[2 September 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Whether it’s catharsis, escapism, rebellion, graphic imagery, or just plain friendly violent fun, metal music tends to tread a predictable path as far as themes go, which is perfectly fine for the many who follow the genre passionately. However, when the words “high art” and “metal” collide, the guards immediately go up, and suspicions are raised among those who prefer their metal to be of the “true” variety. You can be theatrical in metal, even a little pretentious, but once a band starts setting its sights on something beyond winning the approval of the metal crowd, for instance, by including with its second album a bonus DVD featuring an odd fever-dream film pastiche that’s equal parts Bruce Conner and David Lynch, that’s when the “false” tag tends to surface.
Or so some skeptics would like to think. The very notion of a band featuring a diminutive, pretty Japanese woman surrounded by four dudes in executioner’s masks (including a Tuvan throat singer) doesn’t exactly have the same kind of blue-collar appeal as seeing Goatwhore at a neighborhood dive, but make no mistake, once those hooded musicians kick into their massive, lumbering doom metal and the inimitable Yoshiko Ohara starts emitting groans, whispers, croons, and hair-raising screams, for all their rather arch ambitions, on a much more primal level Bloody Panda is unmistakably metal, in every sense of the term.
2007’s remarkable Pheromone was an incredibly assured album for a debut, and it’s no surprise that the follow-up raises the bar even more. Fitting somewhere between the devastating doom of Khanate, the atmospheric drone of Sunn O))) and Boris, and the much more workmanlike sludge of Melvins and Eyehategod, Summon also sees the New York City band dipping into early-1970s experimental noise, and that combination of those tried-and-true tritone riffs with jarring discordant touches and Ohara’s charismatic vocal performance and often puzzling lyrics makes for as unique an extreme metal record as we\‘ve heard all year.
Opening track “Gold” starts off in typically menacing fashion, but midway through the ten minute piece, the quintet starts to place the emphasis on ambience instead of brute force, Ohara’s somber chants echoed by Gerry Mak’s throat singing, Josh Rothenberger’s subtle drones underscored by Blake McDowell’s funereal organ chords, the sudden stylistic turn sounding haunted and beautiful at the same time. The mini-suite of “Saccades I” and “Saccades II” again focuses more on mood than any form of linear song structure, the former track’s Japanese chanting especially chilling. At five minutes, “Pusher” comes closest to actually sounding conventional, Rothenberger’s crunching riff and Richard Schwarz’s deliberate stomp lifted directly from Sludge Metal 101, but McDowell’s jarring, atonal notes, coupled with Ohara’s enigmatic wordplay (“A great sorrow drives itself into a corner”) make the track unusually disturbing, even by doom metal standards. “Grey” marks a return to the rather sedate coda of “Gold”, while “Hashira” ends the album on a much more primal note.
The centerpiece of Summon is the massive, 21-minute marathon “Miserere”, in which every aspect of Bloody Panda’s music comes together brilliantly, the pace of the band trudging, but not above tossing in the odd surprise, such as the recurring five-second blasts of black metal speed that punctuate Ohara’s melodic, Jarboe-esque verses. The song’s climactic final five minutes combine pure horror and aching beauty in a way few bands today, metal or otherwise, are capable of, and the aforementioned bonus DVD featuring the abstract “Miserere” film complements the music exceptionally well. From the songs, to the film, to Ohara’s bizarre yet engrossing canvas paintings that grace the lavish digipak and booklet, this is indeed metal at its most deliberately artful, an unforgettable multimedia experience, one that dares metal purists to consider that it never hurts to think outside the genre’s box every once in a while.