Saturday, July 9, 2011

Review: Bone Awl - Sunless Xyggos

This review has some historical significance. I wrote it over a year ago for my blog Your New Favorite Band Sucks, a short-lived experiment in writing ONLY negative reviews of undeservedly popular bands. The polemical Hypehammer posts that we do at Trial By Ordeal are more or less a continuation of this idea. In fact, Noktorn got in touch with me about collaborating after reading this review on Metal Archives. So you could say that Trial By Ordeal began here...

Bone Awl play a raw, noisy, hyper-minimalist hybrid of black metal and hardcore punk. On the basis of this description, I expected them to be my new favorite band. In this case, however, it was my new favorite band that sucked! Over the last year and a half I have listened to a number of their eps and demos. I tried very hard to like them, and for a long time said that I liked them, but recently realized that I never actually played their albums, and asked myself why.

Their newest release, the demo "Sunless Xyggos," distills their minimal style down to the most minimal minimum. As usual, there are a maximum of two riffs per song, and the "middle" riff, which works something like a mosh breakdown or a chorus, is usually a kind of variation on the first riff. What they have stripped away is the vocals...I may have heard a faint distorted yowl or two in the background, but there is pretty much no screaming going on here. In a sound that is purely drumbeat, riff, and vocals, this seems like it's a pretty serious reduction.

In this reduction, we are getting the core of the Bone Awl style. The band is supposed to be driven by the power of pure repetitive riffage, surging over an unrelenting rhythmic assault. The guitar/bass and drums are supposed to speak for themselves. The problem is that they don't. For the amount of racket these guys are making, the music is pretty limp. The instruments don't usually work together to create a sense of onrushing motion, which is crucial to this kind of stuff. The riffs are not very fun or interesting to listen to. For the most part, the chords don't push and pull at each other, and the lack of any rhythmic variation whatsoever becomes a real problem at the plodding midtempo these guys always use (except in the one obligatory really slow godawfully boring song they stick at the end of each album).

The lackluster riffage might not be such a huge problem if we were given more than just a riff or two, sitting on top of a beat that does little more than keep time and give direction. The obsession with minimalism prevents this, so that the music undermines itself. If you're going to write a song dominated by one riff, it better be a fucking monster, and it's best if it engages with and plays off of other elements in the song. The Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog," Metallica's "Am I Evil" (yeah I know it's a Diamond Head cover), and Discharge's "The Final Bloodbath" are all great examples of this.

"Sunless Xyggos," by giving us the purest realization of the Bone Awl concept, reveals what was going on all along. It is simply the most fully realized aesthetic statement in a discography that is nothing but a series of aesthetic statements. In other words, Bone Awl aren't really anything aside from their hypothetically cool sound. The songs are just collections of sonic elements, selected because they are cool. The construction of their songs, and the musical work these songs accomplish, is incidental to their primary goal, which is simply to be a raw, noisy, hyper-minimalist hybrid of black metal and hardcore punk. This is nothing but style.


  1. Although I have enjoyed a few of their recordings, I've really never felt the need to listen to them again. That may be more damning than anything else. And really, ever second you are listening to Bown Awl, you could instead be listening to ILDJARN.

    ILDJARN is serious summoning music. I think people tend to get caught up in how raw and minimal it is, and end up missing the magical flow and ebb of pure energy. Yes, the production isn't cutting-edge studio work and the songs are beyond simple. But Ildjarn is driven to create this music by a deep, shamanistic compulsion. One born out of darkness, winter landscapes, and the resonance of forgotten memories.

  2. Yes. I couldn't agree more. Songs for shape-shifters. Did you ever read my Ravengod review? It was the second thing I ever posted on here. You'd dig it. Also, thanks again for that even longer jcore essay! I may try and get you to do a guest post sometime...

  3. Bone Awl is the fucking worst, and they made Ildjarn cool to listen to. It was way more fun when everyone hated Ildjarn.

  4. @anon: yep. your observation and ido's, taken together, suggest a general rule. when a contemporary band rips off an obscure/hated old band, strips the music of everything that made it a challenging listen, and rides it to popularity, it changes (for the worse) the way people hear the old band. thus, Ildjarn is now "cool to listen to" because people listen to his music in the way they listen to Bone Awl. They hear it as "this raw punk lo-fi black metal." Everything about it has been reduced to "Man, that Ildjarn band is so craaaaaazy!" When really, as Ido pointed out, there is a great depth to this music that can hardly be reduced to a series of stylistic taglines thrown out by gawking hipsters.

    With that said, maybe what I'm about to say will make more sense: I think you can learn a lot more about Ildjarn through his connection to his contemporaries, Emperor, than through his connection to the current bands who make a big deal about their "Ildjarn influence." Ildjarn's history in Emperor/TSS and his collaboration with Ihsahn suggest that the two bands saw an affinity between their work. And if you listen for it, you'll hear it. This guy was never interested in JUST making an angry racket.

  5. also, Bone Awl doesn't even sound THAT much like Ildjarn, more like third tier NSBM with a friendlier 80s USHC vibe.

  6. I guess I brought up ILDJARN mostly because whenever I've listened to Bone Awl, I really have said out-loud after the third or forth song, "Eh. I dunno." and put "Forest Poetry" on.

    Its probably just me, but I don't know how anyone could hate ILDJARN. People do make too much of a deal over it being "lo-fi" and everything, but that harsh distorted scrape just sounds amazing and works so, so well with his overall vision. Really a perfect example of "less is more." So much more.

    Maybe we really shouldn't be comparing these two bands, after all.

    I agree with Pavel that ILDJARN and EMPEROR did share some strong similarities, in their early work at least. The arrangements on EMPEROR's "Wrath of the Tyrant" demo are far more streamlined than their later work, focusing more on overall heaviness and molding a dense, impenetrable darkness. At the same time, there is this really strong sense of movement and progression with the riffs. It is definitely my favorite by them. ILDJARN's earliest tapes (the ones compiled on the great "Det Frysende Nordariket" comp) also feature songs with extremely rhythmic arrangements. Despite their simplicity, these songs have a very strong, almost willful sense of movement. Like each riff is forcefully lurching forward with a mind of its own.

    To be honest, I'm rather divided on EMPEROR's overall body of work. As already mentioned, the "Wrath of the Tyrant" demo is absolutely brilliant, and the self-titled EP is also enjoyable. I really didn't like "In the Nightside Eclipse" when I first listened to it. But I think I really need to go back and give it another try.

  7. Movement is SUCH an important thing in black metal. Glad you brought that up. I will have to check those early Ildjarn demos, sounds like I might like those even more than his album material. On the albums he often achieves the opposite of momentum, driving the d-beat into a kind of sublime stasis. And that's awesome too.

    And yes, Emperor were at their very best before "Nightside." I think it's a great album, but I definitely prefer the heavier, punker versions of those tracks from the S/T EP (or the Hordanes Land split, which is where I heard them first). I dig Wrath of the Tyrant, but don't usually throw it on. Just a personal preference thing I guess. Knowing what I do about your tastes, I can see why you dig it so much.

  8. Pavel, I highly recommend tracking down the "Det Frysende Nordariket" comp CD. It collects several of ILDJARN's earliest recordings. Very essential.