I showed the album artwork of Xela's new album In Bocca Al Lupo to my friend, whose tastes skew a bit on the metal side, and the first phrase out of his mouth was an emphatic “That's fucking metal.” Indeed, the cover of John Twells' fourth full-length album is about as blasphemously dark as the blackest of black metal artwork. The artwork portrays a dying Christ laying on the ground, crown of thorns and wounds on his hands clearly visible, and being devoured by wolves. His entrails are seen cascading out of his torn-open lower torso (either because of the wolves or perhaps the spear that was thrust into his side at the crucifixion), and the word “Xela” is bloodily carved into his chest in capital letters.
This grisly scene is obviously meant to go along the album's title (or vice versa), translating to “in the mouth of the wolf.” But, interestingly and brilliantly, it's also an idiomatic Italian phrase meant as a wish for good luck, roughly equivalent to the English “break a leg.” Perhaps the title is wishing us good luck on the journey that will follow. The profound look of utter abandonment and pure isolation in the eyes of the slain Christ must be meant as a bellwether of things to come once you actually play the thing. While Xela's 2006 album, The Dead Sea, took its cues from modern-day masters of horror (Argento, Fulci, Lenzi, etc.), here he reaches further back into humanity's terrifying past, dredging up fears buried in crumbling Italian graveyards and echoing in underground chambers in Spanish cathedrals. The realities Xela forces upon us are more harrowing than any fictional story could ever aspire to be.
These are among the most bitter and forsaken drones I've ever wandered through. The opener “Ut Nos Vivicaret” alone is enough to evoke separation anxiety, soaking the listener so deeply in morbidity that a lifetime of Sharon Lois and Bram might not be cleansing enough. Metal scraping against metal is placed in deep freeze chambers in the center of a mile-thick glacier; empty tapes spin infinitely on their wheels; church bells call out through a thick haze of distortion. The bells are carried through to the second piece (or, really, the second part of the whole piece) “In Deo Salutari Meo,” where they drift around in a sea of background static, occasionally colliding and forming small clusters in vain attempts at coherence. Various crackling and chirping sounds, barely audible, crawl underneath it all, bringing us back to summer camp and the feelings of not being totally convinced that the stick breaking and leaf rustling outside our tent was just the wind. Here we see the audible results of Twells' research trips to abandoned churches and cathedrals in the countrysides of Spain and Italy. The underlying disquiet slowly builds and begins to seep through the floor of the track, crawling ominously up the wall, eventually coming to dominate the entire proceeding. It beings to seethe, hiding in bushes and peering down at us from the limbs of trees.
Disappearing and then darting in front of us again moments later, we are led into the third movement, “In Misericordia.” From the miasma of branches and mist overhanging some secret river, a foghorn is sounded over and over. Cries from the deck are lost among gentle but obscuring chimes, while bizarre radio transmissions are occasionally allowed to approach our senses tangentially. A true witches' brew of magikal frequencies, we have no choice but to drink. This potable comes to a boil on the final track “Beatae Immortalitatis.” Jed Bindeman of Heavy Winged fame stirs in a pinch of tribal drums to accompany the decline of the piece into a pit of writhing, buzzing pitches and distorted screams. Droning oscillator tones ooze up from the hole and begin to form globular shapes dancing around the periphery of it. The ox-slaughtering finale of Apocalypse Now comes to mind, except here the ceremony is presided over by a short-circuiting Merlin/Mechagodzilla hybrid. We are pulled toward and finally over the edge by both howling, teeth-gnashing sounds from the void and sounds of heretics being burned at the stake. It is these fading sounds that we are left with as we tumble into that perfect isolation from which we came.
On the back cover of the album is a quote. “Thou hast led me forth above the chaos, the region of chaos and extermination, in order that all the matters in it which are in that region, might be unloosed and all my powers be renewed in thy light, and thy light be in them all.” It's seemingly insignificant and could, easily overlooked as just more credits or legal jargon, but it actually serves to render the overall experience sensible. The quote comes from the “Pistis Sophia,” a seminal Gnostic text that claims to recount the teachings of the transfigured Christ to his disciples up to 11 years after the resurrection. While the album is obviously an exercise in pure terror and doesn't obscure this primary focus (it originated from an art installation dealing with fear), there is clearly both an allusion to the final hours of Christ's life and, I believe, a serious meditation on what those moments could have felt like. The quote seems to offer a type of meaning and justification for -- or a resurrection from (if you will indulge the metaphor) -- the suffering we've just endured, urging us to find value and meaning in our cold separateness. Going through the pains and fears of this incredible album, we can arrive, like Christ, at this type of transcendent, sublime isolation.
1. Ut Nos Vivicaret
2. In Deo Salutari Meo
3. In Misericordia
4. Beatae Immortalitatis