EOD: Tale of Dark Legact by The Great Old OnesRelease date: January 27, 2017
Label: Season of Mist
The Great Old Ones return with a compendium of five new tales of mind-shaking black metal expeditions into the heart of the void (well, and a little intro and interlude as well). Tentacled beasts of wild extremity! Extreme wildness of beastly tentacles! Etcetera and so on! Of course the temptation is to delve into the strange shadow realms of gleefully tortured Cthulhu-bothering language; after all, the band have already set out their true devotion to the master of the mountains of madness, the eavesdropper on whisperers in darkness, creeping follower of the lurking fear himself… Lovecraft has been a massive influence in metal, with much written on the subject (I read another blog post about it the other day, which appeared to claim that Metallica started it with 1984’s ‘The Call of Ktulu’: but of course, Sabbath’s ‘Behind the Wall of Sleep’ on their first album is clearly inspired by Lovecraft’s story Beyond the Wall of Sleep: metal has been into this stuff from the start. But while many, many, many bands have paid homage in a song or even an album or two, the Bordeaux band have set themselves up as the most slavish purveyors of Lovecraft homage in metal. Other literary-influenced metal has picked selectively, or avoided H.P. altogether: slow-motion-shipwreck-doom-mongers Ahab, for example, have stated their love of Lovecraft’s craft, but have deliberately avoided his themes since they are already so well-trodden in all subgenres. Not The Great Old Ones, however, who have committed all appendages to jumping into the horror slime, this comprising their third full album stuffed full of shrieking Providential degeneracy.
A brief scene-setting intro puts us firmly (of course) in Lovecraft’s world of screeching, scraping, wild but esoteric horror. It’s twenty seconds of general quiet twonkling oddness, before an American voice confesses: “I’m finally here. I’m finally in Innsmouth.” The last syllable of that fateful name prompts the world to be swallowed up in brisk sonic density. Not a moment too soon really, since the narrator voice is a little too ‘Oh my Gaaarrhhd!!’ Hollywood voiceover for my taste. I know, I know, Lovecraft is as American as electoral disenfranchisement and lack of affordable healthcare, but the style of the voice here seems a bit more mainstream movie than shadowy underground occultism. It crops up in a later minute-and-a-bit interlude about unknown Kadaath, for no good reason really…Not really very important in judging the quality of the record, just the latest instalment in my personal grumpy crusade against decipherability in black metal. Speak [unintelligible] or die!
Anyway, once the metal starts, it’s densely packed in for the most part… even the changes to halfspeed still feel more claustrophobic than the soaring atmospherics of the band’s debut Al-Azif, though there is still that close attention to harmonic detail that gives the band a distinctive sound, as do the solid roar vocals. The pace of the album contributes to a sense of threatening darkness gathering closely in: one of the breakdowns in ‘When the Stars Align’ seems like it might switch to an eerie slower section, but instead it hurtles off at just the same speed, and later on a genuine switch in rhythm still has a slightly frantic tinge to it before the track quickly disappears, leaving only the faintest trace of scorched twigs in the New England woods. Throughout the album, the drumming really fills in every millimetre of sonic space with shuddering polyrhythms and endless fills, powerfully influencing the overall sound and driving tracks like ‘In Screams and Flames’ along.
The close intensity is also in part provided by high tension droning, in a couple of different ways. In ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’, there’s quite a long section in the middle without drums or any other percussion- on previous records, this might have been a bit more introspective and spacious, but here a constant, hovering, unchanging tremolo picked buzz keeps the sound grasping at your throat until the drums come back in and rack up the tension further. On ‘Ritual’, maybe the most immediately powerful of the tracks here, there’s an unusual wavering high organ tone which continues for such a long time at the edge of the sound. The first time I heard it I took out my earphones to see if it was a weird train noise or something: a nice trick, and even a nod to the maddening secret noises running around Erich Zann’s head. For me this is the strongest track, possibly the most complex, with as many sections across its nine-and-a-half minute span as Shub Niggurath’s offspring. Finally, as if any hope is gone, the claws loosen slightly, at least for a minute or two, at the beginning of album closer ‘Mare Infinitum’ with a sludgy riff and a slightly more relaxed pace, if only at first.
The brilliant, compelling, haunting harmonics of the band’s first album aren’t quite so prominent, but they are here, more and more evident with each listen once you get used to the close density… ‘When the Stars Align’ has a great, taut 15 seconds of guitar interplay before the pace is swept along again. It’s a fair bit rawer than previous records, and I keep coming back to the word claustrophobic, particularly compared to the weirdly angled spaces in the previous work of the band. This is sort of the opposite of a common trajectory with black metal, but maybe fits with the Lovecraftian narrative, where the semi-hero begins with a speculative musing on weird realms of knowledge from alternate space (as in the band’s debut Al Azif), but then begins to foray too deeply into the dark powers that bend minds (in the follow up Tekeli-Li), before finally the dread horror tightly grips your consciousness with no chance of escape, as here in EOD: A Tale of Dark Legacy.
Speaking of dark legacies, it does seem important to not just happily glide over the fact of Lovecraft’s extreme racism, since it bleeds into and stains his fiction. This is nothing to do with the band or album being discussed here, except for the fact of their extended use of the author’s stories, which, alongside brilliantly baroque language and luridly fantastical adventurings into the dark abyss, often contain some pretty ugly portrayals. If anyone suggests that this is a case where an artist’s political views can be separated from the work (and thus ignored), then they should read the story The Horror at Red Hook, which is just the most blatant of many pieces where non-white, non-English-speaking people are described in grotesquely racist caricatures. I’m not suggesting that this implies any hint of racism on the part of the band here, nor their listeners. It is true, however, that there are issues with racism in other moron fringes of metal, and it’s also true that the author so beloved in metal undoubtedly expresses white supremacy (and aristocratic class hatred) in his literature as well as in his private correspondence. What is interesting, though, is that there’s a kind of endlessly repeated contradiction contained within the nasty bigotry expressed in Lovecraft’s stories. All hillbillies are toothless, decaying goons, and any person of any kind of ethnic minority is a superstitious primitive: but what’s odd is that, despite such descriptions, and despite the narrator treating them with relentless contempt, they’re always right. Their supposedly mindless fear is actually always justified, and their apparently garbled rituals are actually what is really keeping the fabric of the universe intact- until, that is, the overconfident posh white guy lets out the spewing monsters from the other side of the wall. This isn’t to say that H.P. is actually a secret champion of diversity; when I read Lovecraft, it’s odd, distasteful and unpleasant to read some of his descriptions of some groups of people. But what sets this work apart from a simple glorification of such prejudices is that they seem to unwittingly betray their own inconsistency and absurdity. So, we can relish the bits where the smug elitist ‘hero’ gets eternally squished between dimensions or disembowelled by mind-sucking ghouls, and instead definitively identify with the gibbering degenerates and their half-forgotten underground pagan ways. And that’s more black metal than idiot racism.