My investigation into what exactly makes avant-garde music is one of the most fragmented threads running through my history with Heavy Blog. This is because the genre, if we can even call it that, is fragmented itself and also because it is uncommon; you simply don’t get many albums that fit the moniker released every year. So far, we have focused on the emphasis of the dramatic, the flamboyant, and the excessively emotive as core of avant-garde metal, especially avant-garde black metal. This drama is used to make the music weird by escalating both vocals and instrumentals into heights of passion that seem to leave the conventions of composition for the wider genre of metal behind. This allows avant-garde metal to then also explore the addition of brass, string, and percussive instruments in ways wholly different than usually found in other sub-genres, moving it away from the realms of “progressive” and “technical” metal and firmly into something new: the avant-garde.
Among the examples that facilitated the exploration of these “modes”, Ashenspire shines especially bright. Their 2017 release, Speak Not of the Laudanum Quandary, is one of the first albums that set me on this path of contemplation and is an excellent album to boot. I’ve been eagerly awaiting the follow up to this release and was giddy beyond description when Hostile Architecture was announced for 2022. When I first heard the album, I was certainly still excited and happy; it’s a triumph of the sort of musicality that I’ve come to expect from Ashenspire. But I was also intensely intrigued because I felt like the album represented an important piece of my exploration of the avant-garde. It took me a while to put my finger on it but it finally coalesced for me, after repeated listens to Hostile Architecture (admittedly very easy to listen to album, because of its excellence rather than approachability): on this release, Ashenspire have taken the flair for the dramatic and the extravagance of the “avant-garde gesture” (if you’ll allow me my Walter Benjamin) and turned it towards politics.
Now, to be clear, Ashenspire have always been a political band. Speak Not was a thoroughly critical exploration of British Imperialism and its untold tragedies as well as the rot at the base of English society at large. The band have also always self-described as “RABM” and their disparate social media presences don’t leave much room to doubt their real-world, praxis-driven dedication to their political ideology. However, the avant-garde elements of their music has thus far been somewhat divorced from these ideas. I’ll explain: on Speak Not, these aspects were more used to convey the personal feelings and perspectives of the album’s protagonist. They were lost in the bewildering world that is our modern existence, whirling around as if drunk in the dark, cavernous-yet-claustrophobic, and oppressive spaces of the album’s conceptual context. But the feelings conveyed were not personal or political emotions of rage, resistance, despair, and hope but rather storytelling beats and colors.
Not so on Hostile Architecture. The album uses these same tools, chief among them the strained, wounded, and emotive vocals, to convey the fury, desire for change, and desperate hope of the political activist, of the Left. There are many places I could point you to: on “Béton Brut” for example, the second track on the album with its whirling instrumentals (more on them soon), the vociferous vocals are used to spit out the words “I heard the hereditary / the poison of misogyny”. Shortly after, these vocals tear through phrases like “the tripwire of masculinity” and prod the narrator about their ability to dance around and within these regressive, oppressive forces that affect their lives. The avant-garde quality of the vocals here is weaponized against these political opponents, leaving no doubt in the mind of the listener as to how much the vocalist despises and works against these concepts.
The drama has been made political; it is no longer about a specific set of mind of a narrated protagonist but rather the state of mind of all of us who struggle to abolish the current state of things and to usher in a better world (otherwise known as “communists”). The instruments, of course, follow suit. I have already mentioned the dizzying barrage of screeching brass instruments which open “Béton Brut”; they do much to convey the rage and desire for change that we’ve explored through the vocals so far. But this recurs elsewhere on the album, in different ways. On the wonderfully “Plattenbau Persephone Praxis” for example, the muscular riff, beautifully supported by the bass layer of the track, which runs through the track from its opening to its end conveys strength, conviction and a desire for action.
“Tragic Heroin”, the album’s most direct condemnation of the current state of things, the frenetic strings augment the already frayed guitar riffs and blast-beats to create the rage and the absolute condemnation of class society that the track’s lyrics convey. On the closing track, “Cable Street Again”, the violent-then-sparse-then-violent-again instruments mix with the broken vocals to convey the despair inherent in fighting against massive, recurring forces of history and the dogged hope that we shall overcome regardless.
At the end of the day, all of the pieces we mentioned above mix wondrously to create Hostile Architecture, honestly one of the high points of avant-garde metal that I’ve yet heard. It’s not one element that makes it so but exactly the re-configuration of the dramatic avant-garde towards the political that Ashenspire have achieved on this release. This album is not “just” another great avant-garde release: it is a reckoning with the genre’s tropes, sounds, and compositional habits that aims to challenge what can be done conceptually with these sounds and inflections. This means that you are “free” (as we are all free, comrade) to listen to this album on any level you would like: you can listen to it for its emotional impact. You can listen to it for its technical complexity (which is plenty by the way; we have not spent much time on it, but this album is a compositional marvel). And you can listen to it for its politics, its rallying cry, its condemnation of the unjust and cruel societies we participate in, its exploration of the ambivalence of that participation, and how we might resist.
And, of course, you can listen to it for all those things at once, unlocking the true greatness of this release which is how it is able to achieve all of the above cited goals at the same time. Hostile Architecture is a masterpiece in avant-garde metal, black or otherwise, a perfect example of how to push yourself forward musically, technically, and conceptually.
Capital’s pre-eminence made matter.
Nailed to the high-rise, under the budgetary hammer.
Do they sleep well, wrapped in irony?
Better that than tangled in austerity.
Better ours than their children in poverty.
Tide over the tampered-with, until it’s their turn;
A corner cut, a penny saved,
Grenfell burns again and again and again!
There’s worse than the pox for all these houses.
Ashenspire’s Hostile Architecture releases on the 18th of July. You can head on over to the Bandcamp link above to pre-order it.