(We apparently have a reputation among some denizens of the web for being a “long-winded” metal site. The following guest review by Rob Watson will do nothing to change that reputation. In fact, it’s so extensive that we’re dividing it into two parts, with Part 2 coming tomorrow [now posted here]. The music can be found at the end.)
“Robert, this object has wu.” This is the sentence that immediately sprung into my thoughts when I first heard the debut album of Maybe That’s Why Human’s Drink the Darkness That is Coffee, Window to the World. The sentence comes from a book by Philip K. Dick, one of my favourite writers, and refers to something which “represents nothing”. It uses the word ‘wu’ in derivation from the Taoist spiritual text the I Ching, in which the concept of ‘wu wei’ is to possess the foresight to know when to act and when not; to be able to drift effortlessly upon the breeze of time, merely glancing off the fabric of reality, balancing the forces that flow constantly through it, opening up endless possibilities of interconnectedness among the corridors of the universe. In short, the aforementioned object is very rare, and very, very special.
This is an important comparison, because it is the one that is most obvious, even to the casual listener. The album’s uniqueness is intrinsic to its appeal; it has a feel that, although not stretching as far as being ‘anti-music’, is most definitely ‘anti-djent’ (if ‘djent’ is defined to be a genre of music stereotypically featuring downtuned 8-string guitars, pristine production devoid of almost any organic substance, and syncopated palm-muted double-octave power chords).
Another key concept of Taoism is that of Yin and Yang (dark and light). The idea of ultimate polarity existing within the universe and resident in all things (though not always with both poles together) is a facet of this album that is central to its purpose. Parts of this album will twist your ears into a new, as yet undefined shape; so random and unprecedented are the levels of raw energy that it exudes that at times you may feel completely disillusioned and perhaps even put off from persevering with the album. However, the band temper their brutal, uncaring approach with melodic passages that will make you want to shed a tear or drift off, unhampered by gravity, to far-away lands of permanent plenitude, unscathed by the atrocities of human society.
Something else that is very important to this album is its nature as an all-inclusive work. The composer Gustav Mahler once said “a symphony should be everything”, and in that sense this album is indeed a symphony. The variety of musical textures and sounds is huge: unsettling, unpleasant riffs; grinding, crunching rhythms; disquiet within the dissonant, jarring harmonics. At times the awe-inspiring disarray seems to be tipping out of control. However, when placed in conjunction with exquisite and touching sweeps of ambience, flawless songwriting, and delicate dynamic brushwork, the resulting sounds make for one of the most interesting and sublime listens you will hear.
The music has strong parallels to video games and film, in the sense that it manages to convey a strong story line and even transport the listener into the world of the story itself (hence the album’s title). Whereas some albums convey conceptual themes mostly through lyrical content, that is not at all true of the concepts encased within Window to the World; indeed, the vocals act purely as another instrument, another texture within the sound, which leaves the viewpoint from which the music was written open to wide interpretation.
The album also includes strong traces of electronic music: Because of the hugely eclectic mix of sounds that this work contains, it has the air of an electronic composition, where the artists have exercised the freedom to blend and mash different creative elements and noises together as they please, to see what levels of absurdity they are capable of creating. This way of thinking is by no means restricted to electronic music, of course: Gojira insist on using unusual instruments and sounds in their albums, and a number of other modern metal bands, such as Vildhjarta, Hypno5e, and The Ocean, have taken a very cinematic and mixed-media approach to writing music.
What differentiates this album vastly from those is that, first, though it may sound like a band effort, there are fewer contributors to the sound than you may think (I’ll leave that open to your imagination!), and second, the heavier parts of the music radiate an evil darker than anything that those previously mentioned bands have produced (save perhaps Vildhjarta), which creates a completely new dynamic within the songs, one that doesn’t sound entirely human. I shall further elaborate on these ideas in due course, but in principle these are the aspects of the album that bring it closer to electronic music than metal. Now, to business!
‘Riddle me This’, the album’s opening track, commences with church organ. As soon as I heard the first few seconds, I was transported to a deserted hillside in the Transylvanian Alps. Rain poured down in torrents, thunder and lightning broke profusely overhead, the atmosphere was sufficiently evil and overcast with fear for an early 1950’s horror movie… and I knew this album was going to be a pretty unique ride.
The scene is set to perfection. Like the way in which the opening of a film must give a strong grounding to the viewer, this song eases the listener in by gradually layering up the sound, adding new instruments and textures at a steady pace. The opening chords are very thick and claustrophobic, with jazzy intervals crammed on top of one another: Major 7ths and augmented 4ths are used to good effect, forcing the listener into a box of dissonant noise, imposing haunting shrieks upon their ears without remorse. The mass choir adds to the atmosphere of doom and despair, and the well-panned mutterings and gurgles that trickle from the guitar sound like morose threats, adding to the feeling of suspense.
