“Matter itself is eternal and immutable; its insensibility to life — its lifelessness — is unshakeable. The changing element of our consciousness and feeling, in the last analysis, is illusion, which springs from the interplay of distorting reflections of variable, derivative manifestations of reality and which has nothing whatsoever to do with actual matter or even with an alteration in it.” Kasimir Malevich, The Non-Objective World
Fair warning here that you’ve entered the part of the museum of modern art wherein context is available, too often overlooked, and perhaps “everything” when it comes to any sort of profundity beyond a naturally vacant reaction and quick waltz to the next exhibit. The pretext of any great art movement is, in most every case, a social revolution in flux or on the verge. To illustrate and comprehend the collective altered state of Russia in the early twentieth century we must first see cause (Russian Empire collapse, post-monarchy) via an uncertain provisional government and the eventuality (Soviet Union) of pre-socialist idealism as the relationship of command between the people and monarchic leadership dissolved after several centuries. During this period of foment and disorder futurism would hyper-evolve within Russia (also: Italy, Switzerland, etc.) just as nearly a hundred years of social revolution finally resulted in a socialist state. The need to reject the old guard, rescind the old ways and embrace a new start would soon mean a focus on expression for a number of artists concerned with “undermining” of naturalistic norms of artistic representation, cutting away the commercial and functional value of their own precursor movements (cubo-futurism) for the sake of decentralizing the human being as the center of the universe and reaching a minimal state of pure expression — The ideal of pure non-objectivity, a rejection of chaos. The extremist of the bunch was Kasimir Malevich, and his most essential and potent statement made in the name of this new suprematist vision is a black square on a white canvas. For as long as detail-obsessed first year art students have scoffed at this aesthetic, it was nonetheless a major point of art theory for the time, and perhaps more importantly a statement in defiance of materialism, objectivism and utilitarianism that provided a much needed emphasis on ‘feeling’ in modern art. It is more than a bit tragic that just as this anti-Tsarist art consciousness movement built steam and left an impression upon the world a new regime that censored and destroyed abstract art moved in. Malevich’s work is perhaps the most vital point of madness contributing to Utrecht-based musician and author Ruben Wijlacker’s novel De protodood in zwarte haren (2019) with direct and complete ties to his avant-garde black metal trio Grey Aura‘s sophomore full-length ‘Zwart Vierkant‘. The average black metal listener has little hope of enjoying this record without consciously resigning themselves to immersion within this tale, gathering all contextual research, and doing plenty of reading be it the (kindly translated) lyrics and (kindly provided) conceptual explanation which includes a purchasable zine-sized primer alongside the novel itself. You must walk and work with the artist’s journey on this one to land upon enrichment and the music itself will undoubtedly prove challenging.
Although I won’t actually delve into the plot details for the sake of maintaining the potential for a natural sense of revelation within its narrative, the preamble tells us just enough to function as a lede: A young painter is entranced, swallowed whole by the profundity of various points of exposure to radical modernism, this creates a personal paradigm shift which becomes key to his ever-intensifying mental landscape. The culmination of six years work and four (so far) works following this fairly personal story, ‘Zwart Vierkant’ is not a “grower” in terms of its avant-garde approach, this aspect of the music becomes more obvious with each release, but the purpose and central philosophical impact of the piece will take time to develop in mind. It is meant to be a personal development via a complete multi-media experience. The need to tell a story that immerses the listener within a tragedian sojourn has been in mind since Grey Aura formed as a duo in 2010 which uh, might be a bit of a surprise seeing as how they were each roughly 15-16 years old at the time and already working with a highly conceptual mindset. Ah, well, they did release an EP with Depressive Illusions in 2012 to start and for sure ‘Candlesmoke‘ was an average sort of shmaltzy depressive/post-black metal style but we can chalk that one up as a learning experience considering just how much would change two years later when their debut full-length (‘Waerachtighe beschryvinghe van drie seylagien, ter werelt noyt soo vreemt ghehoort‘, 2014) released. A nearly 90 minute record (later released as a double CD via Blood Music), it’d told of the tragic yet heroic end of Dutch explorer and navigator Willem Barentsz who’d spend his adult life trying to find a passage through the Artic to China for the sake of both exploration and easier trade routes, discovering many islands, mapping a considerable portion of the arctic and eventually having a region of sea named after him. The use of professional voice actors in multiple languages, Foley artists, and their elaborate avant-garde black metal style made it clear what an ambitious revelation they’d had either by way of university or personal study. Though I won’t say all of it was genius the release is, just as ‘Zwart Vierkant’, notable for how much it gets right in terms of balancing entertainment value with the enrichment of contextual knowledge. It isn’t necessarily edutainment but, the depth and detail is literate far beyond the typical obscure black metal forms.
