Overlooked Albums of 2016, by Dan Lawrence
With so much fundamental anxiety and uncertainty in the world, in the country, and in our hearts, it can be pretty surreal trying to summon the energy to write seriously about inherently ridiculous music. I don’t intend to be oblique, either: I’m talking about Donald Trump, the corrosive lie of a narrative he campaigned on, and the entire cronyist coterie that he’s poised to bring into the government come January. In this context, even attempting to do regular things sometimes feels like a betrayal of the gravity of the moment.
If there’s a spectrum of possible responses to recent events, at the poles are glibness and hysteria. And while the latter might seem like a more genuine reaction, both are counterproductive because they lead, respectively, to detachment and paralysis. If any of this music writing horseshit that we do matters (which is, for the record, always an open and debatable question), it matters to the extent that thinking about art means thinking about both lived experience and yet-unrealized possibility, about the connections between the real and the imaginary, about the difference between fact and fiction.
Seems relevant, no?
But again, that’s a sort of glibness. I won’t tell you that I’m going to continue doing this silly thing that I do because I’ve contrived of some way to think about it in which it represents some small act of rebellion or protest against the impending order. I will tell you that I’m going to continue doing this silly thing that I do because, well, I like doing it. I will let that be enough.
So here, again, are twenty albums. Twenty things to listen to. Hopefully twenty things to think about. As I’ve done in previous years, I have chosen twenty albums you might call alternates, since they didn’t make my “official” top 20 at Last Rites. But as I’ve also done in previous years, I would like to direct your attention to the fact that ranking music is as dumb and foolish as it is fun and excellent, so this 20, that 20, some other 20… here are some things that I think you might like to hear. They are in alphabetical order. They will start, and end, and do some other things in between. As will life.
AcerusThe Clock of Mortality
(Luxinframundis Productions, United States)
Acerus is a solo traditional metal project of The Chasm’s Daniel Corchado. (If that’s not enough of a hook to cause your wallet to reflexively yawn open, then friend, you and I have tilled very different fields.) Although Acerus’s new album The Clock of Mortality improves significantly on the debut, its roughshod recording (particularly in the drum programming) still leaves much to be desired. Even so, it should be easy for any fan of The Chasm to pick up on certain similarities, from the muted melancholy of the midpaced galloping that occasionally ticks into double bass, to the seemingly effortless bounty of glorious guitar leads and Lizzy/Priest-inspired harmonies; the bands are painting with the same brush but emphasizing different strokes.
The quasi-title track “Feel the Clock of Mortality” even flirts with some Viking-era Bathory heroics, and if you squint just right, “I March Alone” is what “Hallowed Be Thy Name” might sound like if it showed up on Manilla Road’s Metal. Corchado’s earnest vocals, meanwhile, are gruff and warbling, a bit like the Portuguese school of Ironsword and Ravensire. But hell, if you’re here for petty quibbles and box-ticking instead of pumping your fist, then friend, again you and I have tilled very different fields. It’s too long, you could say. It lacks focus. Well, sure. But look at it this way: listening is a practice of empathy and understanding. Quit bringing your own nonsense into someone else’s space, and try to listen to the place the music comes from. That clock ticks the same for us all.
(Self-released, United States)
All together now, with outrage: “THAT’S NOT METAL!” Too true! Aphotic Apathy is a solo project of Alex Alexander, who uses dark ambient music to explore the fictional universes of the Alien and Predator franchises. His latest album Paradise is a wistful extension of themes from the Prometheus branch of the Alien franchise (which he first explored in an earlier album The Engineers.) Though less successful than Sleep Research Facility’s Nostromo at evoking the dread and isolation of Ridley Scott’s vision, Aphotic Apathy’s billowing plumes of sound effectively capture both the promise and uncertainty of Prometheus’s first act. That is, the xenomorphs are only a whispered hint on Paradise, not a looming threat.
