A decade into their career, Boston avant-doom quartet Ehnahre have mastered the art of the adaptation.
Based on the French poet Yves Bonnefoy’s “Theatre,” from 1953’s Du mouvement et de l’immobilité de Douve, Ehnahre’s new, fourth album (simply named Douve for the book’s titular river) brings to life flawlessly Bonnefoy’s original text. The words one might use to characterize “Theatre” would do equally well to describe the music of Douve: strange, luminous, violent, insectoid. Bonnefoy’s style–rich and densely creepy in both the original French or English–tends to evade easy analysis, and as such Ehnahre’s compositional approach is perfectly suited for its accompaniment.
Douve offers no particular cynosure; no instrument asserts its dominance through bombastic soloing or flashy tricks. In fact, some of the album’s strongest, strangest moments come when the band drop out almost completely and the music slows down Khanate-style to subzero tempos, as on “The Door Opens.” This isn’t to say, though, that Douve doesn’t offer musical highlights in spades–over the album’s 81-minute run time, everything from rushed blast beats (the singular standout “The Mute Limits”) to frigid piano solos (“Ceiling of Insects”) to sludgy, blown-out riffing (“Great Dogs of Leafage Tremble”) makes an appearance–but rather that every instrument knows its place, each content to service the song rather than show off.
As much as any of the 18 tracks here could be called a “song,” of course. Ehnahre know exactly when to punctuate their extended patches of near-silence with a colossal riff tower or a brief burst of speed as on “At Last Absent from My Head,” but the quartet concern themselves primarily with a kind of slow-burning snowball effect, gradually building to a bestial rumble both claustrophobically maximalist in terms of pure musical density and devastatingly minimalist in its overall effect. It’s this seeming dichotomy that lies directly at the heart of “Theater,” which recounts in fittingly bizarre terms a man’s loss of sanity as he witnesses the death and decay of his semi-corporeal lover. Bassist Ryan McGuire performs this part admirably (and ably assisted on two tracks by guest vocalist Ken Ueno), his howls and moans like those of a man possessed as his bandmates craft harsh aural beds around him. “Theater” documents a kind of depraved, wanton desire in the face of loss–a desire marred by deepest pain and desecration–so profound it completely, wholly wrecks your world. Through the subtlest of motions, Ehnahre and Bonnefoy are able to empty upon their audience volumes of information.
One point should be made, were it not already obvious: this is not a metal album by any definition. The Kathexis press release even posits it could “be the nail in the coffin that finally ostracizes [Ehnahre] permanently from the metal community.” For all its growled vocals and distorted guitars, Douve rends further the band from metal’s fold, and the band “wouldn’t have it any other way.” Ehnahre take a familiar concept–a traditional power trio plus a keyboardist–and go beyond their limitations to get truly, deeply weird. This band embraces freedom in its truest sense, incorporating moments of free improvisation that are genuinely exploratory and psychedelic and experimental. The following of tangential impulse in this music occurs on such a high level as to be nigh-indistinguishable from the rest of the music, as the musicians paint with raw sound wholly divorced from any stylistic indicators.
When they lock into a groove like the crushing ending of the aforementioned “The Mute Limits,” Ehnahre are a forcibly powerful, even brutal band, seemingly able to rip holes straight through the air solely by their volume. In these rare moments of unified riffery, the quartet focus in on a headspinningly exact steamroller of sound, honing in on the listener for a precision strike. It’s impossible to hear such sections without imaging some sort of writhing, snorting bull or a huge machine or even an unstoppable, elemental force. Guitar and bass are no longer instruments of music; here they are used to simply tear sheets of sound apart, releasing unending streams of aggravated notes, as if each tone was so terrified it scrambled and sputtered its way out from under the stampede. Some ring out while others are crushed underfoot, shrieking and squeaking as they are trampled.
Naturally, such moments are followed by the record’s most pensive. “Attempted Rift in the Thickness of the World” is all rumbling contrabass and shuttering acoustic guitar. Ehnahre split the difference between titanic pseudo-sludge and minimalist chiming between tracks or even in single riffs via the snowball effect to which I alluded previously, deftly maneuvering the various sounds by avoiding any strict genre codifiers.
Douve is a superlative, idiosyncratic masterpiece. Through a myriad of sounds and atmospheres, Ehnahre exactly map Bonnefoy’s troubled narrative to musical structures to which they had previously only hinted. The band has already announced a new EP; if it ends up half as good as Douve, it will already have eclipsed anything else 2016 brings to the table.