Deathspell Omega — The Synarchy of Molten Bones (A review by Unkitsch)

stranger’s note: I, like Unkitsch, love this album. I do disagree, though, with his meditations on simplicity/ virtuosity in music. I will respond as friends do: in an essay.

Unkitch’s review

I: Introduction (if you want direct impressions on the music, skip this)

When a musician attempts to write a technical piece of music, they’re always judged by what I like to think of as the soul police. “Oh sure, you play your instruments exceedingly well, and the number of layers to the composition are overwhelming, but where’s the feel?” More often than not such criticism usually stems from musical illiteracy or an unacknowledged inferiority complex, maybe even sheer laziness for people who are used to listening to inherently passive music which is catered towards those who let the act of listening terminate at the eardrums rather than letting it permeate all the way to their analytical conscious mind.

Another criticism of music that is intellectually demanding is usually the lack of tangible motive, or of lyrical content – how ‘meaningful’ is it? How poetic? What are the underlying themes, and are they more accessible than some abstract playful ideas that fail to travel far from the personal experiences of the musician? This criticism stems from the straitjacketing of music to its archaic function as a vehicle for ideas and emotions rather than an end in itself, a painting of frequencies open to interpretation with the same legitimacy as ‘modern art’ in the vein of Pollock, Picasso and Dali.

And though I begin with this standoff-ish view on people’s views on music, I must admit – if there comes along something that manages to satisfy my moderate thirst for musicality while infusing the music with emotion and lyrical content of the highest order, such an effort merits not just praise, but respect. It no longer remains a thing that is meant to be idly consumed, but should be treated as an object of study and reverence, a means of enrichment of one’s faculties, an accessory to forming new neural links. And such is this offering from Deathspell Omega – a musical collective which is no stranger to such accomplishment.

Deathspell Omega is largely anonymous – Mikko Aspa is the only well defined member on vocals, a man with several socially unacceptable yet publicly proclaimed proclivities. Hasjarl, the guitar player (and widely regarded as the creative spirit of DSO) is presumed to be one Christian Bouche, a Frenchman behind the label Norma Evangelium Diaboli (which releases DSO merch, amongst other things), while the drummer might be entirely fictional. Not much is known of Khaos, the bass player.

Anonymity in black metal is nothing new – the second wave of black metal bands, largely Norwegian, opted for pseudonymity – creating stage personas with names such as Varg, Dead, Gaahl, Infernus – it would be odd for someone named Tom to be spouting the kind of simplistic reactionary mysticism and adorning the crude, childlike corpse paint to further drive in the point that they were dangerous, they were more than musicians – Satanists out to shake the very foundation of modern Christian society. And while these antics entertained, the quality of the music and lyrical content petered out along with the animalistic drive which lead to this music, leading to a plethora of weak imitations worldwide, and this pseudonymity became subject to ridicule from peers and critics alike.

With bands like Deathspell Omega, or Blut Aus Nord, things are different. Gone is the tasteless (even if mildly entertaining) anti-Christian invective. Instead, you have a much more structured critique, tongue-in-cheek allusions, layered metaphors, inversions – all fueled by a deep set misanthropy that can get overwhelming for those not used to it. They question the basis for morals, for anthropocentric views, the necessity for ethics. In a sense they echo the attitude of their predecessors, but aided by reason and coherence rather than pure rage – though the rage is far from absent in terms of expression. The venom is there – cold and calculated, and deadlier than ever. And given such extreme views, to NOT adopt anonymity is folly – in the tradition of Barthes, it seems only fair to distance the personal identity of the artist from the art, which would make this essay merely one of many possible reflections upon the work in question. The cynic in me will always find some degree of amusement in these efforts – since it believes that the music can speak for itself without all these layers of imposed meaning or the necessity for adopting such extreme philosophical positions – but this voice is largely drowned by the sincerity with which the band has managed to convincingly convey their convictions.

