17 May The Seven Bowls: A Companion to Ruin
by Hunter Ginn
Since 1970, heavy metal has courted a relationship with apocalypse, but outsiders to the genre often miss the complex ways in which metal engages with fear. The genre’s most innovative and lethal artists have mapped out geographies of psychic terror, wherein imaginative dread often mingles with the horrors of this world. Anaal Nathrakh and Nuclear Death, for instance, forged careers based on travel across the permeable boundaries between abstraction and confrontation. Heavy metal has also demonstrated a broad vocabular capacity in its transmission of horror: it taps a reservoir not only of lyrical tropes but also a vast musical palette that marshals the resources of electronic music, post-punk, noise, progressive rock, and beyond. The plague year of 2020 has drawn into relief our collective sense of anxiety and apocalypse. Some listeners, no doubt, took refuge in the green pastures of New Age and Ambient music, but for those who preferred to lean into the murk and dislocation of the pandemic, metal was there, ever faithful, to offer an accommodating soundtrack. The escapism pandered by lighter genres does little to stave off the inevitability of our private and universal sufferings. Metal, by contrast, invites us to stroll through the flames, to dance to the blare of Gabriel’s trumpet. The horrors illustrated in the genre’s most bracing music offer the listener a comfort of a different sort – situated in the context of irreversible, comprehensive ruin, we find ourselves suckling at the tete of resignation. In this oedipal fugue state, we yearn to be enwombed by the death and decay that rap at our doors. The songs listed below explore the outsize, distorted terrors of nighttime, the interior landscapes and desert places that we occupy in our moments of greatest desperation.
Gorgoroth – Blodoffer
After three albums of blistering, though relatively orthodox, True Norwegian Black Metal, Gorgoroth signs with Nuclear Blast Records – an act of heresy in and of itself – and issues Destroyer, a misshapen, lurid album of musique grand guignol. Unstable in all regards, nearly every piece of music performed by a different lineup, layers of molten, spiteful noise spilling over the boundaries of what can only nominally be called “songs,” Destroyer tests black metal’s idiomatic boundaries. “Blodoffer,” situated near the end of the album, vibrates at a particularly incantatory pitch, a bed of degraded percussion is lathered with Neubauten-esque crashing metal sounds, tortured vocals, and a droning guitar, all refracted through the lo-fi gauze of the Grieghallen production. Destroyer is one album that lives up to its title’s apocalyptic promise.
Nuclear Death – Days of the Weak
The peculiar and sickening concept of Lori Bravo, Arizona’s Nuclear Death explored a vision for extreme metal that remains misunderstood and, often, vilified. The band’s grinding, subterranean death metal traded proficiency for savage horror and the smeared sounds of 1990’s Bride of Insect, 1991’s Carrion For Worm, and 1992’s …For Our Dead EP constitute some of the genre’s most penetrating, death-obsessed music. Nuclear Death is also distinguished by the totality of its vision, where music, lyrics, and artwork intersect to produce a singular effect on the listener. “Days of the Weak” tours through a sequence of events wherein two addict-fiends befriend a young, abused runaway, gain her trust, and then drug her and take her to a mountain top where they film her rape and murder. The song achieves a nauseating verisimilitude not unlike Michael Haneke’s 1997 film, Funny Games, and inspires feelings both of compulsion and disgust.
Godflesh – Christbait Rising
On Streetcleaner, Godflesh’s epochal 1989 missive, Justin Broadrick and G.C. Green apply Big Black’s architectural feedback and drum machine abuse to a visionary post-metal rubric, creating a sound-world that recreates with stunning clarity the pasture of conflagration that adorns the album’s cover. The album also displays a keen ear for hip hop’s capacity for brutalism (via Public Enemy and Schooly D), as well as the willingness to manipulate post-punk’s guitar vocabulary into a bleak new language. “Christbait Rising” synthesizes the album’s many strengths into a 7 minute amble through psychic hellscapes, with arcing guitar flares spinning around an axis of dread-funk drum programming and bass that recalls the masochistic heights of early Swans. When Broadrick rages, “This is my own hell!,” rather than trembling, he seems to be embracing apocalypse.
