Post-black has often struck me as expressing a decadent sort of misery, one which is more malaise than malice, an effeminate whimpering against the dying of the light. It seems to cry out to the God it vehemently denies exists and beg for a purpose, painting a bleak sort of hopelessness; a musical version of an off-brand Sartre, if you will. Like Sartre’s Roquentin1, post-black bands create to find a purpose, but they end up stuck in the slime, accepting the hilariously overstated “death” of God and tradition, whining like Nietzsche’s Last Man for the dull pain of a meaningless existence to stop. Obitus, a Swedish band advertised as progressive post-black metal, take a far better approach to the genre on their sophomore record Slaves of the Vast Machine.
Even the most casual listener will immediately spot the differences between Obitus’s take on post-black as compared to the cringe-inducing Deafheaven. Slaves of the Vast Machine is clearly steeped in the Swedish black metal tradition, channeling older bands like Dark Funeral and newer bands like The Legion in their energetic, icy, and often dissonant riffs. The maniacal yet mechanical feel of Rage Nucleaire is present too, and the elements of post-black seem to derive mainly from burlier takes on the genre a la Pestilential Shadows. There’s even a bit of Mayhem’s underrated Grand Declaration of War in the mix, but the focus is on the less avant-garde parts and more on the quick and sterilized riffing.
Now for the interesting bit: Slaves of the Vast Machine is a single forty-five-minute song that is outright unrelenting. The cold and methodical punishment suits the concept well, as the world Obitus are trying to create through their music is one of Orwellian totalitarianism. They succeed, and the music sounds “gray” as all get-out but not monotonous. That said, it’s hard to remember specific parts of Slaves in a “this riff ruled” way. A certain melody about seventeen minutes in sticks out, but that’s largely due to the fleeting glimpses of hope it offers as if to showcase the indomitable human spirit still beating and fighting within the vast machine. After this, the music gives way to melancholy, and Obitus smartly relegates their story’s most vulnerable moment to mere seconds of space; the totalitarian machine drives forward towards “progress” regardless of its subjects’ feelings.
Near the song’s end, Obitus introduces a level of discord into their dystopia that wasn’t heard before. A more sinister version of the almost hopeful riff seems to duel with the dissonant and unrelenting “machine” riffing that populates much of the song, ending with the former fading out and giving way to one final, full-volume scream; it’s an effective and chilling way to end a record. I must say that some parts here are less engaging than others, but something tells me that each listener will find something different to be the most captivating bit here. There’s shockingly little weak material or time-wasters present, which is quite impressive for such a large and ceaselessly intense song.
Slaves of the Vast Machine is cold and metallic in production, using a somewhat obvious drum machine to good effect. It’s not “good” production in the abstract sense, but it suits the music of Obitus perfectly. Having entered the dystopia numerous times, I can safely say that particular parts don’t stick out like in 1984, and the dread and aimlessness isn’t as well captured as it was in a book like Darkness at Noon. Those are high benchmarks, however, and Obitus convincingly create a miserable and compelling place with their music. It’s a great pleasure forced upon the reviewer to step into a world created by an artist, and Obitus have created a near-futuristic dystopia I didn’t want to come back to but felt compelled to anyhow. A rare album where concept and execution flow together in total unison, Slaves is absolutely worth hearing for anyone interested in modern black metal. For those who want to hear in musical form what authors like Karl Popper, F.A. Hayek, and Alexis de Tocqueville (among many others) were so passionately against, Slaves is an exhausting, rewarding, and highly recommended listen.