I’m about as fluent in South African metal bands as I am in French. And that’s a goddamn shame (the SA band thing, not the French thing). But, even for my limited knowledge of the scene, I’m happy to say I spend a lot of time with a couple of good ones (Vulvodynia and Wildernessking). So, when I received a promo from a little known South African outfit (from our own SA native, Madam X), I was more than a little excited. Especially when I hit play. More than any other record this year, Ophiuchi‘s debut knocked me right on my ass. For the last two weeks, I’ve been mind-fucked over and over again by this album. Every spin sends me on a journey across sun-bleached wastelands, flings me into pitch-black valleys and forces me to scale palm-tearing stone before leading me through skin-shredding briar. I’ve experienced more pain and comfort, more beauty and devastation in these four tracks than I have from any other 2017 record. And I’ve loved every second of it.
Other than the fact that Ophiuchi hails from South Africa, there’s very little info on this one-man black metal act. Honestly, the only way to know the band is to know Bifurcaria Bifurcata. Which is a feat all its own. Even after two dozen listens, I still find myself surprised by its twists and turns. Hell, even the album and song titles are mysteries to me. Why someone would name an album after a species of seaweed (especially a species not native to the South African shores) is beyond me. Not to mention titles like “Vestibule,” “Heliopause,” and “Obol.” A song named after one-sixth of the ancient Greek drachma? What the fuck? But, even if I had answers, it wouldn’t explain the mysterious journey you’re about to embark on.
But, for now, opener “Vestibule” gets things going with a soothing introduction before the distortion and drowning rasps explode out of its ethereal shroud. As the song picks up speed, an Alcest-meets-Cobalt vibe settles in. Then, as the songwriting alternates between herky-jerky timings, post-black atmospheres, and bass-centered interludes, the song transforms into something resembling a blackened Tool. After eight minutes of depressing hypnotics and aggressive chugging, the song comes to a halt. But, only for a second. The chugging bass and guitars build steam and march along with the drums—straight into the title track.
And this is where things get nuts. Between me, myself, and I, “Bifurcaria Bifurcata” is Grier‘s song of the year. The introduction calms and cools with soothing oooo’s and aaaah’s buried deep in the mix. Then the rapid black metal riffage kicks in. The combination of black melodies and folky atmospheres give it an almost Woods of Ypres character that slows just long enough to let that beefy bass take the lead. All the while, chaotic, blackened volleys chop through the weeds in the most sporadic way. This song is about as unpredictable as it gets, but it fucking works. The randomness, yet cohesive. And it gives the song an organic and unrestrained quality. After it ascends and descends for over ten minutes, the song ends with one of the most beautiful piano outros this side of Sólstafir.
Follow-up track, “Heliopause,” takes the piano from its predecessor and rides its ivories for three straight minutes before dumping them into the closer. Like the title track, “Obol” is chock full of the elements Ophiuchi does best. There are highs, lows, depressive moments, crippling black metal assaults, and there’s even some fucking mandolin. Everything the album worked so hard to create lays before you, giving you a variety of clues to its inner mysteries. But, it’s no use. The enigma still exists and the only way to crack it is to listen to it again and again.
But, with all the captivating music on the record, it’s the goddamn production that gets me. The vocals and distortion are so dynamic that their sharpness and crunch spreads rather than pelts. It permeates rather than obliterates my ear canals. The result is a punch without the “punch” and a balance as soothing as it is crushing. It also doesn’t hurt that the dude can play. His guitar tone and skill are stellar, his bass is impressive as hell, and his drum style equals that of Primordial in effectiveness and folkiness. I can’t get over it: Bifurcaria Bifurcata is a goddamn gem. And one that currently holds the top spot on my year-end list.