Hel (Temple of Torturous)
by MacDara Conroy
Scant information exists about Italian black metal act Melencolia Estatica, the (mostly) solo project of a woman who goes by the nom de guerre Climaxia. Not that one should be surprised, as such secrecy and obfuscation is a trademark of the genre. What we do know is that the project has been an on-and-off concern since 2004, involving various session musicians (under similarly kvlt monikers), and has produced three full-lengths to date—the latest being the sumptuously presented Hel, apparently a concept album inspired by Fritz Lang‘s 1927 classic art deco silent masterpiece Metropolis.
Interestingly, Hel beats to the punch Cult of Luna‘s own attempt at the same, though it remains to be seen how the Swedish post-metal collective will tackle the material on their forthcoming Vertikal. But if they go the literalist route, they’ll have some work distinguishing it from this effort, as there’s no mistaking Climaxia‘s intentions from even a glance at the cover—a still from the film, ornamented with the band logo rendered in typical Art Deco style, which makes a refreshing change from the genre’s usual deliberately unreadable scrawlings—and the title, a play on a character referenced in the film (the deceased wife of the city’s master who is “resurrected” as a robot by a mad scientist) and a reference to the hellish existence endured by the workers of Metropolis in its industrial bowels. It’s not very black metal to be so concerned with mankind’s sufferings, so that alone makes for a novel approach. But ultimately presentation is just presentation, and the more important question remains: is the music up to scratch?
Hel posits itself as a modern black metal record from the start, with the first of its six tracks (each hovering around the 6- to 7-minute mark, and simply titled “Hel I” to “Hel VI”) propelled by rapid-fire percussion and sheets of layered guitar howl, creating a voluminous sound to carry guest vocalist Afthenktos‘ substantial growls. But not three minutes in, the pace suddenly drops and the layers peel away, the death growls replaced by ghostly whispers and floating feminine sighs, the chords ringing rather than buzzing or shredding. “Hel II” adopts the reverse pattern, with an intro section that could easily be Japanese post-hardcore combo Envy if not for the double-bass drumming and glassy tremolo-picked riffage, then diving at the midpoint—the guitars emulating cellos, the vocals treated with a submerged effect—before bursting violently for a final furious 90 seconds.
Climaxia‘s orchestrations are artful, and the whole set is impeccably arranged, yet draped in a hazy gauze that puts the music at an slight but perceptible remove from the listener. But despite such surface blackened trappings, the music within gradually reveals itself to share much more in common with the post-metal purveyed by Isis and the like, both in sound (the chained instrumental and ambient passages in “Hel III”; the oceanic drift of “Hel IV”) and in predictability. Though diverse references abound—space rock jamming and echoes of Mark McGuire‘s solo work (“Hel III”) and even a nod to latter-day Scott Walker (“Hel IV”)—the structure of “black metal bit here, something different there’” loses its appeal well before the closing five minutes of “Hel VI,” the most direct lyrical connection to the subject matter (via Afthenktos‘ anguished appeals to witness the “silent starving children” of the city’s workers) but a piece perhaps better suited as an interlude earlier in the running order.
It’s all beautifully done, but Hel simply doesn’t leave the lasting impression one expects from such lofty ambitions. A noble effort, but not quite enough.
Hear “Hel I”: