What do you notice when you take in a Paul Gauguin? Do you admire the stark brush strokes and bold secondary colours? Maybe the uninhibited naturalism of the Tahitian subjects draws your eye? Or can you not get past the stunted proportions, flattened perspectives and homely faces? A similar divide exists in music. Some are pulled in by lyrical themes and instrument tone whereas others require a reproachless performance and complex song writing. Emotional stimulus versus technical ecstasy. Sator Malus, with their debut album, Dark Matters, are less concerned with peerless virtuosity than delivering a sombre mood suitable for an afternoon spent indoors carving runes. Atmospheric black metal is what’s on offer, but rather than meandering chords and gossamer musings, a smoldering paean to battle-hardened gods greets the listener like a Valkyrie on the battlefield. Is the band worthy to be spirited to Valhalla’s doors? Read on lest you sacrifice an eye for knowledge.
Precious little information about Sator Malus exists in any material form. They hail from the Netherlands, they play black metal and they scowl through corpse paint. That’s it. No light on who they are or what their manifesto may be. This is partly due to the band’s burgeoning involvement in the scene but the real reason is likely that the group would rather speak through their music than a press release. First impressions are everything when you have no expectations, so it’s heartening that Dark Matters opens in fine fettle with the instrumental “Ominous Overture.” Comprised of three stages, the track begins with a patina of rain, transitioning to morose clean picking and ending on a romantic string section. Although a stark contrast to the frigid primitiveness that follows, the intro is critical in setting the tone for the album, acting as a bugle call for the ensuing offensive.
Primal, yet nuanced and pensive, “Eerie Elemental Eidos” represents the central ethos of Dark Matters, a rumbling rumination of violence, death and rebirth. The tremolo guitars march with measured intensity, backed by tizzy cymbals, imperious bass and contemptuous vocals. This is viscous music that burbles and corrodes like naphtha on skin. There’s a coarse, unfinished texture to the album but rather than causing one to recoil at the touch, it is a strangely pleasing sensation that invites further exposure. “My Journey” is a testament to this, the guitars emitting a high-frequency buzz akin to an ill-maintained dentist’s drill that somehow makes for agreeable company. Think Taake, but rendered into slivers and then bound together like hessian rope.
Sator Malus have given themselves ample opportunity to, if I may pilfer from Tolkein, show their quality as the running time for most of the tracks spill into the double-digit range. The band succeeds for the most part in justifying such ample run times but the greyscale rendering of the music means that listener attention isn’t always ensnared. Closing cut “Endless Cycles of Life and Death” is free of such rot, slowing things down to a deliberate pace that underscores the solemn nature of the subject matter. It’s an emotional track, a point driven home by the surprising clean cries towards the end that are both harrowing and poignant. I couldn’t help but think of “One Rode to Asa Bay” by Bathory, a comparison I don’t make lightly. The rest of Dark Matters struggles to reach such lofty heights but it points to the potential these po-faced Dutchmen inculcate.
First blood from a nascent band often delivers jagged demos in arrested development or over-eager musicianship desperate for validation. Sator Malus avoid either pitfalls with a debut that although unrefined and even uncouth at times, presents a heady rush of snow-driven grimness. Artists such as Henri Matisse and Sidney Nolan were content to spurn the dogma of technical realism and crafted artworks that pushed emotion and symbolism at the expense of aesthetics. Dark Matters may not be a pretty picture, but if you don’t mind paint lashed against an untreated canvas designed to stir the heart and not the head then this might be just for you. I’m looking forward to seeing what Sator Malus produce next.