[19 June 2013]
“There is nothing left to watch but fire and the night: circle within circle, light within light.”
– Samuel R Delany, Dhalgren
The heaviness exhibited by the metal or experimental artists covered in this column every month comes in an array of forms. It might crawl along on bloody knuckles, bringing hirsute and hulking audial mass; it might charge at full sprint, wielding a razor-sharp studded cudgel of crushing audio density; it might manifest as raw psychological hemorrhaging; or it might be a combination of all. While the artists covered here all utilize differing measures of weight, substance or emotionally lacerating noise to amplify how they see heaviness, often the strongest link between them all are recurring themes of decay and disintegration.
Chief among the most artistically successful proponents of such heavy fare is Locrian. Formed in Chicago, Illinois in 2005 by multi-instrumentalists Terence Hannum and André Foisy, who were joined by percussionist Steven Hess in 2010, the band has been incredibly prolific over its short career. The band has produced an extensive collection of self- and label-released albums, EPs, splits and collaborations on CD, LP, cassette, 7-inch and more. Whether it’s the erosion of the spirit, cities or landscapes, Locrian’s extensive discography has been defined by the disintegration of the observed and the intimately experienced.
Locrian evokes the feel of modernity’s decay like no other. Using synthesizers, tape loops, electric and acoustic guitars, bass, spectral vocals, and piles of effects and percussion, the band crafts heavily processed suites, where melody is frequently ground up and spat out from the rusting gears and collapsing machinery of factories of noise. Earlier works, such as the Exhuming the Carnival/Burying the Carnival cassette, Greyfield Shrines LP and Plague Journal 7-inch, demonstrated the band’s commitment to offering up jarring atmospherics. Disharmonic bursts of metallic noise, dark drones, and melodious minimalism were set against each other with deliberate, discomforting resolve.
Locrian combines layers of textured sound to make a noise somewhat akin to black- and post-metal and Krautrock all mixed with eerie and/or iridescent dirges—which are in turn blended with triturating static, reverb, and industrial distortions. Releases such as 2010’s Crystal World, and 2012’s The Clearing/The Final Epoch reissue, have brought the band plenty of critical attention, with their tortuous soundscapes of buckling riffs and elektronische musik cross-pollinating with necro-flecked, mesmeric drones. You could cite Popol Vuh, Can, or King Crimson—as much as Brian Eno, Sunn O))), Khanate or power electronic fare—to reference where Locrian begins. But ultimately, the band constructs its own unique hybridization of mangled-up sounds wrapped in dissonance, and directed and structureless noise.
Clatter and clangor aside, there’s plenty of subtlety and nuance to be found in Locrian’s oeuvre too. The band is capable of producing breathtakingly gorgeous sounds when it toys with sympathetic tides of drone and elegant ambient passages. That was most apparent on 2012’s Locrian & Christoph Heemann album, on which the band collaborated with German sound artist Heeman to see electro-acoustic and electronic tranquility and melancholy riding atop an undercurrent of organic ominousness. Locrian also explored eldritch and shadowy ambience on split releases with similar sonic experimentalists Horseback (in 2011) and Mamiffer (in 2012), albeit with more familiarly ferocious distortions and dark riffs adding to the grim flavor.
Foisy and Hannum’s early years immersed in metal and hardcore have lent a questioning of societal progression to Locrian’s releases—and Hess’s own background in experimental music brings its share of inquiry too. The notion that we’re pushing forward as a species is examined in the band’s work, calling to mind those marginalized by capitalism, the damage and detritus of industrialization, and of course, the repercussions of political machinations. In 2009, Locrian released the VHS Land of Decay, featuring soundtracked footage of an abandoned shopping mall in Illinois, and a similarly apocalyptic (often post-human) feel imbues much of the band’s work.
Albums such as 2009’s Territories, and 2010’s Drenched Lands and The Crystal World (titled in homage to JG Ballard’s 1966 cataclysmic novel), weren’t just powerful sonic vehicles, but also critiques of theories and actions. The album expressed doubt about the supposed ceaseless benefits of societal progression, encapsulating both the destructive forces therein, and their inevitable consequences.
