Blistering palm-muted guitar riffs, pummelling blastbeats and ghoulish grunting vocals… Exactly none of these things appear on this latest cosmic opus from Denver, US astral death metal travellers Blood Incantation. Yes, Timewave Zero is an ambient record – marketed as an EP yet gracing a healthy 40 minute run time across two side-length moodpieces. Surely this is a reason for us to let out a collective groan, right!? How can we mosh out to this!?
Timewave Zero‘s journey starts not with the music, nor the beautiful gatefold vinyl sleeve, but from a track on the quartet’s previous album, the triumphant Hidden History Of The Human Race titled ‘Inner Paths (To Outer Space)’. The album itself is a landmark of the death metal genre – a concept record tracing alien invasions back to the dawn of humanity – even being packaged with a 20 page manifesto dubbed “a meditative inquiry on the mystery and nature of human consciousness”. The quartet’s jazz-leaning approach, dynamic multi-faceted song structures and constantly exhilarating performances set the bar higher in the same vein as bands like Death, Atheist and Gorguts before them. ‘Inner Paths (To Outer Space)’ was the only real moment of contemplation and relief amongst the crushing death metal for the music to actually become meditative, built from slowly droning brooding synthesisers and finding something of a calm amongst the chaos.
Listed on the lengthy liner notes on the back of the gatefold sleeve that holds Timewave Zero lies an imposing selection of vintage analogue synthesisers; Moog, Roland, Yamaha, Hammond organ – the kind of gear that a legion of progressive rock and synth artists were reshaping the language of music with in the 1970s. With an emphasis on analogue recording instead of modern digital workstations and plug-ins, these two 20 minute side-length moodpieces are perfect for the vinyl listening experience. Blood Incantation bring a vintage authenticity to the sound of this stargazing opus – a band looking backwards in order to look forwards. But what is more striking in the liner notes are the words “navigated via Oblique Strategies” – a set of playing cards devised by the father of ambient himself, Brian Eno and fellow peer Peter Schmidt. These playing cards are drawn at random, each bearing rhetorical questions or ambiguous instructions to help musicians expand their creative thinking. Such examples include “use an old idea”, “work at a different speed”, “honour thy error as a hidden intention”, “ask your body” and so on. This methodology has even swept its way into the music mainstream, shaping the sound of David Bowie‘s “Berlin trilogy” and even the works of Coldplay. Though very few conversations regarding ambient music can be told without mentioning the prolific pioneering works of Eno – his ’70s and ’80s works titled Discreet Music, Ambient 1-4 and Apollo being landmarks of the genre – here Blood Incantation instead look back to an important legion of German sonic revolutionaries who were also reaching out to space, both conceptually and figuratively. Timewave Zero is the spiritual brethren of Ash Rah Tempel‘s side-length jams, Neu‘s free-form minimalism, Can‘s slow motion waterfalls on their 1973 album Future Days, and the brooding dark ambient synths that Popul Vuh composed for the films of Werner Herzog. But most crucially, Blood Incantation find kinship in the works of Tangerine Dream, the pioneers of “space ambient”, soundtracking the cosmic void through a series of incredible synth dominated albums including Alpha Centauri, Zeit, Phaedra, Stratosfear and so on.
The first sidelength piece ‘Io’ is a weightless drift, like a cosmonaut detached from their spaceship and left to float off alone into the black infinite void of space, wondering if they will die first by suffocation or starvation. A cold, ominous drone haunts the background like a wall painted black, absent of light. Slowly the modulated synths bend and spin their dark textures. Bowed guitars loom and a faint plucking of an acoustic guitar almost tries to bring a melodic phrase that never quite formulates. The vastness of cold space is amplified magnificently across twenty minutes that demand the listener closes their eyes and let the sounds seep into their mind and overwhelm them with thoughts and rhetorical questions. Much like their approach to death metal, Blood Incantation’s ambient music is an attack on the senses that deserves to be played loud. The B-side ‘Ea’ in contrast is brighter and more melodic. Perhaps our stranded cosmonaut has stumbled across a beautiful, glowing alien landscape – the kind that graces the wonderful album cover and the last glimpse of something magnificent before they die. This time the synths are as warm as the glowing sun, weaving a tapestry of snaking arpeggios together in a more gratifying yet just as slowly paced way. Around the halfway point, the melodic phrases wind down and an acoustic guitar becomes pronounced upon a bed of the distinctive sound of the Moog. This is the closest moment on Timewave Zero that resembles rock music without betraying the emphasis on texture and atmosphere. Indeed the acoustic guitar itself feels like it has been left to just float off into the endless void.
Headbangers in their denim battle jackets sewn with many patches of indecipherable extreme metal logos will be doing themselves a disservice not to indulge in what Blood Incantation are bringing to the landscape of heavy music, even with this release that exists outside of metal entirely. If Hidden History Of The Human Race demanded more from death metal fans than many of their contemporaries, then Timewave Zero proves that Blood Incantation are in it for the long haul. This superb ambient record not only asks bold questions of how diverse heavy music can truly be, but will also bring outsiders into the conversation through a recording that ambient and electronic music fans will surely appreciate. Blood Incantation’s forward thinking approach to blending genres, and reinventing compositional methodology isn’t stopping at metal riffs. Certainly they aren’t the first to do this, with Neurosis‘ Tribes Of Neurot ambient spin-off, Wolves In The Throne Room‘s ambient synth opus Celestite and even Darkthrone‘s Fenriz’ own Tangerine Dream worship side-project Neptune Towers – yet it takes a very special band to take such risks, especially with this being their first formal release for bigger label Century Media. Everything about Blood Incantation is high concept, right down to the physical packaging, and that is what makes them so exciting. Timewave Zero may be a curveball in the trajectory of their discography, but it raises exciting questions as to where this band will take us next and what further risks they will dare to take.
Timewave Zero is out now via Century Media and can be purchased here.
Words: Chris “Frenchie” French