Black Metal Whimsy | Music Sidebar | Chicago Reader

Black Metal Whimsy 

Leviathan's Wrest goes exploring.

Lurker of Chalice
Lurker of Chalice
(Southern Lord)

I suppose I got into this racket because I wanted to figure out why some records struck me as merely enjoyable while others seemed to just overwhelm me, grabbing me by the ear like a vicious nun reprimanding an errant schoolgirl. For me the best albums have always been the ones that imagine worlds as rounded and complex as any you'll find in a good science fiction novel--and just as with a good novel, you'll have to call my name more than once and fairly loudly if you want to pull me out of its spell.

I've gotten better at describing that sort of record, but I still have a hard time anticipating where the next one's coming from. In retrospect I should've expected it from Wrest, a one-man black-metal juggernaut from San Francisco who's been recording as Leviathan since the late 90s. Wrest clearly has a more fertile and restless imagination than most of his peers. Under the name Lurker of Chalice he's put out a couple cassette-only releases that show off his (relatively) lighter, more intimate side, and his first full-length under that moniker sold out almost immediately when it came out on Total Holocaust earlier this year. Southern Lord rereleased the CD in August, and this month it announced the release of a vinyl-only version with an extra track. Southern Lord's sold out of the CD; the vinyl sold out in preorders. (Locally, at press time Metal Haven had CDs in stock and Reckless had the vinyl.)

Why all the fuss? Black-metal side projects aren't unusual, but their creators usually stake out pretty specific patches of turf--somebody flying their freak-folk flag over here, another falling deeper into a Lovecraftian sinkhole over there. What's delightful about Lurker of Chalice is that Wrest sounds willing to try anything, swooping out of his usual black-metal mode to skim the low mountains of gothic pop, dark ambient, and art rock. On the first track (whose title is a pitchfork-shaped graphic) the opening martial drumbeats stop abruptly, and the song shifts into some delicate guitar plinking. It's a deliberate wrong turn, almost a musical joke; Wrest stops dead and goes twee after building up your expectations for something--anything--else.

The ringing guitar tone in the surging, stormy parts of "Piercing Where They Might" has more than a whiff of early Bauhaus about it, which means a certain bloody-minded archness isn't far behind. Gurgly baby-demon noises? Wind chimes? Echo-laden spoken-word interludes laid over plains of dreamy synths? Oh Wrest, you rake! On "Granite" he merges a cliched morass of kick drum with some incongruous goth rock and makes even that work, sounding a bit like Fields of the Nephilim.

Black metal, with its satanic pretensions and Wagnerian ambitions, is too often thought of as the exclusive province of gloomy Scandinavians who set churches on fire, kill each other, and wear ridiculous makeup. But the stuff's much more expressive than it's given credit for--it's dark music for dark times and (a subculture of pro-Nazi acts notwithstanding) a relevant update of ages-old lore. America's national mythology is nothing like, say, Norway's (though North America did get Viked), so most stateside black-metal bands tend to be more ironic--they can't lay it on too thick without smirking. Wrest seems to enjoy having it both ways: though he plays straight-ahead black metal in Leviathan and Twilight, a project with members of Xasthur and locals Nachtmystium, he counterbalances it with the dark whimsy of Lurker of Chalice.

Metal usually needs a band ethic--the genre gets its power from its collaborative, tribal aspects. But there's something delightful about listening to a solitary soul rambling so far afield. When the clanging, pulsing intro of "Paramnesia" starts, we don't know where Wrest is going with it, and I think he's allowing us to believe he doesn't know either--he lets the murmuring voices give way to some groove-oriented riffing, some choral interludes, and still more riffing. Creeping underneath these songs aren't the usual marauding hordes, belle dames sans merci, or angry heathen gods; instead, on a song like "This Blood Falls as Mortal Part III," eruptions of fusiony notes lure you into an Arkham Asylum padded room filled with dark keyboards and high-pitched wails.

There's no narrative on Lurker of Chalice, but it feels like a novel--perhaps a Burroughsian cut-up, a gentler Lovecraft work, something Philip K. Dick might've done if he had a swords-and-sorcery bent. By allowing himself the freedom to run wild, without genre conventions, Wrest goes to a lot of different places, but it feels like he's gathering energy rather than expending it. The next Leviathan album should be a monster.

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