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The word ‘atmospheric’ is perhaps the ultimate false friend when it comes to music reviews, seemingly a wonderful catch-all when attempting to sum up the overall effect of an album, but always chronically undercut by the fact that it means different things to different people. Tempting though it is to simply say “Cult of Ruins’ is one of the most atmospheric albums in recent black metal’, it’s never going to adequately convey the achievement that Geneviève and S de la Moth, the duo who comprise Menace Ruine, have managed with their debut. Yet, it’s a word that’s hard to avoid in relation to it. Ultimately, if ‘Cult of Ruins’ is meaningfully atmospheric, it’s in the sense that the entire album creates its own distinctive sound that is clearly born of black metal but nonetheless slightly removed and, hence, entirely unique to the band. This is truly experimental black metal, but where ‘experimental’ is meant to signify ‘ground breaking’ and ‘inspired’ rather than the more expected usual sense of ‘hopelessly failing at the intended genre and now trying to disguise the fact by claiming it’s something else entirely’.
‘Cult of Ruins’ is bookended by tracks that are relatively standard – if superior – black metal. Within these markers, though, the tracks become progressively more experimental, gradually forcing the genre sound, and the listener, into new and invigorating territory. The common stylistic element that binds them all and gives ‘Cult of Ruins’ its distinctive atmosphere is feedback: sharp spikes, electric tones, rumbling fuzz, it’s all here in abundance, permeating virtually every second of the album, although always as an adjunct to the intricate, crushing melodies that lie at its heart.
Fittingly, therefore, it’s feedback that opens the album, ‘Process of Bestialization’ beginning with a quiet tone that swiftly rises before being filled in by the rumbling bass, superfast drums and rasping male vocal that would be expected of a conventional black metal track. However, even in this relatively straightforward short song, Menace Ruine place a marker of their intent, as the feedback suddenly increases in volume and creates a cycling descending note, whose insistent repetition, superimposed over the black metal, totally transforms the track into something rather more sonically unsettling than the beginning suggested.
This weird, descending feedback note carries through into ‘Sky As a Reversed Abyss’, slightly slower and more sustained but providing a sense of continuity. The drum sound, however, is very different, the flurry of blastbeats replaced by a simple double slap of emphasis, shorn of reverb and immensely solid. The biggest change of all comes with the vocals, which are no longer a lo-fi snarl but deep, resonating, clean female vocals combining the sonorous tone of Nico with the icy musicality of Nancy Sinatra, and a stark, epic contrast amid the cacophony.
After three-and-a-half minutes, the musical elements fall away, leaving just sustained feedback that takes on a scratchy, organic quality. This is definitely not a relaxing drone, though, as the noise is very prominent in the mix and rushes into your ears with churning uncomfortable tones from which there is no let up.
Alien8 Recordings, Menace Ruine’s label, talk a lot about them being ambient black metal but this isn’t ambient that Brian Eno would recognise. There is no space at all and precious little peace. Conventional ambient black metal, in the style of Vinterriket, is generally a relaxing, reflective experience but there is nothing relaxed about Menace Ruine’s ambient, it is confused and chaotic, a jumble of different levels of feedback that is far closer to the unsettling paranoia of death ambient and occasionally even verges on the nihilism of power electronics. To mix it so seamlessly with raw black metal is quite a coup, which enhances the strength of both elements.
Difficult though it is to make out the content of the lyrics in this maelstrom, the titles do provide some pointers to Menace Ruine’s interests. ‘Bonded by Wyrd’ and ‘Atavism’ suggest pagan themes, while ‘Kill the Egregore’ is a reference to the occult concept of a collective mind. The latter track sees more development of the band’s unique vocals. Initially, the song builds on interplay between the deep, long-held notes of Geneviève and the mid-toned, distorted guitar playing a fast repeated riff, her warm, expansive voice contrasting with the thin, sharp tone of the guitar. As the track escalates, however, the vocal drops further back in the mix and heightens to a more strained, despairing edge, though still well controlled, reminiscent of the distinctive voice of AC Temple’s Jane Bromley. Again, an industrial aspect is involved as the track closes with a mechanical tone of feedback switching on and off at accelerating speed before finally ending with a long, purging surge of noise.
