I like the beats and I like the yelling: Uncertainty Principle, Tsalal, Grimcult

Uncertainty Principle: Sonic Terror (out 5th February 2021 on Xenoglossy Productions)

Uncertainty Principle are a long running and mightily prolific industrial/drone/doom/noise outfit with a new album in the pipeline for February 2021; the significant beast of a work entitled ‘Sonic Terror’. As the basket of genre tags suggests, digesting this album is a venture not to be undertaken lightly. Not only is the material significantly weighty, there’s also a lot of it. But if you’re conducting a health check before tackling ‘Sonic Terror’, the most important thing to consider is the lack of variation, or rather the eking out of one very specific, particularly abrasive idea over of the course this album’s runtime. I’d liken it to a microscope focusing in on one pinpoint, allowing us to see the world within the world normally obscured from our eyes. But much like the hidden universe of microbes, our senses and psyches are not accustomed to dwelling there for extended periods of time.

The album is slow, not just in terms of tempi, but also in its gradual unfurling of ideas and moods, to the point where one moment is apparently indistinguishable from the last, despite our perception of time passing. The raw technique exhibited  on this album is a cross-breed of funeral and stoner doom; the rhythms exhibit that pulsating, atonal energy that needles away with a relentless sense of purpose, but as with funeral doom, the speed and underlying drabness prevents this from even approaching an invigorating experience for us, the listener. This dichotomy applies to the guitar tone as well, which is meaty and bass heavy, in line with stoner doom, but there are many layers of underlying static and subtle harmonic lines thrown in that drag the music down into being something much darker and more malevolent.

Drums offer a parody of groove, usually sticking to one or two basic patterns over the course of a lengthy track, mirroring each chord strike of the guitars and a wash of crash cymbals to bolster up the near constant static. It’s unclear if vocals form part of this matrix of noise. They may have originally approximated a black metal screech somewhere down the line, but have been so processed and treated that they simply blend into the harsh malaise placed atop this mix. This use of vocalisations as a means of creating static tones with rhythmic properties as opposed to the delivery of lyrics adds to the underlying industrial veneer that seeps through every pore of ‘Sonic Terror’.

There are moments that hint at conventional music on tracks like ‘Indifference’, which channels the crushing yet catchy groove of Godflesh, or the drab, discordant harmonies that make up ‘Stationary State’. But rather than offering moments of musical progression, carrying the album’s narrative core forward as one might expect, these moments speak to a more circular approach to composition. They are not so much a development section as they are an elaboration – or indeed, a microscope – on the themes that proceeded it. The relentless monotony of ‘Sonic Terror’, with so little offered to supplement it, gives us the impression that this is an exploration of the euphoria of boredom. In forcing us so violently and totally to contemplate a static moment, our senses are heightened to the point where we become aware of every detail and minor variation that emerges from that moment.

This analogy of the microscope also applies to the family tree of influences that can be mapped behind Uncertainty Principle. By exaggerating select aspects of industrial, of drone, of funeral doom etc. and shining a light on them, we see a pinpoint exploration of very specific qualities inherent in these older antecedents. Some artists smash together specific elements from a broad and far reaching selection of musical techniques and styles, and in turn may stumble upon novelty along the way. Others, like Uncertainty Principle, hone in on one or two micro artefacts of the past, and offer up an intense and singular rumination on their virtues and foibles, forcing us to stop and take note, however torturous the experience may be. I would hesitate to call this album enjoyable, but as a work of experimental metal it stands apart from many more self-indulgent offerings that garner undeserved attention.

Tsalal: Invocations to the Void (2020)

‘Invocations to the Void’ is the new EP from an obscure blackened noise project known as Tsalal. It’s really a game of two halves, or rather one very large half with a short taster track to lead us in. Said shorter number ‘I’ opens this EP. Take the outrageous percussive simplicity of Ildjarn, the obscure discordant riffs of Les Legions Noire, and the hollowed out, static emptiness that has come to define the current direction of Havohej, and we have an approximation of this piece. Upon listening it becomes apparent that ‘Invocations to the Void’ is an aptly titled EP. The uncluttered mix leaves an emptiness at the heart of this music that is deeply unsettling. The central chord progressions do actually follow a discernible musical logic in line with raw black metal, but the tinny and bare-bones percussive accompaniment, the lack of any other window dressing at all, lends it a certain compelling hypnotism that takes it beyond the standard fair for the genre.

