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Ashenspire - Hostile Architecture CD (album) cover




Tech/Extreme Prog Metal

4.11 | 27 ratings

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5 stars

Ashenspire's Speak Not of the Laudanum Quandary slipped under my radar for two years after its release, but I was suitably impressed when I finally heard it and wrote, "I foresee great things from these guys in the future." So naturally, when the band announced Hostile Architecture, my expectations were already high; they were piqued further by the intriguing album description, and still further by its uniformly glowing reviews in the music press.

Sometimes, when I go into an album with expectations that high, I find myself disappointed. I'm pleased to report that the opposite was the case here. As terrible as 2022 has been on most fronts, it's been a fantastic year for music, and I was having a hard time narrowing down my favourite album of the year so far. Ashenspire helpfully solved that dilemma for me by blowing all other contenders out of the water.

Speak Not of the Laudanum Quandary was a fantastic debut, but while the comparisons to A Forest of Stars might've been rather glib, it's difficult to deny that Ashenspire wore their influences on their sleeves on their debut. (An overlooked influence is Devil Doll, confirmed by Ashenspire and almost certainly an influence on A Forest of Stars as well. [ETA: A Forest of Stars have in fact confirmed this in at least three separate interviews.] Without the Mr Doctor-like Sprechgesang of both Alasdair Dunn and Dan Eyre's vocals, I think perhaps the latter two would've felt less similar, though Laudanum Quandary's Victorian theme would've still invited the comparisons regardless.) Where the record lacked in originality, it made up for it with execution – its performances, songwriting, and arrangements were fantastic all around.

Hostile Architecture keeps up the execution, perhaps even one-upping its predecessor on that front, but the band here shifts focus from the legacy of history to the state of the modern world, and the result is all the stronger for it. It's the Teethed Glory and Injury to the debut's White Tomb, if I may compare their progression to Altar of Plagues'. I don't make that comparison frivolously, as Teethed Glory was one of my favourite albums of the 2010s, if not my absolute favourite, and I hadn't heard another record that felt like a spiritual successor to it both in terms of tone and in terms of quality. Until this one.

Please forgive a brief digression on what makes a work avant-garde. The quick answer is, (shrug emoticon). But obviously, it contains an element of pushing boundaries. This may take several forms. Take two seminal '60s avant-garde acts, the Velvet Underground and the Mothers of Invention. The Velvets were avant-garde on multiple fronts: they were musically inventive, using musical forms and instruments that had never been attempted in what might be charitably described as popular music; and lyrically inventive, frankly discussing topics like drug addiction, prostitution, sadomasochism, homosexuality, transvestitism, gender dysphoria, and abuse that had previously been taboo in what might be charitably described as popular music. And on top of that, their music still slaps. The Mothers of Invention were likewise, if you'll pardon the pun, inventive, blending elements from pop, rock, classical, jazz, blues, and basically any other genre they could think of, effectively inventing progressive rock in the process (Absolutely Free, arguably the first true progressive rock album, came out the same day as Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, thus preceding In the Court of the Crimson King by over two years and Days of Future Passed by six months), and their music was likewise fantastic. Yet, if someone blends those elements today in a similar way, they aren't avant-garde; they're imitators. They might be very good imitators, but they aren't avant-garde. It's intrinsic to the definition of avant-garde: it's literally French for before the guard, or (less literally) vanguard. Thus, a crucial element of the avant-garde is originality. It might be the crucial element.

Speak Not of the Laudanum Quandary wasn't wholly unoriginal; you could hear the seeds of the band's own sound developing on that album. In the five years between its release and Hostile Architecture's, those seeds have fully taken root and flowered more beautifully than I could've imagined possible. To be clear, this isn't an album people will, on its surface, describe as "beautiful". Its dominant emotion is justifiable fury at the state of the world, which is intrinsic to its subject matter. Where we might say Laudanum Quandary focuses on the political as personal, as part of its protagonist's personal development towards understanding the legacy of empire, we might say Hostile Architecture focuses on the personal as political: your suffering isn't accidental; it's a direct consequence of how the system has been deliberately constructed. As "The Law of Asbestos" (one of the best album openers I've ever heard, by the way) puts it, "This is not a house of amateurs; this is done with full intent."

