(NCS writer Andy Synn devotes his 15th SYNN REPORT to the late, lamented Ludicra, who called it quits earlier this week.)
Loyal readers, it is with a heavy heart that I compose this edition of The Synn Report. The recent untimely demise of progressive black metal act Ludicra has prompted me to push back the article I was writing in favour of a tribute to a band that ended its career all too abruptly, brimming as it was with future promise and potential.
Ostensibly a black metal act, although one difficult to pin down precisely, between their inception in 1998 and their recent lamentable dissolution, the San Franciscan group provided four albums (and one EP) of scintillating riffage and caustic vocals, laden with progressive tendencies and a thrashy, punky energy. Laurie Sue Shanaman’s distinctive screams are wounded howls of passion with a restrained berserker frenzy, using her ethereal cleans to add an extra dimension of morose expression, ably supported by the harsh backing vocals of Christy Cather, a skilled and impressive guitarist, responsible for composing the group’s jagged riffs along with her partners in crime John Cobbett and Ross Sewage.
Unlike the icy, bleak naturism of many of their peers, the crisp, cold exterior to Ludicra’s sound evokes memories not of ice but of cold concrete; stark monoliths silhouetted against a dying sun, empty wind-swept streets once bustling with activity but now devoid of life – these are the images which come to mind when listening to Ludicra’s “urban sprawl” black metal, matching breathtaking beauty with cold and chilling clarity. (more after the jump, including tracks from each of Ludicra’s releases . . .)
Hollow Psalms – 2002
Trading in harsh whites, stark greys and deepest black, Ludicra paint an enthralling picture with their restricted palette of sonic diabolism, already demonstrating the ease with which they can twist and expand their core sound beyond the boundaries one might expect. Trading in a wealth of post-Dissection blackened riffage, this is the band’s most prototypical black metal release, albeit still benefitting from their eccentric song structures and distinctive sense of mood and identity.
Stunningly abrasive, “Tomorrow Held The Scorn” begins the record with a jolting frenzy, Shanaman spitting her vituperative lyrics with venomous force while the instrumentalists of the group go hell for leather in a series of scraping tremolo riffs and pummelling drum beats, Aesop Dekker showcasing his keenly honed ability to control both the primitive stomp and combustive acceleration of the music without skipping a beat.
The clean yet raw production allows Ludicra to play with the balance of their more antagonistic and reflective moments, as it is this balance which – even now – is vital to the success of their sound. A song like “Hollow Promise” comes alive due to the dichotomous, yet oddly natural, integration of vicious harsh vocals and soothing background cadences, blistering nihilistic guitars and brooding, meditative clean sections. The track’s uncharacteristic acoustic opening, drenched in eerie flute melodies, bristles with bleak promise which soon erupts into deathly malevolence.
With “The Final Lamentation” the group conjure up a dark and dreamy atmosphere, a soothing nightmare which overwhelms the listener with waves of tranquilising force, while Shanaman’s banshee howl takes centre stage throughout the twisted beauty that comprises “Userpent”, her chaotic yet controlled screams ably supported by the successive layers of discordant guitars which add a seductive quality to the track’s blackened intensity.
“Damn The Night” builds a deeply unsettling atmosphere with its rampant, winding tremolo attack. The vocals scream and roar with murderous intent, the thrumming bass and sharp snare cracks maintaining order amidst the chaos. A short, reflective pause in the eye of the storm allows the band to collect themselves before rushing headlong once more back into the filth and the fury, rampaging towards a blistering conclusion which ebbs slowly into the moody instrumental of “Tragaedia”, serving as a calming interlude before the chaotic vortex of “Awake To Grey” envelops the last fading glimmers of light left in its vast and nebulous folds.
