From out of the blackest pits of Groningen in The Netherlands, Tartarus Records will be co-releasing, along with Graanrepubliek Records and At War With False Noise, a split by two UK bands who deserve more exposure: Bismuth (from Nottingham) and Undersmile (from Witney). Each band contributes a single song to the split, but they are gigantic, collectively demanding more than 40 minutes of your time. It’s life and death in the low and slow lanes.
Bismuth consists of vocalist/bassist Tanya Byrne and drummer Joe Rawlings. Bismuth released a debut EP last year by the name of The Eternal Marshes, and their contribution to this split marks their second release. It’s a 17-minute work entitled “Collapse”, and there could hardly be a better title for it — except this is not so much the sound of existence falling apart as it is the sound of existence being slowly dismantled in a titanic demolition project.
The pacing is glacially slow, the rhythms (such as they are) marked by ponderous drum beats and cymbal ticks. Yet the true implements of destruction are the massively fuzz-bombed chords of Tanya’s bass and the protracted howling/screeching waves of distortion and feedback she wrenches out of each note. It’s the sound of a building-sized transformer that’s been overloaded past the point of survival, so grotesquely warped that each touch on the strings brings images of bridges collapsing into deep waters. Piercing the corrosive atmosphere of all that low-end monstrosity come periodic banshee shrieks of despair.
In the song’s back half, the slow repeating chords give way to a sonic landscape virtually devoid of melody or rhythm — simply a series of protracted detonations and prolonged amp excretions that sound like concrete being sawed into pieces and smashed into gravel. Yet slowly emerging from this massive demolition project you hear ghostly, wordless, choral harmonies. At the end, those voices sound like spirits rising from the rubble of catastrophe, like otherworldly life set free by the obliteration of their earthly cages.
Undersmile are a four-person group and like Bismuth they’re fronted by a woman, or more accurately women, both of whom are also the band’s guitarists — Hel Sterne and Taz Corona-Brown. Their debut album Narwhal came out in 2012, and Metal Archives discloses that they’ve also released an EP and two previous splits. Don’t be misled by that photo up there: These aren’t flower children, unless the flowers are dead, black, and desiccated.
“Titanaboa” is the name of Undersmile’s contribution to the split, and at more than 23 minutes in length it surpasses the duration of Bismuth’s. Listening to “Titanaboa” is variously like being carried away in slow, heaving ocean swells, gradually being sucked down into a pit of congealing tar, or hallucinating while the blood in your veins hardens and your oxygen supply is cut off, bit by bit. Huge, groaning riffs join hands with booming, echoing drum hammers. Bleak guitar melodies chime like steel bells. Prolonged, shimmering, ice-cold ambient sounds drift by as slow, sludgy chords mercilessly pound in a distorted dirge. Here and there, eerie vocal samples appear, and clean vocal harmonies come and go, floating above the anvil blows in the low end in a kind of desolate, haunting near-chant.
The effect of “Titanaboa” is narcotic, the kind of funereal sludge/doom that tends to blot out what surrounds you and extinguish other thoughts. You won’t get into it unless you’re in the mood to be immersed. When you surface, gasping for air, it will take some time to reorient yourself to the passage of normal time and the light of daily life, because neither exists in “Titanaboa”.
The Bismuth/Undersmile split can be pre-ordered on vinyl and/or cassette tape at this Bandcamp location, and the pre-order brings an immediate digital download of the two tracks. The wonderful cover art is by Tony Roberts. Below you will find band links, followed by a stream of the music.