What’s most impressive about Aphotic Apathy is its meditation on a singular theme, and that’s why ultimately I’d like to challenge you, if your primary currency is metal, to spend some time with music like this. Most metal comes together as a patchwork: start with a few riffs, maybe some scribbled lyrics or themes, work up some drum patterns, give the bass player a ball of yarn to bat around while everyone else works, and so on. The most successful artists, however, are the ones that can stitch that patchwork together so tightly that you never see the seams. But the pure focus of something like Aphotic Apathy, with its intentionally limited sonic palette, suggests another way for musicians and listeners alike to engage with this artform: instead of songs which sometimes have meanings hastily appended to them, what if we approached music fundamentally as an idea which, through sculpting and winnowing, sometimes becomes form? What would you write? What could you hear?
One-man black metal projects have a lineage nearly as long as the genre itself, but for much of that time, the term didn’t only describe the personnel configuration, but also denoted a very particular approach to black metal. Sure, there are very real differences in style between Burzum, Judas Iscariot, Xasthur, Striborg, and so on, but in general each pursued an idiosyncratic take on some type of orthodoxy. Recent years, however, have seen a blossoming of one-man black metal projects such as Spectral Lore, Panopticon, Mare Cognitum, Midnight Odyssey, Saor, et al, that have used black metal as a springboard from which to explore progressive, folk, ambient, and cosmic dimensions. Add Scotland’s Bròn to that heady list.
Bròn’s debut album Ànrach wanders a similar terrain to Spectral Lore’s Sentinel, with omnipresent keys and cosmic tones providing an ambient cushion for the gently scything guitar lines. If hard-pressed, I guess you could call it depressive, but the melancholy, as real as it may be, feels like a thing long since accepted and welcomed. After all, why do we cry? Is it for things as they are or for things as we wish they would be? And isn’t it sometimes for no reason at all but directionless gratitude and incomprehensible awe at life, the universe, and everything? How tenuous, how unremarkable, how very small we are in all this vastness. When it’s cold and when it’s dark, the freezing moon is a satellite that plows its furrow, a rock that hurtles soundlessly through a silent plane of parabolas and arcs, orbits and passages. As do we all.
(Kathexis, United States)
The music of Boston’s Ehnahre plays a high-stakes game of antagonism, pushing the listener away almost to the point of alienation. Throughout the entirely of Douve’s many-tendriled sprawl, the music feels like it is constantly in the process of being deconstructed. “At Last Absent from My Head” begins as a twitchy full-band art-death/grind workout, but elements are removed and continually warped, with the drums leading gradual ritardandos and then dropping out altogether, the bass dancing across strings and then falling silent, while Ryan McGuire sounds possessed of the same mania of Nick Cave’s best Birthday Party exorcisms. Towards the end, Jared Redmond’s piano joins the guitar and drums on extremely low octaves to triple a stuttering doom riff.
Disquieting jazz/chamber noise occasionally breaks up the album’s aggressively genre-agnostic metal - most effectively on “Black Gestures,” where Redmond’s piano and McGuire’s double bass sketch a discordant open frame against which vocals and screeching percussion splash and recede without warning. Douve is a fascinating, harrowing, occasionally infuriating journey, like walking the banks of a dark river in winter. It sometimes sounds like an experimental modern chamber group such as Rachel’s or Set Fire to Flames trying their hand at death metal, having only ever read about the style. But there’s no novitiate tentativeness; we hear the confidence of people building with new tools instead of interpreting a calcified blueprint.
FuriaKsiężyc milczy luty
Though its foundational orthodoxy would seem to belie the fact, black metal has proven to be the most uniquely malleable of heavy metal’s branches. Bear with me, but as it gets going, Furia’s new album Księżyc milczy luty sounds a little bit like if Interpol tried their mopey hand at black metal. Stella was a diver, and she was always Darkthrone. Turn on the Varg lights. You get the idea. The new album twangs and swerves, with vocals occasionally a deadpan baritone like Blixa Bargeld, but as sideways as the sound is from typical black metal, there is an intense focus that binds these six peripatetic songs into an unlikely unity.