II: Music

It’s been 17 years since DSO released their first demo. A lot has changed since then. To begin with, the music was largely ‘orthodox black metal’, and the lyrical themes were of a similar nature. The first major shift was in 2004, with SMRC (Si Monvmentvm Requires, Circumspice), where the band adopted a decidedly more experimental sound. They grew as musicians and composers, but the sound could still be safely placed in the ‘black metal’ container. Skip forward to 2007 Enter FAS – an album where the guitar riffs flowed from one dissonant chord grouping to another, whereas the drumming was effectively free flowing, chaotic and without restraint. This was the last album where one had definitive evidence of a human percussionist. Further down the line – 2010. Paracletus. Terrifying precision. Progressive /Math Rock filtered through a black metal lens, drumming that seemed mechanical yet joyful, an album filled with contradictions. Expertly structured songs, and for the first time discernible melodies, enough that there are piano interpretations of some of the songs, like this one:

My own attempt to transcribe some parts to the piano lead me to believe that Hasjarl might have composed Paracletus (and Drought) largely on the piano. So when the DSO bandcamp page announced “The Synarchy Of Molten Bones” out of nowhere, while I pressed “order” almost by reflex, I wondered what kind of sound I’d hear on the new release – I foolishly expected them to play it safe and make some minor changes to the Paracletus / Drought template.

Instead, what emanated was a Paracletus – FAS hybrid, combining the strengths of each release, eliminating all weaknesses and delivering another twisted development of their core sound. Starting off with some horns and a strange vocal sample , the title track opens with a mid tempo riff which leads you to (falsely) believe that this will probably be an easy listen. And then the blast beats begin. What follows is a master class in drumming, if there is indeed a real drummer behind the kit. If not, it’s a masterclass in drum programming which makes every other attempt at programming percussion feel like a bit of a joke. The patterns keep shifting and mutating, both between the kick-snare and on the cymbals, rendering even the most atrocious of transitions seamless – of which there are several. Hasjarl is not to be outdone, as the guitar playing is equally virtuosic. You can hear his fingers fly from one inhuman sounding phrase to another, with the ‘twangs’ and the wide chords indicating continuation of his hybrid picking style which has only gotten more complex over the years – the enunciation is much clearer than FAS, and the tempos are more furious than Paracletus.

On the bass end, Khaos has always been lurking towards the back of the mix, buried under the chaotic guitar-drum interplay. For the first time (I feel), you can hear the bass become prominent – ‘Famished For Breath’ being a good example of this. As for vocals, Mikko Aspa has outdone himself – part of it is the multi-tracking and layering, but even barring that his throw has gotten angrier and more compressed, his growls are more menacing, and there’s a part on ‘Famished’ where he sounds like he’s literally being strangled while he continues to sing (all of this under the assumption that it is indeed him on the vocals).

One of the defining features of DSO’s music has been the guitar sound. Ulcerate, among a chosen few, have managed to ape it to an extent, but once again it is apparent that the exact sound might prove inimitable – it’s a combination of the patch, the playing style and the way it’s mixed in with the drums and the occasionally distorted bass. On the third track, for instance, after the 3 minute mark, you get a glimpse at the alien tone when the riff moves to the 5th string with the almost buzzsaw-esque sound. Besides this, the horns, the choral voices, chants – all add to the eerie and bizarre atmosphere.

In terms of songwriting, there is not a single dull moment on this release, with the entire album being fairly high tempo, peppered with mid tempo refrains. It is hard to isolate riffs and bars save the slower tempos, where one can make out the odd times employed – sometimes 9, sometimes 7. Phrases and lines are resolved in the most unexpected of ways. It’s a rare display of technical prowess that does not make its complexity overt, and instead renders itself as a chaotic mass of sound that is largely impervious to quick and dirty analysis, making it a prime candidate for looping over and over. Find the official stream below.