Anaal Nathrakh – The Supreme Necrotic Audnance
Anaal Nathrakh’s first album, The Codex Necro, coopts the industrial/black metal hybrid previously explored by Norway’s Mysticum and strains it until it ruptures into a blast of hopeless noise. Traces of eerie melody filigree the album’s matrix of punishing electronics and black metal spite, and the vague humanity of this element complicates what otherwise sounds like blind, scorched-earth phrenzy. This uneasy dialog between hatred and bereavement is underscored by the title, “Human, All Too Fucking Human.” But it is the album’s opening salvo, “The Supreme Necrotic Audnance,” that most clearly illustrates the group’s intent: a single-minded eruption of 250 BPM drum programming, scalding guitar, and one of the genre’s most acidic vocal performances. In the liner-notes for the album, the band declares that it will never print its lyrics, but the genuinely odious tone of the album leaves very little to the listener’s imagination.
Deathspell Omega – Chore of the Lost
On 2004’s Si Monumentum Requires, Circumspice, France’s still-anonymous Deathspell Omega created a new approach to black metal using the dissonant guitar webs of Gorguts’ Obscura and organic, intuitive drumming. Three years later, Fas – Ite, Maledicti, In Ignem Aeturnum continues the band’s exploration of metaphysical Satanism and stretches the black metal form to its wildest limits. Fas widens the band’s dynamic range, mingling stretches of bleak pause with brutal speed and lacerating, highly-choreographed guitar play. The final passages of “Chore of the Lost” elevate the proceedings to sublime heights, as melodic, even beautiful, guitar figures begin to emerge from the fiery mire. Black metal has always held a capacity for beauty but the loveliness of this guitar passage is heightened by its stark contrast with the howling lunacy of the earlier moments in the song. Deathspell has continued to evolve within this template, but rarely has its music achieve such stunning effect as on “Chore of the Lost.”
Kataklysm – Orb of Uncreation
An outlier and fringe personality in a genre strewn with mavericks, the long-estranged Sylvain Houde, conceptual lynchpin in the early era of Montreal’s Kataklysm, created, over the course of 3 short years, a body of work designed to drive the sane mad and force all of creation into an entropic spiral. Houde, indefatigable in his vision, insisted that the band’s music be written around his schizophrenic vocal arrangements, which broadcast his cryptic lyrics through a range of guttural utterances and psychotic howls. Stacked on top of a bed of grinding, frenzied death metal, Houde’s unyielding delivery threatens to bury the listener under a smoldering mountain of sound. One is left to wonder whether Houde, lost to the wilderness, succumbed to the apocalypse of his own making.
Satyricon – Tied in Bronze Chains
In 1996’s Nemesis Divina, Satyricon produced an album that not only waged war against holiness but also against the strict aesthetics of the black metal style, flaunting a high-fidelity mix and glossy, bespoke artwork that, rather than indicate compromise, only amplified the band’s hateful message. When the Norwegian duo returned in 1999, their ill-will toward men (clergy or not) had only compounded and the resulting album, Rebel Extravaganza, divested itself of the few florid elements left in the band’s sound and replaced them with an astringent palette built on pounding drums and razor-wire guitars. The album’s first track, “Tied in Bronze Chains,” is not only the album’s best but also one of the finest in the band’s entire catalog. After a brief intro, the song crashes headlong as Satyr exhorts, “Sinful woman, walk with me, ‘cos I’m the wolf on your shoulder. But complain not to me, ‘cos I’m the accuser!” The album proved to be the final gasp of Satyricon’s bloodlust fury, as it decamped to safer, more commercial pastures on subsequent albums. But there, at the end of the millennium, Satyricon, festooned in its brawniest warpaint, invited the end with glee.