Nocturnal Poisoning: Doomgrass

For a musician who first staked his entire reputation on the shadows provided by pseudonyms, Scott Conner is suddenly and certainly full of braggadocio. He spent 15 years hidden behind nested aliases: he was Malefic, or the sole member of the one-man black metal mystery Xasthur, and a one-time contributor to Twilight. But Xasthur released its last record, the divisive Portal of Sorrow, in 2010, and Conner has since shed not just the corpse-painted nicknames but also the shield of distorted electric guitars, primitive drums, and hissing electronics that defined that band.

Now, credited under his own name (or, at the very least, “Scott C.”), he records thin, sullen acoustic music as Nocturnal Poisoning. In liner note selfies, he is clean-shaven and makeup-free. In interviews, he is confident not only about his decision to leave black metal behind but also his technical progression as a fingerpicking summoner of the blues, bluegrass, and country. “Nocturnal Poisoning is actually more technical than Xasthur was,” he said in a recent chat with Noisey. “It’s just more mellow and doesn’t have any of my mediocre drumming.” To that end, he titled the third Noctural Poisoning album in three years Doomgrass, an illustrative portmanteau of doom metal and bluegrass. The creation and naming of a new genre from whole cloth? That’s a pretty heavy burden to wrap around the neck of any project, especially the first album not to be self-released in a very limited edition. But Conner, who climbed inside a coffin to sing for Sunn O))) a decade ago, has never been one for soft statements.

But the results are embarrassing. Doomgrass is an interminable 14-track slog through inconsequential guitar instrumentals and croaked-and-groaned high-school diary entries, laughably sung by Noctural Poisoning’s only collaborator to date, Robert Nesslin. The previous Nocturnal Poisoning albums have been mostly inoffensive affairs of acoustic strum-alongs, backed by modest percussion, mild effects and Nesslin’s occasional vocal contributions. As he’d been with Xasthur, Conner seemed comfortable with a defiant sort of primitivism, where the music’s cumulative effect and feeling mattered much more than the compositional acumen.

Doomgrass would be difficult to appreciate just as a neofolk record, or even as a continuation of Death in June’s own shambling acoustic misery. Conner, though, is in the uncomfortable position of trying to pass off looped and delayed guitars as bona fide technical merit in two fields where skill can be difficult to fake. His “licks” are little more than a patchwork pastiche of sputtering arpeggios and bent strings, dispatched with the kind of lightweight tone that suggests a college freshman learning the tablature to “Dancing Nancies” on a used Ovation. “Vagrant, Seeker of Empty Treasures” vaguely recalls Doc Watson’s heavy thumb and swift fingers, “Bet It All” the quick progressions of Clarence White. But there are entire skills absent from Conner’s set, and they limit him to the insulting side of passable. Doomgrass suggests a translation where the interpreter, though cocksure, knows one language well but only has a rudimentary grasp of the second tongue.

If that sounds rough, wait until you hear the words, and the way they’re sung. Conner wrote these lyrics, which amount to little more than dire reflections scribbled in the back of a notebook during a lunch break. There are misery clichés galore—“Roses you never smell,” “Become yesterday’s news,” and so on—and the prevailing sense that Conner has been too busy learning how to complain about life to live. He trades the experiential focus of the folk music he appropriates for empty lines about no money and dirty cities. Nesslin does his best to give the words the gravitas they demand, but his strained, dark-blues croon is mostly funny, as if he’s moaning these tunes from a toilet stall. Above the trebly guitar and light percussion of “Can’t Find the Sky,” he sings, “Life is a phase and a failed test/ Wait for God to clean up the mess,” doubling his voice so as to sound doubly mean. Try not to giggle.

Bluegrass, blues, and old-time music, like most all other folk arts in the world, can sometimes suffer assumptions that, simply because they’re old, they’re quaint and genteel. That is, we tend to teach our children Mother Maybelle Carter’s big-time version of “Keep on the Sunny Side” rather than the apocalyptic meltdown of “When the World’s on Fire”, which she sang long before with her parents. But that view is a bleached and sterilized reality, of course, one that doesn’t recognize the way that this music has long worked as an anchor in times of crisis. Bluegrass and folk music at large are nothing if not full of doom—hell, “Rank Strangers,” the standard of the bluegrass gospel canon, essentially suggests that, if you leave home for too long, everyone you know will be dead (or at least gone) when you return.

So every antediluvian form that Conner tries to wrangle for his woe has a well-established pedigree of melancholy, but he seems to have missed that memo. That alone is not a reason to discount Conner’s attempt to weld doom metal to folk, but it’s certainly a reason to hope he could have as much deference for one side of that equation as he seems to have for the other. And maybe Conner will get there, since he seems newly devoted to practice, perfection, and building his repertoire piecemeal. Perhaps in a decade, Doomgrass will be a foundation for something that actually deserves to be called that. But for now, it’s hard not to hear these songs of self-pity and wish that, like a rank stranger, Xasthur would simply slip back into the shadows. 

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork