Occasionally a band seems to simply arrive. No birth pains, no demos shouted about on the Interether, no biography in the usual databases; just that sickening crunch as your skull and your psyche break under the first inexplicable encounter. Yeah, Ukrainian sextet Agruss caught me that off balance. I was tempted to type out the entire press release for this debut as it is a fascinating piece, but I will content myself with the following bit of context: “… ancient forests, swamps and rivers surrounded by three old nuclear power plants from the Soviet era, one of which exploded in 1986 leaving a permanent scar on the planet and in the lives of six young men….”
Morok opens with the track Damnation which begins quietly and in introspective enough form with a soft, languid melody and distant whispered chattering growing closer, morphing into a chant as it does, then a chord, then it explodes into a tempestuous riff like Wolves In The Throne Room at their most violent. It is a heavy blow and with just the merest hint ofIsisin the intermittent melody that gets obliterated by something even more unexpected. Ever wished that some of those ultra guttural gore-grind vocals could be harnessed to something that isn’t some puerile misogynistic fantasy? Here you go, and with an utterly brutal and destructive death metal riff to match. It really flows, too, like a cathartic anger leaving breathless, cold quiet in its wake.
I pick myself up from the floor, gingerly.
A year or three back I got a download ‘mixtape’ called Primitive North America which featured a bunch of obscure mostly punk populated black metal bands from the US. There was a shared feral nature on that which is very much brought to mind by the raging crust/grind vocals here but whereas that often raged without shape, Agruss have these great ruined pillars of concrete and death metal that whilst they don’t contain the chaos, they somehow give it shape by offering a structure for the chaotic winds to howl around. At times it’s like watching a storm rip through a ruined factory, tossing rust and radioactive dust into the hollow space.
The title track is similarly grim: Death Metal with WITTR howling guitars and a bleak black metal atmosphere that flirts with Skepticism in a slower moment and post-hardcore melody. Can you have prog hooks in brutal death metal? Well Punishment For All manages it adding in a certain twist of something like The Axis Of Perdition in the creaking metal feel to the barely noticeable keyboards; something brought more to the fore on Fire The Saviour From Plague, before dropping into another unrelenting howl of anguish.
The weird thing is none of this gets stale or samey; the crust, death, black and grind hybrid crawling and then attacking from diseased wasteland scrub is so lively, so well constructed that it sucks you in. Technical yes but also covered in thick black crust that occasionally reminds me of bits of Highgate in amongst all the rest. The vocals are outstanding throughout; the high screams part black metal, part grindcore, the guttural deep mutterings beneath a bitter undertow, the occasional sinister chants like spectres just beyond the light. They are as much instruments as they are carriers of indecipherable lyrics. They blend superbly, too, from pounding chug to flailing thrash.
Closing triptych Under The Snow is all that had gone before but more so; the atmosphere is thick and heavy as nature claws its way back over the crumbling ruins. Part one is cold, haunted black metal with the melody barely within reach in the distorted snowstorm. Footsteps, crackling fires in the ruins then the winds drifting into the blackened and funereal doom begin part 2. It’s a monstrous thunderhead of music that gathers and rolls over the land before breaking free leaving behind out the morose, bleak part 3 where ghosts shuffle towards the campfires only to see them flicker and die…
There are moments when the sense of realisation hits you that listening to and loving music like this is Not Normal. That maybe ninety five per cent of the planet not only don’t listen to this stuff but are incapable of comprehending why anyone would and what they can possibly get out of it. When you’re young that can be liberating, or elitist or simply irrelevant; when you’re old it is too often alienating as already too much of the world is irrelevant to you. But, fuck it, if being off mainstream means I get to listen to Agruss then it is all worth it. I shall resist the temptation to force this into a sub genre and instead leave you with one word: Staggering.