MEHENET – Ng’ambu (2021)REVIEW

As ever-trundling underground North American black metal spheres increasingly plumb the slavery and/or manifest destiny cast diaspora of ancient indigenous cultures for visual and lyrical influence the initial side-effects seem to have amounted to horizon-broadening education as the inquisitive extreme metal fandom (the vocal few whom do exist) begins to pull back the curtain upon the steadily resilient traditions of several suppressed paganistic belief systems long under duress. The ideal outcome beyond this point of recognition, a different sort of curious-minded anthropologic “wokeness”, is that artists begin to present the traditions of oppressed minorities as truly vital pieces of the greater cultural history of the United States without needing an emotionally or artistically exploitative angle to reach their audiences. There is some great risk of giving in to sensationalistic emotional tendencies in the process of discovery, an emotional presentation often lands upon the listener with twisted purpose; Thoughtful messaging is perhaps the last skill most extreme metal musicians develop in their early careers. This is especially true when the audience of today is primed to expect key ironies presented by the ‘sploitation reversals we’ve found in similar vengeance-based cinematic & literary treatments and, well, there is a fine line easily crossed when characterizing self-expression soon falls into caricature as the “brutal savage”, especially when the message is delivered with the absolute physical violence of black metal. When ripping my way through New Orleans, Louisiana-based black metal quintet Mehenet‘s early discography and its “satanic terrorist” treatment of Thelemic cults (see: ‘Dii Inferi‘, 2018) the impression I’d gotten was that they’d likely approach the subject matter of this second album, ‘Ng’ambu‘, as a reskinned surface-level framing for plainest conveyance of rebellion and resilience amongst the marginalized. This fine second record from the group should not be received as this any such folly of sensationalism but it will likely help to scratch the surface a bit here and gauge how serious the personal/spiritual intent is herein.

No longer whitewashed by wretched Christianized authorship as a demon worshipping “sorcery cult” but still often misrepresented by the misinformed and liberally interpreted takes of book-selling charlatan hobbyists, the subject of Quimbanda is still deeply inaccessible to most of the greater illiterati of the states, save the few who’d dare to learn Portuguese or Haitian creole and pursue it as dedicated personal spirituality. Many sources romanticize it as a “dark” magick but if you’ll step out of the ‘gift shop’ and into a classroom for a bit we could refer to it as an evolved branch of an Afro-Brazilian belief system, one that specifically concerns itself with deep respect for the forces of nature. This is yours to tangentially study on your own, the key point to be made here is that it does seem to be a genuine spiritual pursuit and interest amongst the fellowes involved in Mehenet but, sure, we’ve lead with the cart and horse is wandering off in the field here… ‘Ng’ambu’ is as much collection of personal hymns to spirits as it is a notable pursuit of distinctly New Orleans-sourced sounds subtly and not-so subtly applied to an over-the-top ripping raw black metal sense of rhythm — A genuine punk rock ruckus ground through grittiest, gutter-raked textures that sprawl and speak far beyond the NOLA tourist experience. Much as the theme here serves to create meaningful setting and atmosphere throughout these five distinctly United States borne black metal pieces it is the personal and inventive songcraft that will keep most listeners raptly engaged with ‘Ng’ambu’.