As a result, Locrian has an unorthodox brogue. The band’s combination of metal’s varying modulations are articulated with an often antithetical avant-garde accent, but it all forms a composite sound that’s prepossessing in its depiction of degeneration and our impending (if not already occurring) demise. The band’s sonic deconstructions and reconstructions are all heaped on an unstable foundation of thematic ruin, and while Locrian’s songs are often nerve-shredding and abrasive—and frequently come with nose-bleeding feedback and grotesque contortions—that result is nonetheless utterly compelling. We’ve all seen images of long-abandoned desolate towns, the aftermath of nature’s fury, and we’ve all felt the stab of society crumbling at the edges. Locrian captures the stark horror and haunting beauty found in all.
The band’s latest album, Return to Annihilation, is Locrian’s debut full-length for Relapse Records, and although it marks a change in direction, it is nonetheless another tour de force of artistic adventurousness from Foisy, Hannum and Hess. Recorded by Greg Norman at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio Studios in Chicago, Return to Annihilation is a two-part conceptual album inspired by the surreal storytelling of Genesis’ 1974 album Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, the postmodern critical reflections found in Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, and the circular narrative of Samuel Delaney’s science fiction novel Dhalgren.
Described by author William Gibson (rather fittingly, with Locrian’s latest venture in mind) as “a riddle that was never meant to be solved”, Dhalgren is a post-apocalyptic (or at least post-society-changing calamity) novel famed for its nonlinear, cryptic plot. Return to Annihilation certainly tell its tale with similar enigmatic and elliptical refrains. It would be fair to say that Return to Annihilation isn’t Locrian’s first conceptual work, per se. Many of the band’s previous songs pick apart the concepts and architecture of systems of ideas, but the trio’s new album takes things a step further, breaking into two parts, with further multi-part song sections digging deeper into an all-encompassing tale therein. You don’t get much more progged-out than that. The story is one of catastrophe, a familiar theme for Locrian, yet while the band’s past works have investigated ruination, Return to Annihilation‘s tale is told through the eyes of a narrator overwhelmed by global change; one who cannot tell if he is “asleep or dreaming or sleepwalking through this shifting landscape.”
“Part I” of Return to Annihilation begins on an upbeat synth note with “Eternal Return”, before the drums, rich shoegaze riffs and disembodied vocals arrive—and it’s apparent from the first note that Locrian has warmed its previously bitter assault. From thereon in, the band sonically spells out a story of two moons arriving in the sky above, the earth in revolt, and the noctambulist observations of our narrator (his confusion as to whether this is happening to him or to all of us is left intentionally vague).
The songs that comprise “Part I”—“Eternal Return”, “A Visitation From the Wrath of Heaven”, “Two Moons”, and the three-part “Return to Annihilation” ( “(a) Into One Light”, “(b) Anathemata” and “(c) All Mineral in Upheaval”)—are among Locrian’s most nuanced yet. Delicate acoustics are underscored by dark hums and thrums, with ‘70s synth, monastic vocals, black-glaze riffs (à la Deafheaven or Alcest) and dexterous percussion all adding escalating layers of orchestrated menace and intrigue.
Locrian’s goal for “Part II” of Return to Annihilation was to provide a view of the resulting world (and mind) in turmoil via the “panorama of mirror, the entire world as reflection”. Certainly, the eerie drift and drone of “Exiting the Hall of Vapor and Light” frames that notion well, and follow-up track “Panorama of Mirror” is six and a half minutes of bone-chilling, wall-of-noise doom.
The final, four-part, 15-minute suite, “Obsolete Elegies” (”(a) Isostasy”, “(b) Digression of Air”, “(c) Hydriotaphia” and “(d) In Felsic Splendor”), offers a spectacularly expressive climax to the album. Keyboards, acoustics, percussion and pulsing electronics all mine the prismatic potential, with forward-thinking elements blending with a big old majestic ‘70s guitar line, and synth that wouldn’t seem out of place on a kosmische album from the same decade. Worshipping “equilibrium in a world where it has been extinct”, polluted air, burial, new life, and new ways of living, are all referenced in “Obsolete Elegies”, with each section sonically reflecting its sub-title—and all blazes out on a bombastic riff-loaded finalé.
