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Xasthur - Subliminal Genocide Review

by Mark Hensch

With the formation of Xasthur in 1995, sole member Malefic took the concept of "savior" black metal personas and turned it on its head. If the previous generation of black metal had exalted itself in glorified rebellion and defiant chaos, Xasthur marked a paradigm shift into realms of intense personal reflection and violent catharsis. Gone were the ideas of overthrowing good for the power of evil; in its place was a sense of endless, misanthropic nihilism. Bleak, unending, and utterly grim, the music of Xasthur has since spawned all manner of imitations and crafted a veritable slew of black metal jargon all its own. Such influence is far-reaching, and Malefic shocked hordes all over the world with his announcement that he would be signing to popular art metal label Hydra Head Records for his first full-length in two years. With many crying "sell-out," Xasthur's 2006 effort, Subliminal Genocide, is all the more potent in that it does not change a single aspect of the trademark Xasthur sound, instead only amplifying its effects.

As an album, Subliminal Genocide varies little from the numerous splits, EPs, and full-lengths Xasthur has produced in the past. All the crucial yet familiar elements are there; inhuman howls, cold and monotonous riffage, hypnotic percussion, and somber, buried keys. Throughout it all there is woven a thread of bitter misanthropy and all-consuming hatred; the kind of defeatist melancholy only truly depressing atmosphere can conjure up. Subliminal Genocide is no different from earlier Xasthur efforts in these or any other regards, and as such, is concerned with assaulting the listener's psyches in a subtle, eroding way. Patient and devouring, the slowly-burning black flame Xasthur has always lit shines all the brighter here as old fans should be well pleased by Malefic's relative consistency and newer listeners will find the most mature, oppressive, and overtly harsh Xasthur effort yet.

Opener "Disharmonic Convergence" proves this in spades, its classic mix of elegant yet haunting choral moans melding with ghostly piano keys jangling in the gloomy dark. Said intro flows effortlessly into the massive epic "The Prison of Mirrors," a gargantuan opera of nocturnal despair well beyond the reach of most singular BM outfits. Like ever descending steps down an ebony staircase leading to Hades, "Mirrors" slowly but surely sinks lower and lower into itself, constantly reaching new levels of trance-inducing melancholic hum. The ritualistic percussion flutters like a dying heart and the buzzing menace of the slowly plodding riffs leads into moments of startling clarity induced by wispy yet psychedelic chords and a final, brain-melting explosion. This is grandiose stuff to be sure, and an excellent start to the album.

Sadly, from there things become a tad more muddled. It quickly becomes apparent that Xasthur (like on previous albums) is soundly limited by the unique constraints of his unusual craft, and frequently needs a certain sense of luck and dynamics in making tracks work properly. The majority of Subliminal Genocide now struggles between well-forged pathos and repetitive songs often melting into each other. The blackened hymn that is "Beauty is Only Razor Deep" melds toxic and blasting drums to sad, simplistic melodies buried under walls of static and fuzz. The swirling, cosmic descent into madness that follows owes as much to Xasthur himself as it does recent psychedelic mindf***s courtesy of Nachtmystium, and it is interesting to see if such trippy atmospherics will appear again later. The grinding "Trauma Will Always Linger," meanwhile, is an acidic number which grinds and burns simultaneously, its ferocious yet methodical flaying gently removing the most delicate layers of skin.

"Pyramid of Skulls" is where things start to go a bit long-in-tooth. A short, meandering piece of ambient instrumentation, it is barely memorable and adds little to the album overall. It also marks the start of a haphazard grab-bag of good-and-bad tracks, the first being the treat that is "Arcane and Misanthropic Projection." "Arcane" is like a journey through the R.E.M. cycle of a person suffering a horrible nightmare; it starts with moody, funeral-doom tinged psychedelia, dark and reeking of nightshade. As this paranoia and esotericism melds into one overwhelming sense of mental claustrophobia, the song spills over into an ink-black tidal wave of crushing sound. The song as a whole is every bit as absurdly melodic and stunning as it is abrasive and noisy. "Victim of Your Dreams" carries on the latter attributes to ill effect; the song is naught but a hissing whisper and noxious riff-fest, the likes of which could easily have been tacked on to the end of "Arcane and Misanthropic Projection." "Through a Trance of Despondency" wails with genius bleakness well beyond my ability to capture in words, and the haunting chill it leaves on listeners lingers long beyond any spin of the album proper. The decent "Loss and Inner Distortion" toys with typical Xasthur formula of dreary, simplistic, and clean melody, letting it sway in the air like a hanged criminal at the gallows during winter. The title-track in "Subliminal Genocide" shifts into so many dizzying hues of darkness it is almost absurd, and a gradual crescendo of moody, swelling sound would do Drudkh proud. "Malice Hidden in Surrealism" is just that, sinister tones gliding epically through nocturnal caverns deep within the darkest recesses of the Earth. Quiet and morose, the song ends the album with a surprising whisper rather than the expected bang.

Such malicious silence is common to all Xasthur albums and as such Subliminal Genocide often feels like a retread of prior efforts. It is still solid, well-crafted, and memorable depressive/suicidal BM, created by a man who literally founded the subgenre. As far as single-person albums go, few hold as much inherent power behind them then this. As far as albums in the depressive BM vein go, I prefer Drudkh or Leviathan to this. Subliminal Genocide is a respectable, muscular album showing that Xasthur still reigns on his throne but that the distance from the masses is tiny at best.

Xasthur's Subliminal Genocide
1. Disharmonic Convergence
2. The Prison of Mirrors
3. Beauty is Only Razor Deep
4. Trauma Will Always Linger
5. Pyramid of Skulls
6. Arcane and Misanthropic Projection
7. Victim of Your Dreams
8. Through a Trance of Despondency
9. Loss and Inner Distortion
10. Subliminal Genocide
11. Malice Hidden in Surrealism

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