By the time Andrew Curtis-Brignell started Caïna in 2004, one-man black metal projects had already earned themselves a sterling reputation – fairly, in many cases – for laughably rudimentary songwriting, glass-shards-being-flushed-down-a-toilet production, and all-around foolishness. It was with a fair amount of preconception-shedding awe, then, that many followed the fascinating progression of this project from its fiercely raw beginnings to the sprawling ambient atmospherics and patient tension of Mourner, and then to Temporary Antennae, which took a stunning pastoral approach, mixing delicate folk, deft touches of post-rock, and relatively sparse outbursts of blustery black metal. Hands That Pluck is not so much a step backward from the largely gentle sophistication of Temporary Antennae as it is a great lunging leap sideways with a knife and some serious anger issues (helped immensely by lunatic vocal turns from Curtis-Brignell, Krieg’s Imperial, Revenge/Blood Revolt/etc.’s Chris Ross, and Starkweather’s Rennie Resmini). As such, it makes for an unexpected close to Caïna’s generally progressive canon, yet a satisfying and ultimately brave statement from one of extreme metal’s most unique voices.
Knowing in advance that Hands That Pluck is Caïna’s final album has the unfortunate effect of loading it up with inflated expectations. It’s one thing to assess an album through the lens of finality following a band’s dissolution, but it’s quite another to begin listening to an album from the very start as though each note sounds the dour chiseling of another letter of a weathered granite epitaph. Even absolving Hands That Pluck of such a weighty mission, the album is more than a little off-putting initially because of the defiantly raw production and simplistic black metal assault of its opening numbers, with Curtis-Brignell’s snarled vocal exhortations flitting in and out of frame. The guitars are all fuzz and squall, while the drums are tinny and pinched.
However, both the sonics and the songwriting open up considerably following the opening one-two gut punch of “Profane Inheritors” and “Murrain,” leading the attentive listener to better appreciate the nuances that are added one at a time. Once the ear attunes to the complexities buried in the bleary haze, a backward glance confirms that even when the album appears to be at its most primitive – as on “Profane Inheritors” – there is actually a canny obscuring of truly lovely moments happening at almost every turn.
The easy thing to do now would be to say that the album is a success because it eventually shows glimmers of beauty despite its ugly presentation, but that seems like a cop-out, a way that a critic gets away with praising something that she doesn’t actually like, and it also perpetuates the strange idea that ugly noises mean ugly thoughts and pretty noises, pretty thoughts. What’s really going on here is a more intimate relationship between the primitive, blown-out blackness and the beauty that winks like a pulsar in its midst. It’s not just that the album has a bunch of ugliness on one side, and occasional beauty on the other side, but that the moments of beauty which do shine through do so all the more brightly because they have managed to escape the hulking mass of otherwise harsh noise.
It ought to be nearly axiomatic by now that the best albums are the ones that teach one how to listen to them, which is precisely what Hands That Pluck does. It is a truly engrossing listen, if given the time to complete its unfolding. “The Sea of Grief Has No Shores” is a shimmering instrumental piece that shuffles and builds with the delicate tension of early Tortoise (y’know, real post-rock from before when post-rock meant “wimpy-ANGRY-wimpy”), while “Callus and Cicatrix” features the inimitable vocals of Starkweather’s Resmini, who turns the searching swells of the music’s slow burn into something truly harrowing.
Even after several trips of painstakingly close listening, the production is often so odd and muddled that it makes it difficult to pick out what’s going on with all the instrumentation. Still, Hands That Pluck is littered with moments of brilliance that make it all worthwhile, like 4:30 into “Somnium Ignis,” when a busy clean guitar bubbles up triumphantly from the unformed chaos. In cases like this, the murky production is actually an asset, but at other times, like for much of the complex and satisfying build and burst of “Ninety-Three,” one can’t quite shake the feeling that the songs would be more powerful with greater clarity in the production. For album closer “Ninety-Three” especially, this is a real shame, as the song itself is a nearly flawless display of everything that has made Caïna such a unique and frequently thrilling project over the years.
Even if it falls short of being an unalloyed triumph, Hands That Pluck is a dizzying edifice of other-worldly sounds and very much this-worldly grievances. It is hugely ambitious and frequently flawed, which, after all, is just like art; just like life.