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One amazing song - 90%

drengskap, October 5th, 2009

PermaFrost is the second in the series of limited-edition CD-Rs released in 2009 by the resurrected Hail. As with its predecessor Seeds, the band’s line-up for PermaFrost consisted of Set Sothis Nox La and Carl Annala, who recorded the songs via correspondence in 2008.

PermaFrost contains six tracks, totalling 52 minutes. It opens with ‘The Hound Of Heaven’, a rendition of the poem of the same name by Francis Thompson, a 19th-century English poet, mystic and opium addict. The small loose-leaf booklet included with PermaFrost contains the full text of Thompson’s poem, as well as illustrations taken from the American painter R.H. Ives Gammell’s series of 23 paintings based on the poem. The booklet also contains biographical notes on both Thompson and Gammell, in keeping with the tradition of Set Sothis’ other band, L’Acéphale, of providing homework assignments along with their music. ‘The Hound Of Heaven’ is a first-person account of being relentlessly pursued by God:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years…

The music accompanying the spoken recitation of the text has a monotonous beat, metal chimes, sombre synth chords, distant swooping tones and background bass rumbles. It sounds very much like old-school industrial music, specifically Throbbing Gristle and songs like ‘Persuasion’. Although instrumentation isn’t listed on the album cover, it sounds as if this is the first of a couple of songs on PermaFrost to make use of Carl Annala’s cello playing. Since Francis Thompson was a devout, if tormented, Catholic, it’s hard to guess what he’d have made of his work being adapted by an experimental black metal / industrial band. Maybe he’d have appreciated the intensity of it all.

The following track, ‘March III’ is instrumental, traversing the same bleak industrial terrain as ‘The Hound Of Heaven’, with huge low foghorn-like tones booming out atonally. ‘Isa – Abielle Noir’, however, is another thing altogether, offering an impassioned, imperious 15-minute instrumental guitar and drums workout which easily the best track on the album, and indeed probably the best song I've ever heard from either Hail or L’Acéphale. Fading up into a frenzy of blurred riffing over mid-paced drums, the song just surges and soars, drunk on its own power. Whilst this is undoubtedly black metal of a sort (providing some much-needed vindication for the claim that Hail is a black metal band, after the totally metal-free release Seeds), the urgency and cadence of its riff also somehow recalls classic, Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth, as well as modern guitar experimentalists such as Nadja. It’s something to do with the song’s utter commitment to the transcendental potential of the electric guitar, for sure, and also the subdued, minatory dissonance of the quiet passage beginning at around the nine-minute mark, played over a low, tribal drumbeat which slides into a shimmering wash of cymbals] work, before a tumbling drum roll starting at 12’14” launches the song back into a blindingly speeded-up version of its opening riff, the song eventually imploding into an obliterating squall of freeform noise and feedback.

‘The Lonesome Valley’ is a drone-based ambient piece, featuring samples of what used to be called a ‘Negro spiritual’ – I'm not sure what the politically correct term for a song like this is, but it’s the kind of thing that Diamanda Galás is given to singing. PermaFrost’s final track, ‘Isa’, is an acoustic reprise of the basic theme of ‘Isa – Abielle Noir’, using cello, piano, sparse percussion and looped, heavily reverbed vocals. The production emphasises the cello, giving the track a vibrant, embracing feel. It’s quite interesting, as is ‘The Hound of Heaven’, but really, the rest of the album is eclipsed by its centrepiece, ‘Isa – Abielle Noir’.

It’s hard to express just how enrapturing and transformative this song is. Its monolithic testimonial demonstrates a profound understanding of the revolutionary potential inherent in black metal, a potential all too often squandered by mediocre musicians who fail to comprehend the power they wield. This song is an absolute masterpiece, and it’s simply crazy that it can only be heard on this tiny limited-edition release of 30 copies. It’s not even on the band’s MySpace page. Now that Hail are seemingly an active concern once more, it would make a lot of sense for the band to compile the best work from this series of CD-Rs into a retrospective collection and try to arrange a proper CD release through a label that can expose their music to the wider audience it richly deserves. And ‘Isa – Abielle Noir’ is definitely the first track I'd select for that album.

NB. The title ‘Isa – Abielle Noir’ is a misprint. It should read ‘Isa – Abeille Noir’, which translates as ‘Isa [the ice rune] – Black Bee’ – a reference to the 15th Runo of the Kalevala.

This review was originally written for Judas Kiss webzine: