat that sounds like it could have featured on an Oneida or Boredoms record. It’s almost psychedelic, or even funky, and another sign that nothing is as it seems on I Shall Die Here. “Hail To Thee, Everlasting Pain” is another highlight, with gristly electronics and hypnotic beats combating with King’s murderous howl, the track slowly building into a full-on conflagration where noise, industrial and shades of mutated techno collide into a furious maelstrom of sound. I feel a bit too much has been made of the “noise” aspect of The Body and I Shall Die Here, but “Hail To Thee, Everlasting Pain” certainly sounds like something you’d hear on a Cold Spring release.

I Shall Die Here is not an easy record to get through, and its unrelenting fury and horror will be too much for many. Chip King’s screams can also grate at times, although he mixes things up nicely as the album progresses. But for those with a strong constitution, I Shall Die Here is a reminder that metal needn’t be restricted by the conventions laid down over the past four decades, that it’s a genre that, when opened up and broken down into individual parts offers a wealth of experimental possibilities. In The Body’s case, they’ve used Bobby Krlic’s influence to project a world of darkness and death, and all power to them because, in doing so, they’ve created one of the most haunting and terrifying metal albums since the legendary Khanate broke up.

A Dusted Review: To Be Kind by Swans (May 15th, 2014)

Three full studio albums into their reinvigorated latest phase, and Swans’ ability to surprise remains as potent as ever  To Be Kind might just be the most startling and uncompromising of the trio, although these qualities take time to unveil themselves.

The first three tracks sound almost a mile away from the up-front claustrophobic density of predecessor The Seer; they are built around more conventional rock idioms. Opener “Screen Shot” is a moody rocker driven by a repeated bass line, slow-building rhythmic crescendos and Michael Gira’s mantra-like, often one-word, lyrics. It’s deceptively simple, and not a huge leap from the kind of traditional, slightly gothic, alt-rock that dominates a lot the indie airwaves, although it preserves a lot of that strange ingredient that makes Swans so unique. For this jaded ex-rock fan, for whom Swans have long been one of the few remaining ties I have to the music I grew up on but have since left behind in favour of jazz, metal and the avant-garde, the first twenty-five minutes of To Be Kind had me nonplussed, but I of course should have known it would never a simple task to approach this album.

Swans don’t do convention, even in the frame of their own music, and this version of the band is surely the most musically flexible yet.

The overt rock influences (there’s a hint of Jesus Lizard here and there, and a fair bit of sludge metal at times) might have something to do with the Texas studio where To Be Kind was recorded, but probably mostly serves as a reminder that adjectives like “intense,” “loud” and “brutal” only paint part of the Swans picture. Indeed, not only can Michael Gira display a more mellow side both solo and with Angels of Light, but percussionist/drummer Thor Harris is also a member of moody alt-country outfit Shearwater. And to imagine that this fertile territory would not be allowed to creep into the Swans sound is naive.

Where The Seer was overpowering and mighty from the beginning, several tracks onTo Be Kind are punctuated by wide spaces and almost stripped-down arrangements. Gira, of course, burns with the same fitful fire as ever, as displayed by the psychotic delivery on “Just a Little Boy (for Chester Burnett),” responded to by sinister chuckles and laughs from the other musicians, or the hysterical shrieks of “Your name is fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” on “She Loves Us.” Even when Gira injects some oxygen into Swans’ broiling miasma, the listener is never let off the hook.

This is increasingly obvious as the album advances. By the time the thirty-four minute maelstrom that is “Bring the Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture” reaches its midway point, it’s as if one has descended into an infernal, sun-blinded desert realm of pain and angst. In what may perhaps be the best sonic metaphor for Swans’ barely restrained fury, the sound of stamping and snorting horses emerges from the seething tides of feedback and drone, before the track pitches back into its roiling tornado of sound.

“She Loves Us” is no less ferocious, a quiet beginning giving way to an almost free-form barrage of competing instruments played at full throttle, rendered even more unstable by Gira’s unhinged vocalizations. “Kirsten Supine” is more nuanced, at times even quiet, but still sees Swans go for the jugular with repetitive percussive crashes over Godspeed-esque open-ended guitar solos and sinister roars and snarls in the background. “Nathalie Neal” may open with delicate chimes and mandolin sounds, but before long an insistent, motorik backbeat has kicked in and the guitars are fizzing and seething back and forth across the sonic spectrum, building into one of those crescendos of noise, light, darkness and beauty that only Gira seems to know how to do so perfectly. For music so loud, To Be Kind is fucking hypnotic.

