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Believe it or not, a strain of avant-garde experimental improvised jazz has always existed together with death metal and grindcore, at least since John Zorn and Bill Laswell teamed up with Mick Harris to form Pain Killer way back when in the early 1990s. It was a short-lived project but other bands took up the challenge of playing and extending the scope of experimental improv jazz / death metal / grind. In the past decade it seems an underground scene around jazz improv and death metal has grown up in Boston.
"The Man Closing Up" is Boston-based band Ehnahre's debut album and first major recording. The album divides into five parts which may represent five movements of one work. "Part I" is a full-on brutal attack of fast and heavy rhythm grind and deep guttural vocals reminiscent of Japanese doom band Corrupted. The song has an unusual structure that stops, starts and stutters, mixing up its rhythms and strangling the guitar's flow. The texture is very gravelly. Surprisingly though the rhythm, all over the shop it may be, allows plenty of space for more peaceful tones and effects to pass through. "Part II" seems a more relaxed piece with a slower, more doomy rhythm though the vocals can be tortured and anguished. Pauses between slashing chords give a more epic feel to the song. As it continues, the song becomes more stupendous and bombastic with an operatic pure-toned vocal and doomy riffing.
"Part III" starts as a faster melodic beast with a lot of lead guitar twiddle solos over a rhythm that jumps around constantly; it then changes its mind about the 2nd minute and transforms into a sludge doom monster heavily laden with crushing guitar chords and squiggly horn melodies in the background for good measure. Much of the rest of the track is spent in this way, luxuriating in heavy plunging drones of abrasive texture around which snippets of other instruments wind and slip. More doom-burdened riffs of a near-sludgey hardcore sort follow in "Part IV": what's different about the track though is the series of feeble stringy noises surviving through the riffs on an IV drip. The track becomes more fragmented as it progresses and quieter, more modest instruments come to the fore. The music suddenly resuscitates about the 10th minute with a vengeance: frantic drumming and guitaring drive the vocalist's urgent, panicked lyrics and hysterical bubble lead guitar careens everywhere looking for an exit. Then the track fragments again. Bringing up the rear, "Part V" hurriedly packs in all the death metal that should have been present in some of the middle tracks. Trumpets and other horns add to and end up dominating the general hell that breaks out here but it all has the feel of being an afterthought. After a climax dense with guitar noise storm, a choir of women singers lament the music's passing.
So far there's been a lot of epic doom metal with fairly conventional death metal singing mixed with pure-toned voices in a couple of tracks. There's plenty of death metal on the first and last parts of the work. What is missing though is a real go-for-broke, risk-taking attitude with the style of music and its mood. There seems to be just one mood across the album and it's one we're all familiar with (an angry existential angst kind of mood) as metal aficionados. While there's plenty of improvisation here, it does rely a lot on the maintenance of a regular rhythm and drum-beat, and so the music tends to feel earth-bound, not soaring high as it should in parts.
The album does feel uneven with the death metal parts pushed to both ends and the middle tracks dominated by a slower, more doomy style of music. Not much scope here for more delirious experimental jazz to make itself felt and heard, and for a more varied range of moods and atmospheres other than a bleak and despairing attitude to permeate the music
With Ehnahre’s “The Man Closing Up,” the traditional role of melody in metal is thrown out the window. This is true even comparing them to more experimental death metal bands. Instead of focusing on melody, the band crafts songs by varying the degree of musical intensity. This rejection of melody is accomplished through the use of combinatorial 12-tone technique which allows the band to create atonal music. To perhaps oversimplify, 12-tone techniques are a way to make sure that music is not in any particular key, i.e. no one note is emphasized. This approach results in a sound which many people may find melodically disorienting. But, does this sound have any value or is it just an academic exercise?
Well, “The Man Closing Up” ends up as a good but not great album. Yes, there are riffs in the sense that certain atonal melodies are repeated. However, the band’s alternations between fast, slow, soft, and quiet are the heart of the album’s compositional approach. Variations serve to replace the structural role typically played by melody. Unfortunately these variations are often too radical yet infrequent. Their inconsistent use erodes away the primary pillar of the album’s form. In short, Ehnahre are excellent when they subtlety alternate between low and high waves of intensity and range from good to boring when they have radical mesa-like changes and flat sections without changes. To illustrate this concretely it is helpful to compare Part II with much of the rest of the album.
At about 1:20 into Part II the band transitions from mid paced dissonant chords with guttural vocals to longer drawn out notes. These sections of long notes are interrupted with a motif from earlier in the song until the interruption becomes the norm and harsher vocals replace the earlier gutturals. Although chaotic and jarring in each part, the song as a whole has an unrelenting flow because of these transitions. The speed and intensity of Part II rises and falls like a series of waves with ever increasing peaks. So while the intensity is changing from soft to loud to create much of the songs structure, that same intensity is also rising. This build up leads to a remarkable point in the album - guitars tremolo picking a single note. Just as this melodic stripping and high speed picking enters we are introduced to clean vocals. As a coda, the band returns to earlier motifs in the song and ultimately closes with a solo vocal phrase. Brilliant.
