Xasthur (United States Of America) – Defective Epitaph

I’m not a Xasthur fan. Not including this one right here, I’ve heard precisely zero Xasthur albums in their entirety. With that in mind, I can’t compare this to anything else that Malefic’s done at all, which puts me in a position minus any context but also minus any preconceived notions as well. So Xasthur’s 2007 album ‘Defective Epitaph’ is effectively my intro to the project; now I just have to hear his twenty other releases to gain some context.

So, for my introduction to Xasthur, I have to say that I’m rather neutral to the whole thing in general. From what I know, the music here is really a continuation of Xasthur’s core sound: ambient, ‘suicidal’ black metal composed of slow tempos, murky, perpetually shifting walls of keys and guitars, held together by shrieking vocals and fairly minimalist drumming. The last element there has been changed through the addition of an acoustic kit instead of a machine; it seems to be played perfectly capably, for what it’s worth, as Malefic holds down some of the quite speedy double bass sections quite well. Everything seems to be performed capably enough, though this isn’t an especially demanding style of music, but then again, it isn’t supposed to be. This is obviously an album based entirely around atmosphere, and so it should be judged as such.

‘Defective Epitaph’ has atmosphere; a veritable assload of it, in fact. These slowly shifting walls of guitars and keyboards, with their slightly atonal yet ethereal and darkly mystical melodies are positively dripping with atmosphere, and the overall sound of Xasthur seems to perfectly channel that atmosphere. The feeling is stunningly dismal, bleak, and dreary; not really ‘depressive’ per se, but more soulless and trudging. It’s suitably funereal and certainly evocative; hell, it’s probably one of the most atmospheric albums I’ve ever heard, and every element seems perfectly in place to channel just such an atmosphere, from the murky production to the droning instrumentation to the thick walls of darkly psychedelic guitars and keys. It’s very well composed.

Pros: Xasthur perfectly channels an incredibly dreary, dismal atmosphere that never lets up, and ‘Defective Epitaph’ is entirely composed of elements designed to elicit this very precise feeling.

Cons: Xasthur perfectly channels an incredibly dreary, dismal atmosphere that never lets up, and ‘Defective Epitaph’ is entirely composed of elements designed to elicit this very precise feeling.

Yes, the atmosphere is perfect, but it’s not a very interesting atmosphere, at least not to me. It’s like seeing a man build a house entirely out of waffles: it’s cool to watch, and is pretty interesting just because of how obsessive, difficult, and strange a task it is, but in the end it’s still a house made of waffles, and no amount of adornment is going to change it. Dreary and dismal are emotions, but they’re sure as hell on the thin end of the emotional wavelength, coming up just a notch above ‘indifferent’ and ‘apathetic’ on the ladder of intensity. Dreary and dismal is cool; I don’t mean to sound like I don’t like it because it’s not cheery or active enough for me. The problem is that there’s seventy five minutes of dreary and dismal, and it’s the exact same variety of dreary and dismal expressed in the exact same ways throughout. There is zero variation on ‘Defective Epitaph’. You can get the idea of this album within the first thirty seconds, but then you get A HUNDRED AND FORTY NINE TIMES THAT AMOUNT throughout the CD. It’s brilliant as an exercise in obsessive detail and precision, but that doesn’t make it enjoyable or even very interesting to listen to after the first few tracks.

I’m not even really sure why this is called black metal; it really just seems to be ambient dressed up black metal clothing. There’s no actual ‘riffing’, per se: just sequences of almost neoclassical, ambient guitar and keyboard notes that get packed with reverb and delay and stretched over enormous stretches of time, with variation established through shorter pieces intersecting with longer ones. I don’t feel that some double bass, corpse paint, and dark atmosphere makes something black metal. It adheres to the most general aspects of the aesthetic, but it’s missing all the really important parts of the style. There’s no aggression to the music, no particularly intense emotion, no sense of going anywhere or doing anything. It just sits and dwells on its single subject throughout the entirety of the album, and it’s just not an interesting enough subject to dwell on. If I look at this album as a sort of case study or research project on the nature of dreariness, it seems great, but as an album, I can’t think of a real reason to listen to it.

But all this said, I can’t say I really have much of a position on this album either way. I could just as easily say that it’s a crushing masterwork of dark dreariness that the world has never seen before as I could say that it’s stupid, boring crap that has no lasting value beyond detailing one man’s obsession with all things dismal and distorted. Both would be fairly true. I guess that’s the measure of things, though: while ‘Defective Epitaph’ does what it does incredibly well, what it’s doing really doesn’t cause any sort of reaction from me. I can’t even say that I’m bored when the album’s on: picking apart the numerous melodic layers is kind of interesting from at least a craftsman’s perspective, even if I get no emotion or feeling from it at all. So while I respect this from the position of craftsmanship and the sort of skill and dedication it takes to pull off something like this, it just doesn’t seem to be tremendously worthwhile to me either. It doesn’t inspire me, it doesn’t piss me off, it doesn’t do anything but make me say, “I guess this is cool, kind of… I guess…”. Maybe it’s just not my thing, but in all honesty, I don’t find anything to either recommend or detract in particular. Moreso than most music it comes down to taste and opinion, and I find myself planted very, very firmly in the middle of the road in that matter.

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~ by noktorn on September 26, 2007.

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