ELEKTRICK LYCANTHROPE @ Cafe OTO; Jan 10 2018

I can think of no better way to usher in the new sonic year than with a gig that Café OTO promised to contain “live music, reading and discussion”, exploring “the lycanthropy legend and its cultural influence”, and headlined by drone-guitar hero Dylan Carlson no less. Well it was all of that and more. But with less discussion.


Tonight Dylan will be joined by his wife Holly, who’ll be belly-dancing during a special performance of folk song ‘Reynardine’. Originally releasing a version in 2012 for the Lattitudes label, Dylan joins the ranks of Fairport Convention, Bert Jansch and Isobel Campbell who have covered this traditional tale of a werefox that attracts women to his castle. Definitely not a castle, Café OTO is exactly the sort of intimate venue which you would expect to provide an eclectic, avant garde exploration of the werewolf myth – and they did not disappoint, accompanying Dylan’s set with experiments in noise, ambience and extreme vocal techniques.  Judging by the Electric Wizard and Church of Misery shirts and patches on display, it is probably Dylan – of enduringly popular and influential drone band Earth – who has sold out tonight’s show, but I have no doubt that first act, Meltoat, a collaboration between Sharon Gal and SavX, has attracted their own crowd also.

There’s something rather heartwarming and homely about Café OTO. It’s almost the de facto home of The Wire and East London’s experimental music scene. But it’s also cosy, intimate and egalitarian, with all performers necessarily wandering around the floor before and after the show. It’s quite ramshackle with amps and cables and chairs scattered around the space –– but also professional and pioneering in all aspects of its approach to the performance and experience of live music.

[Pre-Meltoat, intro music of slow but angry bowing of the world’s longest cello, through distorted microphone, without lifting. I remember now, it’s usually an hour between doors opening and the first act. A shelf of unmusical-looking paint pots. Beer and hubbub. Shorts-in-January-Guy: we all know (and secretly envy) someone like that. A moment for something resembling poetry:

Wires
like roads for thought
Drones
like nervous system wings
Chemicals
slowly changing your disposition
Vibrations
transfiguring your unconsciousness
Atoms
slowly misalign
Dissonance
in the frontal lobe
Tendrils
Of conversation slowly d.i..s…o….l……v…….i………n……….…g……………into that awkward moment when the performers are onstage and the crowd falls patiently quiet, but the act still have to set up their gear.


 

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Ritual begins (Meltoat):

—shock shiver of cymbal

                                                                                                — gentle fingers percuss across piano keys

SavX, aka Edwin Pouncey (Narrator): “Hemlock. Poppyseed. Opium. Wolfsbane…

—chromatic ascent

…roasted over the fire”

——dissonant arpeggio

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Sharon Gal (The Voice):

cackle-burst

throat-choke

pain-snarl

jitter-growl

death-rattle

Sharon’s vocals are truly transformative. There is no way of describing her performance without thinking of possession, of sounds that seem to radically contradict the nature of their source.  At the edges of these gurgles, growls, rasps, screams and demonic howls are incidental, clicking throat sounds, something like musique concrète of beatboxing. Every contorted growl promises a mouth slowly prolapsing its own internal vargskin: An American Werewolf in Dalston.

When not in wolf-mode, Gal coaxes clattering ambient noises from a Strat, laid across the desk, plugged into the distortion channel of a Marshall Micro Amp MS2 (a small, handheld amplifier), then rubbed on the strings to create a unique kind of feedback loop.

While her voice is often manipulated, run through a variety of esoteric-looking pedals and boards, Gal sometimes steps away from the mic, demonstrating the full range of radically estranged sounds of which she’s capable without electronic support. Amongst the desk of boxes, lights and cables is a Digitech Whammy pedal through which her vocals seem to run which would explain some of the ultra-low notes she hits (pitchshifted down an octave on the pedal), and the eerie theremin-like waves (pitch wobbled around using the pedal). The elastic versatility and animalistic derangement of Gal’s voice make it unrivaled in my experience, save for the inimitable Diamanda Galás  who I was fortunate enough to experience at Roadburn a couple of years ago.

The Meltoat performance as a whole has the loose framework of Incantation, Invocation, Transformation, and perhaps Exorcism. It’s a truly startling and memorable start to the evening, and I’m sure many of us will gladly see Sharon Gal, in particular, perform again.

Incantation | Invocation | Transformation | Exorcism


 

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Like the guitar playing for which he is rightly revered, the arrival of Dylan Carlson onstage is unceremonious and unpretentious yet somehow also suggestive of wizardry. Maybe its the star tattooed under his eye. Or his burgundy velvet jacket. Or his beaten-up Telecaster with its endearingly naff “Have a faerie nice day” sticker on the back. But Dylan, like Gal, can transform base matter into gold.  ‘Reynardine’ is a simple folk song, easily played on the guitar with open, campfire chords. Dylan briefly speaks a couple of stanzas from the song over his guitar (he was never a singer) providing a sense of the narrative, but wisely keeps it essentially instrumental, as is his wont. It’s a splendid performance of ‘Reynardine’, which – alongside his performance at The Lexington in 2013 with Teta Mona on vocals – demonstrates the endless flexibility and appeal of the folksong medium.

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Very much settled in London, Dylan and Holly can regularly be seen in the crowd at the gigs of their friends, like King Dude and Emma Ruth Rundle, chatting and having photos taken with fans. Onstage, the chemistry between Dylan and his wife Holly is obvious, exchanging several meaningful smiles, clearly as delighted as everyone else at performing alongside one another (I think for the first time). They make for a gloriously odd couple – him the diminutive, grizzled older rock legend with chequered and troubled past, to her, the young, visual artist and dancer, both glamorous and gorgeous. During ‘Reynardine’, Holly lithely works her body around Dylan’s sparse chords for a couple of minutes before politely waltzing offstage, to kneel by the side and snap a few photos of her husband. I thought the sense of grace, movement and sparkle Holly added to the performance was a perfect compliment, one that could easily become a regular part of Dylan’s solo shows; that, upon reflection, it felt some way from the menace of the original narrative is merely picking nits from the wolf’s mane.