And, suddenly, the main riff kicks in: It’s as though the contents of the box have broken free to reign supreme in a new world of pain. The classic “gallop” rhythm reminds me of the image of Death, soaring through driving rain across black skies to the sound of horrifically majestic clashes of thunder.
Now, with the tempo picking up and the pressure building, new images unfold. Mad sorcerers battle each other with ceaseless ferocity, sending forks of magic from the ends of their staffs, their long beards sizzling and writhing in the gale howling around them, with each spell forging something even more spastic and warped than the last upon the desolate mountainside. The chromatic chaos of the main riff is a strong hint at the influence of bands like Vildhjarta and Humanity’s Last Breath on the authors of this crazy multipolar express-train of music, with the latter’s unique pitch-shifted riffs clearly infused in the section after the calm, polyrhythmic bursts of guitar about 3 minutes in. The eerie ambient sounds that echo throughout the backdrop of the song during its middle section are an indication of the effort and thought that has gone into the album; they create an extra dimension for the sound to vibrate in, allowing it to shine through unhindered, its power clear for all to hear.
Then we come to the guitar solo. The influential jazz-prog fusion guitarist Allan Holdsworth said that he wanted his guitar to sound like a French horn, so his guitar solos were very legato and smooth in nature. Fredrik Thordendal of Meshuggah drew on his work very strongly in his solos, with the iconic beauty of their landmark second album Destroy Erase Improve being a classic example of this influence. However, at the same time he was able to create something almost totally original, with his trademark solos consisting of a writhing, insectile swarm of notes (a style most strongly exhibited on their third album Chaosphere,) which always remind me of some kind of computational algorithm — a stream of seemingly unrelated numbers that, when put into a sequence, generate a product of amazing intellectual brilliance. The solo in ‘Riddle me This’ is quite similar in its approach: The sound is very metamorphic, constantly evolving and very original. The guitarist uses the whole of the fretboard, putting notes together that maybe don’t sound nice, but instead sound inspired!
The finale of this song is Vidhjarta to the core: bone-crushing low notes that drop on you like an anvil — filthy guitar layering, and ambience so invasive and belligerent that you feel as though you have been hit by a truck and left for dead at the side of a motorway, with the sound of sirens ringing in your ears and tearing at your consciousness.
The next track, ‘Periscope’, could not have a more greatly differing location. The bubbling of breath expelled in water materialises in your ear, creating a bizarre contrast to the previous aural atrocity: You feel glad that you’re no longer smashed up due to a road accident, but you’re still very uncertain about what will come next in the grand scheme of things.
It’s as though ‘Periscope’ and ‘Riddle me This’ have been purposefully separated in the writing of the album. They’re like different houses in the same city. And yet the music flows. The guitar rises from the depths of the water like a predatory fish surging toward its innocent victim, or possibly producing an effect similar to the way in which divers are overcome with paralysis during decompression sickness. Your mind cannot decide what you should and should not perceive, so everything around you is a hazy blur, swaying to and fro like a corpse hung from the yard-arm.
At 0:23, the abrupt bursts of guitar are like the immense pressure of deep water pounding on your skull, and the disorientating madness of the drums coupled with the freakish voice at 0:35 and the gurgling high-pitched guitar, alternately punching you in each ear, send you spiralling downward into a dark pit of wavering definition, as though your eyes are sore from the salt water.
Then the tempo slows down, and you feel as though you’ve been spat out of the end of a tunnel into the light at the end of it. Except this is not nice, reassuring light: You have emerged in an irregular, murky world, inhabited by mutant creatures of jumbled-up proportions. Think of something like a great white shark’s head on a cat’s body with the mind of an angry wasp stuck in a jar; this stuff surrounds you, and it’s weird and disconcerting and not very pleasant.
The main riff that comes in after about a minute has a slightly odd lilt to it, which is somehow funny in quite a dark way. There are lots of moments in this album that feel extremely sardonic, as though the album is mocking itself, telling its listeners not to take it remotely seriously. However, this does not hinder its appeal but actually enhances it, giving a very unique perspective to the idea of concept within an album. The derisive mood of the music makes the world it creates even more surreal and memorable, in much the same way that artists like Iwrestledabearonce and Frank Zappa grab your attention with their merging of very bizarre concepts and sounds: The friction between these different noises creates new energy within the music, which makes it stand out clearly from any other band or composer.
What makes this song really beautiful is that the compositional ideas within it go little changed throughout, which is in marked contrast to other parts of the album (‘Torchlight’ and ‘Glowing Stars’ in particular). Of course, there are bits added tastefully here and there, such as the electronic moans and zaps that fleet around the peripheries of the guitar work, or the grungy, sweep-echoed layering guitar that fills in the gaps between the swaying, slightly drunken hiccups and blips of the main guitar riff.
