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Imagine being lost in a desert. Let's say the Gobi desert because it's flat, dry and dead. No dunes, no sand, not one oasis, just kilometers of dry, dead nothing as far as the eye can see. Are you there with me? Alright. Now imagine you haven't had any water in days and it's been a week since you last ate something that was alive. Right now, you mind must be going weird places, no doubt trying to escape the unbearable reality that your body has to endure. Your body is obviously in its way to a very, very different (and permanent) escape.
In your heat/sun/thirst/hunger/tiredness-fueled mind, things are falling apart.
Not too much time passes before the hallucinations kick in. And boy, are these Gobi hallucinations strong and evil and violent and...black.
Ladies and gentlemen this is the sophomore effort by Finnish band Oranssi Pazuzu, and this album represents a solidification -a distillation, even- of the contents of their debut. The band now is no longer a novelty act and it has firmly and effectively constituted its own sound. That sound.. is that of psychedelic black metal.
As stupid as it sounds (hell, it even sounded kinda stupid referring to their debut as psychedelic black metal and yet that's the best description I could offer), this album proves that there IS such a thing as psychedelic black metal AND it also proves that it works wonders. In retrospect, it should have happened earlier, because when it comes down to it they're perfectly compatible. The only problem is that people tend to picture silly hippies being all "love and peace y'all" or teenagers going "holy shit man I'm tripping ALL THE BALLS" when they hear the term Psychedelic, and of course that doesn't go well with the Serious Business (yeah right) that is tr00kvlt blakk methul. When a listener is either educated enough to understand this is not the case, or is simply open minded enough, they'll find there has always been plenty of space within the black metal sound for psychedelic elements, and this album is the definitive, incontrovertible proof. Hell, there's also a lot of space-rock influences too, but I'm not calling this Space Black Metal because that title is currently being held by Darkspace.
Anyway, let's get into the music, shall we.
So, the first major difference between this and their previous album is production and craftsmanship. They seem to have taken a Beatlesque approach to production, fucking around with background noises and dissonant musical textures which aren't exactly guitars. In fact at times they sound like electronic music (minimalist house or maybe just chillout/lounge) and at times it sounds like a very funky, very 70's Hammond (or several) overlapping descending and ascending notes over itself. All the instruments themselves sound much better, the drums aren't as invasive, same goes for vocals. The bass was pretty audible in their debut, but here it comes with an agenda and it WILL make you hear it, and you know what? You will thank him for it. Grim minimalism mixed with midpaced groovy sections and dreamlike ethereal passages are all bound together in (relative) harmony by the spacey/schizoid sounds that float along all the tracks like the aforementioned desert's merciless wind. This is solid as fuck is what I'm saying. Their debut might have seem to some as a lucky break for a bunch of amateurs with some interesting ideas; this album proves there's a lot of thought, effort and professionalism invested in making the contents as coherent as possible, even if that coherence is translated as desperate, going-out-of-your-mind Gobi Desert Black Metal (how's that for a new subgenre?).
Before I go on, I'm not saying necessarily that Oranssi Pazuzu invented Psychedelic Black Metal. I'm certain other bands have experimented with certain soundscapes (see Darkspace) and post-production-fucking-around that gave their works a vaguely psych feeling. What I do affirm, though, is that Oranssi Pazuzu has perfected the style, perfectly blending, even better than in their debut, both sides of the musical influences here converging.
A bit more detail is in order now.
The album begins the journey with Sienipilvi, which means mushroom cloud, and just like that we're into stoner territory. Right off it feels exactly like the creeping blast wave is approaching the listener. The distorted, wind-like sounds in the back, accompanying the thick, groovy bass and drums sound a lot like the recordings of atomic explosions all of us have heard on Youtube (yeah, don't pretend you haven't). Still, the heaviness of it all still steps firmly into Hawkwind-like desert soundscapes, while the distant vocals shed some darkness on the whole scene. The song progresses like a stoner sludge track in a constant albeit subtle crescendo of ever increasingly distorted sounds and bass, while sporadic guitar tones punctuate the song like vultures punctuating the sky, waiting for you to give in and just die already. This is quite a contrast with their previous album, which presented their most accelerating/exhilarating track as the opener.
Just when you thought Oranssi Pazuzu had turned into a stoner black metal(?) band the next song kicks in to prove they're still a proper black metal act at its core, first with a couple of echoing guitars as an ominous intro and then kicking it with tremolos and eerie mid tempos not unlike some early Burzum passages, only these midtempo passages are charged with floating sounds and textures, helping great matters to the already dense ambiance. Tracks like these prove you can a) make excellent and recognizable black metal without needing constant blastbeatings and b) this time around the band is much more focused and the song writing itself has become more complex, more flexible and all around more intelligent, so to speak. For example, right inbetween the tremolos and pounding drums, the music turns into a black disco(?) band for a few seconds, using a drum patter/guitar riff slightly resembling Virus (nor) at their groovy-est.
Another key difference (and improvement, if you ask me) between this and their debut is the effective replacement of keyboards, which were rather prominent in the previous album, in favour of electronic sounds and distorted samples. I think the keyboards on the debut are more than fine, but they did take away some of the seriousness of the music away. This time around, those synthesized soundscapes are a nightmare/hallucination inducing addition that really perfects the psychedelic focus the band is going for.
