(Andy Synn provides another insight into the rich diversity and vitality of the UK scene)
Living in the UK, but being very much on the fringes of the UK “scene” – I’d say we were the black sheep but that presupposes we were ever part of the flock in the first place! – is an odd situation to be in.
On the one hand it feels like, no matter how many of these columns I write, and no matter how many shows we play, I’m always going to be an outsider.
On the other, however, it’s oddly freeing… I don’t have to worry about upsetting people (and, trust me on this, some people can’t take even the mildest criticism) and can write about who and what I want, from big names to relative unknowns, without anyone accusing me of having any sort of hidden agenda or ulterior motive.
So when I tell you that all three of these albums – one from last week, one from this week, and one scheduled for next week – are all worth your time you should be confident that I’m not just blowing smoke… I really mean it.
ASHENSPIRE – HOSTILE ARCHITECTURE
Hostile Architecture is one of the best albums of the year. That’s not exaggeration or hyperbole. It’s just an accurate assessment of the second album by Avant-garde, anti-capitalist Black Metal collective Ashenspire.
Of course, calling them “Black Metal” (even with the modifier “Avant-garde”) only scratches the surface of their eclectic, extravagant sound, as while songs like “Béton Brut” and “Tragic Heroin” certainly don’t shy away from ragged blastbeats and gnarly, nail-biting riffs, the album is also overflowing with more esoteric instrumental embellishments, from keening violin and vaudevillian piano to nerve-jangling saxophone and anxiety-inducing hammered dulcimer, each of which plays a vital role in expanding and establishing the album’s unique character.
But it’s not just the thrilling vitality and vibrant versatility of the music which makes this album so great (though that’s certainly a major part of it) – the lyrics are just as important to the overall experience, offering up a damning critique of the cruelty and inequality cast in concrete and baked into the foundations of society.
Of course, having a message is one thing… being able to get it across in a way that’s both powerful and memorable is something else entirely, and it’s firmly to the band’s credit that the anguished protest-poetry of lines like “The ouroboros, the unquenchable thirst, crushing the heads of the last to be first” (“Apathy as Arsenic, Lethargy as Lead”) and “I hope you like poverty, breathing in soot, and the taste of leather off Britain’s boot” (“Cable Street Again”) never comes across as sanctimonious or self-righteous but positively seethes with venom and vitriol and a palpable sense of discontent.
There’s a lot more I could go into when talking about this album – the decision to eschew any form of “traditional” Black Metal vocals, for example, in favour of a punkier and more passionate vocal delivery, or the incredibly proggy percussive patterns which constantly keep you guessing as to what, and where, the next twist or turn might be – but instead I’ll leave the final words to the band themselves, courtesy of the anguished, cathartic climax to “The Law of Asbestos”:
This is not a house of amateurs. This is done with full intent.
THE EVER LIVING – ARTIFICIAL DEVICES
The last time I wrote about “cinematic” (my words) Post-Metallers The Ever Living was over four years ago and, to be quite honest, I wasn’t entirely certain I was ever going to hear from them again.
Thankfully, while it looks like the last several years have been pretty rough going (with the band now reduced from a quintet to a duo – Andrei Alan on guitars, Chris Bevan Lee on vocals/keys/programming) they recently announced their return to active duty with the release of their second album, Artificial Devices, which finds them taking the sound they established on their debut album to a whole new level.
Despite the change in line-up (which I suppose is better thought of as a consolidation down to a smaller creative core) songs like captivating opener “Omniphorm” and even more scintillating closer “Take Heed, Take Flight”, still feel like a natural evolution of the band’s sound on Herephemine, albeit with a slightly colder and darker edge to the music and a greater emphasis on enigmatic electronic embellishments.
That’s not to say there aren’t still moments of beauty, as well as a wealth of heart-wrenching melodic hooks, scattered across these eight tracks – the band’s love of shimmering synthetic soundscapes and poignant piano melodies still shines through, especially on the almost Nordic Giants-esque “Ruminance” – but the pulsing, programmed percussion and darker, denser guitar-work which drives tracks like “De-Emulate” and “Total Impasse” also indicates a conscious shift towards a heavier approach occasionally reminiscent of the dearly-departed Benea Reach.
But while the greater reliance on synths, electronics, and digital drums may (whether by choice or necessity) have stripped away some of the “humanity” from The Ever Living‘s sound, the ragged roar of the vocals ensures that there’s still a raw, visceral element to the music, one which not only helps draw a clear connection between this album and its predecessor but which also helps forge a bond between the band and the listener that’s not likely to be easily broken.
ITHACA – THEY FEAR US
The last time I wrote about Ithaca I ended up receiving a fair bit of backlash for not praising it enough.
The thing is, while The Language of Injury was a good album, no doubt about it, I felt that the hype around it purposefully overlooked the fact that the band’s music (particularly some of their songwriting) didn’t always match up to the potency of their message.
That being said, their potential for greatness was obvious… and I feel vindicated by the fact that They Fear Us is not only a major improvement on its predecessor in practically every way (echoing, in some ways, the quantum-leap in both quality and ambition that long-time NCS favourites Employed to Serve made with the release of The Warmth of a Dying Sun several years back) but also finds the band coming into their own, settling into their own skin, in a way that I always knew (or, at least, hoped) they would.
It’s interesting to note that Ithaca themselves have highlighted the diversity of influences and inspirations which went into this record – noting that they’re no longer willing to be put into a box by anyone – because the final product is not only more varied and versatile but also altogether tighter, more dynamic, and more balanced, fluidly fusing Metal and Hardcore, Prog and Pop, and more, into a captivating, cohesive whole.
Mostly, of course, this is down to – you guessed it – improvements in the songwriting, the quintet demonstrating an almost savant-like ability to smoothly segue from raging metallic intensity to soaring, emotion-drenched melody, or when to throw an unexpected curve-ball at the listener (like the Deftones-esque “Number Five”) in order to upend your expectations and keep you guessing.
The result is that every song here could serve as a worthy “single” promoting the best that the album has to offer, and I don’t doubt that every person who listens to this record will come away with their own particular set of favourites – personally I’m especially partial to the rifftastic Metal(ic) (Hard)core of “The Future Says Thank You”, the crushingly cathartic “Camera Eats First” and the gorgeous Alt-Prog-Pop-Metal of “Fluorescence” – which they’ll be more than happy to discuss and argue about over the next several months (and beyond)!