We’ve all watched an underground record label get off to a great start, only to then take a huge misstep, and buy into the hype surrounding their own success. Soon enough, that label is releasing a steady stream of sub-par albums, just to keep up the pace, and all too quickly, the trust we'd had in them to separate the wheat from the chaff on our behalf is destroyed.
Thankfully, on the other side of the coin, we have labels like Flenser Records to remind us that a rising profile doesn't have to mean any diminishing returns. Over the past five years, the highly respected San Francisco label has released a long line of riveting albums, including unquestionable classics, like Panopticon’s Social Disservices, crucial early releases, like Lycus’ Demo MMXI, or genre-shattering releases, like Botanist’s IV: Mandragora.
Flenser has always released compelling music, and it’s worth pointing out, those releases come stamped with integrity and ingenuity too. Many of the artists who've recorded for Flenser have experimented with cross-genre hybridisation, and while many have tapped into similarly gloomy and gothic atmospheres along the way, they've all had distinct artistic visions. That’s meant that Flenser is famed for hosting bands that often ignore the boundaries of their respective sub-genres, thereby challenging traditional notions of what metal is supposed to be.
Certainly, some of the bands that feature on Flenser’s roster wouldn’t identify as metal at all, but for open-minded fan of dark music, there’s a lot that’ll resonate in those bands sonic and emotional heaviness. Groups like Bosse-De-Nage, Skagos, Circle of Eyes, Palace of Worms, and many more, have ensured that Flenser has become a reliable and – here’s that all-important word again – trusted source of imaginative music. There’s been a number of engrossing additions to the label’s Bandcamp page over the past couple of months, and in this two-part Flenser feature, I'm going to take a look at recent releases from Mamaleek, Wreck and Reference, Have A Nice Life, White Suns, and Planning For Burial.
Details about experimental black metal band Mamaleek are scarce, but what we do know is that the band is made up of two brothers, who wish to remain anonymous, and they’ve recorded their past releases in San Francisco and Beirut. Anonymity suits the band well, because, like Sutekh Hexen or Wold (both masters of tenebrous noise), Mamaleek's sound also features as much mayhem as it does mystery.
Mamaleek’s latest release, He Never Spoke a Mumblin' Word, sees swarming avant-garde black metal collide with jagged industrial rhythms. Samples, effects and demented vocals rise from squalls of hallucinatory noise on the title track, and Mamaleek conjures chaotic nightmares on “My Ship is on the Ocean” and “Almost Done Tolling Here” too. All of those tracks contain plenty of madness and menace, and when “Pour Mourner’s Got a Home” sets off at a more ambient pace, opening with mournful female vocals, Mamaleek’s crooked melodies soon turn that song into a thoroughly disturbing ordeal as well.
He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word was recorded by the band, and is about as caustic as you can get. The production is the kind that'll strip skin from your bones, but its been mixed and mastered by Jack Shirley (Deafheaven, Botanist, Wreck and Reference), so, for all of He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word’s corrosiveness – and everything here is über-distorted and packed with venom – it still sounds fantastic, and makes for a magnificently mind-melting experience overall.
He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word isn't the only album from Mamaleek to be supremely discomforting either. Mamaleek’s three previous full-lengths (all available on the band’s own Bandcamp page) are well worth seeking out. Each takes elements of drone, psychedelia, world music, shoegaze, electronica, and math and indie rock, and drowns them in storms of pitch-black, fuzz-enshrouded static. Mamaleek deserve a lot more attention for their ability to take those eclectic influences, slather them in monstrous eccentricity, and create mesmerising experimental black metal. He Never Said a Mumblin’ Word comes highly recommended. Although, perhaps not for those of a nervous disposition.
Flenser is known as a label that supports artists interested in reconstructing metal’s motifs. With releases from bands like Botanist and Bosse-De-Nage on the label’s books, trampling conventionality is definitely welcomed by the label, and no more is that apparent that on the Flenser's releases from Californian duo Wreck and Reference.
Wreck and Reference discards guitars and bass for electronics and death march drums, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that the band lack any devastating power. Wreck and Reference take darkwave and gothic, industrial, and noise rock, fuse that with facets of bleak and quarrelsome metal, and create nerve-shredding synthscapes. By any reckoning, Wreck and Reference’s music is emotionally devastating, bringing as much despondency as any funeral doom, and on the band’s latest album, Want, Wreck and Reference continue the same fearless journeying into the desolate realms exhibited on previous releases, No Content, and No Youth.
Tracks off Want, like “Corpse Museum”, “Apollo Beneath The Whip”, and “Stranger, Fill This Hole In Me”, bring as much unconventionality as they do nonconformity; seeing anguished vocals wound around heavy-weight frequencies, all layering on the tortured atmospherics. The ease with which Wreck and Reference bring suffering to the surface is impressive, and within seconds of pressing play on Want things are utterly bleak. However, as much as there’s a lot to admire in Wreck and Reference’s balance of technical prowess and dramatic lyricism, the band’s willingness to experiment is just as praiseworthy.
Like all of Wreck and Reference’s previous releases, Want defies genre restrictions. The band are following their own path, into the void, but much like fellow sonic explorers Locrian, Wreck and Reference aren’t just daring listeners to accompany them on journeys across apocalyptic terrain. The band is also demanding that those very same listeners question what metal is, or could be. In that sense, Wreck and Reference are unquestionably confronting. Exactly how all truly innovative bands should be.
The Flenser Part Two: Have A Nice Life, White Suns & Planning For Burial.