I'm fast coming to the conclusion that the saxophone is a highly versatile metal instrument. It was not all that long ago that that I thought that, to bring it into metal, you had to go batshit insane, like John Zorn on his Painkiller releases, but that's not true. White Ward, a post-black metal band from Ukraine, prove that yet again here because, as with dark jazz outfits like Katharos XIII, their saxophone works as a contrast and as a driving instrument of mood and menace. And, as much as I enjoy the work of the musicians playing more traditional metal instruments here, it's the sax that haunts me. Dima Dudko does a magnificent job but, crucially, the songwriting allows it too.
The sax often conjures up visuals for me, even if they're often the same ones, and that starts early on this album. Leviathan is a ballsy song to open with, given that it's thirteen minutes long, but it isn't even the longest track here and there are eight on offer. It starts out like a film score, water sound effects setting a scene as the keyboards grow a mood. It feels eighties, something that you might hear on a Michael Mann soundtrack. Then it gets heavy. And then the sax shows up, patient but dark. Whatever this story is, it's not going to end well. When the vocals arrive, they're raw and angry, but more like hardcore screams than black metal shrieks. Things develop and grow and the sax plays its part, until soon after six minutes in when everything fades away and we're back in the quiet rain with the sax stepping up in its more traditional film noir role.
Now, that's only half of track one, so you can imagine the dynamics in play throughout this album. It's not fair to suggest that White Ward alternate between black metal and soft jazz, but it's quite the idea and there's some truth in it, so it's a useful place to start. After all, if you haven't heard a group play in this sort of style, that's going to make absolutely no sense to you and you're going to try to conjure it up in your head and probably fail. Hopefully it intrigues you ,though, and that will prompt you to check them out. Leviathan is far from a bad place to start.
Probably the worst place to start is the next song here, Salt Paradise, because of the approach the vocals take, which presumably have meaning within the wider story. They come across to me like a monotone Nick Cave, which is awkward because so much of what magic Cave generates comes from his magnificent intonation. There's no intonation here, deliberately so, and I wonder if this is as an effort to draw a character as sociopathic. I have no idea what this story is, but the moods suggest it revolves around violence and maybe redemption and a sociopathic character would be at home in a violent story.
Given the presence of lengthy samples, taken from speeches, TED talks or maybe documentaries, in Phoenix and the closer, Downfall, which suggests their importance, I wonder if there's a deeper level in play too. Maybe it's telling a story about individuals, the ones we hear arguing bitterly in a couple of these songs, like Silence Circles, but it's simultaneously telling a story about something far larger, like the fate of the planet. Maybe I should go read the lyrics, but I'm not sure I care that much. I adore the instrumentation on White Ward albums. This band are incredibly tight and they have a natural sense for dynamic play that very few bands can boast.
And that's my primary focus, especially as I'm not a huge fan of the vocal approach. There are two vocalists here, Yurii Kazarian and Andrii Pechatkin, who also play guitar and bass respectively. The lead—and I don't know which is which—has a shouty voice for black metal, one that wouldn't work too well singing about demons but does in a more visceral story that's grounded in dark reality, as this album surely is. The other, usually in the background, varies. As a clean voice, it's rich and cool and engaging. As a harsh voice, it's less so, because it's a shouty growl that seems half-hearted, as if it used to sing hardcore and wants to move into death but can't quite commit to that premise.
I found myself in an odd place with this album. I gave White Ward's previous relese, Love Exchange Failure an 8/10 and my instinct told me to do the same here. It's an ambitious album, one that runs for sixty-six minutes and never outstays its welcome, and it flows in a fascinating cinematic way. If I hesitate, it's because of odd clashes that most people aren't going to care about, but I find them a fascinating set of clashes because they're counterintuitive. The band seem to moving in a modern direction in some senses, with the hardcore-influenced vocals and some edgy chords at points. Yet they also seem to refuse to follow trends, many of these songs uncompromisingly non-commercial, with wild shifts from black metal to jazz and with such a prominent and varied use of saxophone.
At the end of the day, I find these clashes fascinating and part of the joy of this band. After all, this is a band doing their own thing in their own way and blazing a trail because of it. And that I dig.