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The New Depths of Sludge and Doom: Primitive Man + Hell Split

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In the neverending quest for heavy metal’s holy grail of ultimate brutality, few are as worthy a contender to the title of “heaviest” as the incomparable Primitive Man. Longtime stalwarts of the Denver sludge scene, Primitive Man have built an impressive reputation across the past seven years with a prolific and strikingly consistent catalog, throughout which they have developed a truly idiosyncratic and punishing mixture of sludge, drone/doom, and noise influences. Their mission, it would seem, is to push the boundaries of sonic ferocity into frightening new realms not through speed or complexity, but rather lethargy and misanthropic cynicism. And despite achieving considerable success internationally, the group has refused to stray from their core identity, always remaining true to their essence — defined by murky underground aesthetics and a tireless DIY attitude, the group routinely flattens listeners with release after release of tormented nihilism and frequent collaborations with an eclectic spread of groups.

Now, only six months after dropping their last split with the outstanding Unearthly Trance, Primitive Man have forged yet another formidable, ungodly alliance by reaching deep into the sweltering mire of the doom underground to grasp the hand of multi-instrumentalist M.S.W., the sole creative force behind Salem, Oregon’s enigmatic “extreme funeral doom” outfit Hell. Formed in 2008, Hell began as a one-man project created with the goal of disregarding overly typical religious themes and “instead focusing on the concept of a personal hell.” An equally prolific musician, M.S.W. has released four LPs, an EP, and seven splits since Hell’s inception ten years ago, and has developed the project into a touring entity with a stable cast of live musicians.

Though their styles are evidently distinct, these groups share remarkable similarities in their philosophical and artistic approach to the genres of sludge and doom. Each made a daring push even further into droning, noisy, feedback-oriented soundscapes with their latest full-lengths (released in 2017 only five weeks apart) — Primitive Man with their blackened, gargantuan second album Caustic, and Hell with their white-knuckled, fuzzed-into-infinity self-titled fourth record. Furthermore, with their hugely similar thematic concepts and equally ambitious release schedule, the two bands display a kindred sense of exploration into the extreme limits of metal’s slower side; thus, this new split represents a convergence of paths that is not only ideal, but perhaps inevitable.

Rounding out this impeccable coalition is legendary metal producer and longtime Primitive Man collaborator Dave Otero, whose superb engineering abilities are undeniable by any who have witnessed his work. Having recorded both Caustic and Scorn with Otero in Westminster, Colorado, Primitive Man’s contributions for the split were once again tracked and mixed at his renowned studio Flatline Audio, while Hell’s offering was recorded at the Burial Grounds in Salem, an undoubtedly hazy, mildewed dungeon that houses M.S.W.’s equipment. Occupying the split’s first side are Primitive Man’s two confrontational, gut-wrenching tracks, entitled “Oily Tears” and “Pitiful and Loathsome.” The second side consists of a mammothly ripping ten-minute jam from Hell bearing the name “Nuumen,” a corrosive and feral yet bizarrely heartwarming odyssey into M.S.W.’s grimy underworld.

Taking up roughly even halves of the split’s 22 minutes – the former with 12 minutes of material, the latter only 10 – these three tracks would provide a vital glimpse into each group’s direction going forward: would their mutual experimentation result in a sonic compromise between the two styles, or would they continue to pursue their own unique paths, parallel but never intersecting?

After a moment of screeching, characteristically harsh feedback, “Oily Tears” launches immediately into a crushing mid-tempo riff underlaid by disturbingly guttural growls from vocalist Ethan McCarthy. Right away, we are dragged through trenches of blood and gravel as the track’s tempo lurches and stalls into chasms of static before descending further downwards into hatred and madness — the loose, unhinged feel of the track’s pacing is present throughout its six minutes, as the group abruptly pauses their furious riffing to reveal sizzling vats of electric overdrive.
The oppression pouring from this composition can be felt almost physically, evoking the sensation of simultaneous frigidity and scalding heat akin to the final throes of hypothermic insanity.