Sometimes the effect of this curious album is like a collaboration between Virus, Root, Tenhi (listen to “Tam jest tu” before scoffing), and Chaos Echoes, but even to draw such generous comparisons does a disservice to the band’s startling originality. Księżyc milczy luty is just as likely to branch off into post-punk, doom, and jazzy rock as it is to invert your cross and draw down the moon. If daringly bold interpretations and extrapolations of black metal set your giblets all a-tingle, these Poles are one of the most exciting propositions out there right now. Prepare thy giblets.
Stern yet grimly naturalistic German black metal is the order of the day for Fyrnask. Sometimes sounding like a midpoint between Secrets of the Moon and Negura Bunget, but you might also hear elements of Arstidir Lifsins or the Ruins of Beverast (while the vocals on “Agnis Offer” are more than a little reminiscent of Urfaust). The important thing is that sole member Fyrnd knows his way around classy, ritualistic, and downright storming black metal. Fórn doesn’t rush anything, and there’s a sense that the interludes, nature sounds, and non-metal sections were given at least as much attention as the riffs and blasting drums. As a result, the album is a captivating journey through a kaleidoscope of autumn-hued tones - music for misty mountain passes, music for leaves underfoot, music for an awakening of pagan spirits and the ghosts of the Dark Ages. If not for the gorgeous new Worm Ouroborus album, Fyrnask’s album-ending “Havets Kjele” would take the year’s coveted Most Haunting Chamber Doom award. As death comes for the hunter, so it comes for the farmer and the weaver and the sage; Fyrnask waits, watches, then walks the next hillside in dusk.
Heavens DecayThe Great Void of Mystery
(Chaos, United States)
If you had told me a few years ago that 2016 would yield not one but two traditional metal side projects associated with The Chasm, well… I probably would have said, “That’s interesting. Thank you for the information.” Where Corchado’s Acerus project still feels marginally modern and omnivorous, Heavens Decay, the new project of Julio Viterbo (formerly of both The Chasm and Cenotaph), presents a more intentionally dusty face. The style is epic and frequently doomy trad metal, with plenty of NWOBHM but more frequent nods to American luminaries from Manilla Road to Omen to Jag Panzer. Nick Hernandez’s vocals are a more commanding presence for Heavens Decay than Corchado’s are for Acerus, and at times Hernandez sounds like Bobby Blitz doing an Alan Averill impression. Despite the fact that plenty of the songs scoot along at a rapid clip, Heavens Decay is never in a rush to get anywhere, which means that the principal joy of The Great Void of Mystery is in digging into Viterbo’s endless procession of tactile, melodic riffs, watching as each one passes like the slow-motion blur of countryside vistas out the window of a train. Sorry, Sumerlands; sorry, Eternal Champion; sorry, Magic Circle: my heart is with Heavens Decay.
(Unique Leader, Russia)
Everyone needs some slams in their life. Your cat, your cousin, your rabbi, your quaintly racist grandmother: thirsty for slams, one and all. Russia’s Katalepsy released one of the best slam albums in recent memory with 2013’s Autopsychosis (even surpassing Suffocation’s masterful Pinnacle of Bedlam in devastating slams per capita), and on Gravenous Hour they mostly continue that winning trend. As with most niche genres, brutal death metal is an acquired taste, and many young bands can self-sabotage by obsessing over nailing the template rather than forging their own identity. But Katalepsy continues to make some of the best slamtastic noise around by hitting all the sweet spots: they’re technical, but judiciously so; heavy as shit, but recorded cleanly and clearly; guttural, but not comical sewer-gurgles; and most importantly, the blasting and breakneck Suffocation-isms are always a vehicle to get you from Point A to Point Slam.
The funny thing is that the slam is a fundamentally portable tool - if you came up on metallic hardcore, you’re more likely to recognize it as the breakdown, and hell, if you slap some extra strings on the guitars and chuck a few cross-meter drum patterns at it, you might even call it djent. But the function of this tool, in whatever style it appears, is to trigger the lizard brain and serve obeisance to the power of the almighty LURCH. As heirs to a proud tradition, Katalepsy is primarily concerned with moving your body. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Slam, Slam-en.
Slamtih slamtih slamtih (The slam which passeth understanding).
(Arts as Catharsis, Australia)
There’s a general rule I try to follow when writing about weird music, which is to not let an objective description of the music pass for a critical assessment of the music. It’s easy to fall back on the crutch of “Oh man, do you BELIEVE this shit? First they do this, then they do this, and then this other thing,” but that perpetuates the largely mistaken notion that weirdness in music is a virtue irrespective of its intent. That the new collective Kurushimi has produced such a unique, compelling album is impressive on its own, but the fact that the whole thing was recorded live and largely improvised puts it over the top. Of course, there are few better homes for this kind of music than the consistently excellent and eclectic roster of Sydney’s Arts as Catharsis label. Kurushimi draws influence from free jazz, noise rock, grind, dub, drone and nearly anything else you can think of across this sprawling but concentrated debut album.
The specter of John Zorn looms unsurprisingly large, but sometimes the dub hits like Scorn, the noirish ambience floats like the Mt Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble, the grind intrudes like Fantomas, the bass gutters and rumbles like Godflesh, and the guitar skronks like a bunch of early Amphetamine Reptile all-stars trying to emulate Coltrane’s Interstellar Spaces. These elements combine most effectively on the 17-minute centerpiece “Kimon,” but the entire album is a simmering stew of righteousness. Oh, and in addition to this masterful album, Kurushimi subsequently released an EP this year which amps up the grind but also stirs the improvisation in a post-production melting pot of musique concrete and cut-up what-the-fuckery. Don’t sleep on this, my beautiful lovers.
The Night WatchBoundaries
Nathanael Larochette has had one hell of a run in the last few years. Though his neofolk-leaning classical guitar project Musk Ox predated his association with Agalloch, providing the interludes on The Serpent & the Sphere brought his work to broader attention. Following that collaboration, Musk Ox released the almost impossibly beautiful guitar and strings trio album Woodfall, and earlier this year Larochette released a double album under his own name, with one half devoted to solo acoustic guitar and the other half a richly sparse Eluvium-indebted ambient affair. The second album from The Night Watch features Larochette in a more explicitly metal (or least heavy) context, although the real star of Boundaries is Evan Runge’s lyrical violin playing, which frequently takes the lead role across this multifaceted, 36-minute progressive metal suite. The music occasionally gallops, sometimes dips into folk melodicism, and even (about halfway through) takes on a flamenco feel. Whether you want to hear this as echoes of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Rodrigo y Gabriela, metallic neofolk, relaxed instrumental metal, or even electrified new age (Yanni is amazing - please bite me), The Night Watch is something of an open cipher. Boundaries are made for crossing.
Rhapsody of FireInto the Legend
To repeat a variation on a theme I often return to: if you reflexively hate power metal because the internet told you to, then your shoes are clown shoes, your nose is a clown nose; you are a clown. That having been said, even for many of the power metal faithful (not to mention the power-curious among you), the extravagance of Italy’s Rhapsody of Fire can be a difficult proposition. Rhapsody of Fire has yet to meet a vocal line they wouldn’t back with a full choir, yet to meet a sweeping arpeggio they wouldn’t push to double-time, yet to meet a faux-harpsichord keyboard preset they wouldn’t take behind the middle school and impregnate. And yet, though they barrel without subtlety in pursuit of the technical flamboyance of a Liszt or Rossini, their skill and dedication are awe-inspiring. Into the Legend’s title track nails an absolutely pitch-perfect balance between symphonic and speed metal, while late-album highlight “Rage of Darkness” is a blistering, tendonitis-inducing workout. But even here, can’t you see that I’m automatically trying to highlight the band’s heavier side as if to subvert or undercut your presumed objections? What the hell, internet. Here’s music that struts so hard it’s like an overcompensating peacock driving Yngwie Malmsteen’s Lamborghini Aventador off a ramp and through several rings... of fire. Don’t be a clown: get some Rhapsody in your life.
