[3 September 2013]
Long recognized as one of the prime innovators in the pitch-black electronic field, Brian Williams has been composing spine-chillingly dark ambient works under the Lustmord banner since the early ‘80s. A trio of ominous albums during the ‘90s (Heresy, The Place Where Black Stars Hang, and Stalker), have defined Lustmord’s atmospheric aesthetic, and their echo can be heard in contemporary avant-metal, noise, experimental and industrial ventures, as well as electronic music’s many strains. Lustmord has dug deep into the psyche across the years—dealing in metaphysical themes, picking at our fears, and summoning portentous visions—and the band’s latest album, The Word As Power, is no different.
All the expected doom-drenched and demonically electronic soundscapes are here, but what makes the album a surprising release is that, for the first time, Lustmord makes extensive use of vocals. Former Swans vocalist Jarboe, Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan, soloist Aina Skinnes Olsen, and traditional Khöömei (Tuvan throat singing) virtuoso Soriah all appear on The Word As Power—and you could look at that as something of a bold creative decision on Williams’ part.
I’m not suggesting the inclusion of vocals is akin to Lustmord suddenly deciding to turn to folk as a means of communicating, but the success of previous albums has often hinged on the maximized menace of alien electronics and creeping, inhuman sounds. However, while The Word As Power brings the human voice into primary focus, there’s no need to be concerned that it brightens the darkness. The voices bring a transcendent beauty and arcane mystery to the album, but overall it’s no less unnerving than previous releases.
The vocalists provide enigmatic Eastern and Gregorian chants, gothic recitations, and chamber choir intonations—their voices sitting eerie and isolated or snaking and looping around themselves. Soriah’s throat-singing on “Grigori” brings a desolate, trance-like starkness interwoven with somber electronics. On “Andras Sodom”, Jarboe’s wail is similarly transfixing, with Lustmord cutting a crystalline thrum with increasing bass palpations as Jarboe’s voice flits between chants and ethereal lilts. It all evokes a feeling of the preternatural and otherworldly—common elements on any Lustmord release—but the mournful vocals also bring a magickal yearning to proceedings.
As a result, The Word As Power throbs with a ritualistic aura, and has a meditative and poetic quality too. Phantasmic vocals frequently drift above fathomless, glacially paced electronics, and Lustmord layers on the minatory pulses on tracks such as “Goetia” and the 17-minute “Chorazin”. Both songs see diabolic low-end bass drones countering Aina Skinnes Olsen’s angelic vocals, and Lustmord ratcheting up the tension by way of sub-sonic vibrations, to send Skinnes Olsen’s vocalizations soaring into the spectral abyss.
The frequencies mined leave the bones and mind aching. Enveloping and cradling the vocals throughout are cavernous rumblings, static hiss, and haunting electronic textures, as Lustmord works from a familiarly eldritch template. Take away the vocals, and The Word As Power would be an entrancing release—albeit one even more minimalist than usual. Still, Williams spent five years carefully constructing the album, and you only need listen to the echoing drone of “Abaddon”—on which Maynard Keenan’s operatic vocals are swathed in monastic electronics—to note that the vocals are no mere afterthought. They are an integral tool in Lustmord’s continuing search for forbidden knowledge.
Lustmord asks questions about the nature of existence and reality, and The Word As Power‘s elaborate cover art is replete with cryptic symbology representing those themes. Here, Lustmord uses language and technology to peer into domains breached through incantation, with the quest for esoteric understanding articulated in the album’s wordless vocalizations. That mix of the organic and inorganic, voice and machine, evokes feelings of both wonder and encroaching peril, as we get closer to the answers we seek.
That feeling of ill-omened awe is par for the course on any Lustmord release, but the presence of vocals on The Word As Power makes the album as all-embracing as it is all-consuming. Where previously Lustmord’s releases were something you could quite easily sink into, the vocals on The Word As Power reach out first, seizing the attention in a chilling embrace that mirrors the vastness of the cosmological and theological questions explored. Repeated listens reveal more nooks and crannies of hidden harmonics—all that dark nuance further tightening the grip on the heart—and the unnerving intimacy adds another layer to the album’s depths.
Vocals bring a sense of humanity to Lustmord’s sinister temper. They’re something to hold on to as you plummet into the void, and that ensures The Word As Power resonates at the innermost and disconcerting levels.