Kwaidan, a Chicago trio made up of Neil Jendon, Mike Weis and André Foisy, bring a lot of experience to their debut album (Foisy is a veteran of Chicago doom-gatherers Locrian). In fact, the album doesn’t sound like a debut at all.
Make All the Hell of Dark Metal Bright is concerned with the very bowels of music. Some of the drones wallow at the lower edges of audibility, seemingly bypassing the ears and vibrating directly into your skull. On the opening track it’s as if the band are daring you to turn up the volume before the first crack of percussion blasts out. The deep throbs of guitar and synths seem not so much subdued as smothered. Flurries of action crawl up from the mired drones sometimes at such a slow pace that you hardly even notice until they are upon you – such as the building cacophony of cymbals on the opener, or the realisation towards the end of “The Sound of This Bell” that the guitar is screaming instead of rumbling. Much of the rest is swallowed in the prevailing hum.
This tendency to deathly slow progression makes the moments of change all the more effective. Most powerful is the ringing piano in “The Iceberg and its Shadow”. It is still a ponderous sound but after a few introductory high notes the low end announces itself with a terrible clarity. The chords that thud through its short three minutes seem to carry through the next track, and for once they dominate the phasing synth buzz and underlying drone, not the other way around.
The real star of the album is Weis. His percussion pulses through the miasma, taking one or two patterns and repeating them over and over. The influence of African drumming is apparent, but the sound is muted, tired almost, as if Weis has been playing for days and has finally drifted into a hypnotic, exhausted trance. The influence of Steve Reich is there as well (as in almost all experimental percussion, and himself interested in African rhythms), but where he would explore polyrhythms or one rhythm overlapping itself in phases, here Kwaidan explore the possibilities of one lone rhythm at a time. As it repeats, it is possible to focus in on different emphases, to hear it as if the bar starts a few beats later, or as if it is crossing over another time signature. Or, the subterranean sound, relatively low in the mix, and the repetition of a few short seconds becomes just as much a drone as the guitar and synthesisers, drawing the listener deep into the album’s atmospheric swamp.
At other times Weis is more active or aggressive, as in his thunderous first arrival, or the clatter of cymbals, snares and other assorted thuds throughout “The Sound of This Bell”. It seems he operates at extremes, either incessantly repeating patterns or apparently abandoning rhythm altogether. This only heightens the music’s impact – at either end of the scale, the percussion is difficult to forget.
This doesn’t mean Weis entirely eclipses the other musicians. Jendon and Foisy form the bedrock of the pieces, and without their contributions the music could never achieve its horrible, compelling ambience. They also get their own chances to shine through, the aforementioned piano for instance, and fragments of clean, defined guitar in “Space as Support”, like the calmer passages of Isis chewed, swallowed and regurgitated with harmonic, arpeggiating sequences all broken and in the wrong order. Make All the Hell of Dark Metal Bright is a group effort, a real band album where, although one contribution may dominate for a while and in the end be the most exciting, each is excellent and integral to all the others.
Nowhere is this group confidence and combined skill more evident than in the first three tracks. Some might consider it risky to begin a debut album with a twenty-three-minute triptych, but for Kwaidan it is a statement of intent. The “Three Empty Rooms of Light and Space” pieces develop themes and sounds like careful, dangerous rituals. This contentedness in the depths is one of the album’s most unnerving features. Not least of these themes is the repeated, hypnotic drum pattern, a variation of which returns later on – its constancy throughout the album bringing a nagging sense of entrapment, of having gone nowhere and being unable to move. The Chicago trio are entirely content to stay in one sonic place for as long as it takes to work through their ideas, or until they’ve swirled up an atmosphere so thick and dark it’s suffocating.
Across the three pieces Kwaidan lay out all of their cards. The rumble of “Evening Bell” with the throbs in the drone providing a pulse absent from the track’s percussion gives way to unnerving creaking, which then eases into that drum pattern in “Gateless Gate”. This second track is characterised by a quiet, deafening absence, the main sound (apart from the percussion) being a distant swell of e-bowed guitar. The final piece in the sequence, “Ostension”, brews with ripples of cymbals and scrapes of some undefined instrument. A barely noticeable, intestinal drone rises into a low hum, from which comes forth a shivering, reptilian croak. With these three tracks Kwaidan position themselves in the same arena of experimental sonic terror as Kreng, or his Miasmah counterparts.
And they fully deserve such laudable comparisons. Even after this opening trio, which would have been enough to make their first impression, the band pull off some of their best moments – indeed, the final track, with its cacophonous finale, is probably the best on the album. If Make All the Hell of Dark Metal Bright is only the first step, then the future of Kwaidan is an exciting one.
– Matt Gilley for Fluid Radio