Album Review: Full of Hell & Merzbow - Sister Fawn (Profound Lore, 2015)

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Discussing Full of Hell and Merzbow's newest record together, Sister Fawn, is deceptively difficult.

On paper, it seems like it should be easy. For starters, this is the second collaborative LP cut by the two forces.

But this becomes a can of worms to craft a hooky opener given the radically different approach to combining their sonic palettes and compositional ideas, with most tracks on their initial collaboration hovering between 2 minutes and a searingly intense if incredibly brief 30 seconds, while this newest collaboration between the two doesn't have a single track shorter than 4 minutes and with a closer that is longer than all of the shorter tracks on the previous LP combined at a whopping 13 minutes.

The track lengths belie a total change of mode; the former was, for all intents and purposes, a Full of Hell LP featuring Merzbow as a guest producer, unlike experimental sludge metal band The Body's recent collaborative LP I Shall Die Here with dark ambient producer the Haxan Cloak. But where the latter disappointed some fans who were hyped for a more democratic mixture of Haxan Cloak's dark atmospherics and The Body's skeletal, harrowing experimental approach to sludge metal, the former was received rather warmly, keeping Full of Hell focused on the compositional area that they know best (that being the shorter song structure of grindcore and powerviolence) with Merzbow acting to generate additional sonic chaos and shrapnel.

This in turn wasn't really a reinvention of the wheel; grindcore and powerviolence bands for years have employed samples and even members focused solely on manipulating walls of samples to give an additional sense of depth to their sound.

(It is not, after all, terribly surprising that the Mars Volta, a band whose members cut their teeth in hardcore and post-hardcore bands, would go on to hire a sound manipulator as a member of the band.)

What marked this collaboration as special was, to be frank, the second name on the record; while Full of Hell is a promising and respected band in modern powerviolence and grindcore, Merzbow is a living legend, a man whose earliest release was in 1981 and has multiple box sets of his records released, with one of them, Merzbox, containing a staggering 50 discs, each with a full hour of unreleased material.

Given that Merzbow is in no real need to pursue relevancy (on top of being a wildly prolific musician, he is also a published author and a collaborator on several installation pieces; academic articles have been written regarding his music and aesthetic; he was able to get a record label to release a fifty-disc box set which is absolutely insane), it made sense that he would act more as a producer embellishing on what otherwise sounded like Full of Hell songs.

And, all in all, it made for maybe the best and absolutely the most notable powerviolence record of last year.

The track lengths signify something else. It's not so much that the songs have been given more breathing room, but that they are almost totally different in terms of their construction.

The previous record was, at heart, a guitar-led punk rock record; there were riffs, there were production choices that emphasized a sense of fallible humans playing physical instruments (an idea that often leads to the bizarre world of rockist fixation on authenticity and "realness" as opposed to "plasticity"), and they were not program pieces.

The album would occasionally disintegrate, opening up into a terrifying gibbering maw of darkness in the scattered noise and ambiance Merzbow would bring to bear, laying open that nihilistic uncomposed heart that threatens to beat beneath every wild punk song that feels just on the verge of falling apart completely.

This, too, makes sense; noise, or at least the kind of music we call noise now (it has a long and confusing history better fit for a book than an album review), is largely derived from punk, especially those moments in the most wild of rock shows where the organic energy that seems to motivate and compel players to go faster and faster, let their guitars grow more and more distorted, allow their playing to become more and more orgiastic, finally overwhelms the players entirely, leaving a tangled and terrifying and inhuman mass of squealing distortion.

Hell, Neil Young released a 35-minute noise composition based around almost exactly this idea once.

Sister Fawn abandons these things entirely. Where before there were riffs and guitars and drums, now there are motorik rhythms like the pounding of the machinery in the factory. The brief and vicious and bleak nihilisms wrapped up in grindcore and powerviolence and embellished by the ferocious noise have been swapped out by studied, unsympathetic industrial rhythm. It is at once too slow to dance to and too fast to be ambiance. The steady beating rhythms (these rhythms beat like nightsticks or pistons or hammers) act as a spine; the wild noise either unspools from it or is draped against it, depending on your stance. This is controlled noise, however; the sound of the motorik beating rhythms is never lost in the noise, and though some tracks begin with samples of talking or of dragging metal chains, they are very rarely absent.

In this way, the noise is contained, perhaps even tamed. One gets the vision not of the wild over-flowering organicism of electric rock feedback disintegrating into swarming chaos, but of the contained class violence of an industrial factory. The album refuses to take a stance on whether this is bleak or terrifying or punishing; I spent a long time trying to write an opened that would wrap up the emotive heart of this record succinctly, but it's entirely unconcerned with emoting or with the emotions of its listener.

It simply is; it is portraiture of the violence of a factory, of industry, of modernity, of... something.

There are no lyrics to it, and the titles and art are cryptic and discohere in a way that makes drawing a clear image out of them difficult.

There is the image of a factory, savagely beating, containing white noise not just passively but actively too, taming the wild and overgrown with its steady undanceable rhythmic pounding.

It would be easy to say that this second collaboration between Full of Hell and Merzbow leans closer to Merzbow's end of things, but that would only be partly true. Yes, Merzbow's tracks tend to be on the longer end and, no, the stereotype of Merzbow only releasing hour-long swaths of nearly-indifferentiable noise isn't quite true, but these are far more contained than almost anything else Merzbow has done in his career.

His work is too diverse to sum up easily, and even his granular ideas have digressions and points of elaboration in EPs and side releases under different pseudonyms, far too many and too numerous for me to pretend full knowledge.

But the degree to which these noise soundscapes are tamed is against almost everything Merzbow stands for in his own work.

It feels entirely fitting, then, that the record would have no attribution on it, and that it would have a title whereas the previous one did not. The color palette for the art stayed the same, which is warranted; the sonic palette isn't terribly different, even if the construction is. Sister Fawn feels a near-perfectly equally democratic collaboration, one that could not sit comfortably in either Full of Hell nor Merzbow's discographies but only as a record by both of them.

Which makes it all the more curious that, while the album is currently available for streaming and purchase at Profound Lore's Bandcamp page, it is also currently sold as the bonus disc to their previous collaboration.

This gives the impression that these are castoffs, finished studio tracks that didn't fit the flow of their untitled collaborative LP that were reedited and sequenced for a full release.

It's just striking given how radically different the two works are and what totally different ends they achieve.

Full of Hell & Merzbow's Sister Fawn is currently slated for separate physical release in November 2015.

Image taken from Profound Lore's Bandcamp page for the album.