Then, around the two-and-a-half minute mark, the group explodes from this wall of fizzling noise into an absolute deluge of blackened sludge, complete with writhing blast beats and violent howls that cascade over the listener before settling once again into a steadily plodding death march. Oblique and dissonant tones form a thick fog over the final moments of the track’s soul-crushing outro as it reaches a psychedelic, almost ambient climax that ends abruptly without resolution. Although it is indeed torturously slow, “Oily Tears” showcases a slightly more lithe and agile side to Primitive Man’s compositional style, with motifs presented and developed in a more compact fashion than most of the group’s previous material – the overall gesticulation of track could best be described as deceptively nimble, even serpentine.

“Pitiful and Loathsome” similarly leaps forth from silence steeped in shrieking feedback tones, but instead of pounding and lumbering its way into your cochlea, it oozes out at a slothlike pace like gristle melting off of burning flesh. Though it is the shorter of the two tracks, “Pitiful and Loathsome” builds itself much more slowly than “Oily Tears,” enrapturing the listener in a hypnotic trance by gradually constructing despairing towers of buzzing, gurgling tone only to demolish them in a double-bass assault as the song slips into a terrifying, feverish death-sludge rampage. The track’s final two minutes then transition via a downright demonic sludge beatdown back into the warbling static of the track’s introduction, with Ethan’s cataclysmic vocals expanding into sprawling confessions of hopelessness. Despite its wide range in intensity, the second song is played at a steady tempo throughout, emphasizing the funeral doom elements within Primitive Man’s sound and thus providing an excellent segue into the massive Hadean ceremony that Hell has in store on track three.

Opening with a dose of highly psyched-out stoner doom, Hell’s “Nuumen” spills out like toxic fumes across a corpse-strewn battleground as its ominous first riff lingers over a greasy, droning bassline and pulsating tribal rhythms. A flurry of cymbals sends the percussion into double-time, and the thick fuzz of the intro erupts promptly into an infectious NOLA-style sludge anthem. Right away, it becomes clear that Hell’s music evokes a caliber of energy much less chaotic and pulverizing than that of Primitive Man. Although M.S.W.’s vocals consist of dissonant, pained screams, they are perhaps more masochistic than misanthropic and always lock into his sluggish yet stable instrumental grooves rather than piercing through the din in jarring, intermittent bursts.

Additionally, Hell places a higher focus on repetition in their music: “Nuumen” progresses ritualistically, with tessellated geometric patterns shifting piece by piece until a new idea is introduced. Essentially, the track’s entire ten minutes consist of a small handful of musical concepts separated by key transition points, such as the disgustingly heavy breakdown at the four-and-a-half minute mark. At six minutes, the song comes full circle as it reprises its sinister opening riff, this time with added layers such as a choir of eerie voices rising up from the depths. Hell’s utilization of repetition is not at all tedious: rather, it establishes a satisfying form of symmetry within the composition by recapitulating vital climactic passages with a more dramatic effect.

Clearly nihilism, despair, and abject hopelessness are central themes to the music and lyrics of both of these groups. But although this split highlights their many commonalities, it also exposes a number of stark contrasts between the two. Primitive Man creates highly depressive and often blackened music — as evidenced here by the sheer abrasiveness of both “Oily Tears” and “Pitiful & Loathsome” — and presents a sound that is seemingly unhinged yet still mathematically precise. Conversely, the aesthetic Hell has constructed on “Nuumen” feels much more straightforward, slimy, and organic, sharing much in common with foundational sludge groups such as Eyehategod and Crowbar, and thus coming across as more thematically accessible or more casual than Primitive Man. This is not to say that Primitive Man’s compositions are pretentious or conceptually lofty, but rather enormously grave, stoic, and resolute in their sense of pessimism and refusal of conventional tonalities; in fact, the tracks they have contributed to this split are exceptionally strong, often displaying the group performing at the greatest of their potential.

Despite Primitive man and Hell having tracked their contributions in geographically distant spaces, Dave Otero’s prodigious production skills have flawlessly married their two distinct textures into one devious, unholy union composed of equal parts musical cacophony and sonic clarity. The split’s three tracks are wonderfully complimentary, each distinctively unique yet coalescing into one consummate delineation of both groups’ utterly bleak, nihilistic form of music. Rarely within these subgenres does one release so concisely present this many innovative and eclectic ideas; in just 22 minutes, this split provides listeners with an impeccable modern interpretation of sludge, doom and even stoner metal, proving yet again that Primitive Man and Hell are two groups on the cutting edge of the modern metal scene. .

The Primitive Man + Hell split releases Friday via Translation Loss Records.

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