Saturday, November 13, 2010

Temporal Shift: Natural Snow Buildings- Ghost Folks

Warning: Neither this record nor this review contain blastbeats or any references to blastbeats. Those with bpm-related allergies should be advised to keep blastbeat-rich products close at hand while listening to this record or reading this review.

What is it about the end of the world that so fascinates us? Is it some innate sense of fatalism that our past few generations have been programmed with? Is it instead the sense of freedom from responsibility that the end of everything brings with it? Or even a simple sense of self-importance that makes us feel like the logical conclusion to humanity as we know it?

Maybe it's instead, as Sun Ra put it and Brutal Truth so emphatically agreed, “after the end of the world” that's the true focus of our fascination with the Apocalypse. Rather than waiting for the end of everything, we're waiting to be the golden ticket-holders left over when the rest of everything gets tossed in the Great Garbage Disposal of the Cosmos.

Whatever the case may be, that survival beyond the end is the focus of this collection of songs. Bookended by two songs about the post-nuke fallout, “Nuclear Winter (Dispatches)” and “Nuclear Winter,” rather than talk about the circumstances of its happening, the guts of this album instead focus on what goes on after the big one.

In terms of musical style, Natural Snow Buildings (a French duo made up musicians Mehdi Ameziane and Solange Gularte) craft an ever-shifting amalgam of acoustic drone, folk and post-rock grandeur well-suited to their subject matter. Previewing one or two tracks is by no means a proper introduction to the group (even one or two albums really doesn't do justice to the full scope of their talents,) since they cycle through minimal, tone-based droning, slow, string-heavy post-rock and eerie, vocal-augmented folk throughout the course of an album, all the while keeping, for the most part, a respectably even pace.

After the short noise/drone opening “Nuclear Winter” (which always sounds to me like it's going to lead into a Pig Destroyer album rather than one filled with post-rock and folk) come a pair of tracks, “If I Can Find My Way Through the Darkness...” and “...I Came Down Here,” which set the blueprint for the album's post-rock-leaning tracks with slow, orchestral instrumentals that echo and chime, moving ever forward like the protagonists in Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

What are by far my favorite tracks are the two vocaled folk tracks, “Sun” and “Guns & Rifles.” Don't make the mistake of assuming that these two are my favorites simply because they've got vocals; rather, they're my favorites because they've got damned excellent vocals. The first of the two, “Sun,” is a dark, eerie acoustic guitar track that's kept lovingly bare-bones, showcasing the humanity inherent in fret noise and the emotion-rich vocals of Ameziane. The fact that the arrangement doesn't move beyond letting the second guitar chime in atmospherically lets the lyrics hit that much harder, making sure that a line like “This fucking sun keeps staring at me” leaves you shivering. “Guns & Rifles,” on the other hand, takes longer to build, opening with strings and only revealing itself as a folk tune halfway through. This allows the band to further show their range, proving that they're more than a band that can just play several disparate styles of music. Because of its slower build, “Guns & Rifles” is a fuller song, with piano, strings and guitar all stacked onto the track before the unstable, heavy-hearted vocals make their appearance. When Ameziane says, “I remember many colors, many tortures,” we can't help but believe him, because we've been hearing it in his voice the whole time.

Similar to the album by the Body that I reviewed last month, Ghost Folks has no shortage of sampled-based tracks. “With A Stolen Red Lipstick Bible On Her Side” sports a lengthy piece presumably taken from an interview in which an old woman details her childhood wagon trip across America, complete with stories of encounters with Native American warriors and the murder of a farmer and his daughter. One track, “The Haunted Falls (Let Us Now Praise Harry Powell),” is entirely built from samples, and its 1:26 run time seems to be built entirely from gospel singing from The Night of the Hunter (Harry Powell being the sinister preacher who is the central character of that film, and who inexplicably announces himself, constantly, by singing gospel tunes.) Another sample, plopped near the beginning of “...I Came Down Here,” finds its speaker shift between detailing all of the things she'd change in the world (“I'd take every single hungry person and feed 'em, I'd take every single rich person and take away their money”) to discussing her own mortality (“After Kent State, I realized I could put on a cheerleader's sweater and an 'I Love America' pin and if he could even shoot, if he could even aim it wouldn't do me any good.”) These other voices lend humanity to the proceedings, peopling our post-apocalyptic world with more than the usual dust and echoes of post-rock and drone territory.

The one track on the album that I can't help but label a glaring misstep is the one simply titled “...” Barely classifiable as music except for the fact that it's bookended by tracks that are indeed music and it can't be seen to serve any other purpose, the average experience while listening to this track will be 3:21 spent trying to decide what's going on (and if you illegally downloaded the album, that time will be spent trying to figure out if the version you grabbed was somehow corrupted.) The only audible sounds seem to be recorded through the wall of another room, or on a hill in a brisk wind, and the only explanation for the track's inclusion on an album would seem to be either that the band was pressed for time in finding an eleventh track or that the recording itself had such a special significance to the band that they felt the need to include it despite the fact that it's barely listenable and that you'll probably think the album has stopped entirely if you're not listening through headphones.

