“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? … A book must be an axe for the frozen sea within us.” Franz Kafka was metal AF. While he was clearly talking about literature here, I believe his words can apply to any art. If you’re not challenging yourself, if you’re not occasionally exposing yourself to uncomfortable feelings and emotions, especially with a genre as extreme as metal, then why bother? Good art is discomforting and sometimes painful, and Swedish metallers This Gift Is a Curse are strong adherents of this view. A Throne of Ash is their third album, and while their previous efforts were by no means meek, the addition of a new guitarist in the form of David Deravian promises an experience even more uncomfortable and extreme than before.
There’s black. There’s pitch-black. There are black holes. And then there’s This Gift Is a Curse. These Swedes play a dark, hyper-violent mix of black metal and sludge, spliced with post-metal. There’s also some hardcore, particularly in the form of the vocals, howled maniacally by Jonas Holmberg. Think The Secret, in terms of all-encompassing darkness, and The Atlas Moth in terms of mixing and matching extreme sub-genres. The result is a twisted, gnarly spawn that is both completely suffocating, yet utterly compelling. The reason it succeeds is that while the music is undoubtedly dissonant and chaotic, like malevolent puppeteers, This Gift Is a Curse maintain a tight sense of control over the sonic mayhem. The fury feels like it has weight and purpose, rather than just musicians thrashing away at their instruments and screaming into the void. The experience is akin to methodical surgeons drilling expertly into your skull and depositing a nail bomb inside it. On first listen, songs like “Wolvking” and “Thresholds” sound like impenetrable balls of fury and despair. Once you spend time untangling them, you realize that maintaining such a compelling veil of darkness requires skill, and a mastery of differing elements.
A Throne of Ash, despite its absolutely claustrophobic sense of darkness, is also, miraculously, not a punishing suffer-fest. This is because the songs are both cohesive and interesting. A sturdy spine of black metal supports most of the tracks, but this is merely the framework upon which This Gift Is a Curse hangs its ideas. Around this spine, other extreme elements emerge, such as hardcore (“I am Katharsis”) and post-metal (closer “Wormwood Star”). These are handled organically and contribute to the terrifying whole. The songs are also satisfyingly constructed, and build towards devastating climaxes, best shown by “Monuments for Dead Gods.” It starts off slowly, with dissonant chords that ultimately explode into a terrifying end.
If there is criticism to be had, it’s that this kind of music is simply too impenetrable for all but the darkest souls. It’s not a chore to listen to, but you do need to be in the right frame of mind. Even those who like black metal may find it all just too dense. A Throne of Ash demands your full attention, but it commands a hefty emotional price. In addition, while the songs do stand individually, the unending bleakness can become both wearying and slightly repetitive. Maybe this is because I was listening to it multiple times per day (which I wouldn’t recommend), but there is literally nothing to provide any sort of break in the despair. This isn’t helped by an overly compressed mix which fits the mood but taxes the ears.
There is no question that this sort of music simply isn’t for everybody. Even if it is for you, like activated charcoal, you’ll probably only want it in measured doses. We’re a long way from elves and dragons and bombastic symphony here. A Throne of Ash also doesn’t reveal all its secrets on the first few listens. But for those with the fortitude and concentration, this is deeply intriguing and interesting stuff. This Gift Is a Curse expertly combines extreme sub-genres to form a pitch-black and terrifying weapon. Kafka would’ve approved: it’s a brutal axe to the frigid seas within.