They are among the upper echelon of today’s heavy live acts, but that has turned out to be the undoing of each successive full-length from near-nomadic Los Angeles duo Black Cobra: The inability to stand up to the high standard set by the live show. And since Black Cobra have also spent a goodly portion of the last six years on the road, there has been less need to focus on the records, because, hell, those songs are going to be better live anyway. With Invernal, their fourth LP — second for Southern Lord behind 2009’s Chronomega – Black Cobra reach new heights of recorded intensity. A song like “Erebus Dawn” sees guitarist/vocalist Jason Landrian and drummer Rafael Martinez in complete mastery of their complex and tonally thickened thrash. Invernal is the kind of album for which hyperbolic exclamations of the word “insane” were made. It refines chaos into a laser-accurate attack and puts Black Cobra at the forefront of their class of risen riffers. It makes the last High on Fire album seem tired. I’m pretty sure if you asked it, it would bake you a pie. But even with all the über-effective bombast, tonal righteousness and clear growth from Chronomega and anything else that’s preceded in their discography, I’m not sure if Invernal stands up to what Black Cobra do live.
The difference between Invernal and everything else Black Cobra have done – and it’s a big difference – is I’m not sure it’s trying to. More than anything they’re released to date, Invernal finds Landrian and Martinez a mature studio act. They’re not just trying to compress their live show to disc, they’re making an album, and ultimately, that’s a huge part of what makes Invernal succeed as one of the best releases in 2011. The recording job of Converge’s Kurt Ballou does effectively balance their overwhelming crest with an appropriate amount of clarity (not too clean, but clean enough to appreciate), but even more than that, the principle change seems to have been in the overall goal and mindset of the recording. One can appreciate the album on its own terms and then look forward to the experience of witnessing the material live. There’s less pining involved, and I think that has to be thanks in part to the songs themselves. My chief complaint with Black Cobra from a songwriting standpoint has always been that the material doesn’t stand up to the experience of it – that is, you hear a Black Cobra song, feel like you’ve been punched in the face with awesome, and don’t remember a thing afterwards. Invernal changes that as well, with twists and turns and a genuine progression from track to track, beginning with opener “Avalanche,” on which Landrian approaches an Al Jourgensen-style verse vocal with both confidence and a sense of individuality.
His vocal shift – there are plenty of screams on “Avalanche” and elsewhere, so it’s not like he’s gone completely clean – is a natural progression from the last album and rightfully prominent where it needs to be in Ballou’s mix. The focus remains on the overall effect of the music, and Landrian’s chemistry with Martinez is palpable in how they interact on guitar and drums. As “Avalanche” transitions immediately into “Somnae Tenebrae” – the shortest song but for closer “Obliteration” – the band’s added focus on structure is made apparent: They wanted to start off pummeling, and their opening salvo does precisely that. “Somnae Tenebrae” isn’t Invernal’s most memorable track, but it does successfully convey Black Cobra’s “holy shit that’s heavy” live presence and offer some thrashing groove in its latter half. When it crashes, it gives a couple seconds for listeners to catch their breath, which is the perfect way to set up album highlight, “Corrosion Fields.” The interplay between the tracks feels more thought out than ever, if that hasn’t yet been made clear, but when “Corrosion Fields” kicks in following some sparse playing from Landrian and periodic crashes from Martinez, the focus is less on stepping back and examining the moves Black Cobra are making and more on “How do I make this as loud as possible as quickly as possible?”
At the 1:12 mark, “Corrosion Fields” launches into Invernal’s most effective groove. Martinez steps back into a breakdown beat behind Landrian’s guitar, and although they’ve already shown considerable fury on “Avalanche” and “Somnae Tenebrae,” “Corrosion Fields” shows that Black Cobra have more than just one way to kill. The second half of the track follows a more technically precise course that’s no less dramatic for the increase in number of notes played, giving way following a ring-out to centerpiece “The Crimson Blade,” which is perhaps most typified by Landrian’s guitar runs in the verse and the sense of overall build. That’s not an easy thing for Black Cobra to pull off, because it’s not exactly like they’re starting from zero and going to 60 – more like starting at 60 and going to 300 – but there’s an apocalyptic air to “The Crimson Blade” that marks a shift from the straightforward (I’d say “dopey” if I could properly stress that I don’t mean it in a derogatory way) violence of “Corrosion Fields.” By comparison, “The Crimson Blade” is progressive, which makes yet another smooth transition into “Beyond.” Invernal is purported to have a semi-narrative Antarctic voyage thread to it partially inspired by the work of Irish researcher/explorer Ernest Shackleton, and the flow from track to track bears that out (without the benefit of a lyric sheet, I won’t base an opinion on what of Landrian’s lyrics are immediate discernable). With “Beyond,” we come to what feels like the heart of the story musically. It’s the longest track at 6:14, and gets underway with slower, inhuman riffing from Landrian that soon picks up as Martinez comes in on drums. They’re setting a foundation, adding character and a distinctive feel, and much to the song’s benefit.
The aforementioned “Erebus Dawn,” then, is the culmination, and, I’d gladly argue, Black Cobra’s best blend of bombastic thrashing and Voivod-style progressivism to date. Its intensity is unmatched except by Invernal’s finale – which surpasses it – and though it’s propelled by Martinez’s quick and steady hits, it’s not impatient. As much as they’re embroiled in this menacing sound, Black Cobra are never completely consumed or controlled by it. Landrian’s solo on “Erebus Dawn” is perhaps an area of less comfort than the complicated riffing that surrounds – that on “Avalanche” feels more precise and directed – but he makes it work anyway, and returns to more comfortable ground (if you can call it that) to end the song with just the right lack of ceremony. It’s not a post-script, but the instrumental “Abyss” marks a significant change in methodology on the part of Black Cobra that, reading into it, one could only liken to the death either of some central character in the narrative or some other grand undoing. It is slower, rffier, more grooving in a doomed sense, and less striving toward the extremity that so much of Invernal bases itself on. Given the backwards-cymbal-into-snare hit that acts as transition between it and maniacal closer “Obliteration,” one could almost see it as a five-minute intro to a three-minute song, but like the totality of what Black Cobra accomplish on their latest, it makes sense in their overall arc.
And as their final statement of Invernal, “Obliteration” is also the most ferocious. Echoing the beginning of the record, but pushing it further, “Obliteration” blasts through its 2:47 – literally in parts as concerns Martinez – and strips away some of the technicality of the preceding tracks, but is frankly the most violent song on the album, which is saying something. Like “Somnae Tenebrae,” it isn’t the most memorable of Black Cobra’s included cuts for itself, but for the effect it has on the listener, it’s a positively breathtaking capper for Invernal and a potent “fuck you” to any potential accusation of letting up – which, of course, they’ve never done except to come back later and contrast it with further punishment. As someone who wasn’t a huge fan of Chronomega in the long term and who thought perhaps Black Cobra was in need of some stylistic progression, I’m wholly satisfied that Invernal has provided exactly that, and with zero sacrifice in force. As the band marks its 10th anniversary in 2011, they do so with their greatest achievement yet. This is what metal should be.Black Cobra, California, Los Angeles, Southern Lord