Beats and yelling from: Crown of Ascension, Orphique, Neptunian Maximalism

Crown of Ascension: Transmission Errors
Out 25th November on Xenoglossy

Black metal’s muse of desolate natural wilderness finds a ready kindred spirit in the cold indifference of the algorithm. Pervasive and unremitting, it is perhaps the most direct interaction most of have on day to day basis with the structural dictates of technology as it exists in the contemporary age. Gone are the days when fears of megatechnics and the totalitarian homogeny implied by mass production dominated the fever dreams of technology’s 20th Century philosophers. All to be replaced by an unknowable and chaotically bespoke stream of information transmitted to our phones and computers, the content of which is determined by complex and profit driven codes that are as oblivious to the qualia of our inner lives as the vast natural landscapes that black metal so readily payed homage to.

This blistering, relentless drive of contextless information finds its musical analogue in the debut album from Crown of Ascension, masterminded by SP White of Vessel of Iniquity and Uncertainty Principle fame. Offering half an hour of what in genre terms roughly translates to industrial black metal, ‘Transmission Errors’ takes the best elements of Darkspace, Axis of Perdition, and Nagelfar and blends this into a viscous soup, cleaning up the production values in the process to allow for a chasmic, monolithic mix, amping up the speed and intensity to near breaking point.

This finds its modern equivalent in the likes of Portugal’s Benthik Zone, but where they spend more time crafting exchanges between layers of atmosphere, Crown of Ascension seem more preoccupied with an exercise in clashing textures, and how far these can be driven to absurdities of speed and dissonance before their total collapse. An orchestra of guitar noise delivers wave upon wave of gushing textural assaults. High end, loose, fluid dissonance that sounds like grinding metal or machinery in various stages of disrepair is brought into a constant dialog with deeper, cavernous tones that bottom out the mix, lending it considerable gravitas at the heart of the fray.

I hesitate to use the word “riffs” here because ‘Transmission Errors’ is more an exercise in textural manipulation than it is any narrative or exploration of themes. The emphasis is placed squarely on melding competing timbres into various stages of audial abrasion. An enveloping backdrop of echoey noise haunts the foregrounded guitars like an ephemeral spectre, situating the music in a vast backdrop of black space. Drums, mechanical in their relentless precision, offer a near constant barrage of blast-beats that seem to melt into one another, with any fills and transitions acting as only minor breaks in the unstoppable drive of noise. Vocals serve as agents of chaos in this context, delivering additional static and intensity as surplus artillery cutting its way through the backdrop with uncaring aplomb.

Although there are moments of recognisable black metal stretched across this brief album (albeit drenched in the cyber aesthetic) – the opening riff of ‘Monsters of Fractal Geometry’ for example – ‘Transmission Errors’ works best if viewed from the angle of a fluid noise album, rendered through incidental metallic instrumentation. The actual rock instrumentation on this album is remarkably well produced, boasting a slick, crystalline precision that even the most theatrical symphonic metal band would be happy with. But here it is whipped into a homogenous haze of razor sharp sound. Aided by the surrounding waves of industrial activity, it makes for a crowded, strangely hypnotic wash of synthetic noise that perfectly encapsulates the at times incomprehensibly dense backdrop of technology driven confusion that dominates contemporary life.   

Orphique: Consécration Cadavérique
Out 24th November on Sepulchral Productions

For all its superficial frigidity, the debut album from this Canadian outfit is a surprisingly nutritious work, replete with elements of understated progressive metal and folk. That being said, the underlying impetus across ‘Consécration Cadavérique’ is one of undeniable sorrow, loss, emptiness. But it manages to convey this fraught emotional territory with a dignity and restraint becoming of all quality black metal of a similar bent.

The production is modest yet clear and mechanistically precise. Thin yet nuanced drums cut through the mix like a knife, doing justice to both the throb of the bass drum alongside the sharp interplay of snare and cymbals. Dual guitars weave their way around one another, offering subtle counterpoint alongside the standard lead/rhythm dichotomies. The tone is thin and raspy, yet orientated toward the regal end of the black metal style over the obscure. That being said, there is a welcome emptiness at the heart of the mix that grants the music a degree of tension and danger as extra musical furniture. Vocals are strained, high end screeches of despair that nevertheless reach for a rhythmic intrigue that betrays a degree of control over these emotive ejaculations.

