Sunday, 30 September 2018

When The Kite String Pops - Acid Bath

Provenance: A recommendation from the music message board I used to contribute to. I was subsequently bought this as a Christmas present by my parents.

Review: My default position on 'long' albums is to bitch about them for either unspooling the same goddamn idea for an hour or jumping about the place stylistically so as to justify the run time. The former tend to be boring and the latter can be an exercise in frustration as a band or artist, in an attempt to demonstrate versatility, fail to land a knockout punch.

At one hour and nine minutes, When The Kite String Pops is a long album. It is also a rara avis in the sense that it is diverse - even sprawling - but never dull. A bubbling stew of Sabbath-inspired doom, hardcore, groove metal and skeletal balladry, its disparate textures are shot through with a grim, unrelenting focus on the darker side of the human condition. Curiously, the length of WTKSP might actually be one of its most powerful tools.

It's perfectly normal for musicians to use dynamics, tempo, rhythm, melody and harmony to all convey certain moods - so why not time? Taking a considered approach to the actual amount of time allotted to a work is common in ambient and avant-garde composition, and probably in some of the more oblique ends of the extreme metal spectrum. Of course, concept albums and live compositions frequently stretch out, often to provide space for narrative to unfold or to provide a degree of verisimilitude to a performance, but here it's something a bit more nuanced. On WTKSP the sensation is like that of a journey through the bleaker reaches and shades of a netherworld.

Of course, all this could've been disastrous if Acid Bath couldn't whistle a tune, but even at their thrashiest there's still a powerful subtlety at work in their songwriting. Inevitably this comes to the fore when they turn down the amps a bit - 'Scream of the Butterfly' is astonishing, even if Dax Riggs' clean vocals sound ever so slightly like a cross between Chris Cornell and the actor Tony Curtis. Riggs' abilities to deliver convincing performances with both clean and screamed vocals - an ability he shares with Opeth's Mikael Akerfeldt - means that songs like 'Dope Fiend', where he switches between the two, are suffused with a deliriously split personality.

It's a queasy, push-pull ride to the bottom - and it never lets up. I know I said exactly the same about Judas Priest's Painkiller but whilst Halford and co. exist in a shiny, technicolour comic book universe, WTKSP is a Hieronymus Bosch hellscape rendered in monochrome. I'm also well aware that straining hard on the pathos can lead to bathos, but on this cut Acid Bath never come close to lapsing into unintentional comedy. There is a deadly seriousness - emphasis on the deadly - to tracks like 'Tranquilized' and 'God Machine' that allows for no chink of hope.

Finally, a word on the musicianship. It's as tasteful as you're going to experience in the genre. These guys know when to step on the gas, and when to ease up. Too often in metal I think that bands confuse busy drumming - especially the flavour of skinsmanship that relies on the double bass pedal - with aggression. It is to Acid Bath's credit that they know exactly how to create a sense of controlled tension, and then how to release it in a furious gale of punches to the ears and gut. Head-snapping guitar is paired with big, washy swathes of feedback much in the same way as, per my earlier mention, clean and distorted vocals combine, all to stunning effect. You can't really call it 'light and dark' though, just different shades of black (not to get too Spinal Tap about things).

For those who would seek to mock metal, WTKSP is a serious rejoinder. It is both a showcase for fine musicianship and as a primal howl of despair, but furthermore it makes demands on the listener to step wholly into an uncomfortable and disconcerting place. It's strong medicine, and repeat listening is an exercise in masochism, but all the better for it. One for the ages. 

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