(Iron Bonehead, Spain)
In case there were any doubt as to how deep the well of the old guard runs, Spain’s Sacrificio has lowered its bucket and, with its debut full-length Guerra Eterna, hoisted up an overflowing bounty of gleefully crude Show No Mercy-isms and To Mega Therion-ics. Sure, the band’s label (Iron Bonehead), song titles (“La Marca del Hereje” / “Mark of the Heretic”), attire (chains and leather, bulletbelts and… armored helmets), and pyrotechnics (lots of them) scream black metal, but Guerra Eterna is a lovingly crafted and surprisingly deep testament to the enduring power of heavy metal’s fountain of youth: they could be yelling about ancient Choronzonic gods, or mazes of torment, or the contradictions inherent in the capitalist mode of production that will eventually bring about its collapse, but it all sounds the same - a loud, fast, nasty noise played for the immortal joy of loud, fast, nasty noise. This music is equally well-suited to the forum (Roman or internet) and the festival (Roman or outdoor), and more importantly, Sacrificio doesn’t likely give five-tenths of two shits what you think. Heavy metal crafted with this level of barbarically pure energy is renewable, self-sustaining, and life-affirming.
Poland has never exactly been the epicenter of black metal, but Sacrilegium was an early if obscure entrant. The band released a sole full-length Wicher in 1996 before eventually disbanding, and Pagan Records did the world a great service by finally reissuing it two years ago (likely to herald the band’s reformation). History and/or underdog status aside, on their latest album (and only second in 20 years), these guys simply blast like hell. Anima Lucifera is a concise album of punchy, riffy black metal with spiteful vocals and a great crunch to the guitars, but there’s a fair amount of assist provided by keyboards and ambience between songs which is at times similar to some of Lunar Aurora’s early albums. Sacrilegium even ventures into fairly epic, melodic territory on “The Serpent Throne,” which should appeal to fans of Gorgoroth’s Antichrist. Given the dominance of the country’s death metal, it remains unlikely that Poland will ever be the next black metal buzz locale, but Sacrilegium continues the second-wave with such a fine balance between traditionalism and modernity that they’re perfectly capable of standing on their own.
Sithu AyeSet Course for Andromeda
As it does with so many things, the internet has made a fair attempt at ruining whatever style of music you’d like to classify Sithu Aye as. What I’m mostly tiptoeing around is that, for as abominable as the word is, there’s little denying that a community - both of individual home-recorders and full bands - swelled up in recent years around djent. And although it’s too simplistic a taxonomy, in general the movement seems to have split in two directions: on one pole are those acts (and it does seem more common and understandable with full bands) who are mostly emulating Meshuggah, and on the other pole are people recreating the classic era of shred (Satriani, Vai, Malmsteen, et al.) in a more modern guise. Although the stodginess of the (not very) old and the irony-fondling meme-drinking of the (mostly) young has led to much scorn and closed-mindedness, acts like Cloudkicker, Scale the Summit, Animals as Leaders, Paul Wardingham, and Chimp Spanner have made a strong case for the style’s artistic merit.
But well beyond any intra-scene posturing is the fact that Sithu Aye’s music is simply too joyous, too inventive, and too proficient to be written off. The overall tone of the music is open and light, and even when things turn heavier, there’s never a sense that you’re hearing a gearhead chugging away strictly for the sake of tonal density. Particularly on the second half of this pristine double-album - the six-part suite “The Andromedan” - Sithu Aye has clearly moved well beyond the bedroom origins and blunt roteness of much of the djent movement and into a space of inspired progressive instrumental metal not too far removed from some of Devin Townsend’s best work. The variety of styles, the deft electronic touches, the fluidity of composition, and the light-touch poignancy of the solos make Set Course for Andromeda as easy to admire as it is rich to dissect.
