[5th February 2013]
03. The Singularity
06. Solve et Coagula
09. Le Vitriol du Philosophe
Black metal has seen a rise in popularity over the last few years, with the genre emerging from its blood-soaked origins into the mainstream of the metal fan’s consciousness. Production values have improved a hundredfold since the genre’s first inception, ambient soundscapes have become a sort of norm within some bands, and there has even been a marked increase in the use of clean singing from prominent black metal bands. What there have been relatively few of, however, are bands who have tackled black metal without the use of vocalists, relying solely on their instruments. While bands like Agalloch have included vocal-less tracks on their albums before (“Odal” comes to mind), such tracks comprising the entirety of a band’s catalogue is rare. I reviewed one such band, Temple, at my old site Brutalitopia. But while Temple were a fairly new band, Spektr, a French experimental instrumental black metal band, have been around since 2000, releasing two albums and an EP in that time, before returning in 2013 with their first full-length album in seven years, Cypher.
The album starts off incredibly promising; after a short intro track, “Teratology” begins with a faded, jazzy trip-hop background that’s unlike anything I’ve ever encountered in black metal before. This trip-hop rhythm intertwines its way through the duration of the track, as well as much of the album, popping up here and there between the more expected black metal tropes of blast beats and furious riffs. The trip-hop beats used by the drums are quite different from the standard black metal rhythms, and produce a music that’s more engaging and upbeat. Cypher is a very well-produced album; it abounds with sections mixed at different levels, and makes quite good use of the right/left speaker dynamic to create a disorienting, uncomfortable listening experience. There’s a good ten to fifteen seconds toward the end of “The Singularity” in which a pulsating ring is coming from the left while dissonant static is coming from the right. It’s quite disorienting, and makes for the last few minutes of the song to play out in eerie, agonizing quiet.
Quiet is of particular note on Cypher, as Spektr is clearly not afraid to embrace ambient, discordant soundscapes to contrast with loud, bombastic sections. Of the nine tracks on the album, four are nothing more than short, sub-three minute sections of these soundscapes, occasionally utilizing vocal samples that sound as though they belong in a science fiction film from the 1950′s . Using vocal samples is always a risky proposition for bands; they either fit perfectly or they take the listener completely out of the experience. The tracks on Cypher are decidedly the former, whether it’s the album opening clip that paraphrases the biblical book of Psalms to the clip from The Twilight Zone that opens “The Singularity.” Spektr merges the sparse landscape of their music and the vocal samples quite well, and the resulting effect deepens the jarring experience of listening to Cypher straight through.
Some listeners may find the same faults with Cypher that are found with other instrumental bands; chiefly that it relies too heavily on dynamic shifts to progress, settling in to a typical, predictable routine of loud/quiet/heavy/soft that becomes boring or dull. While the ebb and flow of Cypher does seem to feel a little too planned and inorganic at times, there are enough differences between each ambient section and each “metal” section to keep listeners invested. Additionally, much like Meshuggah’s Catch Thirty-Three, the cold, inorganic feel of the music helps to amplify the sense of disconnect it creates. Spektr’s Cypher doesn’t quite match the stratospheric heights of Catch Thirty-Three, but it does manage to take black metal in a different direction, one that fans hopefully won’t have to wait another seven years to hear continued.