Metal and goth have always made strange bedfellows. For all the good done by the Peaceville Three and bands such as Type O Negative in the early 90s, the years that followed presented enough laced vampires, weeping cemetery angels and rose sniffers to turn even the most iron-clad stomachs and forever attach a “proceed with caution” suggestion whenever the two paths cross.
But make no mistake, we’ve had our share of good-to-great to sift through, too, particularly when taking into account the artists who have focused (and continue to focus) a greater attention on the less poppy side of goth rock, dark/new wave and industrial/noise. Such is the case for the Belgian beatnicks behind Emptiness, who do precisely that in a particularly unique way.
Once rooted in a sort of precarious amalgam of death and black metal, Emptiness threw a true curveball in 2014 with Nothing but the Whole – a dark, woozy, ghostly romp that blended the murky side of heavy with a gothy, ambient drift that resulted in a work that more than a few now consider a classic in the realm of wEiRd, somewhat “Scanner Darkly” metal. With Not for Music, the band’s fifth full-length and first run with France’s Season of Mist (an LP version will still be available through Dark Descent), the envelope is being pushed even further from their metallic roots in favor of continuing to explore “heaviness” that’s largely conveyed through outsider means.
The quickest way to determine applicable anticipation levels for Not for Music depends on how well you received the driftier, woozier end of Nothing but the Whole. Outside of the final moments of “Circle Girl” and the bulk of the industrial-imbued “Let it Fall” that closes the record, the most consistently metal thing about these 42 minutes remains the vocals of bassist Jeremie Bezier (Enthroned), who has a fairly uncommon deep & whispery, roiling approach that comes across like something someone might expect to experience while tripping balls and listening to the washing machine recite grim verse. The closest comparison remains Shrew’s murmured inflection from Prophecy of Doom, had that band been less concerned with grind and more obsessed with Dead Can Dance. Bezier’s gnarl is a (perhaps) surprisingly good fit for the record’s dreary, softer side, as they lend an appropriately harsh and shadowy voice to the overall gloom. The only true digression occurs in “Digging the Sky,” which benefits from a slick mechanized effect that, when paired with the tune’s smoothness, makes it a clear candidate for a soundtrack to a Borg orgy. Borgy.
So, yes, it is the album’s quieter points that will ultimately result in triumph or defeat here, because even more so than in 2014, these elements typify the band’s uniqueness. Songs such as the opening “Meat Heart” and “It Might Be” often rely on seemingly diminutive guitar or keyboard embellishments for hooks, while the heart of the beast plods along in the shadows like some groggy David Lynch brute.
The second half of the record is where things really percolate, however. Outside of the smoothly bangable Borg orgy that is “Digging the Sky,” there’s the weirdly rollicking “Ever” that sounds like goths still managing to brood through their grins during a sunny picnic. And a particular highlight hits with “Your Skin Won’t Hide You,” which showcases the band’s sneaky ability to work in all manner of tricks – queasy guitar picking sobered by stark strums; notably diverse bass touches; a distinct gloomy Godflesh detail (or at least something distinctly Broadrick-minded); and a blanketing semblance of improvisational jazz colliding with Fields of the Nephilim to drive the win home.
It’s difficult to surmise where a band like Emptiness will take listeners next. They don’t seem the sort to remain cemented to any single model for very long. A logical step might be a stronger lean toward the Godflesh whiffs in the album’s midpoint, or maybe an even noisier free jazz stance to further align themselves with bands such Chaos Echoes and Aluk Todolo. Whatever path they choose, Not for Music offers up a surreptitiously infectious take on how to deliver “dark and heavy” in ways that deliberately challenge strict genre conventions. Goth for metal fans who don’t normally like goth? Metal for goth fans who don’t normally like metal? Avant-garde music for people who spend evenings swirling dark wine in pewter goblets? Sure, fine. But mostly, it just feels like shadowy music for shadowy individuals.