Samuel Johnson famously wrote, “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man,” a statement made even more legendary when Hunter S. Thompson used it to preface his 1971 masterpiece Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It was so appropriate an encapsulation of Thompson’s oeuvre and lifestyle that it could just as well have sprung from his own maniacal, tape-recorded notes instead of from an old English writer 200 years prior. Thompson took that line to heart and lived by it, and now four years after his passing, so has Colorado band Cobalt. Their third album is not only dedicated to their literary heroes Thompson and Ernest Hemingway, but serves as their own dark, cathartic exploration of the human psyche at its ugliest.
A fixture of the US black metal underground since the release of 2003’s Hammerfight EP, the duo of Phil McSorley and Erik Wunder is a far cry from the usual clichés of corpsepainted sourpusses recording lo-fi compositions on four-track tape in their bedrooms. First and foremost, they’re one of the more adventurous metal bands today. Their excellent 2007 full-length Eater of Birds won over critics and fans outside the insular black metal underground. Secondly, for the past few years Cobalt has been a largely long-distance collaboration, with McSorley serving as a sergeant in the United States Army in Korea, and more recently in Baghdad, Iraq. So with multi-instrumentalist Wunder holding the fort back home in Denver, meticulously working on guitar and drum arrangements, McSorley makes use of his very short time on leave by completely immersing himself into his lyric-writing and vocal-recording. Although it’s an unusual way to go about making a new record, it helped yield extraordinary pieces of work, first with Eater of Birds, and now with Gin.
Nachtmystium’s 2008 album Assassins: Black Meddle Part 1 was an inspired collection of black metal, hardcore punk, and Pink Floyd-esque progressive rock influences, but where that record saw the Illinois band branching off into different sounds from song to song with very impressive ease, Cobalt, after similarly dipping into varying genres, has emerged with a fully realized hybrid sound. So much so, in fact, that it’s a stretch to even call these guys black metal, as it now forms but a fraction of the overall Cobalt sound. While the abrasive, malevolent tones of underground black metal still linger, as a song like “Two-Thumbed Fist” attests, there’s much more going on, from searing crust-punk riffs lifted from the discographies of Nausea and Filth to more powerful, primal riffing akin to Neurosis to a thrilling mid-song break during which Wunder evokes the spacious, dreamy prog rock of Tool, his tribal-sounding drum fills echoing the work of Tool drummer Danny Carey, as everything ties together seamlessly.
That cohesion runs through the entire record. The title track throttles the listener, yet at the same time smartly embraces song dynamics. Wunder offsets McSorley’s impassioned verses with more meditative passages, the pair ultimately converging towards a bracing climax. The same goes for “Arsonry”, but its impact is even more visceral. The seemingly bipolar contrast between blast beats and acoustic guitar is fused by Wunder’s strong, midtempo riffs. Fans of the band will recognize the slightly more black metal-inclined “Stomach” from last year’s Landfill Breastmilk Beast EP. The great singer and former Swans member Jarboe lends her unmistakable voice to the stirring “Pregnant Insect”. Speaking of Swans, nothing can prepare us for “Dry Body”, a slow-burning, nine minute mood piece that is darker than anything the band has ever done before. Taking on lead vocals for the first time, Wunder’s performance is staggering, his baritone drawl eerily similar to that of Swans leader Michael Gira. That Tool influence sees the song slowly, deliberately crescendo, the Cobain-esque wordplay in Wunder’s lyrics only adding to the unsettling feeling: “Roll off the grass, and let us, the insects, breathe / Roll off the grass, and the let the incest breed.”
Wunder’s revelatory vocal turn should not take away from McSorley’s own contributions, however. Despite having to forgo his lead guitar role due to his demanding occupation, he is all over Gin in vocal form, his maniacal, all-or-nothing ethos making for a truly savage performance, whether he employs a black metal screech, a raw hardcore holler, or a more guttural death growl. Better yet, though, are his lyrics: jarring, misanthropic, apolitical, completely anguished rants coming from a person seemingly willing to delve into substance abuse to exorcise demons. His lines read like the ramblings of a tortured, very frightening human being. A mere scan of the lyric sheet (unfortunately not accompanying the CD but hopefully it will surface online) yields quotes that intensify the album’s already devastating impact: “Burn me down, shoot me in the chest / Let’s fuck one last time, In a burning bed”…“What I’ve seen you won’t see / Urge to kill and love and hold and smash”…“My windows are yellow, My bed smells like sin / Eyelash and scourge the tears are going to come / The air is filling with breathing and rum / I smell you in my shit, on my pillow / In the sand in the air, In the breath of whores.”
Cleanly recorded by Dave Otero of Cephalic Carnage, adorned with photos of Hemingway and Thompson, and divided into 61 tracks in honor of Hemingway’s age when he died, Gin sees two collaborators going all in, in their own way: one through music, one through lyrics. And the end result is masterful, on one side a bravely forward-thinking opus that steadfastly refuses to remain within the restricting parameters of a single genre, and on the other, a record that brings powerful new meaning to the term, “dark night of the soul”.