If pressed, I would have a hard time describing what “heavy” means in terms of music. I can contrast it with what it is not, but that only gets us a partial answer; essence cannot be defined by privations. In this young year, Washington’s Ilsa have me wondering now about what that definition contains and excludes more than any other band. Their fifth full-length Corpse Fortress sports a great title and the laudable accolade of being released by Relapse Records. The cover and the title hint at Ilsa releasing some truly heavy stuff, as did the appealing death-doom tag attached to it. Yet still I wonder: is this heavy?
The descriptor I’ll give certainly points to a resounding yes. Ilsa sounds like a concoction of Eyehategod and Coffins, which means some sludgy, crusty, death-doom. Unlike many, I found Dopesick to be one of the most viciously boring records I’ve ever heard, and the genre of sludge more often than not produces abortive attempts at making heavy and punishing music that abuses the listener’s patience more than their eardrums. There’s a healthy dose of crust in here too, and much like Entombed and Nihilist, a particular sense of melody comes from this. Drenched in feedback, rumbling bass, and appropriately pummeling drumming, Corpse Fortress certainly appears like it ought to sound truly heavy.
On one occasion, Corpse Fortress hits admirably hard with the doom-death-hammer. “Prosector” is the shortest and most direct cut Ilsa have on offer here, and the thick Coffins/Eyehategod hybrid is spiced up with a bit of melody derivative of Entombed. It’s a quick bruiser that’s effective enough while not overly memorable, but is certainly enjoyable at high volumes. Hooded Menace’s Lasse Pykko turns in a great solo on “Long Lost Friend,” an otherwise decent trudge with clear Finnish overtones and an overlong spooky intro.
Other occasions see things that ought to be heavy falling flat and winding up being a boring trudge instead. The main riff of “Nasty, Brutish” sounds like a Celtic Frost outtake scraped up and devoured by Coffins, who later puked it on the side of the road. Similarity in sound is not a similarity in quality, and not everything that sounds like old Celtic Frost is gold. “Old Maid” does a passable imitation of the relatively uptempo barrage of Coffins, but the dreadful female guest vocals, sounding like Agoraphobic Nosebleed’s Katherine Katz imitating a hungry, irritated Chihuahua, demolish any appeal the track has.
Corpse Fortress sports a fantastic production that makes the whole affair sound downright massive. Kevin Bernsten’s recording is wonderfully organic for each instrument, and the always reliable Brad Boatright does a bang-up job making Ilsa sound imposing, loud, and large. This is the high point of the record to my ears, and it’s a shame that such a great recording showcases such unmemorable, derivative, and largely uninteresting music. Granted, each song has at least one decent aspect in it, but that’s not enough to carry a record. Corpse Fortress is bleak, it’s slow, it rattles and rolls, but it’s all for naught. I can’t bring myself to call this a truly heavy record; it plods and trudges through the motions, but lacks something I can’t quite put my finger on. Little Ilsa does is truly offensive or legitimately compelling, and everything but that intangible X-factor of what makes something heavy is present in their chugging riffs. Monotonous instead of monolithic, Corpse Fortress is a prime example of form without matter, shape without content, riffs without heaviness.