Sorcier des GlacesNorth
(Obscure Abhorrence Productions/Dread, Canada)
Perhaps owing to the fact that it is one of the province’s longest established black metal bands, Sorcier des Glaces is not at all folk-derived as with much other notable Quebecois black metal, and on their latest album North, the band sounds more inspired by Nightside Eclipse-era Emperor, with the occasional touch of Dissection. The drums are a bit fake and clacky-sounding, the lead and rhythm guitars aren’t particularly well balanced, and in general, it sounds much more like a one-person project than it should (there are two members). So, with all those caveats, why recommend it? Well, ma’am, sometimes you just hear something that feels real jutting out from less than ideal circumstances. If Sorcier des Glaces is a far cry from the sophistication and execution of the genre’s elite, there’s nevertheless an uncanny sense of feeling in the riffs that manages to persuade more than anything else manages to detract. What really caps it, though, is Sébastien Robitaille’s vocals, which moan and fleck and warble and generally sound like he just finished gargling a pint of hot marbles and then spitting them one by one at a local vicar. Wholesome fun for the whole family!
StrikerStand in the Fire
Look, subtlety is great. But that ain’t Striker’s game. Part glam, part speed, all energy - at times they feel like the ultra-caffeinated twin of High Spirits in their pursuit of the very best of Raven, Tokyo Blade, Tygers of Pan Tang, and so on. Sure, the quality dips on the back half of their latest album Stand in the Fire, but that may as well just be another way in which they pay tribute to their idols. The instrumental track “Escape from Shred City” is every bit as righteous as you’d expect, and the missteps are few (shouty hardcore vocals here and there, the very stupid “Better Times”). Far be it from me to dissuade any rediscovery of the classic and traditional ghosts of heavy metal past from bubbling up where and as they may, but it seems that many people gravitate (either by default or perhaps preventive image-maintenance) only to trad outfits that assume a darker or at least “serious” tone. And that’s fine! Crypt Sermon is great! Candlemass and Trouble and Cirith Ungol and Manilla Road are great! But you know what else? Ratt and Twisted Sister and Dokken and W.A.S.P. are great! Enforcer is great! Striker is great! Heavy metal is great!
If you, like me, think that Temisto sounds more like a high-end milk frother than a metal band, and have grown weary of death metal bands forcing themselves into supposed ‘maturity’ by fiddling around with reverb and gothy singing while forgetting how to write a goddamned riff, then you’d be forgiven for approaching this Swedish band’s debut with the same trepidation I did. Regardless of your opinion on the merits of their evolution, considering the swift stylistic about-faces seen by the likes of Tribulation, Morbus Chron, Necrovation, Execration, Horrendous, Stench, Diskord, and so many others, there may be reason to wonder if anyone remembers the inspirational fable of the Bolt Thrower: never changed, never tired, never bettered. We’re just having some cheeky fun here, but it’s on topic because Temisto’s self-titled debut album is a minor experiment in splitting the difference.
Temisto sounds like a mathematical midpoint between the primal clattering of some of the above band’s formative recordings and the atmospheric/progressive/gothic/whatever improvements/meanderings (choose your own word adventure as opinions dictate) of their later albums. In truth, a lot of that simply comes down to Temisto’s guitar tone and production rather than their songwriting, because these ten songs blast and howl and trample around with great vigor. But in lightening up the approach, polishing some buzz and grit off the tone in favor of a slight twang and distance, and just allowing the primitive death clatter a bit of cleanness, Temisto demonstrates that sometimes even an everflowing stream can be crossed again, even if the manner of fording is inscribed in a modern, sideways ledger.
