Woe is me, Woe is you. Woe are we.
Woe is a name that has come across my desk numerous times over the years. I’ve sniffed tentatively at past releases before turning up my nose. I don’t remember why. I guess their thing just never clicked with me. But time destroys all things, including established musical tastes. And new album Hope Attrition presents as good a reason as any to find out what I’ve been missing.
Let’s start by getting the bitchy part out of the way. I have never liked this style of production, especially not when applied to black metal or any of its tag-shirking permutations. It bothers my ears; I have a hard time adjusting to it. Hope Attrition is too direct, too hot, too bright. It lacks atmosphere or grit of any kind; there isn’t a stitch of room ambience—either natural or synthetic—to be heard. Nor is there any sense of space (a pinch of audible reverb might have helped). All of the flavor is filtered out of it, leaving me at pains to taste anything at all.
There, I feel better now. On to the music.
In the best of cases, great music can transcend the restraints put upon it by production. Hope Attrition is one such case. The album peddles a brand of Americanized black metal that I have come to crave in recent years: more of a vivid color palate than an exercise in extreme darkness; more pissed off than evil; aged in quintessentially American musical traditions (hardcore, things preceded by the word “post”) the same way we age fine Imperial Stouts in bourbon barrels. The edges of the music are elastic and permeable, while the core remains an uncompromising concentration of fury, bombast and relentless energy.
The latter is destined to be Hope Attrition’s legacy. This album is relentless. Indefatigable. Exhausting. Besides the diminutive intermezzo of “A Distant Epitaph”, a forty-nine-second-long acoustic guitar piece which would be pointless if it weren’t the only palate-cleanser on the menu, the album offers nowhere to hide. No break to sit down and take a breather, gulp some water. No space or protective haze separating you from the paroxysms of wrath. The drums are robust and crystal clear, as are the vocals. The guitars present a smooth and uniform purée (am I hungry? I must be hungry) of distorted strumming, mimicked by the bass throughout. Sure, at times the drums drop into a half-time plod and the vocals dip from a shredding freakout to a loathsome growl, but the overriding intensity never eases off. It’s right up in your face and it will not back down. You have no choice but to be thoroughly manhandled for 40+ minutes. Afterward you will need a sandwich, a shower and probably some soothing aloe vera. If you’re prone to headbanging, maybe also a new neck.
From where does all this angst and aggression spring? Judging from the song titles–“Abject in Defeat”, “Unending Call of Woe”, “Drown Us with Greatness”–the overarching theme of the album is a sense of defeat. Given the current worldwide political climate, the question is not so much why Woe dwells on this topic as how they’ve managed to confront it without silent acceptance. Despite the bittersweet chords and brighter tones that intermittently seize the controls in Hope Attrition‘s bad vibe factory, the unifying message does not contain a single mote of optimism. This isn’t the sound of young musicians punching back against a world gone wrong like their forefathers in punk and hardcore. Rather, it is the sound of young musicians greeting defeat with vitriolic spasms of hate. Dousing themselves in failure, lighting the match and immolating.
In the process, Woe has trimmed the explorative tendencies of earlier years, discovering an undeniable focus. This is not exactly a great thing in my book–I love a nice hot mess of an album–but hey, it works. Hope Attrition is a force just begging for a good ol’ reckoning.