The point, essentially, is that even when it sounds like Swans may be going down a more traditional route, with clear influences from the back catalogue of rock history, to assume so would be to chase the reddest of herrings. To Be Kind, precisely because it is so deceptive and is controlled by musicians of such superlative talent, is quite possibly even more assertive and imperial than The Seer, which is saying a lot. It’s scary to imagine where this band could go from here. Scary and thrilling.

A Dusted Review – Stoner Rock by Bong (March 8th, 2014)

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“The more you think, the more you stink,” Neil Young and Crazy Horse producer David Briggs used to say, by way of explaining the way they went about crafting the band’s rough-edged form of intoxicating garage thrash. The principle was simple: The Horse’s heyday was during the era of grandiose prog and hard rock, but Young and Briggs achieved more transcendence than most of their contemporaries by sticking to a simple formula and never letting it get watered down by excessive overdubs or fancy production values.

I’m not sure if British doom metallers Bong have ever used that exact motto (and they sure sound ornate when compared to Crazy Horse), but there is a feeling on the ironically titled Stoner Rock that this band knows what it does best and has decided to run with it as far as possible.

Two of the genre’s founding fathers, Earth and Sunn O))), may have decided to elaborate on their heavy riffage by adding new textures, style or even by bending it to fit other musical varieties, but Bong is having none of it. For the duration of two monolithic, impenetrable tracks, it churns out a stream of repetitive, slow-burning riffs that straddle an omnipresent rhythmic base of plodding drums and fuzzed-out bass. It’s so boneheaded, so single-minded that it works when all reason suggests it shouldn’t. Do we really need another album of sloth-paced doom metal? Do we really need it to last for more than an hour over only two tracks? You wouldn’t think so, but Stoner Rock is pure sonic bliss, the kind of ear assault that, like the most brutal noise or most stately minimalism, burrows its way into the soul simply because it will not be moved. Put simply, there’s power in stubborness.

I’m aware this is starting to sound a bit like doom OCD, or the kind of elitism black metal fans have recently been accused of. There’s no doubting that some of the best music of the last few years has been crafted by bands and artists willing to twist doom’s fundamentals into fresh and invigorating new mutations, from Sunn O))) and its offshoots’ avant-garde genre-bending theatricality to Om’s cosmic spirituality, via Black Boned Angel’s hour-long meditation on the First World War on Verdun, Orthodox’s bizarre jazz inflections and Khanate’s brutal destructivism. All of the above have pride of place in my album collection, but I refuse to believe that Bong’s dogged pounding is in some way less worthy. Like Moss’ colossal Cthonic Rites, Stoner Rock gains power from repetition.

Yet listen closely and this is more than a brain-pounder. Bong’s guitars don’t just repeat themselves; they positively swirl, like whirlpools bursting out of Charybdis’ demonic maw. Beneath the fuzz and drone, a lone axe peals out a more majestic, open-ended solo, à la Manuel Göttsching, imbuing both “Polaris” and “Out of the Aeons,” Stoner Rock’s interchangeable slabs of sonic magma, with an energy bordering on the cosmic.

Even the somewhat comical spoken-word incantations can’t detract from this music’s hypnotic beauty. To listen to Stoner Rock at full volume is to lapse into a blissful trance where the world slides away to be replaced by fuzz, distortion and that sole guitar probing for the skies.

A Dusted Review: From All Purity by Indian (February 5th 2014)

It seems that the most frequent conversational leitmotif of the past decade, when extreme metal fans congregate, is “Where do we go next?” Since the advent of sludge, black and doom metal in the ’90s, most steps forward in the genre have been subtle ones, mere inches where before we witnessed leaps.

The shadow of Black Sabbath still casts its deathly pall, even if it has been enhanced and pushed further by the likes of Mayhem, SUNN O))) and Eyehategod (among many others), so room to maneuver in interesting ways has become increasingly restricted. Check out the Encyclopaedia Metallum, and the sheer number of bands to have emerged since 2003, nearly all playing a variant on existing formulas, is simply staggering. Every month I’m sent promo copies of handfuls of metal albums that all sound pretty much the same. It seems that originality in metal, a genre I’ve cherished since I was about 15, is becoming increasingly rare.

Maybe Chicago’s Indian has this problem nailed. On its fifth album, From All Purity, the quartet (quintet if you count producer Sean Patton on “noise”) simply consolidates the best aspects of doom and sludge and then does a bit of exciting tweaking, instead of vainly trying something revolutionary or ground-breaking or merely reiterating previous material. From All Purity will never have the impact of Earth’s second album, Khanate’s self-titled debut, Take As Needed For Pain by Eyehategod or Sleep’s drone doom bible Dopesmoker, but it contains all the important ingredients that made those records so essential. Indian adds a bit of its own character, and even if it doesn’t bound the band forward, then at least it sets it apart from the crowd. Patient evolution as opposed to misguided genre crossover (I’m looking at you, Deafhaven) or, worse, unimaginative cliché.

