Review Summary: Soundtracks for the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
In Mulholland Drive
, there’s a scene where Justin Theroux is auditioning women for a role in his upcoming production. As he sits in his director’s chair and sifts through headshots, an eerie, unknown male figure approaches him, points to a specific portrait, and monotonously utters, ”This is the girl.”
Now, try to imagine yourself sitting in your dwelling of choice, flipping through a monstrous heap of generic black metal albums, looking scrutinously for a new piece to add to your regular rotation of hardcore filth. As Serpent Column’s Kathodos
finds itself at the top of the stack, nothing about its cover especially distinguishes it or indicates that it would be massively different from any of the other cookie-cutter black metal releases piled in your lap. The instant you go to fling it toward the rest of the preliminary discard pile, you feel a clammy hand rest forcefully upon your shoulder. You weren’t even aware that anyone else was in the room with you. But it’s me. Afraid to fully turn around and see exactly who the stranger might be, you nervously cock your head to the side and catch a glimpse of me in your peripherals as I tell you with ironclad hubris, ”This is the album.”
I stumbled upon Serpent Column, the one-and-a-half man project from the mononymous Theophilos, sometime last year. I remember not how his sophomoric album, Mirror in Darkness
, made its way into my queue; what I do
remember, though, is how surprisingly fresh it sounded for a black metal album, almost to the extent that I questioned its “blackness,” per se. There was something unique about it - the angularity, the winding riffs, the Byzantine percussion, the constantly shifting structures; this wasn’t just any ol’ black metal—it was black metal that graduated at the top of its AP Calculus class. Not to imply that traditional black metal isn’t smart or intelligent or thoughtful, but typically it needn’t be—along with certain genre labels, damning as they may be, come certain expectations. Phrase complexity, time-signature gearshifting, and dynamic architecture are usually low on the list of what one might reasonably encounter in black metal, a category whose cornerstones exhibit relentless simplicity and deliberate under-production. His subsequent EP, Endless Detainment
, was an even greater departure from genre impositions, foregoing framework completely and resembling something closer to an aural sketchbook of violence and chaos than a cohesive record. It was clear that Theophilos’s desire to experiment eclipsed his willingness to conform, even if that meant alienating a few purists and conservatives.
The term “avant-garde” has lost a lot of weight over the years thanks to constant misuse and oversaturation. Nowadays it feels more like an empty attention-grabbing catchphrase than a substantive appraisal, and I’ll admit that I tend to recoil a bit when I see it plastered on anything that remotely diverges from the median. But taken at its literary face value - ”new and unusual or experimental ideas; unorthodox or daring; radical”
- in the context of metal music, Endless Detainment
avant-garde with its exotic blend of various subgenres that sat at opposite ends of the spectrum. (To say nothing of its manic layout and amorphous composition—I’ve listened to the damn thing a few dozen times and the song sequence still catches me off guard.) While my love for this extremist experimentalism was tried and true, it is admittedly not the most palatable offering out there, and while traditionalism always runs the risk of being boring, unwieldy abstraction can be equally enervating for entirely different reasons. I can’t say I agree, but I certainly understand the common complaint that entropy to this degree is not superficially pleasurable beyond mere artistic merit. And so when I skimmed some pre-release reviews of Kathodos
calling it a “return to form” with respect to its bombast predecessor, I was nervous that Serpent Column might have rescinded the grotesque edge that made their contortion of black metal so arresting.
Two-thirds of the way through the album’s opening track, “Departure of Splinters,” however, and all my trepidations effervesced into thin air—I was in good, fully-assured hands. It’s evident almost immediately that this album won’t quite be the rollercoaster of unfettered mayhem and disorder that Endless Detainment
was, but more important, it revitalized my faith that adherence to some semblance of form, however slight, can be beneficial if not crucial. Furthermore, it reinstated the idea that I didn’t necessarily adore Theophilos’s experimentalism for its own sake but the alchemic way in which he superimposed it over a musty template in nearly diametrical opposition. Really that
is what continues to impress me about Serpent Column’s body of work: They borrow formulae from numerous tangents and tendrils of the metalsphere—from avant-garde to math, from hardcore to progressive—but never eviscerate the essence of black metal upon which they’re built. If tasked with whittling Kathodos
down to a single descriptor, I don’t think anyone would settle on “mathcore” or “progressive metal” over “black metal”. This is undeniably, almost objectively
black metal, and yet describing it only as such feels insufficient and shortsighted. But that, of course, it what sets it apart from its brethren. Where else will you find the unquestionably dissonant atmospheres and hammering walls of sound congruous with black metal mingling so elegantly with the labyrinthian guitar phrases and multidimensional drum sections often associated with mathcore?
And despite having a more recognizable shape than the unhinged EP before it, Kathodos
sacrifices not intensity nor ingenuity; the third track, “Night of Absence,” clocks in at a succinct three minutes: the first two are an unexpected but welcomed snippet of dark and foreboding ambience, while the last is a hotbox of nasty, unearthly carnage that quickly descends into a blackened cacophony of distorted guitars, hyperactive drumming, and the frenzied, anti-melodic squeal of amplifiers on the verge of blowing their fuses. The track immediately following, “Dereliction,” concludes with an exercise in dissolution, the music breaking down to a cyclic stiltedness that resembles a machine whose engine is running on fumes but refuses to surrender. The back-half of “Pathlessness” contains a percussive dexterity that would make most prog-metal drummers blush (Danny Carey eat your heart out). “Offering of Tongues” closes on a guitar solo that recklessly, indisputably shreds
—the type of neck massaging and tremolo picking you might find on the latest and greatest thrash record. And for those who wouldn’t be satisfied without a genuinely Warholian exercise in numbing austerity, the final track is ten straight minutes of four chords repeated over and over with zero variation. (Okay, I’ll cede - maybe that was a bit much.) But miraculously, this panoply of influence and fluctuation never diffuses the relentless thread of aggressive black metal that penetrates every other nook and cranny. Surely, some black metal pundits will crucify this for its iconoclasm; avant-heads will undoubtedly claim it’s not enough. But this is, to me, the most unctuous marriage of Serpent Column’s two distinct camps, where both conventional and nonconformist ideas congeal into a cocurricular lesson on the outermost boundaries of what we consider “black metal.”