Where does one draw the line between order and chaos? Where is the balance between the two opposing forces? When does one become the other? Is there a middle ground where they have a symbiosis? In music, this is a question that often goes unasked but it’s still on the mind of the musician. Whether they are creating music or noise, they have to strike a balance between the two poles. When music has no chaos, it doesn’t have a soul, it doesn’t have emotions and there can’t be any emotional response to the music. When music is too chaotic then there is no purpose, there is no reason that the piece should exist. It’s a tricky thing, but artists, the real ones that create because they are driven not because they want attention, know how to fall on the scale so that their work is recognized and their vision is accomplished, it’s what I think the hallmark of the musician is. Archfiend, the latest album from the duo that is Ninhursag, falls on the very chaotic side of the scale. So much so that when I thought about reviewing it I decided I had to treat it like a black ambient album, pay close attention to the sounds (musical and nonmusical) to discern meaning and context. So what did I find?
Ninhursag, the name taken from the ancient Sumerian fertility goddess, is full of symbolism and hidden meaning. Even before you listen to any of the albums there is a lot to look at, and I believe in this instance that looking at the entire picture, or at least everything that you can, is the best way to understand the music. On their Facebook and Bandcamp pages they call Ninhursag “Music of the Sacred Mountain.” Evocative, no? But how does that relate to the chaotic nature of the music? Consider that Ninhursag, the deity, is one of the primordial deities, the very first, she lived in the mountains with her consort Enki before life as we know it began. Also, primordial deities like Ninhursag were seen (or are seen depending on your context) as chaotic and amoral, beings whose very nature was undecipherable. See the connection now?
Archfiend is a short album, lasting through four songs and around twenty minutes (give or take). In that short amount of time Ninhursag is able to take us back in time to when the world was more chaotic, when humanity didn’t really have the time to debate morality and ethics, when survival was pertinent. Who is the archfiend? What is the archfiend? From my understand of the chaos and the noise oriented black metal, I think the archfiend is not really a physical being or person, rather one of two things.
The archfiend is the literal embodiment of the chaotic world, something that is formless and destructive. We would need something to focus our fear, anger, or trepidation toward. The archfiend fits the bill here, it’s not an actual person but an idea. If humanity can paint its picture, then humanity can fight it, or worship it (you could make an argument either way with how the album plays out). Is the archfiend a devil figure or a Christ like figure? Is the archfiend in fact a primordial hero archetype? Whatever the archfiend represents, he is the catalyst for change, for a journey into the abyss. It is his presence that beings to bring balance and knowledge. It is through understanding the catabasis and undertaking such a quest that the archfiend is understandable, somehow relatable. He becomes less an unknowable force and more a sympathetic idea. As monstrous as he can be, the archfiend is a necessary part growth. In the same way the fire clears out the forest or the serial killer in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” reveals the truth about the economic gulf, the archfiend gives the listener a chance to understand and to grow.
The music is absolutely fantastic. I’ve listened to the album at least four times now and each time I seem to catch more symbolism in the sounds and the music. It’s too chaotic to really be able to focus on any individual instrument or melody (though there really isn’t any melody to find musically) except for perhaps the vocals. As anyone reading Resounding Footsteps for more than the first time knows, I am very critical of the vocals, I highlight them a lot as either the breaking point or the strongest link. More than guitars, drums, or ambient noise, if an album includes vocals, the album will rise or fall because of them. Archfiend features two distinct sets of vocals. One is very formulaic with the growls and shrieks; it’s solid and it works well against the foundation of the music, it’s a linear counterpoint to the music, moving in the same direction as the sound but at a different pace. The second vocal style is, well it’s something I haven’t encountered very often. It was harsh and menacing but it reminded me of something. It took listening to the album over and over again until I could finally come up with what I was trying to figure out: this set of vocals sounded like Gollum, if he were to give in complete to that persona and destroy the Smeagol personality. It’s unsettling and it’s awesome. Going with my theory that the archfiend is the embodiment of chaos, these vocals are the voice of the archfiend. They don’t have quite as much power as the first set of vocals in terms of volume but they more than make up for it with their sinister ambiance and skin crawling hiss.
The production was pretty thin, allow the fuzziness of the instruments and their atonality to take center stage. The more I look at it, the better this was because of the lack of production, too polished a sound would have counteracted the chaotic nature of the music and nullified a lot of the meaning the band was trying get across. It’s roughshod, it’s violent, it’s primitive, it’s sinister. I think it’s safe to say that Ninhursag accomplished their goal with Archfiend. Have a listen and discover for yourself who and what the archfiend is.
Listen and support!