This walk through of what happens in the song should illustrate that as new elements are introduced, they are peppered into the song. Oftentimes this occurs as other instruments remain comparatively consistent, such as guitars covering for dramatic changes in the drumming. This is in stark contrast to how at many points in the album the structural transitions are more radical.
Where Part II can be visualized as waves, much of the rest of the album is more like a flat desert spotted with a handful of mesas. To abandon metaphor in favor of definite examples, look at the cacophonous start of Part III. The first two minutes of the song are vicious and unrelenting but in a nearly uniform fashion. It ends up almost as a wash. Then when everything drastically stops we have nearly uniform low intensity. Much of the album follows this pattern, e.g. another “mesa” occurs about 2/3 of the way through Part IV.
While these flatter parts with drastic cliffs are often still quite good, many of the quieter and slower bits can grow quit boring. Rumbling bass, random pick scraping, and weird noises all create a huge amount of tension and the sensation that the band is about to delve into another onslaught of sound. It creates an effect similar to that in horror movies: quiet high frequencies are used to build anticipation right before some loud crashing noise surprises you (a falling broom), only to have some other jarringly loud noise scare you again (the second time its the monster.) Take for example Part IV. At about 8:15 you hear a guitar strum so soft, weak, and alone that you almost feel bad for it. You hear it again. Once more. Then suddenly it jumps back loud as hell as an introduction to the song’s heavy part. However, the first 8 or so minutes of the song can be fairly boring just as boring as when the monster is not around in a bad horror movie. Moreover the introduction itself is really drastic despite this use of musical foreshadowing.
Some things in this unusual album somehow manage to stand out as unusual. With the overwhelming weirdness of the album, the vocals are remarkable in their conservatism. Although the rasps and growls are a fundamental part of how the band controls their intensity, the vocals are pretty standard for metal. While this foil serves an appreciated balancing function against the work’s overall weirdness, it may go a bit too far to the point where more straightforward vocals end up out of place. Additionally, the closing female vocals are eerie, but I can not at all see why they are there. It feels like a reversal, the band punted on their concept in lieu of something sounding more traditionally like an ending.
“The Man Closing Up” creates a mood through alternating between crushingly heavy and fast sections and slower quieter bits. This mood is thoroughly odd and creates a sensation of restlessness as the ear waits for a melodic or rhythmic resolution that will never come. Waiting through the silences also creates a strong tension in the music, as the bursts of remarkably technical musicianship are not always predictable. While this works for the band, the album can be quite flat. The atonality makes much of the music easy to forget - no hook, no chorus. While it is remarkable for absences and silences, emptiness here is more interesting conceptually than it is musically. After stripping away traditional melody the band is left with texture and unfortunately that texture is oftentimes too flat. While it frequently leaves me impatient, this is an interesting album with spark of brilliance. It is entirely possible that this impatience is exactly what the band intended, but Ehnahre may have done too well conceptually for their own good.
Originally written for: http://theoakconclave.blogspot.com/
This album takes place on a beach. An endless, lifeless shore stretching out into each direction grey in grey, not too different in hue from the desolate cover art. The waterbody chewing into this beach is an equally colourless and still entity, with few things disturbing the equilibrium of its liquid, if any at all. It is and reflects, in the truest sense of the words, bleakness and utter hopelessness made flesh by OPTICAL input alone.
This scenery seems to be the album's ideal stage, the album's natural environment and finally the picture that the album should and most likely will conjure up in your head by AURAL input alone. In doing so, it's one damn nasty motherfucker.
Where to begin musically? Well, firstly, "The Man Closing Up" is best viewed as a homogenic whole. Although it's split up into five distinct parts, those "songs" largely flow into each other and feel more like different elements of a higher entity. This fact is not surprising, as they are not directly named and all advertised as being lyrically based on an eponymous work by a poet named Donald Justice. I can only assume that the band wrote the music with these texts in mind and not the other way round, that is, inserting the lyrics afterward because they seemed to fit. Overall, the album has quite a bit of an improvisational feel about it, so that presumption seems pretty likely. "The Man Closing Up" can be viewed as a concept album around the cryptic and unnerving poetry that provides the lyrics, divided into five "acts" each with sonic landscapes of varying diversity and slight mood changes yet united under an umbrella assembled by general sound and atmosphere.
So, the album is a continuous body. But what does this body look like after you're done running your fingers up and down its whole length?
