Despite being hubs for human life, cities are often lonely environments, the abundance of people only hammering home our own feelings of isolation and our collective failings as a species. So it’s no surprise that there’s something at once resoundingly terrifying and oddly powerful about wandering usually busy streets in the dead of night. In the dark, cities transform from monotonous heaps of grey into vast spaces, each distant light denoting an entire existence, each dark corner, not quite in reach of failing streetlights, potentially hiding something. And it is this contemplative spirit that is so thoroughly explored on the sophomore effort from Ukranian four-piece White Ward.
Indeed, at a time in which so many of us spend the vast majority of our lives cooped up in exceedingly grey towns or claustrophobic metropolises, it’s easy to long for the fresh air and vibrant colour palette of nature – perhaps even a simpler time when one couldn’t help but face the elements each and every day. In some ways, this longing is the foundation of the entire black metal subgenre. But whilst the allures of nature are somewhat intangible, all but forgotten to many of us, urban spaces carry meaning much more pertinent to our daily lives.
But just as White Ward seem intent on switching up black metal’s conceptual focus, the band’s knack for avoiding the musical tropes of their genre is evident from the opening moments of Love Exchange Failure when, in a style associated with frozen tundras and ancient mythologies, the group kick things off with the sounds of a city and a melancholy piano. Indeed, the distant sirens and expressive keys are indicative of an entirely different side of the band’s sound – one that has more in common with late-night jazz than it does the nihilistic volleys of riffs offered up by most of their peers. The boldness of this seemingly odd mishmash is surely the conversation-starter here, but the novelty is soon surpassed by the vast scope and remarkably passionate nature of this ambitious recording.
“On this album, we illustrate the artificial conditions people created to contradistinguish themselves to nature,” bassist and vocalist Andrii Pechatkin tells Astral Noize. “These conditions are represented by big cities and especially megapolises. We are neither a separate phenomenon nor a sustainable part of the surrounding environment. Thus, we’ve pushed ourselves to a constant struggle caused by the inability to understand who we are and what our place on this planet is. These artificial conditions (as well as numerous others) lead to a continually rising level of fear in the minds of individuals. At the same time, we’ve faced a lack of love, as well as a lack of normal interactions between individuals who are blind to each other and obsessed by their own desires or simply involved in concentrating on the devices they use. With the term ‘love,’ we mean not a feeling in its primitive understanding but a feature that helps us to live in harmony with ourselves, other people, and the world around us.”
“This process leads to an inevitable degradation and degeneration,” he continues. “The depth of our fall depends on the amount of hatred we push towards people around us. The same is true about our blindness. People don’t have either time, strength or wish to talk to each other. Furthermore, obsessed by desires, they don’t even pay enough attention to their children, raising each new generation more exposed to mental problems. Blindness, indifference, and domestic abuse, bullying at schools, social rejection and many other factors lead to numerous tragedies of humankind. Caused by individuals, they are our own crimes.”
Pechatkin finishes this insightful explanation off with perhaps the most pertinent statement: “Although these things happen in every area, megapolises are the culmination: a place with the maximum concentration of these problems.”
Large-scale cities then are, in the band’s eyes, a symbol of mankind’s failings. As the band’s second album, Love Exchange Failure is not the first time the band have explored such themes, but their 2017 debut LP Futility Report also touched on mystical, otherwordly and Lovecraftian motifs. “Our first album and its lyrics were mostly composed in 2014,” explains guitarist Yurii Kazaryan. “So much time passed between then and when we started to compose Love Exchange Failure. And of course in these three years, we evolved as individuals, discovered new topics and interests and it all affected the album’s creation. When we started to develop the concept for the second album, I and especially Andrii were interested in psychology and a little bit of sociology. We were impressed by the works of Fromm, Frankl, Freud, and Spengler. So, we decided that our next album should be about real problems and real horrors in modern human life and have a strong common concept and scenario.”
