Fex Urbis Lex Orbis
an Francisco is a city of maddening contradictions. For a supposed liberal stronghold, SUV's abound. Drivers berate and cut each other off as they circle for parking—on the way to yoga class. Each August, the moneyed half of the city decamps to Nevada to "rough it" at the pricey Burning Man festival; the other half, homeless, camps on concrete. Rich neighborhoods abut poor ones in startling proximity. Cross Geary Blvd. from tony upper Fillmore, and you're on the wrong side of the tracks. On Eddy St., en route to mixed drinks and minimal techno, hipsters hurdle winos. I didn't leave my heart in San Francisco; San Francisco took it.
Appropriately, Ludicra's new album is called Fex Urbis Lex Orbis. That's from Les Misérables; it's Latin for "dregs of the city, law of the earth." Since its 2002 debut Hollow Psalms, the Bay Area band has documented urban filth with utter fury. The CD tray card to 2004's Another Great Love Song showed Stevenson St., the seedy crack alley where some band members toiled in a sex shop; the artwork for Fex Urbis depicts vermin (ant, fly, rat, cockroach) intruding on clean, architectural contours.
This urban focus is a marked departure from black metal's Nordic obsession. The genre isn't known for open-mindedness, and thus Ludicra has mostly escaped notice outside the Bay Area. The band styles itself "post-black metal"; others have used the term "gray metal." Thus, black metal is merely a departure point for Ludicra. On Another Great Love Song, the band mixed black metal with crust punk, old school thrash, piano, and acoustic guitar into a rich, seething stew. Fex Urbis shapes these elements into songs that are more streamlined, yet more epic.
On this album, the band strips down to essentials—two guitars, bass, drums, vocals. Eerie acoustic guitars briefly surface in "Dead City" and "Veils," but they quickly yield to electricity. The band has pared down, but it has also tipped over its previous vertical textures into long, horizontal arrangements. The songs feel low to the ground, like Aesop's drum kit, which is punk-rock minimal. There are only five songs here, but they range from five to 12 minutes in length. These songs are about riffs—funereal drones, concise melodies, power chords, all-out thrash; the vicious break in "In Fever" has the best riff Slayer never wrote. The overall effect is hypnotic, as the band allows each riff time to sink in before moving on to the next one.
The leaner, longer arrangements give each band member more space to operate. Aesop's drumming is primal and effective. Unfettered by a click track, he steers songs through shifting speeds and feels, with unpredictable fills and accents. Ross Sewage's bass lines are warm and full of passing tones; his playing feels much freer than in his other band, gore-grind outfit Impaled. Christy Cather and John Cobbett's guitars often move in elegant counterpoint, which the left-right panning accentuates.
The highlight is the vocals. Laurie Sue Shanaman pulls double duty, shrieking fury and rage over haunting, almost choral backgrounds. Her guttural "Ugh!" and "Agh!" in "In Fever" are some of the most primal sounds you'll ever hear. The angel/demon contrast works well in that song, where at 1:45, the bottom drops out. The spiraling guitars and ethereal vocals create a feeling of suspension; one could either fly up to heaven or fall down to hell. You know how in horror movies, the music for Satanic moments comes from choirs? It's like that.
What Shanaman's howling about is much more earthly, though. "Dead City" perfectly captures the depression of the urban treadmill, in which the daily sun becomes oppressive: "Something big and bright / Looms outside my window / Choked with promise / Smothered in hope / Days plod on like machines of ceaseless ruin / Lost in a forest of haunted buildings," and, "With each sundown comes sickness / With each sunrise surrender / And still they come deaf and dumb / Days of incessant woe."
"Collapse" is the album's coup de grâce. Gritty flange encrusts Shanaman's snarl:
Here's the sign that modern times is finally crashing downBlastbeats swarm upon the song's finale, kicking up clouds of grimy chords, as Aesop's cymbals slice like bits of shrapnel. In the distance, an angelic voice sounds.
Weeds rise from concrete beds
Dance till you're dead in the parking lots
Take to the rooftops and see what's left
The doors of empty homes stand open
Like our toothless mouths
Illness in a black rainbow
Rifle through their pockets while saying last rites
Here's the end that we have dreamt of
Here's the face of the collapse