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Waves and Mesas - 82%

Apteronotus, March 19th, 2012

With Ehnahre’s “The Man Closing Up,” the traditional role of melody in metal is thrown out the window. This is true even comparing them to more experimental death metal bands. Instead of focusing on melody, the band crafts songs by varying the degree of musical intensity. This rejection of melody is accomplished through the use of combinatorial 12-tone technique which allows the band to create atonal music. To perhaps oversimplify, 12-tone techniques are a way to make sure that music is not in any particular key, i.e. no one note is emphasized. This approach results in a sound which many people may find melodically disorienting. But, does this sound have any value or is it just an academic exercise?

Well, “The Man Closing Up” ends up as a good but not great album. Yes, there are riffs in the sense that certain atonal melodies are repeated. However, the band’s alternations between fast, slow, soft, and quiet are the heart of the album’s compositional approach. Variations serve to replace the structural role typically played by melody. Unfortunately these variations are often too radical yet infrequent. Their inconsistent use erodes away the primary pillar of the album’s form. In short, Ehnahre are excellent when they subtlety alternate between low and high waves of intensity and range from good to boring when they have radical mesa-like changes and flat sections without changes. To illustrate this concretely it is helpful to compare Part II with much of the rest of the album.

At about 1:20 into Part II the band transitions from mid paced dissonant chords with guttural vocals to longer drawn out notes. These sections of long notes are interrupted with a motif from earlier in the song until the interruption becomes the norm and harsher vocals replace the earlier gutturals. Although chaotic and jarring in each part, the song as a whole has an unrelenting flow because of these transitions. The speed and intensity of Part II rises and falls like a series of waves with ever increasing peaks. So while the intensity is changing from soft to loud to create much of the songs structure, that same intensity is also rising. This build up leads to a remarkable point in the album - guitars tremolo picking a single note. Just as this melodic stripping and high speed picking enters we are introduced to clean vocals. As a coda, the band returns to earlier motifs in the song and ultimately closes with a solo vocal phrase. Brilliant.

This walk through of what happens in the song should illustrate that as new elements are introduced, they are peppered into the song. Oftentimes this occurs as other instruments remain comparatively consistent, such as guitars covering for dramatic changes in the drumming. This is in stark contrast to how at many points in the album the structural transitions are more radical.

Where Part II can be visualized as waves, much of the rest of the album is more like a flat desert spotted with a handful of mesas. To abandon metaphor in favor of definite examples, look at the cacophonous start of Part III. The first two minutes of the song are vicious and unrelenting but in a nearly uniform fashion. It ends up almost as a wash. Then when everything drastically stops we have nearly uniform low intensity. Much of the album follows this pattern, e.g. another “mesa” occurs about 2/3 of the way through Part IV.

While these flatter parts with drastic cliffs are often still quite good, many of the quieter and slower bits can grow quit boring. Rumbling bass, random pick scraping, and weird noises all create a huge amount of tension and the sensation that the band is about to delve into another onslaught of sound. It creates an effect similar to that in horror movies: quiet high frequencies are used to build anticipation right before some loud crashing noise surprises you (a falling broom), only to have some other jarringly loud noise scare you again (the second time its the monster.) Take for example Part IV. At about 8:15 you hear a guitar strum so soft, weak, and alone that you almost feel bad for it. You hear it again. Once more. Then suddenly it jumps back loud as hell as an introduction to the song’s heavy part. However, the first 8 or so minutes of the song can be fairly boring just as boring as when the monster is not around in a bad horror movie. Moreover the introduction itself is really drastic despite this use of musical foreshadowing.

Some things in this unusual album somehow manage to stand out as unusual. With the overwhelming weirdness of the album, the vocals are remarkable in their conservatism. Although the rasps and growls are a fundamental part of how the band controls their intensity, the vocals are pretty standard for metal. While this foil serves an appreciated balancing function against the work’s overall weirdness, it may go a bit too far to the point where more straightforward vocals end up out of place. Additionally, the closing female vocals are eerie, but I can not at all see why they are there. It feels like a reversal, the band punted on their concept in lieu of something sounding more traditionally like an ending.

“The Man Closing Up” creates a mood through alternating between crushingly heavy and fast sections and slower quieter bits. This mood is thoroughly odd and creates a sensation of restlessness as the ear waits for a melodic or rhythmic resolution that will never come. Waiting through the silences also creates a strong tension in the music, as the bursts of remarkably technical musicianship are not always predictable. While this works for the band, the album can be quite flat. The atonality makes much of the music easy to forget - no hook, no chorus. While it is remarkable for absences and silences, emptiness here is more interesting conceptually than it is musically. After stripping away traditional melody the band is left with texture and unfortunately that texture is oftentimes too flat. While it frequently leaves me impatient, this is an interesting album with spark of brilliance. It is entirely possible that this impatience is exactly what the band intended, but Ehnahre may have done too well conceptually for their own good.

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