Surveying the Noise: Experimental Metal and Metallic Experimentalism
The intersection where experimental music and heavy metal meet is bursting with bands constructing and deconstructing mangled hybridizations. It's time to survey some of those magnificently malformed artists.
"Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we ﬁnd it fascinating."
John Cage -- The Future of Music: Credo (1937)
The intersection where experimental music and heavy metal meet is bursting with unrestrained, corybantic creativity. Bands are busy constructing and deconstructing marvelously mangled hybridizations, ripping appendages from multitudes of sonic anatomies. Subversive acoustics are mutilated for maximum physio/psychological impact, with discernible destinations equally as likely as fathomless improvisations. Metal's vernacular reverberates in blurs of noise and dwells in the deepest drones, but many of the bands indulging in such activities have misshapen and unclassifiable physiques.
In 2012, a number of releases have illustrated just such innovative deformity. Albums from Locrian, Sutekh Hexen, Wreck and Reference, and William Fowler Collins, have all coalesced multiple strains of metallic and non-metallic sound into inventive forms. Filled with walls of noise, blasting feedback, bleak ambient chills or some combination thereof, the albums have provided some of the most rewarding musical journeys this year. How they got here, and what those mutations all mean, makes for a wonderfully warped tale.
Alterations, Modifications and Evolution
A change in the musical climate in the late '80s and early '90s signaled the death of much of metal's extraneous pomp. The genre experienced radical changes, and incorporated a raft of hitherto-untouched music styles. Metal was certainly no stranger to experimentation before that date; bands such as Voivod and Celtic Frost had prepared the ground by integrating venturesome elements into their sound, and metal was well-acquainted with alternative arrangements. Technically minded bands experimented freely with jazzy riffs and complex orchestrations, and punk and hardcore's lo-fi, frenzied energy was routinely demonstrated.
However, whether it was due to a more open-mined music scene, or metal's desire and need to break free from the strictures of the past (a combination of all seems likely), influences from outside its traditional spectrum began to have a profound effect on increasingly aberrant sections of the genre.
Noise's unorthodox instrumentation jettisoned melody and structure, and its non-traditional audio techniques -- and unrelenting uber-distorted feedback -- made its presence felt strongly in metal. So, too, noise-rock, with its atonal pummeling and peculiar dissonant assaults. Drone, dark ambient, and industrial music rose from the underground, and the methods and attributes of the genres became readily apparent in metal. It was by no means a one-way street. Metal's influence, which had always existed in experimental music's idiom, was more readily acknowledged (at long last), and metal's wrath, dexterity, and funeral-march stomp featured prominently in the accents of many bands more commonly understood as experimental than metal.
Cross-pollination, Gordian entanglements and labyrinthine mixtures are now rampant. Citing formative, off-kilter and experimental bands is common when referencing metal outfits, where the influence of an avant-garde temperament can't be understated. Experimental music is found in their DNA and voiced in their idiosyncratic burrs, with Brian Eno, Suicide, Can, Sonic Youth, Frank Zappa, Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, and copious other pioneering composers, bands and albums being as essential to their bloodline as Black Sabbath.
A binding theme among all the differing amalgamations of experimental metal and metallic experimentalism is a questioning of what constitutes heaviness. Out of that inquiry, music that tests or demolishes beliefs about metal but still retains its formidableness is born. Whether it arrives with buckling riffs or hushed harmonics, that inter-genre splicing and dicing has produced some engrossingly eccentric music.
Time then to survey some of those magnificently malformed artists.
The crestfallen beauty of noise: Locrian.
When it comes to manipulating irregular frequencies, prolific trio Locrian makes a noise like no other. Since forming in Chicago in 2005, the band has tinkered with tenebrous elements to much critical acclaim. But Territories and Crystal World from 2010, The Clearing/The Final Epoch reissue from 2012, and splits with Horseback in 2011 and Mamiffer in 2012, have gained Locrian increasing visibility. Stylistically, the band's multi-instrumentalists -- André Foisy, Terence Hannum and Steven Hess -- draw from an array of eldritch reservoirs. Dark ambient, drone, black metal, Krautrock and industrial sounds all feature in Locrian's heavily processed suites, where melodies are drowned under waves of distorting noise.
Locrian's latest album is a self-titled collaboration with German soundscape virtuoso Christoph Heemann (H.N.A.S, Current 93, Mirror). Locrian & Christoph Heemann reveals a far gentler though no less suspenseful side to Locrian, with its unhurried bio/electro compositions featuring the pulse of technological progression colliding with organic, skin-crawling realizations. The album's four lengthy tracks combine gentle tides of drone, hauntological instrumentation, and ripples of tranquil noise--with a melancholic mood promising grim tidings.
