Vastum – Carnal Law
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The best description of Carnal Law (20 Buck Spin, 2011) comes from someone who likely never heard it. In the January '11 issue of Los Angeles magazine, film critic Steve Erickson described Kim Novak's performance in Vertigo as "bruised carnal melancholy". Of course, that phrase shares a word with this album's title. But it's that particular sequence of words that nails this album's essence (perhaps even more than Kim Novak's performance in Vertigo - I'd argue that as an object with a capital O, she just had to stand there and be Kim Novak.)
- Melancholy: A lot of music has this.
- Carnal melancholy: Now melancholy starts to get interesting. "Carnal" implies lust, the most potent source of melancholy. Sure, one can get melancholy over an imploded 401(k). But getting melancholy over being unable to fuck whom you want - we all have that gene. Most just wallpaper over it. Some form death metal bands around it.
- Bruised carnal melancholy: As opposed to smooth carnal melancholy, which evokes simmering sirens like Suzanne Vega and Toni Halliday. Bruises come from force, an interesting impetus for melancholy. "Bruised", a passive participle: who or what did the bruising?
In the case of Vastum, it's probably the self. Carnal Law is a very lonely record. That may seem odd in a medium that fetishizes collectives, i.e., bands. We rarely hear of one-man death metal bands (and I have yet to hear of a one-woman one); the few that exist mimic multi-member bands. Even the greatest solipsism finds collective expression in death metal - see Cannibal Corpse's parlaying of serial killer impulses into packed houses. As ostensibly the biggest, fastest, strongest form of metal, death metal is larger than life - so it attracts the many.
Carnal Law works differently. Its musical lineage is obvious: the raw old-school death metal of Bolt Thrower, Dismember, and Autopsy, to name a few. But Bolt Thrower were about both marching into battle and its charred aftermath; Dismember had trouble hiding their Iron Maiden fetish. Even Autopsy, who got pretty mental, weren't afraid of letting loose and punching the "kick ass" button.
Vastum, however, wield no triumph. While their tones are huge, their songs galumph along like large men with limps. Occasionally Leila Abdul-Rauf's laser-precise picking hand peeks through, but it scales no heights. Solos fall like wounded birds, riffs circle each other like neuroses, and doomy melodies linger overhead. The execution is tight - this is not the miasmal death metal of, say, Portal or Incantation - but for portraying the proverbial maze of torment, Vastum has few peers.
At first, I thought it overkill that the band had two vocalists, Abdul-Rauf and Dan Butler. Growl-wise, Abdul-Rauf could go toe-to-toe with most men, and an inattentive listen will likely confuse her with Butler. But an attentive one reveals that her voice dovetails with Butler's. She has learned the art of melisma within growls, perhaps from Obituary's John Tardy. So her voice swoops from the lower register to the midrange and back, while not really revealing that she is a she. Vastum may have the first male-female vocal pairing that does not divide roles along gender lines.
It's appropriate that vastum is, in most cases, a neuter form of the Latin vastus, meaning "empty" or "deserted". And it's appropriate that gender-neutral voices would sing lines like "Left the penis with my father / A womb with my mom / Heart with my brother / Exogamous laws / Broken". This is bruised carnal melacholy, all right, but not of boys and girls pining for each other. It's a psychic storm within some large thing. It's horny, and it's terrified - and so might be the most universal music there is.
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