Of all Locrain’s (non-collaborative) endeavors, Return to Annihilation is by far the most mesmeric and metrical. Where in the past the clash of brutality and beauty was used to provoke visceral reactions, on the new album, it’s echoing reflection (not overt aggression) that plays the strongest role. Return to Annihilation is more benevolent in tone, and compositionally that makes sense. There’s a story to be told here, one in which confusion, fear and combativeness all feature. However, as Locrian envisioned, and has engineered, each is dealt out in careful measures, building artfully constructed thematic layers, just as the band has always done—albeit with a little more humane leniency.
If Return to Annihilation is Locrian’s love letter to progressive or shimmering rock, then it’s a missive that covers a number of decades. The throb of ‘70s electronica is here, as well as slinkier Zombi-like ‘80s pulses and ‘90s My Bloody Valentine-esque surges of guitar. Like the great conceptual rock giants that Locrian tips its hat to here (King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Yes etc) there’s a wonderful sense of journeying to Return to Annihilation. Close your eyes, slip the headphones on (and this is assuredly a headphones-friendly album), and it all makes for a hallucinatory personal odyssey—one you get to enjoy as the world ends. On another level, it’s admirable that Locrian is able to tell a tale that is so lyrically sparse, and vocally ghostly and indecipherable, while still managing to convey its message clearly through subtle shifts in mood and kinetic textures.
Locrian has spent its career chronicling plenty of ill-omened tales. Or, more aptly, as Delany describes in Dhalgren, the band has been watching “... fire and the night: circle within circle, light within light.” And that’s not the only Dhalgren quote that is applicable for all of Locrian’s releases. Messages arrive “... in the net where discrete pulses cross. Parametal engines of joy and disaster give them wave and motion”. And, like Delany’s decaying city in Dhalgren, Locrian’s works have been filled with “... portents fallen, constellated deities plummeting in ash and smoke, roaming the apocryphal cities, the cities of speculation and reconstituted disorder, of insemination and incipience, swept round with the dark.”
Really, there’s no more fitting a description of Hannum, Foisy and Hess’ roles as chronologists of our demise than that. However, what has always been apparent in Locrian’s work is that, while the atmospherics may be decidedly portentous (and Locrian has paced some remarkably pitch-black avenues in its time), the band doesn’t wallow in misery or maliciousness—rather, it paints vivid, meditative pictures for us to ponder upon. Sure, Return to Annihilation is as much a tale of catastrophe as other Locrian works have been, and it’s loaded to its dread-filled capacity, but, like all of Locrian’s releases, the result isn’t just oft-heard grim tidings for us all to bathe in thoughtlessly.
Lociran is smarter than that. If you want the reward inherent in Return to Annihilation, or any other Locrian album, you have to engage; dig into the muck, listen 10, 20, 30 times, and construct the narrative in your own mind. It’s a two-way street here, and there’s nothing passive about Locrian’s creations. The lack of transparent vocals, and a markedly less than straightforward approach means that, as with all great art that is very abstract, your subsequent reaction might well be different to mine, or even to Locrian’s intent. Although, it seems to me, that given the band is adept at implanting plenty of lingering conscious and unconscious anxiety, Locrian would be more than happy for you to wrap your own vision of doomsday’s arrival around its sounds, however you see fit.
Return to Annihilation may be more rhythmic than ragged, but the tense, gelid chill of Locrian (which always grips the nerves) is still there. There’s no doubt Locrian has ever-so-slightly turned up the Bunsen to lift the temperature on its mix of sound—and dreamy and sublime harmonized guitars submerge and reemerge around the shimmering drone and ambient swirls here. However, there’s still thunder to be found, especially when the beating of your heart mirrors the tale, and while Return to Annihilation is one of Locrian’s least heavy releases in terms of battering weight, it continues the band’s use of unsettling frequencies to illustrate unnerving scenes.
For any other band, a change like that found on Return to Annihilation might come as a surprise. But for Locrian, unpredictable manipulations and unforeseen reverberations, not to mention unanticipated alterations, have always been what makes the band so enthralling. Like all of the band’s previous releases, Return to Annihilation is, in the end, all about cause and effect.
In this case, the cause is not a devastating cyclone of conflicting sounds. Instead, the dimensions of the album’s intensity are encircled by a lengthy, brooding storm; slow, tempestuous, and claustrophobic. The effect is encroaching and amplified peril, accompanied by ever-present uneasy beauty. All of which means that this is Locrian at its best; taking the minimal, mixing with the maximal, and rendering it all into the momentous. And that is a profoundly heavy statement.