Lurching into existence with thudding, tom-heavy rhythms and a distinct sense of unease, Chasms, the new record from Californian quartet Lycus is the great leap forward that they’ve threatened to make for a few years. Despite a sparse-looking discography, they have produced a wealth of material; it’s easy to figure out their modus operandi from the lengths of their songs alone. The title track of their debut LP, Tempest, neared 21 minutes, genuinely deserving of being called “epic.” In the two-and-a-half years since then, they’ve been working on how to follow such a grandiose statement, but one thing about their approach hasn’t changed; they’ll still tell you that you’re not trying hard enough unless your song runs to seven minutes at the bare minimum.
They’re surprisingly flexible with the BPM count, though. Opener “Solar Chamber” seemingly settles into a dirge-like pace and suffocating atmosphere, but as the track approaches the four-minute mark, something surprising happens: It bursts into hyper-speed mode, Trevor Deschryver’s drums filling the cavernous sound with blast beats as a weird ambience hangs over everything. It’s such a disorienting move that, by the time it settles back down, you’ve convinced yourself it never happened.
There are more surprises in store: there’s a heart-rending cello line reluctantly raising its head above the parapet before the title track kicks into gear, the sort of melancholic addition (courtesy of Jackie Perez Gratz) that turns an already downcast song (“Falling into a fateful night / Fumes of failure arise again / From the sickness and bliss of the needle“) into a flat-out bleak listen. By the time it shifts into a despondent coda, many a listener will feel close to spent. And there are still two tracks left.
Perez Gratz’s contributions are clearly heard and even more keenly felt, adding an extra layer of serenity amid the chaos to produce a stark contrast that has all the impact of a punch in the gut… and then you read the lyric sheet. If you can relate to the band’s tortured worldview or the themes of self-hatred and depression that run throughout the record, Chasms will be a rough ride. It gives off an air of a deep, almost fathomless sadness from which there is no escape. “Obsidian Eyes” serves as the climax of the album and offers no respite, its mournful, harmony-heavy finale able to drain all but the most resilient of listeners via lines like “This wretched body / The prison of the soul / Weighted by the chains of depression / I could never bear to let you in.” It’s the crushing blow that brings an already weighty record to a despairing close.
It may only be early days yet, but the bar for 2016 funeral doom has been set. Lycus have issued a challenge to their contemporaries, fellow purveyors of slow and sad metal in all its various offshoots: Can you do this? If so, can you do better? Doom is going to have a very interesting year with a band this daring and emotive as its standard bearers.