ASHENSPIRE – Hostile Architecture (2022)REVIEW

“[…] Jameson famously claimed that postmodernism is the ‘cultural logic of late capitalism’. He argued that the failure of the future was constitutive of a postmodern cultural scene which, as he correctly prophesied, would become dominated by pastiche and revivalism.” Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism

Postmodern sociopolitical fortitudes beget modernist thoughtform-guided musical pastiche en vignette, an intended antipode to the stochastic rewards of capitalist fee-hungry violence and its industrialized art via “gig culture”, wherein absolutist empathy and inclusion is the rewarding utopian sensation sought and aggrandized by the outsized will of the artist. The musician sheers away the wool upon the many, exposing personal misery through self-taught actualization techniques and in doing so produces a selfless form of catharsis, a quasi public service, or, theory in practice with the surprising addendum of solution-minded results. Glasgow, Scotland-based avant-garde/progressive metal act Ashenspire craft notable, theatrically-charged meld of various non-heavy rock anti-alliterations of folk, jazz and black metal infused craft — music which is emotive yet almost entirely “felt in the dark” for the sake of sheer idea overflow and the natural frustration of accumulated thoughts in process. Their second full-length album, ‘Hostile Architecture‘, expertly conveys the pressurized sensation of miserable unease, an unsure razor’s edge felt under the boot of ruthless corporate-comptrolled capitalism while exploring both subtle and outraged examples of exactly how this now “traditional” economic system becomes a psychotic grinder for humanity as population surges, personal freedoms wilt to new lows, and apathetic attitudes begin to appear by design. Hysteric and tragedian as the greater tone of this album and its subject matter might be at face value there is a solar flare sized hope within, however unstable it might seem to the cynic, and this ends up being the right sort of conviction radicalized extreme metal -needs- to hold fast at the throat of the issue at hand.

The gloriously depressive yet marvelously intellectual professorial guidance of the late Mark “k-punk” Fisher surely absorbs a bit of the credit for bringing the fire to the hands and mind of Glasgow-based musician Alasdair Dunn (Tyrannus, ex-Farseer) beyond 2014 wherein his “Pictish folk metal” project Norderobring and various power metal forays hadn’t likely inspired dedication, or, meaning as much as the author’s incessant calls for a new future envisioned which makes space for communist and/or anarchist solutions to societal ills with sense and precedence. But hey, not initially, as the original quartet formation’s lyrical subject matter was decidedly more focused on the not-so-distant Scottish/British tendency for imperialism. The vision for the band was remarkably professional and clear from the start with the first single released (‘Mariners at Perdition’s Lighthouse‘, 2015) suggesting the highly professional quality of their work had called for a few quite serious years of development behind closed doors. This meant that when their full-length debut (‘Speak Not of the Laudanum Quandary‘, 2017) arrived a couple of years later it had world class progressive black metal written all over it and this release in particular set their efforts in name alongside groups who’d been at it for quite a bit longer in the U.K. such as A Forest of Stars, <code> and Void, all of which are equally transformative, somewhat informed by the post-black metal movement of the 2010’s, and feature strong notions of progressive rock’s performative expression and postmodern themes. I wouldn’t say they’d shit gold at that point but it was a notable debut which set the bar extremely high for this second album.

In most every sense Ashenspire‘s second album is the antithesis of the somehow nowadays conservative revisionism of the typical 90’s-addled mindset upheld by musicians in black metal today, it isn’t at all a reaction to black metal nor is it served in any intentional relation to that world yet for the sake of marketing it is sold as “red and/or anarchist black metal”-adjacent music and this is perhaps more a choice made for marketable symbolism. This expresses with great sense and connection made between the progressive music and the lyrics themselves. Although I’ve no real expertise or investment in these political ideas beyond having done some of the requisite reading, I do think I know enough to “read the room” in the sense that the core message is conveyed to the fellowes’ absolutist point of view, which might appear propagandist in the sense that it is very much “us vs. them” with the definition of “us” including those who mean well but have reason enough for a current state of inaction, complicity, and apathy. A politically charged record which offers more than entrenched misery has some great value to just about anyone going through anything emotionally trying, but in this case we find the lyrics which explore ideas of unease and tension between classist society, identifying common socioeconomic ailments and stark inequalities while striking at plain enough causation for an album which reads almost fully engrossed in its own existential dread.

