Dodecahedron - Kwintessens
I’m in love with Iceland's black metal. Misthyrming, Svartidaudi, Azoic, Nadra, and scores of others are actively expanding the limits of black metal, following in the footsteps of pioneers like Deathspell Omega and Blut Aus Nord into an exciting (and terrifying) future for the genre. The brilliant thing about this wave of bands is that they haven’t tampered with black metal’s basic tenets: tremolo riffs, raspy vocals, and blastbeats remain the order of the day, but they’re applied to a more technical, avante-garde, and progressive template that allows for virtually endless variation and experimentation. The anti-Christian sentiment that informed a lot of second-wave black metal has evolved into several broader anti-religious, non-religious, and pagan scenes, where everything from Nordic mythology to Luciferianism to George Bataille are intellectually and philosophically engaged with. There’s no church-burning, very little corpsepaint, and zero “Hail Satan!” bullshit here, just intelligent musicians making challenging music.
Dodecahedron are not from Iceland. They hail from the Netherlands, but share many features with their brethren across the Atlantic, including an appreciation for Deathspell Omega’s demented aesthetics. Their self-titled was one of the first of these neo-black metal records I listened to, and it maintains a special place in my library for its stormier interpretation of the sound, opening up whole planes of possibility. Dodecahedron are simply masters of dread, but their craft reaches new heights on Kwintessens, demonstrating a denser, more sophisticated version of Dodecahedron’s reverberant darkness. “Prelude” is two minutes of distant, crashing instrumentation that swells patiently into “TETRAHEDRON: The Culling of the Unwanted from the Earth,” where subtle improvements in production between this and the previous record reveal the texture and intricacy of the attack like never before. Riffs cascade through dozens of time-changes large and small, stacking up to a labyrinth of a song that doesn’t feel nearly as long as its eight minutes. Credit Dodecahedron’s improved songwriting, which allows “TETRAHEDRON” to funnel directly into “HEXAHEDRON: Tilling the Human Soil” without missing a beat. The mood, dark to begin with, becomes suffocating: as the vocals relent to haunt the background, a series of build-ups take over, ramping toward a climax that never comes - instead, the song freefalls into an extended passage of echoing percussion and guitar skronk, delaying the album’s larger moments, but not forgetting them.
“Interlude” moves us through a couple minutes of ominous chording before breaking into a sick groove around 1:56, and then into “Octahedron: Harbinger,” the closest Dodecahedron will come to death metal on Kwintessens. The guitars are as grimy and muscular as anything by Funebrarum or Morbid Angel, but it’s not long before it opens up like Norris’s belly into cavernous, avante-garde madness and clamps back together, mutating into “Dodecahedron: An Ill-Defined Sense of Otherness,” site of some of the album’s eeriest passages. It’s clear at this point, if it wasn’t before, that Kwintessens is an album conceived as a single piece with very few moments of obvious transition. Each song seems to emerge from its predecessor so that the they begin to feel more like a series of escalations, the phases of the moon or steps into hell, than individual songs. Inevitably, there’s a tipping point to these kinds of albums, and “Dodecahedron” is it for Kwintessens. You’re locked in the moment M. Eikenaar introduces a mangled yelp between his bestial grunts and snarls, the sound of someone losing his mind, trapped in Dodecahedron’s black metal netherworld. The song’s nightmarish grip tightens and then suddenly releases, allowing us to breathe (rapidly, shallowly) over thrumming electronics before the song crashes back in like a polluted wave, and ends with a vanishing repetition of “The death of your body.”
This chant escapes “Dodecahedron” and pulls us into “Finale” with the strength of an undertow. Dozens of indistinct noises - distant cries, backtracked voices, echoes, whispers, static - whirl like debris across the length of this interlude, really the only one of its kind on the album, drawing us further in and down into “Icosahedron: The Death of Your Body,” the most unorthodox track on Kwintessens. Not that anything Dodecahedron plays is orthodox, but the stop-start dynamics and smoky atmosphere is new and pleasantly jarring on an album with so much forward momentum, making “Icosahedron” both a memorable closer and, most surprisingly, its most accessible song. Its fragmented structure works like time-lapse, allowing the listener time to isolate and digest the intricacies of the riffwork, its interplay with those roiling, multi-limbed drums and depth-charge bass lines, and to appreciate the patience and skill it takes to craft such seemingly impenetrable music out of so few instruments. Apart from these things, “Icosahedron” seems intentionally placed after “Finale” to cap the album’s philosophy of transcendence, referenced both in the album’s title (“quintessence”), subtitle (“Through bodies measureless to man”), and its repeated, explicit mentions of “the death of the body.” In this light, the “broken” songwriting could signify anything from simple bodily decay to spiritual dissolution, and the tumultuous nature of the rest of Kwintessens either the bewildering agony of death or the life that precedes it. It’s all up in the air, or lost in the ether.
Heady stuff. That’s Dodecahedron. Kwintessens is a satisfyingly complete record that shows the band bounding over the notion of a sophomore slump to deliver one of the year’s finest metal records, black metal or not. While I can recognize that they are still indebted to Deathspell Omega on some level, it’s not where the inspiration comes from but what’s done with it that matters, and where Kwintessens takes the avant-garde black metal sound is every bit as rewarding as what the masters themselves did with The Synarchy of Molten Bones last year. Kwintessens’s mood of cosmic horror matches that album note-for-note, hinting at something behind the music, something unspeakable, without ever quite delivering it - the imagination is more terrible than anything they could give us, and to reveal too much would cheapen the visceral thrill of expectation. I look forward to hearing whether the rest of the horde can match up to what Dodecahedron have accomplished here, but something tells me that Kwintessens is going to keep its lead for a long time.