Mastery's first full-length, Valis, doesn't offer an easy entry point. The very first track, "V.A.L.I.S.V.E.S.S.E.L.," opens with what sounds like the soundtrack to a malfunctioning, hellish carnival ride, and after that follows over 17 minutes of delightfully batty, black metal madness. That's not 17 minutes for the whole album, mind you--that's 17 minutes for the first track alone. The lone artist behind Mastery, Ephemeral Domignostika, crams more riffs into this track than most bands have in their entire back catalog. It's breathtakingly weird, but perhaps the weirdest part is that it works.
The promo materials describe Valis as "free jazz black metal twisted and complex," and that's pretty apt. The full album takes you on a journey that appears to be at least in part improvisational. No verses and choruses here, just unrelenting riffage, accompanied by Domignostika's raspy croak. Lucky for us, the riffs themselves are just so damn good. The promo also mentions "unique fingerstyle playing." As a guitarist, I can think of a few things that might mean, technique-wise, but whatever Domignostika is doing, the end result is a fiery playing style that remains remarkably clean sounding in execution.
I think a lot of people, at first listen, will find this music to be off-putting and hard to follow, but I honestly think there's an underlying narrative and structure here that pulls the listener along, even if I'd be hard pressed to articulate it. I do know that, even during the 17 minutes of brutality of that first track, I never once thought, "Where is this going?" Somehow the journey makes sense, even though there's very little in the way of conventional song structure to hang your hat on. Even when the first track abruptly breaks into a lovely acoustic jam at the six-minute mark, accompanied by quiet drumming that sounds like a far-off locomotive--with nothing really like it appearing again on the album--it somehow fits in.
The second and fourth tracks are much shorter than the others, and they mostly feature quiet ambient and electronic sounds. Never have two interludes been so well planned and placed. Breathing room is a must on this album, as the third and fifth tracks of the album are just as perplexing and unrelenting as the first. Interestingly, they both share the first track's density while having their own subtle, interesting character. The third track, "L.O.R.E.S.E.E.K.E.R.," has roughly the same density of restless riffing as the first, but the riffs are less crunchy and growling than the first track. They're generally higher in pitch and a bit more gossamer, if using the word "gossamer" even makes sense for an album as brutal as this. This is a simplistic differentiation, at best, but I think attentive listeners will hear the subtle difference in texture. Domignostika manages the same feat with the album closer, "S.T.A.R.S.E.E.K.E.R.," where the riffs are at their most jagged and twisty. There's even an occasional staccato passage, letting a little air into the wall of sound that's permeated the album so far.
It's possible I was personally more susceptible to this album's charms because of my love of avant garde and free jazz, but I think there's a lot for adventurous metal listeners to dig here. I once heard a quote about how some music teaches you how to listen to it. I kept coming back to that idea with Valis. I'm not sure if the music taught me how to listen to it, of if it just dragged my brain into a dark alley and made me follow along by knife point, but either way, this is a striking piece of art. Iggy Pop once described jazz legend John Coltrane's sound as one that was "hard to get close to." That definitely applies here, but like Coltrane, I think it's worth the effort to get close to Mastery.