Jul 1, 2012
Undersmile - Narwhal ...
Undersmile as a band have so much going for them. They have two of the very best female doom vocalists in Taz Corona-Brown and Hel Sterne and while girls in doom are a dime-a-dozen these days, not many have the strength and quality of the these two ladies. The musicianship is amazing throughout the entire album but even more stunning is the mesmerizing arrangements and songwriting excellence. Songs plod along in typical sludge-doom style but it is the stops, starts, shifts in mood and the blending of different styles that makes this such an engaging trip of an album. That style is very hard to describe because they don't follow any doom blueprint to the letter. This album is equal parts Electric Wizard, Conan, Cathedral, Burning Witch, Khanate, Moss, Sunn 0))) and Melvins but even here, all I have done is scratched the surface in trying to analyze their approach to doom metal. The style is depressive, bleak and intensely scary for most of the album and the hypnotic arrangements means that even 11, 12 and even 16 minute songs can be listened to with no effort required from the listener. These tracks flow beautifully and the amount of depth to each track is simply staggering.
'Narwhal' was co-produced and mixed by Jimmy Hetherington and mastered by Billy Anderson and this has to be close to the heaviest release Billy has anything to do with and I include Sleep's 'Dopesmoker' in that statement too. The album starts with 'Lockjaw' which is 12 minutes of excruciatingly heavy doom which is full of filth and general musical depravity but you can't say it sets the tone for the rest of the album because this album is constantly throwing the listener something different. Due to the sheer depth of this piece of work, doing a track by track analysis would be a long, tedious process so keep in mind that my track descriptions are just brief overviews and nothing else.....such is the depth to this album. 'Lockjaw' does have one recurring, important element to the sound of the band and that is haunting vocals. The haunted atmosphere never lets up and just when you think you have heard the most frightening moment of the album, along comes something else to make you shit your pants. 'Lockjaw' is followed by 'Milk' which is an oddly titled track considering how ugly and menacing this tune can be to the senses. The songs here are visceral and for the most part bypass the usual doom metal trademarks so anyone looking for a traditional death-doom chug-a-thon will feel lost listening to this for the first time.
'Funayurei' is one of three short pieces and interludes, the track is just as bleak as anything else on the album but it serves as a calm before another pummeling storm of brutal riffs. The next track 'Berk' takes the bleakness to an almost suicidal levels of sickness. Undersmile pummel the listener with 12 minutes of some of the most depressive but unique blackened doom that has ever been recorded. There is almost a depraved kind of psychedelia going on here. This isn't the happy, let's go smoke a bowl kind of psychedelia, this is the drop nasty acid and go on a Manson styled killing spree kind of psychedelia. A lot of the time, the dynamic shifts, tempo changes, mood changes and instrumentation really goes against the grain of what is considered doom metal but that is what makes it such a pleasing album. You can never predict exactly what is coming next and there are plenty of extended pauses to start that guessing process. They have many long gaps between chords and that makes the songs seem incredibly tension packed pieces of work.
'Cortege' is another short interlude that sets the mood for the albums centerpiece, the 16 minute 'Myra.' Within this monster cut, the band cover so much ground, it is more than an albums worth of ideas packed into the one track. From blackened doom to drone to ambient passages that would make Earth jealous, this track is full of creativity and imagination. Normally the problem with overly extended doom pieces is it is usually just the same formula repeated, that is not the case with 'Myra.' The band deliver so many different elements in this one track that you wish it could just go on forever. There isn't a second wasted in this epic track and it further highlights how good they are at injecting different approaches into one song without the listener being aware of it. There are moments of progressive rock in this track but it is easy to miss it on the first, second and future spins of the disc. The band add these elements in such a flawless, seamless way that each and every spin of the album uncovers something new.
'Mandrill' and 'Verdigris' are two 8 minute sludge-fests that keep the albums level of relentless pummeling at a premium and seeing that by this stage you are well over an hour into the albums playing time, it is quite extraordinary how they have managed to keep it so captivating. Saying this album is "bludgeoning" would be a understatement but there is no better word to describe how much of an intense listening experience 'Narwhal' truly is. It is interesting that Undersmile gets compared with Electric Wizard because the 'Dopethrone' is one of the only other albums ever released that comes close to this level of disorienting heaviness but Electric Wizard still stick to pretty conventional chord progressions most of the time, Undersmile however are bypassing that constantly.
'The Unthinkable' is another epic and another 12 minutes of stunning, hypnotic filthy doom. Even at this late stage of the album, they are still stretching themselves and coming up with something a bit different at every turn. Most other bands would be in total repeat mode by this stage in an epic album like this one but 'the Unthinkable' continues to push the boundaries of what doom metal and sludge is supposed to be. The album ends on the last of the short tracks, the 2 minute 'Qaanaaq' which brings the release to a ear-shattering close. When it is all done and over with, this album leaves the listener feeling like they just had a heart attack, a migraine and a nervous breakdown all at the same time. Someone called Undersmile the future of doom and after hearing this, that comment it more than justified. 'Narwhal' is potentially the album of the year and I honesty can't see anything better than this being released anytime soon but it is also one of the most important doom albums ever recorded. Undersmile are one of the few bands in the world that are helping to breathe new life into the doom and sludge metal scenes but they are doing so much more, they are raising the bar for doom bands everywhere. Undersmile have released a definitive doom metal album and perhaps the best album they will ever do and if that is the case, that is fine by me. This album is such a masterstroke that they need not do anything else. I repeat; albums like 'Narwhal' only come along once a year if you are lucky but I wouldn't be surprised if you never hear an album quite like this ever again. Yes, I am really going over-the-top with my praise for this release but in my opinion, it just can't be faulted. A perfect album in every detail, Undersmile have arrived....10/10.
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