From there I’d say Grey Aura took a personal oath to obsession, to extract something bigger from within and I’ve gotten the sense that the last six years were spent living art rather than making time for a fun hobby. We see the band “showing their work” in the two demos they’d released in the interim, each consisting of what we could consider practical research and inspiration for the two major halves of the novel/concept. With ‘1: Gelige, traumatische zielsverrukking‘ in 2017 a year was spent contemplating a depiction of southern Spain, the key revelation of an El Greco painting, and conveying place using ethnic melodies and voice to great effect. Those melodies don’t necessarily make it onto the album, perhaps for the sake of putting out a ~45 minute record rather than a two hour one, but the EP still provides some intense context for the final results (see: “El Greco in Toledo”), written and performed. ‘2: De bezwijkende deugd‘ (2019) arrived after yet another year long exploration this time by way of Paris and George Bataille’s Erotism: Death and Sensuality (1957) with a focus on ambiance meant to convey the city in the early 20th century. This release again contains melodies evocative of the region unique to its existence, which are generally austere to my ear, yet the application on ‘Zwart Vierkant’ (“Parijs is een portaal”) has a lounging, jazz like character with extended whispered sections and voice acting. Wijlacker’s novel De protodood in zwarte haren released the same year with these two locations bearing the greatest weight upon the development of its main character. With the research and the concept fully fleshed into being the representative album has some great potential to be a bit of a conundrum — The possibility exists that these ideas might’ve already been well-enough illustrated in exploration rather than tightly composed form not to mention the chance that conveying a book’s worth of life experience might fall short.
Despite how very much black metal as a phenomenon would like to be a haven for the minimalist it cannot be, there is no economy of statement that effectively conveys its essence (and no, “… Satan.” wasn’t it.) because it will always depend upon complex reactionary phrases for readable validity. If we can assume that Grey Aura seek to convey this narrative of personal relationships and revelation via exposure to classic visual art (which tasked itself with the “undermining” of naturalistic norms of artistic representation) then dissolving commercial and functional value while reaching a minimal state of pure expression is plausible but not recommended in any case, popular music itself already has the “edge” when it comes to dystopian or deconstructive disgust. Instead of giving their audience a black square within a white square ‘Zwart Vierkant’ gives us twisted bodies, primary color blocking and natural textures in presentation of an audacious and expression-heavy ‘progressive’ and perhaps post-black metal record. Although Grey Aura have successfully avoided conveyance of the dead eyed post-apocalyptic euphoria of post-metal via what I’d consider the more musically fastened edges of groups like Code and Dødheimsgard, leaving a raw yet complex “black metal” feeling behind, folks seeking something as sophisticated (via complexity) as, say, Pensées Nocturnes is in presentation won’t find any such obviate elaboration of theme within the basal, non-contextual listening experience here. The addition of Laster member S. (Nusquama, Vuur & Zijde) on bass goes a long way to provide additional texture to these ambitiously lain statements, such as opener “Maria Segovia” where we immediately witness clear progression of skill beyond ‘Waerachtighe beschryvinghe van drie seylagien, ter werelt noyt soo vreemt ghehoort’ in this sense. Instead of listening blindly for revelation within these pieces it becomes necessary to instead lie down with the ‘feeling’ of these experiences conveyed and hope for one’s own.
The violence of an altered state of mind is the major takeaway to start, moving from tightly knit personal relationships towards dissociation via bursts of chaos and quite a lot of spoken word narration. The composition is obsessively detailed yet the execution is often oddly touched by distracting choices, such as the questionable use of vocal effects on a few sections. If we can deconstruct the guitar work itself as the secondary voice of the project ‘Zwart Vierkant’ certainly isn’t a “riff” album but the quick-change prone rhythmic direction of the album benefits from a loose yet evocative performance. Where I become worn as a listener isn’t the constant state of interruption within these pieces but rather the spoken portions of the album ultimately functioning as sampled speech often does within post-rock, their purpose is greater here but the movement between Dutch, Spanish and French is somewhat unpleasant despite being meaningful representation of character and setting. I would come to dread certain sections when listening on repeat, favoring the less verbose descent into madness of the third act where “De onnoemelijke verleidelijkheid van de bezwijkende deugd” offers an aggressive apex for the album which bleeds into 9+ minute closer “Sierlijke schaduwmond”. I’d felt like this was the exact right balance of aggression, post-music intermission and emotional conveyance where the artists involved let loose a bit more.
The question I’m left with after some countless number of listens is more-or-less why they’ve chosen to present this album with a black metal affect throughout its entirety rather than key narrative points, the need to voice the entire album in a specific dramatic presentation whilst also entertaining the demands of sub-genre specific aesthetics lends the experience a certain oily glazing it doesn’t need to tell its story. The most extreme extension of this idea would be something akin to an audiobook with several hours of soundtrack work and characterized voice acting applied whereas ‘Zwart Vierkant’ offers a still very challenging ~45 minute sitting akin a short film adaptation with a forward-thinking extreme metal soundtrack. These are ponderous thoughts rather than complaints, the joy of Grey Aura‘s work here is its condensed vision of emotionally complex narrative and the homework involved with sussing out the finer details, something for those of us more concerned with the process of cracking a code rather than what reward lies beyond the door opened. I am not sure this equates to unanimous musical value for the larger audience but the non-objective value is obviate thanks to an appreciably high concept undertaking, an “all in” artistic statement which inspires with its ambitious ideas and ‘nearly there’ execution. A moderately high recommendation.
|RELEASE DATE:||May 7th, 2021|
|BUY & LISTEN:||Bandcamp [All Formats]|
|GENRE(S):||Avant-Garde Post-Black Metal,|
Progressive Black Metal
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