Saturday, May 21, 2011

Random Review: 'A Greater Darkness' by Red Harvest

Norwegian extreme/experimental metal quintet Red Harvest performed an impressive feat throughout their career; they managed to successfully differentiate themselves from the legions of second and third wave black metal bands (and black metal in general) to arise during the last twenty-five years while simultaneously crafting exceptional music that was bleak and heavy enough to proudly stand next to the best of their scandinavian extreme-metal brethren.

Even now that so-called 'blackened' music in general seems to have embraced synthesizers and techno-apocalyptic rhetoric Red Harvest doesn't sound like a trailblazer or has-been. Eschewing (though never disparaging) the occultism of their peers and drawing early inspiration from American bands such as Slayer and Ministry they created a unique style that only benefits from comparison to bands such as Aborym or Anaal Nathrakh.

Released in 2007 A Greater Darkness is very accurately described by its own title. If you are familiar with the rest of their discography then, thematically, there will not be anything surprising about this album since vocalist/lyricist Ofu Khan unfortunately didn't seem to have anything new to say in terms of raw ideas. Instead the band offers a radically new interpretation of their traditional fare. The synth is almost completely sublimated into the background on most tracks while the guitars and percussion trade in the precision attack of Sick Transit Gloria Mundi and Internal Punishment Programs for sloppier, crushing walls of noise. The result is music that sounds much more organic and atmospheric without loosing any of the energy or intensity.

Ofu Khan described A Greater Darkness as "This time it's less future-fear and bio-mec. This album is about knocking at the gates of Hell, and you are actually allowed in." With that in mind it is downright amusing to hear what he describes as 'less future-fear'; the album is already drowning in fatalism before the first refrain on the opening track Antidote:

Somebody's found the antidote
Somebody's found the antidote
to human suffering
Wipe us out of existence

After a brief section of ambiance the music opens like the crash of a sledgehammer and it is those words, literally the opening lyrics, that set the tone for the entire album. Gone is the 'new world rage' mentality of their older music and the fiercely defiant screams of "REJECT THEIR FUCKING WORDS!/REJECT EVERY FUCKING THING THEY SAY!" Also absent from the album is tortured regret expressed in many of Internal Punishment Programs's closing songs. In exchange you are presented a worldview that is shockingly pessimistic even by Red Harvest's own standards, so much so that even Ofu Khan's characteristic goofiness (if you have a good ear for metal you'll catch the line "Darth Vader rules the Vatican!" in Antidote) does little to lighten the mood.

No longer fighting the darkness Khan is free to explore his paranoid existentialism to a refreshingly nuanced degree. Seemingly drawing his energy from the conflict and paradox of trying to put a human voice to the ultimate forms of dehumanization Khan delivers a performance that is vividly harrowing in its detail and breathtaking in its scope. Particularly impressive is the second song; it's heartbreaking to hear just how old he sounds on the melancholic track Hole in Me.

It's where they try for direct aggression that Red Harvest runs into trouble on A Greater Darkness. The song Icons of Fear feels out of place with it's surprisingly catchy and straight-forward approach, almost as if its a throwback to their days as a Slayer tribute band. Dead Cities, however, is the only truly 'bad' song; it is competent-but-uninspired to the point that it should have been held as a b-side.

At the other end of the spectrum the final four tracks, I Sweat W.O.M.D., WarThemes, Distorted Eyes, and Propioception, showcase the best of what the band has to offer.

I Sweat W.O.M.D. is as bombastically abrasive and disorienting as it is introspective. A casual listening gives the impression that it is about something like the horror of nuclear warfare; in fact it's deeply personal song about irrational fears and paranoia.

Warthemes is a dark-electronica track. I honestly am not sure what it's about (cocaine?) but it is awesome.

The final two tracks together from a 13 minute epic. Distorted Eyes begins with a simple guitar riff and the words:

You're not the first
surely not the last
to think you have the answers
and are dead wrong

From there the song slowly expands to dizzyingly epic proportions. The final lyrics of the album,

Cherish the dark
in a ring of fire
reach for the unknown
as the pages turn
in a ring of fire
beautifully summarize its central themes: the horror of loosing touch with reality, fear of the inevitable, and the anguish of seeking solace in the dark and unknown.

Distorted Eyes dissolves into a dark synthetic mess that smoothly transitions to Propioception, a cold and minimalist piece of industrial ambiance.

Then it's over. Red Harvest disbanded in 2010, making A Greater Darkness their final studio album. Fortunately it's also one of their best, and one I highly recommend.

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