Cruel Nature Records – 6th September 2022

Christopher Nosnibor

These are interesting times for Nadja, the ‘ambient / experimental / doom metal’ duo comprising Leah Buckareff and Aidan Baker. Luminous Rot was recorded during lockdown, and found a home on the legendary Southern Lord label. Released in the spring of 2021, it’s a veritable beast of a work, which combined metal with post-punk, cold-wave, shoegaze, and industrial.

Lockdown feels like something of not so much a distant memory as an unreality, and if by May 2021 it felt like life was returning to normal, the truth is that the wounds were still raw, and any attempt to move on as if life was back as it was before was simply a wilful act of delusion to stave off the effects of the trauma.

And with every trauma, there is some residual hangover, and you might say that Labyrinthine is the product of that. As the accompanying notes detail, the material was recorded during the pandemic and concurrently with Luminous Rot, and ‘explores themes of identity and loss, monstrosity and regret, extreme aesceticism, the differences between labyrinthes and mazes, taking inspiration from Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore, Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Tombs of Atuan, and Victor Pelevin’s reinterpretation of the story of the minotaur and Ariadne, The Helmet of Horror.’

When a band chooses to self-release an album, it’s no longer an indication that it’s substandard or not worthy of a label release, and the case here is that Labyrinthine, which ‘this might be Nadja’s heaviest, doomiest album to date’, it’s clear that rather than consisting of session offcuts, it stands alone as a separate project from Luminous Rot, featuring as it does, a different guest vocalist on each track, and it’s worth listing them here:

Alan Dubin – legendary American vocalist from O.L.D. and Khanate and, currently, Gnaw

Rachel Davies – vocalist and bassist from the British band, Esben & The Witch

Lane Shi Otayanii – is a Chinese multi-media artist and vocalist in Elizabeth Colour Wheel

Dylan Walker – American vocalist from grindcore/noise band Full of Hell

With such a roll-call of contributors, it’s in no way possible to fee short-changed by the fact there are only four tracks, and ‘only’ is somewhat redundant when the shortest of these is almost thirteen minutes in duration. This is an album alright, and it’s an absolute fucking monster at that.

And while the CD release is on the band’s own label, Broken Spine, there are limited cassette versions by several different indie labels from around the world: Katuktu Collective (US), Cruel Nature Recordings (UK), Bad Moon Rising (Taiwan), Adagio830 (Germany), Muzan Editions (Japan), WV Sorcerer (France/China), Pale Ghoul (Australia), and UR Audio Visual (Canada) – and it’s perhaps noting that the running order differs between formats,  and I’m going by the Cruel Nature tape sequence here rather than the CD. It may be more intuitive from a listening perspective, but limitations off format and all…

This co-operative approach to releasing music is highly commendable, and seems to offer solutions to numerous problems, not least of all surrounding distribution in the post-pandemic, post-Brexit era where everything seems on the face of it to be fucked for any band not on a major label with global distribution and access to pressing plants and warehouses worldwide.

The title track is a lugubrious droning crawl: imagine Sunn O))) with drums crashing a beat every twenty seconds in time with each pulverising power chord that vibrates your very lungs. And those beats are muffled, murky, and everything hits with a rib-crushing density, that’s only intensified by the squawking, anguished vocals that shred a blasted treble in contrast to the thick billows of booming bass sludge, and it’s a truly purgatorial experience.

And then, here it comes, and it all comes crashing down hard over the course of the most punishing nineteen minutes in the shape of the brutal behemoth that is ‘Necroausterity’. In a sense, the title speaks for itself in context of a world in lockdown, and it’s sometimes easy to forget just what terrifying times we endured, watching news reports of bodies piling up in New York and elsewhere while governments and news agencies fed a constant stream of statistics around cases and deaths. It felt truly apocalyptic. And ‘Necroausterity’ is the sound of the apocalypse, tuned up to eleven and slowed to a crawl, the writhing torture of a slow, suffocating death soundtracked by guitar and drums do dense and dark as so feel like a bag over the head and a tightening grip on the throat. The recording is overloaded, distorting, and it’s a simply excruciating experience. And it simply goes on, chord after chord, bar after bar, slugging away… and on in a fashion that makes SWANS feel lightweight in comparison. It’s relentless, unforgiving, brutal, and punishing.

‘Rue’ broods hard with dark, thick strings and a heavy atmosphere, but it’s light in comparison. It’s dense, and weighty, but Rachel Davies’ ethereal vocal drifts gloriously within the claustrophobic confines and conjures another level of melody that transforms the thick, sluggish drones into something altogether more enchanting. It builds to a throbbing crescendo that is – perhaps not entirely surprisingly – reminiscent of Esben And the Witch or Big | Brave.

Wolves howl into the groaning drone of ‘Blurred’ and the guitars slowly simmer and burn: no notes, just an endless am-bleeding distortion before the power chords crash in and drive hard, so low and slow and heavy so as to shift tectonic plates and shatter mountains. Amidst the raging tempest, Lane Shi Otayanii brings an otherworldly aspect that transcends mere words, making for a listening experience with a different kind of intensity as it trudges and churns fir what feels like a magical eternity.

The sum total is the sound of hellish desperation, and while Labyrinthine may offer absolutely no solace in the bleakest pits of deathly despair, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an album that better articulates perpetual pain and anguish better than this.

AA

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