For a genre best known from the outside for intense devotion and strict orthodoxy, black metal has a long history of experimentation. The latest release from the Ukrainian band White Ward is a testament to the genre’s ability to assimilate a wide variety of sounds into a coherent and awe-inspiring whole. Love Exchange Failure is the group’s second full-length, and was released by Delemur Morti Productions on September 20.

From the album’s opening moments, it is clear that White Ward are out to provide a wide-ranging listening experience. The title track opens the record with piano, saxophone and gently brushed drums playing delicately while a police siren sounds in the background. The mood is noir-ish, and owes an obvious debt to the mighty Bohren und der Club of Gore. The material is well-executed, though, and meshes nicely with the cover art, which depicts a nocturnal skyline of some unnamed city. At the end of the passage, a single distorted guitar chord arrives, a harbinger of the maelstrom to come.

White Ward may have delivered a wonderful passage of atmospheric jazz, but when the black metal takes over, it is incredibly ripping. Their brand of black metal seems to be indebted to the later work of Immortal and Satyricon on one hand, but also influenced by newer groups such as Woe and Deafheaven at their most brutal. There is a sense of melody, but never at the expense of viciousness.

Throughout the title track and the two songs that follow, “Poisonous Flowers of Violence” and “Dead Heart Confession,” White Ward’s modus operandi becomes apparent. The noir-ish moments come and go and are always well rendered, far more important than mere space filler. These moments are in fact vital to the feel of the music. Beyond that, when White Ward are heavy, the saxophone and keyboards don’t go away. For instance, in “Poisonous Flowers of Violence,” around the two-minute mark, the music slows for a moment and the guitars hammer out a doomier passage with the vocals screeching along, while the saxophone outlines the melody and the chord changes.

“Shelter” shows another facet of the band. Essentially a piano-based piece, the playing here seemingly oscillates between jazz and classical techniques. The harmonic content is quite ambiguous as well. There is movement and there are interesting chord changes, but the timbre is neither stereotypically evil like so many metal keyboard intros, nor is it bright. Much of the shading is established through feedback and harsh vocals that lie beneath the piano work.

“No Cure for Pain” picks up where the first three tracks left off, exhibiting particularly strong bass work. The saxophone is also prominent along with some extremely effective guitar soloing. “Surfaces and Depths” reimagines Bohren und der Club of Gore at a slightly faster tempo and with clean female vocals. And one cannot help but hear an Ulver influence as well, particularly 2000’s Perdition City. Yet White Ward is even more expansive with their sound palette. The track takes on an almost post-rock feel in its closing moments, taking cues from groups such as Mono or Pelican.

Album closer “Uncanny Delusions” begins by mining some of the same ideas as “Surfaces and Depths,” but this time swapping in clean male vocals and allowing sparse guitar to take the place of the piano. But unlike the earlier song, they quickly find themselves blazing away with more brutal black metal. The riffing possesses an ascending feel, pushing the album toward a perfect climax. After the tension breaks, there is one more jazz passage to bring things to a close. One can almost imagine closing credits scrolling upward.

The kind of genre fusions taking place on Love Exchange Failure aren’t completely unique in black metal nowadays. The genre rose to prominence in part due to its ability to evoke powerful atmospheres, though in the early days this was often achieved via primitive musicianship and even more atavistic recording techniques. Yet the seed for expansion was sown and current bands are open to using any means available to construct their sonic architecture. Not only is White Ward willing to experiment with different instrumentation and expansive song structures, but they execute the material flawlessly. The songs are well crafted and despite many hovering near the ten-minute mark, every moment of Love Exchange Failure is absolutely engrossing. While there will be no lack of detractors dedicated to maintaining the genre’s mythical purity, White Ward have crafted an absolutely stunning opus which should not be missed.

Todd Manning

Stream Love Exchange Failure:

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