Metal, euphoria, contrast and humanity
Byla, the noisy New York ambient duo made up of Colin Marston and Kevin Hufnagel, and Jarboe, the former experimental vocalist from Swans, have reissued their 2007 collaboration, Viscera. Though Marston and Hufnagel are most commonly known for their work with Gorguts, they had collaborated together many times before. The duo first worked together after Hufnagel’s band Dysrhythmia recruited Marston to play bass guitar. Marston was no stranger to the metal scene either, playing with the Brooklyn experimental metal band Behold…The Arctopus since 2001. Both Marston and Hufnagel’s nomadic tendency to rotate between the bands and solo projects that they committed to made their company perfect for Jarboe. After her monumental contributions to Swans, she self-released several solo works and collaborated with metal and experimental groups from Oakland to Wales. The collaboration between these independent but dedicated individuals resulted in a work that was equally exemplary and contradictory to metal itself.
On the aptly titled Viscera, Byla and Jarboe tackle emotional expression in unconventional ways. The album starts off with “1,” where Jarboe’s breathy moans graze across the atmosphere. They seem to be distorted, perhaps playing backwards and resulting in a surrealism reminiscent of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. A thick wave of violent electric guitars crash into the forefront with no warning, only cut by a subtle and drawn out hum. Though this hum is barely audible, it creates an intriguing contrast between the extremities of the guitars. The guitars eventually shift into an oscillating trill of a drone, as grating as ever. The hum, on the other hand, seems to be some kind of soothing orchestral string. Even with reverb galore, the noisiness of “1” is something that the listener eventually acclimates to as the song goes on. The further into the song, the more harmonic it somehow sounds, without ever losing its initial roughness. When a light music box melody joins the mix, it triggers feelings of both nostalgia and fear. “1” ends in a piercing whistle and a strange beat that leaves listener on edge, unsure of where they will be taken next.
Surprisingly, what follows is something almost completely soothing. On “2,” gentle synth chords echo for a moment before a gorgeous guitar melody follows. The nimbleness of this melody pushes this interlude into territories much brighter, more euphoric, even, than the track that preceded it. It is the salve to the injury created by the anarchy of “1,” but hints of its off-kilter leanings are ever so slightly presented through its divergence from traditional song structure or melodies. By the end of “2,” the minor chords creep in slowly but surely, foreshadowing the wrath that will follow.
Immediately after “2” ends, Byla and Jarboe push screeching feedback and screaming guitars right back into the spotlight. Though spending over 15 minutes listening to the intensity of “1” resulted in an acclimation to its extremes, “2” brought listeners back down to Earth, only to be shaken once again by “3.” Jarboe’s monstrous roars are unrestrained and filled with either agony or anger, but most likely both. Though her voice is octaves deeper here compared to its usual glassy tone, it still sounds like it is a woman’s voice, albeit a woman deeply scorned and scarred. But before Byla and Jarboe let things completely run amuck, they bring listeners to the opposite side of the feminine spectrum. On “4,” ritualistic chimes and a beautiful acoustic melody accompany Jarboe’s wonderfully feminine vocals. As her voice overlaps and harmonizes with itself, the strings become much more intense without losing any of their warmth or elegance. Byla and Jarboe create a fleeting moment of wholesome love and passionate suspense through a riveting fingerstyle guitar journey, proving that even a fraction of goodness within the darkness that preceded it makes both ends of the spectrum worthwhile and fulfilling.
On the final track, “5,” Byla and Jarboe bring it back to the chaos of the beginning. Rattling electric guitars oscillate away loudly, with something tremoring in the background. As they build up a solid wall of noise, the pitch of the guitars changes often and unexpectedly, but its speed stays constant. Paired with abrupt pauses, the result is a random descent into darker and uncharted ground. After a sudden silence, these unrelenting guitars blare with tenfold the intensity. Even as they lose the steady oscillation that they had in the beginning and devolve into an even more chaotic state, there are still dashes of melodic bursts. When the toothsome mayhem subsides a bit, gentle strings are added, in stark contrast to the noisiness of the guitars. Even with so much going on, Byla and Jarboe manage to make each of the odd-numbered noise tracks hypnotic. As listeners penetrate deeper and deeper into the sensory overload of the wall of noise, it becomes easier and easier to get lost in their heads. By the end of “5,” these listeners are given one quick solace to the unforgiving nature of noise: a gentle but solemn melody that ends with an extremely drawn out electric guitar note.
In the depths and peaks of Viscera, Byla and Jarboe have encapsulated not only a broad range of human emotion but also the cyclical nature of how we experience them. Would the euphoria of peacefulness be as enjoyable if it was not preceded and followed by such punishing moments of rage? Would the expression of the latter be as cathartic and fulfilling if there was no forced ending of the former? On Viscera, Byla and Jarboe contribute their varied strengths to wisely demonstrate the nature of life and emotion through lyric-less music alone, proving that the best way to encapsulate human experience may not require the spoken intellect so ingrained into humanity in the first place.