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Who the fuck knows, really. - 65%

Noktorn, February 19th, 2009

The burning question on this release really isn't why a black metal band is using so much in the way of electronics, but why an electronic group is bothering with a shoehorned black metal aesthetic. Beyond the very thin veneer of black metal elements, Ensepulchred resembles some gothic trip-hop act more than anything in the first, second, or theoretical third wave of black metal. There's a couple possible reasons for why they're choosing to make music with such an incongruous sound, and I'm inclined to believe the simplest: a strange breed of guilt in metalheads who also like other forms of music, and so when starting a project in a genre outside of metal feel some compulsion to inappropriately add metal elements in some strange effort to legitimize their dedication to the scene. The other, simpler possibility is that Ensepulchred is doing exactly what it's supposed to, in which case I have to wonder: why is their artistic vision is so deliberately awkward sounding?

It's not that I derive no enjoyment from this music; I do, and actually a surprising amount given how unmistakably bizarre it is. But the enjoyment I derive is from listening to it as electronic music rather than as black metal, and that would be fine if the intrusion of the black metal aesthetic wasn't so omnipresent and forced. The melodies resemble black metal to some degree at times, and the vocals are black metal shrieks, but the rest of it is, in essence, electronic music. So what's the big idea? This hardly works as a black metal album, and maybe I'm splitting hairs, but it doesn't really work as a black/electronic one either. Enespulchred seems to be one of a breed of newer bands like Ordo Tyrannis who are attempting a pretty brazen and head-on mix of black metal and electronic, but at least Ordo Tyrannis is attempting to do it through Skinny Puppy style industrial, while Ensepulchred's music sounds like it would belong in a club full of people in Sisters Of Mercy t-shirts were it not for all the goblin shrieks.

I believe every instrument on this release is synthesized apart from the vocals, or at least they've gone through so much processing that they might as well be. The guitars have an entirely unnatural, synthetic tone to them which practically screams that FL Studio was involved somewhere in the process, and they're pushed far into the background under just about everything else. The synths are omnipresent and take up most of the melodic space. The drum machine is almost impossibly machinelike, as though the band looked through every bit of information on how to make a drum machine sound natural and did the exact opposite; it pops and clicks with a procession of slowed-down double bass grooves and trip hop beats that would sound at home in a Lil Wayne song before a Darkthrone track. The only thing that sounds remotely real are the vocals, which are themselves distorted pretty heavily; they're a goblin-like shriek or occasional hissing whisper and actually propel the music along much more than the instruments themselves. The production is completely computerized and almost unbearably still and sterile; in short, the opposite of what black metal is 'supposed' to sound like.

The music is structured greatly like trance; there's little to no variation in the musical sections themselves and they're only tenuously connected by similar melodic themes and instead just sort of collide in empty space. The drum machine never transitions via a fill; it simply stops one beat and starts another, and the same goes for the rest of the music. The computerized, digital nature of the music is what makes the vocals so important; it's the main narrator of the music which propels everything along and forms a constant thread to follow through the short, simple compositions. The relative simplicity of brevity of the individual tracks is both natural and necessary to maintain listener interest; were the songs any longer they would become arduous, and were they more complex the digital tones would become unbearable.

Given how strange the aesthetic is, it's something of a shock that it's as listenable as it manages to be. The songs are all very similar to each other and the main melodies of each track are only about three or four notes long, and they probably more or less repeat themselves several times throughout the album, but the particular combination of trip hop beats and delicate synths somehow manages to carry the music without ever getting really boring. The vocals are surprisingly engaging and probably provide most of the bridge for the listener to actually be able to handle this stuff; were it instrumental it would seem completely pointless and rote, but now it's sort of an ambient backdrop to the actual 'action' provided by the vocals. It's an interesting technique, though again certainly in the domain of electronic music rather than black metal.

I'm sort of at a loss as to what the upshot of this music is. None of the songs particularly go anywhere or do anything, but not really in a bad way; they're just sort of arbitrary configurations of rhythms and melodies the drift along while the goblin vocals go crazy over them. In a way, it's a form of metal chillout music that manages to be exponentially less gay than, say, Agalloch, despite its roots in the electronic scene. It's fairly enjoyable to listen to although there's no actual content to speak of; most of the music was likely composed on a laptop while laying down on a couch, and there's no musical tension or variation to speak of; no peaks or valleys, no real progression anywhere. It's an interesting experiment (if it's an experiment at all), and although I'm not sure where the results of this should exactly go, it probably doesn't matter because it doesn't intend to go anywhere in the first place.

This is probably going to be a curiosity piece to most metalheads who aren't into laid-back electronic music, and even those who are into that sort of thing will likely just be confused and bothered by this, but at certain moments this has its place. It's not particularly abrasive or extreme, but it's worth a look just on virtue of how weird it is that people would actually make music like this. I only really like this sometimes and most others it falls flat, but I'd imagine there are about six people in the world who will get really, really into this and never listen to anything else, so you should acquire a copy of this just to see if you're one of the chosen few.