The minimalism of Locrian & Christoph Heemann lulls you in, but it’s anything but featureless. Dusty Americana is washed away by synth at the beginning of first track "Hecatomb", before poignant piano takes over till its static and skip outro. "Loath the Light" delivers harsh howls (the only pronounced metal on the LP) that cut through a gloomy and stretched-out '70s sci-fi soundtrack. The album's longest track, "Edgeless City", is gracefully sparse, rising and falling diaphanously over 15 mesmeric minutes. Final track, "The Drowned Forest", has monastic chants and darkly evocative overtones layered in an increasingly disquieting fashion -- never intensifying beyond a painstaking crawl, it's beautiful in its desolateness.
Locrian has always produced exquisite works; even the band’s blackest songs retain a breathtaking display of subtle harmonic balance, absorbing splinters of sound and nightmarish memories. In collaboration with Heemann, Locrian has crafted its most elegant songs, and eschewing its ferocious weaponry has done nothing to reduce the intensity of the material. What is most evident is that Heeman's presence magnifies the gravitational pull between experimental metal and shadowy minimalism--amplifying the feeling that our lives are built on unstable ground, and can be shattered in a moment by tremors of misfortune.
Medusa, the devil and toxic effluvium: Sutekh Hexen.
If Locrian and Heeman's collaboration represents the beauty in noise, then San Francisco, California's Sutekh Hexen reveals its cruelest, Medusa-like face. Feral, and diabolically enrapturing, the band--featuring Kevin Gan Yuen and Andy Way (along with previous member, Scott Miller)--belie easy descriptors. Black metal, tape manipulations, twisted electronics and field recordings exist as a base for the band’s exploration of dominions where light is extinguished by corrosive sheets of dissonance. However, Sutekh Hexen is not shy in easing the storm, allowing glimpses of a ravaged earth and colossal amounts of putrefaction.
Sutekh Hexen has been enormously productive since forming in 2010, releasing a series of demos, EPs and full-lengths (and Kevin Gan Yuen's excellent Circle of Eyes project deserves a mention too). Like the best noise, the band's work provides a feverish purgatorial release--in its devilish chaos comes catharsis. In 2012 alone the band has released four albums: Larvae, Behind the Throne, Breed in Me the Darkness, and the compilation Empyräisch. All have showcased the band's potent forcefulness.
Each release has revealed both conflicting and congruous facets of Sutekh Hexen's personality. Aggressive and meditative elements are layered around mutable surges of noise, with skewed effects as likely to evoke the scuttling of beetles as the collapsing interior of a toxic, disused factory. The key that binds all is that Sutekh Hexen's preternatural, pitch-black ur-drone consistently leaves one feeling naked and raw.
Two of the band's recent efforts, Behind the Throne and Breed in Me the Darkness (a collaboration with UK-based sound artist Andrew Liles), highlight how significant the band has become in the field of blackened drone in an extremely short time. Behind the Throne offers two tracks that continue the band’s imaginative handling of distortion. "Part I" begins with hypnotic threads and a shoegazing sheen, 'till it's soon choked in filthy fuzz and fog accompanied by wrenched vocals scraping at your heels. The maelstrom eventually shifts into "Part II", where hollowed out echoes are transformed into a 15-minute vortex of deleterious noise and uncompromising abrasiveness.
Breed in Me the Darkness sees Andrew Liles (noted contributor to Current 93 and Nurse With Wound) extending and reimagining two tracks from Sutekh Hexen. "We Once Walked Upon these Coals" presents Sutekh Hexen at its most austere. Stripped down to bare components of throbbing dark ambience and devilish whispers, it's chilling in its sparsity. The remix from Liles, "We Once Walked Upon these Coals (…To Save Us from Satan's Power mix)", turns the song upon its head. Liles brings in piano and treated, up-front guitar, re-visualizing the song but not losing sight of the original. On "Selling Light to Lesser Gods" Sutekh Hexen dispenses barbaric riffs and distortion yanked from the abyss. Again, Liles converts the song expertly; his "Selling Light to Lesser Gods (He Is Risen mix)" is a lengthy cathedral suite, with choral voices and church organs assaulted by overwhelming demonic forces.
It's abundantly clear from Sutekh Hexen's work that whether drawing from a well of pernicious sound (or sounding like its dumping a body down there) the band is preset to mine cataclysmic moods. Whether it's gazing into nothingness, or overloading on totality, Sutekh Hexen is venomous, pumping viscous tar and molten lava from its subterranean lair. As a test of your fortitude, a conduit for phraseologies dripping with corruption, and an examination of how maleficent music can get, you'll find none finer.