The Australian summer is defined by a great many things but none more so than the irresistible sanctuary of our sprawling beaches. Umber bodies glisten and preen, hot chips sting the air with vinegar and the roar of the surf is a siren that beckons with a deafening song. Those sun-dappled waves bear a deception, however, because beyond the surface of their undulating splendor belies the dark rips that drag people down into an airless oblivion. I kept thinking about this frightful dichotomy as I listened to Solitude by Finland’s Totalselfhatred, a musical cry for help bifurcated by aching beauty and self-destruction. So put down a towel, lather on the sunscreen and get ready to dive into the surf, but make sure to stay between the flags — the water here will pull you under and smother you silent.
Totalselfhatred were new to me and my initial impulse to pinch their promo stemmed from the naked openness of their name. From here I discovered that not only did the band have a sizable fan base but it has been years since their last album released. Patience is its own reward because Totalselfhatred’s maudlin take on depressive black metal is a rich spiral of crippling agony. I say black metal but the music sits in the diffuse grey landscape inhabited by Agalloch and it is on that axis that Solitude spins. Both bands dabble with the harshness of black metal but the austerity is eschewed in favor of rich threads of melancholic introspection. “Hollow” shows this best, balancing clean picking, blast-beats, fuzzed-out riffing and snippets of propulsion that had me expecting “Dead Winter Days” to segue out from the next chord. You can hear touches from other bands in smaller doses throughout the record, whether it’s the nod to early-Opeth on “Black Infinity” or the blending of post-metal atmospherics and distant plucking via Violet Cold and Brave Murder Day-era Katatonia respectively.
Despite the other influences, Agalloch remains the twin celestial body in this binary star system. The chief connection to those Portland legends is in the shared undulating inflection of the lead guitar, the way the note wavers back and forth in intersecting circles like a double helix. However, while the band may share strong sonic similarities there is a clear distinction in their approach to tone and texture. Agalloch is morose but stoic; an elusive beast that haunts an autumnal glade. Totalselfhatred, by comparison, is a yawning chasm of despair. Frustration, shame, the emotional gamut skews to the bleaker end of the spectrum on Solitude. This manifests as both ethereal interludes and moments of pyroclastic expulsions; a hand that runs its fingers up your spine only to clench you by the neck and smash you face-first into the tiles. There is no better demonstration of this schism than on closing cut “Nyctophilia,” contrasting the detached, lonely piano at the beginning of the song with the intense drumming and tremolo picking at the end. It is heart-wrenching and poignant — an elegy sung at a wake with no mourners. Little wonder then that the track title means “a preference for the night or darkness,” a desire that I wholly understand.
The music at times, with the occasional tribal flourish in the percussion, feels like it exists as a way of summoning the spirits of ancestors; wild bodies twisting and shuddering around a roaring campfire as they summon the dead back to the mortal plane for one more communion with their loved ones. Solitude is the kind of album that engenders such imagery but to appreciate it requires a commitment to the whole and not snippets ingested via individual tracks. Indeed, I rarely felt the pull to listen to a particular song or passage but would often pine to listen to Solitude in totality. This is not music you can put on the background as wallpaper to menial tasks — it deserves your full attention and maybe a nice glass of red. Japanese whiskey would also serve quite well.
Solitude is an experience, an event crafted as a celebration of despair. The album would be the perfect soundtrack to Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, a powerful lullaby as one contracts into nothingness. The threads that bind the record are neither revelatory nor new — the piano is more of an atmospheric accompaniment and the riffs tend to be supportive rather than showy but they manage to coalesce into a whole that still feels unique. Totalselfhatred carry a heavy burden of sorrow but also majesty and with it invite the listener to an event that is equal parts exhausting and enervating. Blinded by the gentle lapping of opalescent waves you may not notice the descent into a crushing oblivion, but once there you may not want to leave.