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Next, Dylan teases a new song from his forthcoming solo record, out in April, and announced possibly for the first time tonight (with more details, including that it will feature a guest spot from the incredible Emma Ruth, leaked online shortly after the gig). Featuring yet another epic and thought-provoking title, ‘We Reach the Gulf’, it’s all bluesy sevenths with internal chromatic descent, and the Hendrix chord, lovingly plucked, with a huge cavernous tone, moving into his trademark folky melodies with violin-like, slurring. In short, it’s got ‘Carlsson classic’ written all over it. “Next time it will have the right notes…”, Dylan adds, but we don’t ask for perfection tonight, merely magic.

Very subtly in the background, Dylan and Holly are accompanied by a keyboard player Simon Something (that I didn’t catch), who keeps his music and physical presence minimal, mostly offering chordal support to Dylan’s solo/ moremelodic sections. (I wonder if he’ll be appearing on the new album?…)

“This track’s called ‘Old Black’,” Dylan states, to rapturous applause. “It’s about a—crackle—[cat?]”. Easily my favourite Earth piece, it’s noticeable that Dylan’s guitar sound tonight is very close to that which he uses in his day job (seems like he brought his full pedalboard), and it’s just as alchemical solo as with his usual bandmates. Never has an open G chord (or Eb actually as he might play in C standard) sounded so good. Finishing with another Earth classic, ‘Bees Made Honey in the Lion’s Skull’, Dylan made it sound every bit as heavy, enigmatic and beautiful as its Bible-referencing title suggests.

It would be pretentious to say that I felt lycanthropically transformed upon leaving the venue, so I won’t, but you can’t leave a good drone gig without feeling changed somehow, at least temporarily, and tonight is no exception.

 

“…with gangrene edges”: Alterity and Howls of Ebb (Hybrid Weird Metal #1)

Tentacular invisible mother divine!

Greetings everyone, and welcome to my first post of 2018. While I tie up some other bits and pieces of research, I thought I’d get some initial ideas down about work I’ll be doing this year on alterity, wrongness, otherness, etc., in some bands doing especially interesting things, mainly in death metal, but really creating Weird new extreme metal hybrids.

Let’s start with a great band who, according to their Metal Archives page, split up last year: Howls of Ebb (HoE). These guys are from the US, and, as the brain-jarring syntax of their name indicates, there is nothing about them that is not Weird. There are also musical and thematic parallels between HoE and the Peruvian death metal band, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, which I briefly introduce below.

If they have in fact split up then their mystery will be suitably heightened, and I don’t think they played many shows, and probably not at all in the UK. They did however follow a string of superlative releases with an especially batshit EP split with the equally -obscurely-titled Khthoniik Cerviiks, Gangrene Edges ​/​ Voiidwarp, surely destined to be a WM classic.

 As the HoE song goes, it has ‘gangrene edges’, with every sonic limb enwrapped in a woven plait of liquid solidity, a musical tapestry that never rests in a non-abstract state. Every chord bulges in deadflesh sacks.

 Passing through the Marrow Veil leaves you with Gangrene Edges

So, that name then? Does it mean that there is a howling sound that ebbs like the flow of the wind? Or does it refer to the howling of something called Ebb?

Howls of Ebb’s sound is characterised by a slipperiness and muscularity like that of a tentacle. A writhing of massed slithering limbs, each with its own musical character / slashed by an atonal shower of descending power(dis)chords.

They provide a truly warped vision of death metal often characterized by almost Mr Bungle-esque neck-braking shifts of genre – often obscure choices in their own sub-generic right – and timbre – again, chosen for surprise and bemusement.

HoB and the Pulp Weird

There are, to me, three fairly obvious parallels we should draw between HoE and Pulp-era Weird Fiction, beginning with Lovecraft’s alien mythopoeia of Gods. In ‘Notes on Writing Weird Fiction’ (1937), Lovecraft highlights a sense of ‘shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or “outsideness”’ (113) that is quintessential to the written Weird and which I see as obvious to death metal, or at least to a great deal of the really grotty stuff. Never more than in the slippery way HoE play as a two-/three-piece, the cover art and title of 2016 album for Cursus Impassus: The Pendlomic Vows. Metal Archives lists HoE’s lyrical themes as simply ‘occult ritual’, but that over-simplifies it. There’s a Burroughsian obscurity to this verse from Cursus, for example:

 Oh 6th Mother, your clarity clouds
I will eternally bide my time
Swaying in planes of resuscitation devout
Ripe ink ripples its sign
Octopul’th grimace and grin conceit
Flail to understand the mind
Cunning Creature of Non
Tentacular invisible mother divine!

These lines build up a clearly kraken-esque picture through the constant reference to ink, tentacles and of course whatever an ‘octupul-th grimace is’. Thinking back to Burroughs, there are shades of the liverless mugwumps with their beaks and tentacle-like penises.

We should also think about Clarke Ashton Smith and his polymorphic addition to the Lovecraft mythos, Tsathoggua: whom arises from a basin as “a sort of viscous and semi-liquescent substance, quite opaque and of a sooty color”, in ‘The Tale of Satampra Zeiros’ (1929), and devours/absorbs our treasure-hunting protagonist Ompallios at the conclusion.

an uncouth amorphous head with dull and bulging eyes arose gradually on an ever-lengthening neck … Then two arms—if one could call them arms—likewise arose inch by inch, and we saw that the thing was not … a creature immersed in the liquid, but that the liquid itself had put forth this hideous neck and head, and [it was now forming arms] that groped toward us with tentacle-like appendages in lieu of claws or hands! … Then the whole mass of the dark fluid began to rise [and] poured over the rim of the basin like a torrent of black quicksilver, taking as it reached the floor an undulant ophidian form which immediately developed more than a dozen short legs.

It is exactly this kind of undulation, revolting squirming and occult incantation that seems to be going on with Howls of Ebb, both in terms of subject matter and musical style.

Finally, we should think about ‘The Black Stone’ Robert E. Howard (1931), which introduces the mad poet, Justin Geoffrey and the fictitious grimoire Unaussprechlichen Kulten by Friedrich von Junzt, which lent its name to the eponymous and superlative Puruvian death metal. The lyrics to ‘Ritual Monolith of Tsathoggua’, from People of the Monolith, their second full-length, pay tribute thusly:

 A semicircle of cultist
Worship the Monolith
Extending their arms
And call the nameless god

Musically, People of the Monolith is located at a nice balance between muffled, raw early demos – all of which trace Lovecraftian trails – and fuller production recent efforts.

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 Wrongness

Writing in his Zero Tolerance review of Unaussprechlichen Kulten’s most recent album Keziah Lilith Medea (Chapter X) (Iron Bonehead 2017), Chris Kee observes a ‘kinship’ between Unaussprechlichen Kulten and Howls of Ebb, achieved through a ‘sense of alien “wrongness”, the taste of otherness, of something beyond the normal boundaries of not just music, but experience’ that inheres in both bands (Zero Tolerance 79, Jun/July 2017, p. 72). In the music of both bands,‘There are few points of solidity or safety’ with ‘an unnerving liquidity to the songs’. The album’s title namechecks a witch from Lovecraft’s ‘The Dreams in the Witch House’ (1933) alongside more familiar female mythological figures, with Kee feeling the songs ‘writhe and pulse’ like the ‘living entities’ they describe. To me, this alienness and wrongness should perhaps be seen as spokes on the Weirdness umbrella is achieved by compositions that are structurally unpredictable, musically accomplished yet with an unhinged quality that threatens collapse, and produced in a deliberately murky manner, leaving the silences between riffs less pronounced.

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Another important reference point here is the book The Weird and the Eerie, the final book by Mark Fisher who unfortunately died in 2017. Here Fisher argues that “the weird is a particular kind of perturbation” – yes, I should perhaps look at Perturbator, too, moving outside the extreme metal spectrum – “it involves a sensation of wrongness: a weird entity or object is so strange that it makes us feel that it should not exist, or at least is should not exist here.”

“the weird is a particular kind of perturbation”

When I have time to tackle this research head-on, I intend to apply some of the insight ideas from Fisher’s short book to metal. Fisher does mention music, interestingly discussing the Weird in relation to the eclectic range of John Martyn, Joy Division and Mile Davis, amongst others. For the moment, it should suffice to say that listening to Howls of Ebb is to experience a perturbation, a mental unease, an anxiety. Howls feel as if they should not exist – that we are listening to something produced by an extraterrestrial in response to an explanation of earth music, emerging garbled, backwards and brilliantly obscure.

Fantastika

I should consider these Weird hybrid bands be within John Clute’s four stage narrative arch for what he knows as Fantastika (SF, Fantasy, and Horror): Wrongness, Thinning, Recognition, Return. These are “permutations of one Ur story, like three snakes mutually intertwined, each snake undergoing the same morphological transforms” (28). In the interest of firing ideas around, including ones which may not hold water, these permutations could apply to extreme metal subgenres, too: the central death, black, doom trip.

Wrongness, Thinning, Recognition, Return.

 Other Bands

 While the whole point is that bands like HoE are doing something so obscure that it can only be idiosyncratic, here some others who capture something of a similar vein, all strong examples of hybridised extreme (Weird) metal that I intend to research, here, very soon:

Blood Incantation
Botanist
Cultes Des Ghoules
Impetuous Ritual
Jupitarian
Obed Marsh
Portal
Spectral Void
The Unsearchable Riches of Void

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Live Review: Black Cilice, Boston Music Room; 24 June, 2017.

A vaguely humanoid shape accretes from the shadowy darkness, brandishing a human skull in place of a face. An illegible logo like bleeding slashes, with suggestion of a pentagram and bookended by inverted crosses. There are no colours in sight. The record sleeve could have been created using a broken photocopier and a tattered horror paperback, and probably was. Give it a spin and the production is so raw it could give you salmonella.

Yes, Black Cilice’s Banished from Time (Ironbonehead 2017) is a black metal album. Grim? Yup. Kvlt? Oh yeah. But it’s not just any old grim kvlt black metal album – there are many gleaming jewels shining amidst the coal in this murky sinkhole, down which most of the underground seem to have excitedly ventured. There’s also the fact that, unusually, they’re from Portgual, which adds to the buzz. (Or at least I thought it was unusual, but Metal Archives lists 375 black metal bands from Portugal, so it’s perhaps merely unusual that they make it over here. Or I’m just out of touch.) Anyway, with 22 other releases under their bullet belts since 2009, Black Cilice are playing London for the first time and it’s going to be huge (in a highly niche, obscure, elitist kind of a way). We’re “strongly recommend” on behalf of the bands not to photograph the event in anyway – and it’s faintly miraculous that almost everyone obeys.

Dutch BM duo Folteraar had to cancel, which was a bummer, but Wode stepped in at short notice professionally delivering a short, tight set of “Mancunian Terrormetal”. The guitarist’s Dissection t-shirt clearly suggests the source for the tasteful melodic(ish) lead that underpins their sound, which is the main aspect of their set that sticks with me.

While Black Cilice certainly did not disappoint (we’ll get onto that in a minute) it’s Nornahetta that stole the evening for me, and possibly for others too if clapping is a reliable judge in these matters. I first got into them through The Psilocybin Tapes (2016) on the Icelandic cassette label Vanagadr, and, if you don’t know Vanagadr yet, then I give you full permission to leave Weird Metal Blog – whoah! – and check them out immediately. I first encountered this label at Roadburn 2016 where four of their biggest, and three of their least pronounceable, acts – Misþyrming, Grafir, Naðra and NYIÞ – performed Úlfsmessa, a kind of non-stop 2 ½ hour anonymous black metal relay, which was easily as good as it sounds. So the opportunity to see another act from their roster was pretty exciting. The Psilocybin Tapes lives up to the hallucinatory promise of its name. This compilation gathers Nornahetta’s EPs to date in a long and excellent string of unhinged, semi-improvised black metal, every bit as slippery and grotesque as the Lovecraftian tentacles which adorn its cover and slither into your ears on tracks such as ‘Succubus of a Thousand Young (Thus Spoke Babylon…)’.

