Flesh Cathedral: a daring if daunting adventure through ruin to redemption

Svartidaudi, Flesh Cathedral, Norway, Terratur Possessions, CD VOICE033 / DWP024 (2012)

“Flesh Cathedral” remains Svartidaudi’s sole album to date which may surprise a lot of people who listen to it the first time – I certainly was, because it sounds so accomplished and meticulous in its technical crafting. It certainly doesn’t sound like a first album but more like a second or even third album: the songs are part of a concept that’s taken time to develop (and for that reason the album is best heard in one sitting) and the music’s execution sounds well balanced, tight enough but not too tight. The band’s preference for dissonant chords does mean the music sounds superficially similar to famous French black metallers Deathspell Omega and these Icelanders may well have taken inspiration from DSO in their song-writing and concepts. Everything else they do here though is different: Svartidaudi don’t go in for avant-jazz rhythms, theirs is a more doomy style of black metal.

Intro track “Sterile Seeds” sets the stage musically and conceptually: this track introduces us to a post-apocalyptic world ruined by wars and pollution, or to a body wrecked by addiction and abuse of all kinds and that has passed the threshold between life and death. The track’s style is epic and monumental in many ways, with layers and layers of grinding or fluttering tremolo guitars, a cold atmosphere and harsh stentorian vocals. The drumming isn’t especially heavy or remarkable but doesn’t need to be – the guitars and bass shoulder most of the responsibility for building up and carrying such a massive edifice of music, mood and ambience. “The Perpetual Nothing” brings the listener to confront an utterly empty and bleak universe with stuttering rapid-fire rhythm thunder, tom-tom rolls, sinister spider lead guitars and the most dreadful death-rattle vocals that sigh resignation in the face of nihilism. This song is a mighty monster of machine-gun blast-beat and tom-tom punishment and wailing guitar, relentless in piling riff upon riff, and nearly drowning out the vocals.

The title track builds on previous songs with a huge deep cavernous atmosphere, a complex mix of thunderous drumming, flippy blast beats and shifting rhythms, monstrous grinding bass grooves, sinister winding guitar riffs and melodies, and above all those dry wraith vocals drifting overhead. “Psychoactive Sacraments” is a roller-coaster ride through highs and lows in mood and music with portentous doom, malevolent black metal and hellish dark ambient elements used where appropriate to create a dramatic shape-shifting sonic architecture that floods and overwhelms the senses. While darkness and despair reign, there also appears a glimmer of hope, of brightness, of potential renewal and access to a higher spiritual plane.

Each song is very long and structurally elaborate with new riffs and melodies coming in almost right up to the end, and drastically changing rhythm or direction about halfway through as well, so tracks probably aren’t as distinctive or memorable as they could be. No one track is typical of the album and all songs need to be heard together for them to make sense, not only as a whole, but as parts in the whole. For this reason, hearing this album is a daunting adventure in itself and several rounds with the album might be necessary at risk of feeling punch drunk after each listen. But those of us who’ve heard the album a few times can at least say it’s an adventure worth taking.

The one thing I think that would improve this album is a higher quality production that brings out more of its subtleties and highlights its sonic extremes and many moods and atmospheres.

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