November 30, 2006

Music's Other Dimensions

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Yeah, Altar is metal, but it’s as if Boris and sunn O))) are playing sine waves instead of guitars. I’ve heard some stuff by Boris before that failed to move me, too spare and abstract to actually evoke anything, but this collaboration is the real thing, the essence of metal with neither thrashing speed nor the energy of a screaming vocalist, and distorted beyond comprehension. “N.L.T.”, the second track on the album, begins with a deep, deep note, deep and loose as the rattling breath of a stand-up bass with pneumonia, and darkens from there. This is not a pleasant listen.
The power of an album like Altar is that it bleeds over into the rest of your records too, impregnating the poppiest songs with the same nihilistic despair. You know how horror movies have this insidious way of unbalancing you for a long time after you watch them, like the scene in one of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies where a pickup truck backs over a guy, then advances, then backs up, then advances, for a full five minutes. And the guy won’t die, but just keeps gurgling. This album is like that, pushing beyond pretty notions of entertainment or pleasure, tearing open a wormhole to a red giant dimension where music becomes an endurance test.
By the middle of Altar, a dragging conceptual progression becomes apparent with “The Sinking Belle,” the first track with any vocals. Placed as it is, in the middle of the album, it’s like a brief human moment — the space between birth and death, between the rise of civilization and the fall. It’s almost pleasant, in that the sadness extends past pure emotion into wordfulness. For a moment darkness and terror are replaced by a tepid glimmer of melancholy light.
But human beings have been here for a brief second on a cosmic scale, and Altar quickly moves on from our sorry plight into heavier, headier territory. In “Akuma no Kuma,” the next track, the vocals are fed through a heavy, robotic distortion that rattles. Metal music has no fear of genres like science fiction or fantasy … are they talking robotic takeover of the earth here? Why not? Fuzzy trumpets and a gong call in the procession of the croaking, horrific king of the robots.
The problem with an album like this is that you’re torn between two poles. It’s really an album, not just a collection of songs — the sequence is important and something is lost when you listen to a single track. Each song builds on the context of the last, so that the tender guitar on “Fried Eagle Mind” is undeniably influenced by “The Sinking Belle,” and the album really does build from almost nothing. The album is a track of evolution — from a classic metal progression without much else in “Etna” through prog-rock in “Akuma no Kuma” through to “Blood Swamp,” the 15-minute track rounding out the end of the album that makes the other songs look as inconsequential as liner notes. It takes time to get into the spirit of the music, but each song is, in itself, as demanding and multilayered as a full album. This droning force is obviously intentional, and well done, making the seconds between songs crucial gasps of air in an album that submerges you, drowning you in a pool of sludge. Claw at the edges, but you’re not getting out until the bands release their tentacles, a month-long hour after you cue the first track up.