Today, I’ll be starting a new (hopefully regular) column, where I’ll highlight obscure, underground or just plain weird albums that probably haven’t received the serious listen they deserve. I want to get this new feature off right, so let’s talk about a recent indie weirdie from recent years, 2012’s “Al Azif” by France’s blackened death metal outsiders, The Great Old Ones.
Early 20th Century pulp horror writer H.P. Lovecraft has gone from fringe figure to being a major influence in literature, art, film and music. He died in obscurity, but, today, stories like “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Colour Out of Space” and “The Shadow Out of Time” are considered horror classics — and many of his stories have been turned into feature films.
Now, Lovecraft’s work has popped up on music before — the two most obvious examples are Metallica’s “The Thing That Should Not Be” and “The Call of Ktulu” of course, but Australia’s Portal also seems to have a strong Lovecraft connection. Other bands drop references here and there, and non-signed guitarist Brett Miller released an instrumental album last year entirely of Lovecratian-inspired material.
But The Great Old Ones might be the only signed band for whom Lovecraft’s universe of unimaginable, sanity-ripping monster deities inspire every single one of their songs. The band’s excellent “Tekeli-Li” was a concept album based on the novella “At The Mountains of Madness,” and some special orders of the disc even shipped with a copy of the story.
“Al Azif,” which came before, is not a concept album exactly, but it each song is based on a Lovecraft story, such as “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Music of Erich Zann.” But anyone can take a song and stick a Lovecraft title on it — more than one artist has tried. It’s a lot tougher to craft a song that actually sounds like a Lovecraft story should sound, in all his unimaginable, chaotic, cosmic horror.
I wouldn’t call the Great Old Ones “black metal,” but the band uses some of the conventions of black metal throughout “Al Azif.” But there’s more melody here than in, say, your traditional Mayhem or Emperor classic, and the songs often switch from black metal to melodic passages more reminiscent of Opeth than Burzum.
The songs, for lack of a better term, sound vast. The band is not interested — and does not attempt — to shred. No one band member stands out, and even the vocals blend into the mix instead of taking center stage. The melodies are big — yet also off-kilter and off-key. There’s certainly a beauty here, particularly on songs like “Visions of R’lyeh” and the “Rue D’auseil,”but it’s an odd beauty, like green clouds in a maelstrom. The album has the feeling of being wind swept, or ocean tossed.
Since the band is so devoted to themes and concepts of Lovecraft, it’s fair to ask: Can people not familiar with Lovecraft’s work find value in “Al Azif?” I can’t answer for certain — I ran into Lovecraft’s work when I was 14 and have been a fan of what is generally called “The Cthulhu Mythos” ever since.
(Side Note: Yes, I’m familiar with Lovecraft’s racism — how could I not be, considering some of the more shocking descriptions of African-Americans and other racial groups, particularly in stories like “Herbert West: Re-Animator”? I’d say people can still find value in Lovecraft, while certainly acknowledging and being distressed by his examples of racism. I’d also say you can find an excellent rebuttal or reexamination of Lovecraft’s racial views in Victor LaValle’s recent novella, “The Ballad of Black Tom,” which revisits Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” through the perspective of a African-American musician/hustler who gets caught up in the chaos of the original story).
But I digress. I think overall, a person doesn’t have to appreciate Lovecraft works, or even know them, to enjoy the atmospherics and the bludgeoning metal — of “Al Azif.” The album stands solidly on its own — it’s dark and doomy, with a hint of the progressive and more than a bit of groove. It has a heavy vibe that I enjoy, whether I’m reading “The Colour Out of Space” for the 20th time, or washing my car. (Who am I kidding? I never wash my car…)
The band signed to Season of Mist earlier this year, and were scheduled to begin recording their third album in May. I’m looking foward to hearing where the band goes next.