Monday, May 9, 2011

Review: Silencer - Death - Pierce Me

It feels to me like everything everyone has written about this album is unbelievably incorrect. It almost feels like everyone's listening to a different album from me- all the wrong (and generally most obvious) aspects of it are emphasized, and not the elements which really make it an enduring piece of art that I still obsessively listen and re-listen to years upon years after hearing it initially. It mystifies me how people can arrive at the same general conclusion about this album- that it's an amazing black metal release which stands tall among the greatest the genre has produced- and yet still so massively understand the aspects which make it incredible. I hope I can evade some of the same pitfalls while writing about it.

I'd like to preface everything by saying all the stories surrounding this album, and Nattramn in particular, are completely irrelevant to its character. Nattramn could be a fucking mailman for all I care and this release would be equally amazing. The thank you list of pharmaceutical drugs, the institutionalization, Nattramn's hospitalization and rebirth as Diagnose: Lebensgefahr (a massively inferior work to this) are all unimportant, and I'm not going to dwell on these aspects after this paragraph. It's a shame that, like so many classic black metal releases, 'Death - Pierce Me' has been reduced to a collection of stories and rumors instead of an artistic piece in and of itself. The only thing that I can hope is that eventually enough years will get between new listeners and its release so that they can listen to it with open minds, not clouded by the celebrity-obsessed metal scene and their love of gossip and drama. Anyway, we're already giving too much time to these elements by even mentioning them.

Have you ever felt depressed? More properly, have you ever 'had' depression? Have you had months-long periods in your life that you can barely remember because they were mostly absorbed by sitting in your bedroom, trying to figure out how to leave and be 'normal' for a moment? I'm not talking about a brief period of intense depression caused by the death of a loved one, of a long-term relationship falling apart, or any other transitory factor: I mean the sort of pathological bleakness that starts in your brainstem and travels down to your soul, to the point where there's brief periods in the day where you know (don't think, know) that suicide is the only answer. Days where the temptation to leave a corpse for others to find and the very act of looking in the mirror is so primally revolting you can barely do it. Days where you sicken yourself just by existing and when sitting in your car you want to start pulling off strips of skin simply because you can't be yourself and exist anymore. It's hard to describe what something like this feels like to someone who's been fortunate enough not to feel it- the very idea that the self no longer makes sense and you spend most of your time in a dream world of total, all-encompassing self-hatred and suffering.

I ask all these questions because Silencer is one of the only bands that I've heard who capture depression as it actually is. Not a romantic sorrow, not something passionate and artistic, but the greyness of living in that mental state, where sadness eventually gets overwhelmed by sheer tiredness, resignation, and regret that you ever existed. There's a potent mixture of insane rage and equally insane self-destruction in this music that I think only really resonates with people who have been there before (and not even all the time, at that). It's a product of a very peculiar mixture of neurological chemicals and environmental suffering, and Silencer captures exactly what it's like to feel it. Not really sad, not crying, not even wishing for another life, but just sitting on the couch, knees pulled to your chest, looking out the window, and not thinking because it hurts too much even to think. It's horribly negative music that I have no doubt has inspired more than a few desperate bids for salvation at the bottom of a pill bottle.

Let's get the most obvious and least important element out of the way quickly: Nattramn's vocals are what they are. He shrieks like a little girl, wheezes, feebly grunts, and sounds weak a lot of the time. He's not a particularly good vocalist by any traditional measure, but he's appropriate for the music and is good, if you listen with an open mind, at putting you in the sort of mental state that this music was likely composed in. He sounds desperate and pathetic and self-pitying and tired- in short, he doesn't sound like a black metal vocalist typically should sound like. He has no breath control, no real understanding of how to deliver lyrics, and no real concern over impressing anyone. He sounds exactly like you feel in the depressive state: just weak and defeated. It's perfect for what it is.

Much more important than any of that, though, are the instrumental compositions which seem to get shrugged off so easily. Silencer's music is at once inspired by Bethlehem (owing to drummer Steve Wolz) and not even remotely similar. While Bethlehem tried for a lurking, almost occult look at mental illness, Silencer's goal is a lot simpler, and the music reflects it. It could be said that Silencer is sort of a rough prototype of what bands like Nyktalgia would later create: long, meandering songs filled with rote blasting, droning, bleak tremolo riffs, and insane, wailing vocals, but there's a certain intimacy and subtlety to the compositions on this record that can't be understated. Nyktalgia is a band created when depressive black metal has already been codified- while they're excellent at it, they have a playbook to follow. Silencer has no such playbook, and because of it is a much stranger beast.

