Ash Borer/Fell Voices - Split
Gilead Media
Black Metal
2 songs (37:00)
Release year: 2010
Gilead Media
Reviewed by Charles
2010 was a good year for black metal, but this was its finest (half) hour. Fell Voices and Ash Borer would seem natural collaborators, with their short (inevitably untitled) discographies demonstrating a shared flair for lengthy expanses of earsplitting savagery of a peculiar sort. There is no cartoonish Satanism or volkisch posturing here; instead, we have a screeching wall of crackling collaborative energy that blisteringly transcends black metal normality and (in one of the bands’ cases, at least) should permanently raise expectations about what can be achieved compositionally within the parameters of the genre.

Each band presents a side of continuous music, and this split is instructive listening for anyone who wonders whether 15-20 minutes is too long for a black metal song. The halves are neatly balanced against each other, with Ash Borer’s contribution serving as a more orthodox warm-up before Fell Voices go on to produce… something else entirely. But it’s a hell of a warm-up; a wondrously violent twenty-minute riff-fest. It screams through a series of raggedly up-tempo ideas drawn from the cudgelling austerity of European classics like Transylvanian Hunger, but it also allows these tightly-wound tirades to unravel regularly into exhausted stretches of clanking quasi-tuneful feedback. The latter parts, for sure, betray a lineage owing much to other North American acts like Wealking. But this is more than a transatlantic experiment in black metal heritage. The abstract snatches of thunderous melody that emerge in the riffing are shrieks of hoarse, beautiful rage, meaning that the track’s 20 minutes can be sustained through the sheer force of its scorching catharsis.

But (and contrary to various other reviews I’ve seen) Fell Voices’s side is the real masterpiece here. I can’t recall another metal work in which a fifteen minute running length is justified by such a tightly-worked arc, with such a coherent and gripping train of thought. The first eight minutes are a tour-de-force of compositional manipulation. Building slowly and precisely from the implacable bass-string whirring that opens it, via a sickly, unsettling melodic loop, the track slides steadily but violently into a droning blast that drips with desperate nihilism. But rather than being an end in itself, as it would be for many bands, this blasting forms a five-minute incubating chamber for the piece’s harmonic development. It allows, through repetition and development, the gradual emergence of a howling tone row, which grows progressively clearer until, at the eight-minute mark, it survives the dying away of everything else to form a shattering climax. This tortured six-tone sequence loops over and over, like a strangled death scream overpowering the iron control of the preceding minutes.

The second half of the side precedes some of the ideas hinted at on the band’s recent Untitled. It becomes tetchier and more chaotic, juxtaposing earth-shaking ‘booooonggggggggg!!!’ noises in the bass guitar with a savagely fast black metal tremolo and the kind of spidery treble riffs that you might find haunting a Tenebrae in Perpetuum record. Taken as a whole, this astounding 15 minutes of music does something highly distinctive. One the one hand it inherits those decidedly un-rock and roll black metal tropes which first filtered onto records like Burzum’s Filosofem- droning minimalism, hypnotic blasting, and ugly harmonic contortions which are sort of 'riffs' but don't really fit the term. And on the other, the cathartic energy with which the band rips through its ideas- so often feeling like they are straining collectively to drum faster, scream louder, and scrape ever more vicious tones from the strings than is physiologically achievable- feels to me like the closest black metal has yet got to the genre-transcendent statements of vitally expressive noise found on records like Peter Brotzmann’s Machine Gun. So it has this 'pure' lineage which gets interpreted within the context of this searching, experimental ethos, which seems to me to be quite an American way of going about making black metal.

This, then, is as essential as black metal split releases get. Both sides are, I would venture, the best pieces of work to date by their respective contributors, and taken as a whole represent one of the absolute pinnacles of black metal in recent years. Not just that, but it proves that this music has a vital creative force left in it that will enable it to keep pushing onwards, contrary to those that would argue its best days are behind it.

Killing Songs :
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