In days where underground gems can (and do) achieve as big an audience as the half-baked meanderings of any sub-par black metal outfit thanks to the grand proliferation of blogs, opinions and unsocial adolescents wasting away their youth uploading obscure demos to Mediafire, Leviathan’s discography stands as a fist in the face of fucking everything. Hordes of demos usurping the thrones of the creative elite. Four full-lengths that ram-raid the pillars of black metal’s subgenres. Innumerable splits that read more like EPs and a four-pronged attack of compilation material that transcends cash-cow pretension and instead insists “this is mandatory fucking listening, kid”.
The early development of Leviathan involves over 15 individual (and full-length at that) demo releases. That number reflects those that were made available at Amoeba Music in San Francisco. The true number of demos Wrest has chalked up to the Leviathan monicker is probably much larger. The prolific nature of Leviathan is defined by the productivity of these early days. From the monochrome, mid-paced whitewash of the second demo Time End – where fledgling ideas were given their first airing, to XV, which features the potent birthplace renditions of tracks that would eventually appear on the debut and sophomore albums.
The scope of sound that Wrest explores and conquers within this vast catalogue of demo material alone is enough to leave 99% of metal bands in the dust. The covers demo, number five, reveals influences as far reaching as Lungfish and Siouxsie and the Banshees. The eighth demo, Video Brolo, represents slower, more experimental material. Howl Mockery At The Cross differs from the Moribund compilation of the same name in that it remains a stand alone demo. Also, Sacrifice Love at the Altar of War is not one of the 15 demos but a compilation of demo material.
A Leviathan demo is a demo in the truest sense of the word. New ideas are attempted, regardless of whether or not they succeed. They are the foetal forms of an idea, given auditory birth by a four-track recorder and an appetite for pummeling, forward-thinking black metal. Each demo follows a different train of thought in its own right and distinguishes Leviathan as a superior musician in every respect above what Malefic achieved with Xasthur – whose ideas grew stale and unoriginal after two or three albums.
The culmination of demo effort finds its strength in the great double-disc compilation release of Verräter by tUMULT Records. This compilation, which groups older tracks together on the ‘Krankheit’ disc and latter-day abominations on the ‘Schadenfreude’ disc, is the most affecting summation of Wrest’s early work available. While this features some re-workings of audio and titling choices, this two-hour and 25 minute voyage through the annals of Leviathan acts as a personal autobiography of affectation and experimentation. A timeline through four years of grief and anger. The collection of mesmerizing, intimidating and jugular-puncturing black metal grabbed the underground’s attention.
This chest of wonders that spans the darker furrows of music’s reach is directly responsible for the level of devotion Leviathan inspires. The depths of depression that emanate from ‘The Tenth Sub Level of Consciousness’, the manic and more refined chaos present on Tentacles of Whorror to the all-out bombardment of existence that is Massive Conspiracy Against All Life – all the detailed nuances and craftsmanship stems from these demo days. Practice makes perfect. Wrest’s incessant belief that “black metal is one of the most important things in my life… I’ve always wanted to express the ideas I had in my head since I first started to play guitar,” echoes fully in the sentiment left behind in his back catalogue.
The first full-length release by Leviathan, The Tenth Sub Level of Suicide, named after the a lyric Wrest wrote years before (tenth rung of the ghost climb, the many levels of a decision to leave this place), was dubbed and drafted in with the “suicidal/depressive black metal” wave that was the zeitgeist of the time. While the album does mark a departure from the palm-muted sense of deliverance Wrest adopted in the past, The Tenth Sub Level… saw a great increase in speed and use of open-ended riffs (3:30 into ‘Fucking Your Ghost in Chains of Ice’) – a far cry from the suffocated-by-synth, drawn-out homages to the depressive black metal scene.
Tentacles of Whorror has the most memorable riffs of any Leviathan release. A clear development in speed, craftsmanship and delivery from the debut, this release straddled the line of the haunting ambient textures found on ‘A Necessary Mutilation’ and the purely ambient release A Silhouette In Splinters with the powerhouse of brutal conviction Leviathan would become. The younger Leviathan kept Wrest preoccupied with notions of suicide and escaping society, made apparent by this phrasing in an early interview with Terrorizer magazine: “Suicide as metamorphosis. Suicide as the realization of not being meant for this life. Suicide as self-strength, not self-pity. Many are the walking dead, unaware that they suicided themselves long ago. Humans are one of the few animals that contemplate suicide. They should take advantage of this.” Later Leviathan takes solace in the anger and hate towards fellow human beings. Just look at the aggression on Massive Conspiracy Against All Life and the violent outbursts of title choices on True Traitor, True Whore.
