SAD SONGS SAY SO MUCH: XASTHUR’S IMPRESSIVE FINALE, PORTAL OF SORROW
Critical success was a no-win situation with Xasthur: “basement black metal” is a hard thing for the uninitiated to get into, much less keep up with. It’s harsh, challenging, unlistenable, and is often created by immensely prolific misanthropes with no use for quality control. It’s hard to find a way in, and even if you do find one, it’s even harder to expand your knowledge from there. So that’s exactly what the metal media did: they popped mega-huge critical boners for a few Xasthur releases (2006’s Subliminal Genocide in particular), and then, like they do with most bands, got bored and stopped paying attention. And this didn’t stop the band (well, the guy) from making and releasing more albums, splits, demos, and what-have-you. So when the band/guy decided to abruptly call it quits last year, they went out with a whimper instead of a bang (well, a muffled, tortured bang). The sense that mainman Malefic seemed to give in his statements were that he was as tired of the band as the media were, and while Xasthur did (and do) mean a lot to me, the possibility that Scott Conner (the dude’s real name) has found some sort of sanity or happiness in his life, and that said happiness means he doesn’t have to make suffocatingly bleak funereal black metal anymore, is a strangely heartwarming one. Xasthur’s music always sounded as thought it were made by someone at the end of his rope, so it was good to hear that maybe that’s no longer the case.
It’s interesting, then, to hear that last year’s Portal of Sorrow is an anomaly in the Xasthur catalog. It’s the band (fleshed out with some guest musicians, thus actually almost warranting being called “a band”) at its most expansive, perhaps even to the point where the Xasthur concept begins to collapse in on itself. The classic Xasthur sound is still here — the woozy wall of untuned guitars and that sickly haze of synthesizer s– but is filled out with female vocals and Malefic’s improved drumming (a welcome sound after it killed any kind of forward momentum on 2007’s Defective Epitaph). After a decade of meandering in the basement, Portal of Sorrow hints at the prospect of looking out the window, if not actually venturing outside. Of course, violent introspection and isolation were the band’s lifeblood, and thus the idea of the outside world is Xasthur’s flashpoint. The album as a swan song is both disappointing in that it’s an endpoint in terms of potential, and fascinating in that it serves as a statement of the band’s progression throughout more than two dozen releases. In a lot of ways, it may be their most easily digestible album (which, for some, equates it with being its worst), which for a band so obsessed with suffering and anger, is about as close to a happy ending as the Xasthur catalog could come.
Of course, if you thought the band sounded like a muddy slog through sloppy Burzum reinterpretations, Portal of Sorrow sure as shit isn’t going to change your mind. No matter how much organic life and lady-cooing is pumped into it, it’s still very much a Xasthur record. But that being said, it’s definitely one of the better Xasthur records. While it doesn’t have the relative focus of Telepathic with the Deceased or the immensely challenging but ultimately rewarding wall-to-wall misery of Subliminal Genocide, there’s something vaguely inviting to it. Though there isn’t a lot of songwriting going on here — like most Xasthur, “songs” basically consist of presenting an idea then subsequently wearing it out through repetition — Malefic’s trademark tortured wail is employed on only a handful of tracks on Portal of Sorrow. But whereas Xasthur instrumentals used to be the most boring part of the band’s discography — lacking the focal point of the screaming’s intensity, it simply shed light on how much meandering the band could do when it was on autopilot — the only way one notices that vocals haven’t been present is when they come back in and you realize they weren’t there before.
There’s a lot of interesting things going on musically: the album opens with an acoustic guitar, which feels like a huge step forward, even if it has been used before; though female singing is often black metal’s Achilles Heel and indicator of an avalanche of cheesiness, it’s employed to completely haunting effect here; and while a lot of the more realistic-sounding orchestration here could just be more interesting synth settings, there’s a strange Neurosis-vibe running through a lot of the album, particularly the scorched-Earth folk of Times of Grace and A Sun That Never Sets. “This Abyss Holds the Mirror” has fucking ORGAN in it, and though it’s probably meant to evoke inverted church tones, it comes off more like ? & the Mysterians, which makes it FAR more interesting. Though Xasthur weren’t necessarily an orthodox band in terms of black metal, there was a template that they tended to adhere fairly strictly to. Portal of Sorrow finds them fucking with that template more than usual, and the experimental vibe pumps into life into the proceedings. Growing tired with the band may be the best thing to ever happen to it.
The most marked improvement, as mentioned above, is Malefic’s greatly improved drumming. While it’s not Gene Hoglan or Hellhammer behind the kit, after the wobbly and awkward attempts at live playing over the long-employed drum machine, it’s a welcome return to the rigid rhythmic backbone of the band’s early and classic material. It makes Xasthur easier to listen to, which although that sounds like the band admitting defeat, after the borderline unlistenable Defective Epitaph and the over-the-border unlistenable All Reflections Drained, it’s the sound of its creator saying, “Oh yeah, I want people to actually listen to my music instead of being repulsed by it.” Portal of Sorrow isn’t an out-and-out easy listen, of course. But it does mark the first time I’ve been able to consume a Xasthur album on the whole without getting bored, antsy, or sick of relentless hopelessness. And maybe this was Malefic’s intent the whole time: to make an hour’s worth of interesting textures that could relatively simply — if not occasionally enjoyably — be consumed by his fans, and once that happened, get the fuck out of the biz.
But what most likely happened was the man behind all this got sick of being sick all the time and sought to expand his horizons, to explore what it’s like being a functional human being not consumed with his own demons and sadness. Or at least that’s what the end of Xasthur seemed to mean to me, with Portal of Sorrow more or less confirming that. The album seems bored with Xasthur-as-usual, and thus nudges as many tendrils out into the open as possible. Had this come out in the mid-’00s, it would have been all over year-end lists; coming out when it did — both early enough in 2010 to get buried under what the rest of the year had to offer and a few years after the metal media’s love affair with Xasthur had cooled — it hit with a barely-audible thud. But that doesn’t mean it’s not good. In fact, it’s pretty great. It’s really the only possible ending the band could have: with albums as impossibly grim as theirs, Xasthur’s finale needed to incorporate the possibility of expansion and even sunlight so that it could whither and die in it, if for no other reason than its creator could manage to live on.
The LP version of Xasthur’s Portal of Sorrow is out now on Kemado Records. Order it here.