Review Summary: Madness unfolds in mastery.
The nineties were a good decade for black metal. Classics such as Burzum's Hvis Lyset Tar Oss
and Immortal's At the Heart of Winter
were released. In 1997 The Linear Scaffold
was released from rather humble beginnings but today it is held in high esteem by many because it was the product of two creatively insane minds.
The sheer plethora of musical ideas alone is testament to this. Shoegaze, symphonic black metal, black metal, folk metal... nothing was sacred to Cornelius Jakhelln and Lazare Nedland. The sheer weight of the ideas suggests this album will be one that implode into a sonic void. Indeed this seems to be the case in the opening track "Jernlov" opening with the plucked strings of an acoustic guitar before hitting the listener with a wall of symphonic strings and detuned guitar riffs. However it is the essence of this album, the balance of extremes, of tact and tastelessness. High-flung symphonics are contrasted with detuned guitars and deep bass-lines, the quiet piano sections of "Floating Magenta" are contrasted with the extremes of "The Macho Vehicle," yet these are just two examples of this balance. It is balance that waxes and wanes throughout the album, between and within the songs. It is extensive in its extremes but it never falls apart due to the threads of melody woven throughout the sonic lunacy. The melodies are attractive enough to be memorable yet are tight enough to coalesce everything into one complete body of work. This ability to combine disparate elements this effectively is alone commendable but along with this level of skill, the two musicians have infused vision as well.
The musicians' vision is communicated through every aspect of the songs. The choices of instrumentation, song structure etc. all point to this purpose because they reference black metal conventions and consequently the albums that created these conventions. The rigid juxtaposition of acoustic and electric elements within "The Macho Vehicle" is reminiscent of Ulver's Bergtatt
and the symphonics of "Jernlov" or "Philosophical Revolt" are referencing the flights of fancy within the works of Dimmu Borgir. It is these self-referential elements that show the musicians' awareness of genre conventions yet these genre conventions are parodied throughout. The use of comedy instruments such as the kazoo within "Red View" mock the excessive instrumentation many symphonic bands employ and this, to the two musicians, is one excess among many. The hyperbolic "choir" vocals, the speed of the guitars, the ridiculousness of the symphonic strings... all display Solefald's disgust for the popular clichés and excesses employed not just in black metal but all forms of music. It is this level of revulsion that allows the album a level of separation from its peers. To quote Terry Eagleton the album "springs from a crisis of bourgeois ideology, but it has no simple correspondence with that crisis..."* It is a product of multifarious genres yet it has no particular attachment to any one, only an equal level of contempt. However this is only half the story.
As much as the band shows cynicism for the genre, the independent sphere that the album inhabits allows for the musicians' vision not to be constrained by its introspective vision on genre instead allowing for the vision to expand outwards as much as inwards. The lyrics of "Countryside Bohemians" dwell upon the wanton materialism of humanity and, in particular, the upper-classes while "Red View" insults the micro-minded mentality and hypocrisy of the Marxist view, calling believers "red view vermin." These lyrics are poetic, sometimes ambigious yet sometimes overt but always exhibiting this cynical view of the world, a subject that is compounded by a great level of fatalism. The melodies that connect this album together are representations of this fatalism, they inevitably carry the antiphonal elements along towards their doomed fate, each melody becoming more desperate than the last. Equally as the songs progress the instruments become more reflective of the impending end. The touches of reverb upon the bass on "Countryside Bohemians" and the flair of synthesisers upon "Tequila Sunrise" reflect the vision of all boundaries between subjects being blurred and destroyed in rorschach madness. It is this nihilistic view of the end of the world that shows the more sombre emotions from Solefald in their songwriting. The quieter and more restrained sections such as "Floating Magenta" showcase a heavy sense of foreboding, fear and sadness with the subdued vocals and the piano. These emotions feel more personal than the frenzied terror of "The Moon Upon The Wave" and again highlight this album's ability to be both introspective and extrospective. It is through this clash of both personal and worldly emotions, the cynical and the sober within all forms that create voids for the the listener to be able to sit within and watch as the world collapses around them.
It is this ability to involve the listener with such a cohesive vision of humanity's self-inflicted armageddon that makes this album so powerful. It can be quite overwhelming, the merciless wall of symphonics and detuned guitars providing a very unfriendly welcome to the album upon "Jernlov", or one or two elements, in particular the high-pitched screams, can grate upon the first listen. However once this album has grabbed the spectator within its dark embrace, it blossoms within the ears. It paints a vivid portrait of the world ending, not upon a bang but a single, solitary scream...
(From Terry Eagleton's essay; "Marxist Criticism"; Pg.249 in "Literature In the Modern World" Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, Second Edition.)