Xasthur Defective Epitaph

[Hydra Head; 2007]

Styles: black metal, funeral doom
Others: Bunkur, Catacombs, Khlyst, Corrupted

I really want to love Xasthur's Defective Epitaph. It has almost everything needed to obtain a modest following, or better yet, cult status in the black metal world. It's performed entirely by one man, Scott Conner (who goes by “Malefic”), and unlike most similarly promoted albums, it doesn't rely on sonic gimmicks or over-technical playing to succeed. One listen reveals Defective Epitaph's economy; a slow plod pushes you through the music in the funeral doom tradition, while the overt thrashing found elsewhere in the genre is absent. What's more, the album's production is absolutely homemade, always dark and murky and in tandem with its sound and general aesthetic. And there is a certain charm to such a basement feel, one rarely seen in metal, that makes Xasthur's attempt to convey ‘despair’ almost hyper-real and at times gut-wrenching. So, yes, in theory Defective Epitaph is pretty awesome and probably would have been one of my favorite albums of the year had it not been for... god... for the drums!

I'm usually forgiving of sloppy playing, especially if it suits a band's thesis or intent, but Defective Epitaph's epic crawl deserves a steadier hand, and Malefic's decision to play every instrument, including the drums, was a downright mistake. Have you ever heard a friend (or yourself, for that matter) sit down at a kit and bash out an amateur 4/4 beat, but to no avail? Most can muster a steady hi-hat, a kick on ‘one’ and a snare on ‘two,’ but not much else, and sadly, that's about all we get from Xasthur. You find the same uninspired rhythm track overdubbed on almost every song, practically as an afterthought. Even worse is the bland, demo-ish treatment of the drums, which wallow poorly in the mix. It's as if the same sonic, lo-fi tactic that works on the guitars, which are constantly chiming with an almost detuned, dissonant beauty, was applied to the drums without much consideration. In fact, every other sound on Defective Epitaph melds together to form a giant musical sludge, something altogether different from a single strummed guitar tone or an untreated vocal wail, but the rhythm never settles in.

Of course, those of you willing to embrace Defective Epitaph's homemade charms will find a lot to love beyond the percussion. Xasthur is trudging an interesting course within the ‘black metal’ realm, one that hopefully sets a precedent and expands the genre's base. It would be great if more ‘shredders’ realized that technical wizardry doesn't equal quality, and that in metal, it's all about mood. Xasthur obviously has that aspect pinned down, but for me, Defective Epitaph remains a surprising, yet frustrating example of how one sour ingredient can ruin the whole.

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