The lyrics to Laudanum Quandary were often abstract and poetic; it wasn't an apolitical album (indeed, it announced its politics on its very cover, and the band has always self-identified as Red/Anarchist Black Metal), but the cover aside, its politics were implicit, found under a sea of abstraction. Hostile Architecture's stance is explicitly anarchist; its entire edifice, if you'll pardon the obvious architecture metaphor, is its stance that the entire system is rotten from the foundation up, designed to enrich the few at the expense of the many. The only ethical solution is to demolish the power structures that perpetuate these inequalities and replace them with a system founded on just, equitable distribution of power – in short, anarchy (and not the popular misconception of chaos: anarchy is simply an Anglicisation of the Greek ἀναρχίᾱ, or anarkhíā, formed from ἀν for without, ᾰ̓ρχή for rulership, and ίᾱ to form an abstract noun; thus, it means the lack of rulers).

I've thus far only alluded to Hostile Architecture's musical style because the shift in Ashenspire's style since Laudanum Quandary is inextricably linked to their shift in subject matter. They often sounded like A Forest of Stars on Laudanum Quandary because that's the natural sound for a progressive black metal band to take when focusing on the Victorian era. Here, they focus on modern urban structures, both physical and metaphorical; it wouldn't do at all to sound like A Forest of Stars here.

Thus, Hostile Architecture is much bleaker; the saxophone often feels reminiscent of the dark jazz we might associate with urban landscapes. (I'm sure Ashenspire will receive comparisons to White Ward, but as obvious as and flattering as the comparison might be, and as likely as it is that White Ward was an influence, they feel very different – White Ward is primarily depressive where Hostile Architecture is primarily furious.) Hostile Architecture has a strong industrial element (they'll probably also receive comparisons to Norway's Shining, especially given the saxophone; that feels slightly closer to the mark, but they're still quite different), and at times they delve into folk as well: "The Law of Asbestos" contains hammered dulcimer from Botanist's Otrebor (whose band rules, by the way), alongside James Johnson's violin and Matthew Johnson's saxophone, which gives its opening movement a bit of a Celtic folk metal feel. But the dominant style is utterly furious avant-garde/industrial black metal.

The only comparisons I can make for most of the album are to Teethed Glory and Injury, or much of Blut aus Nord's work, but while I rank both in the upper echelon of avant-garde/black metal, the comparison feels inadequate. I have my suspicions that both Teethed Glory and Blut aus Nord influenced this album [ETA: Dunn has confirmed the former in an interview], but it's quite different from either. It's, in many ways, where Ashenspire had to go after Laudanum Quandary: having examined the past's impacts on the present day, it was the logical next step to examine the present day itself. I doubt either Altar of Plagues or Blut aus Nord would much disagree with Ashenspire's bleak depiction of the world (Blut aus Nord's work is rarely openly political, but mastermind Vindsval has denounced nationalism and said his political views resemble Wolves in the Throne Room's), but neither has ever written an album this overtly political.

These are some of the best metal lyrics I have ever heard, of quality comparable to Deathspell Omega's and Pyrrhon's. Here's the closing segment to "The Law of Asbestos":

            Always three months to the gutter. Never three months to the peak.
            Another day to grind your fingers for the simple right to eat.
            Always three months to the gutter. Never three months to the crown.
            Another deep breath of asbestos in a godforsaken town.
            Always three months to the gutter. Never three months to the top.
            Another set of fucking homeless spikes outside another empty shop.
            Always three months to the gutter. Never three months to ascent.
            This is not a house of amateurs. This is done with full intent.

Simple, direct, and powerful – it's some of the most effective use of repetition I've ever heard in a metal song.

Dunn's delivery throughout the album sounds like a furious Twelfth Doctor channelling the Sprechgesang of Mr Doctor (Peter Capaldi and Alasdair Dunn are both Glaswegian, so their similar speech cadences are not coincidental; and as Ashenspire explicitly cites Devil Doll as an influence, the similarity to Mr Doctor's manner of delivery is undoubtedly not coincidental either). His delivery of the above passage is full of seemingly every bit of the fury the lyrics demand, and the music backs it up. Then the band doubles the tempo, and Dunn repeats the passage even more furiously.

A note for non-British listeners: This song's line "Grenfell burns again" refers to the Grenfell Tower fire of 2017, which killed 72 people. The fire was exacerbated by faulty cladding that was widely used throughout Britain; in its aftermath, Dame Judith Hackett wrote that the entire British building regulatory system was "not fit for purpose", and by June 2020, some 2,000 high-rise buildings had been identified as at risk of similar files. The British government pledged 5 billion to remediate fire safety problems, which still fell far short of the costs incurred; many were thus borne by flat owners who'd believed the properties they'd bought had been properly built.

