(DGR has been spending his listening time with some strange musical creatures and has offered his thoughts about them in a two-part collection of reviews, of which this is the first.)
I could probably pay off a month’s worth of bills if I had a nickel for every time I’ve started a dive into a particular release with some variation of ‘this is gonna be a weird one’. But there’s a certain joy I take in continuing to do that in between the varying issuances of brutality and violence that we typically cover.
Sometimes it’s a good breather and other times it feels like a peek into where metal might be expanding in the future, a gaze into realms otherworldly and difficult to describe, where the artiste roams free and unshackled. Mostly, it’s because, despite the fact that strangeness may abound and take us off the beaten path, that can still appeal to many a listener in the world of No Clean Singing.
It’s still metal, because I guarantee you that the constant breaking of conventions and the fusing of different moods into strange creatures is certainly enough to challenge a listener on what they may consider musical. Sometimes it’s in the atmospherics. Sometimes it’s how a band might embrace minimalism. And other times it can be due to just how strange the collection of influences and instrumentation is. Often it might feel like this is the room where we get to adjust our turtle-neck sweaters, sip on our classiest alcohol, and pretend to be as high-minded and pretentious as we can possibly get.
Long story short, the two that I’ve paired up today are albums I’ve been listening to quite a bit since their release, and while one name is likely more recognizable, I assure you that for both you’ll probably want to buckle up, because this is gonna be a weird one. (I have another pairing of reviews still to come tomorrow.)
Not For Music – the 2017 release of Belgium-based Emptiness – is a disc that has stuck with me long after I first listened to it. It’s one of the more difficult albums out there to describe, certainly not a conventional metal album by any means, but often crossing over into the metal sphere. It was a challenging, electronics-filled, occasionally abrasive, and often strange listen.
It became a ‘metal’ release more because it had such a high barrier to entry than it did for any railing of guitar, destruction of drumkit, or sanding of the vocal chords. The same way one might find staring into an empty void overwhelming, so too is the experience of listening to Not For Music, which at times is so quiet and removed from its initial pulsating songcraft that you question if the band had just stopped. You know an empty house isn’t haunted but you’d be damned if your mind doesn’t start racing the moment the lights go down anyway.
Hence why I reference pretending to be high-minded and pretentious when listening to it, because I can’t tell you what exactly drives a release like Not For Music. But knowing it exists and what the hell it is trying to achieve has certainly expanded my musical horizons — I embrace when people take my precious heavy metal genre and attempt to contort and twist it into something far, far stranger.
So when you land on a release like Vide – one whose whole intent is to channel the feelings of isolation and loneliness that everyone has been going through recently, purposefully recorded in empty environments, urban rooftops, and quiet, open areas after a whole year of having literally gone through such a thing – you can’t help but feel like you’re going to have to prepare for this one. Not because it’s going to bowl you over from the word go – if anything, Vide often feels like an album for someone who thought Not For Music was the neighbor kids being too goddamned loud – but because, by design, it feels a hell of a lot more real.
Even after a multitude of listens, I’m not quite sure where I stand on that. For instance, Vide opens with the sound of either a ventilator or an iron lung (thankfully, I’m not familiar with the sound of either but am aware of enough to know what the band are trying to invoke), which positions itself as one of the most in-your-face confrontations with the realities of the past year. When heavy metal at large favored a more explosive form of overwhelming despair and bleakness, Vide instead is often quiet and alien-sounding, with layers upon layers of effects placed on the vocals in order to bury them in the dirge-like movement of the music. More often than not, the soundscapes of Vide are as sparse and barren as Emptiness‘ name might imply, and if the goal of the disc was to paint a picture of absolutely destitute loneliness, then the Emptiness crew may deserve a gold star and some angry stares from the rest of the class for overachieving.
