There is, and always has been, plenty of scope for mind boggling complexity in metal. Some bands employ such abstract philosophy to their music making that it becomes elevated to an art form (Meshugah, Opeth and Dream Theater all spring to mind) but, and this is a crucial but, there is a vast difference between making complex music because it is what you enjoy doing and making complex music because you believe it will somehow elevate your standing as a serious musician. Lest it be forgotten metal works just as well as a primal, blues-infected force of nature as it does as a hurricane of notes and percussive insanity and the fact remains that any number of “math-core” bands have sprouted, like fungus, and thrust themselves into the faces of long suffering metallers the world over. To put it more simply there is nothing, really nothing, that beats a good riff and that is universal whether it is a mind-bendingly simple riff like Max’s one-string groove on “roots bloody roots” or a burst of fret-bending insanity like Metallica’s “fight fire with fire”, Dream Theater’s “as I am” or Megadeth’s “holy wars…” Black Cobra not only understand this concept, but the whole of their masterful album “Chronomega” is basically one long love-letter to the power of the riff and from the moment you place the black slab of lovingly crafted 180gm vinyl onto the turntable to the moment when the needle raises itself reluctantly from the first side you are lost in a massive, beautiful, savage, lustful paean to the power of a heavily distorted guitar.
That is not to say, exactly, that Black Cobra play simplistic metal – the music is still challenging, indeed it is deceptively so, but there is nothing here that pushes at the boundaries of complexity for the very sake of it. Each track is a tightly focused, massively fuzzed up blast of rock and roll energy that references Motorhead and High on fire (with a hint of Buzzov*en thrown in for good measure) and presents it as the logical result of stirring all four original members of Black Sabbath into a barrel of Whiskey-flavoured treacle. More sludge than doom, pounding drums, guitars run through a mountain of amps at least as high as Everest and vocals that are somewhere between Ozzy Osbourne and a Dalek, this is music that preys on the simple, basic urge to get the adrenalin flowing around the body and every other concern is secondary.
Boasting ten tracks (five on each side) the album is not wasteful – every track has its place and even when ‘Catalyst’ opens with 30 seconds of atmospheric drone it is because the doom-laden nature of the track demands it, not because the band are in need of filling space. Indeed, such is the sparing nature of the recording that is fair to say that there is not a single stray note or wasted moment anywhere within the albums forty-odd minute run time. The focus here, rather, is to get in, bludgeon the opposition and get out again before the neighbours wake up – a tactic used to good effect on the mighty opener “negative reversal” which appears such a blazing whirlwind of guitars and screams that it’s been in, clawed open your chest and carried off your heart before you even realise its finished. “Machine” is equally brutal, a violent and concerted effort to unleash hell before the aforementioned ‘Catalyst’ alters the dynamic and offers both a change of pace and a lightning strike of stoner/doom metal that threatens to put even Shrinebuilder to shame. Utterly timeless, Black Cobra pull off the impressive trick of sounding both contemporary and yet rooted in the classic sound of their influences at the same time, while the powerful production job gives the whole thing a weighty bottom end while avoiding too much of the sonic sheen which can drain the soul from an honest-to-goodness rock ‘n’ roll band such as this one and leave the whole event sounding sterile and clinical. Certainly this is a record that is well worth a purchase on vinyl rather than CD thanks to the strong dynamic range that only vinyl seems to produce these days (thanks to the cynical mastering process that leaves CDs boosted entirely up into the red, flattening the sound at the same time) and the quite astounding artwork that graces the full, LP-sized booklet that comes with it.
A word on artwork while you’re gathered here – the astonishing drawings were created by Alan Forbes and it is arguable that the booklet is worth the price of admission alone. Recalling in essence a mixture of the work of Geiger and Swans main-man Michael Gira (who recently published a series of drawings entitled “I am not insane”), the wonderful pieces are an example of the way that music can be treated with respect and turned into an all encompassing package with suitable support from a decent label (in this case it is Southern Lord who are renowned for releasing beautiful vinyl editions of their artist’s work) and this is certainly one of those releases that you’ll want to return to time and time again just to flick through or show to your friends.
Side one ends with the crushing body-blow of ‘Zero point field’ which sees hyper-active drums driving the increasingly agitated guitars up to a crescendo of brilliance before fading away in a welter of static leaving you ready for side two’s dark delights. Side two opens with the punishing ‘lightning in his hand’, a massive, churning riff that simply rolls over any opposition that might be raised against it. Like High on Fire’s last album , it is a savage and repressively heavy attack on the senses which will send fans of doom laden stoner rock into froths of ecstasy while equally appealing to those who like their riffs to sound like they’re hewn from granite. Following such a lengthy track, ‘Storm shadow’ leaps out of the gates with only the briefest of introductions before the vocals tear across the increasingly punky riffs and you’re left contemplating the possibility that this is this decade’s answer to Motorhead’s evergreen ‘ace of spades’ with its unforgiving vocals, solid riffing and pounding drums. More terrifying is the howling gale of “Glacies en spiritu” that sits strangely between Kyuss and Darkthrone with the former’s solid riffs and the latter’s pounding, black metal aesthetic and utter disregard for what may be considered acceptable. It sounds, of course, utterly amazing and it’s over all too soon fading into the gentle “nefarian triangle” which offers the album’s only moment of respite in its introduction before the seething cauldron of hate that is “behaved” closes things in utterly demented fashion.
As we’ve seen, musically Black Cobra are a summation of all that is great about rock. Heavy, unforgiving and utterly in love with the power of music as an art from this is yet another of those albums that needs to be heard all in one sitting, absorbed in the order in which the band originally laid it down and allowed to wash over the listener like a tidal wave. Best heard through the analogue warmth of vinyl, the added incentive is the stunning artwork reproduced at the scale that it deserves and the brick heavy slab of vinyl itself. A stunning release from Southern Lord, we’re well aware that we’re reviewing this long after its original release but for those of you who missed out the first time round it is now high time that you discover the stunning power of Black Cobra in full flight.