Split albums are hard to do well. It’s rare that the contributing bands are equally matched, and rarer still that the musical styles are complementary (with some classic exceptions). The Meads of Asphodel are no stranger to the dodgy split, having previously shared groove-space with Mayhem and Old Corpse Road. It’s pretty tough to find a band that complements The Meads‘ deranged-but-brilliant punk/psychedelia/black metal/Middle Eastern mix, and so far they’ve yet to get the balance right.
Underground murmurings suggest Tjolgtjar might just be the act to finally deliver that balance: formed around the same time as The Meads, Tjolgtjar‘s music is described as a mixture of black ‘n’ roll, psychedelia, garage, country, and even gospel. Despite this amazing description and extensive back catalogue (eleven full-lengths and numerous other splits, demos and compilations), Tjolgtjar has so far flown under my radar. Could this obscure American solo project provide the yin to The Meads‘ crazy yang?
I had to wait a little to find out, as The Meads are responsible for side A. Starting off with a folky orchestral intro and moving into the sprightly punk/black metal of “Chidiock Tichborne,” The Meads sound like a pissed off, lo-fi Bal-Sagoth. Trippy electronic beats, classic black metal riffs, exotic melodies, diverse vocals, all their staple tricks are employed. “You’ve Got the Hate” is a wonderful change in direction: a parody-cover (of Florence and the Machine‘s rendition of The Source/Candi Staton‘s “You’ve Got the Love” – 80s dance at its best!) that mixes sugary pop with Hawkwind weirdness. The clean female vocals are syrup-sweet, contrasting beautifully against both the modified, angry lyrics and the murky psychedelia of the accompanying guitars and synths. “Balthasar Gerard” combines infectious Middle Eastern melodies and beats with trademark gruff vocals and over-the-top samples to explore the ludicrously gruesome torture of William of Orange‘s murderer, while final track “Infidel” contains some remarkably heavy riffs and complex timings to complement its psychedelic black metal base. Pretty much what we’ve come to expect from The Meads by now, but a few little surprises and the tight run-time makes this a welcome addition to their discography.
Tjolgtjar shows similar diversity on side B, but where The Meads manage to pull off the deranged genius act, Tjolgtjar‘s music sounds more like the bedroom noodlings of a bored teenager. The first thing that strikes you is the horrible production. Poor recordings are hardly unheard of in black metal (The Meads apparently tape all their music at the bottom of a well) but J. R. Preston really goes out of his way to make Tjolgtjar sound like a wasp fart, bypassing authentically raw to land instead at annoyingly amateur. Moving on from this initial bad impression, “The Fifth Mass and Her Works” actually features some pretty inventive riffs, though I’m honestly not sure if some of them are meant to be dissonant or whether the tuning is just off. The song seems to be thrown together entirely randomly; there’s no real attempt at any kind of meaningful structure. “Near You Always” is shorter and mellower, but similarly poorly written (nice King Diamond shrieks though), while “A Goat in the Woods” is clearly just a demo Tubeway Army discarded after replacing Gary Numan‘s vocals with a child’s improvised guitar solo. Finally, “Winter Research” goes all black ‘n’ roll and is probably Tjolgtjar‘s best track here, though it only has two riffs. Each track is sandwiched by sampled interludes; these didn’t make it onto my promo copy, but from the Bandcamp link they sound irritating and superfluous.
I’ve already discussed the production a little but it’s also worth mentioning that the mastering is pretty odd. Tjolgtjar‘s side has about the same dynamic range as The Meads‘, but clocks in a good 4-5dB quieter, so if your media player doesn’t automatically level match (or if you get the vinyl, assuming similar mastering) you’ll find yourself adjusting your volume for the second half. If you insist on listening to it.
So, not quite the classic split I was hoping for. The Meads of Asphodel‘s contribution alone (3.5/5) is well worth the digital download price, though I’m not sure I’d shell out for the vinyl when side B (1.5/5) would never see the needle. I’ll save my cash just in case a proper Meads/Sigh split ever appears…
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Eternal Death
Websites: TheMeadsOfAsphodelOfficial | Facebook/TheMeadsOfAsphodel | TjolgtjarOfficial | Facebook.com/Tjolgtjar
Release Dates: Out Worldwide: 06.02.2015