Nornahetta manage to start their set subtly, taking me unawares whilst writing down some notes, despite frequent checks of the stage. There’s a sense of atmosphere initially, low moaning vocal drones and some shimmering cymbals, perhaps a warped chord. There’s a sense of everyone being drawn to the stage, like children disappearing into the Pied Piper’s rat cave, never to be seen again. When they kick in, it’s metal in various shades of black: variously tight and raw, expansive and post-, nasty and contemplative, dissonant and melodic – all delivered with conviction and taste. With guitarist and bass-player trading vocals (and instruments at one point), Nornahetta’s sound is dense, varied and utterly enthralling – I can’t recommend them any more highly.

House lights go down; three stars cast a sulphurous light on the crowd. Black candelabra just visible in the gloom, remaining unlit throughout the performance(— temporally jolting you from this introspective occult-bubble-space with a sharp reminder of the recent tragedy that inspired so much talk about health and safety regulations.) Three robed figures emerge, sweat already running rivulets through their corpse paint. A quick soundcheck threatens to descend into faffing around at points, and there’s any uneasy tension between the ritual and the ridiculous. You hear some chords – open-sounding and off-key. A robe-obscured hand taps a silent mic until it pops. Some dusty snare rolls. The parts come closer together but you’re unsure if they’ve started the first song yet. At some point all of this coalesces and you’re sucked into the swirling blackmetalhole, body tensed, head nodding at nowhere near a commensurate speed.

Somehow Black Cilice manage to sound just as raw live as they do on record. To ignore this altogether and go for a clear-ish balance would have been disappointing, because there’s a particular kind of Weird murkiness to Banished from Time that really makes the album, almost as much as what’s actually being played. So, helmets off to the sound guy tonight for achieving the perfect lo-fi murkiness – revoke my Kvlt privileges if you like, but I do want to actually hear some of the detail at points. Black Cilice sound quieter than the other bands tonight so you feel you’re straining at points, but that just compounds the overall effect. And, yes, it sounds frostbitten to buggery, with no bass in sight, and two guitarists unafraid to play dual dissonant tremolo parts, both high up the neck leaving an icy chasm where the low notes should be. The vocals sound like a gamer’s headset mic running through Windows PC speakers with some reverb bunged on as an afterthought – but he’s got that DSBM, wordless shriek thing going on anyway, so it’s perfect. While you’re mostly caught up in the darkness of the vortex, you recall clearly little fragments: some sickening clean chords, an almost trad heavy metal riff, an aggressive drum fill, and occasionally some rhythm guitar heaviness.

Looking back, it’s Nornahetta who seem to be writing the most original and deeply Weird material of the evening, but there’s nothing like Black Cilice to remind you of the fact that the uncompromising nature of black metal makes it easily the most inaccessible of metal’s sub-genres yet the one which yields the most satisfaction for those prepared to burrow beneath its darkness.

Earthlings? Rewriting the Stoner Rock Rules

So the following is a live review from 1 April, 2017. Why so long? Good question. It was unfortunately rejected – *sniff* – by another publication. So here is my review of Earthlings?, Hoxton Bar & Kitchen, for your reading pleasure:

“Don’t get quiet, get weird,” states Kayley, the lead singer of tonight’s support band Sky Valley Mistress – a bluesy stoner rock band from the UK – and it pretty much sets the tone for the evening. She’s quoting Dave Catching, the guitarist and producer who comprises half of our headliners, legendarily eclectic and experimental oddballs Earthlings?. Known for his work with Eagles of Death Metal, QOTSA, Masters of Reality and pretty much every other great band from the Joshua Tree Desert scene, Catching is standing in the crowd tonight as Kayley tells us about recording their latest album with him at Rancho De Luna studios, a location with a semi-mythical status amongst stoner rock fans. That’s a genuine member of stoner rock royalty stood a metre away from me in the 300-capacity Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen, looking entirely inconspicuous with his majestic white beard, permanent sunglasses, and double-denim, nodding and clapping along enthusiastically. While, later, he’s clearly got more than a touch of the classic rockstar to him in his on-stage idiom, for now Catching is chatting amiably with the crowd, and looking genuinely chuffed to watch his young protégés doing their thing.

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It seems that Catching’s advice as producer pushed Sky Valley Mistress down stranger avenues than their usual straight-up ballsy-bluesy rock affair, with Kayley insisting that tonight they’re doing something different. Presumably this extra weirdness is the swirly organs, the squelchy synth, pitter-patter cymbals, and dramatic shifts from up-beat rock to plodding drone with an Arabian-Scale feel. The keys to their sound are Kayley’s voice, powerful, feisty, and confident, mixed with hard-hitting, strident rhythms from their drummer’s stripped-down kit – both aspects I enjoy, alongside the twists and turns of their songs. Clad all in white (which incidentally was how Earthlings? dressed last time they played in London, over ten years ago) with black boots, Clockwork Orange style, Sky Valley Mistress certainly mean business, yet I can’t help but think they might heed Catching’s advice and get weirder still to distinguish themselves from the plethora of quality stoner rock droogs around at the moment.

Earthlings? on the other hand don’t need to be told to get weird. Formed in 1994 by Catching, Pete Stahl (who played in Scream alongside Dave Grohl, and later founded blues-doom legends Goatsnake), and the late great Fred Drake (co-founder of Rancho De Luna) to whom one song is dedicated tonight, Earthlings? have been baffling and delighting listeners for over two decades. With just three albums and a smattering of EPs during this time, they combine the most robotic parts of Krautrock with surrealist blues, odd acoustic ditties, meandering cosmic explorations, quirky punk-rock, and whatever else they fancy chucking in along the way. Earthlings? haven’t played London since 2002, when I saw them playing the Borderline, Camden. That gig has now entered my personal mythology, and I’ve been tirelessly boring my friends with the tale for over a decade. It was a school night. I should have been revising. I was dressed, to quote This Is Spinal Tap, like an Australian’s nightmare. It was so bohemian that people were sitting on the floor and luxuriating in these halcyon days before the smoking ban. I may or may not have been standing next to Nick Oliveri. The band had all kinds of trippy stuff projected onto their white suits. Then it turned out it really was Nick Oliveri striding onstage – fortunately clothed in more than just a shit-eating grin – to play bass on ‘Stungun’, my favourite Earthlings? song. It was awesome.