The lyrics here are often lightly abstract, scene-centered, and land best with a turn of phrase or motivational yet clever quip. Will the words matter to the average listener as much as their spoken-sung performances? Well, they probably should in terms of connecting with the well-meaning heart of these eccentric works but the general emotional spectacle of performance is its own badgering release to witness. You might recognize Dunn‘s name and/or voice if you’d loved Pensées Nocturnes‘ brilliant ‘Douce Fange‘ from earlier this year and in this sense you’d do well to grab this record simply for the sake of similar depth of experience, though the place and scenery set here are abstract and the subject (and its communication) intends to be universal and confessional in depiction. Fans of Void‘s ‘The Hollow Man‘ will certainly appreciate this manner of communicative showmanship.

The music in motion alongside Dunn‘s easily read and often very direct waxing reads as post-metal influenced rhythms meant to convey the aforementioned cinema of destitution, both personal and societal, and once against this involves moderate use of distorted guitar for dissonant (sometimes contrapuntal) shaping and the stamping of the beat as the maestro of affairs. The buzz of the basslines often acts as the meat of these rhythms and less the pivot point, lending less of a typified progressivity than an abstract post-metallic yet intensified experience would generally demand; It isn’t until the violins and saxophone of James and Matthew Johnson (respectively) appear that we find the actual color and mood inherent to Ashenspire bloom beyond the rhythmic malaise of the base trio. On “Béton Brut” these elements ring almost as dramatist accoutrement to start but build into the major focus of the full listen as we move on to deeper strides into avant-jazz rants and fevered respite, such as we find at the crux of “Plattenbau Persephone Praxis”. The best parts of ‘Hostile Architecture‘ set aside the obvious musical theatre of it all (see: “How the Mighty Have Vision”) for the sake of this darker species of affected jazz metal surrealism and aggression.

You’ll shine like a diamond when you’re down in the mine. — The fiery peaking glory of the full listen for my own taste is “Apathy as Arsenic Lethargy as Lead” where I’d felt the composition, or, the sort of Hail Spirit Noir meets ‘The Malefactor’s Bloody Register‘ lean of certain rhythms matched the dissident point of view presented by the lyrics. It’d more-or-less been the song to click into mind how the “pretty maul” of jazz and post-rock forms could make sense in the context of both extreme metal meter and transgressive political statement, the “art” piece of art metal making its best bit of sense at least. To be fair opener “The Law of Asbestos” probably does this best overall but most folks will be fairly split between getting it right off the bat because this is your kind of shit musically or taking a few spins/songs to really understand the myriad musical language spoken. I would tag this is a bit of progress made in terms of distinctive musical personality as ‘Speak Not of the Laudanum Quandary‘ was fine work in the context of progressive black metal wherein this album works in adjacency rather than atop said foundation. Where they’ve pushed it too far for my own taste is within the cage rattling, almost cheekily wrought closer “Cable Street Again” which showcases what it might sound like if deconstructionist music were itself incepted, deconstructed into a jammed and caterwauling loose mass. This’d only bothered me for the sake of some of the better lyrics on the record being buried by what sounds like a jazz rock band covering 2000’s Primordial at a talent show and getting upset mid-performance. Making fun for my own amusement, of course, but I couldn’t help but feel like they’d missed their chance to land on their feet with a neatly tied-off endpoint.

A recommendation of avant-garde, challenging or progressive music always comes with some manner of disclaimer for the sake of the status quo inevitably dropping their mugs open in disgust, muttering an thuggish “Unhhh?” at anything non-standardized before proclaiming it “Too weird.” — In this world of endlessly flowing hobbyist noise, most of which goes unheard of and unmentioned, nothing is ever too weird only either bad or good and probably never weird enough. With this point of view in mind I would of course recommend Ashenspire‘s second LP as a monstre to mount on the wall and muse over for its bold yet timely exploration of ideas (both musical and political) from a place of admirable intensity, conviction which should ring through and captivate most listeners willing to hear a dissenting voice in fine pairing with avant-garde music. A high recommendation.

High recommendation. (83/100)

Rating: 8 out of 10.
TITLE:Hostile Architecture
LABEL(S):Aural Music
RELEASE DATE:July 18th, 2022

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