The Tenth Sub Level of Suicide and Tentacles of Whorror cemented the sound of Leviathan. Digital drums, four-track epiphanies, those trademark vocals, guitar/drum freefalls into enthralling riffs and an affinity for bizarre language (‘Mine Molten Armor’ and ‘Vexed and Vomit Hexed’). This sound continued by and large through splits with Xasthur, Crebain, Iuvenes and Blackdeath as Wrest continued to explore themes that emanated from the myriad influences worn on his sleeve. The only departure, the ambient territory of A Sihouette In Splinters, is a haunting rendition of pulsing guitars, bass and rattling, Antarctic arpeggios underpinned by monochrome synths.
As if representing the pinnacle of modern-day USBM wasn’t enough of an achievement, Wrest is also known as a tattoo artist and, as such, decorates his releases with his own art. From The Tenth Sub Level of Suicide and Tentacles of Whorror, to the more mature and developed artistry behind A Silhouette in Splinters and The Blind Wound EP. Each release has its own distinct vibe, channeling the aesthetic through sound in ways other black metal bands fall short of. The work adorning Massive Conspiracy Against All Life is the work of Tim Lehi and represents Wrest’s vision and idea. It’s not hard to see why Leviathan vinyl releases go for ridiculous prices on Ebay then, and even in the days before MP3s were overtly popular, when CDs and demo tapes fetched a small fortune.
Forever one to experiment, Wrest’s other vehicle of expression, Lurker of Chalice, made its debut album release through Total Holocaust records in 2005 after four unnamed, largely experimental demo releases. Eschewing the violent, anti-humanist traits of Leviathan in favour of Wrest’s more experimental influences gave birth to a sound that spanned as many genres as it defied. Managing to blur the lines between surreal, insomnia-inspired annihilation and surreal, soothing hues, Lurker of Chalice appealed to fans of dark music in general, not just metalheads.
One of the earlier Lurker of Chalice demos, which came adorned solely with L.O.C. in runic font on a CDR, focused mainly on ambience. Abandoning song structure and opting for a more whitewash approach to atmosphere, beneath the blankets of crumbling, four-track sounds lay remnants of Hitler’s speeches. Wrest is quick to deny any affiliations with National Socialist tenets but does raise some interesting points about metal’s attitude to the idea of NSBM in an interview conducted by some back-water abandoned review site: “I think it makes sense. This is about war and hatred… all things too horrible for consideration. Leviathan is not a political entity… not something I think about, lyrically or otherwise. I can’t narrow down my disgust for the entire human race that far. S.F. is filled to the brim with liberal P.C. crybabies. Any time I go to a show or even talk about B.M., there’s always these disclaimers coming out of their mouths. Weakness. I find it interesting that some of the biggest ‘Nazis’ have produced some of the most amazing expressions. Listen again, pussies.”
The big change in the trajectory of Leviathan came after an uninteresting personal scuffle with Moribund Records. The first non-digitized Leviathan release was the split with Sapthuran, whose liner art features Wrest’s rehearsal space and, for the first time in Leviathan’s history, a proper set of drums! Massive Conspiracy Against All Life was unleashed to an unsuspecting public through Moribund Records in the early months of 2008 to a frothing clusterfuck of fans. As if reinventing Leviathan’s sound, gone were the digital drums and the four-track recordings, replaced instead with a full-bodied production. While undoubtedly one of Wrest’s strongest pieces of work, Massive Conspiracy Against All Life involves a lot of rehashed ideas from earlier days. The success of this release then lies in the production and package of sound. Everything does well to aid the new-found venom in Wrest’s delivery and move him further away from the depressive paradigms of his past.
True Traitor, True Whore is Wrest’s latest musical exodus. After what seemed like an indefinite hiatus and a misanthrope sent even further down the path of hermetic tendencies after battles, lawsuits and the treacherous love, he returns with Leviathan. Described by Profound Lore as the “death blow to nowadays U.S. Black Metal (or what is considered Black Metal)”, True Traitor, True Whore might just be Wrest’s most personal voyage to date. The title shares similarities with the tUMULT release Verräter, which is German for traitor, and marks an almost direct response to the sexual assault/domestic battery charge he was indicted of earlier this year.
