It begins with “Walls that Breathe.” All that can be heard is the sound of raindrops pattering delicately on hard ground, punctuated occasionally by booming thundercracks that pierce the quiet night sky and reverberate out through the darkness. I cannot resist it. I cannot ignore it. There is something hard-wired deep inside the human brain that responds to an electrical storm, something overpoweringly atavistic that draws us to the edge of the cave, despite the fear, to look out and wonder at the power of nature. It is a sublime moment of primitive connection between man and his environment. But then… but then…Stand aside caveman, let the riffs commence!
Issuing forth from the decidedly non-primitive environs of San Francisco, dark metal merchants Abstracter serve us up their debut album Tomb of Feathers, a collection of three long-form pieces that each explore a wealth of tonalities, textures, tempos and other things that possibly begin with the letter T.
The aforementioned “Walls that Breathe” interrupts my reverie around the wonder of storm conditions with a growling and detuned guitar which snakes languidly between some beautifully monolithic riffs. What really surprises though – pleasantly – is that the palate of these riffs seems considerably broader than many of their peers. Yes, there are all the old metal favourites: there are tritones, there are Phrygian scales, there is that riff that comes from the really filthy bit of “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” but so too is there an abundance of guitar forms redolent of genres well outside of what has become orthodox in ‘metal.’ One of the main things that caught my eye when reading the press release was that it made mention of things rarely glimpsed in connection with metal.Whisper it now: “shoegaze.” Shoegaze! Good God, what freakish and unnatural construction can this be to include such reference material? What violation against the naturally occurring order of the universe has been committed here? Abstracter, what have you created? Nature will surely abhor it. But far from it; what Abstracter have done is to infuse the expected catalogue of metal guitar with colours drawn in from distant relatives, from My Bloody Valentine, from Bitch Magnet, from Husker Dü.
Hail ghost, thy countenance disturbs me for ‘tis one that is familiar to me. Speak, who are you?
I am the spirit of SST and I walk these battlements at night. Do not forget me.
And credit to Abstracter for reaching into their bag and producing something that brings these more diverse influences to bear. Hell, Bob Mould himself might even on occasion be playing six strings here. Amidst the voices too, many of the backing vocals are unexpectedly different. Although there is ample deployment of the death grunt (and really, who doesn’t love some well-realised death grunt spattered across a whirlpool of noise?), their supporting vocal infrastructure is shot through with lighter and more distinct flavours, bringing in the kind of contrast that is too often absent elsewhere. “To Vomit Crows” (presumably as a result of a poorly-reheated raven tikka masala the night before) showcases this to great effect through its epic choruses.The final part of the triune, “Ash,” whilst sadly not an homage to the synthetic human who runs amok and tries to gag Ripley with a rolled-up magazine in Alien, is nevertheless a 16-minute slice of doom and sludge worth of being played whilst a terrifying metamorph is dismembering a nearby cargo crew*. That bass! At least, I assume it is a bass. It sounds more like the rumbling of two gigantic tectonic plates slowly crashing together. San Francisco was famously devastated by an earthquake in 1906 and one can only hope that Abstracter’s soundchecks will not force their hometown to revisit such a catastrophe.
With its modulations, sudden switches of instrumentation and instrumental passages, “Ash” also shows that Abstracter seemingly have a mastery of another useful element that many of their peers often seem to ignore – a sense of arrangement, an understanding that not everything needs to be playing all the time; that indeed, contrast between passages and between instruments will actually amplify (both literally and metaphorically) the greatness of the whole. It is a refreshing departure in a genre which in its haste for volume and power often overlooks exactly that which will make it most possible.
Tombs of Feathers is a real grower. One listen is not enough. Get the cemetery manager to unlock the rusting curlicues of the metal gates, sit inside its cold marble, and let it wash over you.