Before all that, though, Indian makes sure it gets the basics right, which it does with supreme confidence. With the exception of the bizarre “Clarify,” these tracks are all about fuzz-drenched riffs, drums that crash like demonic machinery and a singer who doesn’t so much scream as tear disjointed words from his throat as if trying out a new but unsuccessful form of ritual suicide.

Dylan O’Toole is so outrageously hysterical, I’m almost close to comparing to some of the modern metal-vocal greats such as Alan Dubin or Attila Csihar. Tracks like opener “Rape” and “The Impetus Bleeds” may crumble under the combined force of cranked up guitars and implacable rhythm, but that doesn’t prevent O’Toole from imposing his presence. With every harsh, unhinged shriek, he paints a picture of a man at his wit’s end.

You only need to listen to his voice to know that a track title like “Rape” is no mere slice of gratuitous provocation, as is the case with many extreme metal bands. Indian follows the paths of Eyehategod and Acid Bath in plunging headlong into the dark abyss of human nature, returning to scream its misanthropic fury at the world’s face. It’s a shame the production doesn’t push the vocals further up the mix, as hearing O’Toole with more clarity must be beyond unsettling.

So far, so very typical of extreme metal, even if Indian stretches out mightily far. Listen closely, however, and extra textures begin to reveal themselves under the familiar riffage and drum pounding. Patton’s hyper-saturated electronics swim like a bleary, broiling sea underneath the main melodies (if you can call them that), bubbling up through the interstices to dump extra layers of gristle over the other instruments, like a blind painter slapping brown acrylic on an already-finished painting.

The rest of Indian responds unexpectedly, dropping back to open up spaces between claustrophobic maulings. These touches are fleeting, and easily overlooked, but they do add flesh and gunk to the album’s five overtly metal tracks.

Which leaves “Clarify,” the most daring track I’ve heard by a full-on metal band I’ve heard in quite some time. Ditching drums, bass, and, as far as I can tell, guitars (bar the odd bit of feedback), the band unleashes a mean-faced four-minute slab of fractured noise, over which O’Toole’s vocals descend into gargled, incoherent squeals. Even with the slow-burning slab of doom that is closer “Disambiguation” coming straight afterward to reset the balance, it feels like “Clarify” is a mission statement of sorts from Indian, a way to reach into new realms of noise.

Will they dare plunge even further next time out? Here’s hoping. Maybe metal has yet some wild new territory to explore.

A Dusted Review: Horrible Chamber by Gnaw (January 14th, 2014)

At the risk of sounding a bit like one of the hysterical teens who started self-flagellating themselves when Take That split up in ’96, I was left mighty despondent when Khanate, surely the best American metal band of the last 12 years, went to the wall in 2009. In a world where even my beloved SUNN O))) have been described as “hipster” (as was explained to me rather vociferously and emphatically by a “proper”—his words—black metal fan I know), Khanate seemed to represent darkened metal at its most aesthetically pure and extreme, channeling a doom tradition stretching back to Black Sabbath via St. Vitus and Dopethrone via the scorched-earth nihilism of black metal without ever resorting to a bland pastiche or cliché of any of the bands they filched from. Above all, in Alan Dubin Khanate had the most extreme, soul-shattering, heart-stopping vocalist metal, of any variety, has ever vomited forth from its black heart.

So it’s very pleasing that, after a rather dodgy debut album, 2009’s This Face, Horrible Chamber sees Dubin’s most recent major band, Gnaw, climb similar heights to those he once scaled alongside James Plotkin and Stephen O’Malley.

Gnaw promised a lot on This Face, largely through Dubin’s presence and a slightly more varied approach than most metal bands. But the record was hamstrung by the fact that the various band members live far from one another and the album was therefore put together via the exchange of pre-recorded files.

By wisely deciding to convene in a studio for Horrible Chamber, at least on the basic tracks, their follow-up packs distinctly more punch and feels overall more cohesive. This combination of group interplay and overdubbing works remarkably well. Gnaw are arguably a more experimental combo than Khanate, despite the latter’s embrace of deconstructed jazz rhythms and thick moments of silence on their last opus, Clean Hands Go Foul. Gnaw’s combination of murderous riffs, sludgy bass, dark ambience and soulless electronica is mastered expertly on Horrible Chamber, resulting in a seven-song suite that pulls in all directions whilst staying wholly cohesive.

Many of the tracks have a similarly slovenly pace to latter-period Khanate, but with those aforementioned silences filled with tenebrous clouds of distorted synth noise and ill-defined found sounds.

