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Perhaps my sole favorite USBM act currently active, Leviathan has rarely failed to impress me with its grimy marriage of primordial, dissonant black metal and ambient, atmospheric squalor, and it's been a pleasure for years to mine the wealth of demo material, splits and full-length efforts that comprise the project's back catalog. Like another California-based act, Xasthur, the name of Leviathan has become eponymous towards the genre's expansion into the new century, though it's certainly also earned his detractors, because really, what great artist doesn't? Thus, I was quite dismayed to find that Wrest, the sole force behind this one-man exhibition, had thought to disband the project after contractual disputes with Moribund Records, and even more so when certain allegations were brought up against him early this year which might preclude another eagerly anticipated full-length...
Now, I don't mention said allegations for any other reason than Wrest has chosen to use them as an inspiration this latest opus, True Traitor, True Whore, which is more or less back with a vengeance towards the styles he was exploring with earlier works like Tentacles of Whorror (2004) or the superb Tenth Sub Level of Suicide (2003). Rather than dodge the Great Matter of his personal life, he has chosen to explore it, to wear the events as both sword and shield, from the imposition of a tattooed palm on the album's cover to the balance of wrath and misogyny implied in tracks like "Every Orifice Yawning Her Price", "Harlot Rises" or "Her Circle is the Noose". Understandably, this is an aesthetic risk, not likely to make a share of the potential audience comfortable, but then...comfort has NEVER been on the mind of this musician nor has it been reflected in any of his works. Frankly, I find it admirable. There aren't a lot of bands in this genre which explore such shaky, personal terrain. Many are faking thoughts of suicide, trekking across the wilderness or exploring strains of Satanism or a pagan lineage that long predates them.
But creative impetus aside, I think Leviathan fans will be satisfied that Wrest has not chosen some meek, accessible path to vent his thoughts. True Traitor, True Whore is fucking brutal, yet no less evocative of the dispersed sounds that have characterized his past career. The first track, "True Whorror" alone manifests in charging, discordant filth, moody and swaggering bass lines, a panoply of howls and snarls and all manner of ambient fixtures. Chaotic, crushing, and very often confusing, but nonetheless the track never goes for a second without hurtling something into the listener's ears. Personally I enjoyed the clean guitars plucked through the middle of the song, and the weird, down-pitched vocal samples which only add to the asylum-like atmosphere. Not all of the songs here are quite so dense and impenetrable; there are segments within "Her Circle is the Noose" and "Every Orifice..." which are deceptively calm, but the general rule is that something twisted and manic is always around the corner, and this apprehension-breeding aesthetic is one of the traits I've always so enjoyed about the music.
Wrest is a talented musician, of course, and can also break out the big riffs, like the liquid rocking groove in "Brought Up to the Bottom" or the chugging substrate of "Harlot Rises", but the album never gives its audience the clemency to get 'settled in' with any particular pace. Those who are fond of dissonant rhythmic cosmonauts like Deathspell Omega will likely find much to admire in tracks like "True Whorror" and "Shed This Skin", but Leviathan is never quite so precise or exhilarating as the French maniacs. Curiously enough, True Traitor, True Whore seems to be the most polished full-length yet from Wrest, in terms of sheer production. The guitars are loud and forceful, the bass curves and saturates the mix like an overturned vat of black blood, and the drums are dynamic and grooving. About the only thing repressed in the mix might be the vocals, if only that they don't often stand out against the instruments. The growls, yawning tortured groans and higher pitched snarls all sort of blend together, slowly flirting with madness.
All told, True Traitor, True Whore is an interesting experiment even if it doesn't surpass those works that have come before it. I felt with The Tenth Sub Level of Suicide or this album's direct predecessor Massive Conspiracy of Life that there were particular layers of subtlety that would develop the more I listened, whereas this seems to me more directly thrust into the face. That's not a bad thing, and the music is no less convoluted and complex for it, but it didn't really dwell on me or haunt my conscience as much as past entries, despite the dead seriousness of its subject matter. I'm personally glad that Wrest has decided to make some more music for this project, and this is a compelling, disturbing album worth the experience, for either the long-term fans, or those holdouts who might be convinced to give Leviathan another chance.