Heavy metal is a genre beholden to the cult of the band. Live music is etched into its history, the histrionics of gig stories a common pissing contest for its acolytes. As such, outside of cybergrind and the black metal-adjacent synthy recesses of dungeon synth, success of the band-as-one often depends on the verisimilitude of its appeals to the sonics and aesthetics of an ensemble. This is evident in the work of progenitors of one man black metal – the live drums, poorly recorded; the vocals, barely produced; the metre loose and ragged – whether deliberate or the result of musical incompetence, one doesn’t feel the absence of the interplay between performers on those early outings. Rather, for all the technological limitations in these works (whether self-imposed or a financial reality), the product feels whole in a way which is seldom matched in counterfeit.
Enter Hapless Wretch with their debut opus, Vol 1. Pitched as somewhere between raw black metal and OSDM, that wasn’t quite what this album delivered: nevertheless, there’s promise here, admittedly behind barefaced MIDI drums and edgy taglines. My highlight is the gloriously aesthetic ‘Vomica’, with its stomping chug and unrelenting low end complimented by Dave Hunt-esque vocal overdubs and shrill synth pads. Closer ‘Kuru’ wallows in atmospheric sonic filth for a good while, and while I was hoping for the blasty ferocity of a 1349 or Dark Funeral given the album’s production values align with their more modern approach to BM, the crusty midtempo number which sputters into life at the close of this auditory morass is still a satisfying ending to the album. It’s clear that this EP is the work of a well-listened ear, the music sitting between the stoic, majestic filth of Xasthur, the glitchy horrors of Anaal Nathrakh and the slick blackened death metal of Behemoth.
The production job is finely a crafted affair, layered and mixed to create a harsh, overwhelming atmosphere befitting an artist far more seasoned than this. That the record doesn’t have the ‘mixed on KRKs’ low-mid shelf in place of any bass is commendable, given my suppositions about its origin. But this maturity is undermined by the tacky, plasticky drums. These sit too high in the mix, lack sufficient variation in velocity or timing and often feel copy-pasted. This is where the whole thing falters. The facsimile of a striding, menacing black metal band peels away to reveal a budding artist tweaking his opus alone.
“Hapless Wretch is one person”, gloats the Spotify bio, but maybe collaboration, preferably with a strong drummer, would open this band up to new possibilities. Nevertheless, the album works as a defiant statement of intent from a musician and producer with a lot to give. Perhaps more importantly, it is a signifier of the changing norms of what constitutes a correctly unfinished product. From the charming roughness of early, demo-quality BM, to the hi-fi monotony of the churning drum machine, it seems that attaining the right level of broken is more and more difficult as innovation through material necessity is sublimated into imitation by design.
Vol. 1 is out now and can be ordered here.
Words: Mike Lewis