he main innovation of American black metal has been to turn the febrile energy of its Norwegian forebear inwards. Norsemen, naturally, summoned Odin and the Oskorei on their wild hunt, riding the winter winds. Lacking such mythology and the proximity to convene in esoteric interests, Americans have gone it alone. Emulating Varg Vikernes' Burzum, one-man bands like Xasthur, Leviathan, and Krohm have slowed the pace and undertaken deeply psychedelic explorations. This strain of black metal goes by tags like "depressive" or "suicidal," but it's really hell's shoegazer music, Loveless as a nightmare.
Xasthur is Malefic, aka Scott Conner. This double layer of pseudonyms is telling; Conner is the classic tortured recluse. Ironically, he is a minor celebrity in black metal as a result. Few names in metal spark as much Internet gossip and speculation. Xasthur's discography is lengthy, spanning six full-lengths, three EP's, and eight splits since 1999. Though his catalogue sometimes repeats itself, it rarely flags in quality. Even earlier, less developed work exhibits a startlingly unique harmonic sense. Xasthur's chord progressions never resolve; they're always modulating up or down, loosening and tightening in dissonance but rarely settling on tonal centers. Conner often slightly detunes his instruments for a seasick, "disharmonic" effect—a Kevin Shields strategy, but towards malevolent ends.
In his own words, Conner seeks "[t]o create hopelessness, oppression, confusion, disorientation, a sonic grave dug to manifest into death and most importantly, to drag others down into my hell." Interestingly, the latter suggests both misanthropy and empathy. Xasthur's sound is like the house in David Cronenberg's Spider, cobwebbed with murky memories. The lyrics and song titles are awkwardly melodramatic ("Legacy of Human Irrelevance," "Memorial to the Waste of Life"), but words aren't the point. An earlier album asked, "Will there even be a word known as death anymore / When left is nothing to kill?" Xasthur's larynx-shredding shrieks and howls operate as pure instrumentation, beyond language. The liner notes here curtly concur: "The lyrics are unavailable upon request."
On Defective Epitaph, Xasthur's sonic palette adds acoustic drums and cello. Conner's drumming ranges from wobbly to functional, but the sound is more important. The room ambience of live drums adds depth; the booming reverb on "Oration of Ruin" brings to mind a severely hungover John Bonham. The drum machine on previous recordings had its own tinny, futile charm, but the human element much better suits Xasthur's mission. A minute and a half into "Malignant Prophecy," the drums adopt a double bass tattoo, but it's buried in the mix, a weakly crepitating heartbeat. This is the antithesis of metal's typical hypermasculinity; for all the breast-beating about death, the other side turns out to be a lonely, miserable place.
Likely, though, it won't sound as good as this. Despite its newfound colors, Defective Epitaph has Xasthur's most unified sound to date. In conventional terms, this would be an awful mix—buzzing guitars devoid of low end, keyboards elbowing guitars out of the way, vocals shrieking away in the back as if trapped in another room. However, it's perfect for this context. The mix renders instrumentation ambiguous; guitars, keyboards, and cello coalesce into a thick, viscous whole. "Legacy of Human Irrelevance" evokes a black metal band rehearsing in a remote cabin, with a classical symphony bleeding through from a TV. The queasy, funereal keyboards in "Dehumanizing Procession" capture a religious ceremony through a druggy haze. "Memorial to the Waste of Life" wallows in white noise guitars, as Conner's howls try to fight their way out. The loping bass line of "Cemetery of Shattered Masks" suggests an underworld spaghetti western, Ennio Morricone scoring Hellraiser. In "Malignant Prophecy," chord progressions rotate slowly and inexorably like a body from a noose in the wind. The image is horrifying, yet beautifully framed.