Now for something on the other end of the spectrum. Asva's debut album Futurists Against The Ocean fascinated me back when I first heard it, being one of the most creative and emotionally resonant drone/doom metal albums that I had ever heard. The band, featuring alumni of Sunn O))) and Burning Witch among others , for once created an album that, thanks to its experimentation in different instrumentation and even operatic female vocals (the idea of which I would have barfed at on paper but, upon hearing them, was mesmerised by), actually managed to be pretty beautiful instead of being one of those run-of-the-mill drone albums that tries and fails to sound as evil as it possibly can.
Sometime inbetween Futurists' recording and the recording of the latest album, What You Don't Know Is Frontier, guitarist and bassist Stuart Dahlquist's brother died. Understandably, Dahlquist has mentioned that the loss has directly influenced his work ever since, and even if it wasn't a conscious effort, this feeling shows in What You Don't Know Is Frontier. The album is an absolute tour de force: only such a horrible loss could provide the catalyst for such terrifyingly dark and vast soundscapes. The album is structured in a very similar way to Futurists Against The Ocean: four long tracks, the first two almost serving as harbingers of the second two. However, this album feels infinitely darker and deeper, and where 'Zaum, Beyonsense' on Futurists seemed more like an interlude or an introduction for 'Fortune', 'Christopher Columbus' on WYDKIF is interesting - and terrifying - enough to prove itself as a great track in its own right. The title track sets the stage, like a Morricone theme as interpreted by Satan himself - enormous twangs of spaghetti western guitar resonating against thunderous drums, humming organs and vast bursts of guitar noise. 'Christopher Columbus' is very abrasive indeed, starting off with an ominous bassline that slowly builds with lots of other stuff like bizarre electronics going on towards its ungodly conclusion. Randall Dunn (responsible for the latest offerings from Earth, Kayo Dot and Wolves in the Throne Room) has done an incredible production job on this album: it really feels implausible that something this huge could have been recorded in a mere studio.
Just as you're feeling suffocated by the unrelenting heaviness of the first two tracks, 'A Game In Hell, Hard Work In Heaven' arrives to blow you away. Certainly the album highlight, the piece is a lot more meditative and graceful, featuring a woman singing beautiful eastern-style vocals on top of the ever-present organs, punctuated by mournful guitar melodies. The song picks up in intensity as it goes on, the coda picking up the pace dramatically as the track races towards its astounding conclusion. At this point in the album, the all-consuming feeling of remorse and solemnity is overwhelming.
A Trap For Judges is by far the longest and most testing track on the album at 24 minutes. A gargantuan beast of a track, it is almost impossibly heavy - sort of like an 80s sci-fi flick soundtrack on a downer overdose, with gargantuan drum/guitar attacks pounding steadily accompanied by enormous sweeps of synth. The track marches steadily on, constantly descending further and further into its sonic bludgeoning, subtly changing throughout. After 20+ minutes of this exploration of the abyss, we are finally treated to a glorious release. A triumphant church organ pierces the darkness, resonating until it's all you can hear. It's like the light at the end of a long and tortuous tunnel. In a way, the album seems, intentionally or unintentionally, to perfectly mirror the process of grievance: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing and, finally, acceptance - it's like the musical representation of a person mourning a loss and eventually finding a way to move on, and it's unbelievably powerful. Its testing and abrasive darkness has a cathartic nature too - after listening to it from start to finish, as that church organ fades, the colours of the world will seem brighter. Never has a drone album seemed quite so emotionally powerful and exhausting as this one: it's the album that Sunn O))) wish they could have made. For that alone, it deserves a standing ovation.
Asva - What You Don't Know Is Frontier