Ashenspire – Hostile Architecture – Album Review
Album Title: Hostile Architecture
Label: Aural Music
Date of Release: 15 July 2022
This is one of those albums that I have wrestled with over the past few weeks. On the one hand, I cannot stand elements of it, whilst on the other, I love other aspects, to the point where I am drawn to it like a moth to a flame. In many ways, I suspect that this is exactly the result that Glaswegian band Ashenspire will have wanted with ‘Hostile Architecture’, their sophomore release.
Billed as ‘avant-garde, progressive post-black metal’, you go into the whole experience with eyes wide open, knowing that ‘Hostile Architecture’ is not going to be easy listening, something that you put on in the background at a dinner party to sooth yourself and your guests. But even when you think that you are fully prepared, it is still quite a surprising reality with which you are faced, especially if, like me, you’ve not heard of Ashenspire before.
Post-black metal this might be, but the lyrical content and concepts are in no way connected to the occult, to the spiritual underworld, or to dark folklore. Neither is it laced with Gothic overtones, or a cloak of grandiose opulence. Instead, Ashenspire seek to tear the world of contemporary capitalism apart, and they do so here with a fierce intensity that is, at times, a little overwhelming.
The sense of hopelessness, of anger, and of injustice is writ large throughout, both in the words themselves, but also in the way that they are delivered by vocalist Alasdair Dunn. He cuts a painfully exorcised figure, as his diatribes are delivered more as tortured monologues rather than singing per-se. I cannot criticise the intensity and genuine emotion that’s conveyed, but it is a delivery that will divide opinion, nevertheless. It creates a sense of oppression and claustrophobia that I find intriguing without fully embracing if that makes sense? I don’t necessarily share all of the radically left-wing sentiment and I’m not normally a fan of overtly political music of any kind because I get enough of that in the real world. But I do find myself listening more intently to the words than I expected to at the outset, which has to be applauded.
Musically, ‘Hostile Architecture’ is every bit as challenging as the lyrics. It blends a number of styles together into one final product that sees black metal elements butted up against jazz, progressive ideas juxtaposed with quieter sections of minimalist introspection, and progressive technicality with straight-up uncomplicated metal barbarism. Dissonance plays an important part in the final sound, whilst at other points, I am buoyed by a moment or two of more immediate melody. I’d have liked a little more of the latter if I am honest, but then in doing so, this might have diluted the impact of the music in the eyes of the band themselves. Mind you, aside from a vehement dislike of the ruling elite and the perceived unfairness of society, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, it’s not always easy to decipher what exactly is in the minds of Ashenspire collectively.
Those that know me, and my foibles will know all about my dislike of the saxophone, so to hear it enter so quickly at the beginning of opener ‘The Law Of Asbestos’, courtesy of Matthew Johnson, to duet with what I believe to be the hammered dulcimer (Otrebor – Botanist) is not the most welcome of beginnings. There is also a lazy, almost whimsical feel to the early stages, as if to lull us into a false sense of security. The sounds of a gentle violin (James Johnson) only serve to enhance this initial feeling before the song changes dramatically with the introduction of Alasdair Dunn’s voice.
It becomes a much more uncomfortable and dissonant affair and, in turn, a much more metallic and heavy song too, with guitar riffs from Fraser Gordon turning into brief walls of fast-picked sound, and the rhythm section featuring Falloch bassist Ben Brown laying down an increasingly extreme bedrock. As it unfolds, there is actually a slight increase in the melody too – either that or I am just getting steadily used to the abrasive cacophony in my ears. Overall, much like the lyrical aspect, I find it more unique and fascinating than enjoyable, and that goes for large swathes of the album in all honesty. I appreciate and really admire the originality and the conviction that these musicians bring to the table, even if I don’t fully click with the final product.
That said, ‘Béton Brut’ and ‘Apathy As Arsenic Lethargy As Lead’ are where I find most enjoyment on ‘Hostile Architecture’, as they are arguably the most memorable and immediate of all of the eight compositions on the album. The former of the two begins in full-on black metal assault mode, with fast-picked riffs and urgent drumming, albeit accented by wild, uncontrollable shrieks caused by the saxophone. But, when the opening maelstrom calms a little, the ensuing riff is almost catchy, certainly one of the more melodic segments of the album, with great violin work. The vocals are just as striking and hard-hitting, but I like it more when tempered by music that’s a bit less ‘out there’, even if the song begins to unravel into more cacophonous realms as it develops.
The latter kicks off with a jazz-like sax and a stop-start, off-kilter tempo, but as it continues, Dunn gets as close to singing as ever, which brings with it a welcome new element that helps to inject melody into an otherwise dissonant and chaotic affair. The shorter, more reserved ‘Palimpsest’ is another composition that has grown on me too, despite the liberal sprinkling of the saxophone throughout.
My conclusion is a difficult one to write after all this, because I honestly don’t know what to think of it. I only like bits of it, I actively enjoy even less of it. But I truly admire all of it. It isn’t an album that I would necessarily choose to listen to for pleasure on a frequent basis, but kudos has to be given to Ashenspire for creating something so unique, so original, and so aurally challenging in ‘Hostile Architecture’. I’m definitely glad that I have experienced it. There will be a niche market for this release no doubt, and it will further enhance their status as a cult entity, of that there is little doubt. Ultimately though, it isn’t quite my ‘thing’. But I urge you to make up your own mind, because you have to hear this album to believe it.
The Score of Much Metal: 75%