The nightmare swirls and churns forever.
“The premonition of madness is complicated by the fear of lucidity in madness, the fear of the moments of return and reunion, when the intuition of disaster is so painful that it almost provokes a greater madness…. One would welcome chaos if one were not afraid of lights in it.”
– Cioran, On the Heights of Despair
When Dodecahedron’s self-titled debut released in early 2012, the most frequent reaction (so far as I saw) was along the lines of “where the hell did this come from?” The band was hitherto unknown, aside from some member links to Exivious, and between the album’s careful balance of shrieking, ice-cold dissonance with eerie melodicism, its periodic shifts between off-kilter time signatures and tasteful ambient sections, and the ineffably alien quality present throughout, it inevitably drew comparisons to Deathspell Omega (DsO). These comparisons weren’t entirely off the mark, but were disingenuous; besides DsO analogies being overused, they tended to write off Dodecahedron as a mere clone or wannabe, when to my ear the former were far more than that. After a few listens it seemed clear that Dodecahedron were one of the relative few- alongside Krallice– that could claim the title “technical black metal,” simultaneously more and less orthodox than the hermetic French Satanists who garner so much attention.
Fast forward to 2017 and Dodecahedron is back with their sophomore album, Kwintessens. Fans of their debut will be pleased to learn that, though the band explores structural changes in songwriting, by and large their original appeal remains intact. Actual riffs are present, a quality sometimes in short supply with dissonance-based groups. The lyrics still engage, despite- or perhaps because of- esotericism bordering on “what did I just read.” The songs aren’t overly long- not at all- by black metal standards, running an average of just over five minutes, with the album as a whole clocking in at a very respectable forty-one minutes. Both the length of Kwintessens and the distribution of its musical themes are therefore very concise. Engagement with the music doubtless had its role, but my first three listens flew by so quickly that Trap Them’s Crown Feral, for instance, felt longer. The overall result is what feels like a bypassing, mostly, of the meanderings that so frequently plague black metal.
Proceeding with a brief look song to song, then, what we get is the following. Kwintessens provides us with an instrumental prelude (so named; the allusions to classical structure throughout are plain), which churns through a slow crescendo propelled by driving, almost martial snare work. It feels more like a warm-up exercise than anything else, as it doesn’t establish any musical themes; without pause it segues into “TETRAHEDRON – The Culling Of The Unwanted From The Earth,” which is what fans of the debut probably expected, namely, a manically atonal guitar line reeling up and down the register, underpinned by the usual relentless blasting, and progressing through several themes. This continues through “HEXAHEDRON – Tilling The Human Soil,” which keeps the energy level high but, about two-thirds of the way through, begins to risk wearying the listener; variation begins to thin out and if the album had continued as such, the final verdict would have been that it suffers from a critical mass of sameness. Fortunately for us, the group manages to dodge that, which brings us to the rest of the album- and the structural elements that elicit particular interest.
Dodecahedron underwent the same risk of sameness track to track, but dodged it by building tension and aggression through the first three tracks, then transitioning into the hellish electronic soundscape of “Descending Jacob’s Ladder,” which broke the musical tension while simultaneously boosting the psychological discomfort of the listener. Kwintessens keeps that idea but pushes the envelope a bit, by allowing “Interlude,” itself an instrumental, to lessen the aural assault less so than did “Descending Jacob’s Ladder,” not so much granting the listener a reprieve as slowing from a gallop to a fast trot. “OCTAHEDRON – Harbinger” picks the pace right back up for three minutes, drops into ambience for a minute and a half, then resumes blasting away. The effect of “Interlude” and “OCTAHEDRON” together, then, is twofold: a) that the audience receives two slight rests rather than a more substantial break, perhaps testing their endurance further, but also b) that the album moves more smoothly track to track. Granted, Dodecahedron’s sound will never be described as “smooth” except according to their own standards, but by toning down the contrast between tracks they manage to find a middle ground between keeping momentum and granting the audience a break, however minute.
Where things get truly weird, however, is with the standout track of the album, the aptly named “Dodecahedron – An ill-Defined [sic] Air Of Otherness.” From the get-go, the track in question comes across as more of an exercise in … I don’t know, schizophrenic blackened post-rock than anything else, with the weird, octave-jump main riff, heavy samples and synth, and stylistic shift in the vocals that I can only describe as “howling.” It’s not happy by any means, and isn’t major key, but it’s sufficiently lush that compared to the rest of the album it comes across- for a bit- as practically Elysian. This is further accented by the granting of another ambient break, broken up by a blasting finish and an abrupt transition into “Finale,” the latter also devoted to atmosphere rather than bludgeoning. At this point in the album, nearing its end, we see a trend from the all-out assault of the beginning into increasingly frequent breaks, whether ambient, instrumental, or whispered/spoken word; the effect, perhaps the intent, is to transition the listener from being beaten to death to being thoroughly discomfited, if physically intact.
That final element is brought about by the coda: “ICOSAHEDRON – The Death Of Your Body.” It’s telling that the band wasn’t content to end the album, as a more orthodox approach would, on its self-proclaimed finale. Instead, the black metal blast resumes with twisted chordal work that almost brings to mind an organ (a la Lychgate), but this time also retaining the prominence of the synth pads and samples, to the point where Dodecahedron reach perhaps their idea of resolution- not a finish in any conventional sense, but a coalescing of priorly disparate elements, and at the breaking point an abrupt cutoff into your, the listener’s, nauseated and traumatized limbo. Thus ends the album. Hardly the relatively conservative and contained approach of Dodecahedron’s “View From Hverfell” suite. It ends not so much with a bang as with a snarl.
Shifting gears now, to production. Kwintessens isn’t going to win any awards for its production, but neither is it offensive; while we’re not dealing with the gorgeous organic quality of Zhrine’s Unortheta, neither are we dealing with the what-the-fuck brickwalling of Fallujah’s The Flesh Prevails. The low-mids are quite prominent, perhaps dominant, and both high and low ends of the spectrum are held strictly in check, which results in a relatively smooth listen; the high mids will still come through and wake you up when the band decides to shift gears, as in the transition from “Interlude” to “Octahedron,” but you won’t find such elements as the maximum-gain-snare of the debut. If you liked the sterile, almost clinical effect of the debut, evoking as it did visions of madness and abandoned psychiatric wards, Kwintessens’ production may be a step back, but only slightly. If you found the debut a bit too, again for lack of a better word, “hysterical,” this may treat your earholes more kindly.
I may not come back to Kwintessens quite as frequently as I do Dodecahedron; it’s not without its (mercifully brief) moments where one’s patience is tested, but it seems as if the group were partly aware of these, and addressed them before they became a substantial complaint. In the end, we have to ask ourselves: “what should we look for in Dodecahedron, a few years into their existence?” Technicality? Still here, in spades. Engaging riffs and melody that, while bizarre, are easily discernible, and all the more welcome for it? Got it. Pushing the limits of experimental black metal while keeping in mind that, above all, music should be listenable? Check. Coming off as completely fucking deranged? Yep. This is not the music you play to your therapist, unless you two really get along. But it is the music you put on when you want to be challenged, intellectually and emotionally. Dodecahedron made as big a splash as they did a few years ago for a reason, and they haven’t lost that drive. If anything, the band as malevolent spirit has only grown more confident, and thanks to them and their adventurous brethren in Thantifaxath, Lychgate, and the like, black metal is still very much a vibrant, fecund, and supremely relevant subgenre as we move forward.