But as the second track kicks in – the serendipitously titled ‘II’ – it seems that this shorter opening number was not so much a tone setter as it was a calm before the storm. ‘II’ is a thirteen-minute drone track that is offered both as a direct contrast to the opener, but also clearly where the real creative energy and passion of Tsalal has been spent. Don’t be put off by the ‘drone’ moniker however. The guitars, although a wash of noise, do follow logical chord progressions, or rather variations on a theme, an idea and hint of more complex riffs. They are sometimes composed of the rudiments of conventional melodic structures, sometimes discordant, sometimes just singular notes driven through inflections of volume. All of which is underpinned by ringing cymbals and supressed snare drums. Vocals in the black metal style make frequent appearances, as if in a desperate yet futile struggle to emerge from the noise they find themselves in.

Although this lengthy track is more a medley of ideas than it is an extension of one long, complex narrative, it taps into potentialities within drone that have thus far gone frustratingly unexplored. In experimenting with even a basic melodic core, and seeing how it reacts when set against the various techniques of abrasion, shifting volume, intensity, pitch, and even allowing brief pauses between the noise; all adds tension and intrigue to proceedings lacking in more static examples of drone. A genre dominated by the spectre of early Earth and alas Sunn0))), their statements, once made, are meaningless beyond the repetition of one, singular idea. The point of drone (at least to my mind) is an exploration of timbre, tone, the limits of ambience unshackled from rhythmic burdens. In order to achieve this, one must not be afraid to submit to the so call ‘rules’ of conventional music in order to bend and break them in this intensely experimental environment. But more importantly, once these tonal materials have been crafted, where is the music to be taken beyond a series of noise tapestries? Tsalal offer some compelling signposts in answer to this question on the curious little EP ‘Invocations to the Void’.

Grimcult: Revelations of Sinister Flame (2020)

Poland has become an unsurprisingly vibrant holdout for traditional black metal values, currently a cut above many other scenes for a marked sincerity in its output. Acts like Grimcult offer no mere old school worship, a ‘we play x style of black metal in the tradition of y’. This is a genuine if familiar craft that exhibits no obvious disingenuous pandering or self-referential naval gazing. Such is the case for thier first EP ‘Revelations of Sinister Flame’ at least, out on Putrid Cult, the label responsible for DeathEpoch’s flawed yet promising debut ‘Abysmal Invocation’.

For all the diversity and creativity that has emerged from Eastern European black metal over the years, it has largely distinguished itself by adopting a more pronounced regional folk influence, and a degree of unbridled passion not present in the work of their Northern cousins. Grimcult are no exception in this regard. This is lo-fi black metal that still exhibits a pronounced melodic core, with an undeniably cold atmosphere. A melding of classic era Darkthrone and Gorgoroth replete with all the passionate vocalisations we’ve come to expect of Polish black metal.

The production is garage level quality, raw but not excessively so. The low-key drums contribute many shifts and fills beyond the remit of mere time keeping. They opt to follow the shifts in the guitars rather than setting up camp on mid-paced blast beats for the duration. The guitars themselves offer a whistle-stop tour of mid-90s BM of a more adventurous melodic persuasion. As well as an extended piano intro in ‘Welcome to Void’, keyboards jump out frequently to compliment the guitars, usually in the form of a camp church organ tone which perfectly matches the twee theatrics of ‘Revelations of Sinister Flame’.

As mentioned, this EP holds no surprises for any veteran of black metal. But there is a sincerity and joy to the execution that makes it that little bit more enjoyable than the countless hordes of similar solo projects out there. We could attempt to approximate the reason for this. Maybe it’s that each dial is turned to just the right extreme; raw but not abrasive, theatrical but not ridiculous, atmospheric yet still rhythmically tight. Each component demonstrates a degree of respect for the finished work that does not detract from the whole. Which in turn elevates ‘Revelations of Sinister Flame’ above a work of mere nostalgic novelty into a genuinely enjoyable listen, despite how safe Grimcult play things.

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