III: Lyrics and Artwork:

“Oh, a black metal band – more Satan, I guess?” Well yes, but not in the way you would think. DSO goes for a ‘metaphysical interpretation of Satan”,(literal quote from an interview, one of three)- a theme they have explored starting with SMRC. Look at the art. It’s apparently the Homeric archer, Apollo – a candidacy that is further strengthened by the reference to Iatros – a name given to Apollo by a cult that worshipped him as a healer – stark contrast to his reputation as the bringer of plague and sickness. The chariot is being flown by crows/ravens (referenced in the title of the third track) – another creature sacred to Apollo (who is also credited with turning crows black – another instance of his inherently contradictory nature). But why Apollo, and what is he shooting an arrow at?

Let’s look at the third track from “Onward Where Most With Ravin I May Meet”:

O Father! Iatros! Witness thou anon!
The rotten splendor of what once was thy realm,
now shivering at the black threshold of the grave,
deprived of the compass of duality,
hence wretched and drowning in tenfold confusion.

As far as I can see, both from this reference and others, Apollo Iatros is the face of duality, the same duality that led to the birth of Christianity – to see how, we must go back to Plato and his allegory of the cave, where the famous notion of material reality being a shadow of the ‘true reality’ of platonic forms arises. Christianity took it to the extreme, delineating the realm of heaven/hell and the realm of earth – two distinct universes, with the terrestrial sphere a shadow cast using the illumination of an all powerful Godhead. Further duality was expressed through the notion of virtue and sin. It is this duality Hasjarl rejects, the God who is both destroyer and creator, man who is both sinful and virtuous.

The Synarchy of Molten Bones shall consist
of Men of worth and Men of ill intent
in abandoned yet equal numbers,
for their insurgent wills harbor
the seed of transgression alike.

As Frenchmen, DSO have an illustrious line of transgressionists and surrealists to look up to – starting (to some extent) from Baudelaire, Lautreamont, Breton and most importantly, Bataille, who espouses the philosophy of base materialism, whereby humans are creatures of excess – possessing excess energy, and delighting in expending the same. Another aspect of this was the notion that human thought evolves via transgression, by rejecting existing values to formulate new ones – ironically enough the starting point for humanity in the Adam and Eve parable, partaking of the forbidden fruit – the original transgression. And so it is that the new man is born, as is expressed in “Famished For Breath”:

Thou shalt precipitate History, 
those days of yonder,
and the solemn roots of the human race
into the furnace fraught with fire unquenchable.
The names of all things thou shalt feed
to the undying worm
and rejoice at the mumblings of a once potent tongue.

‘The undying worm’ is a reference to Mark 9:48:

And if your eye causes you to fall into sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

This might be an allusion to the gradual decay of the once great Greek civilization, or for the death of civilization as we know it in general. In some sense the new man is similar to Nietzsche’s ubermensch, one unfettered by the bindings of conventional morality and the essentially artificial construct of the good/evil duality, which seems to be the lyrical undercurrent for most of the album.

Thou shalt celebrate the conception and rise
of the New Man, to whom all he eats or drinks
is propagated malediction,
a Man pregnant with infernal flame,
standing on the devastation 
of all things past. 

IV: Conclusion:

I did not anticipate this post to be drag on this long, especially given the rather short playtime for the album itself (a little shy of 30 minutes), and these are just preliminary thoughts – I am sure I am yet to adequately explore the depths it has to offer, both in terms of the musical structures and the lyrical themes. It seems that with each release, Deathspell Omega are carving out part of a gigantic monolith, a treatise that is at once both musical and philosophical while remaining visceral enough to elicit the most primal responses of fear, fascination and sometimes outright admiration. “The Synarchy Of Molten Bones” is perhaps the densest of the lot – at once free and structured, and refined to a razor’s edge.

I’d like to end by summarizing this collective’s journey in their own words, taken from the title track:

This seed shall bloom with noxious flowers,
borne out of the mordant steel of scythes.

Buy it here

Complete Lyrics

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