I could write an entire essay just on "The Law of Asbestos", but that would leave the rest of the album to cover. However, I'm not going to write a track-by-track review or note every highlight; I've gushed for long enough as it is, and I don't mean to spoil every pleasant surprise it has to offer. (Plus, I wouldn't give a 100% to an album if I didn't consider the entire album to be a highlight.) The title Hostile Architecture may derive from architecture designed to produce physical discomfort, but clearly, the album doesn't merely focus on literal physical examples of hostile architecture; its thesis is that society's entire edifice is hostile architecture. And it's full of fantastic lines like "When you can't see the stars, you stop dreaming of space" ("Béton Brut") and "There are no great men, only the great many" ("Tragic Heroin"). The arrangements, songwriting, and performances are universally impeccable, but I need to single out Dunn's drumming in particular – it's phenomenal.

One of the album's most-discussed tracks has been the interlude "How the Mighty Have Vision", where Dunn is joined by a four-part choir consisting of Rylan Gleave and Maud the Moth's Amaya López-Carromero. It's a fascinating change of pace, and one of the few times Dunn sings on the album – and he uses the expected traditional black metal rasp even less often. His dominant vocal style is Sprechgesang, which helps the album's message hit all the harder, since his words are all (despite his obvious Glasgow accent) clearly enunciated in the manner of an angry sermon.

I need to single out one further highlight: the closer "Cable Street Again", which refers to the Battle of Cable Street, a confrontation on Cable Street, located in London's East End, between some 2,000 to 5,000 members of Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists in and anywhere from 100,000 to over 310,000 antifascist counterdemonstrators. East End at the time had a large Jewish population, and some 100,000 East Londoners had signed a Jewish People's Council petition asking for the march to be banned. Ultimately, due to the presence of so many counterdemonstrators, the police called the BUF to march in the West End instead. Although the BUF's membership went up in the immediate wake of the Battle of Cable Street, it fatally sank their cause in the long run; Mosley's image as a strong leader was indelibly tarnished by the event, and ultimately the Public Order Act of 1936 banned the wearing of political uniforms like the Blackshirts' and required police permission for large gatherings such as the BUF's march.

But that was 1936, and today's feckless politicians can't be relied upon to suppress Fascism. Indeed, if the BUF hadn't faced such public opposition, it's unlikely that Britain's leaders at the time would've taken such strong steps either. Fascists took over Italy and Germany through legal means – unethical, but legal. The state can't be relied upon to protect us, and the current state of society is no accident; it's the result of a system working as intended. Dunn says:

            The violence is here. Modern Blackshirts in the streets.
            What good is civility in the face of a kerb full of teeth?
            'Tis no broken system; but the product of it.
            You cannot fix that which is working as intended.
            Gnashing-toothed printing press. Virulent. Caustic.
            They bound the fasces themselves. Sharpened the axe.
            Know this; they aren't resting, nor reading the rules.
            They're desperate for war; gagging for it.
            If it's to be Cable Street again, we won't win through debate.
            You can't reason with malice. The fasces must break.

            If this is against the grain, then the blight really has set in.
            The furrowing of brows and the festering of blame. Misshapen and bent.
            It's not the fucking corner shop that drives up your rent.
            They salted the soil! Buried up to your neck in the debts of your station.
            But this is where it ends. There's no middle road.
            And I tell you;
            Get down off the fence
            before the barbed wire goes up.

I've written thousands of words about this album, and yet in truth, nothing I say could sum up its greatness better than Ashenspire's own words do. The best I can hope is to provide exegesis.

Hostile Architecture is quite likely to be my album of the year, and possibly of the decade. It's immediately bracing on first listen and reveals further depth on subsequent ones. Its songwriting, arrangement, performance, originality, and lyrics are beyond reproach and not merely supplement but provide foundations for each other. Its form and style are results of its content, and its content makes its form and style even more effective. It's inventive because of its style and form, and because no metal album has addressed these problems as directly, as effectively, or as ingeniously. Ashenspire's message is urgent and vital, and by wrapping it in one of the most satisfying listens I've heard this year or any other, they've given it a power and urgency that are not merely refreshing but necessary.


(Note: I've also posted this review to Rate Your Music and have submitted it to Metal Archives.)

CassandraLeo | 5/5 |


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