The gamut run by German rockers Black Space Riders is vast indeed. On their second album, the self-released Light is the New Black, the double-guitar foursome spend a solid hour rooting their way into, around and through any number of heavy subgenres, from gothic rock to space noise, stoner metal, punk and even a bit of thrash. Almost on a song-by-song basis, Light is the New Black endeavors to expand its sonic palette, and as it rarely steps back to repeat a move once it’s been made, the real miracle of the 13 tracks is that they don’t fall apart at the seams. Not only that, but the record is as dense conceptually as it is diverse musically. Black Space Riders have broken up the tracklisting into four rhyming sides – Light, Bright, White and Night – and given cuts cumbersome, highly parenthetical titles that bleed into each other like “Digging Down (The Hole Part One… From Deep Below)” and the much later “The New Black (The Hole Part Two… From Above).” That’s not to mention “Someone Has Turned the Knob to Switch on the Light, but Instead Something Strange Happened to the Warp Engine,” which at 1:51 isn’t nearly as long as its title. Sci-fi themes persist here, which isn’t strange considering Black Space Riders’ 2010 self-titled debut (review here) worked along similar lines, albeit in a more lighthearted overall approach. There isn’t a narrative plot that I can discern, but with so much ground covered musically, it’s hard not to feel like the band is embarking on a journey anyway, and as Light is the New Black is given the subtitle “Songs about Luminaries, Black Holes, Hope and Loss in Outer Space,” it’s clear they’re working with some pre-thought schema in mind.
That’s fortunate, because JE (vocals/guitar), SLI (guitar), SAQ (bass/backing vocals) and CRIP (drums) task themselves to covering an unreal amount of the space they’re describing. JE’s vocals alone are varied enough to catch one off guard, clean and imbued with a Euro-doom drama on opener “Creature of No Light (Exodus Part One),” they’re soon growlingly reminiscent of the last Amebix on “Sun vs. Moon (Total Eclipse)” and the more upbeat, straightforward “Digging Down (The Hole Part One… From Deep Below),” which offers the first of Light is the New Black’s several landmark choruses. With so much material and so many stylistic shifts, those choruses do a lot to ground the album as a whole, but the flow between songs isn’t entirely reliant on them either. The transition between “Digging Down (The Hole Part One… From Deep Below)” and “I am Fire” is natural, as the latter builds on the punk leanings and straight-ahead structure of the former with a like-minded if a bit less effective hook to wrap the Light side and make way for the longest and perhaps most atmospheric cut, “We Used to Live in Light (Exodus Part Two).” CRIP’s rimshot drumming seems to announce the change in approach before even JE’s softer, semi-spoken vocals start in over a deftly progressive groove. Nearly the whole band provides backing for JE at one point or another in the song, CHIP credited in the CD liner with “haaaaaaarmonics” and SAQ and frequent contributor SEB with a kind of spoken chant during the chorus. An instrumental build pays off with the satisfying delivery of the title line, and it becomes clear that although the production doesn’t necessarily match the level of dynamics at work, Black Space Riders have grown remarkably as songwriters since the charming but not nearly as challenging biker psych of the self-titled.
A direct transition between tracks brings the “Lost (Return into the Void),” which is softer and not quite psychedelic. The first several minutes are made by SAQ’s bass tone, but the guitar line is more forward in the mix and hypnotically repetitive, so it’s easy to miss with JE’s vocals, spoken and again repeating the line “Everything is lost” amid a quickly mounting swirl that the song has been deceptively moving toward. Amp noise and effects fade over the last minute and “Night Over Qo’Nos (Masrammey)” lifts the pace similar to how “Digging Down (The Hole Part One… From Deep Below)” did, but in an entirely darker and more heavy rocking manner. The song, which takes its name from the Klingon homeword in the Star Trek mythos, is the next of the landmark choruses, and well positioned as the centerpiece. A slight Eastern influence comes up toward the final third, but opens to a grand, openly-riffed break, topped with dramatic shouting that leads back one more time into the chorus before White side takes hold from Bright side and offers the catchiest of Light is the New Black’s hooks in “Startrooper.” The vocal arrangement is the difference here, with shouts “startrooper!” behind JE like some kind of alternate-dimension crossover punk, and “Walls of Plasma” continues the momentum with a classically metal riff and another strong chorus. The progression of the album would make this seem like the focal point, but the experience might be completely different when it comes to flipping vinyl sides rather than listening all in a row on a CD. In any case, “Walls of Plasma” is also the first cut on Light is the New Black to remind of Entombed’s latter era, and that comes up again on the subsequent “Louder than Light.”
Black Space Riders still have a trip to make before they get there, however, and that’s the just under two minutes of noise, effects, electronic beats and transitional weirdness that comes up on “Someone Has Turned the Knob to Switch on the Light, but Instead Something Strange Happened to the Warp Engine” serving as a go-between for “Walls of Plasma” and “Louder than Light” (interesting to note that the whole White side has no parenthetical titles), which is catchier musically than vocally, JE following his own and SLI’s guitar melody and the song seeming to step back from its chorus initially in favor of later payoff, SEB’s throaty yell being as successful a port of L-G Petrov as I’ve heard. CRIP adds extra percussion to a bridge that eventually brings the chorus around again for one final round, and the song rumbles directly into Night side’s “The New Black (The Hole Part Two… From Above),” which in turn is essentially an atmospheric introduction to the closer, comprised of spacey guitar lead notes and threatening, building chug that works right into the metal riffing of “Lights Out (The Hole Part Three… Going Down).” The finale of Light is the New Black reaches 7:31 and offers drama worthy of the breadth the preceding songs have covered, residing somewhere between space, prog and psychedelic rocks before a squibbly chorus finds SEB once again dry-throating the chorus, this time with similarly-directed backing shouts that only further enhance the Entombed feel.
If it seems like Black Space Riders are working in disparate vibes – space prog and Entombed – they are. But if you’re going to be taken so much aback by the time you get down to “Lights Out (The Hole Part Three… Going Down),” you’re probably not going to make it that far in the first place. Light is the New Black – if you couldn’t tell – is more overwhelming than directly engaging, and truly offers a challenge to the listener who would try to keep up with its leaps from one song, one side, to the next. It impresses both in the level of development it represents since the first album and in the simple fact that the four-piece come out of it with anything closely resembling cohesion. Their genre blend might be easier to comprehend if it were somewhat stripped down, or if perhaps they had a linear plot to further tie the songs together, but Light is the New Black ultimately proves worth the effort of digging into. As Black Space Riders are releasing it themselves, the production, which at times feels sterile compared to the creative vibrancy actually taking place in the music, is understandable, and the album still shows the band as being able to pull something solid out of an ether of their own making. For its variety alone, it’s a curio, but it’s finally Black Space Riders’ songwriting and capability for holding it all together that makes the album work and gives some hint of the potential for future output.
Tags: Black Space Riders, Germany, Unsigned bands