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The Axis of Perdition has been a very, very interesting band, and one of the few to offer something truly original since the turn of the millenium. While The Ichneumon Method (And Less Welcome Techniques) is a rather enjoyable album, their apex was to be found neatly wedged between that and the second -and much better- full-length, Deleted Scenes from the Transition Hospital. Yup, the best offering they have so far managed to produce is the meagre 666 copies of the Physical Illucinations in the Sewer of Xuchilbara (The Red God) EP, and now it unfortunately looks like the times have changed and the excellent EP will never be dethroned, unless the band allows themselves to be swept into a throwback mode.
Urfe, a piece of work with an uncharacteristically short name and equally strangely long playing time, is the result of a three-year wait after the times of Deleted Scenes, and while it may be labelled a bold move, daring progression, or perhaps even something more superlative, it certainly isn't what the fans of the band were used to, and ends up as a definitive opinion-splitter. The quality and the rating of such a strange release after a short series of something completely different is of course everybody's own business, but to many, this will be a huge disappointment, and, what's perhaps worse, quite an expensive double-CD in a neat digipack with lamentably little replay value.
Gone are the extremely dark ambient parts, gone are the distant, frantic echoed guitars playing insane metal somewhere in the background, gone are the soundscapes that didn't provide the listener with pre-chewed ideas and sights but dug into his own memories and fears, and forcibly tore out the emotions instead of visions and tales. What we got instead is a... a... radioplay?
The whole hour and a half is a story of some strange kind, read out as a radioplay, with a heavy dark ambient background, in two parts that could well be from a perverted 60s BBC horror radioplay, weren't it for the extravagant use of F-words, modern background noise and music, and a story that would never have made it past the prudent self-censorship of those times. The background sounds vary from extremely well-made synth ambient to pseudo-random noise, to actual metallic parts that resemble the average moments on the earlier works, and to some frantic drumming without cymbals. Almost throughout the album, there are hints of dripping damp sewers, someone or something chewing on something sinewy in the dark, and distant industrial sounds. There is a constant hum, wet sounds of something, and everything that would fit the background of a horror radioplay. And then there is the radioplay itself, and here the album runs into trouble. The story, read by Leslie Simpson, is more a collection of fragments, snapshots of moments in an illogical progression to something unnamed. And the story does not work.
Well, it could work, and it might well be a logical tale of something, but following it would call for such a huge investment of concentration and uninterrupted time that anyone actually committing to that and persisting in it is a rare creature. There are gory scenes, dirt, horror, and all in a way that makes the listener recall random scenes in a long-forgotten episode of ancient Sapphire and Steel story. Those were not understandable unless faithfully followed from the beginning of the story to the very end, and the same atmosphere of unknown horros was there. But Sapphire and Steel, and all such british works, both on the radio and TV, were children of their time, and using the same basic idea is obviously more like paying homage to the wonders of the past than a viable idea for an album today.
The fragments left in the mind, after a dozen spins of the almost excruciatingly long album, are scattered, more like visions from a dozen different stories. The music leaves mental images of everything from a bleakness of a post-holocaust ruined city to some parts of echo-y synth-choir background music on Halo, to an industrial brand of haunted houses. Not bad, by any means, but unconnected. The visions have little to do with the music, and they tend to do what the muddled lyrics on the earlier albums rarely did: they redirect the mind from the internal emotions of the listener to some prefabricated scene set in a vision designed by the storyteller. And that, by default, is a lot less scary than what can be found in a mind of a human being. Subjective horror, found in the recesses of the grey brain matter of the person himself, is a lot more twisted and fearful than any horror that anyone could convey using words alone, and that was what Deleted Scenes and Physical Illucinations evoked in their finest moments. Here, the storyteller provides surreal and somewhat scary nightmares, but eventually just stories, not the spirit guides to force the visions from the listener's own mind like the music on the earlier did.
Perhaps this is meant as a pastiche of the work of the past masters of horror, a special homage to those horror stories on the radio decades ago? That may be it. In a sense, The Axis of Perdition could have turned into a Quentin Tarantino of radioplays, and set forth to recreate the stories of old, only in an improved, more effect-laden form, with seriousness beyond even the earlier works of the band and the stories they emulate. Yes, that might be it. But the radioplays in their ancient days were one-shot deals, perhaps meant to be repeated a few times, and then left on dusty reels in a storage room somewhere in the bowels of the radio company, to be recalled again after a few years if the letters that carried the feedback from the audiences so suggested. An album, in the modern days, and paid for with actual money by a fan of a band, should always be designed to be played repeatedly, and the visions on Urfe get worn too thin too quickly for that purpose. Moonsorrow stumbled upon the same mistake on their Tulimyrsky EP when they included the lengthy title track with the spoken story, and it works just as badly here. The story wears thin, and turns from a story into mere ballast. Urfe would be better and more enjoyable without the story. And that's a pity. Because some of the stuff piled on the background of the powerless narration is really good. Not metal, mostly, but good and emotion-provoking ambient. And the distraction, the story with its swearing and gore, just kills the immersion.
This album is most likely a disappointment for those who liked The Axis of Perdition that produced the earlier masterpieces. No doubt, many will love love this, but the replay value is neglible, and the suspension of disbelief simply is not there. Processed too far, thought out too well, Urfe hits the intended target, but unfortunately misses the subconscious.