Black metal isn’t really a driving force on anonymous San Francisco duo Mamaleek’s fifth album, Via Dolorosa. It’s a coloration or a suggestion among many others, including jazz, electronic music, and ambient noise. Via Dolorosa is made up of contradictions—things that shouldn’t go together working well enough to make the album fascinating. And each is tinged with an air of sadness and solitude, evoking the album’s namesake: the Via Dolorosa or “Way of Suffering,” the path that Jesus walked while carrying the cross on the way to his crucifixion. Mamaleek’s album sounds like a more personal and modern version of the Via Dolorosa, of someone quietly bearing a burden alone along a pre-determined path.
I had been listening to Via Dolorosa‘s opening track “Nothing But Loss” quite frequently before the album came out. I love the way the guitars in it sound like they’re bending and breaking in unnatural ways, swaying almost romantically or drunkenly under the pained vocals. “Nothing But Loss” sounds like sadness melted and hardened into caramel. But it’s really the more ambient second half of that song that shows the album’s true colors, as Via Dolorosa softens noticeably after that first half of a song.
The next song, “Pain as Providence,” pairs soft, slow jazz chords with black metal-inspired vocals, and that’s the tone and style of most of the album that follows. In a statement, the band commented that Via Dolorosa is “at once, a solicitation and renunciation of the genres that are blended together to create something other.” The ideas the band juxtapose against each other are amazing, like the way the rhythm of the vocals in “Ain’t No Thief” match up with each chord change in the song. Both the song and the rest of the album are heavily dependent on beats, revealing what might even be pop music influences. (And the low, pitch-shifted vocals on “Ain’t No Thief” don’t exactly disprove that theory.)
Strange moments like those have had me thinking of Via Dolorosa as a regular album, as noise music built out of familiar signifiers, or as black metal’s musical equivalent of To Pimp a Butterfly. In any of those situations, it’s always a mindfuck.
The good news is that Via Dolorosa somehow has continuity and flow. Songs share similar instrumentation (see the flow from the Botanist-like “Tiberieum” interlude to “Ain’t Got No Fight”) and of course similar moods—something like the introspective solitude of Grouper’s Ruins, plus the suffering evoked by the lyrics and vocal style. Mamaleek are one of quite a few bands (see also: Liturgy, Mastery, Pyramids, Have a Nice Life) who have recently been mixing the strangest things with (black) metal until nothing sounds like it used to. Pay attention to bands like these, because they are the future.