Ahead of their 2016 European tour alongside intense German black-metallers Der Weg einer Freiheit, which kicks off later this month, Weird Metal Blog celebrates The Great Old Ones‘ (TGOO) phenomenal debut album from 2012, Al Azif. I’ll admit that this is more an essay than a blog post – apologies – but I think the album’s quality and complexity warrant the attention.
There are few bands as dedicated to conveying the work of Providence, Rhode Island’s palest gloom-merchant of the Weird H. P. Lovecraft in sonic form as The Great Old Ones. Slithering forth from Bordeaux, France, in 2009 this five-piece released their debut full-length three years later, setting an extremely high standard in Weird Metal, and quickly establishing themselves as the Lovecraftian black metal band.
Drawing their name from Lovecraft’s ancient deities said to lurk in various locations across the Earth,* TGOO titled their debut in reference to the Arabic name for Lovecraft’s ubiquitous fictional grimoire the Necronomicon, which features in most of the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ stories and has subsequently become a wider cultural phenomenon with a life of its own. And if all these references aren’t enough, their live show features a whacking great big picture of Lovecraft at the back of the stage and a metal sculpture of Cthulhu, seemingly carved from a car bonnet, attached to a mic stand at the front of the stage:
Their debut’s eponymous first track narrates the tale of Lovecraft’s ‘mad monk’ Abdul Alhazred, with lyrics describing his contact by “demons” (presumably Lovecraft’s extraterrestrial deities), and their order to write the Necronomicon (“cursed bible, obscene words”) as they dictate. With vocal duties shared between two of their three guitarists, Benjamin and Jeff, Alhazred’s subsequent descent into madness (“Alone in the desert I lose my sanity”) is conveyed in rasping, blackened cries pregnant with desolation and sorrow. This ability to convey genuine melancholy as well as anger is one of The Great Old Ones’ (TGOO) strongest characteristics: the cry of “write the end of hu-ma-ni-ty”, with dramatic pauses between the syllables of the last word, is truly moving in a wretched kind of a way. At one point the lyrics switch from Alhazred’s first person account to direct speech from the “demons”, which is also reflected by the rhythm section briefly pulling out to a slow, clean guitar figure, accompanied by almost industrial-sounding ambience low in the mix, before Alhazred’s voice re-enters for the pummelling climax: “No one can help me”.
Al Azif’s controlling image is of water, specifically the ocean, as made explicit by the cover art: an impressionistic painting of the ocean bed, using broad-brush strokes to suggest flowing currents and streaming seaweed.
This image invites the listener to associate the music with the ebb and flow of the tide, with deep oceanic currents, and the murky cold of the seabed. In a Lovecraftian context, of course, this evokes images of R’lyeh, the lost city sunk somewhere in the South Pacific. The protagonist of track two, ‘Visions of R’lyeh’, is tormented by hallucinations/memories of this submerged metropolis, in one of five of the album’s mini-narratives told in the first person which all relate to Lovecraft and water in some way. (The single track in third-person is Lovecraft-, but not water-, related.) ‘Visions of R’lyeh’ showcases TGOO’s trademark layered, textured and expansive sound, achieved using a third guitarist rather than keyboard player.
The second side of the first record – or the third track ‘Jonas’ to all you non-vinyl people – begins aptly with the gentle swell of waves, and features lyrics that re-imagine the story of Jonah and the whale as originally told in both the Bible and the Qur’an. Narrated in first person presumably from the perspective of a character similar to Jonah – a prophet of the northern kingdom of Israel – the song describes him being dropped into the “dark sea” by unnamed others, then “a giant form” with “large tentacles” swallows him into its “immense mouth”.
No prizes, then, for guessing what replaces the whale in this Weird re-telling.
Here, our protagonist does not have his prayers for forgiveness answered, emerging from the creature to proclaim God’s love to the people of Ninevah as he was originally asked. Come on this is Weird Metal not Sunday School. Instead he hears the sacred Mythos names, YOG-SOTHOTH, SHUB-NIGGURATH, AZATHOTH, sees an “army of unspeakable things” dancing in silhouette shadows on the stomach walls, and hears voices demanding the protagonist leave and “announce his coming”, presumably referring to great Cthulhu himself. Rejected by the Cthulhu-whale, Jonah decides to remain alone “until the end of my presence on earth” because of the things he’s seen. He lives, but – against a final flurry of furious tremolo riffing – he exchanges “madness for new birth”.
Track four, ‘Rue D’Auseil’, begins with none other than ‘The Music of Eric Zann’. Or at least the song’s title – a reference to a fictional Parisian street from Lovecraft’s famous story of that name – invites the reader to imagine the song’s melancholy cello introduction as the otherworldly harmonies of the story’s violin-playing protagonist, which he uses to see into another dimension. Far from estranged alien sonics, however, the warm strings of ‘Rue D’Auseil’, intertwined with delicate, clean guitar chords, are beautiful and contemplative. The lyrics narrate Zann’s voluntary descent into the “dark vortex” in third-person, underpinned by complex, mid-tempo riffs, and brief yet startling electronic drum stabs. Zann’s music is described first using synaesthesia, as “a sound, to see the invisible”, and then using Lovecraft’s standard deflection of description, “a sound to hear the inaudible”.
At approximately 4:20, TGOO deliver my favourite part of the album. Having established a shimmering guitar figure in the background – on quick repeat as if sampled – the rest of the band drop out suddenly, leaving just that guitar part. Heavy rhythmic chords stab through in an irregular rhythm, contrasting with the tremulous guitar loop. Then, of all things, jazzy drums playing swing-time kick in. It shouldn’t work, it’s totally incongruous, but somehow it’s also glorious. All but the guitar loop drop out again for a final respite, before TGOO’s full, desolate black metal onslaught resurfaces to close the track.
Track five, ‘The Truth’, is a slower, moody track, again showcasing the incredibly nuanced drumming of Léo Isnard, alongside atmospheric and grinding riffs. The lyrics, in their depiction of a character “alone in my room” seeing “impossible and surreal” landscapes, suggest many of Lovecraft’ stories – such as ‘The Dreams in the Witch House’ (1932) and ‘The Haunter in the Dark’ (1935) .
TGOO play to their strengths in closing Al Azif, providing the rich and expansive black metal, the huge, firmamental guitarscapes, that they do best. Certainly the oddest track on the album lyrics-wise, ‘My Love For The Stars (Cthulhu Fhtagn)’ appears to be a first-person account of great Cthulhu’s insecurities about fulfilling his/her/its destiny – destroying humankind before returning to the stars. Ironically Cthulhu’s worries about self-image are all-too-human, and even somewhat amusing when you consider exactly how this Great Old One actually looks:”My green and slimy skin, it bothers them,” he growls, in a line that seems silly written down, yet is thoroughly convincing on record, delivered with grave sincerity. After a final flurry of metal, the album fades to the whine of amplified guitar and faint snippets of muffled studio conversation like voices from across the transdimensional sea.
TGOO show that black metal – ‘atmospheric’, ‘post-’ or however you classify it – can be complex, moving, constantly evolving and engaged with literary ideas. In the words of the master, “The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be.”
TGOO’s second album Tekeli-Li is out now. Catch them in London on March 12 at The Black Heart, Camden.
*There is a full A-Z of Great Old Ones, which you can find listed elsewhere online. But the most well-known include Dagon and Cthulhu him/her/itself.