(Note: this post will be looser and less detailed than my previous album reviews. I only heard this release yesterday and wanted to write about it in time for its release today, which may impact on the quality of this piece. If you’re still interested, read on.)
Those who have read my articles on metal, feminism and patriarchy might be familiar with the Post-Zeitgeist blog and its articles on the relation between extremity and reflection in extreme music. As entertaining as the musical equivalent of a mindless slasher flick can be, I am always slightly disappointed with music that seeks only to wallow in tropes of shock, disgust and tasteless offence. There’s nothing wrong with using those elements in music, but without any thought applied to them, they ring hollow. For me, Post-Zeitgeist hits the nail on the head with the observation that “if there is a problem with extremity, it is due to an absence of reflection. Unreflexive extremity is essentially a form of violence, a string of actions with accelerating intensity occurring regardless of the context (people, environment, society) which it is situated.” It seems as though it’s often easier for death metal groups in particular to craft technically complex, adventurous instrumental parts than it is for them to apply the same reflective tendency to their concepts and lyrics.
Thankfully, there are bands out there using the vocabulary of extreme metal in interesting ways, putting thought and consideration into their lyrical themes. San Francisco death metallers Vastum slot squarely into this category on their debut full-length Patricidal Lust. Sexual and erotic themes are nothing new for the genre, and the album’s over-the-top Freudian cover art (by the always-in-demand Paolo Girardi) makes it clear that this band, too, deal in the dark, murky side of the libido, rather than taking the opportunity to subvert a traditionally negative genre to highlight positive aspects of sexuality. What is different, however, is the conceptual depth Vastum approach their chosen topic with. In a revealing interview with Invisible Oranges, vocalist Daniel Butler and guitarist/vocalist Leila Abdul-Rauf hint at the approach they took to creating the album’s queasy, unsettling mood:
Daniel: I tend to distinguish between erotic and sexual, “sexual” being an invention of late nineteenth-century human sciences. So there is a kind of dialectic between the sexual and the erotic in that we are sexed through language and culture, that we are in a sense violated by language, involuntarily submitted to it, which is an intrusion, a penetration; but that there is an excess that is not contained by the sexual and this excess is the erotic. This is horrifying beyond representation. It is the nameless and faceless dread that trumps any kind of horror one can experience directly. Only an indirect approach, an oblique one, captures this kind of horror — and even then this horror is only captured in the negative, in something that is not, something repudiated and impossible to integrate, something that resists symbolization.
Leila: For me, images of perversion are expressed not in isolation but are embedded within a larger context of an experience that is indescribable, confusing, or difficult to put into words. These images are just hints, or flashes of the larger horror moving invisibly in the darkness.
Since their vocals are performed in the traditional cookie monster style, and I have not been able to find lyrics for any of their songs, it is not feasible for me to discuss concrete examples of topics the band approaches in this post. Despite this, and the fact that the Vastum lyrics that have been released conform largely to the ponderous, deliberately convoluted “Death Metal English” style, it appears clear that the band tackle the dark side of human sexuality with thoughtfulness and consideration. If nothing else, they get points simply for naming a song “Incel”, a reference to the online collective of “involuntarily celibate” sadsacks who blame literally everything except themselves (but mostly women and feminism) for their inability to attract partners*.
The uneasy mood conjured by Vastum’s lyrics and vocals is matched by their technical, yet relentlessly groove-based music. The closest comparison I can think of, in terms of modern bands utilising a mostly slow- or mid-paced variation on old-school death metal sounds, is the UK’s Grave Miasma, who Butler praises in the aforementioned IO interview. While both are similar in terms of their production choices, deliberate pacing and rejection of the show-off histrionics of contemporary tech-death, Vastum are somewhat more focused on driving grooves and chugging, palm-muted riffs than the more atmospheric, ritualistic tendencies of GM. Both bands are adept at conjuring a slow descent into horror in the minds of listeners, but the US group are somewhat more direct and visceral.
Even before the release of Patricidal Lust, 2013 was an excellent year for forward-thinking death metal, not least due to outstanding comebacks from genre pioneers Carcass and Gorguts. With this accomplished debut, however, Vastum have proved themselves worthy of a place among that pantheon. I can’t wait to hear what else this reflective, considered yet still defiantly extreme band have to offer.
Patricidal Lust comes out today on 20 Buck Spin. For a stream of the album and a brief, but insightful band interview, check out the Invisible Oranges article I mentioned here.
* If, like me, you can’t stop picking at scabs, you might enjoy the @PUAhate_txt Twitter account, a collection of the more egregious of the many egregious comments made by incel adherents on their fora and message boards.