Following the success of their 2010 debut EP, A Sea of Dead Snakes, and a split with fellow British sludgers Caretaker, the ultra-creepy, ultra-agonized foursome Undersmile emerge with Narwhal, their first full-length, available in a gorgeous digipak with Tony Roberts art via Future Noise. The album pushes the limits of the CD format by clocking in at just a hair under 80 full minutes, and for the seafaring double-guitar/double-vocal four-piece, it’s a lot to take on for what’s essentially their first album, but they craft an overwhelming morass of undulating distortion and top it with sorrowful moans and periodic bursts of contradictory shouts, guitarists Hel Sterne and Taz Corona-Brown effectively calling and responding and giving the listener the impression of being lost at sea with no land in sight. This is obviously on purpose. Later moments of a song like “The Unthinkable” would seem to be culling some influence from the first The Book of Knots album, but the overall sound of Narwhal is more akin to a slowed-down, sludged-out Drain STH, Sterne and Corona-Brown drawling their vocals out over the extended tracks in doomly fashion while reminding that just because they’re wearing frilly lace dresses and makeup doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t also wreck your ass. Joined in the band (and from what I understand, in interpersonal relationships) by hard-hitting drummer Tom McKibbin and bassist Olly Corona-Brown, Hel and Taz offer more than just crushing riffs and deceptively melodic moaning. More than anything else, it’s the atmosphere of Narwhal – and especially the consistency with which it plays out over the course of the album’s 79-plus minutes – that seems to fill the lungs.
More often than not, the songs are lurchingly slow. Very, very slow. The kind of slow that leaves you wondering how much they’re actually moving at all. Four of the total 10 tracks top the 11-minute mark – those being opener “Lockjaw” (11:38), “Berk” (12:48), “Myra” (16:05) and “The Unthinkable” (11:51) – and in between, shorter pieces like “Funayurei” (1:59), “Cortege” (1:40) and the closing palindrome “Qaanaaq” (2:16) maintain the bleak oceanic atmosphere, but even that doesn’t account for the full sprawl of Narwhal. There are also three songs that would seem to split the difference: “Milk” (6:17), “Mandrill” (8:03) and “Verdigris” (7:17), and while one could probably write an entirely separate review on what went into placing the individual pieces as they are scattered throughout the album, what’s far more pivotal in the actual listening process is how remarkably well they flow together, one into the next. If Undersmile constructed Narwhal – or rather, deconstructed it into individual tracks – from a single, larger whole, I don’t know, but even the shift from the fading distortion of “Berk” into the acoustics, whispers and groans of “Cortege” is smooth, a ghostly sort of echo arising in the layers of the vocally-centered interlude, which precedes “Myra” as the longest and most encompassing of Narwhal’s repetitive, overpowering washes. If their intent was to capture the immensity of the ocean that seems to have solidified as their common theme after factoring into their prior work, they’ve done it. After multiple listens through multiple players, I find no means of listening through which Undersmile’s Narwhal isn’t completely overwhelming on nearly every level.
And I’d break it down on a track-by-track basis – highlighting perhaps the offset of droning ambience with devastatingly heavy riffs in “Berk” or the curious pairing of the linear destructiveness of “Mandrill” with the more straightforwardly sludge “Verdigris” – but the very notion seems to run counter to Undersmile’s every perceivable intent with their debut. If Narwhal is to be taken on, it demands to be taken on as a complete work, in its entirety, because without the low foreboding riff that begins “Lockjaw” or the droning effects noise that rumbles “Qaanaaq” to its finish, the album is incomplete. It’s not about putting individual songs together and establishing a full-length flow. It’s about crafting an opus out of smaller pieces that serve its interest. Parts repeat in some of the tracks, but there aren’t choruses as they’re traditionally defined – certainly there’s a striking lack of hooks for an album named after an oft-hunted sea creature – and the songs work in service to the totality of the full-length. For the most part, melody is left up to Hel and Taz vocally, but the guitars hint at future complexity to come in that regard, and should Undersmile work to expand their sound going forward, they’ve certainly given themselves a solid showing of aesthetic from which to develop. Narwhal is nothing if it’s not cohesive.
That said, it’s also not going to be for every listener. By its very nature, that’s true. But music like this – slow, portraying the agonies of spirit and body – isn’t supposed to be for a universal audience, and in accomplishing those portrayals as firmly as it does, it’s hard not to be impressed by Undersmile’s first full-length and the clarity with which the band executes it. The atmosphere is as thick as the tonality, and the helplessness that persists throughout the chugging guitars and the stops and starts of “Berk” is so vivid that one can’t fight being affected by hearing. Fans of traditional rock songwriting will find little to grasp onto in its structures, but I wouldn’t call Narwhal experimental in a stylistic sense, however much its final moments might draw on noise and droning influences. Rather, the album simply uses repetition to bludgeon and to erode the mood of those who encounter it, like an existential riptide pulling at the soul you used to think was inseparable from the husk you’re left. I guess that’s how you know it’s modern. In any case, for those who can handle its cruelties, Undersmile’s debut sets a high bar for future outings and practically dares the listener to stand its test. Most won’t, some will, and for me, I find that the further the album pulls me in, the more likely I am to let its current sweep me out to sea, proving ultimately the futility of any such resistance to Narwhal’s clutch. Be warned: There’s death in those waves.doom metal, Future Noise, Sludge, UK, Undersmile, Undersmile Narwhal