“…the universe is a flaw in the purity of non-being.” It’s this thought by French poet and philosopher Paul Valéry that sprung into my mind while listening and re-listening to the latest record by Dutch ambient black metal duo Urfaust. Their style was always born out of a sense of desolation and isolation, a tribute to emptiness, owing equally to dark ambient and metal. But while the band’s earlier albums veered strongly towards the former (Verräterischer, Nichtswürdiger Geist, 2005) or the latter (Geist Ist Teufel, 2004), their fourth full-length release Empty Space Meditation feels not like a compromise, but rather a successful fusion of the two disparate styles and a further proof of devotion, an earnest appreciation of nihilism.
Whether it’s the throat singing and quietly disquieting electronic textures of the opener “Meditatium I,” or the driving, monochromatic high-pitched synths flashing in the darkness of “Meditatum II,” this music appears as a well-crafted amalgamation and ideological vessel for the group’s influences. It’s what makes the transitions between ambient and rolling, screeching black metal segments seamless and logical, lost in a binding atmospheric patchwork where the fabrics of genres dissolve and coalesce, imposing ideas over forms. Empty Space Meditation is conceived as a genuine meditation, an occult ritual which VRDRBR (drums) and IX (guitars, vocals) paint by using a voluminous, almost tactile palette helped by an exquisitely layered and lush production. Compositionally, the tracks are formed into ever revolving spirals, centered around specific yet expansive themes. Guitars roar and cut, drums shift from breakneck tempos and blast beats to slow, heavy shuffles, and vocals touch falsettos before dropping into guttural chants.
While each segment can be examined on its own, this material seems to serve a higher purpose and possesses a trance inducing virtue when consumed as a whole. Independently some of the tunes might lack variety and exhibit cracks in their compositional narratives. These faults and stylistic divergences, however, are harder to notice when lost in the continuous torrent of sound – as much is suggested by the song titles themselves, named simply “Meditatum I-VI.” If we were to look at them individually, we would identify Virus-esque progressive circling and droning on “Meditatum III,” a reverberating and slowly pulsing ghoulishness on “Meditatum IV,” and a propulsively rockish, spaced out mood on “Meditatum V.” “Meditatum VI,” finally, comes to an incredible climax and coda. Led by exotic, Eastern sounding plucked chords, perhaps mimicking a distorted bouzouk, it’s the tune truest to the name of the album as it evokes an eerie feeling of emptiness, of air being pushed out of lungs. We’re left staring into the void, alone in the cold expanse of the universe as the final notes dissipate into white noise, with only the sounds of cosmic background radiation keeping us company.
It’s in those moments that I’m reminded of acts such as Lustmord, rather than anything or anyone in metal. Coming back to Valéry’s quote and Voltaire’s idea of meditation as “the dissolution of thoughts in Eternal awareness or Pure consciousness without objectification, knowing without thinking, merging finitude in infinity,” Empty Space Meditation certainly acts as a pristine expression of meditation and becomes one of those records which are hard to write about, making me rethink the realities of reviewing music. Putting aside that asinine “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” quip and arid musicological analysis, we’re left with our own experiences in which the music itself is often only a conduit for the reviewer’s thoughts. Fluid, impermanent, and highly subjective.
In that context, Empty Space Meditation might not be a perfect nor groundbreaking album, but it never tries to be one. Instead, it feels like a very intimate scream of existential terror and an attempt to placate the musicians’ and our own fears. Lacking songs with visceral impact that would attract attention with clever bridges, rhythms that appeal to our tribal selves, or appeasing melodies, Urfaust’s art leaves a subtle, insidious impression. One that, when I recall it, tends to present itself as a set of abstract thoughts, rather than a memory of the sounds themselves. Ultimately, Empty Space Meditation will always be a reflection of its listener.