Review Summary: It's certainly not on the level of the legends of the genre, but TotalSelfHatred is a great piece of DBSM. If you're looking for something to add to the collection, it's worth considering.2 of 2 thought this review was well written
Depressive/Suicidal Black Metal (hereafter just DSBM) is one of those genres that people are either all the way on board with or they want nothing to do with it. This isn't a knock on the sound, of course, more a natural result of just how deep into the dark emotional well these artists are dipping. It's hard to just be lukewarm on it, because the extremity of it tends to mean that if you aren't totally taking the ride it will sound absurd, and even comical. Probably the greatest example of this is the famed Silencer album, "Death, Pierce Me". To those who sink into the music, it's the apex of the style. To others, Nattramn's childlike wails are a source of mockery.
So where does TotalSelfHatred fit in with all of this? It's a deeply emotional album, each note drips with the DSBM aesthetic and there's really nothing "wrong" with any of it. It's just fairly plodding and typical.
The album opens up with Enlightenment, which genuinely ranks up with Xasthur's "Prison of Mirrors" in being amongst my favorite DSBM tracks of all time. This album could have been released with that song alone and I would have been totally fine with that. It begins with a typical piano lick that ruptures into black metal guitars and distant shrieks without that awkward dichotomy that often appears in such works (meaning, the melody of the piano intro is actually integral to the track as a whole). As far as album opener goes, TotalSelfHatred starts off with a home run.
In truth, the phrase "black metal" is more in aesthetic than convention. Blast beats and fast tremolo picking are used carefully to augment songs rather than forming the bedrock for them. This is mid-tempo DSBM by and large and is, frankly, all the better for it. In a way, it hearkens to mind prime-era Shining(SWE) but without the wide variance in sound or Niklas's vocal gymnastics. This is both good and bad in that it means avoiding the occasional pitfalls that Shining stumbles into, but at the same time loses the raw feeling of listening to a genuine human breakdown. Calling a DSBM album "safe" feels somehow incongruous, but it does fit in this case. Much as I loved the opening track, I can't say much beyond that stood out to me. They have the template and stick to it.
Going track by track is pointless on an album like TotalSelfHatred for reasons mentioned above. Once you've heard Enlightenment, the tone is set for the remainder. There are no tracks after that which drop the mood or break the flow, but there aren't any after that which stand out. There are a few odd moments, for example the intro to Carving employs a quick, heavily filtered drum lick that would feel right at home on a nu-metal album, but aside from that TSH crawls along at a standard clip. The outro track, which does one of my favorite (and terribly underused) tricks of being a self-titled track on a self-titled album, closes things off well, ending with a fading piano melody that's a nice bookend to the piano intro.
Production is another area where TSH varies a bit from their DSBM brethren and is the reason I nearly bumped the score from 3.5 to 4 while I was writing this. The production to this album is clean and solid, not overly fuzzy and lo-fi in a Xasthur or Leviathan fashion, but it's not exceptionally modern, either. What we're instead left with is an album that's a good balance. The instruments are clear, but nothing feels overly polished. It services the music well, letting the listener appreciate each tinkle of a piano key, pluck of a bass string, or thump of a kick drum without it coming across like the product of a corporate studio.
As I said, I nearly bumped the score up to a 4, but decided against it chiefly because while TotalSelfHatred is a welcome addition to any DBSM collection, and it's actually become one of my go-to's, I don't feel that anything is missed by its omission. So a 3.5 it is, and if you're a fan of DSBM in any way, this should hit you right. It's certainly not on the level of the legends of the genre, but a great listen nonetheless.