Saturday, May 22, 2010

Xasthur - Nocturnal Poisoning

Xasthur - Nocturnal Poisoning
2002, Blood Fire Death

Xasthur supposedly [?] descends in a direct line from Manes. Having realized that, and then realizing that this band and its sole musician, a man who goes by the name of Malefic [the black metal stage names are getting harder and harder to create, aren't they - there don't seem to be many "evil" words left unused], do not hide the origins of their ideas away in the music itself, you are free to take in the infernal ambience and darker-than-black textures/atmospheres here without worrying too much about influences, references, or obscure subtext. Now I might be imagining this, but I believe I read at some point that Malefic [whose real name is Scott] denied being influenced by Manes in a public forum. This could be true. Stranger things have happened than two or more artists springing towards similar ideas from vaguely similar routes/roots, without being aware of each other. I mention Manes only because it makes my job a little easier in trying to carry across the music-language threshold some remnant of an idea that will lend you, my reader, more than a superficial glimpse of the sound pictures Scott can seemingly draw together at will. I mention Manes because the similarities are undeniable, even though the artist behind this band might not believe that…and ultimately I reference them because in my mind, the places where these two musical entities take me when I imagine landscapes and/or events to fit the sweep of their music, are more than linked on a tangent or in a shallow hold. No, they are bound together. Is it just me, what I hear on my own, what I am applying to all of this?

Perhaps. There is also a Mutiilation cover on this album, if that points you in any concrete direction. It did for me at first, before I actually listened to the album. Afterwards I didn't care about Mutiilation anymore.

What is Xasthur? What kind of beast?

It isn't a touring band, a group of musicians who seek to influence their local scene, sell records, gain wicked notoriety, pile up heaps of freshly minted glory, or gain the attention of unbalanced females and misunderstood, troubled youth. Xasthur isn't an agent of disease, although it may feel like that at times - especially when you are sick yourself. It isn't a blasphemous curse, a malediction, an expression of anathema, or an outpouring of rage. Title aside, the first track here, "In The Hate of Battle", never reminds me of abstracted hate, battle, or anything related to them. The title does not fit the music at all. Leave the war attitudes, postures, and relations to the amateurs, Malefic [!], the ones who are still convinced that this subspecies of vile black metal has evolved out of death metal's obviousness, or heavy metal's cartoon bathos. This is something deeper, finer, subtler, more refined, and so much more personal than overt gesticulations and gestures of aggression. Xasthur is not an attack, although it can be seen as a victory of sorts. Xasthur is not, either, a means of spitting bile at things that supposedly embitter Scott. No…if anything Xasthur is an animal that lives and breeds off of bile, the blackest sort, and I can't see it "ridding itself" of its own lifeblood. Why would it? Why spread life when you can concentrate, in yourself, all the wretched stirrings of death?

What is Xasthur? What kind of creature?

