Home Music Holy Hell Holy Hell! Bath Turns 20

Holy Hell! Bath Turns 20

2001 was a hefty year for progressive metal, emerging into a distinct genre beyond heavy metal with odd time signatures and synthesizers or dudes with King Crimson fetishes playing thrash riffs. Opeth crystallized their progressive death metal alliage on fan favourite Blackwater Park, Tool accented the mathematical aspects of the genre with their opus Lateralus, Mastodon was on the cusp of their debut, and Dream Theater had yet to go too far over the hill. Progressive metal was finally taking a substantive shape. But while those four pillars of early 2000s prog metal host their own litany of students, maudlin of the Well’s acclaim is niche at best. Rarely is Toby Driver’s (the guitarist and vocalist of maudlin of the Well) project touted as a formative influence besides by Kayo Dot, the band he formed to skirt away from genre expectations.

And listening to Bath, how could they? It’s an intimidatingly dense work of progressive metal that’s equally pretentious (a description that would cause Driver’s skin to crawl) and stone-faced. Everything – and as Driver has gone on record to say, everything – is intentional on Bath. There’s rationale behind the image of a pair of bloody swan’s wings or half a song quoting The Aenead in Latin. As progressive and as metal as Bath is it’s reductive to confine the album to that classification. Most of Bath is spent exploring worlds, images, dreams, textures, instruments, melodies and genres beyond the scope of progressive or metal with a childlike curiosity of probing a blackened cave with no torch. maudlin of the Well push every envelope until the sinews disperse into a flock of doves like a magic trick. So leaving Bath you may remember the crushing metal and cookie monster vocals but the wonder is found in the quiet samples of running water, or the jovial, childlike bass picking of “interlude 2” or the vastness of “Birth Pains of Astral Projection.”

maudlin of the Well stand beyond their prog metal peers by exploring for the sake of lucid cartography. Parts of the album were conceived during lucid dreaming experiences and are weaved throughout tracks like tapping into subconscious tropes. The opening motif of “The Blue Ghost” reappears in “Girl With a Watering Can” to be embellished and expanded upon. Conversely “The Blue Ghost” ruminates on the motif, with the group pushing deep underground, fixated on that single idea. Guitars, trumpets, clarinets and flutes discuss how to best dissect the melody until they collide in some semblance of pained harmony. maudlin of the Well’s progressiveness is steeped in a curiosity around discovering where their musical tangents will lead them, overturning pebbles to find worms wiggling in the dirt and the carcasses of rats and the fauna of blooming flowers and toxic mushrooms, stepping deeper into the woods until the trees stop being waypoints and become symbols themselves.

Bath is formless with a dream logic unbound by conventional song structures. The album is paced in a sequence edging towards a subconscious form of emotional resonance. Hence how the horns can serenade on “The Blue Ghost” then exorcise demons on the very next track. Speaking of which, “They Aren’t All Beautiful” is on the shortlist of greatest death metal tracks of all time by balancing an unholy amount of sonic aggression with a fluid avant-garde foundation. On a more basic level the track is as heavy as the moon with its masochistic drums and extremely voluminous riffs made all the more disturbing by Driver’s bloodcurdling growls. “They Aren’t All Beautiful” spirals into a breakdown both pummeling and pensive, then regurgitates the same sequence with a squealing horn that appears out of nowhere like a viper striking its prey. Bath is untied to any solid form so it can draft through conflicting tangents while remaining cohesive. “Heaven and Weak” begins with acoustic folk picking then transcends the human plains of comprehension with flamboyant progressive soloing before tumbling downwards into the pit of Tartarus. Elsewhere, “The Ferryman” is a tribute to gothic romanticism as church organs and cathedral-filling ruminations from Maria-Stella Fountoulakis bookend a death metal recounting of the myth of Charon. In the album’s biggest digression maudlin of the Well pedal with levity on “Interlude 2” with bouncing bass and pianos.

For its flexibility Bath is never disjointed. An undercurrent of wonder pulses through its veins. “Birth Pains of Astral Projection” encapsulates this over its ten minute runtime as it travels through harrowing metal, wandering prog, and avant-garde rock in a manner akin to a sea captain charting a path using only the rhythm of the waves. maudlin of the Well are avatars of Eros and Thanatos, burgeoning towards both love and death with the utmost certainty that they will be pulled back to the centre if they err too close to either side.

maudlin of the Well’s Bath is abstract, dense and frightening, all for mostly the same reason. For those looking for easier serotonin hits it reeks of pretension and smacks of meandering for those seeking a more tangible through line. Much of the record’s imagery is repeated and much of it is disturbing. Bloodied wings, tears, small child, violence; like a dream it’s steeped in recollection rather than immediate resonance. By themselves the images don’t relate. The brain connects them on whatever levels it deems fit. Similarly, maudlin of the Well bridge the gaps between human technicality and expressionism. They explore not to determine an end goal but as journeymen of the unconscious.

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