Friday 27 February 2015

Undersmile - Anhedonia (Album Review)

Album Type: Full Length
Date Released: 01/04/2015
Label: Black Bow Records

‘Anhedonia’ DD/LP track listing:

1). Labyrinths
2). Sky Burial
3). Songs of Stones
4). Atacama Suburn
5). Aeris
6). Emmenagogue
7). Knucklesucker

Undersmile is:

Olly Corona – Brown | Bass
Tom McKibben | Drums
Taz Corona – Brown | Vocals, Guitars
Hel Sterne | Vocals, Guitars


In recent years I have grown to have an affinity toward the low-end, grumbling, riff-laden approach of the drone doom sort and Undersmile has to be one of the most talented bands that operate in that realm. What really sets them apart is that they have two highly talented leading ladies, who in addition to their compelling vocals, also build up the majority of atmosphere with guitars, leaving the guys to tend to the rhythm section on drums and bass.
My first introduction to the band left me dumbfounded as to how one could possibly enjoy pummelling so arduous on the ears. As I warmed up to their approach, it was strange to discover that it often features a simple yet refined melody, not only a will to obliterate through all-encompassing discord. When it was announced that they would be recording their sophomore album at Skyhammer Studios, and that Black Bow would be releasing it, I was extremely excited. Alongside fellow masters of their craft, it is a most fitting home for them.
The uncompromising nature of the band becomes clear when you consider that most tracks on their newest outing come near the 12-minute mark, with the shortest at 8. It might then seem unintuitive at first to call their newest album ‘accessible’ but it is indeed much less harsh than their first full-length ‘Narwhal’. Although this is somewhat of a deviation from their previous path, at times even taking elements from the post-rock spectrum, the band hasn’t compromised anything in order to achieve it. Every instrument, including the voices has really been brought forward in the mix, all much more melodic than anything they’ve previously recorded.
The opening track ‘Labyrinths’ begins quite unobtrusive by the group’s own standards, the dual vocal melodies drawn out and creeping at a most ghastly pace alongside slow progressions. The track at times comes to a halt as if the band (and you along with it) was indeed finding their way through a maze and opting for a different route. They are quite successful in lulling one into thinking that they’ve opted for quite a tame approach for the duration of the track. When the tranquillity suddenly grows into a huge and sweeping swell it’s really only a glimpse of the band’s full prowess. At the very end, their ruthless side steps in and completely shatters those previous misconceived notions, with overwhelming riffs that leaves one dazed sans hope of ever navigating the puzzle.
With irrefutable desolation such as is presented here, the second track sounds as grounded as can be. There’s a similar quiet beginning as to the previous track but soon the riffs grow to Earth-shattering breadths as the sirens repeat There’s no one else/I’m the only one, delineating the distressing notion one feels when confronted by the seemingly insurmountable nature of depression. Ominous outlandish whispers only add to the menacing atmosphere and the empyrean funeral as laid out by the title ‘Sky Burial’ is appropriately referenced by the soaring guitars throughout until they finally fade out into their own feedback.
The threnody that is ‘Song Of Stones’ finds the album at its most stirring with the sirens having descended into to a harrowing wail at the open. Here the band also introduces something that they’ve yet to implement before – a string section. Most delicately played violins are a perfect augmentation to the sombreness of the story being told. As the relatively quiet atmosphere is finally interrupted the dirge takes a definite turn towards nightmarish when the sirens’ return, shouting more austere and imposing than ever. Alongside the absolutely obliterating combination of thunderous riffs and epic drums, this is definitely a contender for favourite track.
No respite is offered hereafter, for immediately commanding attention is unrelenting ‘Atacama Sunburn’. Sections of relatively gentle guitar progressions interspersed offer some consolation, but at a minimum. Otherwise this one brings the most fury and direness to the table. There’s a section here that recalls a full choir’s singing before the song descends into a lash of fury. The vocal delivery here is so utterly dismal and it’s actually astounding that the ladies between the two of them are capable of bringing forth such a huge sound.
‘Aeris’ is a stunning and sombre ballad where the down-tuned soundscapes merely magnify the lamentation. The singing is absolutely striking and the subtlety to the drumming alongside the tumultuous roar of the guitars reinforces the notion that this is meant as a requiem. There’s a glorious build-up at the end that calls to mind A Silver Mt. Zion’s majestic orchestration with violins flawlessly coming in at the track’s peak. Without a doubt the most gorgeous track on the album.
Going off their previous releases, the lyrical themes tend to border on the macabre, often deriving from frustrations that the intersecting of individual and society brings. The band’s approach not only here but also on previous efforts has been to acknowledge these kinds of abuses through ferociously reproaching encroachments on self-determination. With the ladies in charge of lyrics, this is especially where their wealth of experience might come through, in dealing with subjects that remain too remote for other more masculine bands in this genre. Such conjectures are affirmed by the title given to the sixth track ‘Emmenagogue’ that seems to reflect on fates that have befallen women due to their bodies. Hel and Taz splendidly implement their voices on this track, with dreary brooding throughout that is only interrupted by sullen interjections of outrage. One of my favourite moments on the whole album is when they fall into a melancholic croon I learned my lesson, only to absolutely ravage all of that beauty the very next second. The cello that finally comes in along with all the other instruments makes for an absolutely grand and magnificent symphony.
The final track’s title ‘Knucklesucker’ recalls the name of the opening track of debut-album ‘Narwhal’. Here the band implements some high-pitched feedback from the guitars, not distorted but used as an instrument in itself. For most of the duration, the pace is one of a steady trudge but by the end of the track, there’s a cessation after which guitars rapidly pick up speed and begin rumbling towards the cliff. As the ladies start chanting their mantra of Anhedonia, the pace accelerates. I don’t feel hollow/ I don’t feel sorrow/I don’t feel anything really, drives home the discomfort felt when encountering the despondent nature of mental dis-ease that refuses to yield to any sort of rationalization.
This album seems best relished in seclusion, perhaps alone in a dim-lit room, in order to let the distress really engulf you. The album is wholly deserving of its title, which is not to say that it ever feels too lethargic or stale. Even when it does give way to drowsiness, it is with the singular aim of achieving a strong affect and then the delivery never feels too callous. Under the often-times somnolent surface, there’s an innumerable array of emotions, an underlying, yet elusive will to life, which I would venture to assert quite adequately describes what Anhedonia feels like. With captivating song-writing and absolutely immersive gargantuan soundscapes, I believe Undersmile have succeeded in crafting a real masterpiece. It’s not an easy listen to undertake but the double-album length is never too tiresome and ultimately very much worth the while, as confronting such a consummate apathetic malady head-on is necessitated by receiving any shot at transcending it.
Words by: Joosep Nilk
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