“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.”
– The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot
Eliot’s The Waste Land is a masterpiece of poetry. It is stark, vast, singular, and dreadful. At once immediate and unknowable, it is a tale of desolation, decay, and death told in hallucinatory fragments. Poetry is often like this. So also is music. Though, obviously, not all of it. Most popular music pushes back against this concept by creating sounds that are pleasant and accessible, though they may not always leave a very lasting impression. It isn’t intended to confuse or disturb. Instead, it thrives on its lack of offensiveness, opening itself to the widest swath of listeners that it can for maximum outreach and effect. This is not an inherently bad thing, by any stretch. Accessible music is no less valuable because of its ease of approach. But there are times when music almost ceases to feel like music at all, but instead a shattered mirror reflecting musical impressions rather than solid, knowable forms. This is music that digs itself deep into the subconscious with its unrelenting strangeness, leaving the listener exposed to sounds that give no shelter, no relief. Gravetemple falls squarely in this most peculiar of musical spaces, and Impassable Fears begs the listener to abide in this space of abject peculiarity. It is as frustratingly obtuse and unsettling as it is sonically rapturous. Like Eliot, it creates a strange noise, and is all the more wonderful for it.
Gravetemple consists of Stephen O’Malley, Attila Csihar, and Oren Amarchi of Sunn O))) and Mayhem fame. With this pedigree, it would not be too far-fetched to assume some drone-ish vibes will be present in Impassable Fears. This would not be an incorrect assumption. But to stop there would fail to do the work these artists put into this album justice. Sunn O))) isn’t everyone’s proverbial cup of tea, nor is drone, but Gravetemple approach the experimental/noise/ambient/drone template from a very different perspective than their more (in)famous contemporaries. Rather than constructing an album that feels like variations on one long riff, Gravetemple replace the simplicity of drone with an almost free jazz orientation, constructing a seismic kaleidoscope of textures and sounds that add a rich variety to the music. Gravetemple accomplishes this by using some different tools than one would normally expect from an album in these genres. Mainly, the drum kit.
The emphasis Gravetemple places on rhythm is immediately apparent as opening track “A Szarka (The Magpie)” unfolds. As O’Malley’s guitar begins to whir and churn in its trademark fashion, the drum kit circles the hazy drone like an unstable bird of prey. Always moving, never still, constantly working its way around the edges of the track. Eventually this cacophony ceases, allowing O’Malley’s guitar to breath its holy fire of magma-like riffs without accompaniment. This respite from constant bombardment by the drums only lasts a moment, as they return with a nearly schizophrenic fury, dancing madly along the periphery of the track while Attila’s voice surfaces slowly and with authority, building into an explosive crescendo of howls and screams that are altogether chill-inducing.
Another unique aspect to Impassable Fears is its sequencing. Much like Eliot’s poem mentioned above, these tracks, while cohesive and definitely part of a whole, feel oddly fragmentary. As if they are going to veer in completely different directions at any given moment. “Elavult Foldbolygo (World Out of Date)” continues the sonic bombardment established by the opening track, but includes an entirely different vocal approach. Disorienting effects soak every syllable Attila utters, while the guitars unleash a dual assault of heavy drone riffing complemented by tremolo passages that become perpetually more frantic as the track reaches its manic conclusion. Through all of this, the kit continues to play an exceptionally prominent and enthralling role, battering and flitting throughout the track like so many bats out of hell. The following two tracks of the album, however, bring the sonic assault to a more atmospheric place.
The two shortest tracks on the record, “A Karma Karmai (Karma’s Claws)” and “Domino” are so vastly different in architecture from the album’s previous tracks that their impact is almost as jarring as the insane opening salvos of the record. Opposed to the sonic waste wrought by the album’s opening, these tracks are calm, atmospheric, dark, and include nary a hint of the instrumental mayhem the previous two tracks presented. Instead, the listener is drowned in a sea of synths, electronics, and oppressive atmosphere. Regardless of this drastic change in instrumental approach, these tracks don’t feel out of place, which is part of the brilliance of Impassable Fears. Though each new track feels like an individualized fragment of music, they work together as a whole incredibly well. The albums final two songs, “Athatolhatatlan Felelmek (Impassable Fears)” and “As Orok Vegtelen Uresseg (Eternal Endless Void)” play along with this very same theme, only in a one-to-one fashion. The former being an epic soundscape of insurmountable dread, and the latter dealing in beautiful atmospherics. In a fitting and ethereal end to such an epic work, as the final notes of the album fade, the music mirrors Eliot’s final words in his epic poem: “Shantih”. Translated: Peace.
This is an album that could be written about for a significant period of time and still not be made head nor tale of. Like Eliot’s The Waste Land, it is elusive, deeply felt, and fragmentary. But these pieces make something revelatory, and are an experience unlike any I have had in 2017. Listen to this album. Revel in this album. Be confused and befuddled by this album. Embrace the oddity presented here. It is a singular experience, and a voyage well worth embarking upon.
Impassable Fears sees release this Friday. If you like your music disturbing, you’d best pre-order it ASAP via the project’s Bandcamp above.