Twenty years ago in metal, “experimental” or “avantgarde” meant anything outside of native metal influences. If you used a time signature other than recognizable 4/4 and 6/8 patterns, you were “experimental.” If you relied more on atmosphere than riffs, you were “avantgarde.” And then there are outfits like international terror-inducers Skáphe. The outfit’s sophomore album, Skáphe², is one of the most challenging pieces of music I’ve encountered in metal in recent memory. Rooted in black/death metal but far outside the genre’s confines, it is a hellish, painful, and supremely dissonant work with very little for listeners to grasp on to. You won’t find any riffs of the year here –– but when it’s finished, you’re in a strange position of being captivated by its power whilst begging for it to stop.
To provide a bridging anecdote: I first heard the works of 20th century composers like Schoenberg, Messiaen, and Penderecki while in college. I had a friend who was a jazz bass major and was required to take music history courses, and it was through him that I first heard pieces such as Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, Quartet for the End of Time, and The Book of the Hanging Gardens. Even the most open-minded listener will tell you that none of these works are really meant to be “enjoyed” in the normal sense of the word –– their melodic and harmonic structures are difficult to comprehend, or in Penderecki’s case, entirely absent, as the piece is built entirely on dissonant intervals and a nearly nonexistent tempo meter; the tonality of the works is hardly pleasing; and the aim of each piece wasn’t so much to make music as it was to make a pointed message.
Skáphe² can be viewed much the same way as any of the aforementioned works. Even the most hardened of metal listeners would be bluffing if they said they enjoyed this in the same manner as they would even other extreme metal bands. Underneath the insanely cavernous reverb over every production layer, agonized vocals that alternate dire roars with pained yells and howling screeches, and guitars that bend pitches beyond any semblance of melody or consonance, there are what we would construe as “riffs,” but even those are warped far beyond the confines of even extreme black/death metal. The entire album, which is surprisingly short, sounds like the type of thing you’d imagine in the lowest reaches of Dante’s Inferno. (I might be making a pun on our website name there. Am I? Who cares?) It thrashes the listener about, coming close at points to giving reprieve from the hazy maelstrom with doom-laced breakdowns, but these are short-lived as instrumentalist A.P. and vocalist D.G. swing back into nauseating, swirling chaos devoid of anything typically “metal” or “heavy” — this is pure nightmarish hell, amorphous noise that is only held together by the hammering rhythms of cold, precise drumming that quickly switches from rolling blastbeats to bone-shattering grooves and sections that border on free-form improvisation. The bass provides the only backbone for any sort of chordal structure, but in the world of Skáphe, that’s a relative term. Even its most orthodox moments are soaked in mind-altering, heavily modulated guitar screeches, and the most driving rhythms are hardly moshable or headbangable. If Skáphe’s aim is to induce terror or give a glimpse inside the mind of a madman, they’ve succeeded on every level.
The crazy thing about Skáphe² is that it’s absolutely repellent in terms of musicality, relying almost entirely on note-bending dissonance and chromatics to drive the song structures; yet atmospherically, it’s compelling and intoxicating. There is a very particular and dark frame of mind under which Skáphe² is enjoyable; outside of that mental state, you may as well just listen to Krieg’s early work in a wind tunnel to achieve a similar effect. But when you get there, this album throttles you against a wall and pries open your inner eye to black flames, misery, and the unfathomable darkness within the human heart. And you accept it as truth, knowing that there is no other possibility. You will hate yourself for putting yourself on the torture rack that Skáphe have left open for listeners to strap themselves into; yet when it’s done, you’ll be glad you’ve done it, knowing that it was necessary to endure the agony.
Skáphe² is to be released on 03.04.2016 via I, Voidhanger Records and is currently available for pre-order on CD. It is available on LP from Fallen Empire Records and cassette on Vánagandr. For more information on Skáphe, visit them on Facebook.