Album Review: Ashenspire – “Hostile Architecture” (Avant-garde Black/RABM)

Written by Kep



>Ashenspire – Hostile Architecture
>Avant-garde black metal
>Scotland, UK
>Releasing July 18
>Aural Music / Code666 Records

“Nailed to the high-rise, under the budgetary hammer.
Do they sleep well, wrapped in irony?
Better that than tangled in austerity.
Better ours than their children in poverty.”

Scottish avant-garde black metal outfit Ashenspire’s music isn’t for everyone, and I don’t think they’d dispute that. There’s no pandering here; this is pissed-off protest music for the angry and downtrodden, full of intense emotions and complex concepts both political and musical. There’s no room for a gray area. You’re either with Ashenspire and the underclass they speak for, or you’re against them. 

Similarly, the music of Hostile Architecture is anything but straightforward and built for wide appeal. It’s eclectic to say the least, and the unconventional off-kilter approach isn’t the kind of thing that you’re average metalhead expects to hear out of a black metal album. But to deliver a message that needs to be heard—and you’re goddamn right this one does—sometimes the most effective vehicle is one that stands out for reasons beyond the message itself. That’s the story here: forward-thinking music for a message that needs to be brought to the forefront.

The nonstandard instrumentation of Hostile Architecture is the first thing that jumps out of the speakers as opener and single “The Law of Asbestos” begins with hammered dulcimer (courtesy of Otrebor of Botanist) and mellifluous saxophone. As the full texture gradually fills in—and it’s an uber-thick, multilayered sound—the “traditional” metal instruments appear, and so does violin, which lays down a meandering solo over a riff led by the sax. That grouping of guitar, bass, drums, sax, and violin makes up the core of Ashenspire’s approach, with the dulcimer and appearances by a Rhodes and prepared piano (both played by Scott McLean of Falloch) as extra features in individual songs. 

The sax and violin aren’t here in mere support roles; they’re on equal footing with the others, which makes for a particularly smooth and warm sound overall that balances the standard distortion. While the guitars chug and jab and churn, sometimes eschewing traditional riffs entirely, the violin skates atop in modal gestures and the sax adds a somber bit of soul. There’s a wonderful example of how interesting things can get through the middle of “Plattenbau Persephone Praxis”, where the guitar drops out entirely and a funny little cross-metric motif is heard first in keyboard and then sax as the violin moves in a long tone pseudo-melody over top. It’s odd, but so, so cool. The violin’s usage in other places reminds me a bit of the way it’s used by Ne Obliviscaris, with wandering progressive solos and noticeable texture appearances in towering blackened passages.

Many moments on this record are quite beautiful, and the blend of progressive and avant-garde elements with bits of jazz leads to plenty of expressive passages with lush harmonies and some startlingly emotive saxophone solos, but Ashenspire delivers a reliably acerbic bite throughout the runtime, too. Even instrumental “Palimpsest” manages to strike that balance despite its lack of impelling lyrics. There are sections that mercilessly batter with blasts and tremolos while saxophone wails desperately over top, and there are torturous lurching rhythms that seem to jerk and stagger like the abused workers the music is inspired by. It’s an incredibly powerful listen on a musical level, numerous components combining into a moving whole; recording engineer McLean and mastering wizard Brad Boatright deserve a special hat tip for making Hostile Architecture sound huge yet clear with so many moving parts.

What it all comes down to, though, are the lyrics, the way that they walk hand in hand with the composition of the songs, and their delivery by frontman and drummer Alasdair Dunn. Hostile Architecture is an explicitly anticapitalist album, a furious tirade against worker abuse and class disparity, and Dunn turns in an unforgettable performance that wears its bloody and broken heart on its sleeve. He doesn’t really scream, and he doesn’t sing (well, outside of a few notable moments); instead he orates in a rhythmic sort of intense speech, and the emotional rising and falling patterns of his voice are captivating. You can tell the subject matter is deeply personal, and slow building lyrics like “But from when I could hear, I heard the hereditary, the poison of misogyny / An amateur wavering, thus traversing the tripwire of masculinity… / I’d learned the steps before I could walk / I’d heard my silence before I could talk” (“Béton Brut”) are impossible to listen to without feeling the pangs of empathy. There’s an element of prose in the poetry of the words, with the writing often eschewing rhymes in favor of impact. The music frequently gives Dunn space to truly speak, too, and it’s always special, like in lengthy closer “Cable Street Again” where these weeping words build to a scream of palpable fury: “These dispossessed people, silver eyes glazed with a mirror of trauma / Boats sunk in a wash of formaldehyde / The toll it takes scars the iris in you / So hold your tongue, or I’ll hold it for you!” The unorthodox vocal style takes a few minutes to get used to, no question, but once you’ve acquired the taste it’s as effective as any I’ve ever heard. 

The moment that works least well in the album’s runtime, for me at least, is third track “How the Mighty Have Vision”. It’s essentially a short choral piece, with vocals contributed by Rylan Gleave and Amaya Lopez-Carramerro, and the harmonic progressions and dynamic contrasts are legitimately impressive. What falls a bit flat for me are Dunn’s clean vocals, which are moving as usual on an emotional level, but just aren’t nearly as pleasant musically, especially juxtaposed against the choral texture backing him. Still, it’s an interesting stylistic experiment in an envelope/pushing record.

THE BOTTOM LINE

RABM projects are plentiful if you know where to look, and are becoming even more so as more good people make music in response to our world’s moldering morality. But even in such a rapidly expanding pool, Ashenspire stands out for their particularly experimental and moving form of avant-garde metal. Hostile Architecture is a stirring listen, one that will inspire the political left and fans of excellent music alike, and I highly recommend it.