. issue VIII : v .

by barathron

. artist : lycus .
. album : tempest .
. year : 2013 .
. label : 20 buck spin .
. grade : a minus .


Tempest, the first full-length from doomed-lineup Lycus — finally getting it together — is the proverbial phoenix from the ashes, a remarkable, formidable debut. With the bold but sober (and sobering) choice for only three extended tracks (at 11, 9 and 20 minutes, respectively), Lycus prove — what? that their temperament, bearing, approach, and goal is mature and pure, for ‘the play’s the thing,’ and Tempest is an impeccable three-act production, accoutered with terrible poise a la Milton (“Sometime let gorgeous tragedy / In scepter’d pall come sweeping by”). The sequential nature of Tempest is significant – with the title track as the finale, and more than half the album, the third act is always where it’s at, necessarily, it has to be. And each song is ‘scenic’ in the original sense of ‘staged visions.’ By stringing together versatile instrumentation, proportioning several lyrical formats, and hybridizing genres (e.g. doom, drone, sludge, crust, noise, and even verging on ‘core) along the com-positional thread that is Tempest, the listener must trust Lycus to be discerning, for though it sounds freeform, the structure is highly intentional. Not only does Tempest follow the rule of thirds within its frame, each song does as well; the result is a combination of phasic, step-wise, regular architecture and seemingly formless musical dexterity that is effortlessly conducive to listener involvement.

Self-possessed and dour — firmly pall-bearing — “Coma Burn” begins with an abyssal, sonorous plodding and muddied feedback, its paced mid-range riffs a stately assertion. For Lycus, all drums are war drums, hale and wary, sticks lifted high and pelting down. This primal beating overlooks a field of locusts and lathes of duststorm, summing in a slow cathartic density, the vocals crunching through. And the last third reaches a triumphal thrash, discordantly chugging away until spent and gone to reveal deeper singing at sacred depths.

Lyrically, Lycus achieve both refinement and despondence; their panegyric is neither over- nor under-cultivated, and communicates with grateful dignity heavy concepts and emotions. In “Coma Burn,” Tempest’s most hands-tied track, a monastic choir seems to waft up from sacral recesses and a robust drum and guitar offer counterpoint to this compline, investing the piece with the measured piety of a dirge. “Coma” describes that lasting corruption of conscience when people let their “crippling” in a wasteland of grief overcome their lives — and fester. Lycus are oblique but rightfully thoughtful, and this psychological picture is both ‘bad’-as-cool and bad as a caution, exhortation and mourning. Also intensely depersonalized with only two pronouns, “Coma” is first person but chillingly detached and passive.

“Coma Burn” employs sophisticated parachesis (e.g. “hostage to a history of tormenting,” “scathed by betrayal and scarred by scorn”), sophisticated couplet slant rhyme that extracts and amplifies the vowels at the emotional core of each word (e.g. “grey / strain,” “see / grief,“ “drowned / sound,” and, my favorite, “wound / moon”), and word choice that feels powerfully tragic rather than stodgy (“shroud,” “dissipates,” “spawned,” “perpetual”). But make no mistake — “Coma Burn” is as moody as it is well-formed, and the mood that it is … is ‘dismal.’

Their method of explication is stunning, too: the narrator seems physically contained, even mummified by his own coma (rather than just “while in”), as though the clasp of the coma has an agency of its own, but also a terribly lifeless power, presented as cloying hung fabric (“draped,” “shroud”), and so it manifests the stasis it offers. And though depersonalized, the narrator does internalize his grief (”I fuel the flames of grief”), and take action based on its results: the smoke of his grief becomes the “shroud” of the coma itself, a startling image of mental ether actively corroding the inactive body (it “cowers and daunts / polluting the mind with crippling haunts”). The moral is tenderly articulated: “Doubt is risen and desire falls frail / When a broken spirit rests bitterly still.” And though the ‘actual’ “coma burn” (“scathed by betrayal and scarred by scorn”) was recoverable, the consequence of mental frustration is moral “regress[ion]” to “hatred,” an “infectious wound” whereby “light [is] deflect[ed]” rather than reflected, and most eloquently expressed by “The harp of grace cried a bellowing sound.”

“Engravings” is generic, though still august, with excellent touches (thin, pounded-nail screams, an oblique, spelunking riff, and a dissociated, warbly guitar), and still versatile, the ambience settling into an assertive, manic closer. But tendentiousness is not always bad, and, fiducially, this is the only proper ‘doom’ that Tempest offers; or, the determined listener is in for such (magnificent) surprises. “Engravings” is, expectedly and expectantly, a beautiful dirge. And, less pressuring to the audience, “Engravings” doesn’t feel like a tableau (“Coma Burn”) or a return on one’s attentional investment (“Tempest”), but like some cinereal coincidence, walked into on the spare sere flagstones of a 13th century German monastery or some comparable landscape, a dank moor, a parched karst.

