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Whitehorse > West of the Sun / Ocean Turns to Black > Reviews
Whitehorse - West of the Sun / Ocean Turns to Black

Worship Whitehorse, for they are doom! - 100%

MosquitoControl, February 18th, 2009

I can say without embellishment that I've been listening to extreme doom metal longer than some of the reviewers on this site have been alive. After speeding and thrashing and deathing through the 80s, I was ready for something a little different, only to discover Winter, Cathedral and Disembowelment in a relatively short span of years in the early 90s (might as well throw Godflesh in there too, if Streetcleaner isn't doom, nothing is). My fandom has wavered over the years, mostly due to a dearth of quality bands and albums; with precious few exceptions the late 90s were not friendly to metal in general, and were even less friendly to extreme doom metal. Most broke up or slowly changed their styles to something less obnoxious. To my mind it signaled that playing slow was about like playing fast: you get to a certain point and you just can't go any slower.

The early years of the new millenium saw a stunning rebirth of extreme doom metaland changed my mind about playing slow. Bands the world over sprung up, trafficking in sounds heavier, slower and just plain weirder than anything that had come before. Sure they had their antecedants, but this new crop of bands was a little different. Whether it was the maniacal shriek of Khanate, the crushing atmosphere of Buried At Sea or the suffocating drone of Uncertainty Principle, they all moved extreme doom to the furthest end of the musical spectrum (I'm purposely leaving Sunn off the list. Those no-talent amp-clowns almost single-handedly ruined extreme doom by turning it into the same carnival sideshow the derailed the second wave of black metal bands. Fuck Sunn), or in the case of Australia's Halo even moving beyond it into self-described "antimusic." As good as some of these bands were, they were all distinctly "metal" bands; that is, despite their deconstruction of doom music, they still worshipped at the riff altar: the same one built by Sabbath, tended by Trouble and Candlemass, refurbished by Sleep. Even at their most extreme, they all played a variety of metal.

That brings us to the mid 2000s and a strange Australian outfit by the name of Whitehorse. With seemingly no pedigree in the scene (one half-expected to see a member of Disembowelment in their ranks, given the insularity of Australian metal), they make the bold move of releasing three live documents (I hesistate to call them albums, because in this case album is such a weighted term carrying with it the connotation that these might be more than spontaneous live eruptions) before ever recording a proper album. West of the Sun/Ocean Turns to Black was the first of the three to see the light, released on their own Sweat Lung label in Australia and recorded live at two different clubs on different occasions a few weeks apart, one song recorded per concert.

As live recordings go, the sound quality on WotS/OTtB (as it will henceforth be abbreviated) is not that good. Although recorded in actual rock clubs, these songs could just have easily been recorded in a basement at the local DIY house down the street; it's raw, full of feedback and static and on more than one occasion the levels max out completely into walls of white noise. Even though the quality is not that good, it fits the music so well, after a few listens it's impossible to imagine it recorded in any other way; the layer of crowd noise and feeeeeeeback make you feel like you're standing at the show in front of the amps. Despite its shortcomings each instrument is captured amazingly well: the bass rumbles and grinds in the background; the kick drums thump heftily while the ride and crash clatter and ring almost perfectly (I for one love loud crash cymbals in the extreme doom/sludge subgenres; I say flatten the snare and crash away!); the guitars slash throughout the mix, sometimes squealing to the front, other times melting into the background buried beneath the bass and cymbals; the shrieked vocals are low in the mix, except in a few instances where they positively startle with their overwhelming inhumaneness; the final layer of sound and one of the most important, at least as far as this recording is concerned, is the electronics that wash over, around and through the entire album. Combine those all together, and even with the poor recording quality WotS/OTtB is as heavy and dense as anything I've ever heard; I don't think there is any empty frequency on the record.

Two songs in forty-four minutes doesn't sound that different than many other extreme doom acts, especially given that some, like Bunkur and Moss, have been known to stretch songs out to an hour or longer; two songs in forty-four minutes seems natural even, being that this is a live recording. But this is Whitehorse, and they are not an ordinary extreme doom metal band. These are not riff-driven songs, and in the traditional sense, might not even deserve to be called songs, but I mean that as high praise, some of the highest praise I can give; on WotS/OTtB Whitehorse have moved almost completely beyond the realms of popular music, dispensing with anything even resembling song structure. In so much rock and roll derived music, we're conditioned to crescendos and decrescendos, to songs that start at point A and move toward point B before repeating that any number of times; as fans though, most of the time we recognize point A and we already know what point B is going to be: it's the ultimate predictability of almost all pop music (even much of the stuff us longtime heshers would rather it wasn't). Whitehorse has no point A, no point B, no point C, nothing. The songs start with what could be random noises, whirrings, feedback, a few cymbal hits and continue that way, somehow building tension through the use of the unexpected: when the lurching becomes a march like at the 6:34 mark of Oceans Turn to Black the power is incredible, not because the song has been building up to this point, but because it seems to have congealed there of its own accord, internal combustion in the music itself: and it's completely unpredictable! The same applies to the "quiet" interludes in these songs, where one or more of the instruments drops out, leaving the listener in a state of complete and perfect confusion, with no idea where the song might go next (and mind you, this isn't the idiot confusion of so-called "tech death" or "tech grind;" there is a huge difference between being lost in a two acre city park ala Decrepit Birth, and the million square mile Australian outback ala Whitehorse) or even if it is going to go anywhere, for example the 10:20 mark in West of the Sun. Throughout the entire four-four minute running time, I always get the impression the song could end at any moment, everything screeching to a crashing halt, or barring that, they could erupt into the heaviest extreme doom volcano imaginable, raining down guitar feedback and power electronics like the hottest lava and blackest ash a forever churning doom orchestra.