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So my expectations were high for Earthlings?’ return. Did they disappoint? Of course not. But, like the Desert Sessions collective with which they’re closely associated, Earthlings? have always been an experimental kind of project, doing nothing predictably and making few concessions to the listener. So they begin with ‘Lifeboat’ from second album Human Beans (2000), a quiet, pretty, acoustic ballad. But it’s never that simple. Prior to this they’ve eased us in with much nob twiddling, blips, bleeps and drones – think ambient spacecraft interior – with Catching gurning a greeting to us in ‘Old London Town’ through his Talk-Box-wired Les Paul – clearly channelling his inner Slash – before segueing into Stahl’s delicate acoustic chords. And it is a pretty song – “You thought it was a lifeboat,” Stahl sings in his gloriously warm and smoky voice, “but you’re wrong” – yet it’s characteristically irreverent, too: “you thought you’d live forever/but you won’t/bet you won’t. I’ve got good news… not really/I just wanted to lighten things up.” And, yes, Stahl’s chords underneath are gentle, but Catching’s accompanying off-kilter, synth bass-lines are not. But somehow this all works, which is pretty much how I feel about everything Earthlings? do: it will be eccentric, often all-out batshit, and even slightly frustrating at times, but it’s their lovable unpredictability and slightly ramshackle charm that makes them so great.

For all of their pulp sci-fi aesthetics, quirky lyrics, and bizarre generic combinations, though, it’s easy to forget that Pete Stahl has an amazing voice, and is something of a wizard on the harmonica, not to mention a strong song writer. In his ‘day job’ in Goatsnake, stood in front of Greg Anderson’s monolithic guitar stacks, Stahl has more sonic space to demonstrate the full power of his voice. Both times I’ve seen Earthlings? they’ve performed their rather unlikely electronica-drone version of ‘Johnny B Goode’ – and this 12-Bar, rock’n’roll classic is a clue to the glue that bonds the rag-tag scraps of Earthlings? together, for pretty much everything Stahl does is infused with the blues. While hundreds of bands are built using the familiar bricks of the pentatonic scale – and that’s no bad thing – to me, Goatsnake are distinguished from many other doom bands by the feeling, the soul if you like, Stahl puts into his performances. And it’s no different for Earthlings?. For all of the extra-terrestrial alterity suggested by their name and the weirder, helium-voiced, Clangers moments of their albums, there’s a warm, human core that really appeals to me.

Tonight’s definitely a bit different to the last time they played London. For a start, their drummer couldn’t make this gig so Catching’s playing beats through his phone. This isn’t too strange, as they’ve been experimenting with drum machines throughout their career, something that adds an up-beat danceable quality to many of their tracks. If this starts off sounding a little cheesy sometimes then Catching’s crunching chords, tastefully eccentric lead, and sheer exuberance, mixed with Stahl’s chilled passion always win you over by the end. Earthlings? don’t play ‘Stungun’ tonight – a bit of a shame – or some other vaguely more straight-up rock tracks, probably due to lack of a human drummer. They were at least a three-piece last time – perhaps with Fred Drake in tow – if not larger, and I recall more accordions and cowboy hats. Tonight Catching and Stahl have a small arsenal of keyboards, effects pedals, samplers, and other miscellaneous noise-boxes alongside their guitars, and Stahl treats us to short bursts of harmonica every now and then, which makes for a different but no less interesting performance.

‘Gentle Grace’, Earthlings?’ closing track, is – despite Catching’s earlier injunction against quietness – a soft ballad with a touch of Pink Floyd spaceyness, and when Stahl croons his last lines, “How long ‘til I quit?”, we’re all hoping it ain’t so. It’s a shame the sound is hit-and-miss during both Sky Valley Mistress and Earthlings?, the support professionally playing through the cutting out of mics and keys, while the headlining duo’s nutcase orchestra was occasionally distractingly unbalanced. Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen, a kind of hipster black hole, is a suitably cool and quirky venue in some respects (I admit to eyeing up the art print vending machine) although this dodgy sound, mixed with the incongruous, Craig-David-clubbing crowd through whom we walked after the gig, haven’t exactly left me hugely enamoured with the place.

One of Earthlings?’ catchiest new tunes asks ‘Who wrote the stoner rock rules?’, and it’s a question we could discuss all day. But it’s clear to me that, not only have Earthlings? had considerable influence on writing said rules, they’ve really been rewriting them as they go. Because, let’s be honest, calling Earthlings? stoner rock seems a bit lazy – they’ve never been entirely riff-based, or pure psych-out improv, or doom-heavy. They sound essentially nothing like Fu Manchu or Nebula or Kyuss. But, listening to ‘Saving Up For My Spaceship’ or ‘Mars On Fire’ tonight, stand-out tracks from their self-titled debut, Earthlings? still evoke that sense of hazy, shimmering mirages, of surreal Peyote visions, and the drowsy expansiveness of the desert that’s so crucial to the genre.

Earthlings? are probably destined to remain a cult band, quietly, weirdly rewriting the rules, somewhere out there in the alien desert – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Monolithian: The Waning Moon

monolithian
mo-NO-lith-ian (adjective)

1) of or relating to a monolith
2) characterized by massiveness
3) consisting of one piece; solid or unbroken
4) large, powerful and slow to change
5) [proper noun] a two-piece doom/black/crust band from Falmouth, Cornwall, United Kingdom


Since lavishing praise upon Monolithian’s debut album The Finest Day I Ever Lived, Was When Tomorrow Never Came last year – a deliciously Lovecraftian and Tolkienian affair that I’ve been spinning ever since – Weird Metal Blog has been gleefully anticipating the release of its follow up. Well, in the meantime, punchy new EP The Waning Moon will do very nicely indeed.

Witchfinder Specific

Originally released on February 1 2017, first new track ‘Crone’ is a kind of feminist anthem about the victims of Matthew Hopkins, the infamous ‘Witchfinder General’, responsible for the deaths of around 300 women during the English Civil War. On International Women’s Day, the band released the track as an album preview via Facebook, dedicated to “the women who were scapegoated and murdered in the name of religion and fear”.

(Yes, Witchfinder General is well-trodden ground in the world of Doom, and, yes, the witch as oppressed female figure is rife with the #witchesofinstagram. That’s not a bad thing.)

Opening with fuzzed-up bass rumbling some lovely mid-tempo doom,  ‘Crone’ is a slow-burning start.  Alongside Simon’s cave-troll-growl on the verses, ‘Crone’ features full-time drummer Shannon on part-time vocals – returning for the first time since Monolithian’s Covers EP from 2013, where she gloriously screeched her way through Disrupt’s ‘A Life is a Life’ – providing throaty screams over sustained bass chords for the chorus – a perfect contrast. Perhaps the most memorable moment – guaranteed to make the track a live favourite – is the bridge and climax, where the track drops to a brief, dramatic excerpt from Vincent Price’s magnificent turn as the Witchfinder – “You will each be charged in the prescribed fashion… and cast into the moat!” – under a tense tremolo pattern. “If, on the other hand, you are seen to swim or float,” Prince intones, “then your confessions of witchcraft are proven beyond a doubt in the sight of God.” Cue pummeling doompunk climax with both members trading vocals, and huge monotonous chords to close.

Outer Gods

Next up is a five-minute contemplative track ‘Nyarlathotep’, which – alongside ‘Azathoth’ from Zero (2012), ‘Yog Sothoth’ from One (2012), and ‘Shub Niggurath’ from The Finest Day I Ever Lived Was When Tomorrow Never Came (2015) – completes what Monolithian describe as their Lovecraft quadrilogy, dedicated to the Weird Fiction maestro’s famous Outer Gods.

‘Nyarlathotep’ is built upon a spacey bass groove, where echoed string scrapes flutter away from a double-stop pattern, vaguely reminiscent of Jason Newsted’s intro to ‘My Friend of Misery’ in a more major-sounding key. If this section is one of the many human avatars by which Lovecraft’s titular Outer God is known, then the metamorphosis into the chorus that follows – a thick, mid-tempo doomwall – is more like Nyarlathotep’s true, hideous form.

Bass in your Face

The Waning Moon, like all the other Monolithian releases, is a bass-fetishist’s wet dream. Using the bass as the lead instrument rarely works simply to reproduce the same sounds as a guitar – the inevitable tonal differences make a huge difference whether the listener really picks up on them or not. This is especially apparent on tracks such as groovy head-nodders ‘The Mountain Bows To Noone’ or ‘Ixodes’, where Simon cranks out bass riffs as gnarled and worn as an Ent’s backside.

It’s on the final track ‘Mantis Rider’ where Monolithian get really Weird, with a trippy, echo-effect-induced intro that drops magnificently into a catchy stoner groove, clearly designed for a live setting to get the assembled masses moving to the upbeat dirge that follows. Returning briefly to the bass echo, we’re wrong-footed as what sounds like another heavy riff floats off into the air like smoke—before it coalesces back into the groove.

Bowing to No-one

Listening back to their early recordings, you can hear how far the production has come with The Waning Moon. ‘Baptism’ from Zero, for example, sounds muffled and lo-fi, perfect for such slabs of tremolo-doom black metal, whereas their second album really packs a heavy punch to rival larger, guitar-based bands. If The Finest Day… has a slightly cold, metallic sheen to it, then The Waning Moon is full-bodied and warm, demonstrating that you don’t need a big band to get a big sound.

I first saw Monolithian absolutely smashing it at the ill-fated Temples Festival (RIP), and a few months again at the Unicorn, London, playing mostly tracks from their debut. The duo’s live sound is every bit as monstrous as their records, with Simon plugging as many stacks as are available, achieving a carefully balanced heaviness to make up for any treble/mid tones potentially lost through just a bass. I for one can’t wait to see how these new tracks go down in the live environment, especially ‘Crone’ with the traded vocals, which works so well on record. One of the best things about The Finest Day… is the catchiness of some of the songs – if shouting “The black goat/of the woods/with a thou-sand yooooung!” can be classed as catchy – whereas on early listens The Waning Moon is perhaps less obviously so. This catchiness, though, has certainly been shaped by seeing the songs live, and I’ve no doubt that we’ll all be shouting “Crooooone!” just as loudly in the not-too-distant future.

Monolithian – a combination of two pieces: solid and unbroken.

The Boats of the “Glen Carrig”: Ahab and William Hope Hodgson

The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” is a novel written by William Hope Hodgson in 1907, which also provided the concept for German funeral doom metal band Ahab’s eponymous fourth album released in 2015. In the following post, Weird Metal Blog provides a double review – technically with spoilers – comparing both versions.

Hodgson’s work is a rare example of that slippery beast, the Weird novel, a form often maligned for the short story. The book’s main effect is certainly that of Weird horror, through a gradual accretion of unsettlingly strange sights, sounds and occurrences, with all out terror and abjection kept to a minimum. Beginning in media res, the Glen Carrig and crew are lost, shipwrecked in an unnamed “land of lonesomeness” in the year 1757, their story narrated in first-person by passenger John Winterstraw. Largely a tale of survival and adventure, the crew face giant octopuses, face-hugger-esque tentacled creatures (as depicted on Ahab’s album cover), slug-like invaders, as well as the more predictable onslaught of fierce storms and generally harsh living conditions. In their struggle for survival, the strict class divisions on-board relied upon whilst sailing the Glen Carrig break down, and they attempt to rescue the similarly-stranded crew of another vessel.

