You’ve witnessed the scene. It’s a part of the furniture in many contemporary neo-neo-noir, ominously foreboding, condemningly pseudofuturist movies. Our heroic but morally ambiguous protagonist visits some sort of underground nightclub. People, presumably the filth of the city, dance spastically (yet provocatively) under stroboscopes, adorned by black leather and fetishized clothing. A mixture of disgust and temptation lingers while a red haze surrounds the entangled mess of bodies. It’s Hollywood’s typical portrayal of Hell on Earth, a mise-en-scène imbued with cheap symbolism. Imagine now a worthy metal accompaniment to such a spectacle in real life, deprived of all the fabricated fanciness, something that would eclipse phony visual cues and provide a truly infernal setting. Forget about the usual sonic backdrop featuring, at best, Marilyn Manson or Nine Inch Nails or, at worst, someone’s archaic idea of Detroit techno. Imagine instead, music so punishing and absurd that it makes you stagger while it replaces even the most resilient, essential hopes with an awareness of the inevitability and existential dread of a genuine Hell. Do you have it in your mind? Well, then you can feel how Alex Poole’s (Krieg, Esoterica, Chaos Moon) and D.G.’s (Misþyrming, Naðra) project Skáphe sounds. Skáphe², you see, is an unapologetically extreme attack on the senses and a source of ruthless, grueling emotional overload. And it’s beautiful.
Only half a minute of the introductory “I” sufficed to make me believe that Skáphe² might be one of the best black metal releases of the year. I write “black metal,” but in reality Skáphe transcends the boundaries of the genre and employs pronounced drone, harsh noise, and avant-garde elements to accomplish this feat. The full force of the music strikes you right away: the monolithic, impossibly dense wall of guitars, bass, and drums plows forth while standing still, leaving a burning shadow in its wake and placing an unbearable weight on your soul. As the song progresses, you find yourself dumbfounded, it’s almost too much to absorb and comprehend, but you slowly start to grasp that there are structures, layers, melodies, and grooves hidden in the scrawled sound. Delayed, dissonant guitars wail and try to escape from the abyss, while drums and bass form an incessant rumble over which tortured, demoniacal vocals echo and moan. There’s a slower section to the tune, making you believe, if for the briefest of instants, there might be salvation waiting ahead. But this faint hope is there only to be brutally taken away as you comprehend that even the “mellower” sections, devoid of pummeling blast beats, reign caustic and castigating as they drone with maniacal screeches and atonality.
Pieces “II” through “VI” all retain the same level of crushing intensity and atmosphere. “II,” while raw, shows Skáphe’s willingness to toy with diverse concepts as they craft an ingenious tune carried by an almost imperceptible melody that lurks behind the closely knit production and noise mantle. On the other hand, the longest song on the record “IV” exploits a post-metal sense of circular, aimless roaming and uses restless, sickly noises to emphasize the rage and anguish that will shortly ensue. Despite the incessant brutality of Poole’s compositional approach and because of how the cuts and performance continue to shift and mutate, creating contrasting architectures on various levels of abstraction, there is never a dull moment during this incomparable monstrosity’s 36 minutes. It’s music that hurts and burns, yet keeps you wanting.
While the self-titled début was a commendable solo effort by Poole, bringing vocalist D.G. on board enabled him to expand and distill the already towering approach, making Skáphe² a near perfect record in all aspects. Most of the instrumentarium, one can only guess, is skillfully handled by Poole himself while D.G. resorts to an array of inhuman vocalizations – shrieks, howls, moans – rather than anything resembling “singing.” It’s hard to find any faults in either’s performance as the musicianship is generally spot on. Likewise, the production is cunningly lo-fi, perfectly fitting for this music: filthy and muddled, yet revealing of all its complexities. The dynamics are utterly compressed, of course, but, trust me, you wouldn’t want it any other way.
There are times when one becomes saturated with all the music available, at just a few clicks away, and starts spiraling towards a resounding, morose “meh” attitude. Then something like Skáphe² comes along and, as a jolt of unrefined evil, revitalizes everything and everyone. I await Skáphe’s next release both with terror and exhilaration.