Here’s a truth about art that is all too often forgotten: art needs to be political. Art begs to be political. Here’s another truth about art that is all too often forgotten: art needs to be apolitical and escapist, and likewise begs to be so. As consumers of art, it’s in our best interest to find the balance along this political-to-pure-escapism spectrum that works best for each of us, but reach too close to either end, and we enter dangerous territory. Too much escapism, and we risk alienating our minds and emotions from the important matters of society. Too much political content, and we risk exhausting ourselves before our good intentions can bear fruit (the “doom scrolling” problem).
For every Iron Maiden, we need a Napalm Death. For every Led Zeppelin, we need a Dead Kennedys. For every Pink Floyd, we need a… Pink Floyd. All things in moderation. The Balance of The Force. Etcetera and so forth.
With their message (and the reasons for that message) in mind, it’s a bit necessary to dig into the album’s lyrical content before saying a single thing about the music itself. It’s quite frankly impossible to discuss this record without analyzing its themes, and it starts with the album title. For the unaware, the term “hostile architecture” is used to refer to anything in the built environment that shapes (usually restricts) certain behaviors. Opener “The Law of Asbestos” mentions the anti-homeless spikes that prevent people from sitting or sleeping on low ledges, and also poor construction and upkeep that creates untenable conditions for the poor (“Always three months to the gutter; Never three months to the peak”). The album takes aim at much more than the built environment, covering topics such as:
- Scapegoating and dividing of the poor: “Desperate times call for disparate measures! A few misdirections to change how the pressure discharges; I see the forked tongue in the ear of the strained and both barrels retrained on the ones in the margins.” (“Cable Street Again”)
- Fears and struggles of queer youth: “I wasn’t born in fear. There’s no self-loathing in my genes. But from when I could hear, I heard the hereditary; the poison of misogyny.” (“Béton Brut”)
- How the rich feed on the cycle of poverty and create the illusion of upward mobility: “All hosts; owning isn’t earning, it’s a wound open to sate the leech. O, lust; to gorge on endless blood, two thousand Parasitic Billionaire men.” (“Apathy as Arsenic; Lethargy as Lead”)
These are but a few examples of how Hostile Architecture is a scathing indictment of the exploitative, exclusionary, discriminative, and otherwise destructive practices by the powers-that-be (or powers-that-would-be) in advanced capitalist (or otherwise brutal) societies, things anyone with even the slightest eye outward sees in far too great of quantities today. The lyrics range from pinpoint accusations to poignant metaphors, never indulging the kind of cheap sloganeering designed purely for crowd interaction.
Hostile Architecture’s messages are delivered with desperation and brutal intensity by Alasdair Dunn (also the lyricist, drummer, and primary songwriter), with everything feeling shaped by personal experience. Dunn has an uncanny presence, as if DHG’s Aldrahn or either Code vocalist gained a punk urgency and took up arms against oppressors. Dunn builds intensity with each song, with his emotions bursting at the seams and joined by the voices of several bandmates during some of the record’s biggest moments (“We are the cult of work! We are the cult of siphoned gold!”). Sometimes he sings, somethings he preaches, and sometimes he softly builds a monologue, but no matter the approach, the message is crystal clear and impossible to ignore (or it should be, which we’ll discuss).
But what about the non-lyrical/vocal side of the album? Thankfully, Hostile Architecture is much more than just a message, but a stunning and captivating collection of instrumental work as well. With its vocal style, black metal foundation, and inclusion of many atypically metal instruments, the record could most conveniently be described as “avant-garde,” and while that isn’t misleading, it doesn’t capture how well the music helps the lyrics stay grounded in reality. Aforementioned opener “The Law of Asbestos” starts the album with a simple hammered dulcimer pattern, with saxophone, drums, and eventually guitar helping to set an atmosphere before the maniacal vocals and heavier hits really kick things into gear. It calls to mind everything from Negură Bunget to SubRosa and later Swans—at different times disorienting and captivating as it spirals up into a climax of violins, blasts, relatively simple riffs, and determined, almost preaching vocals.
