When we encounter the unexpected, our initial reactions generally fall into two main categories:
1. The negative: Frustration, stress, disappointment, anger, etc.
2. The positive: A smile, a spark of joy, wonderment at a surprise, etc.
Despite the joys that fandom can bring, it also leaves us more apt to fall into category one because every release from a band we love comes loaded with potentially unfair expectations that may not be met. For every Covenant, there is an Illud Divinum Insanus after all. Newer bands are afforded a rare benefit in their obscurity to the listener. The big trick, of course, is getting anyone to listen at all when you have no name recognition, but when a new listener has little to no expectations, the band has a higher chance of falling into category number two.
Permit me, if you will, to tell the tale of my introduction to this album. One of the wise elder rulers of the Last Rites kingdom messaged me and essentially said, “Hey, do you want to listen to some post-black metal grindcore? Check out this band Icare.” The name and genre tags were odd enough on their own to warrant intrigue. I discovered that Icare is actually the French spelling of Icarus, then found the gloriously grinding one-minute barnburner “Cauchemar” on Bandcamp, and promptly asked to have the rest of the album sent to me. Folks, Icare immediately sets you up to think “what the hell is going on here?” when you see the full tracklist. There are only nine songs on this album, but each one is longer than the one before it to the point where the final two songs account for more than half of the album’s 59-minute runtime. You read that right; this album starts with a 35-second blast of grindcore and ends with a 20-minute full-tilt post-metal monster.
What? How? Why? All fair questions, my friends.
According to Division Records’ profile of the band, Icare initially wrote Khaos back in 2018 before deciding its breadth didn’t make sense for performing on stage. They set the album aside and began work on a 45-minute single-track album called Charogne because somehow that makes more sense for a live performance. The label was impressed enough by a few shows in 2019 that they signed these five gentlemen and asked them to go back to the studio to record a beefed up version of Khaos to be unleashed on an ill-prepared world.
That level of care, detail and ambition comes through in every aspect of their debut. The album is like a syllabus for a nine-week course on music composition. Week one asks you to provide your most basic understanding of heavy metal in as brief a snippet as you can, so Icare offers up 35 seconds of relentless noise and blasting in the form of the opening title track. From there, each week offers up lessons on how to expand on what you learned from the one prior. Every song takes elements of what came before it, builds on them and then adds new elements that constantly keep the listener on their toes trying to guess what might be next.
“Cauchemar” takes the grind blueprint of the title track, but adds some more substantial riffs that owe a debt to early Brutal Truth. “Emmuré” cakes a layer of black metal theatrics to its riffs and opens the door to the more dramatic direction the rest of the album will take. “Naissance, Décadence” ramps that up into Anaal Nathrakh territory with a slick melodic riff riding over the chorus and a crushing breakdown toward the end. In its roughly four and half minute runtime, “Déliquescence, Déchéance” proffers a clean guitar melody to open the song, a greater balance between those melodic tremolo riffs and heavy chugging ones, and learns to start mixing in slower passages that permit the song to breathe in order to enhance the sense of dynamics. The black metal influence on “Reviviscence, Sentence” comes more from the Cascadian U.S. scene and the latter half of the song downshifts into a slow bass-driven passage with morose sounding guitars that come right out of the post-metal playbook. This is also when the vocals start to steadily shift away from gruff aggression into a pain-stricken yell.
The final three tracks present Icare at their most ambitious as they sport runtimes of eight, 14 and 20 minutes respectively. “L’Eschatologie Cosmique Du Jardin D’Éden” opens with a lovely synth intro before spending most of its time perfecting the fusion of their post and black metal influences similar to Alcest. Even in that slower burn, however, they manage to drop a throat-slitting jagged riff over some relentless blast beats to make sure you don’t forget the power that black metal is capable of. If you needed two songs to sample to get a feel for Khaos, it should be this one and “Cauchemar.”
After a gothic piano opening that sounds like a slightly less cheesy version of something you would’ve heard on Cradle of Filth’s first couple releases, “Nuit De Glace Au-Dessus Du Sépulcre Noir” relentlessly blasts the listener’s ears into oblivion. Despite the grindcore elements earlier on, this might be the most chaotic track on the album. Icare accomplishes an impressive feat by consistently morphing the approach to this endless battering throughout to ensure you don’t get bored despite the length. Album closer “Le Dernier Souverain Du Royaume Déchu” strips out the black metal elements almost entirely to send the listener off on a post-metal journey in the vein of Cult of Luna. Oddly enough, some of the softer guitar passages are similar to the quieter stretches in Pig Destroyer’s Natasha. The longer runtime, slow pace and use of repetition may lead some people to tune out a bit early, so this song could have used some whittling to get it down by a couple of minutes.
The only other minor shortcoming Khaos suffers from is the level of distortion used on the vocals for the entirety of the album. While it adds to the noisy power of Icare at their most chaotic, it can sometimes sound like a rallying cry from a megaphone during the slower passages. With the amount of emotion the vocals aim to present in later tracks, the distortion slightly robs them of their true impact. To balance out that small quibble, it is worth noting that the bass work in this album is exceptional. The tone and placement in the mix is perfect while it trades off anchoring songs during their rowdiest moments and leading them forward during their most pensive. Adding to their credit as being ambitious, Khaos also happens to be a sci-fi, mythology and Lovecraftian horror concept album. It’s in French, so I encourage you to have Google translate ready to go.
Khaos offers a long journey with many unexpected twists and turns, but it’s one that you’ll want to take over and over again because that joy you didn’t see coming is well worth the time spent with your headphones on.