Light keyboards sprinkle some of these pieces with additional material to supplement the otherwise markedly austere presentation. The lead guitar lines remain simple yet imaginative, eking out strained melodic lines piercing in their sense of a retreat. Hints at catharsis crawl between the cracks, but aside from that the thematic picture across ‘Consécration Cadavérique’ remains decidedly bleak. Acoustic guitars and pianos offset the inherent alienation found in the harsh tones of distorted guitar, teasing at a resolution that is never quite found.

Superficially then, this album hides a lot beneath the relatively modest packaging in terms of instrumentation, riff traditions, and ancillary material. But at a deeper level the album – for all its activity – is a surprisingly static environment. It seems to operate in that peripheral territory between hope and despair, toying with the idea of triumph – or even finality – but never quite reaching that release, always being pulled back into realms of tension, conflict, emptiness, or empty acceptance. All of which makes ‘Consécration Cadavérique’ a conflicted experience, but from here it derives its subtly compelling appeal as an album that foregrounds its activity and stylistic reach, only to deploy these to hide the uncomfortable stasis that sits beneath.

Neptunian Maximalism: Finis Gloriae Mundi
Out 24th November on I, Voidhanger Records/Utech Records

Many’s the occasion when some switched on layman – whether half in jest or not – has the bright idea of forming a drone or noise band with their mates. How hard can it be? Well, to paraphrase Whitnail for the second time in as many weeks, these genres may be “cheap to those who can afford it, but very expensive to those who can’t”. Expense in this case of course referring to musical chops.

This point is made all the starker when presented with an album like ‘Finis Gloriae Mundi’, the latest live recording from Belgium drone/jazz/industrial/noise outfit Neptunian Maximalism. The music traverses through many stylistic markers across its lengthy runtime, but – aside from the obvious flare of the individual musicians – the underlying thread of drone is given greater currency by the ability of this ensemble to move and flow as a unit when required, an avenue not available to less experienced musicians. Saxophone, drums, guitar, and vocals are all given license to veer off course on their own improvisational journeys, but all are clearly attuned to their fellow musicians, and choosing their moment to gather together into powerful crescendos or gradual fadeouts.

Stylistically speaking, this is essentially Ash Ra Tempel in a post Swans ‘Public Castration’ world, with the dissonant saxophone and driving drums throwing in a jazzgrind colouring borrowed from Painkiller. Loose stoner doom and the spacey Americana of latter day Earth are forced to shake hands with the new age spiritualism of Popol Vu, a meeting officiated by the jagged, anarchic urbanism of free jazz via a dual drum attack and meaty saxophone. Vocals howl in ensemble or solo in wordless expressions of dismay and desperation across the loosely ordered music. The spectral ritualism behind the technique lending everything an aura of theological despair, most notably on the appropriately titled opening number ‘Sustain’.

For all its illogicality, an informal accord between these musicians is clearly discernible. The rank absurdities, strained dissonance, formless bursts of guitar noise, and fluid swing of the drums are deployed to paint a veneer of unknowable murk. But swelling beneath this sonic jargon is a clear push and pull of energy in competing intensities. This is expressed through the basic metrics of tempo, volume, or timbre, or more philosophically through ordered noise art, impressionistically mapping out animalistic or urbanistic audial furniture. This degree of order across a multitude of instruments such as this is only possible in the hands of accomplished musicians.

But more fundamentally Neptunian Maximalism behave most like a jazz band, offering roughly negotiated moments of unity which give way to spaces eked out for each musician to provide improvisational lead material only to sink back into the ensemble as just another voice. Guitars and drums do link up in a recognisably doom metal guise for the purposes of articulating the album’s heaviest crescendos, but fundamentally this is far from metallic in its freely negotiated construction.

Although this is a live album, the rendering has perfectly captured every nuance of the music to the point where one forgets an audience was even present at times. Based on their ethos, one can see why Neptunian Maximalism favour releasing live recordings as opposed to the formalities of studio albums. All music benefits from those moments of spontaneous energy or tension that can only exit in a live setting, but ‘Finis Gloriae Mundi’ shines the brightest when the musicians are most obviously caught up in the moment, forgetful of themselves or their role, and allowing the music to flow from them in freeform waves of cosmic energy.

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