Instrumental metal trio Behold the Arctopus (they eliminated the ellipse after “Behold…” in 2012) recently released their first album in four years, Hapeleptic Overtrove. Colin Marston, who plays a Warr guitar — a tapped instrument like a Chapman stick that has about a dozen strings, giving it the combined range of a guitar and a bass — is also a member of Krallice and Gorguts, and runs Menegroth the Thousand Caves, a studio popular with extreme metal artists (and some jazz acts; see our review of Brandon Seabrook‘s new album, from last week). His partner in BTA is Mike Lerner, who plays a traditional guitar. They’ve been through a few drummers: Charlie Zeleny was behind the kit from 2004-2009 and played on their Nano-Nucleonic Cyborg Summoning EP and Skullgrid LP, while Weasel Walter of the Flying Luttenbachers and a hundred other projects joined from roughly 2012 (he can be heard on Horrorscension) to 2015. Since 2016, Jason Bauers has tagged in; he appears on 2016’s Cognitive Emancipation (a four-track, 19-minute release they claim is a full-length album) and on this one.
One might think that because their drummers come and go, and Marston is such a powerful creative personality, that rhythm would be relatively unimportant to the BTA sound — that it’s all about the meticulously savage riffs and the interaction between his instrument, which manages to sound like a guitar and a bass playing at the same time, and Lerner’s more traditional art-metal guitar work. But that’s not the case; in fact, whoever’s behind the kit on any given record has an outsized impact on the music. On Horrorscension, Weasel Walter‘s unique fusion of punk-rock blast beats, prog-rock time-dicing, and death metal assault give the pieces a hard-charging energy (“Deluge of Sores” could be an Abscess song), but also allows them to settle into conventional art-rock dynamics, as on “Horrorsentience,” which has moments of great beauty, like when the Tangerine Dream-esque Mellotron comes in at the end.
The pieces on Cognitive Emancipation were written when Walter was still in the band, so they have the same punky energy as Horrorscension and prove that Bauers could have kept them on that path. Instead, he and the other members of BTA have made a radical shift that has taken their music in an entirely new direction, one virtually unexplored by any of their putative peers.
The liner notes tell the story: “[Bauers] has brought his experience with classical percussion to the table, allowing the drums to become another melodic voice, rather than just a metric skeleton. For the new compositions, inspiration was drawn from the non-traditional setup of English free jazz drummer Tony Oxley, and the percussion music of 20th century composers Iannis Xenakis, Edgard Varèse, and Elliott Carter. The drum kit for the new album removes extreme metal’s constant harsh static wash by deleting all hi-hats, crashes, and ride cymbals, replacing them with almglocken, wooden plank, metal pipe, broken stacks, and bell/chimes. Sticks are replaced by mallets, and, more importantly, the function of the drums is no longer to play ‘beats.’ Instead the drums take on a role more similar to the guitars, resulting in a sound closer to chamber music than rock.”
None of that is bullshit. The percussion on this album sounds like no metal album you’ve ever heard, and BTA announce their goal to throw you off balance and make you question all your assumptions about extreme music from the first track, the 29-second “Quithtion.” (Say it out loud.) It sounds like a John Zorn exercise from the early ’90s, the two string players cycling quickly through thudding, grinding riffs like someone flipping through samples culled from death metal records, as Bauers taps and rattles various small objects like he’s testing them for later use. The second piece, “Adult Contemporary,” is an arpeggiated storm of sound, Marston and Lerner playing cyclical riffs like a cross between Mick Barr and Buckethead (as heard on Bill Laswell‘s Praxis projects). But instead of driving them on with explosive blast beats, Bauers opts for a mix of sparse, hammer-on-steel strikes, hummingbird-fast passages on small gongs or wood blocks, and thunderous kettledrum-like passages. The connection to the work of Tony Oxley is instantly audible; I could absolutely imagine the older man throwing some of these rattles and pops into the midst of a stormy Cecil Taylor performance. Bauers is declaring himself to be one-third of the group, not its foundation but an equal contributor, and it’s thrilling to hear.
At the same time, this leveling of the musical playing field makes Hapeleptic Overtrove a difficult listen. When music has a steady foundation — a steady beat, say — it makes it easier to focus on the “lead” instrument as it declares the melody, then extrapolates from that through solos or variations. One or two people from an ensemble agree to perform more servile roles in order to achieve the greater goal. But when each member of a group has equal status with the others, things get more challenging for the listener, who must divide their attention and concentrate on multiple events at once, all of them equally significant. This is true of free improv, as well as of harmolodic music, where each bandmember is theoretically capable of seizing the lead at any moment.
“Other Realms,” the longest track on the album, overcomes this problem by leaving Bauers out of it; only Marston and Lerner are heard, and while they’re both going wild, it’s easy to listen to two things at once and hear what each is doing. And there is structure; this is not improvised music, and there are unison passages and complex but perceptible (and beautiful) harmonies. And on the following track, “Perverse.Esoteric.Different,” Bauers gets close to playing a conventional drummer’s role, but what he’s doing is too complicated, too ever-shifting and too uninterested in timekeeping, to let the listener anticipate what might come next, which is the essence of rhythm.
Hapeleptic Overtrove is either going to speak to you right away or it’s not. And if it does speak to you, you’re going to have to listen to it many times for its densely composed music, built using highly unorthodox structural concepts, to begin to make sense; in effect, you’re going to have to keep listening until you’ve memorized the sequences. But it’s worth it. And as a gauntlet thrown down to other metal bands, it’s unmatched. Nothing else sounds like this, and very little likely ever will. Most people don’t want to think this hard about music, including musicians.