The skill with which the band bring out subtleties in the songwriting, whether through mixing or compositional techniques or through general musicianship, are clear indications of the genuineness and effort that has gone into writing this album. Take, for example, the panning of the ‘swipes’ of the guitar strings during the main riff (heard easily when listening through a pair of headphones). This effect drags you into the heart of the song and makes you feel like you are really there, because it opens a door to a new dimension within the wall of sound in your ears. The sudden caprice provided by the lightning tempo changes beneath the vocals in the verse (I use the term ‘verse’ loosely) fits perfectly within the song’s framework, providing strong diversity in a fitting way. The drum fill at about 2:40, introducing the second verse, adds to the overall gloss of the finished package. All these things are great examples of attention to detail and fine compositional execution.
A final note on a compositional technique that pleases me greatly: The dynamic of this song builds very gradually, intensifying with every strum of the guitar strings, enhanced by electronics and strained vocal chords. However, when the music is just on the edge of climax, the song is jerked backward, falling back into the original refrain. This technique is one that classical composers, especially of the Romantic era, pioneered ceaselessly. Just listen to any one of Chopin’s many nocturnes for piano, or a violin sonata by Mendelssohn: They all do exactly the same thing. It’s amazing how classical music permeates just about every genre of music!
‘Torchlight’ is a distinctly different beast from the two tracks that have gone before. ‘Periscope’ and ‘Riddle me This’ both have a groove (of sorts!), and are not designed to beat the listener into submission with their absurd brutality. A large proportion of ‘Torchlight’ epitomises the latter sound: In nature, it is nothing like conventional “band” music, but a lot more in the style of an electronic composition.
The yawn at the start was another of those sardonic touches that make the album slightly more human (you’re going to get tired recording this music!) and memorable. From that point, the sound produced can only be described as a massacre of musical shape, melody, and niceness. The vocal onslaught sounds like what might happen if Jonny Davy (Job For A Cowboy) and Mikee Goodman decided to sing black metal when blind drunk. The time signature of the riff underneath is pretty indecipherable (my closest guess is 5/8 time, with two triplets of 8th notes interjected by a regular 8th note), and the drums are so insatiably all-consuming that you might be forgiven for thinking that this is breakcore (this comparison is taken to further extremes at around 3:45, where the speed of the drums and odd bleeps and grunts are strongly reminiscent of Whourkr and Drumcorps).
Then, almost as soon as it begins, the raging torrent of madness sweeps you into a calm lagoon, which maintains its momentum by simply leaving the hi-hat in the mix to keep the pulse. This is so you know that the insanity is not over, which is confirmed by the incoming bass; all the high frequencies are totally bypassed, so to distinguish the rumbles from one another you have to really immerse yourself in the sound. I think this is one of my favourite things about listening to this album: When you put it on, every single moment feels worthwhile and you can fall into the music very easily.
The riff that comes in after about a minute is one of the most mind-bending on the album. The deformed shapes formed by the pitches, coupled with the constant rhythmic metamorphosis, sound like something that songwriters only of the calibre of Graham Pinney (formerly of SikTh and now of Aliases) could construct. Coupled with the stabs of Nintendo-esque chiptune and watered-down ambience, it feels like something electro-noise outfit Crystal Castles might create on a very out-of-control drugs trip.
The section after about 2:00 has a very black metal vibe, but this is definitely not representative of the whole album’s sound. The “raw” quality of the production possibly adds to this, but on the whole I think the comparison is based on the fact that black metal is something of a niche musical genre, which quite a few people (me included) find it hard to appreciate. Maybe That’s Why Human’s Drink the Darkness That Is Coffee are also difficult to appreciate, but that has more to do with the huge unpredictability of the sound and not because it is written to sound hellish and hateful.
I have already touched upon how the album might be viewed as similar to a video game soundtrack. The first three tracks especially exhibit such influences. The opening of ‘Riddle me This’ sounds very much like the musical accompaniment to some kind of “Act I, Scene I” footage that introduces the concept of the game to the player. When the main riff starts, it’s as though the player has immediately been thrown into the midst of his first battle, weaving and ducking between enemy blows, hitting “square” over and over to send his adversary into the abyss. The part leading from about 3:50 up to 6:30 sounds like the lead character is finding his way through an intricate network of passages, and when he arrives at the end of the trail, he meets with the climax of the battle, the epic grappling of two leviathan warriors, which is conveyed by the shuddering impact of the low notes dropping.
‘Periscope’ is a bit like the ‘level up’ from that: the setting is new, and the intensity lessens slightly. Perhaps you are searching for some hidden treasure, collecting potions, spells, and more, from unlikely nooks and crannies? Or maybe solving a puzzle to unlock a door, leading on to new mysteries and fighting? The synthesized keyboard toward the end is another thing that really flicked a switch in my brain connecting this album to a video game.
‘Torchlight’ raises the intensity again, to make it feel like another series of combat-themed episodes of carnage, but the final minute or so reminds me of another of the features of video game music that is central to its purpose: adding colour to the bits of the game where the character is undergoing some form of transition, or maybe the backing track to the “save” menu. This is why it is not at all disjointed-sounding as a song: each part is merely a transition state within a larger sequence of events.