Sample Song: “Hollow Promise”[audio:https://www.nocleansinging.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Ludicra-Hollow-Promise.mp3|titles=Ludicra – Hollow Promise]
Another Great Love Song – 2004
Befitting the bleeding heart cover artwork, Ludicra’s sophomore release has a warmer, more vital core and a more vibrant heartbeat. It still rages and thrashes with post-millennial misanthropy but its blood flows just as strongly with a colourful, fiery passion for life in all its maddening complexity.
The album’s first track “The Only Cure, The Only Remedy” is a suicidal hymn of morphine melancholy and vile, self-loathing set to a chorus of haunting clean guitars and clashing, rhythmic distortion. Its lengthy song structure remains engaging and captivating throughout, benefitting from the slow build of character from the intro’s classical guitar refrains into ever more imposing mountains of cataclysmic riffage and a dynamic and berserk display of drumming power and skill.
“Let Thirst The Soil” somehow manages to meld fragile vulnerability with statuesque power, proceeding with graceful, tentative steps at first, growing in strength and confidence as the song progresses, to an ear-splitting crescendo. The drums peel off an unrelenting surge of kick rolls behind the heaving, laborious guitars and gambolling bass-lines, as abstract clean vocals give way to poisonous howls and gripping, monolithic chord patterns of harsh distortion.
There is an instinctive, animalistic vibe to “One Thousand Wolves”, not least in the primal scream approach of Shanaman and Cather’s twin vocal assault, which finds its match in the unrelenting attack of “In The Greenest Soil”, the album’s most aggressive cut. Both tracks feature the vocals spitting venom over galloping, propulsive guitars and crackling, punk-inflected drums. Thankfully, each song deftly sidesteps suggestions of one-dimensional brutality, in no small part due to the intricate playing of sticksman Aesop Dekker, who effortlessly delivers a metronomic barrage of blasting snare hits and rolling, loose-limbed, expansive fills to guide each number through the twists and turns of labyrinthine moods and emotions.
The serpentine structure of “Time Wounds All Heels” gives it a devious, diabolical beauty. Clean vocals seem to soar to the rafter in choral hymns of dark praise while beneath it the ground shifts and groans. Twisting, treble-heavy guitars clamour for the listener’s attention while Dekker calmly shifts and shimmies his way through the chaos, shuffling his drum beats with confident ease. The twin-lead, classic metal-leaning elements chime strongly with vibrant energy while the acoustic interplay which closes the song is a mesmerising display of compositional skill and nuance.
Ending with the riotous maelstrom of “Aging Ghost”, the record concludes with a characteristically dichotomous arrangement of chaotic black metal fury and subdued, post-punk dynamics. The track teeters on the edge of collapse throughout, the despairing clean vocals dredging up a wealth of buried emotions and forgotten memories, with Shanaman also employing her dry, desiccated rasp to prodigious effect, spewing forth bloody litanies of stained-glass sorrow and crimson condemnation. It’s the layering that really captivates here, simple and rebellious riffs piling one atop the other, teasing out threads of barely heard melody amidst the interwoven fabric of loss and lamentation, ending with a sanity-destroying cacophony of harsh dissonance and manic vocals.
Sample Song: “Time Wounds All Heels”[audio:https://www.nocleansinging.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/06-Time-Wounds-All-Heels.mp3|titles=Ludicra – Time Wounds All Heels]
Ludicra EP – 2006
Short and sweet, with only 3 tracks under its belt, the self-titled EP is an almost perfect distillation of all the elements of Ludicra’s sound up to this point. The sound is thicker and more powerful than on either of their previous two records, with the vocals and guitars in particular benefitting the most; the former cutting through the mix with chilling clarity, the latter developing a fuller, more rounded and indeed more damaging tone.
Opener “Wooden Wheel” is a rolling juggernaut of a track that steams ahead full-pelt, its engine fuelled by nasty, barded riffs and superbly demonic screams. The track’s atonal, descending bridge riff is a thing of dark, progressive beauty, right up to the moment that it is overwhelmed by a mass of towering chords and sharp, incisive lead guitar. Through and around all this, cleanly picked acoustic notes and morose, strummed chords add life and texture to the song’s darkest moments of existential despair, climaxing in a tumbling, maddening piano riff that buries the song in smoky ambience and distressed, nerve-shredding agitation.