In the middle of this maelstrom sits Dubin, who quite possibly hasn’t ever sounded more deranged and horrific as on Horrible Chamber, which is saying something. His vocal style is based in black metal’s nihilistic growl, but his range is such that he can—and does—incorporate the soaring wail that was the characteristic of metal’s earlier dark messiahs, from Osbourne to the hair metal mob.

As such, his range climbs from murky mumblings to psychotic shrieks, coming on like Diamanda Galas with a throat problem, which allows him to go beyond the misanthropic emotions of most black metal singers into something more self-analytical. There are times when, as he sings bleak lyrics of death and abuse (standard fare for black metal), he sounds less threatening than self-loathing, as if he’s channeling the spirit of a man capable of great evil, but is desperately trying to wrench himself out of this hideous psychological abyss. There is no exploitation in even the grimmest of Dubin’s narratives, more a bleak and unflinching examination of the seething, seeping black heart of humankind.

Around Dubin, riffs churn and bass lines threaten to flatten entire cities with their magnitude. Gnaw are hard to define along traditional metal criteria. At times, it sounds like your bog-standard metal band, all chugging riffs and blasted back beats, and these are its weakest moments.

But at others, as the guitars recede to be replaced by harsh electronic noise and slabs of musique concrète, and Dubin appears to be howling into some crushing metallic void, the whole concept of metal song-writing goes out the window, to be replaced by something more abstract and alienating. Laziness will convince many to label Horrible Chamber “industrial metal”, but even that broad epithet doesn’t do Gnaw—and Dubin—justice.

Maybe this is metal as dark, broken poetry, a sort of unhinged space where anything goes so long as it feels like it’s pounding into your heart.

A Quietus Review: Through a Pre-Memory by Äänipäa (November 19th, 2013)

Surely there must have been some risk in bringing together Mika Vainio, formerly one half of post-techno destructo-craftsmen Pansonic, and the lord of thunderous, ear-splitting doom riffs Stephen O’Malley, of SUNN O)))! I mean, wasn’t there a chance that two such intense, brooding wagers of sonic warfare would set off some sort of alchemical cataclysm if brought together? On the evidence of Through A Pre-Memory, the apocalypse was not unleashed when they combined as Äänipäa, but with Khanate’s Alan Dubin joining on vocals, they didn’t half come fucking close.

Which is not to say that Through A Pre-Memory is some massive trawl through the netherworld of sub-bass drone and scorched-earth industrial techno. Both Vainio and O’Malley have gradually transcended their roots to subliminally take in wider palettes, from jazz to avant-garde composition, via musique concrète and psychedelia. Recent releases on O’Malley’s Mego-sponsored Ideologic Organ imprint, for example, have included Eyvind Kang and Jennifer Kenney’s crystalline folk, the multifaceted electronica of Mats Lindstrom and Iancu Dumitrescu’s spectral noise compositions. Far from being the extremist misanthropes the more narrow critics might describe them as, Mika Vainio and Stephen O’Malley are perpetually curious sonic explorers, and Äänipäa gives them the opportunity to push this curiosity to its natural conclusion.

Having said all the above, it is unsurprising that Through A Pre-Memory‘s opening salvo, ‘Muse’ doesn’t start in a hail of noise, but rather in a style best described as “patient”, as a muffled, apparently sampled, voice intones in what sounds like German (but could be Dubin), buffeted by throbbing deep bass notes, martial spurts of robotic percussion and looming, suspended doom guitar chords. The mood on ‘Muse’ is considered, with O’Malley and Vainio taking their time to explore both silence and noise in alternating expanses of sound and near-sound, with every detail displayed in stark relief. There are gristly electronic lines, shimmering synth lines and crashing riffs, all seeping in and out of a blank, abstract canvas of quietude. It’s both startling and absorbing, the perfect demonstration of sonic sleight-of-hand, because twelve minutes in O’Malley ups the ante with some trademark extended riffs as Alan Dubin joins the fray, screaming himself raw over a girl he waited for but lost, his delivery both terrifying and overflowing with pathos. Vainio, with his repetitive beats, and O’Malley, with his crunching feedback snarls, never rush matters, instead allowing this moody slab of introspection to inch inevitably towards collective psychosis under Dubin’s wild-eyed invectives over 21 claustrophobic minutes. Metal-infused music hasn’t been this deliriously overwrought since Khanate’s Clean Hands Go Foul had a belated release in 2009. Vainio may be adding texture, but with Dubin’s rasp, this is pure, unrestrained, blackened doom.

