Joseph Burnett On Emptyset’s Borders

In James Ginzburg and Paul Purgas' latest musical outing as Emptyset – an unsettling, dark and unrelenting piece of work – Joseph Burnett finds cause to question whether metal has ceded some of its traditional ground to electronic music

It’s a big question, but could it be that metal has relinquished territory to electronic music? I can hear the howls already, and I sympathise. I grew up on metal, and still hold Black Sabbath as one of the greatest bands ever to spew dry ice over an audience, and will happily and unflinchingly state that compared to Aston’s finest, the popinjays of Led Zeppelin and Cream were so many feeble imitations of the great chordal thunder that Sabbath –and Blue Cheer and Randy Holden- elevated to blasphemous glory as early as 1969. Have I won over those who baulked at my first sentence with my dubious credentials? I assume not, but at least I tried. And I’m sorry, but, as an undying fan of Sabbath and disciple of their righteous and unholy contemporaries like Blue Öyster Cult and Blue Cheer, and their descendants from Earth to Om via SUNN O))), St Vitus and Eyehategod, I listen to Emptyset and wonder whether rock music, and in particular metal, have the same misanthropic power on offer in the earliest years of the second millennium.

Because these two are not just a pair of electronic producers channelling the dark side of humanity. That’s what Raime are for, and Satan knows Joe Andrews and Tom Halstead do a better job than most. Emptyset, however (real names James Ginzburg and Paul Purgas), do not base their music in the current trends of post-dubstep navel-gazing. I mean, they might have done so at some stage, but in 2017 they have taken their explorations, particularly of rhythm, into heavier territory. It’s almost as if the last decade never happened, which is fascinating in and of itself.

From the get-go, Borders is an album that pulls no punches. A dark and unrelenting bass hum hangs over each and every track, from the depthless pulsations of opener ‘Body’ to the spasmodic release of ‘Dissolve’. But beyond the expected bass manipulations inherent to every post-dubstep album since Burial and Skream first transformed dance music with their earliest majestic hiccups, it’s the unerring thump of synthetic drums that characterises Emptyset’s latest missive. On ‘Border’, a crunching rhythmic line brings to mind Sabbath’s rhythm section of Bill Ward and Geezer Butler with its relentlessness, only refracted via the putrid angst of Throbbing Gristle and SPK. Where our metal denizens of old may have concerned themselves with esoteric matters of folklore and mysticism, James Ginzburg and Paul Purgas catapult the ominous potency of metal into the metronomic persistence of modern minimal techno, except with all the dials tilted up to 10 (or is it 11?).

‘Descent’, for example, has all the rhythmic propulsion of a Ministry or Godflesh invective, but with the vocals stripped away Emptyset imbue it with even more menace, as if the machines of a science fiction movie had taken over the director’s seat. Sabbath -and many of their acolytes, contemporaries and descendants- were conceived with a plan to mirror the relentless crunch and grind of industry. Even as the factories and foundries that gave us such nightmarish musical concepts have faded into rust, artists such as James Ginzburg and Paul Purga are finding new and arguably more effective ways to give them fresh life. Beyond that, as Donald Trump claims he can bring the smog of those jobs back to middle America regardless of the implications, and politicians in the land of Ozzy, Iommi, Geezer and Bill have spent the last 35 years shitting all over the landscapes and communities that made their music relevant, here we have two fellas willing to use basic beats, saturation and new forms of darkness to snarl in the face of duplicitous reality.

Like the finest metal of times past, therefore, there is an inherent reflection as the heart of Borders, a ghost image of our society thrown back at us, forcing contemplation and unease. The album’s title inevitably conjures up the haunting images of refugees crammed into dank, unclean camps in Calais and Greece, staring wistfully through the rain at the far shores of Dover. Reflecting that imagery is the dark ambient ‘Across’, the quietest and ultimately most haunting track on the album, with its synth drifts pregnant with unfulfilled tension. At any point, you expect Ginzburg and Purgas to flick a switch and unleash the thumping bass and drums of “Body’ or ‘Border’, but instead the track just builds and builds, never allowing space for release or catharsis, just as those poor souls from Eritrea, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq never get the release of finding the safety they crave. Like the best in misanthropic metal, Borders isn’t just heavy and doom-laden, it also creates space for thought. When Sabbath blasted out ‘War Pigs’, it was a grave indictment of our leaders’ Vietnam-era bloodlust. Somehow, despite operating in very different aesthetic realms, Emptyset carry some of that spirit with them.

Ginzburg and Purgas don’t get everything right on Borders, if I’m honest. It’s heavy and dark, but also frustratingly brief, with some tracks, notably ‘Axis’ and ‘Ascent’ feeling a bit like afterthoughts. They also overdue the Ben Frost-like saturated synth shudders, meaning the album does get rather samey. Then again, you could say the same for most black metal albums, so maybe that’s the point. But if you want it darker, to paraphrase the late, great Leonard Cohen, and have been used to getting your bleak kicks from Mayhem, Burzum, Wolves in the Throne Room or Windhand, I can almost guarantee Borders will float your boat down the Styx. If you remain of the opinion that heavy music requires real drums and a guitar, then nothing I will have written here will change your mind.

So before the invective rolls in under the line, I’m not disparaging metal (maybe rock, but that’s another story). I still marvel at bands and artists like Moss and Om and even SUNN O))). But Emptyset have shown that there’s something of the Sabbathian thunder at the heart of their post-industrial malaise. We don’t need to mishear a tone-deaf singer shriek into a microphone using volume to assume pathos. We don’t need bands that barf out more and more dank guitar riffs in an endless attempt to live up to the aura of James Hetfield, Kerry King (if you like that sort of thing) or Stephen O’Malley (now you’re talking). There is clear value for metalheads in this brutalist electronic simplicity and coarse rhythmic minimalism. Certainly Borders is more unsettling and abrasive than many a metal album I’ve heard over the last five years. That doesn’t mean metal is spent, just that the demons have moved on. Do we dare follow them into the depths?

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