WOLVHAMMER—The Obsidian Plains
In early August of 1999 I woke up one morning to find myself on hospital gurney covered in my own blood. I had septicemia, a perforated ulcer and weighed about as much as a feather. By the end of that day I was in rehab. Ten days later, after endless shitting, sweating, puking, and scratching my skin raw I was back on the street with an appointment card in my pocket for some follow-up counseling. I know that’s nothing to be proud of, and I’m not providing you with that piece of information to prove anything aside from one single point: although I’ve been clean and sober for over a decade now my desire to self-medicate has never ceased.
These days I choose a bit of a healthier option when I feel the need to get loaded and forget about my angst. I simply listen to bands that sound like I felt in rehab—bands that sound like they appreciate what it’s like to have lived a life blighted by periods of abuse, self-harm and mental instability. I listen to those bands really, really loud, and that’s why a band like Chicago’s Wolvhammer matters.
There’s no denying there are bands out there that produce more oozing evilness than Wolvhammer. But while they might be winning in the Beelzebub-glorifying game, I’m always searching for bands that direct their rage and frustrations towards more tangible vexations, outfits like Eyehategod, Napalm Death, Amebix and Buzzov*en. While it’s a well-worn cliché to say that ‘metal’ saved your life, in my case it just happens to be true.
Bands that have lived among the wrack and ruin of abuse understand that day-to-day life right here on earth is complicated enough without having to resort to one-sided theological polemics. And while I’m not denying that metal bands must investigate the esoteric, a band like Wolvhammer, with their jaundiced, pugnacious and crumbling metropolis nature, will always resonate with me more than overtly devilish outfits. Call it an ex-addict’s bias, call it whatever you want, but bands that sound like they’ve spent time crawling in the gutter always seem more authentically emotive. To me, Wolvhammer sound like the real deal.
Wolvhammer’s fiendishly asphyxiating first release for new label Profound Lore, The Obsidian Plains, is a primordial stew of misanthropic blackened crust and doom. It has all the entropic atmosphere of an early Killing Joke release mixed with the degradation and pure hatred that results from poverty, neglect and indiscriminate violence. The Obsidian Plains is wrath incarnate. Brooding and harrowing, it is 45 minutes of pummeling brutishness. Essentially, it’s the equivalent of getting punched repeatedly in your own gangrenous leg wound and finding you actually really enjoy it. It’s seriously messed-up, but ultimately it speaks to that part of you that you never, ever, want to talk about—the part that whispers to you in your darkest dream-like states, reminding you that the mystical may be frightening, but the corporeal is infinitely more unnerving.
It’s one thing for a band to convey hate, that’s easy in many ways, but key to successfully rendering that fury into something more than a simple rant is to create a palpable landscape. Wolvhammer paint a fucking clear picture. From the second the album’s first track, “The Gleaming”, began, with its dragging riff transforming into a blast of unadulterated ire, I was completely hooked. The songs on The Obsidian Plains are powerful, there’s no doubting that, but they’re also layered with differing tweaks and tones that add those essential, albeit shadowy, colors. Tracks like “Ghosts in the Water”, starts off with a post-punk skeletal grind, before shifting into the meat of the tune effortlessly. It would be a far lesser song if not for its glacial groove-laden start. And “Bones of the Pious”, with its furious kick-off, draws back a little to open up with a varying, dynamic arrangement. It’s still blunt and assaulting, but that messing about with tempo adds significant depth to all the songs.
The juxtaposition of crusty lividness and bleak, almost industrial, elements underscores another of the album’s strengths. One minute you can be listening to some blackened thrash, like at the start of “A Defiled Aesthetic”, only for it to fall away as the icy doom creeps in. It offers a counterpoint within the song, where you can admire the abject filthiness of the production, and then sit back and be greeted with a bit of a contemplative pause. Not to say those calmer moments are any less intense, but the album’s more atmospheric passages add essential texture.
From the feedback-soaked ambience of “The Sentinels”, to the ritualistic chants of “Shadowhorn” and the frenzied white-noise thrashing of “Writhe”, Wolvhammer keep the vehemence at a steady level, throwing in some of the sickest riffs and most acidic vocals I’ve heard all year. Writhing atop waves of spitting vigor, The Obsidian Plains sounds utterly poisonous. You can’t help but admire Wolvhammer’s ability to create an album that is so completely repugnant yet so utterly compelling. It’s what the best metal is all about—revealing the ugliest of truths through some mesmerizing yet thoroughly obnoxious songwriting.
The Obsidian Plains is stacked with rotten riffs and enough barbed melodies to fulfill all your cantankerous requirements for 2011. There are layers of feedback and grinding gloom built into its frenetic tunes. On first pass you might admire the energy and rancor, on the second, the strata of steely nuance. However you want to approach it, The Obsidian Plains is one of the most vulgar and ill-tempered albums released this year. It’s the perfectly dark catharsis I’m always searching for.