Wóddréa Mylenstede: Victors in the Loudness War
The war is over folks—and you and all your favorite bands with their brick-wall compression and clicky triggered drums and range-squashing plugins have been trounced. With their debut album Créda Beaducwealm, Wóddréa Mylenstede has come to lap up the blood of the slain and deliver all true believers to Loudness Everlasting.
Are you worthy?
Before pressing play on anything Wóddréa Mylenstede has ever recorded, I suggest you first turn the volume on your system/device/app of choice all the way down to ZERO and gradually, one cautious tick at a time, turn it back up. This will save you from having to replace your speakers, and more importantly it will save you the medical costs incurred by your skeleton actually jumping out of your skin. Imagine making love inside a quasar—or to a quasar. If you can’t, then you should give up now and limp back to whatever pansy-ass troupe of try-hards you call “loud”, because you are not ready for the manhandling your chi is about to receive at the behest of the deafening Wóddréa Mylenstede (henceforth WM).
Kidding, kidding. WM play lo-fi black metal and with cover art like that you should have known I was yanking your crank. They are not waging a war for loudness, rather against it. The production on Créda Beaducwealm is not more raw or lo-fi than any I’ve ever heard, but it is certainly on par with the worst of the worst. Rocking out to this album in any way is just not physically possible; if you were to attempt to bang or even just nod your head along, the throb of increased cranial bloodflow in your ears would drown out the beat. I doubt WM has ever come within 100 yards of a digital compressor. These guys have never—ever—cranked anything up to 11 in their lives. They’re not the first black metal band to record their album from the far end of a drainage pipe, and they will not be the last. But they do certainly pursue the lo-fi life as if they think there’s something more prestigious and tangible to be won than mere street cred.
I have no problem with atrocious production in general. It’s when bands take it to the level of seemingly un-self-aware parody that I start to get a little peeved. These days, it can be hard to tell if underground black metal bands really believe they’re delivering a solid product or if they’re just swept up in the misguided mystique of it all. But it was not always so. Let us step back ever-so-briefly into the annals of raw black metal history to see if we can’t pinpoint where it all went wrong.
First, Darkthrone. When Transylvanian Hunger (1994) came out, it landed as a powerful statement because there was room for a statement to be made. At the time, no one had sought to record a metal album on a four-track and release it unmastered—commercially. It is still debatable whether or not doing so is a great idea, but at least in Darkthrone’s heyday there weren’t an unmanageable number of black metal bands vying to one-up one another, so such an audacious and calculated move from one of the genre’s heavyweights was bound to make an impact. (If you haven’t heard Transylvanian Hunger, you can rectify this by firing up your coffee maker and shrieking into a wad of toilet paper over the gurgling and hissing coming from the pot.) On Transylvanian Hunger, tape hiss is a fifth instrument, and it overpowers all the others. I’m sure at the time of the recording Darkthrone were mostly serious about what they were doing. Now, with over twenty years of retrospect, and bearing in mind that Fenriz has a sense of humor about himself, it is easy to imagine how even he could cop to that album’s comedic aspect.
Regardless, fans took the album seriously. The Darkthrone fanboys playing in Ulver even went so far as to try to emulate this ludicrous rawness with their third album, Nattens Madrigal (1997)—with some very peculiar results. Not only are the (probably false) rumors that Nattens was recorded in a cabin in the woods believable, but the whole recording sounds as if it were intentionally sped up a notch or two, lending the rawness a truly deranged bent. It has been implied by involved parties that Nattens was a sardonic response to Century Media‘s desire for Ulver to release something similar to Bergtatt but “more gothic”. Being the jesters that they are, the band sent in the blisteringly harsh and borderline unlistenable Nattens Madrigal instead: essentially a middle finger to the label’s attempt to mold the band into something more commercially viable (“gothic” things were all the rage at the time). The major surprise here is that when you strip back the album’s bizarre production tricks, what you have is a batch of good-to-excellent songs. They bring the riffs, and bring them like a squall of teeth and nails. It is for this reason that Nattens has outlived the mystery and scandal surrounding it’s unconventionally and inadvisably raw production.
Given Ulver’s volition in releasing such an absurdity, and their label’s willingness to put it out despite their requests for a much different product, a question is raised: To what degree is parody damaging to art, and what responsibility do cheeky bands and apparently oblivious record labels bear for releasing utter bullshit under the guise of “the most extreme album you’ve ever heard”?
We’ve come a long way since then, and today the number of embarrassingly earnest purveyors of lowest-fi black metal stretches nigh infinity. Which brings us back to Wóddréa Mylenstede. Imagine trying to listen to Transylvanian Hunger with a hair dryer set on high and aimed directly at your face. Or imagine taking your buddy’s demo tape and trying to dub it to another tape that already has music on it, causing the two recordings to bleed and blur together. Créda Beaducwealm (not a demo) sounds like your thirteen-year-old neighbor’s clunky black metal band rehearsing in an apartment three floors above: sometimes you can just make out the faintest whiff of a song, or maybe just a riff; at others it just sounds like the drummer hitting things while everyone else tunes up. You actually have to adjust your ears over several minutes in order to learn how to hear whatever it is WM is presumably doing. From what little I am able to make out, it sounds as if they play a kind of blackened death rock: dreary guitar leads draped over motorik percussion, the vocals howled instead of crooned. There are some vaguely discernible loping blastbeats, but mostly the drums just plod along lifelessly. And you know that crackly noise your guitar amp makes for a split second when you first plug in? That screechity-scratchity sound that drives your cat to eat its children? Yeah, that noise is front and center here like a protracted cultish flatulence. Draped in the obligatory obscurity, the band themselves give us no choice but to assume they are dead serious when they present this to us and ask for our most grim approval. For certain there are numerous twisted connoisseurs of awfulness out there who will gobble this up and thirst for more. That’s fine, of course. As long as they can understand and accept why anyone else (even a fan of Black Cilice) would put on Créda Beaducwealm and just laugh.
To restate: I have no doubt that Darkthrone and Ulver were fully aware of the degree to which they were goofing on the recording industry and the genre of black metal as a whole when they did what they did. But somewhere along the way the point of these bold artistic statements became lost in the Extremity War, with the face-palming result that so many eager-to-displease bands in the black metal underground—in collusion with their boutique labels—don’t seem to see the folly in emulating parody with sincerity; they don’t seem to perceive how artistically bankrupt it is to release an album which their prospective audience will need to pull a muscle trying to hear, just to be cool.
The loudness war is bullshit: corporate greed driving homogeny, pandering to a desensitized public. And the lo-fi war is bullshit too. It is the other side of the same coin: bands and labels scrambling to out-cult one another by hiding an abysmal dearth of creativity or even basic song ideas beneath stratospheres of tape hiss and distorted tomfuckery. By now there ought to be a friggin’ Transylvanian Hunger Plugin for young black metal bands to use so they don’t have to bother figuring out how to recreate that classic analogue hiss themselves.
The short version: I like it lo-fi, but I have my limits, man.