The insistent, almost folk-ish melodies of “Walk the Path Of Ash” draw the listeners in, leaving them in the grip of the song’s enigmatic structure and bleak despair. The subtle interplay between Shanaman and Cather’s vocal dialogue adds yet another intriguing layer to the song, one to be picked apart and examined at leisure on repeat listens, in particular during the multi-layered nocturne that rears its head just before the halfway point, re-appearing again later on, its twining guitar leads and dark, gothic croons demonstrating yet another facet to the track’s complicated arrangement. The second half is a torrent of ringing distorted chords and down-picked guitar, capped off by a soaring, revelatory solo that penetrates the heart and mind.
There is a beautiful elegance about the instrumental track “Empty Throne”, an extravagant display of clashing disarray and beautifully ordered harmony that begins with a singular acoustic guitar reciting a melodic refrain, over which the other instruments slowly and calmly make themselves known. Finally manifesting as a flowing, mid-paced funeral march of reverberating chords and stoic drumming, the song’s central theme recurs in several different incarnations, providing a consistent narrative core to the track around which the band weave humble chord progressions and shining lead parts to great effect. The strings that enter the equation late on in the song’s development simply serve to further accentuate the stately, measured grandeur of the track’s lofty ambitions.
Sample song: “Walk the Path Of Ash”[audio:https://www.nocleansinging.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/02-walk-the-path-of-ash.mp3|titles=Ludicra – Walk the Path of Ash]
Fex Urbis Lex Orbis – 2006
Perhaps less aggressive than their other records, “Fex Urbis Lex Orbis” mines a rich seam of progressive divergence and psychedelic melancholia, even incorporating the skills of Grayceon’s Jackie Perez Gratz whose cello playing adds an extra, classically inspired, dimension to the album. The album is of a darker hue than any so far, sacrificing aggression in favour of capturing a sense of bleak, relentless despair, an awful wretchedness that permeates the record.
“Dead City” begins the album with an unusual arrangement of complex simplicity, strained chords overlain with haunting clean croons and pained screams leading the track with slow and steady momentum. As fuzzy and indistinct leads wend their way through the mist, seemingly at random, each one as unique and fleeting as the next, the scintillating drums shift the tempo from ponderous groove to scything speed and back again.
“In Fever” has a thrusting dynamism which adds much needed contrast to the glacial momentum the band has cultivated. The choice to focus overall on the enigmatic character and depressive atmospherics over metallic ire serves to make the piercing shrieks and explosive drumming of this song all the more effective, each member embracing a raucous punkish spirit; nihilisitic yet focussed, they brutally and clinically wrench each punishing note from their instruments. Whirling, repetitive codas of bleak melody whip up tempestuous storms of guitar-driven hatred while the bass throbs and pules with unearthly, distressing delight.
During “Veils”, the band dips its toes deeper into their own past, digging up their black metal roots in order to see how they have grown. The shift from the intro’s acoustic lullaby to blazing animosity exposes how Ludicra have bridged the rift between their past ferocity and their future progress. Sweetly a-melodic chords echo over vast plains of rolling kick drums and rising bass-lines as Shanaman’s barbaric and unrestrained vocals whip up a storm of primal rage, obscuring the horizon with its fury. Only a series of short acoustic breaks offer any relief from the storm, revealing the soft and vulnerable heart that beats beneath the song’s cold exterior.
“Fex Urbis Lex orbis”, although arguably musically the least aggressive of Ludicra’s albums, is also perhaps vocally the most angry of all, Shanaman’s sibilant rasp adding a menacing vibe to “Only A Moment”, her incoherent rage turned in upon itself in anguish and self-loathing. Propelled by contorted spasms of kaleidoscopic distortion, the song cycles through a linear progression of ever more psychedelic and hazy note patterns, its inevitable descent into madness set to a tortuously repeating melodic refrain, dissonance and static bleeding through the fading colours.