Two guitars at most times, heavily, irrevocably distorted into gray curtains or sheets of noise and abstract sound, one entering from the left channel, one from the right. Suffocating, they are thick as a hurricane's revolving rains, alternately sweeping towards the middle in a billowing fog, inside the listener, or removing themselves to a distance, echoing through nostalgic layers of reverb. A black underside of static, the voices of ghosts, dead air, the frequencies between radio stations on an AM dial, the sounds of cars passing on a distant highway at night. The songs are pieced together from fragments, like individual Ildjarn tracks ripped apart and pressed together at the ends or on top of each other, only at half the speed. Riffs start and stop almost randomly, or pace themselves for a marathon of dream-eliciting repetition. Somewhere, from some other time, echo out screams, moans, and piercing, mesmerizing wordless cries that do not bleed anger, remorse, or suffering, but only an overwhelming sadness. A diseased melancholy. Beneath this, over it, inside it, peering out or looking down from above, or suddenly appearing from beneath, is a clean trembling guitar, echoing slow lyrical melodies like an Usher heir, ancient and heartbreaking. Behind that, even further in the distance are the drums, or more accurately, a snare, kick, and at times a fragile descent of toms, held down by a constant steady pulse of crash cymbal hits launching each alternation in the picking hand of the rhythm guitarist/guitars. With each steady lurch of the riffs, the cymbals crash and announce a new movement, a new direction - if only a slight variation. It could be a drum machine, although the tones of the percussion are so washed in monochrome distortion and the noise of the recording materials that it is impossible to tell. It is as if [if indeed a drum machine] the machine's digital ramblings were sent out through a guitar amp, distortion was applied, and then that real time source was miked and sent back into the recorder. Stabbing through all of these elements is the icy, forbidding, ethereal, evocative ambiance of keyboard riffs, runs, and echoing effects. It is impossible to adequately describe the power of these synth parts allied with the [purposely or not?] poor production - the combination is almost a literal definition or defining example of the "obscurity" and "mystery" that black metal bands so often try to project through their music. The keyboard parts are beautiful [hauntingly so, like a slow procession of spirits, or a half-remembered memory] in themselves, but when their timbre is changed through the effect of the production process the outcome is perfect. Find and listen to the immensely moving fifth song "Legion of Sin and Necromancy" for a superior example of this. The charging, leaping, biting Burzum-like main rhythm riff [counterbalanced by a good driving drum pattern beneath it] is drowned and purified beneath the death rays of an eclipse, a deluge of dulcet electronic reflections on the surface of the melody's caustic, acidic rip and tear. The echoing desert nightscape and clean well of souls atmosphere that closes out this piece of eleven minutes and thirty nine ticking seconds solidifies its status as one of the best black metal songs of all time. It is surely my favorite track on the album, although it has a lot of competition from the others. Inspirational.

Manes was never this dark, never this poignant, never this lithe, never this powerful. Manes was never, ever this good.

Upon reflection, it is difficult to pick out exactly what elements make Xasthur unique. It might just be the entire monstrosity itself, the complete sound, the style, the combination of all instruments and their respective qualities working together in a unified whole. It is easy enough to hear that it is the work of one man, one vision. Although there are parts that are obviously added as afterthoughts, as purposeful completions or "touches" to the rapidly drying canvas of a song, they are not out of place. Like Immolation's use of "overlays" at the last instant, in the studio, to flesh out a song and make it a little more evocative, a little darker, a little more effective, these last touches in Xasthur only compliment the sound picture as a whole. It is often in these last minute corrections [of an aesthetic totality of effect] where the true soul of the artist appears, they are his subjectivity shining forth and embody his reflections on his own artwork. In them can be seen, in a minute glimpse, a sort of immediate microcosm, the totality of what he wanted to express in the song condensed, purified, distilled, sent through the tortured alembic twists and turns of the alchemical/artistic process. As every musician knows, one of the most difficult parts of the art is knowing when to finally let go of a song and let it breathe on its own. The obsessive urge to tinker, to toy, to "improve", to change, to "perfect" can strike the consciousness like a vicious compulsion, an addict's craving. The last finishing touches to a work of art are often the most masterful, they require the most skill and the most concentrated intensity of effort, or - at their most touching - a complete submersion and belief in the ideal world that the art represents. They are the outpourings of an artist's faith in himself and in the world that his art opens up for him.

I do not want to attempt any more explanations or descriptions of this entity's effects. What is the purpose? To convince some of you to listen to something that I think is beautiful? You must come to these things yourself, if at all, if ever. Let this review only serve as a sort of passing notice of the pleasure that I had, at this time, in another artist's work, and the meaning and magnificence I found therein. I am using this review to make a note to myself so that later when I read it I will remember the power this music once had [like anything else, that power will fade with time] and then I can reassure myself, when things seem difficult, when the light of inspiration within this form of music grows dim, that works of art were created that were true to their internal essence, that knew no compromises. This is a monument to Xasthur and its power to make me dream, at this exact time and place, as Xasthur itself is an epitaph to mark the passing of its creator's dreams. Long live Xasthur and "Nocturnal Poisoning".

Eight songs, over sixty minutes of majestic art.