I was afraid something unfortunate had happened to Verminlord — death, dismemberment, or even worse, a decision to stop writing and recording music. An entire year had passed since this usually prolific musician’s last release (a track recorded for a Crushing Intolerance compilation), a year of silence after a string of impressive recordings (all of which I’ve enjoyed and almost all of which I’ve reviewed) that left me sadly resigned to the likelihood that the project had ended.
Fortunately, none of my fears was true. Neither death nor dismemberment befell Verminlord, and the man behind the project (Teo Acosta) hasn’t put aside music in favor of more mundane pursuits. He just needed some time to try to clear his head, and now, following a move from the Pacific Northwest to southern California, he has given us a new three-song EP, which we’re now sharing with you on the day of its release.
Acosta spent much of 2017 living in Southeast Asia — traveling, researching, exploring, and (in his words) finding “some clarity within the darkest voids of the abyss”. This new EP, Sojourn, “is a reflection on this clarity and insight”. At three tracks, it’s a distillation of an album-length recording, a paring down to something he felt was stronger.
Verminlord’s Facebook page will tell you that this project “is an exploration of depression, rage, and anxiety”. “Sifting through the ashes of each song,” he writes, “you will find personal loss, frustration with society, and life-long depression. Often the songs are written and recorded during times of despair or fury”. But even before his Southeast Asian sojourn and other intervening events, Verminlord’s music was different from most black metal labeled as depressive and atmospheric. It proved to be increasingly intriguing because of its unpredictable blending of disparate musical influences and moods.
I have no direct insights into what personal changes might have been produced by Acosta’s Asian explorations (and I don’t yet have the lyrics to read), but it seems obvious from this new music that neither those experiences nor the relocation to a sunnier coast have produced happier or more uplifting sonic expressions. The three tracks here are gripping, but they are dark and often tormented in their moods.
Bright reverberating strings, mystical shimmering ambience, and moody bass notes lead into “Shed Your Skin”, but bursts of attacking percussion and tortured, strangled vocals begin a transformation into a song that begins to boil with tension and grow saturated with gloom. We know from past releases that Acosta also possesses an effective clean-singing voice, and it emerges here in haunting fashion. A bridge of stop-start musical battering, overlaid with a slow, sinuous and sensuous solo, only magnifies the atmosphere of tension and turmoil, even further magnified by a mixture of jabbing chords and seething guitar vibrations, which the return of the clean vocals doesn’t diminish.
“Phra Rahu” leads with its own intro of otherworldly reverberating strings and ghostly vocal wailing, but beneath those sounds is a deep, menacing riff. The drumming surges to a rhythmic clatter, the riff becomes a bleak, buzzing, pestilential presence as the harsh vocals come in, and a desolate melodic lead surfaces and becomes a darting, and borderline-demented, presence. That’s followed by a slow, moaning solo that gives the music a more ethereal yet still anguished atmosphere.
The ambitious title track, at almost 11 1/2 minutes in length, is clearly the center of this EP, though it comes last. Long and dynamic it may be, but in its atmosphere it’s of a piece with the two preceding tracks. As it unfolds, its moods are introspective, somber, and sorrowing — and it’s anguished and intense as well. The harsh vocals are excruciating in their apparent pain; the clean vocals soar, but not with joy. Gloomy fanfares ring out, and grim, grinding riffs become increasingly poisonous, and also indicative of inner turmoil. At times the tension breaks, as it does near the end, but only to be replaced by a feeling of hopelessness, accented by a solo that oozes misery and a final vocal duet that’s emotionally lacerating.
Verminlord’s music has always seemed honest, free of artifice or calculation, devoted to an intensely personal expression of thoughts and feelings, and not tightly hemmed-in by genre convention. Sojourn is no different in that respect from previous releases, and the impressions it creates aren’t easily cast off, even though the music is so persistently dark and so often unnerving. It also may be the high point of Verminlord’s emotionally involving songcraft, as well as a welcome sign that this project is still alive and flourishing in the darkness.