“Sabbracadaver,” the title of the seventh full-length outing by French drone/doom outfit Monarch, is derived from “Sabbra Cadabra,” the name of a track from Black Sabbath’s 1973 album “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.” Black Sabbath have often been retroactively identified as the progenitors of doom metal, thanks to their famously fuzzy guitar tones, ominous tonalities and lyrics draped in occultism; even so, the claim of direct lineage Monarch make with their album’s title calls the listener’s attention to the extremity of the evolution that they represent. “Sabbra Cadabra” isn’t the peppiest song in the world, but it might as well be Dragonforce compared to Monarch’s three-track, 46-minute exercise in gruelling torpidity and suffocating atmosphere.
An omnipresent backdrop of feedback from Monarch’s enormous wall of amps forms the basis of their sound, a kind of eerie, pale fog through which murky chords and vocalisations intermittently reveal themselves. Shiran Kaïdine’s guitars don’t create tunes, as such; the gaps between notes are too sustained for the human ear to intuit any kind of pattern to them. Rather, they suggest phantasmal figures slowly drifting through an auditory wasteland, each note a slight alteration to their trajectory. Over the course of Monarch’s enormous compositions (17, 10 and 18 minutes, in that order), they accumulate a hypnotic quality, like the score to a sort of strange, funereal, ritualistic dance, Rob Schaffer’s glacial drums like grim punctuation points.
The songs, like everything else, evolve gradually, establishing mood in only the vaguest terms to begin with and slowly, insinuating, revealing detail and nuance as they unfold. Opener “Pentarammes,” for example, begins with over three minutes of ambience before the album’s first chord is struck. Deathly quiet whispers can be heard, at first as faint fluctuations in the electronic fuzz right on the threshold of audibility, distant shapes flitting through mist. At three-and-a-bit minutes, the guitars and drums arrive, and with them comes a sense of morose mass, of slumped shoulders and downcast eyes. At just shy of five minutes, an unexpected note of aggression and anger comes into play with the sudden arrival of Emilie “Eurogirl” Bresson’s ragged, anguished wails.
At six-and-a-half minutes, her horrifying screams fall away in favour of soft, plaintive moans. The pronounced effect is of emergence – each passage adds to the one preceding it, each transition bringing about a new layer of complexity. The morose and the hostile are two different aspects of the same entity.
By the time the song tapers off into nothingness, there is a sense of something significant having come to completion, although what exactly has been completed or resolved is hard to discern. “Sabbracadaver” thrives on its own opaqueness and ambiguity – the amorphous melodies and almost-totally indecipherable vocals imply a sense of vague horror, but give it no definition. Exactly what manner of emotional trauma is being expressed, the listener can only guess at, but the mystery is steadily deepened as the album moves on. The effect is like being positioned outside of a windowless building, from which all manner of morbid sounds are coming – each successive passage gives us another hint, a different view of the exterior, but there never comes a moment of revelation.
Absolutely essential to the success of “Sabbracadaver,” however, is Eurogirl’s vocal performance. It’s actually kind of stunning what she does here, though it couldn’t, even by the broadest definition, be referred to as “singing.” Basically, she has three modes. She does low, furtive whispers that are unsettlingly mysterious, and soft, wordless, melodious cries thick with Longing Wistfulness. Both of these are well-utilised for their respective purposes, but what really grab the listener by the throat are her bloodcurdling shrieks. Not death growls or any other kind of extreme metal technique, you understand; just primal, animalistic howls of unfiltered anguish, terror and rage.
It’s due to this that “Mortes,” the album’s last and longest track, is also its most effective. For the last ten of its eighteen minutes, the screams simply don’t stop. They go on for so long, they achieve a sort of anti-musicality – the rest of the instrumentation carries on independently of them, the guitars plugging away at their sorrowful chords as though oblivious to the agonised wails going on beneath them (or, worse, deliberately ignoring them). The fact that the screams are increasingly buried in the mix makes the effect even more poignant, creating the claustrophobic impression that Eurogirl is crying out from increasingly remote depths, like she’s being buried alive or drowned in a sinking ship. It’s the most acutely horrific suggestion of an album that’s never exactly sunshine and rainbows.
“Sabbracadaver” isn’t for the inattentive or the faint-of-heart, and it’s about the furthest thing from “fun” imaginable, but it’s powerful stuff, and the longer you spend with it, the more it gnaws into your subconscious. Its subtle, intelligent compositions reward patience with oodles of atmosphere and mystique, never telling, always insinuating. Even if it left me with the desire to listen to something a bit perkier (My Dying Bride, perhaps?), it also lingered in my memory and left the impression of a strange, unknowable darkness that arouses fear and curiosity. I suspect that I’ll be drawn back to it in a few months, and that it will welcome me back with cold, clammy arms.