The one way in which Vide does play it safe is sounding like a much more sparse approach to Not For Music, which was itself already an album that was a work of stripping down compared to the release before that. It makes sense; Emptiness are experts at playing with a minimalist style, burying their vocals under the aforementioned wall of effects and music that fades in and out, dancing between speakers when it’s more present than a basic backbeat that lurches the songs forward. It’s a disc that exists like a drunken haze. You’re well aware you’re not fully present but it’s enough to keep you moving.
Emptiness have channeled their name ten-fold on Vide and created moody ruminations that are prone to haunting you if you’re the type to find an empty, pitch-dark room terrifying if you stare into it long enough. It’s not a metal disc by most measurements, but like its predecessor it has the aesthetic and spirit of one. The most forward confrontation happens in those opening moments, and after that Vide just gnaws at you for the rest of the listening time.
While metal might be uniquely suited to tackling the bleakness and frustration of last year – many releases in 2020 were abrasive and howling expulsions of just that – few tackled the quiet despair of it quite as well as Emptiness have with Vide.
DIALETHEIST: ECSTASY AND FUTILITY
While we’re on the nightmare music front, we can take a much quicker dive – hopefully, because I’ll never escape otherwise – into the world of Baltimore-based Dialetheist – the work of Ryan Neal and Eric Rhodes on this February release, Ecstasy and Futility. Featuring artwork by site buddy Austin Weber (who was also responsible for the initial tip-off), the album is difficult to cover on a metal site because in part it feels like trying to cover Lustmord’s Heresy albums and using base instrument descriptors to summon the sound of metal objects being bounced down an empty hallway.
You can usually get a sense early on of just how much a release like this is going to become a nightmare soundscape when the artist doesn’t bother with track titles and the most you’re presented with are Roman numerals. Ecstasy and Futility is also a perfect sort of thematic tie-in with the sparse landscapes of Emptiness’ Vide, because while it may be a little more forthright and confrontational in its experimentations of noise and varied ambient works, it has that same sort of gnawing feeling.
It’s amusing that the group recommends headphones for this release, given that the opening two movements of the album are a few of the more ‘direct’ audio confrontations, with “I” being propped up by a constant pulsating near-industrial beat and “II” quickly becoming a boiling maelstrom of distortion and high-pitched mechanical screeching.
The vocal work of the aforementioned Eric Rhodes starts to make itself known on “II”, tearing a hefty death metal growl out of its Earthly place and whipping it throughout the entirety of the frequency spectrum. It’s a team-effort, with the various modulations and sound-abuses masquerading as experiments to see who can make that “Headphones strongly recommended” tagline seem like a prank at first, until “III”, when the first moments of somewhat quiet arrive… before that one falls into an abyss of static as well.
Projects like this present an interesting and intriguing challenge – if you’ll allow me to pull the curtain back a little – because for a large part of it you’re dealing more with ambient noise and pulsating beats than full-blown music. Hence the admitted over-emphasis on the idea of this being nightmore sounds, because we have unintentionally come across near-perfect horror-movie soundtracks with projects like this.
The amount of atmospherics at play here does most of the legwork in unsettling the listener, so you wind up with a record that is more an ‘experience’ than a discernible number of songs. I personally enjoy how the opening movements of Ecstasy and Futility are so oppresively loud that you wind up lulled into thinking ‘okay, this is going to be one of those purposefully abrasive’ experiences, only to have all of that overwhelming loud drop out on you for a few minutes before it rears its ugly head again. Weirdly enough, I found myself reminded of the early Quake game soundtracks during those moments, which may prove to be a more amusing comparison than most.
In some ways it’s nice to be free of this review, because like the Emptiness album above that I found myself subconsciously pairing it with, Dialetheist’s stuck with me and seemed to claw at the back of my brain, and I felt I owed this one some word-of-mouth to help unleash it upon other unsuspecting listeners.
It’s certainly made for a weird opening part of the release year, but that’s one of the benefits of this site — it enables me to unleash these two upon you and see if, like me, you find yourself more haunted these days by moments of quiet than moments of overwhelming noise.