Hot off last month’s terrific split with Wildspeaker, Texas-based duo Cara Neir are back with their long-awaited fourth full-length Perpetual Despair Is the Human Condition. “Wait!” says the attentive metal fan. “Long awaited? Portals to a Better, Dead World just came out in 2013!” Yes, you are correct, and 666 kvlt points for you. However, Cara Neir apparently started work on Despair before Portals was even released, and the album art and tracklist have been available for almost a year now. For those who love the bizarre black/grind/punk that vocalist Chris Francis and multi-instrumentalist Garry Brents have been producing since Cara Neir’s 2008 inception, Despair, has been a hotly anticipated record indeed. So turn off the lights, grab some white wine, and get ready to sulk in the corner as we explore the hopelessness of Perpetual Despair Is the Human Condition.
But the first thing that’s apparent from Despair isn’t the mood, but how much less weird it is than their other works. Absent are the bouncy basslines and experimental edge of last month’s split, replaced with a somewhat more traditional take on black metal. After a faint sample about metaphysics and unending pain, opener “Spiteful Universe” shows this right off with its furious blasting, tumbling drumbeats, watery background leads, and Krallicey riffs that sound like Armageddon is here and the sky is ready to collapse. Follow-up “Normalcy” continues the Krallice similarities with the introduction of death metal vocals (Cara employ a whopping four guest vocalists throughout these eight tracks) alongside hazy chords that give way to meek clean notes midway through.
But even with a relatively less adventurous sound compared to prior albums, it’s still tough to compare the band to anyone in particular. At times Despair recalls old Darkthrone, post-black, or even the blackened crust of Young and in the Way. Yet unlike the blood-soaked misanthropy of Young, Cara Neir sound utterly despondent, crippled by an esoteric anguish that’s conveyed through hair-raising riffs, venomous rasping, and blood-curdling background screams. It’s harrowing stuff, and while I admittedly enjoy the duo’s weirder side more, there are still some good cuts here. “Bound by Believers” closes out the record’s first half with an excellent recurring melody, while “Trials of the Lost” introduces some neat angular riffing and a snappy beat in its midsection.
Unfortunately, that’s about where the highlights end. While front to back Despair is full of ‘good’ ideas, even after multiple listens it’s hard to think of any that rise to the level of ‘great.’ The tempo changes occur often enough but they’re not particularly engaging, and altogether these songs are far too similar in feel and pace. ‘One-dimensional’ is the phrase that comes to mind, and while it’s not a bad dimension to spend 38 minutes in, it’s troubling how tracks like “Pushing Failure” buzz by without ever reaching their full potential. Likewise, while the production offers ample atmosphere and a distinct bass guitar presence, the overall sound lacks the bite and sharpness this kind of music needs.
That said, Cara do a great job stuffing chilling effects into the music’s nooks and crannies, including subtle piano and other sounds whose origin I couldn’t begin to guess. It’s a nice touch, but still a far cry from the intriguing strangeness of the group’s previous output. I guess it’s hard to hide my disappointment with the group’s more traditional approach on Despair, and while that can almost be forgiven for the way the record vividly paints its downtrodden world outlook, the production and songwriting leave something to be desired. Ultimately this makes Despair a difficult record to judge: I enjoy it front to back and will probably revisit it, but I can’t shake the feeling that this is one of those cerebral records that never quite ‘clicks’ no matter how many focused listens you give it. Fans of the band and modern black metal, in general, will no doubt enjoy this, but hopefully the next go-round yields slightly more compelling results.