Third track finally brings blast beats into the party. As I just said, you don't necessarily need your black metal to be full of blastbeats, but it sure as hell helps, and it sure as hell is appealing to people who are into this kind of music in the first place. The song, halfway through, slows down almost to a halt and drags itself steadily towards the end of the song like a moribund explorer who got lost on his way across the desert. The blastbeat sections themselves aren't exactly as remarkable as the rest of the album's varied speeds, but they do feel great and sound great. No cluttered mess of snares and cymbals. They sound more like a flowing stream of lava, releasing toxic vapours as it goes, getting cool and finally turning into rock.
Of course, I'm not going to do a track by track review, what with the ten songs and more than sixty minutes of music here, so I'll just pinpoint the major elements that make this such a brilliant sophomore, as well as what makes it different from their debut.
This time around, the emphasis is on ambiance. On layers and textures, drones and echoing timbres, all weaved to create both a solid ground and a hovering, threatening atmosphere. This biosphere of trippy noises contains the proper metallic elements, which work in unison with the former, instead of one "accompanying" the other as a novelty mixture (which is basically what their debut was all about. Not to say it's a bad album, it's almost as excellent as this one, but lacks the focus and dedication with which this album thrives).
The mixing of tempos is well balanced, instead of having one fast song, one mid-paced song, one ambient song and so on, most tracks showcase a very imaginative change in pace and focus, while always retaining that almost-space-like atmosphere which engulfs the listener, takes him up into the upper atmosphere and then just drops him in... you guessed it, the middle of the goddamn Gobi desert.
There ARE some purely "ambient" tracks, though, but not the Ildjarn - Landscapes kind of "ambient". No, the band takes the opportunity to showcase their musical sensibilities, which seem to encompass elements way beyond the metal realm. Metal mixed with chillout, house-like passages with definitive hints of electronica and dub (d'n'b, even) prove there's still a long way to go before we reach the very limits of this genre's possibilities. Along with the crunchy riffs and ambient textures, the band seems to have taken an almost Beatlesque approach to production, adding unidentifiable sounds to the distant background, the kind of which remain hidden during most of the duration of the album, or even in some cases takes a couple of listens to dig out. Some Hammond-like organs let loose in the back, some jazzy keyboards roaming about like in some of Miles Davis' more adventurous albums, some glitchy electronic sound-dots coming in and out of existence at times a bit too quickly and other precious little details which, in time, make for most of the uniqueness of the album. Sadly no backwards guitar riffs or sitars to be found, but hell, at this point it's just a matter of time. Perhaps in their next album.
There's a couple of completely ambient tracks, which lack any real metal elements (drum, bass, guitar and vocals), but it's in these passages that keyboard use reaches its zenith. Anguish, desolation and languishment are the first words that come into mind as these seemingly endless corridor of synthetic sounds revolve around me and eventually suffocate me like an incredibly big and fast wave of heat. Yeah, I haven't left the desert.
But psychedelic elements aside, there's a lot of innovation going on in the classic instruments department. The way the drumming seldom settles for a tired black metal (or metal in general) formula and decides to walk at its own pace and let the rest of the music follow it, grooving along with soft snares and a rain of cymbals, giving a thick texture to the very base of the music, while the bass changes in timbre and tone from song to song, going from crunchy heaviness marching along slow, agonizing sections to clean, ethereal tones dancing around the droning guitars and FX, making up its own melody as it goes. And the guitar riff themselves, although conventional in their essence, manage to catch me off my guard and surprise me in very pleasant and simple ways. Be it some overlapping arpeggios trembling in their tunnel-pedal-riddled distortion or some very inventive tremolo riffs, like one that is just a note sliding up and down the guitar. It's mind numbingly simple and so good and I love it so much because it's unusual and sounds great, these sliding tremolo riffs, kind of like the ones found in DSO's Si Monumentvm[...] are very endearing and unusual and work great with the general feeling of the album. Not to mention the sludgy, doomy riffs that will pop up with force now and again, which, mixed with the psych elements will bring the listener as close to the idea of "stoner black metal" as you can get without becoming ridiculous. Dissonance between the layers of guitars are also a very prominent (and promising) feature. I don't know about you, but I love dissonance in metal and I think we need more o' dat shit.
Of course it's not all fun and games, there are some details to be adjusted, some of the slower songs could be shorter in length and the more aggressive moments could last a bit more, but none of those quirks are of the make-or-break category. I'd love to see more blastbeat+tremolo moments mixed with the suffocating wind/space/electronic/jazzy soundscapes and textures, I'd love to hear more of that, it'd be like a kaleidoscopic tornado tearing through a small town. Wonderful, colourful chaos.
All in all, if you've ever wondered what would it be like if Hawkwind and Pink Floyd (both Pipers and WYWH era) were to make a black metal album together in the vein of newer acts like Mammal, then Oranssi Pazuzu is for you, and this album is (so far) the culmination of all that Psychedelic Black Metal can be. Hopefully these fins will top themselves again in the future.