You know how the saying goes: you wait forever for the debut album of a progressive extreme metal act with dense, highly technical songwriting, a prominent emphasis on the violin and a reputation built on a string of well-received demos and EPs, and two come along at once. Or something like that; the original saying might have had to do with buses or some shit, but whatever. All the same, that both Melbourne’s Ne Obliviscaris and New York City’s Hung, bands from nearly opposite sides of the globe playing such obviously comparable styles of music debuting within a day of each other (Portal of I came out on May 7th, Hung on May 8th) is too perfect not to comment on. The fact that both bands demonstrate exceptional chops and an abundance of ideas honed over the course of several years that give lie to the notion of their respective first full-lengths being “debuts” at all is just the cherry on top.
With that said though, it would be all too easy to overstate the extent to which Hung resemble their Australian counterparts due to the almost spooky level of synchronicity. In fact, the New York quintet (who take their name from violinist and founding member Lyris Hung, this knowledge doing little to mitigate one of the worst band names in recent memory) have a sound that is quite uniquely their own; where Ne Obliviscaris have the relentless blasting and tremolo riffing of Norwegian black metal as their main point of reference, Hung feels more like a distant descendent of the early melodic death metal acts of Sweden’s Gothenburg scene. Certainly, their emphasis on dual guitar harmonies, frenetic riffs tempered by an ever-present melodic conscience and alteration between mid-range rasps and deeper death-growls bears more than a little resemblance to the 1995 output of Dark Tranquillity and In Flames, or even largely forgotten acts like Sacrilege and Ebony Tears.
The aesthetics of the Gothenburg scene, however, find themselves reworked here into a context much more labyrinthine and ambitious than they would have been in the mid-90s. The songs vary in length from four minutes to over twelve, each composition taking on an organic, narrative quality, expounding upon a central melodic conceit (the manic, tumbling rhythm guitar of Evil Tsar; the portentous, muted bass line opening Infernal Redeemer). The songs rarely repeat any motifs or linger for long on a single segment, every few bars introducing a new instrumental configuration. Hung prefer to drive at a naturalistic emotional resolution rather than the fulfilment of any archetypal song “shape”, in this respect resembling the dramatic, storytelling songwriting of their countrymen Garden of Shadows and Vehemence, as well as drawing the usual comparisons to Opeth.
Critics of this style of music might call out an album like Hung for being in some sense “undisciplined” or “self-indulgent”; where a song has no obvious objective or single definite tone, there’s effectively nothing preventing it from being endlessly extrapolated, the band members treating disc space like a blank slate upon which to expel every melodic idea that comes into their heads, going in theoretically endless, self-fellating circles and stopping songs only when they feel like stopping. It’s not an argument without merit, but I would counter that albums like Hung – similar to, say, Opeth’s Morningrise – are defined more by the tension and release of contrasting and evolving moods and tones rather than more tangible structural notions like verse/chorus, and this involves a discipline of its own. It’s a discipline that’s by no means there by default, and can result in some epic messes when it’s found wanting; look no further than the magnificent, towering disaster that is Power of Omens’ Eyes of the Oracle for evidence of that.
Hung, though, are no less than masterful in how they juggle and juxtapose their various subtle shades and emotional wavelengths. Maria and Evil Tsar begin as frantic, propulsive, panicky tracks which later become measured and cathartic in a gradual process of revelation. The epic nine-minute Progeny continually accelerates for its first five minutes as a rousing melodic thrashy number before the riffs drop out to make way for a startling and haunting violin-dominated instrumental section. The album’s longest song, Left for the New Life, plays out like the narrative of a journey to an unknown destination, moments of inward reflection contrasting with passages of turbulent violence. If there’s one key aspect in which Hung resemble Ne Obliviscaris, it’s that they understand the principle of equilibrium, melody always balancing ferocity, tension always begetting release, each individual member’s performance – while highly technical and flashy – never failing to complement the whole as they rotate in and out of prominence.
I love music like this: music that demands attentiveness and investment from the listener in its cryptic and twisting pathways but which rewards in equal measure with a sense of revelation and fulfilment, all the while flinging more sweet riffs and melodies at you than you know what to do with. Hung operates on the macro scale, its transitions playing out over the course of entire songs, the shifts and melodic progressions rapid, subtle and carried off with incredible grace, poise, self-assurance and yes, discipline. Plenty of metal albums are complex, but few make such a benefit of complexity as this one does even as it dazzles from second to second.
2 Desert of Sad
5 Left for the New Life
6 Evil Tsar
8 Infernal Redeemer
9 Matter of the Blood
10 Sediment of War