With Hearts Toward None
posted on 4/2012 By:
The immutable laws of statistics being what they are, it should come as no surprise that genre orthodoxy is a crutch much more often than a crown. Thus, when a band comes along that unswervingly embraces every last convention of a particular style not out of sloth or lack of inspiration but rather the grimly gleeful certainty that the old ways still breathe, writhe, and yearn to be perfected, well, friends, you may just owe it to yourself to bend thy ears to the sway. Mgla is one such band, and the Polish outfit’s second full-length album With Hearts Toward None is a stunning cantata of rapturous misanthropy.
Mgla’s entrancing sound falls on that tautly-stretched line connecting the rawer to the more melodic schools of black metal that is so typical of other orthodox black metal groups, so partisans of the furrowed-brow severity of Si Monumentum…-era Deathspell Omega, Ofermod, Malign, Ondskapt, and so on will know generally what to anticipate, though mastermind M. (who handles all guitars, bass, and vocals) and drummer Darkside, also band-mates in the excellent Kriegsmaschine, wring every last gasp of inspiration from this well-established template. M.’s guitars, while relying heavily on rueful minor-key tremolo melodies, easily avoid sounding stale by building from slightly unusual intervals and unexpected chord progressions rather than on standard arpeggios or purely ascending/descending melodic lines.
Darkside’s drum performance is never ostentatious, but always in service of the beautifully bleak melodies conjured again and again from M.’s strings. Still, the drums are the key element in allowing Mgla to barrel through repetition after repetition of a few strong riffs and not just keep up but also gain irrepressibly in momentum (see the busy but tasteful cymbal work in “VII,” or the pace-setting snare rolls that crop up from time to time). Unhinged zealotry is a near-must in the vocal department for this brand of black metal, and on that count, M. is a devoted medic on a battlefield of souls, an Augustinian Verdun; his caustic ministrations, however, make clear that your successful convalescence is likely the furthest thing from his mind.
With Hearts Toward None is, more than anything else, an exercise in constantly building tension. As such, as good as its individual songs may be, the album’s careful architecture forms a coherent narrative arc, like a symphony or a masterful essay (provided the violins were strung with razor wire and the essayist’s quill slept in a basin of bloody cabernet). “With Hearts Toward None I” (the album continues Mgla’s frequent decision to title each song as an unnamed movement in the broader whole) is a brilliant opening, leading off immediately with a beautifully dark wave of tremolo acrobatics while robustly natural-sounding drums lead a surging momentum that continually builds to the point of collapse, then retreats and rebuilds, always lunging for something just out of reach: “No golden thrones to follow, / no shrines of solace to be found. / And only locusts shall sing / at the end of the day.” The slower, gently tumbling melody of “II” suggests a continuation of part one’s thought, and its internal tension burgeons with the slightest of jazz flourishes on the high hat: “the great sower descends to reap the crops.”
The entire album is a cresting wave, surging forward with a seething, electric impatience that just barely stays in line; each song is relentless in its intensity-through-repetition, creating a dual momentum, both intra- and inter-song. Still, “III” is the undisputed album highlight, playing up its religious fanaticism as a desperate yearning, that inescapable magnetism of glorifying something greater than oneself. Its eye-popping intensity is suffocating and relentless, but its sunbursts of melodic ecstasy don’t just tear off the roof, but peel back the sky and lay bare the heaving firmament.
In the history of Christian doctrine, immanence was a concept frequently condemned as heretical by the leaders of a Church dead-set on standing every bit as transcendent in relation to its flock as did God to the Church. The notion of transcendence posits a God separate from Earth, in a position of complete superiority and purity, untainted by mankind’s sins and implacable lusts. Immanence suggests that God and the world are inseparable, that God is in the world. Many of the early heralds of the tectonic changes that brought about the Reformation thought that immanence was the only view that could reconcile the exponential increase in scientific knowledge with the Biblical view of nature that the new sciences contradicted at nearly every turn. As uncommon as it is for a black metal band to effectively implement these contentious ideas, even less common is the savage grace with which Mgla deploys such grand themes: “From the midst of cold ash, comes the voice of the living god.” God, as it were, is in the world. “Grey ash prayer, severed from the unconscious. / Perverse theodicy; / Atrocious immanence.” But then, is it really God, in the world?
If the absolutely vital pulse of “III” doesn’t convince you of Mgla’s merits, then nothing will. Still, despite its brilliance, the song shines most brightly because of its perfect placement atop the swell of the preceding songs. A hard-won rest on a brutal mountain trek; a still river bisects a sky-framing valley, a range littered with trees as ramrod straight as sentinels reckoning the ineffable, steeling against the ravages of time with a stoic magnanimity, or at least a dull resignation, but your destination, as theirs, is unseen and unseeable, somewhere beyond the next ridge, the last ascent, somewhere beyond which what none can say but you have rested now and there is no more rest and you will rise and fall again with the day and you will rest.
The gritty heel-digging of “IV” is thus a necessary recentering, a patiently malignant plodding two-step that concludes with M.’s finest bit of sloganeering concision yet: “Fuck hope and godspeed.” “V” locks into a stuttered gallop for its verses, and its blastbeats hum with a radiant sickness, while Part VI rides a muted disco beat as M. prays for a deluge to sweep the earth of “the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit, the whores, the junk, the trash, the worms, the…” well, you get the point. Malice never yet sounded so sumptuous. “VI” does indeed end with the sound of that much-desired rain, wiping clean the balance sheet to allow With Hearts Toward None’s final movement to proceed with a new and wholly frightful accounting: “the darkest night of them all falls upon the scorched home shores.” “VII” revels in its own post-diluvian stillness, building patiently for a full two minutes before it erupts, and even though it scythes through a few basic themes for its entire duration, its ten-minute length never feels burdensome, which is a remarkable testament to the care with which these destructive sounds have been pieced together.
For all its myriad charms, black metal is rarely singled out for its subtlety or moral ambiguity, and yet, the very phrase “with hearts toward none” suggests a painstakingly-curated neutrality that the music’s fiery stridency belies. With Hearts Toward None pulsates an obsidian confidence, a tide that never ebbs. Divinity aside, if theodicy is the defense of the Good despite overwhelming evidence of the presence of Evil, then Mgla’s “perverse theodicy” is ostensibly a defense of the Ugly despite overwhelming evidence of the presence of Beauty. Based on the sterling strength of this second full-length outing, however, the former hits closer to the mark. “Have ye courage, o! my brethren? The signs are everywhere.” The signs are everywhere, but what will we make of what is being signed? What will it make of us?
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