Of black moors and dark caverns: Beithioch and Malthusian

The 2010s were undoubtably a time of upheaval, what follows can only be a new age of quarrel. What better way to play in the new decade than listening to extreme metal devoid of hope or playfulness? I maintain that despite the many layers of darkness found in death metal and black metal throughout the 1990s, there was still a sense of hope at the core of the music; hope for a better world, an alternative way of life, or just innocent escapism.

The age of entropy that was the 2000s ushered in great divides across music scenes the world over, hyper-charged by the rise and rise of the internet. Throughout the 2010s the panic and despondency at humanity’s utter inadequacy in the face of existential problems has gained momentum, and found a profound reflection in many far flung reaches of extreme metal. No better world is promised by this music. Only the painful demise of our current one, which happens to be the only one.

I came across the mysterious Northern Irish black/doom outfit known as Beithioch via the sadly now defunct ‘Codex Obscurum’ zine. Music to augment a rainy day would be one way to put it. Their second LP ‘Ghosts of a World Long Forgotten’ (2016) initially strikes one as a downbeat take on Beherit’s ‘Engram’. The production is very similar, with a thick yet sharp guitar tone dominant throughout, kept at a mid-paced, consistent tempo from start to finish. Where ‘Engram’ had a sense of structure and purpose however, ‘Ghosts of a World Long Forgotten’ is one long descent into darkness.

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This is deadpan gloomy music, right down to the distant, guttural vocals, restrained to a distorted whisper for the most part. The echoey sound that adorns every aspect of ‘Ghosts of a World Long Forgotten’ forces the musicians into a restraint that gives this album’s builds and falls much needed patience. Much like Elysian Blaze, with each chord change it takes a monumental effort for all the other elements to catch up; the whole mood of the music shifts. Atop this simple yet effective bedding are minimal guitar harmonies that jump out sporadically and soar above the din. Whilst the bedrock of this music is overtly oppressive, imposing; the guitar leads seek to add sorrow, a fundamentally human core to this otherwise uncaring monolith.

Beithioch excel at getting more from less. This extends far beyond simply adding a shit-load of reverb to everything and letting those chords ring out. In fact, the musical core that makes up a vast portion of ‘Ghosts of a World Long Forgotten’ is fairly conventional old school black metal along the lines of Celtic Frost via Beherit. But there are subtle flourishes inserted into these foundations that augment this music’s otherworldly qualities, and bring it more in line with the traditions of American black metal exemplified by Demoncy and Profanatica. One is that the aforementioned guitar harmonies – which work much like the string section of an orchestra – are not just inert adornments above a largely indifferent substrata, but actively dictate the melodic progression of the track. All the elements you know, but mutated just far enough to elevate this music into a more unique proposition.

Dublin’s Malthusian build on their promising EPs with 2018’s full length ‘Across Deaths’. This is another case of death/black metal through the lens of doom; cavernous production, distant, guttural vocals, and a drab aesthetic, all of which amounts to music of despair unending. There is no punchline and there is no upside to the tale Malthusian are spinning here. But the way this is achieved stretches far beyond ‘dark metal….but more’.

Structurally, ‘Across Deaths’ comes across as a bit of a free-for-all. Rhythms collide off each other, as do a seemingly directionless and relentless barrage of dissonance and chromatic chord progressions with no let up. Vocals too – calling to mind Teitanblood – flow out in a chorus of demonic reveries from the deep. They seem to bare no relation to the music they are set to, and jump out at random, sometimes solo, sometimes in unison. A formless cacophony of existential aching.

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But the fascinating thing about this album stems from what it is not rather than what it is. To be blunt, I’m not all that sure this is a metal album in the strictest sense of the word. ‘The strictest sense’ meaning music with a semblance of structure, discipline, a rigidity of form. On ‘Across Deaths’, Malthusian have produced a wash of noise at varying and often competing intensities, that in terms of appeal works more like a noise album. The relentless churn of the guitars does not let up even on those rare occasions when the tempo does. Their disjointedness – above drums that draw more from Buddy Rich than from anything remotely metal – produce bizarre polyrhythms that supervene atop this uneasy swamp of despair.

This harsh new trend being carried forward by Malthusian and others is pushing the extremities of metal a step further. Not in terms of ‘how noisy and extreme is it compared to what has come before?’ But rather in how they push the limits of structure and technique whilst remaining (barely) in the realms of metal of some description. To put it another way; as opposed to simply creating noise for the sake of it as per the Sunn O)))s and Bone Awls of the world, something new and disturbing is gradually manifesting from the depths of these disjointed, dissonant polyrhythms.

Should we be replacing the death/black prefix to metal with something entirely new? A label that signifies something now independent of these aged terms creaking under the weight of years and musical entropy that has been piled upon them over ages? Maybe, in the very near future. Malthusian – along with Defacement, Lantern, Symptom, and a handful of others – are slowly coalescing around a new form of raw metal; in a few years we may be looking upon them as proto-forms of a whole new subgenre (a real one mind, not another meaningless prefix serving nothing but the vanity of lesser minds).

Instead of turning away from a future that seems to grow shorter every day and wallow in nostalgia porn (something that has plagued much culture of the 2010s well beyond the bounds of metal), these two artists have embraced our new age of despondency and sought to carve out new creative niches within it. I would hardly say this provides any solace to those racked with 21st century anxiety, because these albums fully embrace it. But it is noteworthy that – obvious influences aside – these are both albums with a distinctively contemporary flavour to them. So both come with strong recommendations, as do the aforementioned artists that share this creative territory. But for my pick of the week I am going with ‘Across Deaths’. I won’t lie, it’s a hard release to crack, and it really does come across as frustratingly random at first. But over time and repeated listens, bizarre and alien shapes manifest from the darkness, and with them come hints of truly new musical landscapes ripe for the conquering.

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