In the first of an irregular feature for people with irregular music tastes, Ghost Cult plunges into the chaotic cyclone of abstract, dissonant and frankly horrible sub-underground Metal, Noise and Ambient.
To a Metal newcomer, our use of otherwise negative adjectives as praise may seem a little confusing at first. Just flick through the reviews at Ghost Cult – even the more mainstream or accessible releases are “brutal”, “savage” and “crushing”, but go deeper into the more niche bands and everything quickly becomes “depraved”, “horrifying” and, my personal favourite, “disgusting”. Exactly what draws some of us to art described in terms that in most other contexts would be major criticisms is unclear, but having recently bought an album on the strength of a single review calling it “the anti-God, the anti-life, the void itself”, I’m in no position to deny it. 2016 saw a number of relatively high-profile dissonant or abstract releases in Metal and its periphery, but there was a lot going on below the parapets too – in this first of an ongoing series, we explore six alienating, oppressive and – yes – disgusting albums from 2016 that may have slipped past unseen.
Karmacipher – Necroracle (self-released)
On paper, Hong Kong’s Karmacipher are simply one of a growing legion of bands trading on Death Metal’s recently-acknowledged Gorguts influence and the more recent legacy of Ulcerate, but there’s a quality to Necroracle that lifts it instantly above the competition. The dense guitar tone, complex-but-expansive rhythms and lowest of low-frequency growls are all as you’d expect, but there’s a dynamic quality to their song-writing that most similar bands lack. There are similarities to the equally excellent Ad Nauseam, but Karmacipher’s sound is deeper and more oppressive. A genuine stand-out in a year that saw a lot of very similar albums, and an unsigned band entirely worthy of the level of attention given to Ulcerate.
God Body Disconnect – Dredge Portals (CryoChamber Productions)
Since the days of Cold Meat Industry in the late 90’s, there’s long been an association between Extreme Metal and Dark Ambient. Aside from the obvious aesthetic connections it’s not always obvious why this is – Dark Ambient’s passive, background style often fitting very uncomfortably with Metal’s rock-and-roll showiness – but God Body Disconnect managed to catch the attention of a number of Metal fans and writers very favourably. Making Dark Ambient’s fondness for narrative structures explicit through some excellent spoken-word sections, Dredge Portals tells a sinister, mystical story about a coma victim exploring different levels of consciousness over a dense, captivating landscape of deep synths, sinister field recordings and even some surprisingly uplifting guitars.
Departe – Failure, Subside (Season of Mist)
Another one of the We Quite Like Gorguts And Ulcerate brigade, like Karmacipher above Australia’s Departe have found something to separate themselves from the growing throng of their peers – in their case, a pitch-black “post-rock” (yes we all hate that term, but you know what it means. No, you shut up) element bringing to mind Neurosis and mid-period Cult Of Luna. It’s a combination that works so well that it’s almost surprising that it hasn’t been done before, and at their best Departe create a sense of profound despair that’s genuinely moving. It’s a long album, though, and lacking the fluid violence of some of their peers it can sometimes drag its heels, especially when the clean vocals take over and the Death Metal elements are briefly shelved. A band exploring a genuinely interesting and distinctive field, and one whose strengths far outweigh their occasional limitations.
Vmthanaachth – Fit Secundum Regulam (self-released)
One of the problems with being a Metal fan poking around at the most abstract, experimental end of the spectrum is that you sometimes stumble across something that you don’t really have the musical language to describe. Vmthanaachth probably fall most comfortably into some form of contemporary Classical music, but I have no meaningful comparisons or genre-tags to use. My inability to label, or even entirely explain, their music, however, does not prevent me from being utterly captivated by it. A string section generate utterly amelodic but clearly deliberately structured swathes of sound while a rumbling, dissonant guitar hints at the more abstract end of Death Metal without playing anything resembling a riff. Three long, suffocatingly dense tracks bring to mind what Gorguts might conceivably have turned into had they chosen the most abstract sections of Obscura (Olympic/Century Media) and just kept running.
La Torture des Tenebres – Civilisation Is The Tomb Of Our Noble Gods (self-released)
Death Metal seems to be leading the field in experimenting with dissonant and atonal elements, possibly due to the tendency towards lower registers, but one-woman Canadian project La Torture des Tenebres is keen to show that Black Metal doesn’t have to get left behind. Catching our attention with the sparse, sepia drawings of futurist Art Deco buildings and field recordings of 20’s and 30’s street noise, it’s clear that this isn’t going to be the usual Grimly Frostbitten winter frolics, but when ‘The Great Escape From Capricorn City’ erupts in a howling wind-tunnel of dissonant Black Metal and shrieking noise we’re still not fully prepared for it. This is Black Metal as Harsh Noise, an overbearing wall of high frequency pummelling that achieves a state of tranquility through punishing excess. Beautiful, alien and completely itself, Civilisation Is The Tomb Of Our Noble Gods is clear indication that Black Metal’s experimental future did not begin and end with Deathspell Omega.
Ehnahre – Douve (Crucial Blast)
Ehnahre have been by far one of the strangest bands in what can be broadly described as Death Metal since their début in 2008, but with Douve they’ve finally crossed the line into being what Brian from Spaced would sound like if he had a major psychotic break and turned into five people. Their ultra-dense, deranged blend of Death Metal, Sludge and Doom is mixed so thoroughly with elements of Noise, Neo-Classical and atonal Serialism that it becomes something entirely different. With musical references to Stockhausen and Schoenberg, and lyrics taken from the poetry of Yves Bonnefoy, Ehnahre seem to be aspiring to a sophistication unusual in Metal circles, but there’s absolutely nothing subtle or restrained about Douve’s eighty minutes of horrifying, overwhelming noise – rather than punctuating the calm of the piano and electronic-driven sections, the moments of fractured, broken-spined Death Metal can almost come as a relief.