Astral projection and cosmic dejection: Xasthur and Darkspace

In underground music, extended periods of time can pass without note. In those brief windows when output coalesces around music of worth, our standards and understanding of quality changes. The benchmark is raised. As with many things, these facts are exaggerated within extreme underground music. Poking fun at extreme metal was a straw man in the 1980s, it certainly isn’t any more entertaining now. Not because I cannot bare the though of anyone mocking my precious black metal, but because the mockery is basic, trivial humour that barely scratches the surface of something we call ‘comedic insight’. We know art fails more than it succeeds. We know that if the art is ‘extreme’ then the manner of failure is more pathetic, more exaggerated…and funny. Black metal is often singled out as music made for and by hacks. The worst thing about this observation is its truth. But we love black metal (and extreme metal in general) for its exceptions, not its rules. We love it because it’s cheap to those who can afford it, but very expensive to those who can’t.

Where am I going with all this? Well, there’s no doubt that black metal experienced a dramatic dip in quality around the turn of the century. Looking at the lifespan of subcultures in general this was inevitable, and not without parallels. Away from the popularism of Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth, underground artists were attempting to pull the music to ever more extreme depths, both sonically and aesthetically. The result was music that was made with a predetermined destination in mind, rather than necessitated by raw artistic compulsion. Xasthur for example, took one or two very specific stylistic leanings from say Burzum and Mutiilation, and built an entire discography around it. This eventually morphed into a whole subgenre that somehow managed to diminish returns on a starting point of nothing: depressive black metal.

Now I don’t want to come down on Xasthur too hard. In the documentary ‘One Man Metal’ Malefic comes across as a chronically reclusive guy, yet nevertheless good natured. But he shows his hand in one interview where he admits he would not remember most of his songs if the prospect of playing live ever arose. Almost as if structure, direction, and compositional logic play no part in his music. And ultimately this is true. And this is where black metal began to falter as music distinct from other extreme underground music. Surface level aesthetic took over as the goal, resulting in wave upon wave and album upon album of sonic wallpaper; window dressing, adorning nothing.

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His second LP ‘The Funeral of Being’ (2003) is probably the most realised and tightly constructed work. Following on from the bloated but occasionally intriguing ‘Nocturnal Poisoning’ (2002), TFOB plays it safe. The result is an album that cuts much of the fat of the debut – clocking in at a mere forty eight minutes – but ultimately takes no risks. Production wise we are treated to the by now familiar microphone underwater muffling effect. Drums are more of a presence than a discernible instrument, there simply to add depth and emphasis when required. Guitars, believe it or not, are distorted beyond reason, and of course buried in reverb. But we can actually hear chord progressions, working there way through that trademark dissonance that epitomises the music of Xasthur.

Vocals may as well be an additional guitar track played an octave or two higher. Serving merely to add depth and texture than achieving anything as sophisticated as an emotional impact upon the listener. Which means, in a surprise turn of events, that the bass is actually the star of the show. Far from simply ticking the box ‘must exist’, the bass is not only audible, but the key anchor for musical orientation and direction within this album. With all other elements being a simple noise wash of varying intensities, the bass is able to cut through all this and situate the music…well, as music. This is achieved through simple but rhythmically appealing scales and root notes. But its impact in directing the rest of music is surprisingly engaging.

Beyond this, interludes make frequent appearances throughout the album. This could uncharitably be read as filler; which is how I choose to read it. Because although some of them have a creepy enough atmosphere, they appear too often, and lead into too little music of substance and drama that I cannot help but think they are present simply to push the runtime into something long enough to sell as an album. All this amounts to a work that pleases, but fails to impress. It may be honest, sincere even. But some people are just not that talented, and there’s really no deeper philosophical explanation required to understand why works such as this fall short.

A similar cart-before-the-horse approach to black metal can be found in the likes of Switzerland’s Darkspace, and their ground-breaking ‘what if black metal…but in space?’ definitely-not-a-gimmick. But seriously, if you’re gonna base a musical project on lo-fi ambient black metal ‘inspired’ by the emptiness of space, then Darkspace pretty much nailed it. Their second offering, 2005’s ‘Darkspace II’ (no kidding?) pretty much aces the formula for cosmic extreme metal. But sadly the operative word here is formula. Because this is not music in the sense of art that gets created out of necessity, but art that begins with a very specific destination in mind, and as a result is born of clinical, calculated decisions.

The music itself is made up almost exclusively of tremolo strummed guitars with distortion up to eleven and bass told to go sit in the corner. This is accompanied by almost constant choral phrasing on the keyboards, and of course, muffled blast beats. However, Darkspace is ultimately the brainchild of Wroth, the sole creative mind behind Paysage d’Hiver, so we know there is some musical talent behind this project, and this is allowed to shine forth on this work.

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This LP is made up of only three lengthy tracks, that get away with their length through some clever use of chord progressions. They will let a riff or passage continue just past the point of boredom, before transitioning into a key change or layering well placed arpeggio’d guitar leads over the top. This is rendered all the more pleasing precisely because it took so long to get there. Scant use of dark ambient interludes aids the impact of the constant wash of noise that makes up the rest of the album. This, and some other clever compositional techniques and near perfect production for this brand of intense space black metal just about carry this album beyond its novelty into something genuinely interesting.

By now it is probably obvious that I remain unimpressed by either of these releases. But they remain popular in their field. Xasthur is probably one of the more divisive artist in US black metal, I think the reason for this is that many hold him responsible for the general dumbing down of one of the most exciting movements in underground music. It is entirely unfair to lay all this blame at Malefic’s door, but one cannot refute the fact that music of quality has been hard to come by in his career. I cannot help but also hold Darkspace up as one among many examples of where black metal went wrong at this time. They are good musicians, intuitively good writers who know how to direct their craft. But any one of Darkspace’s LPs feels more like a product than labour of love, a flavour and a brand, not a work of the heart. It wins out this week, but don’t take that as a glowing recommendation.

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