This is by no means a perfect album, and it may frustrate those without the patience to sit through a 65-minute drone/folk/post-rock survival course, but it offers such a unique experience, as well as one that I keep coming back to, that I highly suggest an examination of the full range of its charms before you deem it not your cup of rare, scavenged Tetley tea bags.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Doom/Drone Metal Top 5

I feel compelled to write an introduction to this, 'cause it'd be a little weird to just inject you into this list with no explanation, but c'mon; you've read the title, is there really that much more that I can say? Every once in a while it's healthy to not listen to something fast, just like some of that grease in your McDonald's artery-clogger is actually necessary to your diet. Mmm... doom metal grease.

5. Moss- Sub Templum [Longest track: 35:31]

“Ritus,” this record's opener, all ebb-and-flow guitar throb, shimmering, candle-lit keys and arcane whispering, sets the stage nicely for an album full of Victorian, Satanic-leaning drone that's rife with foreboding from front to back.

The second, and second-longest, track on the album, “Subterraen,” realizes the fear and horror that the first track hinted at, like the 20 minutes of exposition in the beginning of horror film finally broken by the audience's first taste of blood. The band howls like some shadowed, lumbering Elder God, with the moments of drone adding to the tension like the details always artfully absent from H.P. Lovecraft stories. He always tells us it's for our sanity, but the wondering makes it work sort of the opposite.

“Dragged to the Roots” continues where “Subterraen” left off, if at a slightly increased lumber than the latter track. The album's unease is brought to a head with “Gate III: Devils From the Outer Dark,” which begins with a weighty guitar crush and builds on the already dark vibe with a spoken incantation similar to that of “Ritus,” the vocalist's British accent heightening the horror. Several minutes into the track, that incantation seems to have borne fruit, with the unearthly howls of the vocalist seemingly channeling the song's title devils. This song more than any realizes the band's Satanic drone vibe, and at 35:31 is the most gratifying on the record.

Of the other albums on this list, none can convey the constant sense of dread and unease that this album does, even with the genre's proclivity for producing unsettling sounds. Whether your perfect soundtrack to an October evening alone with Lovecraft, or just a drone record for when you've got an hour and fifteen minutes to kill, Sub Templum is a perfect example of doom metal done right.

4. Earth- Earth 2 (Special Low Frequency Version) [Longest track: 30:21]

If you haven't heard Earth's first LP, Earth 2, and can't or don't want to spend the money or time to buy or download it, I've got a solution for you.

Find an old rotary telephone, hook it up to a landline (preferably a poor one, for maximum effect,) and call up a friend who has recording software. Once the call connects, make a series of deep, long buzzing sounds with your mouth like “bzzzvvvvvvvv, bzzzzvvvvvv, bzzzzvvvvv” and have your friend record them through the telephone. On another track, have your friend record you screaming, with several seconds of space between each. Next, have him or her loop your buzzing over 15 or 20 minutes, and have your screaming come in at around the 7 minute mark and last for around 1 minute intervals, returning every 3 minutes. Drive over to your friend's house and play the track with the computer's subwoofer at maximum volume, and you have just created your own Earth 2 (Special Low Frequency Version).

Joking aside, this is a great album. It's just not one that's always particularly easy to listen to. Its run time totals 1:13:00, its track listing has only 3 songs, and its musical content, as described in the introduction, consists of only electric guitar and voice. Being one of the pioneers of the drone doom style, this record's strength doesn't come from its variety, but rather from some spiritual and emotional quality created by the tone and repetition of the guitar, cauterized by the screamed vocal interjections. As the album nears its middle, one feels as if one is deep in some intense form of meditation, both ready to speak in tongues and reach perfect Zen consciousness.

Like some of the greatest films of 40 years ago, this album is best experienced through a healthy suspension of disbelief. As long as you don't go in to the experience demanding a perfect album, you'll find something arguably better: a great one.

3. Sleep- Dopesmoker [Longest track: 1:03:32]

This album holds the dual honors of being both the most melodic record on this list and the least melodic record that Sleep have ever produced. While it may sound fairly tame on a list bookended by the piercing, Lovecraft-inspired Satanic howl of Moss and the extreme, deathgrowl-vocaled crush at the heart of “Sangre/Humanos” from Corrupted's Llenandose de Gusanos, this record singlehandedly derailed Sleep's career, seemingly on an upswing since the success of Sleep's Holy Mountain.