(Eihwaz Recordings, United States)
Texas’s Vex, now on album number three, play death metal that happens to be melodic without exactly playing ‘melodic death metal,’ if you catch my meaning. And really, it’s an indictment of nothing other than the poverty of our imagination to complain that one can’t call something melodic death metal without immediately conjuring up Gothenburg. Given that acts as diverse as Helcaraxe, Horrendous, Obsequiae, Insomnium, and now Vex have found their way to melodious death metal, it shouldn’t be the default assumption. Sky Exile stretches its legs significantly more than Vex’s previous album Memorious, so where it loses some ground in punchiness, it makes up for it in the diversity of songwriting. On a song like “The Cygnus Light,” one can certainly hear a foundational influence from Dark Tranquillity, but there are also shades of Opeth and some of the autumnal folkiness more frequently associated with the Bindrune/Eihwaz labels. Joel Miller’s bass playing throughout is particularly notable, as it sometimes lends a flavor of Cynic or mid-90s Death. This is contemplative, emotive, progressive death metal that pledges allegiance to no particular orthodoxy. Heavy metal needs more of that.
Wo FatMidnight Cometh
(Ripple Music, United States)
It doesn’t take long to figure out if you’re in Wo Fat’s target demographic. Within its first minute, Midnight Cometh emits a purling haze of low-end fuzz that revs and burbles like a 20 ft-tall motorcycle cruising an astral highway to Alpha Centauri, and from there, the entire ride is rubbery stoner riffs, tuneful sludge hollering, and a full-band, locked-in blues groove that sounds like Clutch wading through a tar pit. On the whole, Midnight Cometh is a bit darker than Wo Fat’s previous outing The Conjuring, which means that it spends slightly more time spitting metal riffs than in the past, but the dominant mode is still thick waves of desert rock licks and psych-minded instrumental flourishes. When Wo Fat really puts their heads down, they’re almost within spitting distance of High on Fire, and “Riffborn” sounds a bit like Wiseblood-era COC paying tribute to Lemmy, but the more familiar signposts are Kyuss, Acid King, Elder and even Monster Magnet. Wo Fat aren’t here to help you learn to ride; they’re here to rip off your kickstand and use it to play a cosmic cowbell. They are become Riff, destroyer of insufficient good vibes.
Wreck & ReferenceIndifferent Rivers Romance End
(The Flenser, United States)
Honestly, as with so much of the excellent strangeness put out by The Flenser, I don’t know what to call Wreck & Reference. There’s nothing remotely metal about the tuneful but deceptively harrowing style of this experimental two-piece, so whether you want to call it noise-pop, Depeche Mode for clinically depressed IDMers, or Sinatra-styled ballads set to decaying, recursive industrial rock, the endpoint is the same: unswervingly bleak music that’s almost impossible to turn away from. A sample lyric includes the perfectly deadpan tossed-off couplet “I wrote a letter, about why life mattered; I threw it away.” There’s a much greater emphasis on the beat-making process (from both live drums and electronic accompaniments) on Indifferent Rivers Romance End than on previous W&R albums. This means there’s less attention given to the deeply resonant noise and unsettling cut-ups of No Youth, for example, but as the beats roil and crumble and stutter like a clambering, reanimated husk of trip-hop, backed by piano, oscillating noise, and the occasional percussive swell of pizzicato strings (see in particular the beautiful crescendo of “Manifestos”), it’s hard to find any fault with these ten gleaming gems of concentrated, gnawing despair. There are bits that sound like Mum, bits that sound like WIFE, bits that sound like Gnaw Their Tongues, bits that sound like Menace Ruine, but all of that is happenstance - the residual effect of throwing a rich tapestry of sound against the reflective surface of the listener’s experience. The song “Bullwhips” summarizes the dominant mood of the album, which is exhaustion and resignation: “But now that I don’t need you, can I rest? And now that you don’t need me, can I rest?” Whether the vocals are painfully howled or timidly crooned, they beckon from the far end of a dimly lit hallway, the length of which your ears walk to bear witness, to take comfort, to submit the flesh to the life of the world that may or may not come.