(Andy Synn turns his attention to the upcoming new album from some long-time favourites of ours, Withered, with a warning to – as always – expect the unexpected)
As some of you may know, I have a long and storied history with Blackened Death Sludge deviants Withered.
The band were the focus of the 65th edition of The Synn Report, and their fourth album, Grief Relic, was – in my opinion – one of the best albums of 2016. They were also one of the first groups to participate in my ongoing Waxing Lyrical column (which I’ll be restarting very soon), as well as one of the last bands I saw live before the whole world shut down and all shows were cancelled.
It’s always frustrated me, however, that the group’s tremendous talent has never translated into the level of attention and acclaim which they so clearly deserve… although, if I’m being honest, this may be because the band themselves seem to take an almost perverse delight in not doing what people expect and always, always, taking the grimmer, grimier path less travelled instead.
But while Verloren most definitely continues this tradition – it’s a complex, contorted, cantankerous beast of an album, make no mistake – it also has the unusual distinction of being potentially, not to mention paradoxically, the band’s most accessible and most alienating work yet.
Of course, quantifying exactly what counts as “accessible” and what counts as “alienating” with a band like Withered is no easy task.
After all, on a purely superficial level, Black Metal fans will probably like the blackened bits, Death Metal fans will probably like the deathlier parts, and Sludge fans will probably like the sludgier sections, but that really doesn’t tell the whole story or come anywhere near to describing the totality of the band’s sound, which is nothing if not an acquired taste.
That’s especially true here, where the quartet not only demonstrate that, five albums into their career, they’re still just as ugly and unorthodox as ever, but also show that they’ve learned at least one new trick – as exemplified by the moody (and quite Mastodon-esque) clean vocal embellishments in “By Tooth in Tongue” and “From Ashen Shores” (which, coincidentally, might just be the two best tracks on the album) – whose addition to their arsenal is likely to be as divisive as it is devilishly effective.
But, then again, this is where the band have always done their best work, lurking and prowling in the liminal spaces between genres, so it should be no surprise that Verloren continues to upend expectations and defy easy classification, even as it expands the scope of the group’s sound in new directions.
Take aforementioned opener, “By Tooth in Tongue”, for example.
Over the course of eight, ear-scraping, bowel-purging minutes it acts as a stunning (re)introduction to Withered’s signature blend of sickening sludgery and savage blackened bite, yet also serves to showcase the band’s newer, proggier proclivities while, at the same time, serving up an ugly undercurrent of nasty, doom-laden noise (Ethan McCarthy may no longer be a member of the band, but it seems he’s left an indelible imprint on their DNA all the same, both here and elsewhere on the record).
It’s not one thing, or the other. It’s a twisted hybrid which shouldn’t – on paper at least – work, but which somehow does, in defiance of all natural law.
The same is true, to a greater or lesser extent, of practically every song on the album, whether it’s the way that “The Predation” transitions from bone-rattling Black Metal to moody, martial Post-Metal without crossing through Post-Black Metal in the process, or the manner in which the disgustingly catchy “Casting In Wait” – five-and-a-half minutes of groaning Death-Doom, lurching Sludge, and visceral blackened extremity, all topped off with some shamelessly extravagant and ecstatic lead guitar work – still manages to hold itself together despite feeling like it’s constantly in danger of flying apart at the seams.
This sense of the band revelling in their own complex, contradictory nature is particularly heightened during the album’s two-part centre-piece, “Passing Through… The Long Hurt”, whose first half is an abstract arrangement of abrasive noise and sinister subliminal messaging (McCarthy’s hand at work here once again), while the second part is perhaps the most stripped-down and straightforward slab of Blackened Death Sludge they’ve written in years, together embodying and epitomising who and what Withered are in all their unorthodox, unclassifiable ugliness.
Concluding with the titanic “From Ashen Shores”, itself a spiteful study in contradictions, equal parts doom-laden discordance, moody, morose melody, and visceral audio-violence, it’s reassuring – to me at least – that Verloren, for all its amorphous, anomalous nature, actually proves that the old adage of “the more things change, the more they stay the same” isn’t always a bad thing.
Because, if there’s one thing that will never change, it’s that Withered are never going to stop changing.