Their label redlighted the album because of its length, lack of multiple tracks and sheer extremity compared to their previous efforts. Even re-cut as the inferior Jerusalem, the label wouldn't accept it, and the band, refusing to compromise further, retreated into inactivity and eventual disbandment. Bootlegs of the Jerusalem cut of the album surfaced in metal circles, but it wasn't until 2003 that the album received a proper release as Dopesmoker, packaged with the bonus of a never-before-released live track called “Sonic Titan.”

It's a tragedy that this album took so long to release, not only because the band might have continued making records if Dopesmoker had been well-received, but because it's a damn good album. It trades in all of the melody and most of the Black Sabbath worship of Holy Mountain (still the band's finest moment) for even slower riffs, a droning vocal delivery that's admittedly jarring on first listen, and a silly-yet-triumphant narrative about a stoner exile mirroring the biblical Jewish one which follows a caravan of “weed priests” in search of a stoner Holy Land (hence the alternate title.)

It takes a listen or two to get used to this incarnation of Sleep's sound, and one can understand why a label would initially balk at releasing it, but upon further listens it becomes apparent that Sleep were on to something. The tragedy is doubled by the fact that none of the members' post-Sleep output compares to their former band's catalog (sorry, High on Fire fans), and one is left only to wonder how awesome, stoney and droney a fourth Sleep album might have turned out to be.

2. Boris- Absolutego [Longest track: 1:05:35]

I'm not one to mince words, so we might as well get one thing out of the way: There's more Earth worship on this record than a picnic full of druids. Due to that fact, it might seem strange that Earth 2, a major inspiration for this album, is all the way at the four spot, while this record is one position away from number one. However, there are a few things that this record boasts of which Dylan Carlson's album is in short supply. Two of the more important of those things are drums and Japanese people.

Absolutego also carries a sense of importance and propulsion that keeps your interest better over one hour-and-five-minute track than any of the fifteen-minute to half-an-hour pieces on Earth 2. The feedback-flooded droning spaces are well tempered by peaks of discernible riffs, pounding drums and cathartic howls.

The real surprise, however, is that while you'll be pleased every time the band's playing reappears on the track, this is the rare minimalist metal performance where you're not just waiting for it. Boris' strength on this album is the ability to convey emotion through both negative and positive space, exuding as much energy when they're letting their guitars feed back as they are when they're playing them.

1. Corrupted- Llenandose de Gusanos [Longest track: 1:13:55]

What makes an album the best doom metal release ever (for purposes of this list, anyway; you can't really expect me to choose)? The longest, slowest song ever written? One single riff, repeated over the full playing time of four discs? Real honest-to-God monks, chanting in the key of that riff for half of one of those discs? Guest vocals from serial killers?

It's undeniable that all of those things are cool, but unfortunately that was a trick question; the truth is, the real secret is that the band making the record has to be Corrupted. Corrupted's mixture of sludge vitality and doom creep, all cut liberally with a streak for drone and the avant-garde, make them the perfect group to achieve a proper balance between doom metal and its relative genres without sounding boring or self-serving.

Despite that balance, the album itself opens on what many headbanger dictionaries would define as a boring note. For the first five minutes of “Sangre/Humanos,” we as listeners are given nothing more than plaintive piano-plinking. At around the five-and-a-half mark, that plinking is joined by a low-register mumbling. Those two rather un-metal neighbors keep each other company until the near-maddening point of almost the 17-and-a-half minute mark, when finally, serendipitously our old friend feedback makes an entrance, ushering in the belles of the ball, doom metal riffs themselves. When those leaden riffs begin to land, it's like the entire fragile world built by the last fifteen-plus minutes is beginning to disintegrate in clouds of smoke and feigned ambience. The cathartic entrance of these elements makes the preceding 17 minutes, which on paper seem incredibly tedious, become absolutely essential to the gravity of the rest of the composition.

Thus begins the doom metal track proper, as much time as it took to appear. What continues to impress me, no matter how many times I listen to this and other Corrupted recordings, are the vocals. Corrupted's vocalist's style, in contrast to that of other bands on this list, seems more suited to a death metal or goregrind recording than the genre the band plays. However, the vocals complement the somber, oppressive atmosphere, creating an occult vibe not unlike Moss's entry at the number 5 spot. The vocals seem carefully weighted to mesh with the piano, guitar and drums on the track, never letting over-emotion or unnecessary aggression draw away from the aggregate.

After the 50 minutes of “Sangre/Humanos” has completely drained the blood from your body, the ambient, 74-minute “El Mundo” hovers over it in disbelief, conveying in pure wordless feeling what the former track did with doom metal and piano.

Overall, what makes Llenandose de Gusanos a cut above the rest of the albums on this list is the ability to distill and amalgamate such a variety of styles and sounds into one cohesive package. While other albums on this list may contain similar components, none live up to the presence and sheer power of vintage Corrupted. If you disagree, then go ahead and tell me what other doom metal band shared a split with Discordance Axis and 324. No, seriously.