Saturday, October 13, 2007

Xasthur - Defective Epitaph

Only a few years ago, before the dvd and internet era, copies of obscure European horror films were hard to come by, and good-quality copies were almost impossible to find. Books like Tohill and Tomb's "Immoral Tales" and periodicals like Stephen Thrower's "Eyeball", Stefan Jaworzyn's "Shock X-Press" and Adrian Luther Smith's "Delirium" were achievements of epic proportions, the result of a monk-like dedication to collecting cinematographic smut, the authors wading through landfills of trash as large as continents just to find a single gem.

I've spent many nights in the early 1990s watching n-th generation copies of an obscure European horror film from the 1960s or '70s on
videotape, the image so grainy and scratched and ripped and dark it was hard to understand the plot, the soundtrack garbled, hissing, popping and clicking and and the dubbing either dopey or braindead. Sometimes one felt that rather than watching movies one was watching ghosts of movies.

There was a perverse pleasure to be had in enjoying these ghostly videotapes. Not only did successfully tracking down a hard-to-find video bring with it a sense of achievement that is largely absent in these days of instant access through the internet. Also, the pleasure of watching these ruined videotapes was akin to the aesthetic delight the Romantics found in ruined architecture. But a more contemporary aesthetic also added to the delight: the tainted nature of the recording called attention to the materiality of the medium. What's more, the fact that one knew many of the qualities of the movie to be lost by the bad quality of image and sound allowed one to - as it were - fill in the blanks in the mind's eye and thus see a movie that was almost without exception better than the real movie in a pristine state of a dvd restoration. Though I didn't know it at the time, in a sense watching these films was a Proustian pleasure. But that pleasure was far from innocent: one felt that behind the grime and soot and dirt that clung to the recording material, one could catch a glimpse of an evil so corrosively beautiful that it could burn black marks on the soul.

There is something of this very pleasure to be found in one-man Black Metal band Xasthur's latest effort, 'Defective Epitaph'.

To say that the recording is lo-fi does not do justice to the level of audio degradation: the recording sounds positively cadaverous.

The compositions are like a Venice of sound, if no effort had been made to preserve that city: a music like a decaying labyrinth, the musical structures crumbling, ready to collapse, already partially submerged in a sea of stinking feedback - and one knows the flood is yet to come. Of course, I would not dare to compare Malefic's recording techniques to the studio wizardry of Lee 'Scratch' Perry. Nonetheless, one wonders whether Malefic - like Perry - achieves his unique sound by bouncing tracks, that is by dumping multiple tracks onto one, allowing more tracks to be added. Something of an inverted, blackened version of the sonic "aura" prevalent on Perry's work on 'Heart Of The Congos' can be found on 'Defective Epitaph': the aura of a malevolent duppy ghost. And as I've said before, this recording technique foregrounds the materiality of the recording. Meanwhile, Malefic's shrieking voice is far away in the back of the mix, sounding as if he is immured deep in the catacombs of the Venetian palazzo Montresor; and he's still so misanthropic that he makes Klaus Kinski look like an altruist. And the electric guitars? They sound more detuned than ever: an Unjust and Foul-tempered intonation, and more Loveless than Kevin Shield's six-strings ever did.

"But...", I hear you ask, "Is Xasthur doing anything new? Is there any progress since the previous album?"

To say that progress has been made since 'Subliminal Genocide' would be completely inappropriate. There can be no such thing as 'progress' in Xasthur's world. So let us say that some of the flows and intensities have ... changed. Malefic has augmented the drum machine ('inhuman drums', the sparse liner notes have it) with a drum kit; though his chops are adequate, the addition of a drum kit makes the music even more disorienting than it already was. Furthermore, a cello has been added to the mix, and it sounds very macabre. Also, the keyboards seem to play a more prominent role: the music has become less 'metal' than ever before, and on the whole closer to ambient music. I'm reminded somewhat of the more ambient-sounding of the movie soundtracks of late 1970s to early 1980s Italian horror films: Xasthur as a feedback-drenched, necrotic Goblin, a zombi Morricone or a blackened, worm-eaten Fabio Frizzi.

The end result is the most disquieting Xasthur album so far. After the first day of listening intently to this album all day long, and writing this post, my sleep was full of nightmares. Now that I'm finishing this post, I am loathe to go to bed. I highly recommend 'Defective Epitaph' ... especially for the fainthearted!


Kitty said...

quite interesting. I love Xasthur

valter said...

Thanks Kitty!

Anonymous said...

Most perceptive review I've seen of this underrated masterpiece. Definitely the soundtrack to the psychotronic grindhouse masterpiece playing in the cinema of our dreams.