Colorado's black-metal duo Cobalt
(vocalist Phil McSorley and guitarist/drummer Erik Wunder)
debuted with the amateurish War Metal (From Beyond Productions, 2005),
but the 70-minute Eater of Birds (Profound Lore, 2007), produced by Dave Otero, was one of black metal's worst carnages.
From the onset
there is a militaristic leitmotif in When Serpents Return: guitars that sound like machine guns and drums that sound like caterpillar tracks.
The ten-minute Invincible Sun begins in a march tempo that only lacks
Scottish hornpipes, and, when the harrowing vocals enter, it unleashes a
torrent of machine-gun riffs and blast-beats.
It rises and falls, but when it rises, Blood Eagle Sacrifice is a
methodical bloodbath, a stomping tribal gallop.
In fact, the music is hardly monolithic.
The nine-minute Witherer begins at funereal pace and builds up tension
cynically and scientifically. During the instrumental break, its ruffled guitar riffs coalesce in a focus laser beam of frenzy that overcomes the jungle tom-tom.
Each of the longer pieces undergoes several transfusions of mood.
After two minutes and a half Ulcerism plunges into a stately instrumental break, and two minutes later it shifts gear and becomes an avalanche of riffs that sounds like Led Zeppelin on steroids.
That "post-Zeppelin" impersonation launches the ten-minute Eater of Birds
that, after a brief vocal section, turns into a repetitive metal raga.
The galactic stomping and satanic shrieking of Cephalopod (one of the
shorter pieces) is the only nonstop assault.
The manic side of the album is mirrored by a mellow side:
Ritual Use of Fire I for acoustic guitar and sound of waves;
Ritual Use of Fire II, a psychedelic vignette with
bees and crickets populated by warped voices while the acoustic guitar
repeats a simple folk melody;
and Androids Automatons and Nihilists, that even features abstract vocalizing
by dark-folk heroine Jarboe.
Cobalt showed to the black-metal scene how a less savage sound could actually feel more powerful.
Gin (Profound Lore, 2009) indulges in that creative versatility.
Gin is a three-part suite: one minute of post-country jamming a` la Built To Spill, then a blast-beat carnage, and
a theatrical finale.
The nine-minute Dry Body is divided between a vocal section that intones
a funereal chant and an instrumental section that is dominated by martial guitar staccatoes.
Arsonry begins as the canonical black-metal blast but half-way, after a brief acoustic intermezzo, it plunges into a jagged noisy agony.
The brief charming folk melody of Throat segues into the demonic skit Stomach, another multi-part song.
The ten-minute Two-Thumbed Fist is another complex incoherent
psychodrama but this one eventually coalesces into an anthemic charge.
All these convolutions and mutations are a mixed blessing. Sometimes they
truly enhance the tension, sometimes they detract from it.
The unrestrained breathless gallop of Pregnant Insect comes as a relief,
a shot of adrenaline just when our attention span is declining.
Ditto for the stormy and harrowing A Starved Horror,
announced by one of the most lyrical acoustic guitar riffs.
Phil McSorley left after this album.
The double-disc Slow Forever (Profound Lore, 2016), coming after a seven-year hiatus and featuring new vocalist Charlie Fell, is much more accessible than their previous albums.
The nine-minute Hunt the Buffalo is emblematic of their multifaceted
suites that embark in lengthy turbulent journeys at the cost of being unfocused and confused at every point in time. Luckily, the last few minutes pack a
concentrate of Nirvana-style angst.
In fact, the sound of vehement songs like Ruiner is basically old-fashioned grunge a` la Pearl Jam updated to the age of black metal.
However, one can hardly accuse Cobalt having opted for a simpler sound.
The eleven-minute King Rust begins like a Riverdance jig and that
motif returns over and over again, sandwiched between fits of vomit.
Another eleven-minute monolith, Final Will, falls into the same category
of hard to follow narratives, with moments of great pathos (the instrumental break seven minutes into the piece) and moments of bland meandering.
The nine-minute Slow Forever is even more fatally flawed by the constant
reshaping of the music.
There is little black metal left in this music, and that wouldn't be a problem;
but Fell's vocals are nowhere near McSorley's hysterical shriek, and that's one
problem. The other problem is that the music seems to lack conviction, so that
most of these lengthy pieces suffer from plenty of redundant parts.
One highlight is the nine-minute Beast Whip that erups energetic frenzy
from every pore, and three minutes before the end unleashes a series of
rubber-band riffs that open the gates for the magniloquent finale.
Another highlight is the punk-metal rant of
eight-minute Elephant Graveyard, in which the vocals are finally
protagonist, driving much of the rhythm and providing vocal riffs to the guitar ones; and it implodes into a kind of slow, hypnotic voodoobilly.
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