Although LA-based metallers Otep forged their iconic reputation on the aggressive no-bullshit persona of band founder and underground poet Otep Shamaya, they've never really fit inside the catch-all genre box that lazier industry types like to label “female-fronted metal.” This band rips ears and blows minds by the thousands with their groove, thrash and doom riffs and scorching, intense vocals, and they've become icons in the metal domain over the course of a twelve-year career spanning six studio albums. Their epic swan song Hydra – a loose concept record with a graphic horror theme – is their darkest, most dangerous projects ever released, and with it they're going out at the top of their game.
Hydra is a very experimental piece, an exploration of one woman's personal demons which manifest themselves in many forms... all of them brutal, ruthless and more than a little seductive. Digging deep into personal pain and trauma, the central character unleashes new monsters with each track, as many musical textures – from massive groove and doom/sludge riffs to eerie cinematic piano and synth atmospheres – come together to paint a landscape of fear and violence, with Shamaya's lyrics sliding from savage, animal roars to childlike whispers and solemn monologues. As you can imagine, this record is not a comfortable listen... but hey, we're all horror people here, and we love it when art pushes us to the edge of the abyss. On the technical side, it's a fairly no-frills production for a concept album (even a loose one), but this stripped-down sound is nothing new for the band and takes nothing away from the massive scope of the songwriting.
The creepy intro "Rising," with its rumbling drone beneath Shamaya's opening monologue, is the first of many tracks to adopt the visual concept of a fearsome creature emerging from the black depths. The Hydra of the album's title is a multi-headed beast of Greek myth, and as a symbol of the narrator's own monstrous suffering and violent awakening, it takes on many forms. The vocal multi-tracking and chunky thrash riffs of "Blowtorch Nightlight" are pure, concentrated Otep, with plenty of dramatic, unexpected change-ups in tone (including a couple of explosive chords that will make you jump) and a face-melting climax of screams and speed-picking. The deep, slow grind and mainly clean melodic vocals of "Seduce & Destroy" create a dark cloud of gloom before the gothic trappings of "Crush" introduce more direct elements of horror, tracing the footsteps of a stalker and his/her unsuspecting prey.
The ambient interlude "Hematopia” ushers in the album's more terrifying second phase, with a solo cello and industrial loops accompanying Shamaya's quivering monologue, segueing into "Necromantic" with the phrase “The evil that's between us,” as ghostly voices echo in the distance before crushing mid-tempo riffs, chaotic drums and throat-ripping screams break the hypnotic spell. The following cut "Quarantine" continues the same story thread, with police reports of a serial killer's wave of terror weaving in and out of the spoken-word lyrics and distant, wordless shrieks. The childlike persona emerges again in the toy-piano lullaby of "Voyeur,” a terrifying and graphically violent tale of one webcam-using sadist exacting poetic justice on another. The thumping death march of "Apex Predator" takes the game a step further as the killer taunts another victim, musing “Why does she look so much like me?” while she fantasizes about impaling her head on a stick...
The spoken intro of "Feral Game” finally explodes into a shitstorm of wide, doomy chords and double-kick drums beneath the screamed refrain “We remain animals!” which links smoothly into the nightmarish "Livestock," another spoken interlude which drifts through a sonic fog of animal grunts and the buzz of fluorescent lights. That's the last pensive moment before the manic frenzy of "Hag,” which climaxes the album by releasing all of its pent-up rage with constantly shifting rhythms, merciless thrash riffs and skull-shattering screams across the entire vocal spectrum. The final cut "Theophagy" loops a down-tempo electro beat with the refrain “Feed it/Fuck it/Breed it/Eat it” as the narrator recites a litany of abuse suffered at the hands of orderlies at a mental hospital, vowing that the Hydra will rise again from the ashes of her destroyed mind and body.
Like I said, Hydra is not easy listening, and even fans of Otep's hardest-hitting metal tracks may feel their blood turn cold as the narrative turns darker and darker, plunging into graphic torture and nightmarish abuse. Even Shamaya's trademark cathartic rage is tightened and focused here; while her words often strike like a hammer, this time she's wielding a straight razor, slowly drawing it across your face. Instrumentally, the band explores a more chaotic sound, twisting up standard metal rhythms into more bizarre patterns and layering big, doomy chords with choppy, chugging tremolos. Hydra is truly a monster of an album, and while many will find it emotionally exhausting, listeners with a taste for horror will welcome the challenge.