It’s rare for me to have something to look forward to regarding metalcore these days, the genre being pretty artistically spent by this point. I often find myself searching through my ratings for something I might have underestimated the first time around, a search that has been fruitless for the most part. This is one such exception. Originally passing it by in favour of its polished follow up “Betrayer”, I now find myself drawn to it for the very reason I first dismissed it. The previously off-putting and messy production is now alluring due to the way it exemplifies the abrasive nature of the band, giving their unique mix of grindcore, death metal, metalcore and post-metal a fittingly indistinct tone.
Not to say that this wouldn’t pack a punch if it didn’t have such raw production, as Harlot’s approach to metal is one that emphasises the chaotic aspect of the genre with skilful intensity. Blast-beats cascade off each other at intimidating speeds while hellish tones are coaxed out of guitars in a style reminiscent of Zao’s blistering work on “Liberate Te Ex Inferis”. “Remote Coagulation” for example features several moments where a dizzyingly intense effect sounding like a guitar spinning out of control appears, backed up by furiously fluid drumming reminding me of the musical equivalent of a train flying off the rails. The vocal style too is aptly off kilter, consisting of coarse screaming that alternates to fast paced, gruff death-metal style roars at a moment’s notice. Similarly the guitar playing is varied and strays from metalcore-esque chugging and blasts of dissonance to discordant techniques taking cues from all across the extreme metal spectrum. This has the effect of creating the unique mix I mentioned earlier, a concoction of everything from grind to 90s core to death metal.
The ease with which Harlots meld these styles is perhaps the most impressive thing about Second Death, as they never sound particularly clunky or directionless in their execution. The integration of the more melodic and considered approach native to post-metal illustrates this well, as they seamlessly drop into intense climaxes off the back of melodic build ups. For example, “Those Days Seem Several Hundred Years Ago” soars upwards on melodic interplaying guitars and piano notes, its climax degenerating chaotically into the thunderous “Remote Coagulation”. These more melodic moments do wonders for the pacing of the album, giving the listener some space to breathe as well as showing off Harlot’s song writing skills.
However, the eclecticism of Second Death is perhaps best illustrated by the inclusion of two ambient tracks. “Moment of Sickness” abruptly cuts in after a climactic scream and is entirely at odds with the rest of the album. Its nine minutes of sickly, uneasy ambience characterised by a constant rustling and repetitive droning melody, broken up by whirring and twinkling sounds that drift in and out. As the track reaches its end it feebly escalates in tone as if reaching out for something it can’t quite get to, before being swept away and fading into nothingness. For an ambient track its very attention grabbing, reluctant to let your attention wander from its otherworldly atmosphere.
Therefore in a way “Moment of Sickness” isn’t entirely at odds with the rest of the album as it mirrors the strange and unpredictable nature of the band itself. As in, it would be a lot more at odds with the rest of the album if it was a pleasantly drifting ambient track and not a slightly disarming detour. Coincidentally, slightly disarming is how I feel about the album as a whole. It’s a record whose full impact takes a while to properly sink in, partly due to the groggy tone the production applies and partly due to the pure chaos streaked across its forty minute run time. It keeps me slightly on edge throughout, waiting for the next curveball to grab me and make me reassess my presumptions on what metalcore could be. And for something to do that after so long is a nice surprise.