Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Morthond - Paths of Desolation

Morthond - Paths of Desolation
2004, Bindrune Recordings

Now that the post-Burzum, post-Abyssic Hate drone style of American black metal (I have to call it something, I suppose) has firmly lodged itself within the view of underground stylists searching for a still-viable vehicle for their abstract expression, and as the American black metal scene continues to coalesce around the West Coast version of this form (Xasthur, Leviathan), we are only going to see more bands like Morthond appear on the horizon like poisonous fungi. Meaning: perversely simple riffs constructed from minor chords, those riffs being repetitively hammered into the listening space to form meditative soundscapes (this seems to all descend from Burzum's third and fourth albums), drum patterns (almost always a drum machine used in these cases) that only back up and support, in the most skeletal, minor way, the riffing structure (cymbals mark chord change, alterations in riffs, or just partition bars - fills are almost totally absent), an invisible bass presence (which you often have to find by listening for where the other instruments do not appear), and a scathing, cancer-throated, barking raw screaming to round out the offerings of the subgenre. This form of black metal mainly concentrates on building dark atmospheres and a seductive, evocative tonal ambiance through repetition and the sound of the production itself...or how that production colors the timbre of the music.

Now, because the subgenre is so limited in its possible thematic variations and the ways in which the musician can alter its characteristics to influence the final form of the music as it is applied to the listener, a concentration on perfecting the flexibility of the basic elements is of the utmost importance. A band like Xasthur, for example, excels in altering the genre form at its root level: in the riffs chosen, and in the specific structures of those riffs, in the emotive messages they carry. Some would argue that Leviathan, arguably (at least for now) the other "pillar" of this subgenre, has the same ability to change its style at a root, atomic level by altering the few basic riff forms it has chosen in a hundred different ways to allow a maximum of expressive potential within the strictures of the close, confined, claustrophilic musical genus. Monotony, appearing because of a use of repetition pressed past its ability to create captivating atmospheres, is the ever-present onus of this style, and can only be avoided (in my opinion) through a choice of riffs that are "tonally complex" or "abstract" enough to warrant replication past the boundaries of good taste. It is still a dangerous undertaking...the bands who have the talent and creativity to walk this tightrope expertly come away with the building blocks of epic, beautiful songs - the ones who lose their balance and harmony through a concentration on some single specific characteristic of the genre over others fall into a vain, mute pattern of self-referencing. Some would argue that Xasthur, for example, is now approaching this final stage of decadence.

So, in any case, Morthond stumble and stutter on that line between entrancing, soothing dark atmospheres and base monotony often...mainly, I believe, through a misunderstanding of the potential of repetition as a tool and the unwillingness of the band's sole musician, Thorstadt, at this point in his career, to adequately explore his own potential for expression. Simply put: the riffing here is too straightforward, the communicative possibilities of his take on the style too constricted, the messages he is seeking to carry across the threshold between musician and listener too limited. On some songs he succeeds in building "adequate" atmospheres, in others ("The Wandering Apparition", "The Souls That Possess Forgotten Battlegrounds") the uniformity of the droning riffs becomes painful. I do like his vocals, however, and I wish, at times, that he had layered them or wrote in additional/supporting choruses beneath the lead screams to further color the music with their potential. The production/mix on this recording is also a problem...it's just too clear, too shallow or bright and clean, there isn't any ambient room for the guitars to cast shadows, no echoing space to create a sense of burgeoning darkness or "mystery". I'm guessing it's a completely digital creation, but I'm probably wrong. Because of this tonal "obviousness" and lack of reflecting reverb or an echoing environment, the music just doesn't live up to its full possibilities, and, in my opinion, it certainly doesn't match the ideas created in one's mind by gazing upon the excellently suggestive cover and insert art. Morthond/Thorstadt, I feel, has the requisite potential to warrant attention in the future, but I can only hope he further explores the ideas that first gave rise to the band and - in the future - pays as much attention to the presentation of his music in a tonal/timbre sense as he supposedly does in terms of strict form. With a darker sense of sound/production aesthetics and a concentration on more complex or abstract motifs Morthond could really bewitch - in the way Thorstadt obviously wants it to.