Whitehorse has written a massively claustrophobic album. There is no breathing room in this forty-four minute endurance test; the tension created by their confounding song structure piles up heavier in five minutes than most bands manage in entire careers. How it can be so cathartic at the same time is a little strange, but only because we're led to believe catharsis comes at certain moments and then disappears; here, it comes in waves, giant, crashing, towering tidal waves of rank fear and terror that threaten to overwhelm you before tossing you onto shore battered and bruised, but ready for another run into the same magnificent waves. This is as heavy as an entire ocean of water condensed to a singularity, yet as expansive as that same ocean stretching ever onwards to a never nearing horizon.

WotS/OTtB lends itself to hyperbole. That this is the band's first recording is nothing short of amazing. They manage to combine elements that while not completely disparate, have never been combined so well and so ably. Floating through this album are the ghosts not just of extreme doom bands past and present: I definitely hear a little Buried At Sea and Burning Witch, a shade of Eyehategod and Khanate; but too the ghosts of power electronics and dark wave are hovering about: I hear more than a little Controlled Bleeding and Whitehouse, a fair amount of Bastard Noise and Hive Mind. What's interesting and amazes me most about this album is that although it's certainly metal, it's metal recontextualized as a collision of genres instead of as a continuation of an existing genre. After listening to this probably more than a hundred times, I'm not entirely sure this is derived from metal in the way that I always think of metal, starting with Sabbath and moving forward from there. The roots of WotS/OTtB almost seem to be more in the experimental musics and nonmusics of the late 70s and early 80s; there just isn't the reliance on riff or rhythm that has always dominated heavy metal. The pulsing, throbbing rhythm in this goes much deeper and comes from a far heavier source: I swear this is the heartbeat of the shrieking noisedoombeast itself.

Almost fifteen years after hearing my first extreme doom in the form of Winter's Into Darkness, I heard the first truly new extrapolation of that sound in Whitehorse's WotS/OTtB. This is the best extreme doom metal album I have ever heard, so-so recording quality and everything. There is something elemental, earthy, and visceral about this album; Whitehorse captured a sound with these two songs, a sound that is light years beyond and behind anything else out there. Rare is the album I can listen to on repeat for hours at a time, and this is one of those. Each time I listen I hear something new, something different, something I swear wasn't there in the previous hundred listens, and that is the mark of an amazing album. If you have any interest in the heaviest end of the doom metal spectrum, find this, own this, worship this.

Music to celebrate the arrival of Hell on Earth - 80%

NausikaDalazBlindaz, February 9th, 2007

Whitehorse play a very slow, dirgey improvised doo metal that is so heavy and seems so dense that if you tried to get a teaspoon of it, that amount would probably weigh a tonne. Both tracks on this private pressing were recorded live on two separate occasions in two venues in the group's home city of Melbourne, Australia, with two slightly different line-ups but with at least five members involved in both gigs.

"West of the Sun", the first track, takes a while to get going as a lot of improvised music tends to do, with a lot of whirling guitar whistling over head and enough pauses that you can hear people still talking in the background. Once the rhythm section finds its feet and starts moving the music proceeds at a slow and steady pace as though with a mind of its own. It builds up momentum relentlessly through constant, almost trance-inducing repetition and spacey effects, distortion and drones accompany the slow climb into a percussion break-out. The piece condenses into a series of wavering drones and whistles, and explodes with agonised human screams and pounding drums and cymbals. Imagine a desert hellhole in which the last members of the human race, ravaged by endless nuclear wars and plagues, are forced to take refuge and find themselves trapped by storms in a sand and stone tomb and you have an idea of the desolation and chaos of this part of music. The track collapses in screaming high-pitched guitar noise agony and self-destructing percussion hysteria. Feedback drones screech and keen long enough to break all human endurance.

While "West ..." is more in the realm of noisy rock improvisation and features some very experimental drone guitar, the next track "Ocean turns to Black" is more like doom metal with definite guitar riffs and melodies, and toys less with sound for its own sake. The music is more in company with bands like Boris and Corrupted. Again, the track takes time to move forward but move it does with solemn sledgehammer riffs and rhythms. The vocals are more prominent this time round, they have echo added to them and are very scary and desolate. There's an atmosphere of hot scourged landscapes where constant fires have removed all plant and animal life and hot corrosive rains fall from toxic acid clouds that scud across a burning red sky. The music changes halfway through with a passage of guitar feedback and for a time the mood changes to something a little lighter and more hopeful with a series of gentle melodies. We then come to another build-up of mood involving a quickening pace, more screaming, solid rhythm and pounding drums which all climax in driving and booming guitar work. The coda is very spaced-out and ambient.

For improvised music these tracks are well-structured and thought-out, and single-minded with very few breaks where the music just manages to hang together. When breaks do occur they have the effect of condensing the music and forcing the listener's concentration so that when the music expands it goes off in a different direction and takes its audience with it. Each track is over 20 minutes long but there's enough variety that you won't be bored and the musicians maintain momentum so the music, while sprawly and chaotic, is not a huge mess as improvised music sometimes can be.

If your next birthday party has to take place in an underground nuclear bunker because the air and surface soil are radioactive from all the bombing and the dumping of toxic wastes, this album would be suitable party music. Music to celebrate the end of the world and the consignment of humanity to Hell on Earth: I don't think there would be many other soundtracks as funereal as this and at the same time appropriate in this age of global climate change and warming.