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It always means a lot to me as a listener when a band manage to take an aesthetic concept and realize it in the most complete manner possible. Thousands of death metal bands write gruesome tales of dismemberment and black metal bands conjure fantastical anti-Christian idylls, but the music almost invariably falls short of these concepts. These sorts of bands have taken the lyrical concepts for granted - they're going through the motions, wanting their musical compositions to stand alone for critique. And there's certainly nothing wrong with that in itself - hell, I've taken that approach to music myself at times - but at the same time, that just further individualizes any other type of approach to songwriting. When a band grasp a theme and convert it flawlessly into music, in a manner that both does justice to the subject and creates an enjoyable tune, I absolutely cherish it. And that's exactly what the French band N.K.V.D. have done here, on this brief but nevertheless stunning little EP.
N.K.V.D. present an audial introduction to the concept of dictatorship in all its forms - the brutal regimes of historically infamous communists and fascists alike are used as inspiration here. I think one of the things that contributes so greatly to the project's success is that the band are so coldly neutral to the concept itself; whereas a National Socialist band would probably be writing music promoting the idea of such a totalitarian government (which would most likely be rendered as plain, ordinary metal due to the songwriters' internal biases - if you were a neo-Nazi, would you want your listeners to hear music that convinces them that a fascist government would be undesirable?), N.K.V.D. appear to have no opinion to express here, and as such they can more easily realize the idea in a purer form, free of prejudices and agendas.
So what sound, exactly, do you get from an objective view on the concept of a single, be-all-end-all ruler whose word is law, who enforces a façade of solidarity over those below him, and who often views civilian death as little more than an indicator of change and progress? The answer, in a word, is oppression. N.K.V.D.'s sound is specifically created to do nothing short of oppressing, conquering, and enforcing - essentially everything that one would expect from a musical adaptation of the theme.
The music itself here is industrial black metal in a form that has basically been unexplored (to the best of my knowledge) up until Diktatura's release, and to this day remains surprisingly untapped. A relatively close (but still rather distant) comparison could be made to latter-day Anaal Nathrakh, particularly the slower, less blast-heavy sections on In the Constellation of the Black Widow, but even that's a retrospective juxtaposition. The music itself isn't particularly fast, but it thrives off of its riffing style and manages a strangely powerful sense of momentum throughout each of the five songs. And dear God, if the whole presentation here is ever claimed to be anything short of "massive" I will eat my fucking foot, because if this album knows how to do anything in particular, it is how to be huge, how to be imposing.
N.K.V.D. are heavy in a way that is rarely encountered in metal. Their compositions are not exactly catchy, as there is hardly any emphasis on any specific beat, nor are they intense by virtue of tempo; in short, rhythm plays an extremely small part, if any. Their atmosphere is the result of several elements of the music, but the largest by far is the gargantuan guitar sound. It honestly, truly deserves a couple hundred words devoted to it to explain how absolutely uniquely crushing it is: first off, the tone itself. It's moderately bassy and stripped of extremes in terms of treble, being massive, warm and energetic but simultaneously mechanical and droning. There are essentially no volume spikes in its sound at all; N.K.V.D.'s guitars are so thick that everything essentially meshes together from a chain of quickly-tremoloed notes into one big-ass wave of sound which washes over the soundscape like an unstoppably powerful torrent of influence. The actual notes being played here may very well be sustained chords, but I couldn't possibly tell you if they were because there isn't really any way of telling. Another thing I feel the need to point out is the layering of the guitar tone within the mix: while the guitar tone's sound is static at its core, it actually seems to reverberate and bleed throughout the mix, snaking over the other parts of the music and drenching it (but not to the extent that any crucial elements are hard to hear). Whenever a new note is strummed, it sends a cold pulse through the music like the striking of a bell tower in a concentration camp. And when a wave of (what may possibly be) tremolo notes burst forth, they attack with unfathomable power, a perfect mix of perceivable presence and eerie dread.
The tone is spectacular, but the riffs the guitars play deserve just as much credit for contributing to the band's overall atmosphere. They're incredibly simple riffs, and yet they're so convicting and incredible that I'm frankly rather baffled that they sound so original. A typical N.K.V.D. riff will drone onward for a while on a certain chord, before suddenly soaring up to higher frets and droning on them in a manner that creates an inexplicably high amount of musical tension. This is tension that is released every single time N.K.V.D. return to whatever root note is being given focus, and then the cycle is repeated. Occasionally, the band will refuse to even devote the entire guitar sound to the ascension and instead throw it in abruptly as a sort of shriek while the main mass of the guitars plows onwards, in the same manner that a fearsome beast might briefly rear its head to roar to the sky before returning to its rampage; and the sudden bit of urgency that this phenomenon creates within the band's music is impressive. Subtle background orchestral symphonics back up the riffs at multiple points, never becoming loud enough to be the focus but just audible enough to give the music a much-appreciated, added layer of depth (not to mention giving the music even more resemblance to the anthems of the 1900s' totalitarian regimes, which the project covers lyrically). The riffs within each song are repeated for an unusually large amount of times (each song uses no more than three riffs), which really just stands as a testament to how consistently amazing their quality is. I hum these riffs on a near-daily basis and they honest-to-goodness sound fresh to me every single time I hear them played. They are essentially as "timeless" as music can be.
The drums and vocals play much more subtle roles on Diktatura than the guitars do, but that's not to imply that they're of lesser quality than the guitars, or that their performance is in any way unsatisfactory. The drums are entirely programmed and play cold, mechanical and heavily militarized beats in some form or another. Because the guitars serve as a monolithic force of rhythm by themselves, similar to how Sunn O))) operate, the drum machine's sense of rhythm is pretty secondary to the music and so they're given a bit more freedom to roam around the soundscape than they might have in a more conventional black metal band. Basically every cymbal sample is used as a crash, and they're rather distant from all the other drum sounds in the mix: they rest on the far edges of the mix, while the snares hug the center-left and the near-inaudible double-bass pedals blast away with a subtle but ever-present ticking underneath the rest of the music's layers. Because of this isolation and because of the lack of emphasis on the kick drum, the cymbals almost serve the purpose of a snare in the music because they're often the only accent on N.K.V.D.'s downbeats and aren't particularly focused on consistently spanning an entire measure. Meanwhile, the actual snare samples are usually busy adding precise, eccentric accents in the fashion of a military drill's percussionist. These vary pretty wildly within the music, ranging from full-on blast beats in the undercurrents of the music to almost breakdown-like sections where the cymbals and kick drums disappear entirely, and the snare is left to hammer away at precise triplet patterns that herald in the album's next riff as if it were directing the entrance of a battalion of troops. Aside from that, coldly calculated tom fills sometimes make an appearance, seemingly bleeding across the ends of measures in a messy but deceptively technical fashion. In short: N.K.V.D.'s drums were made for this, with every single beat made to seemingly complement the work of the guitars.
N.K.V.D.'s vocal work is a rather unique point, since it's essentially an equal mix of recorded black metal vocals and sampled dialogue. N.K.V.D. seem to have recruited two session vocalists for the work here (possibly three? My copy of the album doesn't accredit the vocals on "Kadyrovski Klan" to any person in particular, so I can't eliminate that as a possibility), but they each possess a strikingly similar approach. To call them "shrieks" or "screams" would be an understatement - both vocalists' timbres carry so much force within the music that they would be better described as outright roars, ever-so-slightly muffled and tinged with echo, but still carving into the sonic space like a defined blast of static. Their presence in the music is surprisingly passive, which is intriguing as it seemingly eliminates the feeling of an active vocalist within the music and evokes more resemblance to a pre-recorded message, projected over megaphones and subjected to a tyrannized populace. Black metal's answer to Big Brother, one might reasonably deem it. Meanwhile, four of the five songs also contain intermittent samples of dialogue, in what is presumably Russian. I'm not exactly huge on the general concept of samples in music, but the band make it work here due to how passionately and wholly they embrace the sounds of dictatorship in the rest of their music. The tones of voice for the samples begin as calm, objective, and cold speech (in "Ch.R.I" and "Kadyrovski Klan") but seem to gain conviction near the middle of the album, with the second half of "Die blinde wissenschaft" seeing the appearance of a loud, charismatic voice which was built to lead a nation. The six-and-a-half-minute outro "Sloboda" takes this concept even further, and is solely dominated by a similarly fervent voice which is occasionally rewarded to the response of enthralled crowds, inspired by its bellowed propaganda.
