Originally written by K. Scott Ross.
The Concept Album is a tricky beast. On the one hand, having a unified theme or story for an album can take already mighty music to the next level (see Opeth’s My Arms, Your Hearse for a prime example). On the other hand, storytelling is the realm of authors and screenwriters much more than musicians, and if good songs are sacrificed on the altar of story, the whole experience will fall flat (see Dimmu Borgir’s In Sorte Diaboli). With their second release, London-based quartet Voices have created something that alternately claws and oozes its way into the first category. This is London, an homage to urban decay, obsession, and despair.
Normally when I write a review, I try to avoid first-person references and “review logistics,” in order to focus on the music. For just a paragraph here, I’m going to make an exception, because it makes an important point. I received the promo for London on the 19th of December. I expected to have a quick turn around on it. After all, I enjoyed From the Human Forest Create a Fugue of Imaginary Rain, and before that I was a fan of Akercocke. A few metaphors, some words on production, and bam, perfect follow-up review. That clearly didn’t happen. I normally don’t like to spend that long on a review. In this case, though, I’m glad I did, because if I had thrown something together within two weeks like I had planned, I would have been expressing my disappointment with the album, rather than my continually unfolding amazement. The point is that Human Forest was, for all its oddness, a straightforward album to unlock. London is not. But the end results are worth the effort.
Consider the structure of the album. London is made up of 14 songs; four of them are between six-and-a-half and seven-and-a-half minutes. Two of them are only one-and-a-half minutes. The rest fall between three and four minutes. The long songs front-load the album, as the story begins to unfold, but there are also a few short ones as well. The album opens with “Suicide Note,” a three minute acoustic piece that features detuned pianos and extremely melodramatic singing. Now’s a good time to get used to it; the entire album is going to be this dramatic.
The album transitions fairly seamlessly between songs, and with the stroke of a cello, “Music for the Recently Bereaved” breaks in. Here’s the heavy metal you were expecting. The intro stanzas recall “Dnepropetrovsk,” the song that opened Human Forest. The hooked riff at 25 seconds that makes up the first verse is infectious, as is the tremolo riff immediately following the chorus. The dexterity with which Peter Benjamin and company can change themes becomes apparent when by two minutes we’re thrown into a whole new motif, yet it still feels like the same song. Three minutes brings a strange breakdown; this section calls back to “Suicide Note.” It’s in this slow section that the oppressive urban feeling becomes apparent. The vocals are extremely tortured, and the off-key piano sounds like the famous London fog. Then at five minutes the band pull back the intro theme and we’re back into the heavy metal flow. The song ends with rain, clock towers, and the first piece of spoken-word narration. This piece-by-piece breakdown of a single song does seem excessive, but it’s necessary to understand the strange flow of London. At any given time, it seems like the band is just randomly doing whatever they want, but when you roll back your vision a bit, you can see the comprehensive work and that each piece of the jigsaw fits perfectly.
“The Actress” is the first ninety second song, and sets the scene for “Vicarious Lover,” another seven minute piece with up-tempo fury. Of all the songs on the album, this one probably sounds most like something from Voices’ debut. The production on London is much more polished, though. Human Forest felt loose and rough; sloppy even at times. London has none of that. Everything is as tight and meticulous as a modern glass and steel highrise. In a strange way, London feels more like an Akercocke album than Human Forest did, even though musically it’s probably an even further evolution away.
There are a lot of layered vocals on London, and they give the impression not only of the screaming masses of the city, but of the madness of the narrator. Sometimes the spoken word sections are shared with a female narrator, as they are at the end of “Vicarious Lover.” It’s unclear whether this is meant to imply a mixed nature in narrator, or simply make the narrator an untyped London native.
The story, such as it is, continues with “Megan.” The stop-and-go dynamics that were explored briefly in “Music for the Recently Bereaved” are back in force here, and with more finesse as well. There’s a heavy influence of the 1980s proto-industrial movement (which also sees its roots in London) near the end of the track, as both female and male narrators chant “Megan” over and over. The character of Megan comes up later in the story, but it’s frankly very difficult to follow the entire thing from step to step. Rather, it feels like a journey in and out of madness, with a few concrete glimpses at the world around us.
“Imaginary Sketches of a Poisoned Man” is another short piece, and is a more straight-forward song. “The Antidote” contains more of the interludes and “movement” feeling like we heard in “Megan.” It also contains the next bit of spoken narration, where we learn that the narrator is the poisoned man and that somebody is drawing pictures of him through the window. Why was he poisoned? He doesn’t know, and neither do we. It doesn’t appear to be connected to the “Suicide Note,” however, as he speaks of directors, performance, and professional acting. Is it more madness? Or have we even switched narrative focus? The answer to the question is tertiary at best, as the listener is swept on into “The FuckTrance.”
“The FuckTrance” is a horrible name for a song. Ironically, it’s a pretty amazing song. It features a building dissonance that calls back to the London club scene and dance classics like “Break and Enter” by The Prodigy. The shrieking syncopations sound more like the sounds we heard on Human Forest, though. “I still taste you on my lips, and on my fingers,” the narrator/vocalist intones. “The FuckTrance” is a much, much more effective riff on deviant sexuality than “Sexual Isolation” was on Human Forest. Things will get a bit weirder from here on out, and the thread of the story fades in and out of sight. In “Hourglass,” the narrator reencounters Megan, and we learn that she is a street prostitute (or perhaps a figment of his imagination; who can tell?).
“The House of Black Light” is another straight blaster. This song could almost be an Anaal Nathrakh piece from the intensity of the blasts. “They know my secret” howls the vocalist, and things definitely take a turn for the sinister in atmosphere, if not in narration. “The Final Portrait of the Artist” is the second ninety-second interlude, and is one of the clearest pieces of narration yet. The narrator finally finishes writing his suicide note, and puts away a mechanical watch, refusing to be trapped by the passage of time. In “Last Train Victoria Line,” the singer confronts a woman (Megan?) with the question of whether she thinks of her other loves when they are together. The melodrama in the delivery of the line “Do you ever picture him when you’re fucking me?” is initially off-putting, but once you get the feel of the album, it actually sits well alongside pieces like “Suicide Note” and “The FuckTrance.”
“The Ultimate Narcissist” gives us another glimpse into the psyche of the narrator, as he says “You have to understand; I’m jealous of everything that moves,” but it’s the slow funeral march of “Cold Harbour Lane” that really seals the deal on the story. Does the narrator die? Probably. His last words to us are “Don’t disregard the Devil’s gaze.” Is he talking about himself or someone else? Perhaps even a real devil who he fears as he slips into oblivion? This critic still doesn’t know, but the mystery and strangeness of London is a huge part of the appeal.
Is the second album from Voices a dramatic story told from Point A to Point Z? Or is it a commentary on the mental damage that can often result from living in a cold, unfeeling modern society (much the same as artists like Throbbing Gristle and John Foxx explored in the early 80s)? Perhaps it’s both. It could even be neither (although this critic doubts that). But we can certainly agree that it is a deep, well thought out, and above all else, challenging album. This is what makes for a timeless album. I think that ten years, we’ll much more likely to still be listening to London than From the Human Forest Create a Fugue of Imaginary Rain. Bravo, gentlemen. This is the sort of challenging material that the extreme metal world needs in 2015.