Metal music has historically encompassed a broad range of emotions, but the common unifying factor throughout the multifarious subgenres has usually been the intensity and fervency with which those emotions are expressed. As such, there is a certain sentiment that is not often given deliberate, pointed expression, that being of lethargy, weariness, and resignation. Those are feelings that are normally anathema to metal’s urgent, visceral instrumentation, and yet they are the spirit that animates Clawing into Black Sun, the third full-length outing from Minnesota’s sludge act, Wolvhammer.
A long, slow moan of an album, it describes a feeling, neither of acute despair or anguish in the manner of funeral doom, nor of the oppressive horror of the troupe’s previous outing, The Obsidian Plains, but of numbness; of vague, persistent discomfort and unease. It’s less aggressive, less oppressive, softer and spacier compared both to the band’s own earlier work and to that of their blackened sludge contemporaries like Dragged into Sunlight or labelmates Coffinworm; less impactful, to be sure, but nevertheless in possession of an agreeably queasy, unclean vibe that persists after its running time is up. It’s like a glimpse into the mind of a person coming gradually and quite calmly to the conclusion that it’s no longer worth getting up in the morning.
The musicianship is very basic for the most part, Jeff Wilson’s guitar work consisting mainly of steady, droning chord progressions, drenched in thick, cloying distortion, and proceeding in sluggish 4/4. Drummer Heath Rave hammers away at his bass, snare and crash cymbals in simple patterns with a glassy-eyed consistency. The most animated member of the three-man ensemble is vocalist Adam Clemans, who intones each guttural syllable with a certain fiery zeal, but even these take on a despondent quality when paired with the music’s tonalities. Only the shortest, most minor of chord changes are utilised, resulting in the album’s flatness of effect – it wouldn’t even be correct to call it dirge-like, as a dirge would convey a sense of drama that Wolvhammer eschew. The majority of the songs are purposefully static, spinning in place, devoid of peaks and troughs. As the album proceeds, the stillness, the very lack of reprieve from the music’s relentless grey pall, becomes increasingly disquieting, like an entity that’s dead but clinging to an inert imitation of life.
Clawing into Black Sun isn’t purely an exercise in morbid atmospherics, mind you – each track does have its own idiosyncrasies and hooks that are capable of catching the listener’s attention. “Slaves to the Grime”, for instance, has an appealing, chugging groove to it, sounding like something Carcass might have written after a liberal helping of Valium. “A Light that doesn’t Yield” incorporates melancholy harmonisation to the guitars and distant choirs, rendering the track more conventionally sad than the rest of the album’s numbness.
In contrast, the second half of “In Reverence” briefly flares up in a fast-paced, crusty, punky passage, with Clemans screaming profanities over surprisingly buoyant rhythms from Rave. It’s a brief flare-up of energy that quickly uses itself up, and entropy promptly reasserts itself. The songs contain enough detail and savvy writing like this that they reward attentive listening, rather than simply immersing one in their depressive tides.
Still though, after Clawing into Black Sun is over, it’s not the specific details or riffs that one remembers, but the overriding impression of decay and corrosive pessimism, of how every passage seems to resolve itself on a hopeless note. I don’t know that this makes it a profound or meaningful record, but it’s certainly an insidiously well-executed one. Wolvhammer avoid shock-and-awe tactics and opt instead to worm their way under your skin, whispering in your ear that it all just gets worse from here. Not, perhaps, a pleasant listen, nor even a cathartic one – but the object of music, in the end, is to make the listener feel something, and Clawing into Black Sun successfully made me feel deeply uneasy.
01) The Silver Key
03) Death Division
04) Slaves to the Grime
05) The Desanctification
06) In Reverence
07) A Light that doesn’t Yield
08) Clawing into Black Sun