Review by Gregory S. Burkart
Those of us with a penchant for darker musical styles tend to be a bit cynical about artists who set out to create disturbing and unsettling music on purpose. After all, more bands than I care to mention claim to be inspired by everything from gore flicks to black magic, from H.P. Lovecraft to true crime tales. But how often is their music truly scary to listen to? Are you are reluctant to play their albums in the dark? When you finish spinning their new CD for the first time, do you reach for the player with the same trepidation that James Woods displayed when handling that breathing Betamax tape in Videodrome? I'm thinking probably not too often. Hey, I love bands that write and sing about horror, but I can count on one hand (the one that I nearly mangled with a chainsaw last month) how often their music genuinely creeped me out.
Today I added yelworC to that very short list. Promising in the band's press kit to deliver ?the very sounds of Hell,? this is one of the few bands out there who not only mean that sincerely, but more often than not actually manage to deliver on that promise.
Taking their name (backwards, of course) from notorious occult figure Aleister Crowley, this German electronic music project was formed in 1988 by Peter Devin and Dominik van Reich (aka Oliver Büttner). Though what most listeners would later identify as industrial music (a term that is hotly contested even today) had not yet solidified as a major musical genre, dark electronic-driven acts were nevertheless starting to command attention in both Europe and North America ? and after turning out several successful demo tapes, yelworC began to ride that wave in the early '90s, arguably the genre's golden era. Drawing on similar themes to their contemporaries ? occult lore and rituals, horror literature and movies, social unrest, murder, religious dogma and other disturbing facets of human nature ? the pair released their first official album Brainstorming in 1992. The album's cover art, depicting the face of ?Captain Howdy? from The Exorcist, was the perfect introduction to the unholy sounds that lurked within.
Two more releases followed, and despite generating a great deal of interest, the band in its original form dissolved in the mid-'90s, not to resurface for over a decade; during that period their recordings became increasingly hard to track down. Finally, with Devin now acting as the sole creative force, the reformed yelworC returned to the scene in 2004 with Trinity, the first installment in a projected trilogy of concept albums which hit the clubs with considerable success. The second phase of that trilogy, Icolation, was met with even more enthusiasm in Europe last year (following a mid-summer tease in the form of the EP Eclosion), and now, thanks to Metropolis Records, it has finally arrived on North American shores to scare the hell out of you.
Continuing the thematic arc that began with Trinity ? a concept based mainly on Dante's Inferno ? Icolation is a brain-blistering journey of demented electronic mayhem on an epic scale. The level of production is more grandiose than its predecessor, with a broader, more diverse sonic palette and a challenging, ever-shifting range of heavy beats, horrific samples and sound effects, haunting melodic passages and chanting distorted vocals. The end result suggests the score to the most expensive horror film never filmed.
Though comparisons to legendary electronic experimentalists Skinny Puppy are frequently tossed around in discussions of this band, there are actually vast differences between the two; the creative hub of Puppy's art involves deconstructing conventional beats and reassembling them into twisted, diabolical forms, whereas Devin seems to begin with a certain mood ? usually a feeling of dread ? and applies layers of sound until that mood is amplified through a kind of sonic terror machine. The result is not so much an unsettlingly catchy rhythm, but a pervasive sense of doom that you can get up and dance to... if you're brave enough.
Despite infectious rhythms and distinctive riffs on cuts like ?In The Purgatory,? ?Purple Blood? and the glittering, aggressive ?Reason And Refusal? (possibly the most dance-worthy track on the album), don't go into this kind of music looking for hooks or that instant club sensation, because that's not what this album is about. Chaotic, nihilistic and constantly morphing into alternate forms, these tracks may mislead you into settling in for a solid, mechanical beat before pulling the rug out with a blast of inhuman screams, buzz-saw guitars and metal-on-glass percussion, rapid changes in tempo, key or time signature. This is often followed by a sudden dive into near-silence, permeated by tomblike sighs and pensive piano strains: tracks like the opener ?The Lord Of The Three? and ?The Bells Of Waiting? are surprisingly serene, with an ominous, eye-of-the-storm beauty. Just when you think you've pinned it down, it darts off in a new direction ? as with the ritualistic chanting and martial beats of ?Masks Off!? It's an eccentric structure, all crystalline majesty and black sulfuric ooze... and it works.
At nearly 80 minutes, Icolation can be an exhausting experience, but ultimately an exhilarating one for the daring listener who longs for an otherworldly ? or to be accurate, netherworldly ? musical experience. I highly recommend listening with the lights out... but maybe with one hand on the switch.