[17 March 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
For the last decade, Bay Area quintet Ludicra has been one of the best-kept secrets in metal music, quietly breaking new ground in extreme metal with a series of albums that, while rooted in black metal, have dared to think outside the parameters of that one particular genre. It’s not uncommon to see metal bands start out operating within the strict confines of a genre template only to stretch their sound far beyond what scenesters would define as “true”, developing a more all-inclusive approach, and over the last five years Ludicra has been one of the very best at it. 2002’s blistering Hollow Psalms and the follow-up Another Great Love Song two years later were excellent, surprisingly refined pieces of work, but it was with 2006’s Fex Urbis Lex Orbis that the band truly started to turn heads. That album marked a move towards progressive rock and traditional heavy metal that bore a striking similarity to the stylistic shift that Norwegian greats Enslaved were undergoing at the same time, black metal rules be damned.
Considering their diverse musical pedigree (guitarist John Cobbett a member of prog metal band Hammers of Misfortune and formerly of old-school greats Slough Feg, bassist Ross Sewage best known for his work with death metal band Impaled, and drummer Aesop Dekker also a member of folk metal stalwarts Agalloch), hearing this band evolve so much from album to album shouldn’t be much of a surprise. However, with their fourth album Ludicra has blindsided us once again with a record that takes their signature sound even further, one that deserves to take them well beyond “cult fave” status.
That The Tenant is a significant step forward is made abundantly clear from the second we delve into the beautifully designed, Storm Thorgerson-inspired artwork, but it’s even more arresting once we hit “play”. The guitar work by Cobbett and Christy Cather on “Stagnant Pond” is a lot more cleanly defined than we’ve come to expect, the overall sedate mood and warm tone bringing to mind another Enslaved comparison, this time to their 2008 opus Vertebrae. Cobbett’s classic metal tendencies rise to the surface on more than one occasion, and each time he does so, it’s one of the album’s highlights. “In Stable” launches into a lively gallop that’s more thrash metal than anything else before shifting into a second movement of New Wave of British Heavy Metal-style riffing and expressive, melodic solos. The break in “The Undercaste” at the five minute mark is irresistible, Dekker punctuating the contagious riffing by Cobbett and Cather with sixteenth-beats on hi-hat (a sorely underused technique in metal).
Ludicra’s more aggressive tendencies haven’t been completely done away with, as the ferocious “A Larger Silence” attests, but as “Truth Won’t Set You Free” illustrates, it’s far from the focal point. After being propelled by Aesop Dekker’s brilliant blastbeats and double-time tempos for a good six minutes, the track explodes into a 6/8 groove and eventually a psychedelic-tinged coda, Cobbett and Cather shifting from atmospheric tremolo picking to more clearly defined, spacious melodies.
Adding to Ludicra’s rather eccentric sound is the presence of lead vocalist Laurie Sue Shanaman, who along with Cather provides a very strong voice for the band, whether it’s emitting a growl that rivals Arch Enemy frontwoman Angela Gossow or experimenting with more sedate, cleanly sung melodies and harmonies. Best of all, though, is her work as the band’s lyricist, and much like Fex Urbis Lex Orbis, The Tenant dwells on the subject of the grittier side of urban life. “The Undercaste” takes on the homeless problem in Shanaman’s home city with eloquence: “Each backward step is theirs to own / Every heartache in a misshapen being / Each hungry mouth an empty well.” Her portrait of suicide in “A Larger Scheme” is haunting, combining lines from Cynthia Hogue’s poem “Crossing Brooklyn Bridge” with her own observations from the Golden Gate (“Does it feel effortless? / Does it feel free? / Is it easy as they say? / Icy waters call you home”).
More than anything else on this album, the specter of loneliness looms large, one of the painful ironies of living in a densely populated city. On the gripping, the Cure-like title track, Shanaman hammers that feeling home to devastating effect, intoning, “A façade hides your worn out pride / A shoddy view of others just like you / A window rattles you with what you hide.” Poignant, poetic, and musically bold, it’s a perfect encapsulation of an album by a band that, if Ludicra’s growing audience has anything to do with it, won’t be much of a secret any longer.