Cries of being part of the machine have been the fodder of rock and roll for decades. For Pink Floyd it was the conformity stamping music industry that prompted their 1975 classic “Welcome to the Machine.” Hell, even Sebastian Bach lamented “I gotta punch the clock that leads the blind / I’m just another gear in the assembly line-oh no” on Skid Row’s 1991 Slave to the Grind. We’ve all felt that wearing down of the rough edges, whether it’s due to the corporate machine, the political machine…even the family machine. The crushing weight of authoritarianism and idealogical control has been acutely present these last few months, and it’s an oppressive weight Swedish black metal duo Obitus channel with a clinical fury on their latest release, Slaves of the Vast Machine.
Since 2000 Obitus has been the infernal work of Anders Ahlbäck who handles the music composition and instruments and Johan Huldtgren, writer and screamer of misanthropic words. It’s a relationship that, while remaining constant in function has seen a tremendous amount of growth since their demo Coupe de Grâce rumbled forth with a machine-gun mix of lo-fi black metal and weird punk esthetic (check the solo bass in the beginning of “Endless Dark Tormentors”). 2006’s EP Stratagema shows the preoccupation with authority had been there for some time in tunes like “21st Century Terror State,” especially since the resurrected songs were actually written five years previously. But it’s 2009’s March of the Drones where the seeds for Slaves of the Vast Machine are most readily evident. Song lengths begin to stretch out, and Ahlbäck starts to experiment with tempo a little, allowing some space to breathe menace into the opening of “Sacrificial Abolishment.” Gone are the strict blast beat single riff songs, replaced with a labyrinth structure of churning chords and guitar lines, all anchored by a staccato drum machine and the throat shredding roar of Huldtgren. Barring a short split in 2014 the duo had been pretty quiet, but just in time for the harsh solitude of winter comes a massive blot of anger to move 2017 right along.
A single track clocking in at over 45 minutes, Slaves of the Vast Machine starts in a swirling mess of buzzing guitars and screams that threaten to burst into static. There’s precious little breathing room here, and when there is (at 3:40 and 11:00, for example) the room is suffused with despair and hopelessness. You eagerly await the return to the face melting brutality. Riffs slowly morph into other forms, the programmed drums only adding to the cold and clinical machine heart that seeks to demolish any semblance of individuality and hope in the human race. But this is black metal: what need we of hope!? An even better question is how a band manages the trick of composing a 45 minute track that not only works from beginning to end, but does so without resorting to cheats like simply stringing separate songs togethers with filler segues or jarring the listener with abrupt tonal changes. Musical ideas echo each other over the course of the song; 30 minutes in we’re hearing permutations and reflections both musically and lyrically. And the final minute is just as punishing and intent to rip your throat out as the first minute is.
So the question remains: how? How does Obitus keep you in their blackened pocket? How does Slaves of the Vast Machine never wear its welcome out? The answer lies in the entire evolution of the band from that 2000 demo until now. Obitus have found a path they can tread without fear of sinking into tired repetition or cheap gimmicks: at its frozen heart Slaves of the Vast Machine is a unified statement that needed to be exactly as long as it is.