11 September, 2012

30 Reviews In 30 Days: Review #11

Nihill, Verdonkermaan (Hydra Head, 2012)

It only seems appropriate to greet the news of Hydra Head's imminent dissolving with a review of an album they recently released. Dutch black metal band Nihill have released their third album Verdonkermaan, the last part of a trilogy about something or other. (Does it really matter what supposed meaning it has? It's all most likely some kind of occult mumbo-jumbo anyway.) It definitely sounds like a black metal album: cloudy, trebly, lo-fi walls of razor-sharp distortion, messy blastbeats, almost ridiculously demonic vocals sunk fairly low in the mix. So what differentiates this from a thousand other faintly ridiculous black metal albums?

Please note: In general, I am not much of a fan of black metal. It often sounds to me like a bunch of dudes absolutely busting their fucking nuts trying to sound eeeeeeeeevil and spooky while sounding like a bunch of groaning, powerless dorks instead. There are a few masterpieces within the genre, of course (Darkthrone and Burzum chief among them in my uninformed view), but in general, it's not something I really seek out. But there are a few things that definitely separate this album from a corpse-painted pack of other albums trying to be as good.

This album is absolutely relentless. Nearly every track sounds as if it is genuinely out for blood. It starts off with a 10-minute bashfest of mile-a-second drum smashing, screaming and playing and doesn't let up from there. Some songs may be slower, some may be calmer, one is an almost silent melange of processed feedback and backwards messages - but somehow none of them ever let up. It's hard to listen to this album in full, because it just will not stop pounding at you. Even when you've resigned yourself to this incessant assault, the band find you at that exact moment and decide that's the perfect time to drown you with a group of chaotic, shrieking, beyond-trebly guitar squiggles masquerading as solos. Many black metal albums are much more listener-friendly than this. In contrast, this album sounds like it wants to beat your head in until it has become a liquefied mass of blood and bone on the pavement.

The guitar playing and tone are absolutely destructive. The sonic picture on most black metal is dominated by many overdubs of grotesquely diffuse, knife-blade distorted guitars on them; it's a characteristic of the genre. This is a hit-and-miss thing for me: while it sometimes delivers incredibly powerful results, it just as often feels like a stupid, tinny headache and an annoyance. This time it's different, because the guitarist continually writes extremely unfriendly and memorably nasty chord progressions and plays them with a guitar tone that sounds like a wall of electric saws ready to slice you into very tiny chunks. There's not one ounce of anything other than pure hatred in the chord sequences this dude comes up with. The guitars also don't let up for nearly the entire album; but they shares just a little of the musical landscape with the bass, which adds greatly to the overall sound. Many black metal albums have inaudible bass on them: even Filosofem may as well have been recorded without the instrument for all the appearance it made in the mix. Here, however, you can always hear it underneath the wall of guitars, and it adds a heaviness and melodic ingenuity to the sound that just isn't there on other black metal albums.

The vocals on this album are completely vile and inhuman. Apparently the vocalist of this band is in another band called Dodecahedron, which blows my mind a bit, because it doesn't seem possible that this guy could have any vocal cords left after singing on this album. Nearly every song is delivered in a group of ridiculously shredded yells and shrieks, or slightly lower-pitched groaning so convincingly painful-sounding that you expect him to puke up his larynx at any second and be done with speaking, much less singing, for good.

I realize I've described this album in such a way that makes it sound like this band is essentially nothing more than a black metal band. And that is what they are. So what differentiates this from a sea of other black metal albums? The answer is simply that Nihill just does black metal better than most other black metal bands. Where so many other bands pose and strive, Nihill sounds effortlessly evil. Whether they actually are evil is completely beside the point. Sounding like you really, really, really mean it is pretty much everything in this music. And Nihill actually sound like a group of demons who would like stabbing you in the dark somewhere in a forest at night and then consuming your roasted flesh and innards until you are a bleached skeleton lying around on an abandoned road. You get the feeling that they could make another 42 minutes of mechanically cold and brutalizing music like this without even trying too hard. Verdonkermaan is a black metal album. But it's a black metal album that lives up to and then exceeds all the dictates of the genre. It makes all the right moves.

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