Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Ash Borer- Bloodlands 12"

One of the more interesting paths in the last decade of extreme music has been that of the genre of black metal. After older groups largely became mired in the pristine offerings of orchestral black metal, newer bands began to shift their focus, pinpointing their favorite aspects of the genre, from its formative years on, to take it to strange and as-yet-uncharted places.

This specialization and hybridization within the genre spawned, among a host of others, Arcata, California's Ash Borer. They excel at extracting black metal's most astral and most abstractedly occult moments and stretching them across a canvas of trance-like, long-form song structures. Nowhere in their catalog is this approach and its lineage more apparent than their Bloodlands 12", the follow-up to their critically acclaimed second LP Cold of Ages.

The first sounds on the album, from A-side track "Oblivion's Spring," have more to do with what we think of as black metal in an atmospheric sense than a sonic one. Echoey, chiming guitars and a haunted-house organ synth pad wind into and out of synch with one another, creating a mood that feels pulled straight from the eerie opening credits of a horror film. Tension mounts with each introduced phrase and variation, but no blood is shed in the first few minutes of the song.

That all changes when the track suddenly jump-cuts from that creepy (but relatively clean) introduction to a full-out, distortion-wrapped black metal sprint. What gives this shift an organic quality is the fact that the organ riff employed in the introduction is carried over into the firebombing extreme metal core of the song, tying the ambient, otherworldly aspects of the band ably into the violent, immediate ones.

In the song's last half, the riff explored in the intro returns, but is at this point incorporated into the black metal meat of the song for a middle-paced buildup that caters equally to the part of the brain interested in repeated hooks and the ancient, primal one that feeds on music's violent, pummeling tendencies. Its eventual degradation into melting, howling drones sees both of these aspects of the brain evolved into oblivion, leaving the listener adrift in a post-mental wasteland that recedes in a long, siren whine at the song's close.

On the record’s b-side follows the aptly-titled “Dirge,” an atmospheric, swirling lament that builds at a more measured, deliberate pace than the introduction to “Oblivion’s Spring.” Where the instrumental opening of that piece felt like it was moving toward something and its draw was as a vehicle for reaching that goal, the purpose of “Dirge” is in the journey itself. Like time-lapse footage of a flower blooming, the track thrives in individual moments, unfolding slowly to reveal a whole.

“Purgation,” the b-side’s second half, is a blackened, accelerating slow burn that builds momentum around an undulating, circular riff. Around the halfway mark of the nearly 20-minute second side, the band slides into a galloping traditional black metal style (still hearkening back on occasion to that riff) that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of Emperor’s first LPs. However, to quote the excellent and massively over-quoted William Butler Yeats poem, “the centre cannot hold,” and within minutes the onslaught is reduced to a single guitar, buzzing against the emptiness. A thick doom metal carapace forms around the riffing, which gives way to mid-paced, headbang-inducing black metal and another inevitable return to the nullifying womb of piercing feedback.

As well-liked as last year's Cold of Ages was, one of the complaints it received was that it seemed to lack some of the aggression and presence found on previous releases. While those hoping for another "Rest, You are the Lightning" may be disappointed, Bloodlands does sport a purer, more satisfying sound, thanks in part to its being recorded live and mixed down to 1/2" tape. This is the first of Ash Borer's records to be produced in this way, as the previous LPs were both recorded onto 2" tape and mixed digitally, resulting in a warmer overall sound and a more immediate delivery than any of their previous releases.

What most impresses about Ash Borer is the way in which they can manipulate the black metal form while remaining firmly rooted in that genre. Despite divergence into drone, doom and ambient instrumental territory, their sonic aesthetic stays tied to the isolated, individualistic outlook of black metal, in a stronger sense than many “roots” black metal groups of the present day.

Bloodlands sees the further growth of the band, past the transitional qualities of Cold of Ages into something darker and more expansive. There’s no road map to where Ash Borer goes from here, which only makes it all the more exciting to follow them there. 

Bloodlands is out April 15th on Gilead MediaStream "Oblivion's Spring" below. [Note: Gilead Media sent me a download for review.]

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Cloud Rat- Moksha

No album is more charged with a greater degree of both potential success and failure than a band's so-called "breakout record." Touted as the moment that a band is poised to "break out" to a larger audience, it is just as often the moment that a band's former fans choose to break ranks with them over an actual or imagined change in sound or approach.

With that being said, Cloud Rat fans, promise me that you won't run in fear when I tell that you that this album is unquestionably Cloud Rat's breakout moment. This is the point that fence-sitters and more casual grindcore fans will stand up and start to take notice of this talented Michigan band, but said moment is achieved not by removing elements of their former sound but by expanding their musical focus while improving upon the elements that made them great in the first place.

