(Austin Weber reviews an album that has made a deep impact on him, and many others — the fascinating debut by the quartet who’ve named themselves John Frum, out now on Relapse Records.)
Typically, if I run too far behind on turning a review in, I have to accept that my time is probably better spent moving on to something newer. For once, I’ve felt a pressing urge to break that self-imposed rule, because John Frum, and the demented form of death metal found on A Stirring in the Noos, are simply too brilliant not to provide a full and proper review here at NCS.
Like most people new to John Frum, I was curious what the album as a whole would sound like, and hopeful that their enormous combined talents would make for something special. I was not, however, ready to have my brain scrambled, and my expectations destroyed, to the immense degree that A Stirring in the Noos has managed to do for me. I’ll admit that during my initial phase of listening, I was unsure how I felt about this release, sensing weaknesses in some of the tracks that I’ve now come to appreciate as crucial and important within the context of the full experience they’re delivering. But we’ll touch on that point more in a bit.
Hellacious right out of the gate, A Stirring in the Noos kicks off with “Presage of Emptiness” followed by “Pining Light”, two incredibly dense and ferocious tracks that form a one-two punch of absolutely spellbinding brilliance few bands in this style are capable of pulling off. Both songs highlight the many elements at play here and the band’s comfort in rapidly cycling through a litany of styles with a sublime sense of mastery.
If you want a quick idea of what they’re serving up, it’s largely a 50/50 split between dissonant black metal and dissonant death metal, woven together in a style all their own as they glide effortlessly back and forth across both realms. They add to that core framework a psychedelic and atmospheric-focused side that reminds me of Gigan, while stirring in a heaping portion of more “traditional” sounding technical death metal, and tying it all together with a chaotic, choppy, and unpredictable method of intricate songwriting that seems to draw from mathcore, which to be honest, is the factor that gives this release, and John Frum’s entry into this style, a very distinctive identity.
After the obscenely high bar set by the album’s astonishing first two tracks, the band throw you a jarring curveball with track three, “Memory Palace”. Clocking in at just over 9 minutes, “Memory Palace” devotes itself to a slow and eerie build centered on the band’s psychedelic and atmospheric side. Largely a slow-paced number, the song segues into deathly heaviness after its trippy, airy, lengthy opening drifts away, finally picking up speed and intensity toward the seven-minute mark and until it ends, going out on a strong note, which includes an odd solo that I really enjoy.
The song acts as sort of a reversal of death metal tropes, done in a way that (again) reminds me of a similar trick Gigan has pulled several times on various albums. It was “Memory Palace” I was referring to above when I spoke of issues I initially had with the album, but which later grew on me and made more sense many listens later. In the beginning, I felt like this song was a bit boring and plodding, if not directionless — not all that captivating, and seemingly at odds with the experience found on the other songs. In time, “Memory Palace” has grown on me a lot. I’ve come to accept that, similar to Dodecahedron utilization of interlude-type respites on this year’s Kwintessens, “Memory Palace” serves the same kind of function here: To break up the madness, to allow room for the listener to breathe and temporarily relax, if only because the group’s unhinged assault will soon resume.
Resume it does, as soon as track four. “Through Sand and Spirit” lifts you up with an opening groove that quickly dissolves as their more chaotic and scathing approach to death metal infused with dissonant black metal infused rears its head again (albeit, with a bit more groove-centered moments than in some of the other songs). This is a trait the band embrace with purpose, often as a means of transitioning into or out of the more maddenning moments, and of course, sometimes merely as a way to deliver towering heaviness inside an ugly shell.
Moving on to track five, “Lacustrine Divination”, the band kick things off as they do in “Memory Palace” with a swirling psychedelic opening. The difference here is that it’s a much shorter reprieve than the one found on “Memory Palace”. Out of its inviting, pleasant-sounding opening, “Lacustrine Divination” again shows the group’s ability to expertly build and transition into their zanier selves on a whim. After a few minutes of brooding and building, the song explodes into a face-melting, white-hot fury, while finding time to return to groove again, back and forth, over and over.
This song is interesting in that, besides “Memory Palace”, it’s probably the second-least-chaotic track on the album. While chaos is one of the defining traits of their sound, altering their approach on songs like “Laucustrine Divination” adds more to the album than simply having all the songs unfold and operate in a similar manner. That being said, their other central recurring trait — stuffing a million ideas into each song and emphasizing this way of writing over endless repetition, — is still present on “Lacustrine Divination. It’s just done more smoothly here, and dialed down a few notches from bat-shit crazy to deeply disturbed but more easily digested.
Following that song comes the album’s sole instrumental cut, “He Come”, which again showcases the band’s penchant for slick grooves and stomp-heavy death metal, just in vocal free form. As the song comes to an end, it again enters more psychedelic sonic terrain, which is also the realm in which the following song, “Assumption of Form”, immediately kicks off. As usual, this excursion is short-lived, and the band savagely launch into a frenzied death metal assault, except on this song it’s broken up by some massive Meshuggah-type grooves with a wailing, wild solo overtop, proving that utter madness can indeed be beautiful and wondrous in its own strange way.
Later on, “Assumption of Form” blacks out in a fuzzy amorphous cemetery, returning to offer a lurch-and-blast, back-and-forth warzone that is cavernous and grungy until coming to an eventual end that feels like being cut by a thousand shards of glass you’re unable to avoid stepping on. The album ends as it began, with a balls-to-the-wall, dense sonic manifesto of calculated insanity on closer “Wasting Subtle Body”. A more fitting ending to an album as strange and unorthodox as this could not have been asked for.
John Frum have constructed an eclectic, manic, and adventurous album on A Stirring in the Noos. It’s certainly one of the strongest debut albums from a death metal band that I’ve heard in some time. The band’s greatest strength lies in their ability to write songs that flow from idea to idea and from various musical styles to other styles like an endless fountain. At times, it does feel like some songs meander and go on too long, but I give the band a lot of credit for their willingness to experiment.
John Frum have really gone for broke here with a deranged and amorphous sound that feels fresh in a sub-genre where a lot of bands sound solely imitative and lacking in innovation. A Stirring in the Noos is a complete sensory overload in the best way possible, and I am helplessly addicted to it.
A Stirring In the Noos is out now on Relapse Records.