Godzilla Black – The Great Terror (avant-rock)

Posted on December 9, 2013


Triplejump Records 2013, 12” and DD album, 47m 52s

£12+ 12” £6+ DD



The Great TerrorI wasn’t supplied with a lyric sheet when this album was submitted for review, so my assessment of its verbal content is a bit fractional, but there’s no mistaking the central thrust of things, as evident in the title, and in the baleful, malevolent eyes of the infant staring out at us from the cover. This is dark shit. I don’t know where Godzilla Black see themselves, in the grand continuum of not-mainstream rock music; there are certainly echoes of a great many interesting zones of creative practice, and given the great prog-thaw that has taken place in recent years, I have little difficulty in describing their music as progressive, in the most positive senses of the term. They are an ensemble that reach wherever the hell they need to for the materials to pursue their creative agenda, but they achieve a sound that strikes me as being far more integrated than it is eclectic; all music (all art and all speech) is fusion, but this is an effective and seamless one. Many rock musicians have mined the more fuliginous end of the affective spectrum over the years, but most have done so in more obvious ways: the darker brands of metal are usually cartoonish (and quite deliberately so), although the more avant-garde black metal can seep into the listener’s sensibilities in quite a disturbing manner; goth and industrial music (with honourable exceptions) tends to rely on dirge and melodrama, without much real depth to its emotional schtick. Godzilla Black’s achievement is to create equally unsettling effects by means of musical and stylistic materials that are neither so bizarro at the one extreme, nor so obvious at the other; rather than cracking walnuts with a sledgehammer, they take a geologists’ mallet to the fault lines and deliver the gentlest of taps. This is not to say that their music is a tissue of subtlety and gentle inferences; it is frequently heavy and aggressive, but it goes about its work obliquely, it sneaks up on the listener and scares them out of their skin. The Great Terror indeed.

The album sets off with some of Godzilla Black’s trademark thunderous drumming (the two founding members are both drummers), and some droning sonorities, vocal and otherwise. These elements quite quickly resolve themselves into a song, but as a statement of intent, the first few bars are pretty instructive. It’s usually pretty clear that this is a creative endeavour situated within the broad territory (albeit the little-visited badlands) of rock music, but a lot of the time there’s no guitar. Instead the music is driven by heavy percussion, grinding overdriven bass and its own sheer intensity. This is not to say that there aren’t moments of flat-out heavy-guitar ear-bludgeoning, but the arrangements are by no means reliant on that timbre for their dynamic maxima; if there is one thing that stands out for me about the instrumental textures on The Great Terror, it’s their sheer variety. It’s the sort of record that, because it presents a very consistent set of moods and colours, and because its songs are written in a quite accessible musical language, doesn’t draw much attention to the artifice with which it is made. The listener is clearly intended to focus on its grim, threatening atmospheres, to be carried along on the power and ruthless determination of its artistic vision, but if they attend directly to the details of its construction they will discover a wealth of techniques and devices applied to the orchestration of the material. A great deal of thought and creative rigour has clearly been brought to bear on the question of how each song will be best served, of what the most important meanings of each composition are, and how they can be given the most space to realise themselves. The diversity of synthetic sounds, guitar tones, grooves, time signatures and combinations of instruments is pretty remarkable, considering how coherent and singular the album sounds overall. Spooky, Hammer horror melodies; thick, crushing guitar riffs; odd time signatures (with a particular penchant for those divisible by five); soulful vocal performances delivering disturbing and uncanny lyrical texts; overwhelmingly propulsive grooves; atonal saxophone freakouts; sophisticated, ethereal chord sequences; rich, choral vocal harmonies; gritty, pulsating drones; all these elements and many more go to make up the fabric of The Great Terror, but the weirdness that results is far more directed and focussed than anyone would expect from that description. And that’s because this is a collection of songs that would sound every bit as complete if they were performed by a single singer and accompanied by an acoustic guitar. Just as piano reduction of a properly musical orchestral score sounds, not like a stripped down orchestra, but a great piece of piano music, the core sounds of this music would survive a variety of treatments.

There is, of course, something spurious about separating a recording into ‘the material’, ‘the arrangement’, ‘the performance’ and ‘the production’; what we are presented with is a constructed sound, and speculating about its other possible manifestations is an ultimately fruitless pastime, unless I was intending to work up some cover versions. The meanings of The Great Terror would not survive its deconstruction, but it remains a useful observation that the aspects of the music commonly identified with composition are crucial to its arresting impact and compelling emotional landscape. A shapely melody and an engaging chord sequence can go a long way, and for all that Godzilla Black are putting their name to something dark, disturbing, even experimental, there’s a pop sensibility at work here. The majority of these songs have memorable, hummable tunes and repeated, striking lyrical refrains; they draw on a vocabulary that will be familiar to any rock audience, that melange of country, blues and subsequent developments that is so familiar as to be almost indescribable. Their meanings are complex, in a way usually associated with less direct approaches to musical discourse, but they are packaged in a digestible and appealing way. This is the source of their obliqueness, and their considerable surprise; nobody expects truffles and capers in a burger bun, or broken glass in a cupcake. I found myself carried along by the music like I was by the simplistic rabble-rousing punk anthems of my youth: that’s one thing when you’re being exhorted to drink some beer and smash the state; when the lyric is begging you to ‘hold me down/ with your hand over my mouth/ ’till it’s over’, it’s another thing. This is an album full of questions, and wisely short on answers; as a piece of creative discourse it demands that its audience ask questions of themselves, just as much as it posits its own queries of the universe. For many it will provoke a consideration of basic assumptions around pop music aesthetics; personally, I was forced to wonder why I find something so dark, so disturbing, and so outwardly misanthropic, to be so immensely entertaining and enjoyable! The Great Terror is a uniquely compelling, perfectly crafted record, as unhinged as it is musical, and as technically impressive as it is emotionally powerful. Rock music is rarely as intense or inventive as this.

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