Swords of Dis are a two piece band who indulge in richly atmospheric music that touches on the music of Jarboe, the dissonance of black metal and the atypical rhythms of Neurosis. The band’s music is unusual, deeply atmospheric and difficult to listen to. Like all good music it takes time to appreciate the nuances and a cursory listen may understandably leave potential listeners cold. This, of course, is a problem exacerbated in the modern digital world where listeners have access to so much music that if they are not grabbed instantly they simply switch off, but such a response is a great loss to the listener for lengthier exposure inevitably leads to the conclusion that Swords of Dis, given time and effort on the listener’s part, are a fine and particularly unique band.
My initial reaction to Swords of Dis was one of confusion and even dislike. Like a number of jazz musicians, Richard Corvinus uses idiosyncratic rhythms and dissonant guitar lines to conjure specific moods and feelings, whilst Alice Collins’ vocals initially appear to be unrelated to the musical backdrop over which they float. The sound, apparently chaotic, bore little resemblance to conventional metal and even engendered feelings of discomfort A second listen made the initial analysis redundant – there is a method to the madness; a carefully calculated path hidden in the darkness which, upon repeated listens, reveals itself and allows the listener to progress deeper into the album. Such perseverance is rewarded, and in no small measure. The unstoppable brutality of ‘fane of the lost’ recalls the twisted Neurosis & Jarboe release and the atmosphere conjured taps into the same vein of progressive mysticism that made opeth’s ‘Blackwater park’ so engaging. Alice still varies her pitch and key, and yet the more you listen, the more you realise these variances are not the slips of a weak vocalist, but the intentional flourishes of an extremely talented singer conjuring atmosphere by the power of her voice alone. The musical backdrop, meanwhile, employs near-tribal percussion, drone guitars and even classical-metal-style solos to immense effect. It’s a near revelatory experience as your own musical perspective slowly adjusts to that of Swords of Dis and you start to realise that the in initial difficulty in accepting the band’s music comes from your own straight-jacketed perceptions of what they should sound like. ‘Even angels bleed’ slips in and out of recognisable melody, recalling the avant-garde swell of acts like the Mahavishnu orchestra, Swans and the Theologian, the darkness of the music slowly turning the world around you to monochrome, and when a more recognisably metallic structure closes the track it leaves you in no doubt of the band’s talent and the depth of their song writing ability.
With black metal structures abounding, ‘labyrinth’ is a personal favourite. Less impenetrable than what has gone before, the music shimmers with blackened rage whilst Alice’s increasingly beautiful vocals bewitch and entice the listener even as she still slips and slides through accepted vocal norms, pushing the boundaries of beauty whilst never compromising the atmosphere of the song. At the close of the tune lies an elegantly delivered solo that highlights Richard’s skill upon the guitar and the song overall has a mesmerising quality that begs further listening so as to absorb the song’s carefully developed atmosphere fully. ‘In the shadow of eight’ is a brief segue that is as melancholy as it is beautiful, always hovering on the edge of total collapse before leading into the cataclysmic ‘gracing the palace of forgotten worlds’. In the vein of other, similarly minded, musical pioneers such as Syd Barrett and Michael Gira, the music sounds on the verge of a breakdown, the guitars always slipping toward tunelessness, the vocals delivered on a knife-edge, and yet despite the tension induced by such a notion, the very lack of order that is cause for such concern hides the iron discipline needed to make such music and the truth lies in the fact that the listener feels uncomfortable because that is how the band want you to feel. In the same way that certain horror movies utilised low frequencies to instil feelings of dread in their audience, so Swords of dis push the limits of conventional tonality to keep the listener hooked and yet repulsed by the sound before them, and it is a tactic that works.
The title track is indicative of what would happen if Sonic youth were to engage in a musical war with Swans, the discordant guitars falling like rain around Alice’s lost figure, the keyboards hinting at an eastern bent whilst the metallic percussion marches relentlessly on. ‘Starless depths’ contains elements of Meshuggah and Darkthrone, throwing the former’s metallic muscle against the latter’s icy riffs whilst Alice’s vocals deliver dire warnings of a dark prophecy. The album concludes with the slithery menace of ‘torn and suffering’, a caustic summation of the band’s strengths that utilises a mass of tribal percussion set against Alice’s brave vocal performance and Richard’s endlessly inventive guitar work.
That Swords of Dis produce music that is suitable for a niche market rather than mass consumption is somewhat axiomatic. Those seeking an easy fix will find themselves confused and disorientated and will likely turn off, but for those brave souls who believe that music should be a challenge and an adventure – those people will find a treasure trove of ideas lurking beneath the scarred and brutalised surface of the album. The production, initially so repellent, proves to perfectly match the music within and the song-writing is quite brilliant, incorporating eastern elements, touches of jazz, black metal and progressive in order to create a unique soundscape that is intelligently rendered and deeply discomfiting. Fans of Neurosis, Jarboe, Swans and early My Dying Bride will undoubtedly appreciate the malicious intent here, whilst Swords of Dis also share much in common with the individualistic attitude of black metal. If you crave music that comes from deep within the blackened soul, then this beautifully packaged record is for you.
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