The year is 1850, cholera and dysentery run rampant through European communities. Laudanum probably seemed like lightening in a bottle. A working class drug, easing everything from colds and meningitis to cardiac disease, and all for less than a bottle of gin. The year is 2017, Ashenspire hail from Glasgow (Scotland) and like their British / Norwegian counterparts (A Forest of Stars / Vulture Industries), Ashenspire deliver a brand of avant-garde black metal that makes you sit up and take notice. Clad in a single-breasted frock coat, Speak Not of the Laudanum Quandary tells of the harrowing odyssey of British imperialist tragedy using 7 lengthy tracks. Will Ashenspire‘s debut prove the bitter-sweet tincture that cures my black metal woes?
“Restless Giants” makes a spasmodic entrance, transitioning through static, mechanical noise and ultimately settling into a choppy and violent guitar riff. Alasdair Dunn, the creative director and diabolical mastermind behind Ashenspire, ushers in the theatrical flourish reinforced by a string of floating violin melodies. Not only does Dunn provide dramatic vocalization middling somewhere between speech and song, but he also pounds the skins – not something a lot of vocalists can pull off with success. Dunn’s vocal delivery has similarities to Dan Eyre (AKA Mister Curse, A Forest of Stars), but Dunn is capable of more abandon. The track progresses through urgent blackened chaos opposed by quietude, consolidating in a blend of A Forest of Stars and Vulture Industries with the hidden jazzy innuendo of Diamanda Galas.
“The Wretched Mills,” though heavier, enters with the doom-like elegance of a New Keepers of the Water Towers progression. Things quickly take a turn to the peculiar, with Dunn’s vocals resembling those of Yusaf Parvez (Dødheimsgard). These abrasive expressions, the vexing and distorted fretwork, the oddly measured pulse, are rivaled by a passage that would be more at home on a melodic death doom album, and “The Wretched Mills is a hapless curse that works. My only objection to what Ashenspire are doing by this point, is that the tracks are too long, a point of issue that plagues the remainder of Speak Not of the Laudanum Quandary. A Forest of Stars‘ A Shadowplay for Yesterdays worked so perfectly, because the lengthier tracks were broken up and separated by a range of shorter tracks. Ashenspire have fewer tracks, but all hit around the seven to twelve minute mark barring one. This makes for a fatiguing listening experience with fewer rest stops to gather one’s bearings.
“Mariners at Perdition’s Lighthouse” has a few moments where Ashenspire mirror the guitar lines with those of the violin, creating something quite fascinating. “Grievous Bodily Harmonies” uses the violin bow to quite literally saw away at your nerves, a harrowing and ongoing experience, only rivaled by the shift of power between Dunn’s screams and his Old Dead Tree-like monotone. “A Beggar’s Belief” uses fire and brimstone, and the metallic rattle of a beggar’s money tin to shackle itself to your memory. Ashenspire has a distinctive schema that dictates the direction of Speak Not of the Laudanum Quandary, and into this they infuse their eccentricity.
Like A Forest of Stars this means that no one particular song stands out as a keeper, but in fact the entire album must play out from start to finish to be properly appreciated – Hell to those that want to add Ashenspire to a specific playlist. If I were hard-pressed to pick a playlist track, it would be the title track. Opening with what sounds like it could be the practicing keystrokes of say, French pianist Richard Clayderman, the song goes from feverish to nothing. Cycling through complex and energetic drum rhythms, ultimately developing a Devil Doll whimsicality by featuring a jazzy piano melody that alludes to Vincent Anthony Guaraldi, known for his innovative compositions for the animations of the Peanuts animations.
Ashenspire‘s Speak Not of the Laudanum Quandary is a definite grower, with only a single track (“Fever Sheds”) serving no purpose. My initial impressions led me to believe that Alasdair Dunn’s ever-changing vocal delivery seemed wearing and often barely listenable. But after near on two weeks of listening and delving into Dødheimsgard, I understand that discomfort and irritation was the whole point. Today, I find myself intrigued by Dunn’s lyric choices and his over the top delivery, wanting to listen to this album for extended periods of time, and maybe even on occasion picking it over A Shadowplay for Yesterdays. This is a win!