huge thanks to Brandon Stosuy and the entire Pitchfork staff!
Defective Epitaph / A Gate Through Bloodstained Mirrors
[Hydra Head; 2008]
Rating: 6.9 / 8.0
Malefic, aka Scott Conner, aka the Californian behind Xasthur, is a polarizing figure in extreme metal. Because he toured with Sunn O))) and has been releasing albums on Hydra Head the past couple of years, he's often one of the few USBM acts those new to the genre know about, and so his hate-filled one-man post-Burzum (and Graveland) riffing appears particularly central to "the scene." But then, there are the countless USBM acts who prefer to remain on much smaller labels than Hydra Head -- labels that only deal in black metal -- and would consider being spoken about in a non-metal rag anathema and counterproductive (believe me, there are dozens of hardliners who've politely declined inclusion in Show No Mercy).
Conner pulls distancing moves like refusing to do interviews for his newest record and his press information for 2007's Defective Epitaph made fun of the idea of listing "selling points" for a black metal album, but c'mon: Most of the USBM underground doesn't have P.R. guys or one-sheets to even tell you that. It's not that Conner's an outcast-- USBM acts like Texas one-man project Brown Jenkins or Seattle's Krohm, thank Malefic in their liners -- though he's certainly not without his detractors. See, for instance, this sort of rage.
Outside of that kind of scene silliness or, conversely, hipster festishization, when Conner's on, his shit's among the best on any continent (stop booing, Norwegians). He has a brilliance for creating suffocating atmospheres that are both beautiful and claustrophobic (sometimes it's impossible to believe his homegrown recordings weren't captured in the basement of a cathedral). On top of production prowess, his unique whispered, dry-rot, bird-like voice is piercing, chilling, and light as air, all at the same time. It's a unique, influential delivery...those who sound like him have usually copped his style.
Interestingly, pairing Conner's 2001 A Gate Through Bloodstained Mirrors with 2007's Defective Epitaph feels like entering the crossroads (of someone who's already made his deal with the devil, natch), witnessing the musician wrestling with where to go next with his project. The excellently bleak, pummeling 2006 release Subliminal Genocide continued and deepened the template of Conner's past raw melodic black metal (see, for instance, 2002's Nocturnal Poisoning or 2004's Telepathic With The Deceased). He didn't do anything too radically different than before -- he just mastered his art. A year later on Defective Epitaph, though, he boldly mixes it up some by introducing live drums. That may not sound particularly significant, but those programmed beats provided the steady skeleton for his psychedelic spiraling. Conner still has the snarl in his signature ghostly throat-shredding and the gloomy, phased guitar layers, but he loses much of the propulsion -- like "Purgatory Spiral" kinda does feel a tad like Purgatory -- when he picks up sticks. He just isn't that great a drummer. The other weakness here? The guitar sound isn't up to the standards of his past output.
There are gorgeous (as well as relatively blistering) moments that overcome his skinsman and production shortcomings. It's not a bad album -- hell, the layers of noise he achieves on something like "Oration of Ruin" are truly glorious. Elsewhere, out-of-twang, ethereal treks like "Dehumanizing Procession" and the lovely super atmospheric cello scraping of closer "Unblessed Be..." collide like the angular weirdness of Blut Aus Nord. "Cemetery of Shattered Masks" includes a streaming guitar and synth-y combo that bolsters the percussion. More than ever before, there's a certain natural spaciousness like Drudkh's Anti-Urban EP. So, again, it's a matter of whether you prefer Malefic recorded in a coffin inside a hearse or outside in the cold Cali mountains. For the more whirlwind tracks, like "A Memorial To The Waste Of Life" or "Legacy Of Human Irrelevance", it's the drums that become irrelevant, disappearing into the feedback, mucking up the bluster instead of increasing its power. His playing works when he's able to plow ahead (like a drum machine), but if he tries to switch it up, it lags. This isn't to say live drums couldn't work on a Xasthur album -- he started out with a drummer, Ritual -- but they'd be more successful, perhaps, with someone else playing them (like, maybe Wrest from Leviathan, who can pound with the best of 'em).
For a look at Conner at his best, grab a copy of A Gate Through Bloodstained Mirrors, a massive document that was first released in an edition of 150 CD-R's by in 2001, then remixed and reissued by Total Holocaust in 2004. This 2-CD set is purportedly the definitive edition and it's a melancholic, depressive, atmospheric masterpiece. For those unfamiliar with the collection it also tellingly includes Burzum ("Black Spell Of Destruction") and Mütiilation ("Eternal Empire Of Majesty Death") covers. What, no Graveland? Additionally, this reissue comes with a second disc featuring six previously unreleased tracks from the same period-- including, fascinatingly, "Untitled - Rehearsal June '97". There really is something about watching Conner's process, because when he's at his peak, what he does feels very much like art.
Throughout the proper 15-track album the mix is deep with waxy counterpoint and expressive clean lines. Unlike Defective, the vocals aren't placed so upfront: Wisps of agitation and anger, they're buried more in the mix, occasionally surfacing and piercing the clatter. There are more vocal layers-- almost spectral, albeit homemade choirs. Take the excellent 12-minute "Suicide In Dark Serenity". As its drums speed up into a sorta march, it feels like sounds are filling a room from all sides, sucking out the oxygen. And even tiny moments like the closing "Lost Behind Bloodstained Mirrors" or the synthesized instrumental "Storms Of Red Revenge Part 2" drip with a concrete sadness. You'll also hear the title track, which later showed up in different form on Nocturnal Poisoning and (truly excellently) on To Violate The Oblivious. Throughout, there's a strong sense of narrative and procedural push, exploration than with Defective. The entire album -- though ragtag and numbingly long -- feels more like a whole. Its massiveness is its strength, the obsessive noise of one man careening. Try to find a dull spot.
-Brandon Stosuy, February 08, 2008