Thursday, 10 April 2014

Extreme Thursday - Vastum

Thursday is once again upon us. This week's installment of Extreme Thursday looks at a different sort of extreme metal. The themes of brutal death metal are rooted deep in the taboos of society. Violence, blood and guts are staples of the genre, with demonic references or anti-religious rhetoric thrown in. But one band in particular takes on another sort of uncomfortable subject.

The use of horrific elements has become less shocking over the years. Much of it has become mainstream, with even the most mundane police drama featuring hideously disfigured corspes. Lyrical depictions are seldom more shocking than a B movie horror or a low budget slasher flick. Much of death metal's staple horror, when stripped of the guttural roars and chugging guitars, can end up looking a bit silly.

But another sort of taboo, another sort of uncomfortable reality has grown alongside. One that has always been there, but has become more prominent in recent years as society grows and fights with itself. The subject of human sexuality.

One band that has captured the venomous, psychologically destructive side of sexuality is Vastum who, with their 2011 release Carnal Law, turned this subject so often dealt with in a flurry of hushing or raucous bluster inward on itself. The loneliness of the individual, the helplessness and inner turmoil that every human feels and fears in our animal instinct is laid out.

Formed in 2009, Vastum is a group formed from members of a number of other SF bay area bands including Necrot, Acephalix and Hammers of Misfortune. On vocals the band features founder Daniel Butler and guitarist Leila Abdul-Rauf. Taking their name is from the Latin for "waste", as in empty or barren, the themes are always personal, lonely and painful. While there are metal bands out there that feature sexual imagery depicted as violent, masculine and fetishistic, Vastum's take is entirely more down to earth.

The subject of sexuality is one that nobody can avoid. It is a fundamental and essential part of what defines us, as individuals and as a species. It's effects on our outlook, our drives, our status in society and on our own self image are undeniable. From the highly sexed, the cock-sure extroverts, to the damaged, the introverted and the lonely, the behavioural and societal effect of our sexuality goes far beyond the simple sin of lust.

It may not be immediately obvious to the untrained or inattentive ear that there are two vocalists in this band. Both use a range of guttural, gurgling growls, and yet, on listening, add something different to the sound. As pointed out in the Invisible Oranges review of Carnal Law, this may be the first metal band with a male and female vocalist who do not split their duties down gender lines, but rather what each individual's style can bring to the subject. Leila Abdul-Rauf is currently working with two other bands bands as well as producing solo material. I'm sure we will hear more from her on Femetalism in the future.

The band's music itself is groove based death metal. Rather than an indecipherable wall of noise prevalent in the grindcore and brutal death metal community, there are definite riffs, grooves, solos and something approaching melodies. Down-tuned and forceful, the combination of driving bass, constantly shifting guitar and the depth of the vocal delivery is a punch in the gut and often has the low, rumbling effect of brown noise.

With the release of the second album, Patridical Lust, the band stepped up a notch and took the guitar work in a slightly different direction, featuring some higher register riffing and even some a distinctly groovy bass riffs. The lyrical themes continue, though, with a deeply saddening, terrible portrayal of domestic abuse in 3AM In Agony, the loneliness and insular hatred of the "involuntarily celibate" in Incel and the niche perversions in the title track that turn the Oedipus complex on its head. Of course, it's possible (as with most extreme metal) to ignore the subject matter and focus only on the music, but the song titles and album art is enough to give a good idea what to expect.

Is this focus on the hurtful, agonising aspects of our sexual nature wanton and done for shock value, like so much of death metal's lyrical landscape? Perhaps, but perhaps it is also important that a band such as this exists. A "low bar" on the acceptable, if you like. Mainstream music seems reduced to swaggering, slimy rape threats and the gyrating of manufactured celebrity, and BDSM and other extremes are gleefully portrayed in cartoonish parody. Vastum break the taboos of polite society, look at the hurt beneath the glossy, air-brushed caricatures and played-for-shock sexual tragedies, and make it feel sometimes too close to the bone. Perhaps it is an antidote to the plasticised euphemisms society has come to accept.

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