Ahab is no stranger to creating albums inspired by literature. Predictably given their name, the band’s debut The Call of the Wretched Sea (2006) – following in the then-recent footsteps of U.S. progressive metallers Mastodon’s second album Leviathan (2004) – was a concept album that interpreted Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), while their third album The Giant (2012) adapts Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). Ahab have adopted the epithet “Nautik Funeral Doom” for their sound, as all aspects of their music are drenched in narrative and imagery relating to the sea.

The songs on The Boats of the “Glen Carrig” share some of their titles with the novel’s chapters – ‘The Thing That Made Search’, ‘The Light In The Weed’ – suggesting that the narrative of this concept album follows that of Hodgson’s novel in a fairly direct manner, whilst other are taken from lines in the novel which sit naturally alongside Hodgson’s originals – ‘Like Red Foam (The Storm)’, ‘The Weedmen’. The album opens with gentle, clean guitar chords while frontman Daniel begins the narrative with a straightforward first-person account, “It’s been five days/In these boats of the Glen Carrig”, also sung in clean, ernest and melancholy style. As is often the case on the album, the lyrics either repeat Hodgson’s original lines (‘I was awed by so much solitude’) and phrases (‘lonesome wind’), or suggest the archaic style of his language (“flagrant flatness”).

Hodgson’s novel already contains within it examples of Weirdness in sonic form. As dusk falls on the strange land on which they are stranded, the Glen Carrig’s crew are traumatized by a “doleful wailing” on the night air, which begins as the “weeping of lost souls”, but soon becomes “an insistent, hungry snarl” that brings terror to our narrator’s heart. This sound returns in the dead of night, when a fearsome Thing is heard growling, searching through the wreck of their boat. It would, therefore, have been possible for Ahab to reproduce such sounds, including them non-diegetically in the tracks, for added effect – however, the story is told entirely through lyrics and music, with no added voice-over or effects.

“I saw that it had the appearance of a many-flapped thing shaped as it might be, out of raw beef—but it was alive.”

The lyrics from Track Two follow directly those of Track One, describing ‘The Thing That Made Search’, which Hodgson’s narrator sees “at the glass of an unbroken window, a reddish mass, which plunged up against it, sucking upon it, as it were.” Hodgson is at his best here, dishing out the half-glimpses of monstrous creatures that fans of the Weird come to expect. When crew-mate Josh holds up a candle, “I saw that it had the appearance of a many-flapped thing shaped as it might be, out of raw beef—but it was alive” – a line that Daniel death-growls at the very bottom of his range, accompanied by riffs as steady and churning as the angry ocean. With ‘The Thing That Made Search’ Ahab add some much-needed direct dialogue to the story (“Now take the pipe right from your mouth!/At outmost tension – listen! Crouch!), something notably missing from Hodgson’s novel, which relies almost entirely upon reported speech.

Track Three, ‘Like Red Foam (The Great Storm)’, is the only from this album with a feature video, although the video’s narrative – featuring a woman being tortured for information, and dedicated to Amnesty International – appears to be linked to the track’s lyrics only by the prominence of the colour red. The track, a highpoint of the album, focuses on the more everyday danger of “so great a storm/As might well fill the heart with panic”, with riffs continuing the churning feel previously established. The track is perhaps controversially fast for Ahab, sounding more like mid-paced death metal rather than funeral doom, yet is perfectly placed on the album, providing an injection of movement and momentum.

The Thing from Track Two turns out to be one of the Weedmen – humanoid, repulsive creatures whose tentacled limbs move like slugs – which are probably Hodgson’s most memorable creation in the book, amongst other uncanny flora and fauna of this forgotten landscape, such as monstrous devil-fish and valleys of huge fungi. When ‘The Weedmen’ fully manifest on Track Four, they are accompanied by a return to Ahab’s funeral doom of old, with the lines “The weedmen come anigh/Soon – they are upon us!” rendered almost unintelligible by a sustained, gurgling bellow. The last section of ‘The Weedmen’, in particular, with its oddly-timed triplet chugging riff and mournful lead guitar, achieves for the album a new point of sorrow, supplemented by an exceptional soaring vocal performance from Daniel, pitched somewhere between his clean and growled styles.

The sorrow conveyed on ‘The Weedmen’ prefigures the literal funeral doom of Track Five, ‘To Mourn Job’, concerned with the death of one of Hodgson’s more developed characters. Here Ahab details the discovery of Job, with soaring clean vocals detailing the bo’sun placing “his hand with dread/Over the poor lad’s heart” accompanying chugging, dissonant riffs and piercing lead guitar. It’s at this point where the emotive potential of funeral doom is realized, with Daniel tenderly describing Job “mangled an bled/And the boy moved not ever again.”

Hodgson’s novel is something of a frustrating read and certainly has its faults. At points, it captures moments of exceptional horror and weirdness, and it is clearly an important work in the Weird canon, but it’s heavily overshadowed by the novel that followed, The House on the Borderland (1908), which will rightly be remembered as Hodgson’s masterpiece. The Boats on the “Glen Carrig” is a perfect exemplar of why many writers of Weird fiction prefer shorter forms, ensuring that the slow build-up of Weirdness is not too slow, becoming lost amidst normalcy. It’s no surprise then that The House on the Borderland – which packs a deeply unsettling punch of Weirdness – is little more than a novella.

Ahab wisely condense Hodgson’s 320 page novel into a roughly hour-long album by focusing on key scenes. The book is frankly an arduous task to read at points: stodgy with near-obsessive nautical detail, huge sentences that roll literally for pages conjoined endlessly with semicolons, a lack of characterisation and direct dialogue, archaic language, and fairly minimal plot. There is an extended scene where the crew of the Glen Carrig save a boat of fellow sailors, in which we’re told in excruciating detail how they manage to save them, using the slightly implausible device of a giant catapult. Hodgson certainly gets his details right, and it’s impossible to find flaws in his technical and nautical authenticity, but such scenes kill the tension with boredom.

