Album Review: Pyramids - 'A Northern Meadow' (Profound Lore, 2015)

On their sophomore album, "A Northern Meadow," Pyramids offers up their most lush, dreamlike, alien, frightening, and powerful record yet.

Pyramids was already a strange beast before the lineup expansion preceding their most recent record, A Northern Meadow. Their debut self-titled record sonically referenced everything from lo-fi American depressive black metal, German kosmiche synthesizer music, and warm, fuzzy, poppy 90s shoegaze. The Denton, TX quartet held a curious position in the landscape of experimental music, simultaneously being too heavy for the kinds of scenes that Swans or Low might occupy and too artsy and delicate for even the already-artsy types of heavy groups like Ufomammut or Yob.

They attempted to split the difference between camps of clearly heavy but not clearly metal experimental music, cutting split LPs with Horseback and Nadja, but even those could not keep the band from undergoing a multi-year hiatus. It seemed the band might wind up consigned to the kind of difficulties groups like Kayo Dot and the Kilimanjaro Doomjazz Ensemble famously faced in the continuous production of their music.

Even with these difficulties, however, their music was ambitious and acclaimed enough to attract a number of high-profile and interesting names. Within the world of avant-garde metal, artists such as Blut Aus Nord, James Plotkin, and Colin Marston offered remixes of material, while the guitarist of seminal 80s dream pop group Cocteau Twins remixed a track later in their career and vocalist of 90s emo band Mineral performed guest vocals on one of their last tracks before they went on a brief break.

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There was something not only in the breadth but also even-handedness of their music that appealed to a wide range of contributors and remixers; Pyramids did not come across like a metal band using shoegaze textures, or an emo band using metal textures, or an avant-garde band using pop textures, but an even and thorough mixture of all of those components. When a remixer or contributor entered their music, the transformations and additions made sense; they worked with or altered what was already there, simply foregrounding and expanding something present and working already as opposed to adding something entirely new.

So in a certain way, perhaps it should not have been terribly surprising when Pyramids announced that their already-finished record featured not only the core quartet but the addition of Vindsval, only consistent member across each Blut Aus Nord record, Colin Marston, bassist/Chapman stick/guitar virtuoso known from bands such as Gorguts, Dysrhythmia, Behold the Arctopus, and Krallice, and William Fowler Collins, a prolific dark ambient and noise musician. Pyramids had already worked extensively with two of these three doing remixes of tracks already. And yet there was something profound to the announcement. They were not, after all, mere guest musicians, but credited as full band members, contributing in clear and obvious ways to each of the nine tracks on A Northern Meadow.

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At any given time, there are up to four guitarists playing, not to mention the bassist and addition of noise and synth work from god only knows how many of these members. Marston, Vindsval, Collins, and multiple members of Pyramids are adept with synthesizers, samplers, and sequencers, with their shared skill set running from cold, mechanical industrial drum patterns to lush post-rock to hazy black metal to fuzzed-out shoegaze to clinically precise jazz drumming. The skill set of the guitarists span from walls of sculpted noise to meticulous alien jazz chords and avant-garde progressions to virtuosic technical playing to shoegaze and progressive rock. And unlike too many other bands off the top of my head period, save perhaps for modern Swans or maybe ISIS at their prime, Pyramids decides to use absolutely everything their members are capable of doing.

As a result, the nine songs are not easily identifiable by single genre descriptors. Here, an industrial drum machine pattern buffeted by jazzy and precise syncopated acoustic drums; there, beautiful technical progressive playing, like a slowed down Krallice or a beefed-up Yes; surrounding, ambient washes of white noise and feedback, shoegaze guitars, and avant-garde black metal curlicues. Then, on a dime, a synchronized NWOBHM twin, sometimes triple, guitar melody on quaaludes, only to descend back into blackened, hazy gloom. And on top of this, for all but a few sections of a few of the songs, the vocals are clean, sounding more like an early Jimmy Eat World record or vocals from American Football's sole release than from anything similar to the music being made.

It is beyond a hodge-podge of styles, far, far beyond; it is avant-garde not just by individual element but also by juxtaposition and simultaneity of styles, offering no stable ground and (worse for me) no easy way to write about or describe what exactly is going on without using far, far too many words and making far, far too clinical something that is perhaps one of the most depressive, haunted, and mournful records I've heard. The record is certainly touched by a number of things: black metal, shoegaze, doom metal, industrial music, post-rock, ambient, noise, progressive rock, avant-garde music, contemporary classical. But in combination, it leaves no easy way to describe it save for the admittedly too-vague "heavy experimental metal."

Elements of its deliberately embattled ontology aside: A Northern Meadow is simultaneously one of the most alien and claustrophobic, sour and cathartic, visceral and cerebral records to come out this year. It enacts both the distant forlorn statue shrouded in gothic fog and the self the fog surrounds and alienates from the world. It places in the heart both the sense of the alien Other and the Self alienated from the world. It comforts in its own cold way while calling into being and then mightily exacerbating a wild depressive hurt. It is lush and dreamy, but it is lush in darkness and dreams darkly; the haze that clouds the record is a suffocating cloud, and the profound intelligence that motivates the complicated guitar lines and melodies is a dissonant and endlessly spiraling intelligence. It is fitting that the record ends in a long fade-out of noise. There is no climax to the emotional, intellectual, and musical endeavor they set out upon. There is only drifting away.

This is a harrowing record. This is a potent and violent and dark record. It's difficult to listen to, as difficult as Indian's From All Purity or Lord Mantis' Death Mask. But it's also a brilliantly composed record, a brilliantly performed record, and a brilliantly moving record. It enters dark and alien places, cacophonous places, darkly lush and manic overgrown places, but it does so, above all else, brilliantly. It is difficult not just emotionally but intellectually and musically as well, but it is a richly rewarding record, one that uses its difficulty wisely and knowingly, making the difficulty of the record as thematically connected as the choice of chords, sonic density, lyrical phrases, and aesthetic choices in song and record title.

As for the title: A Northern Meadow. The gentlest aspect of the record. Not unlike a traditional gothic novel; The Marble Faun and The Castle of Otranto come to mind. The connection to the gothic relates to an important aspect of this record; like great works of gothic fiction, it is preoccupied with architecture and the kinds of things architecture can say that the content of architecture cannot. It's formal conceits (the dissonant chord voicings, the alien chord progressions, the density of sound, the strange curlicues) hint at a Byzantine level of sonic architecture meant first to overwhelm and, on subsequent listens, to lead astray and drive mad the listener.

They fill in every conceivable gap, the way the overflowered and decadent sentences of gothic writers stretches out against the limits of understanding, achieving through the architecture of word and phrase the decrepit, overly-detailed worlds destined to decay captured in their stories and, in this record, the psychic spaces destined to a kind of spiraling, hazy, wailing madness. And so: For the record, a gentle name, a simple name. And the cover, a woman with her hair taped in bundles to the wall, a cryptic and frightening image. A fitting warning. Perhaps overly theatrical? Yes. But this is music, and heavy music, we're talking about. Theater is part of its power; to go someplace that does not easily exist in real life. And the place Pyramids creates and takes us to, through the aid of their extended membership, is one that justifies the excess.

Image courtesy of Profound Lore's Bandcamp page.