There are bands who thrive on technical proficiency, honing their skills to the sharpest possible edge and engaging in practice for 22 hours of the day whilst using the remaining minutes to consider the impact of a given chord progression. That can be cool and it is possible to list any number of bands and artists who have become successful doing so. However, there is another kind of band who, whilst not exactly eschewing the skills necessary to actually play their instruments, rely primarily on atmosphere. It’s a fine line to walk and more often than not such a band exists briefly, makes a messy demo or three and then vanishes (deservedly) without trace. Yet every once in a while a truly special group of people come together and make something messy, atmospheric and inspirational. Hellhammer are a prime example; a group so messy that even its former members struggle to listen to their output and yet so influential that even now they are cited as a prime influence in the black metal scene not least for the glacial mistresses of doom Gallhammer who return here on their third outing to lay any impression that the success of ‘Ill innocence’ was a fluke to bed once and for all.
A seven track excursion into the blackest, furthest reaches of doom, ‘The end’ is a dark, ambient mixture of Thergothon’s expansive horror, The Swans’ eerie brutalism and black metal’s no frills production all stirred, mixed and bottled by the captivating dedication to the dark side that made ‘Ill innocence’ such a captivating piece of work. Opening track ‘the end’ really provides all the evidence you’ll need as to the quality of the album. As an ominous bass rumble threatens to unsettle your nerve endings, a buzz-saw guitar, all treble – no mid range, tears across the surface and the drums kick in with a BPM only just faster than treacle fighting gravity to create an atmosphere of slow dread that is augmented perfectly by the low-in-the-mix vocals which are barely audible but effective nonetheless. The song is simplistic, even minimalist and yet it is clear that the girls have taken a step forward from their last outing, discovering what works for them and expanding upon it to create a piece of work that could well be held up as a blackened doom classic in the future. It is, of course, the atmosphere that counts here rather than the precision of the musicians but when a band are capable of conjuring up such feelings of icy isolation and mind-numbing fear with a single, simple riff who cares how many notes they are cramming in to the song? Like all the songs here ‘the end’ is a lengthy, soul-sapping piece of work that uses a degree of repetition to ram its animalistic point home and it recalls nothing so much as early Swans work ‘Greed’ with its generally nihilistic, misanthropic desire to remove all hope and light from the world. Second track ‘Rubbish CG202’ is a primitive blur where the first track merely rumbled, and as the drums pound your skull, barely holding it together, it is akin to watching a tight-rope artist stumble half way across and you’re as concerned with whether they’ll make it to the end as to what tricks they’re performing on the way. Densely layered and filled with rage, the track still carves an impressive six minutes or so out of the album despite the blistering speed and if the riffs are monochrome, it still holds the interest thanks to the sheer depth of commitment on display.
‘Aberration’ is exactly what you might imagine of a track entitled in such a way and Risa Reaper’s squeaky vocals that provided such a bizarre counterpoint to the deathly growls on ‘Ill innocence’ return once more to provide you with yet more evidence of what it would sound like if Mickey Mouse were to be tortured in a Brothel with Cannibal Corpse as the house band…it is therefore kinda cool even while it may cause some fans to scratch their heads on the first listen. With strangely jazzy drums and such unhinged vocals it makes the trip even weirder than before and you can understand why the band described the album as “strange and psychedelic experimental sounds of doom” in a characteristic piece of grand understatement. The next track to appear from the gloomy mist is ‘Sober’ which opens with a stoner bass line and then takes you on a hypnotic, groove laden trawl of the darkest gutters and sewers of the mind via an unhinged vocal performance that makes you worry for the mental health of Vivian Slaughter. With the strangely childlike vocals reappearing but so low in the mix as to be barely audible above the increasingly discordant music, the overall effect is one of spiralling psychosis in a snow-filled landscape making this easily one of the most uncomfortable listening experiences since Abandon’s final epic album. ‘Entropy G35’ follows on from the previous track’s abrupt ending with another speedy attack on the senses that houses tinny guitars duelling it out with a bass drum that sounds like it is in the room with you at anything other than the lowest volumes, much to my neighbour’s distress.
Having rumbled through a track that leaves you picking yourself up from the ground with a dazed expression on your face, the band then unleash the slowed-down grind of ‘Wander’ a track so slow and wound up in its own sense of pent-up claustrophobia that it could give Khanate a run for their money. Slow, doom-laden and possessed of an atmosphere so thick you can claw your way through it, it’s an album highlight but such is the grasp of pacing and set construction that Galhammer have that pretty much any track here could be a highlight but you’re still better listening to the album as one continuous piece of arty, doom-obsessed horror metal as it is as a whole that it most certainly has the greatest impact. As ‘Wander’ slowly meanders to a climax, drone notes appear and you realise that the track, seemingly repetitive, is building and mutating with all sorts of disparate elements seeping with hints of Sunn 0))) breaking through the blackened crust. Final track ‘108=7/T-NA’ is hardly any faster and rounds out the album in gloriously bleak style over its near ten minute run time. As the band introduce unsettling elements the music takes on a horror-soundtrack feel and it’s difficult to suppress a shudder as the track trudges towards its inevitable conclusion. It’s horrific, hypnotic, addictive and you’ll want to come back to it time and time again even as the idea seems vaguely distressing.
There are always going to be those who knock Gallhammer as a novelty act or who claim that they only gain attention because they are a female band in a genre largely populated by hairy men. Such prejudice is as inescapable as it surely flies in the face of the espoused black metal attitude of flying in the face of conformity. Those people, however, are only going to miss out on a genuinely atmospheric and intriguing album. For ‘the end’ Gallhammer have reached deep inside themselves to create an album that is epic and genuinely thrilling. Glacial, grimy and altogether unpleasant it is a mini-masterpiece powered almost entirely by the band’s sense of conviction and passion for their subject matter and is certainly one of 2011’s essential purchases. Don’t miss this one, it is easily one of the most absorbing doom/black metal albums to appear for some time and it is hard to imagine a better release from the genre this year.