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Leviathan
Scar Sighted Dean Brown , March 23rd, 2015 11:43

There is a strong urge to let the news around the personal life of multi-instrumentalist Jef Whitehead (aka Wrest) diminish the value of the twisted, unforgiving and staunchly provocative art he creates at the head of USBM, as the mastermind of Leviathan. Ultimately, this can be seen as a completely natural, human response to someone who was cast into the wider public eye four years ago when he was charged by Chicago police and tried by for domestic abuse and sexual assault of his then-girlfriend. The reality of the situation was that while Whitehead faced thirty-four serious charges due to the alleged altercation at his tattoo shop, thirty charges were dismissed and he was cleared of all but one of the remaining charges; which, of course, he still disputes.

At the time the heinous news broke, it seemed as though life had imitated art for the celebrated underground musician, who has embraced the extreme, nihilistic and often misogynistic worldview typified by black metal artists in the past. This approach went hand-in-hand with the aural terror entrenched in revered albums such as Leviathan's Tentacles Of Whorror and Massive Conspiracy Against All Life, released in 2004 and 2008 respectively. But as an outsider to this man's personal life (which most of us are), as mentioned, some may still find it hard to appreciate his artistry without being influenced by what you think may or may not have occurred in his shadowy past. Depending on your viewpoint, this may be a stumbling block when engaging with new Leviathan music. It is a personal decision you will have to make without being fully swayed by those either blankly condemning a then-troubled man who was found not legally culpable of all but one charge placed upon him, or the few disgusting souls who outright dismiss the despicable every-day reality of physical and sexual violence.

Publically, the Jef Whitehead of 2015 appears much more at peace with himself and his surroundings than he did in 2011 during the furore around the aforementioned incident and the release of Leviathan's controversially-titled and musically caustic and erratic seventh full-length, True Traitor, True Whore. Now he resides in Portland with his musician girlfriend Stevie Floyd (Dark Castle, Taurus) and their infant daughter Grail, who can be seen cradled in the arms of Whitehead on the front of Decibel's 125th issue.

Ridiculously, the cover of the recent Decibel issue has been derided as not being "metal enough" by basement-dwelling kvltists, and more seriously, has been accused by some for taking an apologist stance to rape crimes. In all reality, it's a cute image of a father and daughter and nothing more. The excellent story written by J. Bennett in said issue of Decibel painted the picture of a complex man, trying to put the darkness of his past behind him. Whitehead seems to be currently thriving creatively and personally in the bosom of his newly-formed family environment, encouraged by his equally talented girlfriend and the joys a new-born can bring. The results of this period of personal stability for Whitehead – who has battled the demons of depression, alcohol and other toxic substances throughout his life – is his eight studio album under the Leviathan moniker, titled Scar Sighted.

Tasteful is not a word you would typically use to describe the howling, coagulated filth – black metal, doom, death, noise, post-punk and goth – found throughout Scar Sighted. But this album doesn't appear to be as painfully pointed or explicitly perverse as True Traitor, True Whore (there's no confrontational, garish titles like 'Every Orifice Yawning Her Price' for starters). Yet, a slight sophistication in approach doesn't signal that Whitehead has settled into a middle-aged malaise; he is far from the point of sitting on his front porch playing tuneful ditties on a weather-beaten acoustic guitar. Instead, Scar Sighted is still focused on conveying the noir duality found when the ugliness of atonality tries to devour moments of beautiful ill-quiet and creepy melody. This sonic ideology is perfectly produced and engineered by Billy Anderson (Pallbearer, Swans) who, along with Whitehead, captures the chaos in all of its multi-dimensional forms. Thus, Leviathan's music is given the depth of sound it has warranted for years over numerous raw demos, splits, compilations, EPs and studio albums.

"Every fucking thing that crawls... Is going to pay," exclaims a threatening voice (presumably a sound-bite lifted from Boardwalk Empire) as second track 'The Smoke Of Their Torment' follows a moody, placid intro. Blasts spray and deep growls belch forth over live-wire riffs that turn to queasy, head-scrambling industrial grooves; time signatures being twisted into multiple new forms. The dead screams – frighteningly deep and guttural – together with screeds of layered noise are heard as the instrumentation throttles and disorientates. And this is typical for how the entire album plays out, even when the music slows to jazz-from-hell's-lounge codas.

It's hard to imagine how music like this is conceived. Whitehead rejects typical structures, preferring to menacingly drill noise from his guitar and heap juddering blasts over swirling demonic howls. Viciously constructed to warp minds and confuse the listener, each song appears impenetrable and a challenge to grasp at first. But the method to the madness is there in songs like 'Dawn Vibration' – a whirling miasma of frantic riffage and hyper-speed double bass which opens with the kind of riff Mastodon used to write when they were on Relapse. While pulsing, probing and smashing through sound barriers, 'Gardens Of Coprolite' is completely Lovecraftian: like being held helplessly over the black maw of the abyss.

A steady effluence of hate and bad vibes runs from Scar Sighted; whether it be during the intricate rhythms that dominate the death stomp of 'Wicked Fields Of The Calm', the blackened punk cacophony of 'Within Thrall', or the dissonance and disorder conveyed during the chaotic 'A Veil Is Lifted'. In fact, while the overall atmosphere cast here is bleakness found in human horror, the music of each song is tremendously varied without sacrificing cohesion – an essentiality in metal, which suffers from a lack of innovation at times. Whitehead's desire to try different musical ideas – his maverick approach being best conveyed during the more atmospheric latter half of the album – makes him one of the most exciting artists in extreme music. The funereal pace of the title track and closer 'Aphonos' therefore lose nothing; both songs keep the power of the faster tracks while wrestling in painful slumber. During these dirge-like songs, Whitehead bares more emotional sorrow and explores more tonally and spatially – much like he did with his retired Lurker Of Chalice project – as the music is given the chance to let out a deep, rancid breath.

As an instrumentalist Whitehead has always had a unique musical voice, even when his technical ability didn't quite coincide with his eye for demented orchestration. Scar Sighted sees Whitehead's skills as musician meet his vision head-on, and the results are increasingly impressive as this album's hour-plus run-time bleeds out. There's also new-found clarity and purpose to Leviathan's new music, which follows a confused album released during uncertain times. Behind every thud, gurgle, growl, blast, wailing guitar noise and outpour of boil and misery is compositional confidence. And while you may feel the need to continually chastise Whitehead for his past personal life, there's no denying that the music he has made for Scar Sighted is next-level extreme metal. Consequently, one of the founding pillars of USBM now, musically at least, stands stronger than ever.

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