Lycus expand their formatting conventions most on “Engravings,” but that doesn’t mean much. Different line lengths are used for the verse (not rhymed) and the chorus (a whopping two rhyme schemes: a, a, b, b and a, b, a, b). Again, Lycus particularly heeds parachesis (“as acid rain corrodes and drains”), slants rhyme in the second chorus (“solace / cirrus,” “haste / displaced”), and chooses the mouthwateringly 17th-century “chasmal,” “abrades,” and “transfixed,” all of which work out well. The breviloquent line, “nightmare of my mind” — no ‘the’ — considers, again, the dissolution of what’s having and what’s been had. “Engravings” describes memories as “chasmal and eternal … compulsive and incessant,” and makes the case that, like a bad habit, “they dispel vitality … they deprave morality.” Though their argument becomes too wordy (“They exemplify enslavement to an infallible malefactor” … sigh), but remains congruent in its focus upon the physical mark not left by, but of memories (that “infallible malefactor”) — but it turns out not to be infallible; “a blanket of haze” “sought with haste” can remove the memories, though only momentarily (it’s an “ephemeral shelter”). With even more food for thought, the titular “engravings” are, specifically, “rendered engravings.” Who renders memories? Like a complex, comorbid habit … to what extent can it be said to be someone’s fault, per se? It depends on the nature of the habit … it depends on the content of the memory-making. The too-abstracted choruses always neatly reverse on their wordy weakness, resolving themselves powerfully. For example, “As I drift withdrawn … I am transfixed by grace until impaled and displaced,” falters in the bulk of the chorus (ellipsed) and again at “impaled,” but “displaced” rings true, and the series of spatial negotiations here are well-crafted. “I drift,” “I am transfixed,” “[I am] impaled,” and “[I am] displaced” are motive transformations that are actions on rather than actions by, contributing to the theme of complicity with one’s own passivity.

The grand finale is not so self-aware, but with a humbling intensity simply reaps what it’s sown. It’s a meticulous piece, hewn en masse, but, as with dry masonry, fortified by interstitial fills — second guitars between the cracks, dollops of cymbals, and percussive slashes. And Tempest does need to be viewed in entirety for the title track to serve as its climatic third act. The present listener will be compelled by this last introductory hook; after 20 minutes of involvement, “Tempest” is an accomplished solvent: the experience of time is calmly removed from the listener — as in “you won’t need that.” This introduction the highlight of the album and smart in all of the ways Tempest had lacked until this point – that is, it’s explicitly catchy, and the listener is caught.

“Tempest” begins with a ringing mode from a tar-like guitar and the slow, long bowing of strings to saturate the heavy clouds, and then ‘bait and switch’ with the electric guitar’s articulate(d) delivery over the droning for the hook. A five-second drum fallout concludes the intro into the breaching of stunning feedback, falling again to the vocal tide where a tunneling bass drags itself across the rock bottom. In the middle stage of the song, Lycus play with pace, doubling down to a harder, shallower, pragmatic tempo, then quadrupling up in a jump against caustic yells. With guitar altercations, they break from insistent strumming into harmonics again, behind and everywhere in this sacred space. In the “Tempest” the clouds break for time, but under worn, mournful gloom; there’s no time, just this tonal wash. A conch-like ululation heralds a wind stream of ambience, warm and translucent with a sliding viol. In this clearing — a six-minute clearing to close out Tempest’s “Tempest” — the listener is so intent, so careful, so superfluously sensitized that, with the roundness of the final scene in a tragedy, one hears every sonic nuance: at 15 minutes, whale sobs with an electronic edge; at 16 minutes, grit blustered about in the storm; at 17 minutes, a deep woodwind resonance, like a baritone ney; at 18 minutes, a helicopter with theramin propellers lifting off from a ravine miles away; and at 19 minutes, ghastly whistling strands — then dead silence.

Lyrics to “Tempest” consist of shorter verses, sung in round, and succinct — they take up a mere five-minute quarter of this gigantic composition. The innovative round causes a strange vocal bloating, using monastic chant to carry the lower, originary refrain — perhaps meaninglessly, since it’s hard to tell what they’re saying — while the vocalist’s gritty basso profundo yaws above. There’s a single vocal reprise — and conclusion — around the 10-minute mark before “Tempest” drools off into ambience. Their word choice is delicious yet again: “bile,” “douses,” “asylum,” “dire.” Although it’s too-much-poesy, the most notable verse says: “Into the toils of despair / We are bludgeoned by desire / Bound by truth / Within a disillusioned mire.” “Tempest” unpacks the non-negotiability of psychology (memory, desire, decision, experience), describing a person whose desire leads him into (it’s presented spatially) despair, in which “mire” he is “bound by truth.” How is this spatialization of human weakness a mire? because his own weight sinks him. Further, he’s properly “disillusioned,” because it’s incontrovertible that his own weight is sinking him. The titular line, “in the hour of tempest,” recalls that time comes from the segmentation, the quantification of its abstracted experience, and the ability to categorize the consequent units of time as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ “Time,” etymologically, comes from the proto-Indo-European *da-, meaning, “to cut up, divide.” But Tempest is cathartic. If that which is most important happens at the eleventh hour, …

… notice how softly “Tempest” lets the listener down, impartially, with no obligation, clean and clear and inoculated in the way that good tragedy operates. Tempest is expertly designed, a full-fledged work that absolutely knows what it’s about; or, Lycus have done it for the first time as though they’ve done it again. It’s also dismal enough to serve as the soundtrack to Melmoth the Wanderer. This is doom.

by Brittany Tracy