The typical pitfall of pseudo-experimental metal bands is their tendency towards buffoonish self-aggrandizement and the accompanying insistence on pompous philosophical themes. Often drawing inspiration from edgy, coincidentally anti-humanistic philosophies and providing a “thinking man’s take” on black metal, they immerse themselves in childish interpretations of nihilism and neoreactionary doctrines. The similarly arty and bombastically theatrical Potmos Hetoimos, the long-standing one-man progressive sludge project of Baltimorean Matt Matheson, is an antipode of such acts. Motivated by autobiographical vignettes, ancient philosophy, and illusive tragedies of mundanity, Matheson crafts above all else humane, considerate and intricate records that never overindulge for overindulgence’s sake. And Vox Medusae, the project’s eleventh full-length, showcases his vision at its most refined and cohesive.
Potmos Hetoimos’ progressive sludge foundation combined with hardcore and black metal elements is utterly captivating on Vox Medusae. The textures provided by saxophone and piano are tastefully incorporated and crucial for the overarching atmosphere of the record. Yet, it’s the story behind the music that is essential. The narrative that Potmos Hetoimos weaves on Vox Medusae is a curious and ambitious one. Exploring the struggles of pornography addiction, Matheson transfers his subject into the form of a Greek drama as he tells his fable through carefully crafted voices, each of them representing a specific actor in the play. Medusa, the main adversary, is the temptress—”a personification of the supreme object of lustful attraction and obsession.” The Addict is the main character, the storyteller’s projection, struggling with addiction. The Killer is an avatar of the male gaze and objectification. And so on. Whereas the story itself directly influences song structures and stylistic choices, each of the nine voices is given additional weight, a unique feel, and a place within Vox Medusae’s narrative through their musical representations in non-traditional scales. It’s admirable that this approach is pulled off with such success and conviction.
While this album is highly conceptual and best experienced as a whole, each of the movements can stand on its own, devoid of almost any filler material. The opening “I. Idyll Anathema” is like a sampler of Potmos Hetoimous’ sound—jazzy fragments transform into aggressive sludge attacks only to dissolve into atmospheric passages before regaining traction through twisty progressive sections. It’s a style reminiscent as much of the heavy weirdness of uneXpect and Plebeian Grandstand as it is of Rock in Opposition and avant-pop. Piano and saxophone alternate as secondary leads and follow aggressive, fuzzy guitar riffs on the sludgier “II. Voracious Embrace” and “III. The Silicon Mirror.” In a way, there are two sides to the record with “-. Fits & Fevers,” a glitchy, distorted affair focused around tortured and torturous vocals, splitting Vox Medusae in half. Apart from the idiosyncratic, piano-led coda “-. E Pur Lei Muore,” Vox Medusae’s second half brings more of the same elements arranged tastefully around dynamic and constantly shifting segues propelled by rolling drums and burrowing bass. “IV, A. Perseus, Pristine” and “V. Braid of Ouroboros” are especially engaging, complex cuts on which Matheson screams with blazing determination, lost amidst a forest of buoyant synths and quirky electronic effects.
Compared to Potmos Hetoimos’ earlier records, Vox Medusae is decidedly more focused and to the point, condensed into 55 minutes. It’s a self-contained arc, with a clearly defined beginning and end, yet philosophically open-ended and allowing of interpretations. Thematically and musically Matheson’s project doesn’t have many peers. His studious and attentive, almost obsessive approach to music and literary motifs is matched only by Jute Gyte (aka Adam Kalmbach) with whom he shares a similarly schizophrenic musical style. Listening to the record, it’s sometimes hard to believe that Matheson is playing everything himself, only occasionally helped by Jane Vincent and Raleigh Booze on vocals and Daniel Wallace on saxophone. The vocals are strong and alternate between a clean tone, hardcore rasps, and death metal growls, while drum, guitar, and bass parts are more than competently performed. Sonically speaking, the production and mastering are also solid, held back only by a thin sounding bass that lacks weight and an occasional sense of compression in the music. While it usually works, some tunes ache for an airier and more expansive feel.
Ultimately, there are faults with the record—a certain uniformity between cuts with the odd uninspired sequence trailing off aimlessly—but they are negligible. Vox Medusae is meant to be imperfect, like its characters and creator. Luckily, with so many temptations plaguing humanity, there shouldn’t be a lack of excellent material for Potmos Hetoimos’ next record.