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Album Review: Byla & Jarboe – Viscera

I listen to a lot of music. Every day, I look for new albums from bands I’ve never heard, with the hope that I’ll happen upon something wonderful. But some days, it’s refreshing to spin a record made by familiar faces, like this reissue of Byla & Jarboe’s 2007 album Viscera. Before they were bandmates in Gorguts, Colin Marston and Kevin Hufnagel played together as the dark ambient duo Byla, releasing a self-titled debut in 2005. Meanwhile, during the Swans hiatus, the experimental vocalist and one-of-a-kind artist Jarboe embarked on a prolific career, dropping solo albums and collaborations that made their rounds in avant-garde scenes.  If experimental music were illustrated with a Venn diagram, one would find significant overlap in the respective work of Byla and Jarboe, so it was really a no-brainer when they combined their talents and released an extremely solid and oddly approachable ambient-drone project.

While I do think that Viscera serves as an accessible avant-garde album, it’s no less haunting and radiant than the band members’ early work. In the eerily quient opening seconds of the aptly-named opener “01,” sharp, sullen inward breaths sound as if they’re escaping Jarboe’s throat, only to be enveloped by a looming wall of distorted noise. Her hoarse moans and gasps sound defenseless on “01,” like a trapped animal taunted by the electric terror wrought from Byla’s menacing instrumentals. Don’t go into Viscera expecting to hear the technical noodling that both guitarists are famous for; rather, the atmosphere is massive, deliberate, and masterfully sorrowful, partially due to Marston’s incredible audio engineering skills. Rest assured, the only other albums out today that sound as good as Viscera are also produced by Colin Marston.

Jarboe has a terrifyingly effective way of expressing herself that emphasizes base human emotions, which results in an enticing listen for those with active imaginations. On this album, I envision a dark, formless void where her many vocal inflections live in constant anguish: occasionally brazen and at times defiant, the inevitable fate of the lonely souls on Viscera is an abyss where their gnarled murmurs and hopeless croons are all for naught. It’s sheer, tangible, bottomless hopelessness, like a throbbing pit of guilt in your stomach at the nadir of your life.

At nearly an hour of music with five tracks ranging from two to almost twenty minutes, the doom and gloom is evenly paced with two relatively brief interludes. These plucked guitar passages shimmer in hues of goldenrod, applying a salve of soothing melody to the suffering. “04” is a particularly calming intermission, a welcome diversion from the nihilistic misery of the previous track. Jarboe’s cooing voice glides and vibrates amidst the twinkling harmonics, like a trembling throat swollen with grief, offering sad, subdued reflections of the mortally wounded. The blackness never subsides in this Purgatory, as a salvo of electric guitars arrives in the final song to reap the souls of the forgotten. Warping, twisted, uncontrollable dread whisks away Jarboe and her choir of orcs, fading mercifully away into annihilation as the album comes to a close.

There you have it: an impressively solid dark drone album from some of the best in the business. Viscera doesn’t break any new ground or challenge the genre, so while I find myself really enjoying this side project, the only glaring negative of Byla & Jarboe is the predictability of the music. I feel like Viscera sounds exactly like what I expected, and considering the mercurial careers of the band’s members, I would prefer to hear something I did not anticipate. Regardless, I found myself immersed in Byla & Jarboe’s tumultuous sonic universe, and I hope to hear more from this partnership someday.

Viscera will be reissued on July 20th, 2018.

You can pre-order Viscera here.

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