I understand this has been a lot of description for an EP with only four actual songs ("Ch.R.I" is a brief intro) that embrace a formula which is so simple in appearance, but I really want to make it clear how astonishingly Diktatura executes its goals. I wouldn't have any qualms in saying that this is the best black metal EP of all time - there is not a single second here which does not contribute to the overall theme, not a moment or melody out of place, not a single thing which needs to be changed; and the reason for that is because N.K.V.D. have accomplished not only what would be expected of a band undertaking such an endeavor, but the embodiment of everything we know and associate with dictatorship. When you listen to this, you are essentially living in a simulation of life under the iron fist of a totalitarian regime. This is what went through the minds of Soviets every single day under the force of Stalin, the minds of Germans herded this way and that under Hitler's whims, the soldiers forced to serve in the Chechen Wars, and by extension any other situation in which a normally free-spirited individual is dehumanized, locked into place, and shoved in all directions against their will by the hands of a God which can be seen, but not directly spoken to or touched. This is sonic oppression, plain and simple.
The cover of this MCD shows Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Slobodan Milosevic and Akhman Kadyrov. No lyrics or statements from the band are enclosed in the booklet, all you can find are three quotes in Russian. The quotes are from Kadyrov, Stalin and Shamil Basayev. My Russian is currently very basic, so I only understand the Stalin quote (free translation by myself): “One death is a tragedy. Millions of deaths are statistics”. Now, I don’t think NKVD is a political band in the sense that they sympathise with the men pictured on the cover. Instead I think they use their music to portray the emotions associated with dictatorships: oppression, cult of personality, brutality, blind obedience, hopelessness and so on.
Not only does NKVD have an interesting concept, the music happens to be good as well: dark and brutal industrial black metal with a cold production and very intense drum patterns. This is an excellent choice of genre, as it really complements the concept. The guitars and distorted bass create an impressive wall of sound that crushes all opposition and pins the listener against the floor like a huge fist. The only bad thing concerning the production is that the drum machine is too low in the mix, so it doesn’t sound as powerful as it could. The vocals are somewhere between grunts and barks, not the typical black metal shriek. All the songs are pretty similar in structure but this doesn’t bore me at all. The fact that “Diktatura” is a MCD prevents it from getting boring, as the playing time is quite short.
Each of the four men on the cover get their own songs here so to speak. The first track is just an intro, the second is about Kadyrov, the third about Hitler, the fourth about Stalin and the fifth about Milosevic. Each track also contains speech samples of the leaders in question. The intro is an ambient piece and it also contains a speech sample but I don’t know who’s speaking. However, I think the language here is Russian, so it’s probably either Stalin or Kadyrov.
The aura that the music emits is really Orwellian and disturbing. It feels like I must obey, or the state/thought police will be at my doorstep and take me away, after which I will never be seen again. Big Brother is watching my every move and monitoring my thoughts... I’ve got to resist... I’ve got to resist... but can I? Is that a telescreen on my wall? *shudders*. I’m getting paranoid to say the least! “Diktatura” is able to mess with the listener’s mind and make the music come alive to the extent that one can imagine being part of a totalitarian system of some sort. NKVD was one of 2007’s unexpected finds for yours truly.