‘Towards All Thresholds’ and ‘Mirror Of Mirror Dreams’ give the Finn more space to influence the overall sound, with drifting drones superimposed on top of each other ad infinitum and hypnotic post-techno grooves dominating the former; whilst crystalline synths and gravelly guitar lines dance a slovenly waltz over the near-18 minutes of the latter, as if the two tracks act as opposing motifs on the soundtrack of an avant-garde horror movie. ‘Watch Over Stillness/Matters Principle”, however, returns matters to the bleak, abstract scorched earth of ‘Muse’, and is the better for it, with Alan Dubin again at the centre of this grim, perversely operatic suite. Again, Mika Vainio excels at setting out pounding, yet focused, drum machine beats and shadowy electronic textures, leaving it to O’Malley to frame Dubin’s multi-tracked ravings with his guitar, as he did so well – sorry if I’m labouring the point – in Khanate. The intermittent stillness evinced on ‘Muse’ is pushed to its apex here, as the track drifts almost listlessly at times, a hazy fog of imagined shades and potential explosions. When they do burst forth, they’re all the more potent from the anticipation.

I’ve recently been listening to a number of early records released on ECM, that formidable bastion of avant-garde jazz and minimalist modern composition. Of course, Äänipäa do not actually sound like Jan Garbarek or Ralph Towner, but, in their own chaotic, ever-so-slightly-demented way, they espouse something of the German label’s early aesthetic, namely a desire to play with the contours of volume and silence, and where those two phenomena overlap. This is techno-metal, so it’s more boneheaded than jazz, but the respective backgrounds of Mika Vainio and Stephen O’Malley mean the above comparison is not such a leap. This is noise music with brains, and another album on Editions Mego that challenges our perceptions of music and sound. Oh, and it will fucking rip your ears off at full volume.

A Quietus Interview – Pure Undisturbed Reality: An Interview With Stara Rzeka (August 14th, 2013)

Despite being comparatively unknown within the wider world, Poland’s alternative music scene is in diverse, forward-thinking and exciting health at the moment. From ferocious metal to tonal explorations and avant-garde jazz, via aggressive alt-rock and novel takes on techno and dubstep, there’s a huge swathe of Polish artists that merit far more interest than they’re currently receiving.

Among the myriad innovative individuals currently making the country feel like such fertile musical territory, Jakub ‘Kuba’ Ziołek stands as a key figure, having made his name as a member of some of the most intriguing and exploratory groups in the country. They include Innercity Ensemble, an improvisation-based collective whose wide-ranging pieces draw from members’ backgrounds in jazz, post-industrial and electronic musics, Ed Wood, and Alameda 3, who are due to release a new album in the near future.

However, 2013 has shed fresh light on Ziołek’s singular approach to rock, metal and folk-leaning traditions with the release of his first full album as Stara Rzeka, Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem. The album is both astonishing and beguiling, composed on an acoustic guitar but broadening to draw from a wide mix of styles – folk, krautrock, black metal – with a radical and open-minded attitude that makes the resultant music impossible to pigeonhole. It’s already reached the upper echelons of the Quietus’ albums of 2013 so far list, with Quietus editor John Doran describing it thus: “it shifts through sparse BM moves that remind one of Norwegian second wavers Thorns, and through the arboreal drones of early Growing, before ending on a celestial cover of Nico’s ‘My Only Child’ with speaker destroying drone metal.”If there is any justice in the world, Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem should be the vehicle to propel Ziołek to attention in the alternative music community well outside his home country. Fascinated by the oblique and beautiful world of Stara Rzeka, the Quietus caught up with him via e-mail to discuss the album, the tensions and connections between humans and nature, and his own remarkable perspective on music.

Could you please give me a bit of background on yourself and Stara Rzeka? I know you’ve performed and recorded in a number of outfits, such as Ed Wood and Innercity Ensemble, but when did you start working as Stara Rzeka?

Jakub Ziołek: My background is in metal and hardcore music, and it still plays an important role in bands like Ed Wood or Alameda 3, or even in Stara Rzeka. I like radical, material sounds… Even in ambient or acoustic music, I like sounds to be massive and extreme. I participate in numerous different bands. Innercity Ensemble is a free-form improvisational collective of seven musicians, a band blending jazz, post-industrial, psychedelic and ambient music. Hokei is a RIO and post-rock-influenced sci-fi phantasmagoria with two drum kits. Alameda 3 is, in a sense, a continuation of Stara Rzeka, but a little more rock-influenced. T’ien Lai is, in a way, a tribute to so-called ‘krautrock’ and bands like Cluster or Popol Vuh. Kapital is a mix of electro-acoustic experiments and extreme space-psychedelic music. Stara Rzeka is three years old, but I only started playing live last year.

How do you feel Stara Rzeka differs from your other projects? I believe it’s a completely solo project?

JZ: The whole idea of Stara Rzeka, and also Alameda 3, T’ien Lai and Kapital, is for them to be completely DIY bands, and I think that those bands should be responsible for recording and mixing their material. I have no money to pay for a real studio, so everything is done DIY style. I know nothing about mixing, but I work very hard listening to the music and doing the best I can for it to sound satisfying enough. Stara Rzeka doesn’t really differ from my other bands. They’re all a part of the same story.

Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem is remarkable in the way it takes in a wide variety of genres and styles, including heavy rock similar to black metal, folk, electronic music and drone. Are these genres that you have been versed in a long time? What – if any – were your influences when making the album?

JZ: It may sound trivial but the only true influence is the German music of the 70s. For me, it’s the most important legacy in post-World War II European music – Kraftwerk, Cluster, Ash Ra Tempel, Can, Faust, Neu, Amon Düül II, Guru Guru and many, many others. [They had] diverse, original, inspiring concepts that never concealed the pure experience of sound. There are also many other artists that I admire: Robert Fripp, Keiji Haino, Richard Pinhas, Loren Connors, Robbie Basho, My Cat Is An Alien, Sun City Girls, Charalambides, David Hurley… and there’s philosophy. I don’t listen to music a lot, but I read a lot. Very little fiction, mostly just scientific and philosophical books. I’m more inspired by books than by records, although I don’t consider music to be purely intellectual. Quite the opposite.

I believe the songs were initially composed on acoustic guitar. What made you want to flesh them out with other instruments and musical styles? Do you play all instruments on the album?

JZ: Yes, I play all the instruments on the album. 90% of the time I compose on the acoustic guitar because I live in a flat and I cannot play loud music at home. I practise a lot on the acoustic guitar, and hope that in the future it will be my only field of expression.

Was it a challenge to juxtapose these varied styles whilst still maintaining the album’s coherence? It’s something of a triumph that, for all its frequent evolutions, Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem is so focused and cohesive.

JZ: I never hoped for it to be musically cohesive. If it is, it’s just pure coincidence. It’s conceptually coherent. It’s focused on the concept that mankind should consider the loss of the connection with its humanistic tradition of Renaissance and Enlightenment as a gain, not a loss… and that objective reality (not only nature) is not something that mankind is supposed to conquer and defeat. It’s connected to us but keeps its own autonomy. We must learn how to communicate with it, not conquer it. I realise that this is not a new or original concept…

I believe metal music, notably black metal, is quite popular in Poland. Are you a big fan of black metal? What is it that draws you to it?

JZ: Metal music is popular in Poland, but I don’t think black metal is popular. Of course there’s Behemoth, but it’s not really black metal, and Nergal is a celebrity in Poland like Paris Hilton is in the U.S. There are great black metal bands in Poland nowadays: more old-school like Mgła and more avant-garde like Furia and Thaw (just to name a few). To me black metal, along with doom metal, is the only metal music that’s devoid of the testosterone aspect of sound, which makes metal music just a continuation of a penis-oriented rock & roll music. Black metal is a negation of humanism and hence [a negation of] the oppression of men over women… the sex factor disappears in black metal. It’s subject is asexual, like a ghost. This is one of the reasons why I think of black metal as very closely connected to the truth of nature and its pure, undisturbed reality. I don’t support any right-wing connotations in black metal, or nationalistic, homophobic, anti-Semitic, Varg Vikernes-style bullshit.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I speak no Polish, but note that some of the lyrics are in English. What was the thought process behind singing in English? Are most of the lyrics in Polish?

JZ: Actually, only ‘My Only Child’ is in English and it’s a cover. The rest of the album is sung in Polish. To me, the voice is just another instrument. I listen to music from around the world and I love to hear songs sung in other languages than English. It makes them more mysterious to me. I try to interpret in my own way the meanings of words in those songs… even if they may be originally just shitty love songs. To me they sound magical.

Stara Rzeka means Old River in English, and in your biography I read that you have a keen interest in nature and its preservation. Has that always been the case? Do you garner particular inspiration from landscapes that surround you?

JZ: I don’t feel comfortable living in the city and I seize every opportunity to go out to some rural areas. Nature and the way it connects within itself and with people is very important to me. Sounds of nature are beautiful and purifying. But I don’t mythologise or idealise the countryside or nature in general. Also, I don’t think of nature as some kind of unity (contrasted to another unity – culture). Actually, to me, there’s no nature, just various forces and material objects that need to be considered in their autonomy.

The combination of electric and acoustic sounds on the album suggests a desire to explore a sense of conflict in humankind’s interaction with nature. Is this a fair assessment? Do you see Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem as having something of a political or social commentary at play?

JZ: Yes, there is some political background behind this music. People must stop thinking of nature as a beautiful, innocent virgin that should be conquered. But, to me, this thinking deals with the whole objective, material reality (natural or artificial). Material objects are not the neutral background of our lives, they constitute our world and our thinking of ourselves. We must learn how they are and how they act in their own autonomy. Again, I realise that these ideas are not my original concepts. I’m just deeply devoted to them, so I like to talk about them.

