Sir David Bowie. The Duke, The Chameleon, The Goblin King. In January 2016, the world lost one of the greatest musicians it had ever known. Throughout his illustrious career, Bowie wore many faces, but even at his darkest, he retained a sultry air with his seductive voice and androgynous personae. First-wave black metal would place near-last on my list of metal genres that could pair with the Duke, but that’s exactly what Lydia Laska aim to do. However, it might be less of a surprise when you learn that those other Norse hybrid benders, Kvelertak, cited the band as a prime influence. Lydia Laska went on to allegedly get their video banned from Norwegian TV and, by virtue of their intensely reckless shows, themselves banned from so many venues that they cannot effectively tour anymore. Whatever lies inside Ego Death, boredom won’t be part of it.
But to accurately describe just what Ego Death does contain is easier said than done. Imagine crossing Bowie’s sultriness with a vaguely punk whine for the vocals, occasionally descending into a wall of feverish screaming or, in at least one case, actual black metal screeching. Distinct the vocal style may be, consistency in delivery and technical ability is largely absent to a degree few may be able to overlook. Overlay this with guitars that either jangle like loose keys or pierce with a grinding squeal so untethered it seems plausible the strings are not connected to a guitar at all. These riffs carry notes of Bowie, Sonic Youth, and first-wave black metal alike, merged admirably into an angrier, more unhinged version of 80’s seduction rock.
This description might make Lydia Laska sound entirely unappealing, and to most, it will be. But I won’t deny that there is an appeal to the recklessness, the punk attitude, the grinning puckered madness. The vocals may frequently go off-key, the guitars get so lost among the noise and distortion they sometimes seem to disappear altogether, the drums are as stark as a concrete wall, the timing and compositions are sloppier than a bouvier eating yogurt, but there’s an X-factor at play. It’s the kind of raunchy attraction that leads clean-cut men down back alleys to a grimy strip club with stuttering half-broken neon outside, to sit and revel in the smells of cheap cigarettes, various bodily fluids and poorly made cocktails. It’s grimy, lousy, and cheap, but it taps into the lure of the lustful amongst the dregs of humanity.
It’s the production that brings the shaky tower down, and it falls hard. Listening to Ego Death at my usual volume is marginally less pleasant than jamming a dentist drill into both ears. The record is louder than thunder, yet carries very little weight, as if someone left the bass knob too low and the treble knob too high. The bass can be heard, but badly lacks impact. This makes any high pitched material piercing to a painful degree, the auditory equivalent of chewing tin foil, and I suspect the amps consist of a steel wire strung through a metal bin. To get pop credit, the vocals are turned up high as well, doubling down on their divisive style. When all this culminates in a wall of grating high-pass static and histrionic screaming like the finale of “I Can Play Myself,” my teeth grit of their own accord. There’s such a thing as adhering to black metal and post-punk aesthetics, and then there is taking it so far as to shoot yourself in the foot, making the record nigh-unlistenable at normal volumes.
Ego Death is far from a conventional metal album, and it certainly deserves credit for a singular vision not quite like anything else. Glam often glorifies beauty in ugliness, over-the-top style, and unheard debauchery, hedonism unrestrained. Lydia Laska takes that creed and drags it to its grimiest, the darkest and trashy extremes, its sultry attraction not refuted but enhanced by its intentional repulsiveness. But like an old pair of jeans owned by an overenthusiastic punk teen, it has been chuffed and grated and damaged to the point of falling apart. I admire Lydia Laska’s uncompromising work ethic, but that doesn’t mean I have to enjoy listening to Ego Death.