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Let me be blunt . . . if melody and songcraft are mandatory for you to have an enjoyable listening experience, Mastery is not for you. The riffs on this debut record change so fast and with such frequency that Valis makes bands like Suffocation and Ion Dissonance sound like funeral doom by comparison.

But Valis is far from being a rote exercise in technical extreme metal. Lone member Ephemeral Domignostika crafts these epics piece by absurd piece, stitching together snippets of improvised black metal, thrash and noise like some kind of twisted Teo Macero. The album is divided into five tracks, but they prove fairly useless in trying to navigate the chaos. The best way to experience Valis is to play through the whole thing and try desperately to hang on.

At 18 minutes, lead track “V.A.L.I.S.V.E.S.S.E.L.“ takes up almost half the runtime, and works almost like an album in miniature. After a few seconds of high-pitched neo-classical fanfare, Mastery drops the first of many guitar bombs on the listener. Domignostika’s elastic avant-shredding often feels reminiscent of the experimental NYC metal scene, and Valis does feel like a blackened West Coast relative to bands like Orthrelm and Behold the Arctopus. There is a brief (everything here is brief) acoustic detour six minutes into the track, but even then, there’s still high-speed blastbeats pattering away quietly in the background.

Sometimes, when I review an album, I like to take notes about certain passages or flourishes I want to remember for later. No such luck here. There’s barely enough time to mentally process individual parts, let alone write about them. I think to myself “Gee, I thought only Mick Barr could play that fast,” or “Say, this guitar part sounds kind of Watchtower-y,” but by then Mastery has already moved on.

The write-up on The Flenser’s website says that “Mastery is a vessel to ascend the partial mind.” If transcendence is the aim here, Mastery shoots for as many chances as possible to reach an exalted state. Imagine a Coltrane solo from his later years, but with bile bursting out of his horn with every blown note.

Valis is a challenging listen, but it’s more satisfyingly brutal than academic. Putting out this record is a savvy move for The Flenser, a Bay Area label rapidly becoming known as the premiere spot for outré “is it even metal?” acts like The Botanist, Wreck and Reference, Have a Nice Life and the perennially underrated Kayo Dot. Mastery is just as forward-thinking as those bands, but with a much more unflagging intensity. You’ll be grateful for the two short ambient pieces that wrap things up. Without a less-abrupt departure from an album like this, you’d likely end up with whiplash.

—Jason Bailey

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Valis drops February 17 via The Flenser.

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