Nostril Caverns is a bizarre entity for more reasons than the incredible name. It’s the creative repository for one Chris Balch’s musical outpourings – he plays all the instruments and vocalizes – which over the past few years have included records of free jazz improv, tech-grind, noise, and a concept album about couples eating dinner at a restaurant. At this point you’re probably wondering whether Mr. Balch’s lack of band-mates is entirely of his own choosing. If you’ll lay aside your cynicism for just a moment though, you’ll find Nostril Caverns have a surprising amount to offer the discerning metalhead.
Inside the Cell/The Dying’s Last Breath is an EP of two halves in more than just name. The first five tracks (Inside the Cell) are pretty straight-up old school, thrashy death metal, with fairly apparent influences from early Morbid Angel, early Slayer (track five is, in fact, a cover of Slayer’s “Fight Till Death”), early Sepultura, and a hint of the more progular aspects of Death. The combination of influences and knack for cranking out killer riffs combine with a little sprinkle of something entirely of Nostril Cavern’s own to create four very enjoyable death metal ditties; the cover is superfluous but fits into this half of the record well enough.
Things get a bit weirder for the EP’s second act, which is made up entirely of fourteen-minute final track “The Dying’s Last Breath.” Here Nostril Cavern‘s lurch into experimental black metal territory. The music is still entirely based around the guitars and drums, the riffs bearing the scars of Thorns and early Enslaved, while some of the more interesting rhythms and harmonies remind me of Ephel Duath’s corker of a debut, Phormula (back when they were a two-man prog/black metal outfit with an Emperor fixation). The songwriting goes a bit awry on this one – some of the transitions are annoyingly abrupt, and it winds around dragging its feet a little. The song is split in twain by a quiet middle break that features a lovely guitar line spoiled by “atmospheric” pick scraping and whispers, and while stylistically there’s little difference, the latter half seems to gain a little more focus, building as it does to the final minute of music that contains the best riff of the whole album.
There’s no question about Balch’s riff-writing ability, and his performances are excellent – the drumming in particular is abnormally good, particularly for a one-man project. As with most things in life, though, there’s a catch. Catches, even. Firstly, there is no bass whatsoever on the album, and while most metal bands rarely use the instrument to its full potential anyway, you really feel it when it isn’t there. Secondly, the vocals are poor. Balch mostly goes for high shrieks, occasionally attempting a lower growl for variety, but they completely lack any body, sounding feeble and weak. Fortunately they are generally quiet and easy to ignore, but it’s a shame they don’t add anything to music already missing the presence of a bass.
Other than the vocals, the EP sounds good – suitably lo-fi but clear drums that capture the nuances of the performance, and well-defined, sharp guitars. There is, alas, some quite obvious clipping going on at times – hopefully this is an artifact of the MP3 compression and the higher quality versions (presumably to appear on Bandcamp) won’t suffer as badly. The low dynamic range also robs the music of some much-needed textural variety, which is already in low supply due both to the song arrangements and the minimal instrumentation.
Given Nostril Caverns’ past, it would be futile to attempt to predict their next direction, but I would love to see them develop either the death or black metal styles exhibited here – preferably with something to fill the bass-shaped void. As it is, this is still a more interesting release than the majority of “real” bands manage to cobble together in their miserable existences. I suspect that Chris Balch doesn’t give a hoot what I’d love to hear, anyway. And you know what, kids? That’s pretty cool.