Review: Norse – Ascetic
I guess we gotta write non-list content again now. Damn.
Looking back on Norse’s 2014 EP Pest, which was my introduction to the Australian avant-garde black metallers, I’m still not sure why I bought it. I’m not a huge fan of massively dissonant music —then even less so than now—but something about it must have grabbed me. I’m glad it did, as it ultimately lead me to check out Ascetic, which once again breached my defenses and bewitched me.
For the longest time, I somehow thought Pest to be the band’s first release, which is not the case at all (it’s not even their first EP released in 2014, actually). After two early outings of blasting blackened death, 2012’s All is Mist and Fog began to venture into more outlandish territory. Still heavy on the blasting, it was the first record where “minimal editing and low gain distortion” were used, which has remained a staple of the band’s sound. The approach was fully fleshed out on Pest, but the songwriting left a bit to be desired. 2017’s The Divine Light of a New Sun improved upon this aspect, but in turn seems to suffer from a somewhat muddy production.
That was probably an intentional move; it seems like too big of a coincidence that the album’s cover art is indiscernibly muddy, too. Ascetic‘s cover, in contrast, returns to the kind of stark photography that already adorned Pest, and its straightforward presentation of facts—two trees bereft of foliage—is mirrored in the music. Much like every individual branch and twig is a simple enough element by itself, so too does the characteristically crisp, low-gain sound of the record present all the elements of the music in a very naked fashion. Nothing is obfuscated by distortion or effects. Everything is laid out clearly. More often than not, the presentation remains at such a granular level of detail that even individual chords remain singular, hammered out in a percussive fashion rather than strung together to form riffs.
More than in other extreme metal, this gives me the feeling of witnessing a conductor set up these elements in different configurations—pairing them up, playing them against each other, fading them in and out to play around with dynamics. However, just as the simple shapes of individual branches can converge into a confusing tangle, the once discernible and manageable elements of the music quickly become more unsettling as more building blocks are brought into play. In the moments where chords are placed into a chain, the result is barely ever melodious, but rather resembles the frantic grinding of a machine. Rattling bass notes meld together and reveal themselves as the menacing snarl of a beast. What once felt static and under control morphs into a writhing, gnashing mass of overwhelming chaos, just to shrink back down to its roots the next moment. “Zero Insight” is perhaps the most extreme example of this, but several tracks do it to great effect.
Don’t take this to mean that things just constantly switch between 0 and 100. The shifts are often gradual, and in the case of “Radical Depression”, the menace bubbles subtly under the surface. The track feels akin to a mixed media performance; the vocalist holds his snarling oration in the center of the stage, his plasticity in stark contrast to the flat cinema screen behind him, across which the musical backdrop flickers in grainy black and white film. The images are puzzling and only become moreso as the camera pans out throughout the song, revealing an ever more complex scene that occasionally almost seems to lunge out of the picture. Whether the steady, measured vocal performance in front of it serves to conjure it or keep it at bay, we can only guess.
I could go on to dissect every standout moment on the album, of which there are surprisingly many that wormed their way into my head surprisingly quickly, but I don’t think it would help in explaining how exactly Norse has managed to rope me in again. I am just as dumbfounded about why they appeal to me as I was a good 7 years ago, and for that, they get
4/5 Deceptively Simple-Looking Trees ov Hell
Ascetic came out in October on Transcending Obscurity.