There’s great virtue in music that can appeal to different parts of the listener’s psyche all at once, teasing different moods, emotions, and styles without ever having to be obvious about it. Candlemass was as heavy and foreboding as they were majestic and uplifting; Immortal could bring the apocalyptic chill as well as the catchy enormity of arena rock; Edge of Sanity went deep down the prog rock rabbit hole on Crimson, all while maintaining their ultimate levels of brutality. The list goes on and on, thank goodness, but for most bands that achieve this kind of mood/stylistic complexity, there is one unifying factor: they are unique, memorable, and quite distinctive in some way.
Fast forward to right now, and there is plenty of this going on. Just among big names in 2016, we have Cobalt, the excellent marriage of Julie Christmas and Cult of Luna, Ihsahn’s latest masterpiece, the great Moonsorrow, and most of all, the mind-boggling and seamless genre-splicing of Oranssi Pazuzu. (Also, can we stand still for a second and appreciate how that band keeps gaining more and more fans despite their uncompromising dedication to experimentation? The good guys do sometimes win, folks.) All of these albums appeal to a wide stretch of the human mind and emotional range, and all quite naturally.
While San Fran’s Howls of Ebb is not nearly as well-known as the bands mentioned above, if all is fair in the world (and we know it is not), their popularity will soon gain some steam. After a debut album, last year’s The Marrow Veil EP really started to gain the attention of yours truly with its wild blend of raw, modern black/death metal with psychedelia and a hidden prog aesthetic. But it is the new Cursus Impasse: The Pendlomic Vows that truly sees this band reaching great heights. It is equal parts brutal, atmospheric, trippy, music-nerd-appealing, filthy, and just downright fun. It is also one of the more unique albums of recent memory, channeling great music through the type of natural weirdness that can’t be taught.
LET’S GET NASTY
On the surface – and I mean only the absolute upper crust of the top layer – Howls of Ebb fits into the type of modern, clangy “black/death” metal often peddled by labels such as Iron Bonehead and Nuclear War Now. Opener “The 6th Octopul’th Grin” has the kind of slow-blast, dissonant riff that is common of the style, and there is an unrefined quality to the entire affair, as if the band recorded the album in just a few takes and was perfectly pleased with the slightly rough-around-the-edges finish. The drums have natural, unprocessed tones, the guitars a mix of heavy fuzz and heavy reverb, and the vocals a number of effects that place them at the absolute forefront or deep in the mix.
The absolute nastiness of it all is top notch, and it enhances both the weirdness and fun that are further explained below. The sassy riff interplay in “Cabals of Molder” is a blast, sure, but never full breaks out of its inherent ugliness; the thrashier, up-tempo moments of closer “The Apocryphalic Wick” help to carry the album to a rockin’ finish, but the constant use of dissonance – even in the most straightforward of riffs – keeps things filthy and unsettling; and the time-honored tradition of “dying cat” Kerry King-styled guitar solos is quite alive here. Even in the album’s quietest moments, the instrumental tones prevent it from achieving real beauty, instead crafting an atmosphere that is as expansive as it is caustic, and much of the time, just downright odd, which leads us to…
LET’S GET WEIRD
If you needed further convincing that these fellers are an odd duo, look no further than the names. Vocals, guitars, and bass are handled by zEEE-LuVft-huuND (formerly zELeVthaND, or “The Left Hand”), while drums are provided by RoTnn’BlisssS (or RoTn’kbLisK, so… “Rotten Bliss,” or something). This kind of word-scrambling-as-pseudonym thing is nothing new to metal, but it’s extra notable within Howls of Ebb considering their music. Like the names, everything here feels twisted, from the aforementioned usage of dissonance in would-be-ordinary riffs to the blanket of psychedelia that envelops much of the album.
This psychedelic aura – and dynamic talent – is at its peak in “Maat Mons’ Fume,” which begins quite soft and builds very gradually over eight minutes before eventually exploding into a kind of muted violence. It uses variations in tones and riff stylings (chunks, tremolo lines, splintery leads, etc.) to keep the individual elements interesting, almost tricking the listener into not paying attention to the slow build. The album never gets quite as psychedelic as did the previous EP, but it’s out there, for sure. Still, through it all the album maintains its grosser side while never loses sight of the fun, so…
LET’S GET ROCKED
Despite the album’s best efforts to be ultimately “kvlt” or evil or otherworldly, it just flat rocks. Through all of the clangs and psychedelic deviations, the riff remains the foundation of the Howls of Ebb sound, and the band writes a mean one. From the rubbery, intentional slop to the speed demon activity, the urge to air guitar is strong with this one. It is all supported by the drum performance of Mr. Rotten Bliss, who makes extremely good use of his kit with a full range of rhythms and techniques. Really, both of these dudes are aces, goofy names be damned.
Beyond just the natural inclination to rock out, however, is the band’s brainy implementation of their ideas, such as the almost industrial or post-punk layering and repetition of motifs. This is most at play in “The Subliminal Lock – A Precursor to Vengeance,” which finds immense success largely through the repetition of just a few major ideas. At times the riffs are heavier in the psych, at times they warble, and at times they even get downright brutal; one irresistible moment sounds like a breakdown or slam as designed by the Nuclear War Now forumites. Actually, that might be mean to the song, which is absolutely stellar throughout, as is the entire album.
When all aspects of Cursus Impasse are put together, it ends up sounding a bit like a version of Oranssi Pazuzu that came up through an Iron Bonehead schooling, or maybe – and this is a stretch – a kind of arthouse At War with Satan, if Venom was both instrumentally capable and somehow dedicated to experimentation. Regardless, it rules, and there is a serious songwriting pedigree at work here as well. The album appeals to so many interests, fits so many moods, and is so ludicrously stuffed with details that it only starts revealing itself after many listens. Thankfully, the riffs are the hook, the filth the glue, and the deep dynamics the staying power. Methinks these guys are only just getting started.