The body in question in itself is an otherworldly thing, so otherwordly in fact, that things like "beautiful" or "hideous" don't really apply, but rather merge together in the aforementioned greyish nihilism. While maybe sounding pretentious and ultimately empty from a pure descriptive standpoint, it's a pretty accurate description of the album's sound. Sure, the atmosphere can definitely be called "dark", "sinister", "pessimistic" and all the things that necessarily come with the imagery described in the first paragraph. But in the end, the effect "The Man Closing Up" has on the listener can be pretty neutral to these polar values. Crudely put in terms of clichés, this release is not strictly "good/uplifting" or "evil/evil" sounding, but simply radiating an indifference to emotion like an ancient rock on said beach. And it is this primordial, cosmic indifference, that summons up the only response humans can have while facing such an uncaring and removed creature: Realizing the insignificance of their own values and goals and entering into a disillusioned hopelessness, which sets the album's theme of just being bleak as fuck.
As the first seconds of the album unfold, strangely and frantically timed drums introduce us to the world of Ehnahre, quickly followed by the vocals, whose approach can be neatly described as death-metal-like as the main vocal delivery on the album is somewhat oddly enough a gravely death growl, some of the few things contributing to the "death/doom" tag. (other than overall tempo) These growls are sometimes replaced by a more shrieking variety and occasionally also by clean vocals if the sonic surroundings demand it.
As the first song goes on, Ehnahre's soundscape unfolds: Eerily atonal noises made up by cleanly strummed guitar strings (I think) layered underneath the growls reciting the lyrics, then sudden changes in paces, hitting you as hard as the sudden panicked epiphany a loner in the beach world might have when he realizes that he is trapped there forever. Then, as his madness begins to seep in, again more deceptively tranquil phases with aimless guitar tremolo bar/fret/etc. noises and clean doomy melodies.
When the band floors the gas pedal, these changes are characterized by a merciless approach in all areas. Distorted guitars, spasming to and fro, energetic tortured shrieks, with the drums joining in on the chaotic carnage. This interplay can be said to continue throughout the album, and although I don't want to deny the different parts a bit of their own character and taste, it's, as I said, more of a continuous journey through the album as a whole. There are a few interesting idiosyncrasies nonetheless, like the pained tremolo-picked passage with its odd clean but equally pained vocals at the end of "Part II", the shredding part in "Part IV" and one thing that could very well be labeled an "outro": the incredibly haunting, wordless female singing passage at the very end of "Part V", finishing off the album on a note reflecting its vibe.
Lastly, it is crucial to note, that over all this looms something that defines Ehnahre even more (and also makes them pretty unique even in the avant-garde metal scene, I think). This aspect winds through "The Man Closing Up" like a golden thread and contributes greatly to the underlying unnerving character the album has. As with all my reviews I won't presume to talk about musicological facts and terms like I knew the first thing about them, but I can try to bring a bit of my fragmented knowledge along for the ride to drive my point home.
Ehnahre use a very arhythmic and atonal style throughout the album, a style often managing to keep you on your toes even when things slow down noticeably. The band utilized -quote- combinatorial 12-tone music -unquote- as the basis for this release and then ventured on from there into -quote- other regions of atonality -unquote-.
What does this exactly mean in terms of listening experience and effect on the song structuring? As mentioned, it produces music that is both very heterogenic and untraditional in rhythm and chromatic/disharmonic in tonal interaction, speaking drum-, guitar- and bass-wise. This has the effect of reinforcing (or even being the starting point of) the bleak, restless, menacing and chaotic mood of the album. Nevertheless, there is of course order in this entropy: themes, motifs or whatever recognizable form crystallizing out of the controlled tempest the music provides. But don't let this fact fool you; this piece of art is not meant to be a formulaic race on a closed track, but rather an eclectic journey from point A to point B. The album, while being one of the most demanding and hard-to-stomach pieces of music I know, is also one of those that succeed the most in turning out to be a worthwhile and accessable listen after a few spins. For me, the first time I played the album it practically flattened me, due to its surprising unconventionality and avalanch of sound. With the passing of time it still very much flattened me, but this time due to how well this very avalanch flowed down along my mental hillside and hit certain anticipated spots. A simple rule of thumb holding true for many good records also applies here: With growing familiarity comes growing enjoyment.
In summary, this album works. If you have recurring periods of pissed-off-ness or more nihilistic moods that require the proper soundtrack, if you're also enjoy listening to music with the dominant and defining quality being texture as opposed to taste, if you're generally into nasty, demanding, contrasting, diverse, unusual, dark and doomy music, then -by all means- dare to set foot on this eternally ravaged and yet eternally indifferent shore and give "The Man Closing Up" a try. I for myself can't wait for Ehnahre's next output.