First track "Inkblot" opens with 25 seconds of echoing, haunted ambient noise that is cut through by a simple-but-massive thrash-grind riff delivered by guitarist Rorik. With a sound like a door being kicked in, vocalist Madison and drummer Adrian join in, blowing the record open in the tradition of album openers like Disrupt's "Domestic Prison" and His Hero is Gone's "Like Weeds." By the halfway mark, the track shifts into screamo-influenced territory, and it ends on a guitar-minimal hardcore punk note.

A melodic opening riff peeks through a black metal-grade wall of distortion on "Widowmaker," and within seconds the band is in full blast mode. A dark, snaking riff transitions the song into close-quarters, mid-paced hardcore that closes with an ambient coda similar to the opening of "Inkblot."

Sequenced third-to-last is a cover of the Neil Young classic "The Needle and the Damage Done," and in many ways this song is the record's emotional apex. The cover is arranged in a style that integrates the original's texture into Cloud Rat's approach, alternating between a clean-sung version (with vocals from all three members) that stays true to Young's haunting, minimal recording and a vicious, distorted hardcore version that boils angrily out of the pain and loss encapsulated in the lyrics. While by no means the fastest, heaviest or by any stretch the most extreme performance found here, it remains among the most resonant.

The trait which especially characterizes Moksha (and which is in part responsible for its success) is its variety. While indisputably a grindcore record, no track here is colored merely by a grindcore palette. Besides the already-touched-upon swatches of punk rock, hardcore, screamo and various styles of metal, shades of traditional rock, folk, noise, drone and post-rock blend to form a rich mosaic that is all but unprecedented in both scope and detail elsewhere in the genre.

Cloud Rat embrace cross-genre arrangements like a blastbeat-fueled incarnation of the Beach Boys circa 1966. Changes in style occur often across these 13 tracks, but always in an organic (if sometimes sudden) manner. Rather than the choppy, spastic lurches of your average kitchen-sink-grindcore band, these songs always feel at their core rooted in punk rock, even when exploring its most astral reaches.

If anything close to a wrong step is to be found on this LP, it is the soft, ghostly instrumental title track that closes the album, performed by Adrian and musical partner Thomas Oakley as the noise/ambient duo Found Letters. While perfectly enjoyable on its own, the piano and lost-souls drone of the track gives the album a feeling of dissolving rather than ending, and its nearly 7-minute length diffuses a bit of the energy built up on the preceding tracks. It's a minor criticism, and does little to shake the record's instant-classic status, but it's a flaw that could be easily resolved with a change in sequencing or by engineering a more structured climax for the existing song.

Even more than their willingness to experiment both structurally and sonically, Cloud Rat are defined by the bare, unrelenting emotion found in their music. Without lyrical context, each player's performance conveys the anger, pain and suffering that is at the heart of their musical power.

Accompanied by vocalist Madison's lyrics, however, that raw emotion is channeled and honed into a weapon. Focused alternately on the social and deeply personal, her lyrics shift effortlessly between poetically abstracted and smack-in-the face literal. While cloaked in some degree of anonymity, lyrics like these found on "Inkblot"reveal enough to be at once powerful and deeply disturbing:  

"Dresses dancing against a boundless breeze.
Orgasm rolling forth...
Big yellow buses. Big purple bruises.
Breaking nails, dirt hiding under.
You know just where to touch me."

Other tracks, like "Widowmaker," have lyrics that are as aesthetically beautiful as they are arresting and personal: 

"Scars resemble the wilderness.
A marbling of reflected light.
Obscure and perfect she floated to me."

On "Infinity Chasm," a song penned jointly by Rorik and Madison, a parent laments the eventual and inevitable separation from a child by death. The song, detailing Rorik's own fears as a father of a nine-year-old daughter, benefits from its lyrical straightforwardness by the fact that most listeners will be instantly able to connect to its themes of love, loss and lamentation about this beautiful, terrible, stupid fucking world we all inhabit.

This album is a moment that Cloud Rat has been working up to since its first material, though only now that it has been fully realized is it clear that this is what the band had been reaching toward with their excellent string of previous releases. Not only is it the best release in the band's catalog, Moksha is a frontrunner for 2013 album of the year, and whether you're new to the group or a fan since the beginning, this is an essential record for this and any year following.

Moksha is available on vinyl (with a free download card) from Halo of Flies Records in the US, and for pre-order through 7Degrees Records  and React with Protest Records in Europe. The band will also have copies of the record available on their European tour, and dates for that can be found here. Download links and lyrics to past Cloud Rat albums can be found here.