It feels a little odd reviewing stuff like the Pyramids/Horseback split and the new House of Low Culture release for a site with “metal” right there in the goddamn name. They aren’t “not metal” in the “they’re almost more of a shoegaze band” sense, but are aggressively unconventional in terms of even basic popular music construct. In fact, the only thing even slightly metal about either of these releases is less than two-and-a-half minutes at the beginning of Horseback’s only solo song on the aforementioned split. And theoretically, that’s fine: there’s no rule on the books that says being involved in heavy bands — as members of House of Low Culture have been and are — means you can’t take part in projects that are the antithesis of metal altogether. Or at least there shouldn’t be.

But these two releases pose a very interesting question: does a project’s mere existence in contrast to its creators’ most well-received work make it worthwhile? Or, in this case, does it make it even listenable?

The problem is, once you move far enough onto the oddball end of the spectrum, you stop being experimental metal (or experimental rock, for that matter) and put yourself out there to be judged on avantgarde merits. And suddenly, your contemporaries aren’t kids in Ed Hardy shirts calling eachother “faggots” on message boards, but actual minimalist and abstract composers who make the music they make for deeply artistic and intellectual reasons. In that company, you seriously risk being just some guy dicking around on his guitar.

Taking up 2/3 of the split’s tracks, “A Throne Without a King”– the title track of the split release from Pyramids and Horseback coming out on Hydra Head — is the centerpiece here, which seriously hamstrings the album. It drags the listener across a charred, empty landscape where nothing really happens, and makes simple moments — like the introduction of vocals seven-and-a-half minutes into part two, or where synths start to ease into the violent static in part three — appear much larger than they actually are. And in theory, I can appreciate that: I think glacially-paced music that relies more on subtlety than bombast catering to those with the shortest attention spans can be immensely rewarding. But “A Throne Without a King” just feels like a whole lot of nothing, mostly because it IS a whole lot of nothing by design. There’s no center, no soul one can really discern among heavily processed industrial noises, seemingly relentless static, and the occasional synthesizer.

The first two tracks, one by each respective band (the title track is a collaboration between the two), fare a little better, because they actually hold some promise: Pyramids’ “Phaedra’s Love” is an interesting display of the band’s back and forth between rhythmic nihilism and deceptively blissful ambience, while Horseback’s “Thee Cult of Henry Flint” starts out as weird, inverted black metal, then eventually dissolves into nothingness. But then it just wanders out into that nothingness and never returns.

House of Low Culture’s Poisoned Soul is the better of these two releases, but not by a whole lot. Over 53 long, disjointed minutes, the band — featuring Sunn 0)))’s Stephen O’Malley and Isis’ Jay Caxide, Jay Randall, and Aaron Turner, as well as Turner’s wife and Mamiffer mastermind Faith Coloccia — slowly unfurl a largely blank tapestry compiled of droning guitars, organ, and synths; husky chanting; and irritating ambient noise. The issue with Poisoned Soul is perhaps that with a pedigree of musicians this embedded in making long-form experimental music would yield something interesting, but instead provide a lot of maddeningly empty space between mildly interesting moments only occasionally bubbling up from complete stillness to remind you that you’re listening to something. The skittering, atonal guitar plucking throughout “Inappropriate Body” provides a somewhat interesting spark far too late into proceedings to redeem anything. Theoretically, you have to call “bullshit” on things that reveal themselves to be bullshit. With music like this, though, I always feel like there’s something to “get” that I’m missing when I don’t enjoy it.

Popular music — which encompasses metal and hardcore under its umbrella — has grown exponentially since the middle of the last century, and while it was seem limitless, it does have its endpoints. And once you’re past them, it sounds like pretentious garbage to one side and amateurish drivel to the other. You can’t win. Both these releases are conceptually fascinating but ultimately don’t amount to much more than barely-governed sound. And while that doesn’t close the door on the artists involved– all of whom are highly prolific and some, at least in the case of Turner and Coloccia, have already put out some decent music this year (in the form of Mamiffer’s quietly excellent Mare Decendrii) — A Throne Without a King and Poisoned Soul boldly cross the line between subtle brilliance and a complete waste of time, though in the wrong direction.

Pyramids and Horseback, A Throne Without a King

(1 out of 5 horns)

House of Low Culture, Poisoned Soul

(1 out of 5 horns)


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