Not that Wrest has ever kept quiet when it comes to his opinions on others. Release liner notes come etched with the misanthropic, life-ending, rage-inducing personality that inspires his metal. Gems include: “Death to all hip-hop influenced nu-‘metal’ treason. Fuck your world”, and “Curious novelty seekers and their unoriginal, cock-leech ideas of what ‘true’ is… Mollusks that deem themselves qualified to ‘review’ for their inability to create anything… Fucking die gobbling Christian turds!!! Your pathetic whimpers ignite this metal!!!” in the notes of The Tenth Sub Level of Suicide. Through to “We peer under the skirt of your ‘black metal’… We find panties full of dainty terror, useless caucus, and mist mimic viking rock stars. We refuse your convention… Detest your sociability. Eat Shit and Live,” which does seem slightly out of place.
True Traitor, True Whore is the first Leviathan release to be treated to a full studio recording and production courtesy of Sanford Parker. The leap in sound from previous outings is phenomenal. What is unleashed across this 47 minute opus is a progged-out exploration of Wrest’s vast influences dragged through Leviathan’s trademark sound. The hardened shell of tempered black metal constantly struggles against myriad outsider influences. Moments of feathered ambience, acoustic guitars and surreal, ululating waves of soaring melodies rise up from Wrest’s unconsciousness.
Opener ‘True Whorror’ is a violent torrent of noise and angular guitar rapture. Wrest’s vocals sound more cacophonous than usual. Long gone are the days of processed, altered and alienating bedroom black metal four-track worries. The new production effort and the overall reduced tempo allow each individual instrument its own space to be fully envisaged. ‘Her Circle is the Noose’ is downright spellbinding. The unusual approach to guitar that hovers consistently in between arpeggios, tremolo picking and chunky power chords is clearer here than ever before.
There are a fair few re-visitations into the annals of history too. ‘Shed This Skin’ has been lifted in its entirety from the seventh demo and treated to a deluxe re-envisioning through improved production. It makes for an interesting listen to hear moments of Leviathan’s back catalogue decked out to represent the coup de grâce of Wrest’s intentions. There are subtleties that went completely unnoticed in the demos. A four-track home recording can only go so far. Closing statements come in the form of ‘Blood, Red and True’, which has acted as the final detail a number of times in the past (Shadow of No Light, A Silhouette in Splinters and Verräter). The structure has once again been lifted straight from the archives but reveals melodies that shine like diamonds, a powerhouse riff underpinned by glistening leads and a stuttered, aggrieved vocal delivery. The track is tainted with remnants of hope that serve to wrap up this voyage of vehement self-introspection.
Given the (most) recent direction of Leviathan and the vitriolic album title, True Traitor, True Whore is a more subdued effort than I was anticipating. While it may be devoid of the urgency and knife-edge bombast that is Massive Conspiracy Against All Life, this latest work tracks a more introspective journey along the path of hate. It follows the path of other recent black metal outfits by veering off into outsider territory. As if playing drums in Nachtmystium has rubbed off on Wrest, Leviathan has in turn begun to incorporate sections of psychedelia (‘Brought Up To The Bottom’ combines near clean vocals with an emotive, driving epiphany never before seen), acoustic guitars and a more Lurker of Chalice-oriented sound.
Yet while a band like Nachtmystium teetered too far over the edge of their influences, Wrest remains true to the black metal sound to deliver what has to be the most affecting Leviathan recording to date. There are moments of release (after the acoustic break in ‘Contrary Pulse’ and the closing sections of ‘Blood Red and True’) that reveal Wrest’s hidden appreciation for bands like Deafheaven. A shame then that the standout moments seem to be rehashed pieces from his past. For all the new facets that Wrest has added to his repertoire, the moments you will relive when the album closes are the ones that you have already enjoyed. As if the current obsession with forward-thinking black metal caused the man to invest too much time into incorporating these thoughts and reflections in the new-found studio environment. A move away from the riff-based, catastrophically transcendent approach to aggression we all associate Wrest with.
Not as immediate as its predecessor, True Traitor, True Whore will have fans torn in two. The album is a marked departure from the gargantuan channels of violence present on Massive Conspiracy Against All Life. Influence and experimentation seem to take center stage here, with a vast re-imagining of Leviathan’s history. If anything, True Traitor, True Whore sees Leviathan arriving at a crossroads. Vast discography in tow, shall the baggage of the past be dumped so Wrest can continue climbing up to new plateaus or plundered further down into the abyss of mediocrity and stale re-invention?