I was struck by the potency of the folk aspect of your music on hearing the album the first time. Little is known here in the UK about traditional Polish music. Do you see yourself as part of that sort of tradition?

JZ: I don’t consider Stara Rzeka to be a folk band. I don’t know much about traditional Polish music as well and there are no traditional Polish folk tunes on Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem. Folk music has great power and I sense truth in this music. But, I don’t see a reason I should consider Polish folk music to be more important than, say, Thai folk music.

I’m reminded of many English folk bands of the 60s and 70s who shied away from modernity in order to explore ancient, sometimes pre-Christian traditions, as well as more modern Scandinavian acts who do the same thing, such as Tenhi and Wardruna. Do you feel an affinity with any of those bands, both past and present?

JZ: In Poland, there was this great band Księżyc – sort of medieval, pagan folk music. Their music had some amazing primordial aura – a deep journey into unconsciousness of the senses. I admire Księżyc, but Stara Rzeka is something different. I don’t care much about past and tradition, I’m more future-oriented.

When I went to OFF Festival in Katowice last year, I was impressed by the quality and diversity of the local bands, but also thought it was a shame that they were often on very early in comparison to the big American and British bands. What is your view on the Polish music scene? Do you think it’s harder for Polish acts to gain the recognition they deserve?

JZ: It’s great that you’ve noticed the fact that Polish bands are not treated with respect they deserve. It’s an effect of a servile mentality and inferiority complex. British and American bands are seen as the great lords that honour Poland just by their presence in our little country. Just take a look at numbers: My Bloody Valentine gets 150,000 Euro for their concert at OFF Festival this year, my band Hokei gets 500 Euro (and it’s mostly public money!) Stara Rzeka plays at 16.00… Just imagine black metal-drone ritual, in the beautiful August sun with fifteen people attending, at this early hour. This is a real problem with big festivals, because club concerts and small festival organisers also suffer from the thoughtlessness of the big festival policy.

And the Polish musical scene is amazing! It’s absurd to compare Polish music to American or British. Different worlds, different traditions, different financial and political environments. But very often I find Polish artists more interesting than British or American ones (and I’m not a patriot)… Just check the work of Wacław Zimpel (Hera), Mikrokolektyw, The Kurws, Piotr Kurek, Napszykłat, Macio Moretti (LXMP, Shofar, Baaba, Mitch&Mitch). And those are just few artists whose names came into my head at the moment.

I can imagine that it might be a challenge to bring this music, which is so diverse and multi-faceted and subtle, into a live setting. Have you performed many concerts? If so, did this throw up any specific challenges?

JZ: The first few concerts were very difficult for me technically (using acoustic and electric guitar in one song is not easy). I decided to make it more simple but more condensed and intense. I think it’s good when live performance differs from what can be heard on an album. Those are two different things. I hate it when bands play their albums live note by note.

What are your future plans? I believe the album is set to get a new pressing, which is great news.

JZ: Yeah, the first pressing sold out very quickly. Both CD and cassette. Currently I’m working on split cassette with two artists from Poland. Stara Rzeka’s new album will be released next year.

Stara Rzeka’s Cień chmury nad ukrytym polem is out now via Instant Classic.

A Quietus Review: Yggdrasil by Wardruna (June 28th, 2013)

Listening to the music of Wardruna feels like a travel back in time, but to an age that maybe only ever existed, and continues to exist, in the minds of its creators and, by extension, those who dare to delve into this strange, and sometimes unsettling, world. Yggdrasil is the second part of a trilogy based on 24 ancient Scandinavian runes known as the elder futhark, and the trio of vocalist Lindy-Fay Hella and former Gorgoroth members Einar Kvitrafn Selvik (instruments) and Gaahl (vocals) duly sing lyrics in Old Norse and Proto-Norse in addition to their native Norwegian, and are joined by famed Icelandic rímur (a form of traditional epic poetry set to music) composer Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and singer Steindór Andersen, effectively broadening the scope of their project beyond the confines of the core trio’s homeland. I may not understand the words, but an aura of pagan folk authenticity permeates each song.

Listening to Yggdrasil is like being taken on a journey, from the opening nature sounds (several of the tracks were recorded outdoors) and moody chants that usher in ‘Rotlaust tre fell’, you are transported to dark, snow-covered forests, surrounded by what sounds like a cluster of incantatory pagan sorcerers. The blend of voices is sumptuous, from Ghaal’s harsh, low snarl to Lindy-Fay Hella’s sweeping soprano, with the other singers nestling somewhere in between. As the tracks build up, these multi-faceted voices merge, splinter and contrast with one another, adding dramatic, even cinematic potency to their oblique narratives. Second track ‘Fehu’ is a gorgeous demonstration of this, as Hella’s graceful ululations echo the earthier tones of her compadres to a backdrop of driving percussion and swirling violin and mandolin melodies. I’m instantly reminded of the wind-swept post-Fairport Convention debut by Sandy Denny, The North Star Grassman And The Ravens, and, naturally, Comus’ pitch-black take on English folk.

