Ascension: The Dead of the World

When I saw the German black metal band Ascension at Maryland Deathfest in 2013, they were among the most memorable acts, largely because it was hard to know what to make of them. After being battered with a weekend of booze and an especially pulverizing set from the war metal group Revenge, their performance took on semi-psychedelic qualities. Their identities remain unknown, which is not all that unusual for a black metal group, but their singer was unmistakable, resembling a zombified ’70s John McLaughlin with longer hair and a creepier disposition. Ascension played as if they were not only trying to lift the crowd out of Sunday sloth, but also trying to redeem them in a blackened fashion. That they played under a white tent only added to the black metal revival vibe. Even if they weren’t consciously trying to be weird, it was one of the strangest performances of the fest that year.

Ascension’s actual work isn’t quite that trippy. Their 2010 debut full-length Consolamentum was an interesting hybrid of black metal, noise, and spindly guitar work; for a young group, they showed plenty of ambition. With The Dead of the World, Ascension have cut back on some of the more far-flung aspects of their debut in favor of a more streamlined sound, building on an early 2000s Swedish black metal approach pioneered by Watain and Ofermod. This focus favors them in some ways, but they’re still holding themselves back from making a real impact.

“Deathless Light” was released as a single in October, and it is easily the strongest song on the record. That opening salvo is where they embrace their black metal roots the most, trance-like and utterly destructive all at once. Drums lull and pulsate; guitars twist in spiky knots without becoming needlessly complex. All of this is Ascension taking their name seriously: this is music for a one-way cannon shot to a higher plane. Some of the lead work from Consolamentum also returns on “Light”, and while saying that the rest of the record is undeveloped would be false, this song feels the most thought-out and rightfully executed of them all.

Right before “Light” is “Unlocking Tiamat”, whose overt doominess and mid-paced, chunky intro chords could have been something off a Triptykon record. Interestingly enough, Triptykon guitarist V. Santura assisted in recording and mastering Dead, and with a fuller production, the doomier sections, which have a much greater presence on this album, work. Even with a more unified sound, they don’t sap energy from the album as a whole. “Death’s Golden Temple” also carries a blackened Triptykon vibe, though the vocalist doesn’t attempt to replicate the uncanny vocals of Tom G. Warrior. The slower passages also feel more mournful, as a way of crying for the loss of LSK, a veteran of the French black metal scene who contributed vocals to Consolamentum and took her own life in October 2013.

Dead is a frustrating record, one that finds the band on the cusp of making something truly great. While consistency and better production do work in Ascension’s favor, some of the spontaneity of the first record would have been rendered even more powerfully here. A singular focus won’t help if that focus is not at its most intense; Ascension don’t half-ass it, they’re just at the edge.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork

Clark: Clark

The world is ending, and Chris Clark is writing its soundtrack. In the 35-year-old electronic producer’s latest dystopian vision, the Earth’s layers peel back with painstaking certainty while everything else bursts and pops in unrest. Temperatures flash between frostbite and flame. There are moments of unsettling calm, only to be ruptured by bruised sky, acid rain, famine, disease. Unknown beings attack, armed with tones set to bewilder. Somewhere, the sound of a muffled Billie Holiday acetate being mauled by a pack of lions echoes through the murk. There is last-chance dancing—or are those people just running away?

As far as end-times scenarios go, the one Clark sets forth on his eponymous seventh album is vivid. And while there’s plenty of terror to be found here, Clark resonates because it pinpoints both the humanity and the nothingness that come along with complete dread; he knows that in order for annihilation to mean anything, you have to care about what’s being annihilated. Because for every laser-burned bass kick and alien-probe synth, forces of good cautiously look out from the rubble in the form of twinkling lullabies and melancholic piano loops. In cinematic sci-fi terms—and it’s hard not to think of this record as a kind of headphone IMAX experience—Clark is more akin to Alfonso Cuarón’s devastating infertility parable Children of Men than, say, Independence Day: ominous because its pulse feels all too real.

At this point, Clark has been translating his wracked emotions via machines—samplers, software, synths—for about half his life, and Clark has him merging techno, electro, noise, classical, ambient, and post-rock with the skill of a virtuoso. Growing up just outside of London, he indulged in nascent omnivorous Internet-era listening habits, giving time to indie rap, Pavement, and Squarepusher as a teen before Warp deemed him next-in-line to their mindful electronic throne at the start of this century. Though it was probably unfair to expect Clark to live up to the legacies of Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada, it was also inevitable. But with his third album, 2006’s Body Riddle, he quietly did just that, turning in an opus that moved the sounds of Warp’s classic 1990s roster forward, mixing sensuousness and mechanics to create a 21st century cyborg touchstone.

Owing to the mercurial nature of his tracks, which often morph unexpectedly many times across just a few minutes, follow-up Turning Dragon was nearly as excellent but utterly different, trading in spectral atmosphere and hip-hop rhythms for a more full-on techno thrust. And after five years of frustratingly diffuse material that had the producer grasping at new styles and textures with mixed success, Clark is a much-welcomed return that locates the midpoint between Body Riddle’s tangibility and Turning Dragon’s bulletproof sheen. The album adds a fresh layer of grandiosity that hints at festival-sized dance music or even Trent Reznor’s churning soundtrack work while never bowing down to any type of current trend. Clark is like Aphex’s comeback Syro in that it showcases a veteran artist living and breathing within a sonic space of his own creation—and the fact that no one would confuse the two records is a testament to Clark’s hard-won individuality.

What’s always set Clark apart is his eclecticism, dynamism, and flair for the dramatic, all of which is on fine display here. His tracks don’t drop as much as they slip or swerve, forever off-balance. He’ll end a techno album with eight minutes of beatless, sky-cracking ecstasy you’d expect to find on a Sigur Rós LP, and it will make sense. He’s allergic to the idea of standard sounds and presets, which is partly why we’re still talking about him 13 years after his debut. And unlike many of his more insular peers, Clark can be open to sentimentality—not schmaltz as much as a belief in humanness and all its inexact wonder. In electronic music’s never-ending battle between man and machine, he’s seeking a third way. “It’s just far too easy these days,” he said in an interview earlier this year, talking about the copy-and-paste replicability of so much modern composition. “I’m often inspired by the path of most resistance. Looking for those tiny snippets of error—machines being pushed into areas of behavior that seem wrong and unusable. There is real fruit there.”

Rather than fighting the SoundCloud hivemind with real people playing real instruments, à la Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, he composed Clark largely on a computer by himself in a barn in the middle of the English countryside, cracking codes and inflicting glitches. As computerized watches and glasses inch toward ubiquity, this idea of subverting machines to make them more human seems like a particularly worthy preservation strategy—and nobody does that quite like Clark. Yes, he makes music that sounds like the end of world. But he also makes you want to live long enough to see what that will look like.

from Album Reviews – Pitchfork