Monday, 21 December 2015

The Water Witch - The Heavens in Traction (2012)

Swamp Rave - Optimism Optional

If you're reading this, chances are more than likely you've already come across A Forest of Stars's gentlemanly footprints. Starting out in 2008, all black-and-white, unpolished and mesmerizing, aFoS has since refined their psychedelic, melancholy and oh-so-atmospheric brand of distinctly Victorian black metal into a colourful cavalcade of psychedelic chord sequences, carnivalesque vocals, slatherings of synthesizers and lyrics whose bitter irony would be unpalatable if it weren't for their poetic fortitude. The evolution of the albums' cover artwork serves as an apt visual metaphor for the music's, with the monochrome sparseness over time becoming saturated with colour and crowded with detail. While this constant updating kept their sound fresh and unpredictable, it did make the band push certain ideas with unrealized potential to the back, and the borderline excessive amount of cooks in this kitchen don't always synergize as well as they should.

But what if they had taken a different path – one not leading to Dickens's bustling marketplaces, where the hypocrite priest and morally bankrupt industrialist walk amongst the deluded masses, but rather one snaking its way between dewy marshlands and dark woods, beyond the reach of the city's illusory stability? The Water Witch, founded and led by original aFoS guitarist Jon Cumiskey, seems to have sprung into life as a way to explore these alternative roads – and 2012's The Heavens in Traction marks the first expedition. Cumiskey's repetitive, drawn-out riffs, which had all but disappeared by the time A Shadowplay for Yesterdays came around (the fact that he didn't play on this album is one reason for that, but the more hectic song structures and shorter lengths simply didn't allow for a whole lot of atmospheric repetition), are given room to breathe: songs like “Winter's Burden”, “The Soul of the World” and “Wilderness” revolve around but one or two uncanny, hypnotic riffs that serve as backbones, acquiring more and more sonic detritus as they glide through the paranoia-inducing marshes conjured up by the additional layers of wailing guitars. While keyboards do seem to make sporadic background appearances, oblique, foghorn-like guitar noise serves as the primary atmospheric padding – and, on instrumental interlude “Akasha Aflame”, takes the front stage. “Teeth of Oak”, as the penultimate song, does a marvellous job alternately alternating and combining morose violins – courtesy of Katie Stone, fellow aFoS'er – and harmonious unisex vocals with vicious, dissonant riffing and abrupt tempo shifts. Throughout the whole album, the drumming is accomplished and tight, varied without being overly flashy, and – thanks to the great production job – never muffled or overbearing while driving the songs along at an average-to-fast pace.

The vocal lines are quite noteworthy too. Mister Curse, aFoS vocalist, lends his considerable laryngal talent to this release – although it's never wholly clear who sings when, due to the eclectic performances of both –, with results ranging from clean, quivering monologues seemingly straight out of radio drama, snarls which straddle the line between shouts and black screams, and ghastly bellowing. The delivery of the lines gels really well with their lyrical content, and their pronunciation is clear enough to not require you to pore over the booklet, so that when you come across the following in “The Heavens in Traction”...

“I have seen the machinery behind the clouds
Vast cogs turning
Powering the night
Great skyships, carrying who knows what to who knows where

Enclosed in the mechanism we are
Ghosts in the machine and of the machine
I don't know what this means
...but I do know that this is fear.
There is fear.”

… it might just actually give you goosebumps. Mention is often made of how black metal singers primarily use their voice as an instrument instead of as a semantic vehicle, but here, The Water Witch manages to re-cross that gap by both making the delivery compelling and, you know, making the lyrics matter. I'm not going to go off on some ignorant sycophantic tirade about how black metal texts have only ever been shallow devil-worshiping or edgy hippy-ism and this hip new band will drag you from the bog of lyrical mediocrity, but TWW clearly establishes itself on the more original and thought-out side of the spectrum – or at least with this song. It's weird, but the simple fact that it doesn't clearly allign itself with a certain tradition – “Winter's burden” hearkens back to nonspecific pagan cultism and both “The Heavens in Traction” and “Teeth of Oak” touch upon the struggle between the natural and the artificial; by themselves not uncommon topics, sure, but they don't tread the same ground and neither can they be relegated to a single train of thought – that simple fact makes the more essential aspects of the lyrics stand out that much more: uncanniness, uneasiness, not-being-at-home in the world. Unheimlichkeit.

That this queasiness is supported so well by the instrumentation leads me seamlessly to my single piece of criticism: the album never really gives you a break. The Heavens in Traction isn't so much a descent from the city to the swamp as it is a tour of the marshes, never leaving its perimeters, and the only thing on the menu is soggy peat. Each song has its own perspective and disposition, but the setting and atmosphere remain constant. If you like to binge-watch David Lynch's more spectral or dream-like works I reckon this won't be a deterrent to you, dear reader, but I find myself not always able or willing to finish the album in a single session.

I won't do The Water Witch the discourtesy of writing it off as just a darker, less exuberant version of A Forest of Stars: it's not completely unwarranted, but the album has succeeded in constructing its own identity and is self-confident enough to step out from under the other band's canopy and be seen on its own terms. What it did remind me of was the German Fyrnask – both bands juggle visceral black metal and despondent (if not depressive) ambient vibes, not counting on immediate hooks but rather on the atmosphere – with an intuitive nose for not neglecting a single detail. The Heavens in Traction is a professional, cohesive and focused black metal record with a whiff of progressiveness and a peculiar atmosphere that I cannot recall having felt with an other album. Individual riffs may not stay with you for days on end, but the aggregate of their damp imprints will. Looking forward to more!


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