Call me crazy, but I kind of agree with Jef Whitehead’s assertion that he’s not exactly making black metal anymore, at least not entire albums worth of it. Call me even crazier, but honestly, Leviathan’s excellent new album sounds like…death metal! From the crushing low-end riffs, to the guttural vocals and pinch harmonics, this reminds me less of Under a Funeral Moon and more like Where No Life Dwells. Both voices are clearly present, but one is markedly louder than the other.
The two hellishly scary tracks, “The Smoke of Their Torment” and “Dawn Vibration” are clearly rooted in the tradition of bands like Incantation, Bolt Thrower and Morbid Angel, but still maintain that uniquely unsettling quality that characterizes much of Leviathan’s work. The drums are great as always, and the guitar tone is enough to break the ground from under you. And that voiceover in the middle of “Dawn Vibration”…good lord. While such a noticeable turn toward death metal might be unexpected, it’s far from unwelcome.
But let’s not kid ourselves, Leviathan has never been a Darkthrone/Mayhem/Gorgoroth tribute act like many other post-1994 bands. Jef Whitehead’s mix of suicidal despair, agonizing screams and triumphantly brutal musical arrangements has always produced something distinguishable from other American black metal greats (e.g. Demoncy, Krieg, Xasthur), something which made Leviathan both a crucial part of the scene, yet set it apart from it at the same time.
Then again, there is a lot of black metal to be found here. “Gardens of Caprolite” and “Within Thrall” are undeniably of this ilk, and several moments remind the listener of the chaotic ferocity present on classics like The Tenth Sub Level of Suicide and songs like “Return to Evernight.” The sound evokes something like the horrifying night terrors I used to experience as a child when I fell ill, that uncontrollable pulsing of your entire consciousness and all that terrible screaming and feedback in your head (must have been something I ate). It’s all a listener could hope for in a new Leviathan album, one that opens a new chapter in the project’s history. Scar Sighted is the combination of a great weight being lifted from the shoulders of the speaker, only to find his old doubts and demons still very much present in the room.
Speaking of demons, let’s focus on the title track for just a moment. Jef Whitehead has a wonderful talent for taking quieter moments and using them to purge the listener into the very depths of agony and despair, even when the song on paper looks like it should be really boring. On paper, “Scar Sighted” is a slow, ten minute dirge-fest, complete with throaty mumbling and wretched screaming in the background. It takes until around the 7-minute mark for that clip from the movie Se7en to kick in:
He’s experienced as much pain and suffering as anyone I’ve encountered, and he still has hell to look forward to.
You know? From the “sloth” scene. Yea, that guy.
And the songs suddenly kicks into a ferocious storm of black metal, as if the wallowing, tortured soul of the first seven minutes was suddenly thrust blind into a climactic firestorm- ending with a fade-out accompanied by a death metal chug to crush anyone's last hopes. The song could have been so drawn out, but Jef makes it work. There are a couple songs where his approach doesn’t land as well as this one. But in perspective, this just makes those songs very good, rather than great- hardly something to quibble over for too long.
It’s an album which contains some of Whitehead’s finest and most haunting work. And though “Sardoniscorn” will probably always be my favorite Leviathan song, there are a few here that come awfully close. It’s an album that starts and ends in an ominous way, like a terrible beast slowly rising from a long, brooding sleep, only to perish in a sea of its own torments, the end which implies the rise of something else. Whatever that is will have to wait until the next album.
Favorite songs: “The Smoke of Their Torment,” “Dawn Vibration,” “Gardens of Coprolite,” “Within Thrall,” and “Scar Sighted”