As emotionally fractious and abrasive as the album is, the band are unafraid to let silence speak for them when necessary. Throughout the lengthy procession of “Collapse”, cacophonous discordance melds seamlessly into quiet emptiness and emotional despondency, the void between the notes speaking just as loudly as each bleeding scale that is forced, screaming in agony, from tortured strings. As the song builds towards ignition, Shanaman’s warped, utterly unique delivery continues to proclaim an end to all things – not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Sample song: “Veils”[audio:https://www.nocleansinging.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/03-Veils.mp3|titles=Ludicra – Veils]
The Tenant – 2010
Their unknowing swan-song, “The Tenant” begins in a disarming fashion, as a series of pure, reverberating notes introduce “Stagnant Pond”, a concoction of stripped-bare chords and pulsing, potent basslines, accenting over which Shanaman delivers an almost stream-of-consciousness arrangement of broken-glass vocals. The subdued, harmonised clean vocals preface the song’s slow and steady increase in pace and intensity, Dekker’s drums slowly accelerating the track in tiny, almost imperceptible increments, forcing the guitars to adapt to this changing pace, morphing into new interpretations of the same central theme. It’s a clever effect and one that serves the song well, the decision to limit their sonic palette forcing the band to find new ways to paint light and shade into the song. Only once do they let the reins free, delivering a terrifically nuanced solo that dances nimbly through an array of varied melodic tones and styles.
“In Stable” is part thrashing leviathan and part weeping hymn of blackened despair, chaotic guitars detonate deep in the most primitive parts of the brain, followed by anguished tremolo melodies which conjure ghosts of sorrow and loss. In an odd way, the existentialist musings and cryptic riff patterns actually recall Mastodon at times, the two groups – though worlds apart in stylistic terms – sharing a similar sense of being unencumbered by the expectations and limitations of their genre.
Art for art’s sake is indeed the name of the game on this record, songs like “The Undercaste” (the album’s longest, and most out-and-out proggiest number) and the album’s title track fluidly shift from quiet, unassuming introspection into all out aggression, tinged with hints of restrained melancholy. The skittering and clever drum beats of Aesop Dekker elevate the doom-laden guitar work to heights of suicidal majesty, opening up the tight, confining structures of each track in order to allow them to breathe more, be it through an extended break of cleanly plucked acoustic guitar or a chorus of clean, anguished vocal harmonies.
The spiky, obtuse riffing that opens “Clean White Void” recalls prime Megadeth, broken up and remade to suit black metal’s singular aesthetic. The song plays with sound and space, dense forests of thorny notes and rough drum beats bearing down upon the listener, at the last moment revealing the way hidden amongst the thorns, into open spaces of clearer air and spectral beauty where hypnotic lead patterns flit in and out of awareness, both their presence and their absence keenly felt.
The un-reserved blasting intensity that fuels the core of “Truth Won’t Set You Free” is a welcome change of pace, Dekker’s dervish drumming driving the band ever forward, deeper into the abyss. Belied by its clean and bewitching opening stanzas, the song builds in intensity moment by moment, piling on layer after layer of semi-clean tremolo’d melody, anarchic riffing and bestial screams. The halfway mark sees the band inject an adrenaline shot of thrash-fuelled hostility and belligerence into the track, the vocals in particular embracing this hostile and violent demeanour wholeheartedly. The riffs clash and clamour with renewed vigour, escalating toward their inevitable combustion, climaxing in the return of the song’s radiant, expressive clean refrain.
Sample Song: “Truth Won’t Set You Free”[audio:https://www.nocleansinging.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/06-Truth-Wont-Set-You-Free.mp3|titles=Ludicra – Truth Won’t Set You Free]
Recommended For Fans Of: Enslaved, Agalloch, Mastodon