Basalte, Vertige, and The Pleasure of Patience
You think you are sick of post-black metal — but that is only because bands who are not Basalte keep fucking it up.
Genre bloat. Subgenre bloat. Microgenre bloat. Nanogenre bloat. The world may be the same size it always was but the market just keeps gaining volume. Unfortunately for us — discerning consumers one and all — the inflation of said volume and the quotient of quality therein are not governed by a 1:1 ratio. While the number of quality, forward-thinking bands in any scene increases ever so slightly every year, the percentage of same seems to shrink. Example: Not long ago I received a promo for a one-man atmospheric/depressive black metal band from Greenland who shall remain nameless, and I jumped into it with excitement because GREENLAND!?!?! Yes, the world is already overrun with one-man black metal projects of every stripe — but GREENLAND?!?!? Surely someone from one of the most desolate, isolated and frosty places on the face of Earth would put a fresh spin on a stagnating microgenre, right?
Twelve-minute songs, two chords each, Casio brand cheese spread and “wind sounds” for atmosphere. My patience for this shit, assuming I ever even had any, must have run thin five years ago. Same goes for the wide berth of sounds qualified to huddle under the umbrella of post-black metal. Even the titans of this formidable subgenre all seem to have run out of gas or altogether lost the plot, while better bands of lesser praise languish in relative obscurity. Bosse-de-Nage and the remote dreams of another Black Monolith album notwithstanding, I thought I was done with this trend. And then one Tuesday back in…geez, February, our boy Hans penned a little blurb about an unsigned band from Quebec called Basalte. I gave the preview track from their new album, Vertige, the same kind of noncommittal half-listen I reserve for any This Toilet Tuesday Treasure™ that looks even marginally interesting on paper — and came face to face with my first truly great new listening experience of 2018.
The dulcet opening amp drones and string taps and cymbal tics of “Ce que le corps doit au sol” gratified me instantly while whetting my palate for the controlled burn to come. And yet instant gratification is never the name of the game on Vertige; in fact, the band takes great pains to delay gratification, building lesser moments of pleasure, teasing us with tension and release, until we can no longer contain ourselves. The name of this game is pleasure delay, and all that is really required to play is patience. If you don’t have patience, go buy some. No one will sell it to you? Well shucks, shuffle off then. Go on, git. Learn to meditate — or come back when a patience-upgrade to the human mind is as readily available as more RAM for your computer.
It takes a while for all of Basalte’s tricks and talents to unfurl; they’ve got a lot of them, and they’re courteous enough not to go jamming every single one into every movement of every track in a desperate bid to shock and dazzle us. They are at once masters of subtlety and adepts of boiling rage, careful never to let the one step on the toes of the other. Vertige invites an uncommonly deep listen, and the primary lesson to be learned here is that sometimes, in order to go deep, one must go through.
“Through-composition” is a phrase I first heard in an interview with Toby Driver of Kayo Dot. The basic concept is that instead of writing separate parts and then arranging them in some impactful order afterward, you start composing at the beginning and work through in linear fashion to the end, generally avoiding repetition or the crutch of market-tested structures. To me — most certainly no great student of music composition — it sounds like Basalte has crafted Vertige with through-composition in mind. I’m not going to sit here and lie to your face by telling you that the band sticks to this ethos 100% of the time. They do engage in a bit of repetition here and there, with the understanding that repetition in moderation is a great way to hook a listener or to call them back. On the flip-side, when they avoid repetition (most of the time), they rarely do so at the expense of an organic flow or quasi-narrative thread from one shift to the next. Segments of songs do not merely follow each other, they literally transform into each other, sometimes very gradually, over the course of deceptively simple yet painstakingly executed alterations, and sometimes quite brutally.
The above dichotomy is best exemplified by “La sclérose coule dans ses veines” and “Acouphène”. These two songs form the center of this four-song odyssey, and they play upon each other like night and day. “La sclérose” being the night, I suppose. A long, restless night full of menacing phantoms and perilous thoughts. The song begins in funeral doom territory, with lachrymose chords strummed intermittently over a bare and stoic beat. Though this opening movement goes on for quite some time before any greater speed is achieved, the funeral doom tag quickly ceases to ring true as, with each new iteration of the chord cycle, embellishments appear: a clean guitar melody; ever busier percussive embellishments; new chords and melodic detours. As the cycle reaches rock bottom, the vocalist abandons the blackened howling of the previous track, reaching deep down into his chest, where dwells the growl of a beaten dog. The cycle restarts but never quite repeats, as higher-pitched tremolos and a quickening pace drag us toward some cruel semblance of light. At times the guitars resemble horns bleating out a call to action. A process of seemingly endless mutation finds us climbing up through the muck of a fresh burial; bursts of speed and blasting drums send us gasping for air, craving true light, which is eventually supplied in the form of some recognizably post-black chord work — only to be wrenched away in a sputter of deathly dissonance. The sputter dies, everything goes quiet, and light breaks victorious at last. A bittersweet clean arpeggio introduces the prevailing motif of the song’s final movement over subdued percussion. Straightforward, driving riffs arise, propelled by blasts in double- and half-meter. We welcome the return of high-throated screams. A heartrendingly hopeful tremolo erupts, ressurrects the motif, harmonizes itself, sublimates into a tapering drone. We’re above ground now, better off than when we started, but where do we go from here?
“Acouphène” knows the answer. It is time for d-beats, kiddo. It is time to rage. For one minute and forty-five seconds, Basalte whip themselves up into a debris-filled tornado of riffs. Chaos, bludgeoning, the cracking of bones. Then, as is their wont, the band allows the wind to die suddenly; the debris clatters to the ground and, amidst some discordantly minimal doom, we’re left wondering what we were so mad about. Maybe nothing? In creeps a classic post-rock style interlude full of pensive clean guitar and wide-open drumming, which threatens to get boring as fuck (the way most post-rock songs do) until it morphs without warning into a stretch of rabid blasts. When the band gets too tired to keep it up, they stop playing, and a modest piano line signals the end.
All of which is a long-winded and self-indulgent way of hammering the point that no one in Basalte is asleep at the wheel. The writing is done in fine needlepoint, and the performances don’t slouch either (I swear at one point in the climax of “La sclérose” you can hear the drummer gingerly tapping the bell of a small splash cymbal…). Basalte didn’t invent this wheel, but they sure have shaved off the square edges. Sure, front-running acts in the style have garnered a reputation for penning long songs full of twists and turns, but I’d argue that very few of them have mastered the art of writing long songs that are long for a reason. Take Deafheaven, for instance (I know, ugh, right?), who to my ears are still trapped in the early Opeth songwriting method: stringing a bunch of different parts together in any old order over a very large space, with no discernible impetus other than to avoid the cursed verse-chorus-verse loop. Despite its faults, this method can be exciting to adventurous listeners. And while it may even merit repeat listens, it rarely creates a lasting sense of awe.
If the cover art wasn’t enough of a clue, Vertige is ultimately an urban thing. There are no forests here; they’ve all been cut down to make way for concrete cell blocks, consumer temples and corporate shrines. In place of trees, architecture; in place of moss, grime. Vertige drags the horizontal proclivities of atmo-black out of the misty forests and into our cities, our streets, our lonely apartments, where the walls are so thin that our neighbors’ noisy grievances become our own (at one point in final track “Éclat de verre” the vocalist barks against a silent backdrop like a stir-crazy bachelor yelling at rats in the wall…). Vertige labors palpably for greatness, or maybe just for relief, like a young single mother giving birth in the squalor of a tenement hallway at three a.m. under the jaundiced light of a blinking, failing bulb…