Love Letter – Cobalt’s Gin

I distinctly remember where I heard Radiohead’s Kid A for the first time. It was on a road trip, driving with my parents and siblings to Yellowstone National Park. The mostly desolate and flat landscape surrounding most of our seemingly interminable drive from Colorado and through some of the most boring scenery in the country perfectly matched the sparse, cold and impersonal nature of the music I was hearing. Yet as I listened more intently, playing the record on repeat as the landscape began to morph from typical Midwest blandness to a magisterial wood, the music seemed to evolve with the altered landscape. What was once forbidding and icy became lush and full of life. As the light began to disappear and the dark took hold of the wilderness outside my parents’ minivan, I found myself fully transported by the power of what music can be. This moment changed everything I thought I understood and enjoyed about music, setting me on a path of discovery that has yet to even moderately dwindle in importance or enjoyment. It was a moment in time that I have not forgotten, and doubt that I ever will.

There are many similar moments in my life that have shaped the way that I perceive and consume music. My summer with Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, study abroad where Mastodon imbued me with a confidence I didn’t know I had, driving to see my father-in-law for the last time with Elbow singing to me real and affirming assurances of life’s continuation after loss, Converge and The National inhabiting personal tragedy and triumph with me more times than I could reasonably relate here… Each has a very special place in my consciousness. My heart and mind are filled with such moments that I cherish deeply, and that emotional power is in large part what has made music such an essential part of my life. But in my musical universe there are in my estimation two overarching types life/taste/knowledge-altering experiences: Those that build upon my previous experience (or lack thereof) and serve to unlock new territory, and those that deconstruct and pull apart the edifices I’ve built.

Cobalt‘s Gin destroyed me.

Some music affirms, guides, and abides in the spaces we keep most secret and sacred. Then there are those records or tracks that seem built exclusively to change our minds. More to the point, this type of music slaps our faces, sets fire to our expectations, shifts our awareness and opens our eyes to new realities both harsh and wonderful. Gin is the pinnacle of such musical vessels in my life, and one of the most influential and singularly fantastic black metal records of all-time.

For those unfamiliar, Cobalt are a black metal band from my home state of Colorado. During the recording of Gin, the band’s lineup (which has subsequently changed due to philosophical differences) consisted of Erik Wunder handling all instrumental and songwriting work, with Phil McSorley penning lyrics from abroad during his stint in the US military and recording vocals. While the band has commonly been labeled as a black metal act, their forward-thinking songwriting tropes and fantastic musicianship stretch the moniker to its logical extreme. First seen in their sophomore record Eater of Birds, the band’s experimentation with black metal archetypes would come to its full fruition in Gin. Cobalt is a black metal band like Godzilla is a lizard, and Gin is a record like no other I have heard in my life. This elastic subgenre allegiance is in part what makes Cobalt such an influential band in black and extreme metal circles, and is most certainly what struck me so fiercely during my first encounter with Gin. But novelty elements in a very standardized and established subgenre by themselves are merely neat parlor tricks that can typically only keep one engaged for a limited period of time, and very rarely have staying power. What makes Gin special is how the record transgresses and subverts black metal trends, and the skill in which the band does it.

As is custom with Cobalt, Gin follows the band’s traditional aesthetic by eschewing the occult/satanic philosophical underpinnings of the subgenre almost entirely. Instead of consecrating yet another album to the Dark Lord himself, Cobalt wrote an album dedicated to two of their strongest influences, American writers Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson. The lyrics paint bleak pictures of isolation, substance dependence, depression, nature’s violence, and decay. No corpse paint. No gimmicks. Just raw emotional carnage filtered through the prism of some pretty revolutionary music. And very good sounding revolutionary music at that. One of the most immediately noticeable differences between Cobalt and their black metal peers are the production values espoused, which are uniformly warm, full, and ferocious. The guitar tone, rather than frostbitten and played from a muffled bathroom in some mother’s basement, is a dynamic and fiery furnace given all the glory it could possibly need in a mix that allows every instrument the opportunity to be heard with startling clarity. The drums thunder, the bass thrums, and McSorley’s vocals annihilate with wretched perfection. It is a masterclass in how black metal production can sound, and a revolutionary sonic step forward for a subgenre entrenched seemingly immovably in its past.

But such attention to logistical detail and subversion of subgenre norms is only valuable when the songs it envelopes are worthy of the care attached to them. These tracks are. Every single one of them. From the opening, folksy strumming of Wunder’s guitar in the title track, it’s clear that these songs are not your traditional black metal fare. The drums kick in, the guitars begin to rage with all the riff-filled righteousness one could conjure, and McSorley’s vocals tear through this instrumental maelstrom with all the force of a mountain thunderstorm. While Cobalt is adept at tremolo-picked madness and blast beats (provided with jealousy-inducing creativity and skill by Wunder), the band’s utilization of space in the drum and guitar work in Gin makes for a record that transcends traditional black metal songwriting structures without ever losing its general sense of ferocity. I fell in love with this album after hearing the first song, and to my great shock and relief things only got more overwhelmingly awesome from there. Subsequent track “Dry Body” does nothing to alter the approach established by the self-titled track, featuring ominous, sparse and sludgey guitar work layered over McSorley’s haunting, trance-like clean singing, which eventually explodes into a black metal earthquake of sound and fury. Wunder’s drum work throughout the track in many ways mimics the tribal flair of Tool’s Danny Carey, who also obviously impacts Wunder’s playing in the phenomenal “Two Thumbed Fist”. The inclusion of progressive and sludge metal influences in Gin is both refreshing and jarring, as these metal subgenres are so vastly different at face value that it’s hard to imagine them merging effectively. But on Gin they do, particularly in “A Clean Well Lighted Place” and the second half of “Stomach”, which both see the band expanding their sound to epic degrees. The album also uses instrumental interludes like “Throat” and “The Old Man Who Lied for His Entire Life” to stirring effect, incorporating variety that always feels like it belongs to the whole. Album finale “A Starved Horror” may be the most generous oddity on the entire record, highlighting soaring melodic touches that helm closer to classic heavy metal, with more Tool-infused rhythm breaks to create a stunning close to an impeccable musical experience. It’s the most un-black metal black metal record you are likely to hear, and is all the more glorious for its gleeful subversion of subgenre tropes.

Where Kid A, expanded my horizons and lifted me to a place of surreal unfamiliarity, Gin obliterated what I thought an entire musical subgenre was supposed to be. I consider it one of the most delightful drubbings I have ever received. I will always be thankful for Gin. Not just because it’s an excellent record with infinite replay value, but mostly because it’s an album utterly unafraid to take big risks in a subgenre averse to them, and pulls each of these gambles off with such skill and confidence that one is left scratching their head as to why every black metal band doesn’t sound like this. After having grown into an appreciation for black metal with the classics from Emperor, Mayhem, Darkthrone and Bathory serving as my foundation to what this type of music was supposed to sound like, Cobalt completely deconstructed my perception of what black metal can and should be. It’s the Kid A of black metal records, a true game-changer deserving of every accolade it has received. For those of us entrenched in the sounds we love, may there be a Gin that comes along in each of our lives to kick us in the pants and show us what our favorite forms of music are truly capable of. While the band’s lineup has changed since Gin‘s release, its continued influence on black metal endures. May they live forever.