If you’re anything like me, you’re super awesome. But more to the point, you would have been saddened by the split of blackened death metal troublemakers Akercocke a couple of years ago. Perhaps the UK’s most consistently entertaining extreme metal act of the last decade, they seemed to improve on every album, reaching a pinnacle on 2007’s Antichrist. “Best to give up while you’re ahead” you might think, but I suspected they would have improved still further if they’d released anything more. Voices are the band that rose from Akercocke’s ashes1, and 2013’s From the Human Forest Create a Fugue of Imaginary Rain almost proved my intuition right. It was an excellent debut, but didn’t quite tickle me in the same way the ‘cocke had managed. London doesn’t tickle me either; it flays me alive.
London is a concept album. I’m not clear on the precise details, but it involves a wretched man on the verge of suicide, following his descent into madness as he wanders through the London night, pushed into his current state by the rotten city and its inhabitants. His only apparent source of human contact, and the object of his infatuation, is prostitute “Megan.” The band mention on the audio commentary (available on Spotify) that the narrative themes are strongly influenced by Graham Green’s “The End of the Affair,” and this is apparent in the ideas of confused love, hatred, and jealousy. A narrator updates us on details between songs in delectably dark prose, but you are never sure whether the story being told is as things are, or as they are imagined by the protagonist’s tortured mind.
The musical parallels with Akercocke are clear, but Voices have managed to create a sickening identity all of their own. You always felt a welcome guest at Akercocke’s rituals – a little uncomfortable at times perhaps, but delighted by the decadence of the Satanic rights you witnessed. Voices offer no such comforts, instead tying you to a lamppost with razor wire and pissing in your open wounds as they force their despairing noise into your skull. The death metal influences are subtler, rarely giving us the opportunity to headbang to old-school riffs as Akercocke did, and when they do surface they’re more Ulcerate than Morbid Angel. Instead we are exposed primarily to dissonant, experimental black metal, blending elements from Blut Aus Nord, Anaal Nathrakh, and Arkhon Infaustus with Voices’ own grim psychedelic wanderings. The compositions are sculpted to provide visceral accompaniment to the evolution of the storyline, so while the songs aren’t conventionally structured, each has a unique identity. Sometimes the writing is not quite there – trance-like repetition stretched too far or a riff that doesn’t entirely draw you in – but such moments are rare.
The septic atmosphere is conjured through a combination of eerie melodies, clashing harmonies, intense dramatic vocals, and a harsh production. The discordance and angular riffing are designed to alienate and erode the listener’s stamina; we are allowed the occasional moment of catharsis but rarely for long. “The Ultimate Narcissist,” for instance, would have been an almost triumphant ending for the record, but of course that’s not the point and our spirits are summarily crushed by the anguish of “Cold Harbour Lane.” Peter Benjamin’s clean singing is similar to former Akercocke colleague Jason Mendonça’s – perhaps more melodramatic – while his harsh vocals range from brutal growls to unbearable, tortured shrieks. The guitar tone is highly distorted, and the whole production is treble heavy, bass light, and very compressed, furthering the aural discomfort. Usually I would criticize this, but it matches the horrid atmosphere the band aim to create. The music wouldn’t work so effectively if recorded with vintage analogue warmth.
A teacher once explained to me the importance of concept in music thus: “A student submitted a repetitive dirge as their GCSE 2 composition that bored me to tears. The piece was called ‘Factory’. I gave it an ‘A’.” London is leagues away from boring, and, despite its flaws – occasional lapses in composition, the compressed production – it succeeds spectacularly in delivering the concept. You might not enjoy every moment of your listening experience, but you’ll be completely captivated right until the final excruciating note.