At this point in ‘Cult of Ruins’, Menace Ruine really start to ratchet things up. They share a label with Nadja, which in many ways makes perfect sense, but while Nadja seem to want their omnipresent distortion to submerge the listener in its infinite depths, Menace Ruine give the impression of wanting to use theirs to really hurt you, and the trio of songs beginning with ‘They Who Enter Caves’ sets about this with determination.
Starting with chiming, distorted notes, starkly emphasised in otherwise silence, the most notable aspect is the massive drums: pounding full-on bass-drum smashes, totally removed from snare-heavy blastbeats. Grating vocals are gradually obscured behind a wall of distorted guitar fuzz as the track accelerates at a head-spinning rate, the drum sound ultimately dominating before a sudden false ending, after which the chiming notes return, more harsh and raw than at the beginning, surmounting the thunderous drum before fading out in feedback.
It’s another false ending, though, as the track lurches back into life with a section of churning noise, interspersed with the ringing notes and death-ambient clanking before a sudden excoriating rush of pure white noise. This technique of false endings leading to different passages in the song’s construction is then developed further in the epic ‘Bonded by Wyrd’, founded on a high, insistent, repeating riff over the booming drum. It’s a complex, extended riff, moving between distinct sections, and it alternates with verses that again feature the deep female vocal, sustained, powerful notes gradually rising during each verse.
Then, three minutes in, the riff escalates to a peak of shrill distortion that is so needle-sharp it feels like it’s boring straight into your skull. This surgical solo runs over the crushing bass drum beats, creating 90 seconds of utter, bludgeoning power, before the vocal returns, more melodic and slightly higher as the track slows, emphasising the drums once more.
Stunning moments like the solo in ‘Bonded by Wyrd’ owe a lot, not only to the brilliance of the band, but also to the clarity of the production. The album is a dense, claustrophobic affair, which never uses just one level of sound when it can cram three overlapping ones in instead, but the depth and tone that is maintained is exemplary. The decision to foreground elements so sharply as to be almost excruciating, such as the descending feedback in ‘Process of Bestialization’ or the solo here, is a brave decision that works superbly within the aggressive atmosphere that the album creates. According to the liner notes, ‘Cult of Ruins’ was recorded and mixed by the band themselves and then mastered by James Plotkin (from Khlyst), so who exactly the laurels should go to isn’t clear but it’s an excellent job. The richly textured structure of ‘Bonded by Wyrd’, where there is little space to breathe amidst all the undulating riffs and thundering timpani overlaying fast blastbeats, is characteristic of the dense, disorientating sound Menace Ruine establish across the album.
Again, this track incorporates two false endings. At nearly seven minutes in, the riffs stop and a feedback section is introduced, high, sharp peaks of pure distortion accompanied by a tumult of frenzied, chaotic drumming, sounding not unlike a drumkit tumbling down a spiral staircase. Then, at nine-and-a-half minutes, the drum becomes more sparse and the feedback coalesces into a single high note, right in your middle ear, before gradually multiplying into a nightmarish church-organ sound, piercing and overwhelming.
The cover art for ‘Cult of Ruins’ is all rendered in opaque shades of grey and black, and the front image, looking up at a vast, overbearing monolith surmounted by an ominous cloud and a flock of swirling birds, is about as close as you can get to a visual representation of the chaotic, brooding music within. The back cover has an eerie, blurred figure framed in a vaginal gap in the rock, at once both enticing and menacing, itself a perfect approximation of ‘Dove Instinct’, the highpoint of the album.
Having raised their game with each track on the album, Menace Ruine now temper their aggression with exquisite control. The feedback is lower in tone and more subdued, as if being heard at the entrance to a deep tunnel, and it frames a slow, mournful descending tune, entirely held in distortion and wonderfully controlled. Blastbeats and cracked vocals are added in but the central ethereal tune is always discernible in the tumult. The drums are very fast but because concentration is focused on the feedback tune, the overall effect of the song seems slow. It’s a good job this website forbids the use of “silly metaphors that go nowhere and mean nothing”, otherwise any description of ‘Dove Instinct’ would be full of spiralling black holes collapsing at the centre of cold, dying galaxies because, funnily enough, that’s exactly what it sounds like.