Such comparisons to vintage British folk, however, only paint part of the Wardruna picture, because Yggdrasil is by no means retro-sounding, with traces of Selvik and Ghaal’s black metal roots filtering into the songs to colour them with a sense of deep foreboding. A lot of modern metal, notably doom, explores the primeval power inherent in nature, and Wardruna achieve something similar, but using droning strings, metronomic percussion and massed vocals instead of crushing bass and guitar riffs, arguably with more emphatic results, especially when deployed amidst sounds of crashing thunder, footsteps crunching on snow and driving rain. Wardruna’s music sounds alive, as if the nature the group so effectively evokes has seeped into the listener’s synapses. Again, you don’t have to understand the lyrics to feel affected by them.

Perhaps Wardruna’s closest musical cousins are the likes of Finland’s Tenhi or America’s Wolves In The Throne Room, bands who, similarly, cross the borders between European folk’s arcane origins and black metal’s theatrical malevolence. But where those two bands crawl through the murk with frenetic, single-minded determination (with spectacular results), Yggdrasil lives up to its name – that of the giant tree central to Norse mythology – by stretching out into both darkness and light, a musical ying and yang, like branches creeping into sunlight as they grow up out of a shadowy forest.

A Quietus Review: Freermasonry by Wold (May 7th, 2013)

The claustrophobic sonic realm created by Canadian outfit Wold on Freermasonry -initially released in 2011 on Profound Lore and reissued this year on Stephen O’Malley’s Ideologic Organ imprint – is one where black metal, noise and industrial music all collide, in the process sucking out space and time like the air leaving an expiring corpse. The ten tracks all feature massed ranks of guitar, bass and percussion that are so monolithic and dense as to render most details of what is what almost unrecognisable. Unperturbed, vocalist Fortress Crookedjaw sustain this onslaught for well over an hour, the kind of determination that will thrill noise and metal fans and baffle most others.

If I’m making Freermasonry sound like a slog, then I’m doing it a disservice, because, despite how massive and immovable it often seems, hints of a profound musicality seep up through the cracks of each track, usually propelled by the gruesome, wonderful, rasp-cum-hiccup vocals of Crookedjaw. The album kicks off its implacable grind with the playfully-titled two-minute ‘Opening’, and several shorter tracks are dropped around the eight-to-sixteen-minute opuses that form the album’s core, presumably to keep the album’s flow marginally approachable. ‘SOL’ sets the ball rolling properly in this respect, as fractured, disjointed riffs battle with a wall of distortion over minimal beats that sound like they’ve been produced by the world’s most knackered drum machine.

Crookedjaw’s vocals sound lost amid this maelstrom, not so much accompanying the half-formed melody as growling over it, the man sounding like the bastard son of Burzum and Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. Wold’s momentum on ‘SOL’ (and indeed the rest of the album) is fitful, with none of the driving momentum one associates with black metal, sounding in fact closer to power electronics noise-makers such as Ramleh, or a more compressed Whitehouse circa 1983. Indeed, on two of the longest tracks, the scalding ‘Working Tools For Praxis’ and the more supple title track, the combination of dense clouds of high-pitched drone, fitful drum machine rhythms and loping sub-bass combine at times to sound like a muddy live recording of late-70s Throbbing Gristle, with a consumptive Attila Csihar clone taking the place of Genesis P-Orridge’s manic barks. Elsewhere, such as on ‘Dragon Owl’, Wold come close to matching the unrelenting wall noise of a Vomir or The Cherrypoint.

If there is a drawback to such sonic mayhem, it’s that such airlessness renders Crookedjaw’s lyrics, supposedly based on lofty themes like freemasonry and religion, completely unintelligible. One review I read of the record quoted some of the lines, and they sound fascinating, but I can only surmise that the reviewer had access to a lyric sheet. Either that or he or she has the ears of a basset hound, the lucky blighter. It rarely matters when you can’t hear the words on a noise album, because the best acts (such as the aforementioned Ramleh, or their erstwhile label-mates Skullflower) can conjure up their songs’ sentiment in other ways. With Wold, it feels like a missed opportunity. There’s certainly a lot on Freermasonry that will get noise and industrial heads grinning and head-banging, even if some of the shorter tracks feel a bit like afterthoughts, but metal fans may find it all a bit wearisome.