From there, the album diverts into a number of slightly different directions, with the combination of Dunn’s sermonic vocals, violins, sax, and progressive black metal foundation providing the through line on most songs. The opening riffs of “Béton Brut” carry a huge Om vibe, with Ben Brown’s bass dancing delightfully around the main themes and the sax providing a more unhinged, noise aspect, with Dunn eventually delivering one of his furious, ever-building monologues (including the lyrics mentioned above). “Plattenbau Persephone Praxis” likewise features a grand crescendo of vocals and music, swelling to an unforgettable finish with the aid of a very timely tremolo line, while “Tragic Heroin” and “Apathy as Arsenic; Lethargy as Lead” providing the riffiest, nuttiest, and proggiest material on the record.
“How the Mighty Have Vision” is the record’s one true diversion, a track based mostly on a quite frankly gorgeous choir arrangement with Dunn sometimes singing right along, and sometimes offering a touch more determination and anguish. It spends less than three minutes mocking arrogant architects and designers for the fancy flairs they add to public housing, knowing all along that upkeep and maintenance will be ignored the moment the ribbon is cut. It’s beautiful and haunting, and fits in perfectly with both the record’s music and themes.
All of it leads to the finale, and as they did with the incredible opener, Ashenspire sticks the landing with closer “Cable Street Again.” The song bursts out of instrumental “Palimpsest” with blasts, tirades, and shimmering blackened riffs, Dunn often sounding exhausted as he delivers his ultimate, most important rally (“I hope you like poverty, breathing in soot, and the taste of leather off Britain’s boot!) and the saxophone creating a sense of both comfort and mockery. The music shifts from blasting black metal into nearly gothic darkwave as it methodically, achingly, almost painfully builds to the record’s climax using every tool in Ashenspire’s kit (“If it’s to be Cable Street again, we won’t win through debate. You can’t reason with malice. The fasces must break!”). It finally reaches its ultimate boiling point, and after a temporary reprieve during which only the instruments guide the emotions and message, the vocals return for one final call to arms: “But this is where it ends. There’s no middle road. And I tell you; Get down off the fence before the barbed wire goes up!” After, only the sax remains, briefly playing a line that seems to stop mid-melody, leaving you with little sense of resolution, but the need to imagine what comes after.
So yes, the music is damn well good enough that if you really wanted to try to appreciate the record on only its instrumental and melodic terms, you could certainly try, but why would you only focus on half of the picture? Why would you, or how could you ignore the words when Dunn (and everyone else) delivers them with such resolve? I would posit that you simply cannot, and that Hostile Architecture is meant to be consumed as a work of both words and music, but then again, we live in a world where Paul Ryan listens to Rage Against the Machine and Jeff Bezos says he’s a Trekkie, both men completely at odds with the ideals of the art they claim to love.
But such men live outside of the realm of criticism and hypocrisy, and their levels of disgusting delusion are definitely among the targets of Ashenspire’s music. Bully for you if you aren’t, at a minimum, constantly crushed under the weight of existential terror and societal anxiety. Good for those of us that only face the mental and emotional anguish, and don’t worry about our children’s meals, if we’re going to sleep under the rain at night, or be forced to die for or against a brutal regime. If Ashenspire has one overarching message, it’s that anyone outside of the global oligarchy ought to be treating each other like allies, regardless of our varying minor or abject levels of personal struggle. That we’re all in this mess proves how little these messages are heard. That these messages are rarely heard is exactly why bands and artists like Ashenspire should keep screaming them at every available set of ears.
Great art doesn’t need a crucial message to captivate hearts, and a great message doesn’t need wonderful music to make its point, but they sure can make for a truly powerful force when they find that perfect match. In Hostile Architecture, Ashenspire has crafted an album that is as harrowing and horrifying as it is stunning and cathartic. It is a truly powerful force, indeed. Get down off the fence before the barbed wire goes up.