[Reviewed by: VITRIOL]
Even today, there is little value in opposing the threat of a closed society by imitating its arbitrary restrictions.
– J.F. Kennedy, Address before the American Newspaper Publishers Association, April 27, 1961
U- 731 was an infamous Japanese chemical and bio-warfare R&D unit located in the Pingfang district of Harbin in what is now part of Northeast China; the area was occupied in 1932 by Japan, during hostilities in the second Sino-Japanese war. The human-based experiments conducted there are among the most atrocious ever recorded in war history. Between other things they included vivisection sans anaesthesia, amputation, removal of internal organs, replacement of limbs and organs in unnatural positions to study the effects of the deformation, causing mass blood loss and gangrene, rape, infection of subjects with anthrax, plague, venereal diseases, cholera, smallpox… if you have the stomach for it you can google the rest.
For a project assuming its name from such a phenomenon, it is logical to expect the bleakest of the bleak. And Gordon Lazarus, the man behind the mayhem, does not disappoint. “By All Means” is strewn with WW II imagery of corpses stockpiled in concentration camps, and men devoid of hope led to their torture and execution. On their prisoners’ uniforms is photoshopped the project’s logo, an inverted triangle containing a skull within a crosshair. A modern interpretation of a historical fact suggesting a relocation in the timeline – the war is here and now, we are all under occupation, our freedom is a lie, and death reigns supreme.
Although the album uses vocal samples by German militaries and Winston Churchill, similar to those regularly used in martial industrial releases, there is no illusion of heroism here. No reiteration of events, no bannering of bankrupt ideals. Events are instead taken out of their canonical narrative context and thrown brutally in the listener’s face, thus placed into their essential context. That of understanding and interpreting the present. That sort of social, existential, even political urgency is what makes this release so special; it can be layered and analyzed not just aurally but also in terms of subject matter.
Because, make no mistake, the music also has a gripping, chilling effect. Malignant has spoiled us with an ongoing series of amazing releases lately, and this one proudly hits the mark. With guest collaborators such as John Stillings from Steel Hook Prostheses and Andrew Grant from The Vomit Arsonist, how could it be otherwise? Just listen to the opening track, “Forced Neurotic Displacement”, and you’ll immediately be turned into a faithful acolyte. This is without exaggeration one of the best noise/ dark ambient tracks I’ve ever listened to – even though the whole album has impressed me greatly, this is the track I constantly have on repeat. Deeply distorted vocals broken down in layers and placed one over the other, hollow background sounds suggesting a rusty, reverberating internal space, vocal samples and most of all a menacing dark ambient sequence timed just right to raise tension and heighten the dramatic effect. Alarming, engaging, dangerous. This is how dark ambient should be injected into noise industrial.
“Asphyxiant Collapse” embarks upon a mission of literally levelling the field, as it is all a bundle of droning winds of noise, tempered here and there by industrial sounds and distorted vocals, but essentially remaining flat. The most prominent characteristic of the track is a monotonous, muffled drumming, like the torture that never ends, never changes pace, causing the victim to lose track of time completely. Something’s happening somewhere else, but you’re too exhausted and hopeless to wonder what it might be. “The Mechanics Of Embalming” falls into noise/ PE territory as it begins with the same distorted voice that reminds us of those black-gloved rapist assassins in 60s and 70s films, and then violently climaxes into the typical mix of PE vocals and harsh noise. Add to that some industrialized background sounds and you have yourselves one hell of a mayhem. Play that track loud.
From here onwards the album displays a sharper, more minimalistic sound focusing mainly on vocal samples combined with harsh noise passages and industrial orcherstrations. “Aktion-Freedom. Re-Aktion-Resistance” contains a sample from J. F. Kennedy’s address to the American Newspaper Publishers Association (April 27, 1961), referring to a secret ‘state within the state’ that makes it its business to conceal facts from the public, acting clandestinely to serve its obscure interests. With Edward Snowden’s recent revelations this suddenly becomes very relevant. “F.E.M.A. Care” questions the activities of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency, in relation to the widespread theory of concentration camps it has created in preparation for a third world war, or the declaration of martial law within the US. Around the third minute the track explodes into massive noise/ PE with a just a touch of dark ambient to keep the mind engaged while it’s being attacked by an increasingly brutalized array of sounds.
The two final tracks, “By All Means…” and “Suo Gan / Last Rights” follow one another in a presentation of the realities of war in two acts. Both contain samples from speeches by Winston Churchill and are themed on WW II. In “By All Means…” the words are partly dulled by buzzing, ringing noise that pierces the listener’s ears like a persistent wasp about to sting. And then comes a crushing sequence of harsh noise, with its heavily distorted, intense vocals sweeping over the soundscape. All the while another portentous dark ambient arrangement playing in the background. The multitude of vocal samples contained in this track – Winston Churchill on the one hand, Nazi military speeches on the other – forcefully emphasize the eternal, bloody conflict between oppression and freedom, restriction and control. “Suo Gan / Last Rights” continues in the same fashion to end graphically with operatic female vocals and religious children’s choirs continuing their quest for light amidst the sound of bombs dropping.
It seems to me that in this release it’s impossible to separate the means from the message, and I for one always appreciate a musician who is not afraid to take a stance and connect his music to the outside world. Contrary to ambient, undoubtedly more inclined towards introversion and individualism, noise is a combative genre that borrows its thematics from facts and reality. And the reality here is bleak, unrelenting, hopeless, imbibed with the colour of blood, perfumed with the stench of death. No inkling of light or ray of sunshine escapes through the cracks to illuminate a tragic humanity, the end of which is already in the cards. The horrors of history blend into what is ultimately reduced to the well-known battle between good and evil, and the sounds in this recording will fill your heart with fear, anxiousness and depression. Welcome to the desert of the real.