High tide on the opposite shore. Songs for the spirits sung for new beginnings within a semi-traditional yet personalized state should inspire no matter how much you’ve bought into the theme in hand; The listener can at least be assured that Mehenet are more deeply involved and well-researched in their subject matter than your average black metal project but, no doubt their way of realizing this through atmospheric accoutrement only goes so far. If you’d been keen to the release early on their first impression was somewhat superficial at a glance with “The Mystery of Nations”, a song which’d been explained as a statement of patient retribution, assimilation with the intent to destroy from within. Thought their explanation for the song was fantastic as Hell, including drinking from a confederate soldier’s skull unto revelation, the song itself landed a bit flat if only because it was taken out of context, or, without the whole record to teach the rhythmic language of ‘Ng’ambu’ and see “The Mystery of Nations” as the dire warning at the end. The true electric spirit of this album is obscured until opener “Dona Sete” is fully revealed, there we are given a full fang’s worth of transformative venom within it’s ~10 minute ride. From its opening incantation unto percussion and quite literal bells and whistles the spirit-calling introduction of this piece, and the stunning first impression the album makes, must be handed to the drummer here particularly in the series of four major transitions that ease us into full-on black metal mode by the fourth minute. Frantic, somewhat raw, and darting from the shadows with punk-tinged black metal riffing the resonance from the peak of this song and its multi-tiered progression hinges on its physicality. In English? Riffs, overwhelming bursts of stab n’ twist rhythm guitar work that snarls even without the vocalist’s own wilderness active in each ear. It isn’t obvious yet but the structural influences from punk and sludge keep the pot stirring throughout this album, as much as I’d like to suggest there is some ancient black metal spirit inspiring this album I don’t believe ‘Ng’ambu’ intends to be perceived as imitative or scene/era specific art in the slightest.

Milking death’s venom for a curative salve. Let “In The Garden of Suicide” be the song this album is best remembered for, its discordant rush to the heart, an infectious and epically stated clean sung break, serves as an stunningly effective and soulful moment on an already outlandish black metal album. There is precedence for this sort of sound within USBM to some small degree but the spectacle of the moment is not only important to establishing the overall tone of the album but it helps to establishing the sensation of their emotionally-guided oeuvre expanding in real time as the album progresses. I suppose it’d no longer surprised me that Mehenet supposedly features members of Thou after hearing this piece; “In the Garden of Suicide” speaks clearest to some of those songwriter’s tendencies and perhaps the dramatic opening moments of “Whom God Did Despise” likewise bear a sense of designed presentation. So, with some of this context “The Mystery of Nations” now lands as the exciting apex, the glint of the knife of vengeance which arrives not as a caricature of Afro-Caribbean revenge porn but rather an important confrontational, defiant voice which aligns magically with the ideals set forth by black metal. It won’t take much convincing to suggest that ‘Ng’ambu’ is a fine black metal album by sheer appreciation for the guitar/drum work alone, much less the thrilling engagement of the vocalist, but I suppose it was worth confirming that the sub-genre isn’t worn as fashion but it fits the whole package presented here.

What of the actual listening experience? Consider the anxiety when the poisonous vessel of hallucinogens begins to loosen the mucous of the bowels just as some small amount of giddiness sets in, a similar moment of passage to another plane is always in effect here but the experience is less than full spectrum color realism. Riff textures are exciting, physical, and given due space within the production here which I believe was split between James Whitten/High Tower Recording for the engineering/mix and mastered by Dėha. The drum performances are absolutely featured here and rightfully so, they are the glue that holds the experience together even when all else has worn upon the mind. The lack of standout bass performances is always a bit of knife in the butt for my own taste but the vibrant, live and often mercilessly aggressive pacing of most of these songs makes their atmospheric breaks and earthen points of revelation all the more stunning. The experience is surprisingly inobtrusive, neatly balanced beyond some exciting collision between the guitar tracks natural to this sort of black metal. The scratched out logo and color-burnt album art had lead me into these wilds expecting a suffocating or phoned-in “side project” experience but ‘Ng’ambu’ never presents any such apathetic obstruction between itself and the listener, instead opting for a passionately performative bouts of spiritual intimacy, allowing for a couple of soulfully placed digs to land quite loudly in the moment. A high recommendation.

High recommendation. (83/100)

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.
LABEL(S):Gilead Media [CD, LP],
Stygian Black Hand [Cassette]
RELEASE DATE:September 10th, 2021
BUY & LISTEN:Bandcamp | Gilead Media Store
GENRE(S):Black Metal

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