Here's a fascinating album from Toronto that's led off by a fascinating track, Solar Witch. The band describe what they do as avant-garde black metal, but this one starts out firmly in doom territory. Those are Candlemass chords, even if the guitars are doing weird scales around them. What black metal we hear at this point is in the vocals of, well, someone. This is a band of mystery and they're not interested in letting us know any of their names or responsibilities, though photos highlight a trio. That vocal is a raucous cry, somewhere in between a black shriek and a death growl but much closer to the former. The tempo does speed up and also gets increasingly jagged, but it shifts back and forth like a stuttering vehicle, an incredibly tricky slow fast slow fast slow that oddly works.
Solar Witch won't leave me alone, but other tracks joined it and I'm still not sure which I might call highlights. Die hard black metal fans, and I know how fanatical you get, are going to be happiest in Surgical Utopian Love, because it starts out as pure black metal as this album ever gets. For three minutes, it's fast and sheer and built out of jagged edges tortured into compliance. However, it's a long track, running eleven minutes and it has movements to explore. Three minutes in, it goes back to doomy and theatrical. Eventually it transforms into a sort of atmospheric krautrock.
What I found over repeat listens is that the album gradually shifts too, from the jagged rhythms of Solar Witch through the black metal wall of sound of Surgical Utopian Love slowly downward to Sub Lilith Tunnels, which starts out like krautrock and moves into avant garde classical. What triggered me to what was happening was an interruption. I came back to Hungry Ghosts, which I was enjoying as a smooth piece and suddenly found it jagged and deliberately awkward. That's because I'd gone back to it afresh and focused on what the guitars are doing behind the keyboards. Listening within the flow of the album, its jaggedness has much smoother tones than what went before.
It's almost like these songs are rocks that are laid out in a particular order. When we press play on the album, a waterfall starts to flow over them, smoothing them out. While we're listening to the first track, it's only just started that process. By the time we get to Hungry Ghosts, it's worn away many of the edges. By Sub Lilith Tunnels, everything's smooth. The only exception to that is Mind of the Sun, which closes out the album, because it speeds back up and returns to black metal. It's a good one too with a very neat cutoff to plunge us into sudden silence.
The best songs to me come early and late. I like Solar Witch more than Surgical Utopian Love, but I would guess that the die hards would reverse that. There's Mekong Delta in these songs, twisted a little more into an even more extreme direction. Hungry Ghosts is a delightful challenge and I dig Sub Lilith Tunnels a lot, as it shifts almost into a György Ligeti style dense choral vein, initially with Tangerine Dream overlaid but eventually pure. Mind of the Sun is a great and far more traditional closer.
In between, I have more trouble. The Lost Wisdom of Wolves is imparted through subdued whisper and distortion. It builds into that core black metal sound but spends a lot of time outside it. As on Surgical Utopian Love, the riffs are often constructed of mathematical patterns, as is Thantifaxath take as much influence from Philip Glass as from Emperor. As they get more fluid, the positive side is that these rhythms become hypnotic and draw us almost into a trance state. The downside is the way they can also lose us. Burning Kingdom of Now doesn't really do anything different from those songs around it but it never quite registers on me, more a point on the way somewhere.
What all this boils down to is that the "avant-garde" label that Thantifaxath stuck onto their genre is appropriate and challenging but not outrageously so. This remains accessible music, even as it's doing all sorts of things that we don't expect. It also becomes more accessible as the album moves along, from the weird tempo shifts of Solar Witch and the blastbeats of Surgical Utopian Love to a piece of atmospheric weirdness in Sub Lilith Tunnels that's almost entirely without drums. They do show up but only for a minute or so out of six and that late on.
I like a lot of this a lot but it's experimental enough that not all of it lands and the old chestnut of your mileage will vary firmly applies. If you're a black metal fan who's open to experimentation, as an increasing number of fascinating bands are doing, you should dig this. If not, then probably not.