The novel’s ending rings false, also. [SPOILER!] Our protagonist survives this host of Weird occurrences seemingly without any impact, and settling down to a quiet married life back in civilization (a conclusion that even H.P. Lovecraft, a great fan of the book, described as a “letdown”). Hodgson ultimately chooses the conservative narrative closure of a return to the status quo and the ‘Wife at Home’[1], rather than the more radically open-ended and altered outcome of much Weird fiction, which often results in madness, possession, a remain in Othered space, etc.

The narrative logic of Ahab’s album reproduces this conclusion reasonably faithfully. Final track, ‘The Light in the Weed (Mary Madison)’, set seven years after “the desolation of the weed continent”, celebrates the titular woman who has now become our narrator’s wife. Reprising the clean, melancholy chords that opened the album, Ahab however end on a musical and lyrical downbeat. While the story is technically wrapped up as happily as the novel, the last lines serve as a warning that such lands are still out there, and no doubt others will follow in the travels of the Glen Carrig: “So brace yourselves, ye seamen brave/ Behold a bright light burning/Whenever be the seas so grave/For man and maid the tide is turning”.

For me Ahab come very close to achieving the quintessential form of this story – trimmed down to its essentials, and given a stronger narrative momentum through the music. It is the overall sorrowful tone achieved on Ahab’s album that cements this for me, highlighting the melancholy and hopelessness present at times in the original novel, but which Hodgson often swamps with gung-ho adventure and excessive nautical fascination. Hodgson’s book will no doubt remain seldom read outside circles of Weird aficionados, but Ahab are ensuring that some form of this bloated monster still washes up on fresh shores.

Ahab play a few select European dates later in the year, including at the mighty Roadburn festival, where they will play The Call of the Wretched Sea in all its “Nautik Funeral Doom” glory.

[1] See Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr, The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (Wesleyan University press, 2011) for more on the narrative forms of colonial adventure in science fiction.

Weird Metal Round-Up for 2016, Part One

I think most of us can agree that 2016 was the wrong kind of weird. Just to add insult to injury, it’s been ages since your last infusion of Weird Metal, a bastion of sanity in times of woe I’m sure. What can I say? Really sorry about that. At least I’ve been busy – finishing my PhD thesis (I’m now Doctor Weird Metal guy) and writing about The Weird in drone music for a forthcoming essay collection, Sustain/Delay (more about this soon). I’ll try my darndest to dish out some super-Weird and super-regular content in 2017, promise.

For now, here’s Part One of a brief round-up of all the good stuff that I’ve been listening to in 2016, starting with one particular concert experience and related new album.

Thinking about this year, for me there’s one act that stands out so far above the rest: Wardruna. If you watch the epic saga of Ragnar Lothbrok that is the History channel’s Vikings, then you’ve heard (and partly seen) Wardruna. It’s a perfect pairing, but it still doesn’t do the latter justice. Wardruna are often described using terms like neo-pagan, neo-folk, world or traditional Scandinavian music. While some of these are helpful, they don’t do them justice. I know it’s a cliqué, but you’ve just got to hear them, or better yet catch them live, to truly get why I’m so excited.

Spearheaded by one man, Einar Selvik, Wardruna completed a three album conceptual cycle this year based on the Eldar Futhark, the oldest known runic alphabet, and all three installments – Runaljod – Gap Var Ginnunga (2009), Runaljod – Yggdrasil (2013), Runaljod – Ragnarok (2016) – are truly astonishing. The keening call of the bukke or goat horn, pugnacious march of deer-skin drum, eerie droning beauty of stallion-hare-bow on lyre, the unforgettably-odd springing of the mouth harp – all sounds rooted in deep antiquity yet still sounding fresh and resonant today. Crowning this is the combined voices of Einar and Lindy Fay Hella: the former’s a rich, melancholy tenor, the latter as versatile as it is enigmatic, as beautiful as it is terrifying.

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One of the best things about Wardruna is their complete lack of pretense. This is not some part-time theatrical whim: Einar lives and breathes Wardruna. To hear him speak about his project – as he often does in workshops prior to big performances – it’s clear this is no reactionary longing to return to a coveted yet long-dead past. (He explains all this, checking the time on his smart phone.) Rather it’s a refusal to let the best aspects of tradition and heritage die, and keep something of the pagan spirit alive in contemporary society.  And, of course, to make deeply affecting music.

I find myself trying and failing to describe to people the sheer magic – for there is no other word, even for a grumpy old atheist such as myself – of seeing them live, as I have been fortunate enough to do a handful of times. Their performance at Roadburn in 2015, featuring a full ensemble of musicians and choir, was probably the most sublime artistic experience of my life. (And trust me, I know a thing or two about live music, having as an undergraduate experienced a DJ set with Bodger and Badger no less.) From the very first second of music to the last Wardruna live is always utterly captivating – ask anyone who’s seen them and they’ll tell you the same thing, or you can have my record collection.*

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A personal highlight of 2016 was seeing Wardruna perform Runaljod – Ragnarok and earlier tracks at the beautiful Union Chapel venue in Islington, surrounded by carved wood and stained glass (see above). If it felt slightly odd initially watching a decidedly pagan band perform in such a Christian setting to a crowd of metalheads sans alcohol, any such fripperies were dispelled immediately upon the start of the performance. The susurration of rain through leaves, peaceful and reassuring in its familiarity, is dramatically broken by the low war moan of two huge lur: beautiful S-shaped horns dating from Bronze Age Scandinavia. From here-on-in, the sense of atmosphere achieved by the venue perfectly complemented an all-round flawless hour-and-half performance, culminating in ‘Helvegen’, “a song about death, about crossing over, about letting go”. Try hearing that without surreptitiously shedding a tear into your tea and your Kit Kat.

Coming soon, I’ll publish Part Two – a round-up of other significant releases from this year, including Hexvessel, Blood Ceremony, Emma Ruth Rundle, and many more. Weird Metal Blog hopes you survived 2016 with some sense of optimism for the future intact. Whatever you do in 2017, go and listen to Wardruna, for Odin’s sake.

 

 

*in photographic form.