Melbourne instrumental quartet Heirs share a reductivist approach with their contemporaries My Disco, but manage to take it down into a black void of sound, where the pulse slows down like a drug-induced death trip or a slow descent into a Lovecraftian netherworld.
On their debut Alchera, released by Exo Records in May 2009, one could detect the distant ripples of industrial metal deviants Godflesh, or the misanthropic catharsis of early Swans, but these influences are something they have been steadily outgrowing.
On Alchera, drummer Damian Coward acted as principal songwriter, but following a grueling tour of Europe and Japan, this key creative role has shifted to guitarist Brent Stegeman. This hasn’t so much altered the band’s sound, as added more subtlety to the way their songs’ arrangements unfold. The two musicians share a history, which allows for such a tag-team approach, having played together in a late line-up of Adelaide screamo kings Love Like Electrocution and post-rock group Maps. The addition of guitarist Ian Jackson (ex-Damn Arms) and bassist Laura Bradfield complemented their vision and led to the development of an aesthetic that stretches far beyond the input of individual players.
Unlike Stegeman’s previous musical outlet, Whitehorse, Heirs eschew the overt brutality of many doom and black metal bands. Often the heaviest music does not rely on volume and sensory overload for its effect, but employs a sense of suspense, which allows songs to unfold over time. Right from the first notes of Fowl’s opening track ‘Dust’, there’s a deliberate precision and restraint in their attack. It takes a full 15 minutes before things finally start spiraling out of control on the album’s title track. In the background, the drums try to maintain a beat, while guitar and bass take fiendish glee in their own dissolution into static and white noise.
A pretty chord progression introduces ‘Burrow’, before everything blows apart in a post-rock apocalypse of molten riffs and synth stabs, while subliminal melodies struggle to claw their way to the surface from six feet under ground, courtesy of a theremin part by guest musician Miles Brown (The Night Terrors). ‘Tyrant’, on the other hand, is an industrial barrage of noise and junkyard beats, giant machinery slamming into rusted piles of automobiles until they are reduced to tiny fragments of hot, twisted metal.
After this aural assault, ‘Men’ shifts down a gear, layering percolating synths over a down-tuned bass riff. Its slack strings audibly vibrate against the fretboard, before massed guitars swoop in like a phalanx of street sweeping vehicles, clearing early morning city streets of blood and vomit. In their wake they leave the optimistic rebirth of ‘Mother’, which ascends with a guitar solo that keeps circling around the repetitive rhythm track.
Synths once again underpin closing track ‘Drain’. As with most of the songs, Bradfield’s bass establishes the undeviating, juddering riff around which the other instruments hover in a glistening haze of rapid one-chord strumming and a cymbal-drenched percussive whirlwind. The riff almost disappears under this nervous flurry, but structure is never sacrificed entirely for the sake of noise. It’s a demonstration Heir’s perfect control over their sonic constructions, aided by engineer Neil Thomason, whose name is synonymous with capturing the post-rock sound at his Headgap studio in Melbourne.
Fowl is a great leap forward for Heirs, taking them beyond genres into a realm which is almost hermetic in its vision; intensely focused, yet also expansive. It’s technically complex, yet uncluttered and sparse in its execution. Simplicity, self-discipline and restraint are the keys to Fowl’s success. More than anything, it inspires an awe at its grandeur, rising from a sense of decay and dread to soar free of ordinary existence.