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Hydra Head (2006)
As with any hyper-stylized music genre, black metal walks a fine line between inspired emulation and unintentional parody. With Xasthur's latest album, Subliminal Genocide, multi-instrumentalist and sole band member, Malefic, manages to defy both. Although adhering to certain conventions of the genre -- tinny, claustrophobic production, raspy, unintelligible vocals and bleak thematic elements -- his use of silence, extended instrumental passages, repeating melodic motifs and changes in tempo reveal an artist determined to push the all too rigid boundaries of a genre that's often satisfied with rote imitation.
The album opens with "Disharmonic Convergence," a hypnotic and spooky two-minute instrumental consisting of short, repeating phrases on piano and synthesizer. It's accompanied by the kind of symphonic undertones that inform much of modern black metal, setting up listeners for the frenzy that is the album's first proper song. For more than 12 minutes, "Prison of Mirrors" blasts the listener with rapid-fire double bass, droning synth lines and guitar notes played so fast they bleed together into a sheen of sonic fury. Sounding like a tortured banshee, Malefic shrieks indecipherably before dropping out everything except for a single guitar. Slowly, carefully the other elements return until the song is again speeding full bore ahead. The drums occasionally slow down but the guitars are relentless. Finally, with barely two minutes left, only a few brooding synthesizers remain, lulling listeners to believe the horror is over.
The next two tracks mine a similar vein. "Beauty is Only Razor Deep" features inhumanly fast double bass, while "Trauma Will Always Linger" sandwiches beatless black ambient guitar drone and Malefic's gargling glass-and-blood vocals with a dirge-like hook befitting a funeral march in a rainstorm. Another piano and synth instrumental calms things down and leads into the muted opening of "Arcane and Misanthropic Projection," which innocently creeps along for three minutes before the gates of hell are opened once again.
The manic pace at which some of these songs are unleashed would be overwhelming if not for the sporadic tempo changes, which provide dynamism to aurally similar songs and create a haven for guitar and bass lines rise from the murk like the dead, hungry for flesh.
Subliminal Genocide ends with another instrumental, this time featuring only a guitar. Imbued with a profound sense of sadness, "Malice Hidden in Surrealism" is easily the most depressing song on the album. It’s like listening to the last few breaths of someone you love as their heart stops beating – a superbly tortured ending truly befitting such an exceptional record.
Although steeped in the traditional black metal polemics of speedy guitar, sparse production and nihilistic emotives, Subliminal Genocide manages to raise the bar considerably without eschewing the genre altogether. This is especially true in regards to the variance (or altogether absence) of tempo. Instead of blanketing the album with non-stop bass lines and blast beats, Xasthur counter poses fast, monochromatic beats with slower, more dynamic rhythms as well as extended passages of pure, black drone, giving the album a depth and emotional sincerity that's non-existent in most contemporary black metal.