[11 August 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Although they’re regarded as completely differing entities today, black metal and hardcore punk are much more closely related than some kids these days would care to admit. Going back to black metal’s first wave, there was a distinct hardcore punk element to the music, whether it was the crunching proto-thrash riffs of Hellhammer, Celtic Frost, and Bathory or the frenzied d-beats of Venom. Conversely, 1980s crust punk bands like Nausea and Amebix drew heavily from the metal side, and those same kind of raw, open riffs, in turn, crept into Norwegian black metal in the 1990s. In fact, one could easily categorize the current musical direction of black metal greats Darkthtrone as crust, their last four punk-infused albums bearing no similarity to the icy atmospherics of landmark records like Transilvanian Hunger and A Blaze in the Northern Sky.
One side of hardcore that bands haven’t bothered to merge with black metal, however, is noisecore. And for good reason too: in theory, the combination of traditional black metal atmospherics and melodies with the jagged, often atonal sounds of Botch, Refused, and D.C. Dischord bands just seems like a completely awkward, unnatural fit. Unbelievably, not only has a band come along that dares to meld the two seemingly disparate sides, but they’ve done so with such panache on their debut album that they already sound completely different from any band in metal after just one record. That’s not a bad way to start off a career.
Perhaps it helps that the Rosemary’s Baby-referencing New York City trio Castevet doesn’t have much of a black metal pedigree. Bassist J. Scott did time with experimental band Anodyne and grindcore act Defeatist. Guitarist Andrew Hock played in grind band Biolich and doomsters Ehnare, while drummer Ian Jacyszyn previously specialized in brutal death metal with Copremesis and Pillory. Of course, there are some in the underground black metal world who will immediately question the band’s credibility simply because a) they’ve emerged from a very trend-oriented local scene, b) they have switched to black metal from death and grindcore, and c) they don’t stubbornly stick to the traditional black metal template. But Castevet surely couldn’t care less about such trivialities, and neither should we, especially when the actual music on Mounds of Ash is as excellent as it turns out to be.
What’s remarkable about this album is how quickly it separates itself from the rest of the band’s peers. Unlike the epic virtuosity of Krallice and the trance-inducing frenzy of Liturgy, Castevet is less about atmosphere and more about actual song craft. It’s not just a count-in and we’re off to the races, nor is it refined melodies buried under a wall of noise; there’s actual space in these compositions. There aren’t predictable ebbs and flows here; the music actually goes somewhere. Opening track “Red Star Sans Chastity” deftly switches from lurching rhythm riffs to speed-driven tremolo picking, with gears shifting so unexpectedly that the listener has no idea what’s going to happen next, eventually climaxing with a coda blatantly influenced by Fugazi. In fact, for such an extreme, seemingly complex sound, this is very accessible stuff, ranging from the melancholy that creeps into the double-kick-driven title track or the post-punk tension of the taut “Grey Matter”, which inexplicably morphs into something defiantly beautiful. And speaking of beautiful, the drone-like waves of brass horns on “Wreathed in Smoke” provide a jaw-dropping moment nobody could have foreseen.
The line between black metal and noisecore gets even blurrier the deeper you go into Mounds of Ash, to the point where the notion of genre goes out the window entirely and you’re stuck marveling at just how clever, unique, and striking this album is. The arrangements are so intriguing that Hock’s indecipherable vocals, delivered in a roar that ranks somewhere between hardcore and death metal, feel like more of an afterthought than as a complement to the music. Like Krallice and Liturgy, in one fell swoop, Castevet has set loose a debut full-length that is completely one of a kind. But while the other two bands remain very much rooted in black metal aesthetics, Castevet has used the sound as a springboard towards something completely different, original, and downright breathtaking.