Of all the solitary black metal entities that came to the fore within the US black metal scene in the early 2000’s, Xasthur was and is my favorite. The music created by Malefic (aka Scott Conner) has haunted me for nearly a decade; a malignant presence nestled in the back of my brain, often uncoiling in the small hours to rise to the surface and possess me. In my early to mid twenties, I was prone to dark moods, staying up all night writing, feeling hopelessly alone and wondering if I was losing my mind. More often than not the soundtrack to my fear and loathing was Xasthur.
You see, I don’t believe that black metal, at least black metal as defined by the Scandinavian “second wave,” was ever meant to be experienced in a large group setting. It is the music of terrible isolation, something to be digested alone in a pitch black room, preferably on headphones. Xasthur’s catalog is in many ways the epitome of this aesthetic. Listen to an album like The Funeral of Being; can you imagine that music being played live at some fucking ridiculous festival? No, you can’t, and whether or not that was Malefic’s intention is not for me to say, but when you start to think about the recurring themes that inhabit Xasthur’s world, such as suicide, depression and nightmares, you realize that these are things one encounters alone. You cannot share your nightmares with someone else, so why should such nightmarish music be shared with another? The genre tag “isolationist black metal,” which sprung up around the time projects such as Xasthur, Leviathan, Crebain and others were coming into prominence, applies to the listener as much as it does to the artist.
Xasthur embodies this particular aspect of black metal, and yet the music is so much more than black metal. Songs such as a “A Gate Through Bloodstained Mirrors” are multi-layered, lo-fi symphonies that seem to take as much influence from Bauhaus and My Bloody Valentine as they do from Burzum. I hate throwing MBV’s name around, because just about every metal writer these days seems to think that any metal band who layers their guitars and uses effects is influenced by British shoegaze, and I think much of that is either a coincidence for the band or wishful thinking on the writer’s part. Nonetheless, Xasthur’s work is imbued with a sonic density and layered quasi-psychedelia similar to what one finds on MBV’s Loveless or Slowdive’s Souvlaki, albeit of a much, much darker hue, an elaborate musical tapestry painted only in blacks and greys. I also mentioned Bauhaus, because like Xasthur, that band had a knack for crafting some very bent-sounding music; listen to a track like “Double Dare;” everything about the way it sounds seems “wrong” by conventional rock standards, but it somehow works, creating an infinitely unsettling atmosphere in the process. I seem to recall Nathan T. Birk drawing comparisons to The Cure while writing about Xasthur for Metal Maniacs; this didn’t click with me until just recently while listening to a beat-to-shit cassette copy of Disintegration. There is a similarity between Xasthur’s sonic oeuvre and The Cure’s darker works, such as the aforementioned Disintegration, as well as 1982’s classic Pornography that is beyond striking; it seems oddly appropriate that Malefic might be influenced by Robert Smith, one of music’s most eloquent and artful conjurers of unendingly gloomy and depressive atmospheres.
In the above paragraph I threw out the word “unsettling;” this might ultimately be the best word to describe Xasthur’s approach as it applies to the standards of black metal; the music sounds uncomfortable and dissonant, the ghostly, white noise distortion sprawling out in all directions, filling every nook and cranny of available space in the mix, the vocals sounding as if they’re drowning in it, while the drums pulse away robotically in the background. Although the final Xasthur releases would feature some live drumming, the juxtaposition of precise synthetic drums against the waves of blurry guitars, synths and buried screams that defines Malefic’s compositional approach makes for a supremely disconcerting listen, quite unlike any other black metal, save for the countless inferior imitators that sprang up in his wake.
The period from 2004 to 2006 saw Malefic releasing some of his finest work under the Xasthur moniker as well as engaging in some fascinating collaborative work. To Violate the Oblivious kicked off this intensely creative period and remains his most fully realized collection of songs. The album is the very pinnacle of the project’s aesthetic; a howling chorus of slashed wrists gushing black blood into your auditory canal while you unconsciously fashion your headphone cable into a noose. As if that wasn’t enough, Xasthur also released a highly anticipated split with Leviathan that same year, which yielded what is without question my favorite moment in the project’s voluminous catalogue. I never understood why Leviathan seemed to garner more praise than Xasthur; don’t get me wrong, Leviathan is great, but Wrest’s work always seemed rather conventional to these ears when compared to the musical wraith-worlds crafted by Malefic. Xasthur took that hazy otherwordliness that is the project’s calling card and pushed it even further beyond the realms of death with this split, leaving no doubt in my mind as to which project truly embodied the isolationist black metal zeitgeist.
It was also during this time that Malefic began collaborating with drone duo SunnO))) for their Black One album, which saw Greg Anderson and Stephen O’Malley filtering their glacial ultra-doom through a black metal lens. Malefic allegedly recorded his vocals for the track “Bathory Erzsebet” inside a coffin; one can imagine him clawing at the casket lid, thrashing about wildly as those strangled, hissing screams erupt from his throat. The feeling of claustrophobia that oozes from his performance on that track could also be seen as a metaphor for the dense and oppressive nature of everything he touches; even when collaborating with other artists, the sense of isolation, depression and loss that characterizes Malefic’s work under the Xasthur moniker is ever present. In an unexpected move, Malefic toured with SunnO))) following Black One, and his vocal contributions to the limited live album La Mort Noir dans Esch/Alzette are equally impressive, making it one of the best among their many live releases.
On 2007’s Defective Epitaph, Xasthur began to incorporate live drums, and the character of the music changed. It became more haunting, more hallucinatory, as if the synthetic drums where the last thing tethering Xasthur to the conventional black metal paradigm, and the severing of that cord had allowed Malefic to truly become the “Walker of Dissonant Worlds.” 2009’s All Reflections Drained and 2010’s Portal of Sorrow would see Malefic taking things even further out there; the latter album including vocal contributions from folk artist Marissa Nadler and featuring some of Malefic’s most ethereal compositions to date. Sadly, Portal would prove to be the final Xasthur recording; is was disheartening to hear of the project being laid to rest just when it seemed to be evolving in such an interesting direction. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Malefic understood that black metal could be pushed beyond its self-imposed limitations while still retaining the soul-draining, hypnotic darkness that sets it apart from any other metal sub-genre.
Xasthur is long gone, and I am no longer that directionless twentysomthing who sits in front of the keyboard at 3 AM pondering whether or not anyone would notice if he ceased to exist. I still find myself revisiting Xasthur’s catalogue time and again, although my reasons for doing so are very different; I’m no longer seeking a soundtrack for keeping my inner demons at bay. The music still resonates with me, but the way in which I perceive it has changed drastically. It now serves as a reminder of the ghastliness I once held within, and how grateful I am to have finally let go of those frightening emotions. Where once I heard only hideousness and hopelessness, I now hear unending, resplendent beauty, shimmering in the darkness.