Monday, November 28, 2011
Review: Diagnose: Lebensgefahr - Transformalin
Alongside Obituary's "Xecutioner's Return," "Transformalin" is the other album I acquired for free after winning a contest that I somehow still feel ripped off by. Yep. What a kick to the balls.
Comparing this to Silencer is intrinsically ludicrous simply because it's completely unrelated on a musical level, but considering that the project was pimped out entirely on the strength of Nattramn's name, I don't really feel bad about it. I'm not going to suggest that Diagnose: Lebensgefahr intrinsically demands any more suspension of disbelief than Silencer did, but behind the latter's most overtly idiosyncratic tendencies there was a core of incredibly elegant songwriting which rewarded the patient listener. Diagnose: Lebensgefahr, on the other hand, is actually so vacuous and amateurish that it's difficult to parse on first listen; the raw import the project was given before even a single second of music was available makes it rather hard to believe that the content is just as empty and directionless as it appears at first glance. It's actually a struggle NOT to desperately search for the hidden artistic layers only perceptible to the most learned and studious among us. The unfortunate reality, though, is that "Transformalin" is quite literally no better than (and not substantially different from) every other Audacity-made bedroom dark ambient project that cluttered deserted Myspace pages for the better half of the '00s. It's the sort of marketing triumph that ad execs only dream of.
If the dark ambient/drone/industrial/whatever leaning of the project wasn't enough to cause the first traces of unease to settle in your gut, a cursory listen to even a couple random tracks will reveal all that really needs to be said about it. It's Nattramn playing Nattramn; if the claims of "Transformalin" being a therapeutic treatment for the still-institutionalized star aren't enough to convince you of the "legitimacy" of the music, then perhaps the impressively rote and predictable displays of "darkness" that make up this album will. "Transformalin" is a vague blend of dark ambient, drone, industrial, and whatever other minimalist, low-effort genres could be cobbled together, but less because it features elements of all those genres and more because the end product is so watered down and flat that it lazily sprawls across an entire spectrum of music. There's clearly no way that Nattramn had the creativity or wherewithal to create an entire industrial album, so in lieu of this, he tosses anything sounding vaguely similar together and shoves it out the door.
"Transformalin" is at once very broad and yet exceedingly narrow; broad because it never seems to actually focus on any particular idea or aesthetic vision except for a lowest common denominator interpretation of "creepy" music, and narrow because despite the inherent lack of focus, the album is incredibly tedious, repetitive, and stagnant in mood and style. Time for more Silencer comparison: what made Silencer great was that it was music squarely focused on depression and mental illness but presented in a varied, interesting way. Every track on "Death - Pierce Me" is about self-destruction and misery, but there's an incredible breadth of tone and style even within that narrow spectrum of ideas. From a sort of ecstatic, harrowing, nearly romantic display of overwhelming misery to tumultuous, bitter regret to resignation, weakness, and pitiful suffering, an impressive range of feeling is communicated by the music. This is where Silencer was (and still is) so far ahead of the pack in its examination of depression: it knew that it wasn't a single thing, but a spectrum of thoughts and emotions to explore in a three dimensional space.
Where Diagnose: Lebensgefahr fails isn't in relentlessly focusing on a single idea but seemingly not focusing on anything at all. "Transformalin" deals with many of the same ideas of "Death - Pierce Me," but in the sort of deliberately coquettish way that plagues albums like, say, Cryptopsy's "Once Was Not," where a complete refusal to name names and be aesthetically specific is used to mask the fact that there's actually nothing going on at all. "Transformalin" uses a certain sonic vocabulary that suggests unease, fear, depression, and insanity, but rather than forming complete sentences with them in the manner "Death - Pierce Me" did, just sort of shits them out and smirkingly expects the listener to be gripped and terrified by the words alone. A lyrical comparison of Nattramn's two projects is probably the best point of comparison, considering that it's the only clear point of unity between the two projects. Both albums have nearly identical lyrical subject matter, word choice, and abstract, airy structures, but where "Death - Pierce Me" communicated vivid and evocative ideas and feelings, "Transformalin" just shows Nattramn playing Nattramn without any of the energy that made the older album so great. More than just being mediocre, it seems openly disingenuous and shallow. I've always despised how dark ambient is so often portrayed as a sort of natural successor or evolution to black metal, and "Transformalin" neatly displays why it's a failure time and time again: they're different things with different goals and different ways of going about reaching them, and the twain should rarely meet.
I realize that I've barely spoken about how the music actually sounds, and that's because I'm nearly at a loss to describe it. It's a pointless, shallow mixture of the most predictable elements, completely lacking any sort of goal or development. You might have a pile of distorted, vaguely menacing electronic beats and distorted shouting on one track, layers of static drones and samples on the next, and martial-sounding rhythms with declarative narration on another, which might suggest that the album is varied when in actuality it shows just how artificial Nattramn's understanding of this sort of music is. Each is superficially different but portrayed in a basically identical manner, with a single musical idea per track that gets laboriously dragged out and repeated for an ungodly long time before it abruptly ends with no sense of development or conclusion. Every track ends in exactly the same place it begins; even for this sort of music, it's motionless in a way you rarely ever see. Moreover, it's so emotionally vacuous that even the most obvious stylistic shifts that occur from track to track provoke absolutely no shift in mood because the music HAS no mood to begin with. Anyone with even the most passing acquaintance with dark, minimalist music will instantly see that it's a CliffsNotes retread of the styles it emulates, a series of bullet points dropped at the listener's feet and expected to arrange themselves in some sort of relevant fashion. In black metal, for instance, a blast beat or tremolo riff in and of itself means nothing; they're merely structures and forms that are sculpted into content through songwriting and artistry. "Transformalin" would be like a Wikipedia page on black metal that tells you about its elements but provides no explanation as to their function or result.
Beyond all these deeper issues, though, "Transformalin" also fails on the basics, which in the end torpedoes it more than anything. The sound design is really bad. It's generic and unappealing, with simple saw effects, drum machine beats, and samples making up the bulk of the textures, and the production style is so generally muddy and weirdly quiet that the tracks all blend into a basically indistinguishable mass. None of the songs, barring those with a distinct vocal presence, have any sort of leading element to them, which prevents the listener from focusing on anything and just exacerbates the already stupendous lack of musical motion. Every track feels like glorified background noise, the ambient sounds of a bad Silent Hill knockoff minus the gameplay to guide you. Everything is so featureless and indistinct that making your way through the album is just an incredible chore, and it provokes absolutely none of the thoughts or feelings that it vacantly gestures towards.
While I was massively disappointed when the album first came out, I'm glad to see it's become nothing more than a quickly-skipped footnote in the metal scene. Considering that Diagnose: Lebensgefahr hasn't produced anything in the half decade since "Transformalin"'s release, it's probably safe to say that Nattramn's career has neatly wrapped itself up, albeit in a rather ignominious manner. If there's a silver lining to all this, perhaps it's that with Nattramn finally revealed as nothing more significant than a rather unique black metal vocalist, the metal scene's perspectives of Silencer might finally get beyond his presence on "Death - Pierce Me" and look at some of the deeper aspects of that project's music. Still, that's a backhanded bit of usefulness. The fact is that "Transformalin" is ultimately a catastrophic artistic failure, an embarrassing entry in the black metal/dark ambient relationship, and a moment in metal's history that should be (and, it seems, has been) forgotten.
Buy this album on Amazon