Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Locrian & Christoph Heemann - s/t LP

It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me or is familiar with my music that I'm a massive fan of Locrian. Over the course of four LPs and countless EPs, splits and cassettes, this Chicago-Baltimore three piece have created a blackened body of dense noisescapes and bleak atomspherics like no one else. While the trio skillfully touch on decidedly narrow genres like black metal, doom, noise, experimental and minimalism, Locrian remain largely unclassifiable, where strict genre trappings and record store organization is concerned. Locrian are able to blend tormented screams straight out of Norway and buzzing guitar melodies with analogue synth tones and clattering electronics seamlessly, though such descriptions do not remotely come close to describing or understanding the magnitude of the band, which makes writing about Locrian no simple task.

It may be helpful, then, to begin to understand Locrian by way of the themes they explore - or at least seem to explore. Certainly, their previous full-length, "The Clearing" invoked themes of decay, urban and otherwise, and collapse — from the eerie photographs of an abandoned shopping mall on the sleeve to the sounds that lay within. To be sure, this is a far cry from the eschatological or "satanic" end-time tropes so common in metal — and this is perhaps where one can begin to draw some lines in the sand: Locrian does not see the devil walking the Earth, laying waste to humanity; there are no inverted crosses or pentagrams on their records. For Locrian, our end is of our own design, from our own hands: environmental ruin, the depletion of resources, economic collapse, greed. And this distinction is what makes Locrian truly unique, fascinating and terrifying: their ability to evoke through sound the reality that many of us cannot (or blindly refuse) to face. Listening to Locrian, one cannot help but picture crumbling skyscrapers, dust whipping through derelict streets, or imagine the detritus left behind by humankind after some undisclosed, unspoken fallout.

If "The Clearing" was the soundtrack to the seismic fall of Western civilization, this collaborative LP with German electronic musician Christoph Heemann is what life on our ruined planet sounds and feels like in the weeks and months that follow.  The fires have long since burned out, no birds fly. All that remains is an eerie silence. This is some of Locrian's most restrained material to date, and it is also some of their strongest. Yet by no means is this easier listening. The restraint shown by these musicians ratchets up the tension and rarely, if ever, releases it. Admittedly, I am unfamiliar with Heemann's work until now, but he sounds perfectly at home next to Locrian. Those familiar with Locrian will no doubt notice some new sounds, but buy the end of the record you will be hard pressed to pick out who's playing what. One of the strengths of this collaborative effort is that this record is not about guest spots or trading riffs. These four artists have created something that speaks for itself, a work of singular vision that some artists fail to create throughout their entire careers.

"Hecatomb" begins with ghostly electronics and acoustic guitar work that almost brings to mind Popol Vuh, but before any motifs can anchor themselves in the ears of the listener, the guitars begins to double back on itself before disappearing into the ether of swirling synths, while the slow thrum of drums pounds in the distance and a piano surfaces, providing one of the only glimmers of light on this record. The various elements at work on this track, and on this entire album, both acoustic and electronic are used masterfully. Sounds and textures and introduced and removed with surgical precision, yet these four tracks maintain a free, structureless feeling — another testament to the abilities of these four individuals.

The middle two tracks see Heemann and Locrian really stretch out and create some serious space. To be sure, this space is tension-filled, bleak and covered with a fine layer of ash. Terrence Hannum's anguished vocals provide the lone human element in an otherwise hostile, bleak sonic landscape of low frequency hums and shimmering cymbals on "Loath the Light." While the slowly shifting tones of "Edgeless City" bring to mind just that, wandering through a darkened, indistinct, abandoned city with the echoes of a fallen civilization ringing through the concrete caverns of a ruined metropolis.

The closer, "The Drowned Forest," is certainly the most unique and powerful track here. The foundation of the piece is vocals, nearly five minutes of several voices singing a mournful, positively haunting melody, as if only a choir were left to bear witness to humanity's final days. Only slowly does some tape hiss and very distant drones start to surface before everything is swirled together, with the occasional voice reaching out above the din. Finally, everything dissolves.

Impeccably performed, this LP is a harrowing, spellbinding and unforgettable listening experience. 

 Handmade Birds Records