A lot of the standard tropes of depressive black metal are here: fast blast beats become slow because they go on so long, and the bleary, red-eyed tremolo riffs are hazy and not particularly sharp or insistent due to the inherently misty guitar tone. At the same time, there's a lot more rhythmic and melodic play on this record than many give it credit for: careful listening reveals a lot of sinister, quiet counterpoint melodies between the two guitar tracks and even the surprisingly audible bass, which almost acts like a quiet, whispering voice in the background, answering 'yes' to all the questions the guitars ask. The riffs aren't depressive in today's established sense of depressive black metal riffs; they tend to sound more grey, confused, and alien, with 'Taklamakan''s opening riff a particularly unpleasant and clear example of it. Hints pop up of Sterbend, Nocturnal Depression, all the big names the depressive black metal scene would later turn out, but Silencer tends to reside in less obvious and more desolate melodic avenues. They display rainy days in an urban environment, jobs lost because you just stopped showing up for work, and an empty stomach because you can't bother to go grocery shopping. They're not supposed to be catchy or fun, and they don't accidentally run into either.

Beyond that are the surprisingly nuanced drums of Wolz, who despite the relative rhythmic simplicity of the music does all he can to provide a more lush, organic feel to the music. His skills most obviously come out on the numerous piano or clean guitar passages that dot the album, where he's given free reign to play with the boundaries of rhythm, adding subtle, dynamic accents to the stillness of the melodic instruments. Even within the more conventional beats, he always finds time for abrupt, off-kilter fills, sudden cymbal switches, and quick trills here and there which let you know he's still breathing despite the deathlike stamina he displays on the long songs. He provides a welcome bit of variation to what is, at its core, fairly still and static music, and with a lesser drummer, the album wouldn't be as effective.

The structuring of this release is interesting, and I definitely think there's a story being told, as abstract and unconcerned with precision as it clearly is. The first and last of the black metal tracks are clearly more straightforward in their sadness than the middle tracks- they're the catchiest and the most obvious to associate with the album. It's the middle three which really make it what it is, though: the wistful, almost contemplative and sardonic 'Sterile Nails and Thunderbowels', the unspeakably ugly and depraved 'Taklamakan', and the grim, seemingly neverending 'The Slow Kill In the Cold', given even more austere beauty and finality through its bookends of simple, ambient synthwork. These are the songs which really define the album for what it is; it would be easy to shrug off the other two as just unusually unhinged depressive black metal tracks, but these songs give 'Death - Pierce Me' its unique and immediate character. There's no reprieve in these tracks from the all-consuming self-destruction the album practically encourages. Much like all the other tracks on 'Transilvanian Hunger' after the title cut, they're the songs which truly make the album what it is.

There's many small elements apart from the black metal which help set this apart: resigned music-box piano and clean guitar work, droning, haunted synths, and even small stretches of dark ambient and industrial that pop in to provide variation as well as reorganization and context in the long (and intentionally long-feeling) songs. These are some of the only places I've seen these elements used well in black metal- where other bands use clean guitars and piano almost as a necessary evil, or to flatter a pretense of sophistication, Silencer's application of them feels much more natural. Their inclusion is almost arbitrary but also necessary- they're the pieces which keep you anchored to the songs, rather than just drifting in a seemingly endless sea of grey tremolo riffs and blast beats. The focusing nature of these small pieces are powerful, as is the incredibly bleak, death-march closing piano piece 'Feeble Are You - Sons of Sion', where hope is completely and irrevocably lost. This is an album that absolutely must be listened to all at once- it loses almost all meaning when split into individual tracks and is very clearly meant to be consumed as a whole.

Silencer's album really might be one of the most misunderstood pseudo-classics of black metal- while there's an absolute plethora of elements to talk about regarding it, most seem content to just dredge up the same, tired handful of aesthetic aspects that really have little impact on the music in general, or have an impact that's felt in different ways than the listener would typically anticipate. I don't expect anyone new to appreciate this simply because I've written about it in this manner- this album is a love it or hate it affair, and the initial impression almost never changes- but I feel a need to give it some much-deserved context and dissection that it's been missing for a long time. After all, this disc is the story of a lot of days in my life. It only feels fair to give them some justice.

Buy this album on Amazon

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