The tune gradually rises to the fore, slightly sharper amidst the white noise that grows around it, until it is joined by an echoing bass drum march, finally closing with just distortion like a needle on a scratchy run-out groove. ‘Dove Instinct’ is a supremely ugly, brutal noise and also heart-rendingly beautiful. It’s impossible to follow and ‘Atavism’, the track that tries to, is just a short, conventional black metal track in comparison, distinguished only by a strange high keyboard part. In any other context it may be quite good but, placed as it is, it suffers.
‘Cult of Ruins’ is a fantastically accomplished and thrilling album. If a series of ecstatic reviews concerning innovative black metal created by a mysterious male/female duo brings to mind uncomfortable echoes of the Velvet Cacoon debacle then it shouldn’t (although the ‘Genevieve’ connection is slightly troubling for any passing conspiracy theorists). Irrespective of their ingenuity in stealing, anybody making it through the whole of ‘Bete Noir’ while remaining awake would probably realise that, creatively and musically, Velvet Cacoon were going nowhere. Menace Ruine, on the other hand, have both qualities in abundance. It is the uncompromising mix of atonality and musicality that makes this album so compelling. The confident way in which ‘Cult of Ruins’ builds and builds, weaving meticulous riffs around Geneviève’s glorious voice and pushing the drum sound to new depths of power, then washing the whole thing in wave after wave of feedback, becomes, if anything, more impressive the more you listen to it. Just make sure that you do.
When a label like Alien8 Recordings signs up a black metal band like Menace Ruine, you realise that band has got to be very special indeed. MR play a very distinctive style of aggressive minimalist BM: the sound initially is a very frenzied, whining guitar howl with hard-hitting, almost industrial drums and a deep bass. On some tracks like "Kill the egregore", the music seems to have a richer, more psychedelic, trancey bent to it. The singing can be either grim BM vocals that aren't much different from what everybody else does using BM-styled singing or clean, though when it is clean it is very emptied of emotion; vocalist Genevieve must want to cultivate an air of mystery as some kind of unearthly and forlorn creature. As the album progresses, the band's sound seems to change from high-pitched shrilling tremolo guitars to organ in a way that's hard to tell and the music acquires an evil bewitching, sparkling kind of sound, very like the organ sound that the late 1960's American band The Doors used on songs like "Light My Fire".
Best tracks include "They who enter caves", an intense and deranged experience with screaming voices, piercing tones and drums that pummel the brain senseless, all of which condense into a point of singularity which then expands into a marching industrial metal hell; and "Bonded by wyrd", a follow-up solid effort with deep rumble, technical programmed industrial rhythms, more of that ringing delicious organ-like tone and a mix of clean and BM vocals. The jungly rhythms take over the song at one point and go toe-to-toe with the malevolent keyboard wobble melodies. The track then goes into long improvised high-pitched screeches which may not sit well with BM traditionalists. "Dove instinct" has such fast technical drumming rhythms that it goes into a levitated flow state against searing feedback drones. These three tracks happen to be in the second half of "Cult of Ruins" so it's worth your while slogging through the early tracks to reach this section and that in itself tells you something about how the album is structured: each track seems to improve on the one before it, to draw you into its farthest depths. The early tracks by the way are no slouches either: in particular "Sky as a reversed abyss" - now that's an original idea of Heaven as Hell - features long skin-stripping guitar drones which have to be heard to be believed.
This album is an intense headfuck experience with strong industrial rhythms combined with unexpectedly rich and twangy tones which may be guitar tones or organ tones or some manipulated combination of the two or one of them with another instrument. It wouldn't surprise me at all if some people nominated "Cult of Ruins" as one of the best BM releases in 2008 for the band's sound is not only unique, it has potential to fair clean your mind out and the musicians exploit this potential as much as they can. The combination of psychedelic BM and mathy-technical industrial drum rhythms is a brilliant idea displayed effectively across the album.