Split albums have always been a bit of a curiosity for me. Emerging widely in the independent scene of the early eighties, the format has become a vital part of underground music, giving artists a chance to share production and promotion costs (and consequently, publicity), and making rare material available for fans. Tailored primarily for vinyl, the format still continues to thrive, seemingly unaffected by the digital age as one of the most common formats to release obscure music on.
Despite a fair share of odd pairings, split albums manifest a fascinating concept of two unequivocally separate parts being joined into one whole—opposites becoming equal and fusing with one another. This fusion becomes even more tangible when two bands with a similarly visceral approach share two sides of a single black piece of wax. Imagine looking through the cracked and stained windows of an abandoned cabin and bearing witness to a fateful meeting of two maniacs sharing the single body of an unfortunate victim as a canvas upon which to enact their deepest desires.
The first maniac in this sinister equation, Primitive Man, has been getting quite a bit of attention from the extreme metal underground in the last few years, partly due to Relapse Records‘ release of their debut, Scorn. Their barbaric blend of sludge, death, and black metal aims to bring forth the bleakest and the most primal elements that each of the genres they draw influence from can provide. The band’s sole contribution to the split, ‘Empty Husk’, is one lengthy fifteen-minute track, grinding slowly, painfully towards its dreaded conclusion. Down-tuned guitar, layers of feedback, plodding, almost tribal drumming, and angst-ridden howls pour thick layers of sonic filth over the listener, leaving them as drained and empty as the title suggests. This is no beginning and no end—only dull pain inflicted masterfully and unrelentingly.
While certainly succeeding in living up to their name, the band also—possibly deliberately—closes a lot of doors for itself at the same time. Relying heavily on the crude power of execution alone, their particular breed of sludge doom can end up turning into a proverbial double-edged sword when their uncompromising style becomes the sole purpose of the music. Risks that fail to be taken could one day doom their master to be betrayed by his own blade.
If Primitive Man channels raw and savage energy, then Northless’ focus is decidedly on a crude, introverted obsession with pain and depravity. The band, with a sound that originates from post-hardcore as much as sludge, have constantly worked at evolving their initial formula, finding new ways to command and restrain the chaos on their past releases. On more recent material, they seem to have integrated a more melancholic, brooding approach into their otherwise forceful sound while having expanded on the complexity of their rhythmic structure.
The three songs contributed to this split appear to be a lot more straightforward in nature than their predecessors. The beckoning, unresolved frustration observed on recent releases in only hints and whispers has seemingly been unleashed here. Right from the menacing opening of ‘The 10,000 Year Wound’, we are treated to frequent bursts of stabbing instrumental violence and heart-pounding rhythms. ‘Deleted Heartstrings’ follows, delivering a mid-paced, multi-layered, and controlled limb-mangling battery that ultimately concludes in the dragging anticlimax of ‘Wasted Breath’.
The split works remarkably well as a whole. The two different approaches that are presented here interact effectively and complement one another while increasing the overwhelming bleakness of the release. This bleakness is also what effectively fuses the two sides of the split together—almost concept-like—into one solid whole. Alone, each of these tracks don’t amount to much; together, the four of them create a filthy kaleidoscopic pattern that is guaranteed to carve its way into the listener’s memory.
This split also functions as a here-and-now documentation of different approaches and current trends in what appears to be a new take on the sludge doom genre. Perhaps it holds few surprises for those who have been spinning Eyehategod, Neurosis, and Grief records since the early nineties. However, it does bear enough of a punch to impress more casual extreme music followers.
01) Primitive Man – Empty Husk
02) Northless – Deleted Heartstrings
03) Northless – The 10,000 Year Wound
04) Northless – Wasted Breath