Thursday, November 26, 2020
Imperial Trimphant - Alphaville
Imperial Triumphant is one of those hot new properties that has taken the music snob world by storm, and it's easy to see why. This is utterly whacked out, high concept avant garde madness. Their aesthetic is not only incredible and unique (a type of art deco/retrofuturist pastiche with an undercurrent of decay seeping through every jagged angle) but it perfectly complements their overarching theme of high society elites being not-so-secretly baby eating monsters. This discordant juxtaposition between the callous sociopathy of the upper class and the mud-caked destitution of the lower class is flawlessly executed in the way the music itself works as well, with dissonant jangleblack, amelodic walking basslines, and utterly chaotic percussion clashing against big band brass, barbershop quartets, and tribal hand drums. The entire experience is fractured and disorienting in a way that feels entirely intentional. It's rare you get a metal album so unafraid to step outside the boundaries of what metal is "supposed" to be (something I wish more bands explored) and to hear a concept so seamlessly intertwined with the music itself. You don't need to read anything that spells it out for you to understand it, the industrial clangs and high-falutin' phoniness of the glitzy elements are so square-peg-round-hole against the cyclonic whirlwind of the dominant metal sections that it's obvious on its own.
The problem with all of this is that it sucks. It's... it's so, so unbearable to listen to, holy shit.
In Robin D. G. Kelley's biography of Thelonious Monk, he tells a story wherein he is desperately trying to replicate Monk's unique style of jazz piano, complete with weird off-time clunks and blangs (he wasn't nicknamed "Melodious Thunk" without reason) and no matter how hard he tried he simply couldn't get the sound right. It became clear to him why when he had a dream where he was struggling during practice before Monk himself approached him and said "You're making the wrong mistakes."
That quote never left my mind throughout the entirety of Alphaville. Imperial Triumphant is so clearly doing everything in their power to create a disorienting soundscape of jazzy avant garde black metal and despite doing seemingly everything correctly, making all the fucked up noises in all the spots you might expect, it still sounds like they're screwing up in all the wrong places and wind up creating a discordant nightmare that physically hurts to listen to despite their intention being executed perfectly. The climax of "City Swine" sounds exactly like what I'd expect metalheads who completely misunderstood Monk to sound like; a hellish whirlwind of amelodic piano smashes against seemingly free time blast beats an atonal bass runs. It conceptually showcases why the planet-sized thumb of class inequality absolutely sucks to live under when you're not on top, but in doing so they wind up creating music that... well, absolutely sucks. Monk is also the originator of the famous quote about jazz being just as much about the notes you aren't playing as the notes that you are, and Imperial Triumphant apparently threw this piece of advice straight the fuck out the window because they play every single note in existence at every second. The value of silence seems to be approached during more introspective moments like the bass and snare outro of "Atomic Age" that leads into the solo piano intro of "Transmission to Mercury" but it comes at the tail end of eight excruciating minutes of indecipherable nonsense. The off-puttingly weird quiet moments actually work pretty well, all told, but they're bookended by unlistenable bullshit. "Transmission to Mercury" is one of the standouts purely because that smooth intro goes on for so long and gives the most welcome reprieve from the eyeball-spinning cacophony that populates the rest of the record.
I gave extremely high marks last year to White Ward's sophomore album, Love Exchange Failure, particularly because I thought the smooth saxophone melodies didn't add a new dimension to atmoblack as much as it filled a space that I didn't realize was empty before. Alphaville does the exact opposite thing by cluttering every space with so many 2smart4u elephant noises, rattling clangs, and screeches that it makes me beg for sweet release the longer it goes on. Each new track introduces a new sonic element that intentionally clashes against what the band was doing ten seconds before, which in itself was already a cacophonous mess. It's the musical equivalent to letting a six year old choose toppings for a sundae. The title track is basically the only piece on the whole album where it manages to go a solid five minutes or so where the concept is executed in a way that doesn't sound like a kid fucking around in Guitar Pro, and that's with the caveat that once those five minutes are up it goes right back into sounding like a shootout in a music store.
Maybe all of this sounds great to you, and that's fine. This is certainly tailor made to appeal to flannel-clad /mu/people, bearded pipesmoking hipsters, and hygiene-deficient avant garde unmusic fans to jerk themselves off around while normies like me grimace and stick my fingers in my ears, and there's nothing inherently wrong with being those things (but please, take a shower). But something like Liturgy breaks all of metal's rules while creating something that resonates emotionally, blending incoherent, pretentious philosophical sophistry with music that punches you directly in the heart and forces you to reassess what black metal is even supposed to be. Imperial Triumphant breaks all of metal's rules while creating something that sounds like flailing children who have no fucking idea what they're doing. Alphaville is the high budget version of "terrible on purpose" and I didn't enjoy one single second of this disaster. Maybe I'm missing the point or it simply isn't for me, but that doesn't prevent me from hearing a discordant hellsong like "Excelsior" and considering picking up smoking again just so I can die slightly sooner.