This much has certainly been realised on the album, but whilst the band have certainly expanded their conceptual ideas, the gap between the albums has seemingly also been used to develop their skills as musicians and songwriters. On Futility Report, the band introduced the metal scene to their fiercely defiant blend of jazz and black metal by building to a typically pacey blastbeat before slamming on the brakes to find room for an expressive sax solo. The result was surprisingly effective, the band finding an inventive sound that worked in spite of itself, but the follow-up is an altogether more accomplished piece, boasting complex and cleverly crafted compositions that prove consistently compelling. The two sides of their sound are more seamlessly merged here, with the jazzy rhythms and weighty guitars more frequently running in tandem, somehow accentuating one another’s impact rather than getting in each other’s way.
The band’s metallic side has altered somewhat this time around, the guitars and percussion taking on a crisper production that lends itself more fittingly to the rich atmospheres. The riffs are punchy, and the periods of all-out blackened mayhem are as raw and imposing as any metalhead could desire. But, crucially, the band also show no fear in placing the reverberant piano or neo-noir saxophone centre-stage for lengthy periods, and this courage pays off, as these instruments’ innate ability to evoke strong emotions aids in strengthening the ruminative aura of the release as a whole.
“I don’t think that there were any special goals to make the sound more epic or experimental,” Kazaryan tells us. “So much time has passed since we composed Futility Report and of course our tastes and vision of music have changed. We just create what interests us and what we like in the current moment of time. We abandoned some features from the first album, such as electric drums and digital-sounding synths, and added some new stuff such as live piano, lo-fi noises and clean vocals. Also, you can find that the metal parts are faster and more intense and ‘evil’ on Love Exchange Failure. But all these changes were due to the changes in our tastes.”
A perfect example of this growth is the album’s continual nature. From track to track, it flows seamlessly, and despite comprising seven individual tracks, operates almost entirely as a single continuous piece of music. “The album all has a common theme, so we tried to replicate this with the musical component too,” Kazaryan agrees. “I think it is really cool when albums sound something like the common story and every song has its own place in it. It makes music more cinematographic I think. It is a more serious approach to music as an art.”
In approaching music in such a way, the band have far surpassed many of their ilk, creating a piece that’s so vast and compelling that it’s capable of leaving the listener in sheer bewilderment by the end. On previous releases, the band crafted a unique sound that was and is entirely their own, but they have now perfected it, offering something no other band can, but Kazaryan tells us that originality was not their primary concern: “It was not a goal or mission. We listen to a lot of different music and with White Ward, we just combine what we like and what seems to us to work well together.”
“I don’t think that creating something new should be your original purpose,” he continues. “I think all the progress and changes in every sphere of life are normal and are a natural process, and many new genres were born spontaneously or were the spawn of the particular cultural epoch or social conditions. And if someone wanted to create something fundamentally new or different, then I think firstly, almost always, it was the desire to oppose oneself to the current foundations.”
This is in some ways a refreshing approach to songwriting, particularly within a genre that can be remarkably averse to new ideas, at least anything that could be considered not “trve” or “kvlt” enough to be worthy of the black metal mantle. Ironic, for a genre that supposedly represents liberation and outsiderism. “We are trying to change our close-mindedness with what we do in the band first of all,” Pechatkin claims. “If our music helps others it’s very nice and motivating. If not, we still have to improve ourselves.”
Musically, at least, the band have can rest assured that they have improved, even in relation to their own impressive beginnings. Going forward, we can only hope for more of the same, so how do the band see themselves progressing from here? “I have no idea,” the bassist admits. “We will explore new topics in our lyrics. As for music, it will be also enhanced with new elements. That’s what I know for sure. Only time will show how big the new shift will be.”
If Love Exchange Failure is any sort of guide, it could be quite the stride into uncharted territory. White Ward didn’t throw out the rule book so much as they just never opened it to begin with, but while their debut full-length showcased a band with a willingness to stray from the beaten path, Love Exchange Failure builds upon these already impressive foundations exponentially, far surpassing even the wildest of expectations. Black metal is often obsessed with the fantastical or historical – grand themes that suit the genre’s intense sound – but it seldom focuses its passionate delivery on topics more relevant to the listeners’ day-to-day experiences. White Ward’s music is epic, raw and emotively powerful, but its poignant nature is immensely bolstered by the band’s ability to bring a distinctly urban touch to a subgenre so relentlessly entwined with nature.
Love Exchange Failure is out now on Debemur Morti Productions. Purchase here.
Words: George Parr