Darkness takes an alternate form with the return of XASTHUR, a band known for seminal contributions to black metal who’ve since moved on to pursue dissonance and gloom through an acoustic sound. I’ve followed this musical evolution since it began as NOCTURNAL POISONING with 2012’s Other Worlds of the Mind, and it translates those dismal qualities over to a more complex style with blues, folk, and outlaw country influences, which is developing into a new subgenre coined as doomgrass. This became a reincarnated version of XASTHUR with Subject to Change in 2016, and now the mastermind Scott Conner has emerged from the last few turbulent years with a new creation titled Victims of the Times. Scott further hones his craft on this massive work of 25 tracks while reporting the latest on humanity’s deplorable condition. The territory from previous efforts shows advancing proficiency as new elements are also introduced for an expansive venture beyond metal realms. Victims of the Times reflects a harsh reality and provokes introspective levels that could prove more unsettling for some than the familiar black metal outlets.
A grim tone sets off into disharmonic bending riffs on “Same Old Suspects,” and the prevalent finger-picking style creates a flurry of notes that build into multiple disorienting layers of intricate melodies. These run rampant across this whole dark trip while forming the basis for a variety of structural nuances that manifest as they progress. Chord strikes keep rhythm in the absence of percussion, and bass lines add depth as the mass of melodic chaos hastens for a chorus-like effect. A brooding darkness emanates from the keys appearing in these sections, which is a newer element for this incarnation of XASTHUR that’s more reminiscent of sounds from the past. Clean vocals relate their own bleak expressions on many tracks, but these are effectively spaced out with instrumentals to leave room for contemplation.
The comparatively upbeat melody on “Dust of What Was“ demonstrates mood variation before turning toward a dissonant gloom that continues on “Mirror in the Face.“ This somber track carries a rhythmic flow in its notes, and their entrancing quality becomes further enhanced by atmospheric key accompaniments, along with a type of middle eastern string effect acting as a hook. The melodies are driven by a frantic spirit possessing the accented notes on “Fairytale Ideologies,” and they break for the slower impact of other intricacies while chords are strummed with pointed emphasis. Doom is augmented by organ keys until the melodic picking frenzy returns and prevails on “Medieval Acid Folk.” This is another instrumental with haunting atmospherics that revive a familiar element from the band’s older sound while adding a new dynamic to the current style.
An unsettling combination strikes with the spectral keys and discordant strumming on “Stars Amongst Failures” as a rush of finger-picking gains momentum. There’s an odd timing to these notes as they accumulate into a compressed frenzy within their overwhelmed rhythmic structures. This songwriting complexity is a defining trait of the doomgrass style, and “Estranged” utilizes it in brooding low-end passages that lead to a pent-up tension in the melodies, as if the notes are enraged and struggling to remain composed. These visceral arrangements continue with each passing track, along with keyboard variations to enhance their atmosphere, and a particularly menacing aura emerges on “Ghost of an Excuse.” The organic production creates moments where the strings assume a ghostly quality similar to the keyboards for an imposing shadowy effect. This appears throughout on songs like “Benefits of Dying,” and also the title track, which adds the distinct ambience of flutes to its melancholy.
Dreadful vibes persist in progressions of strummed dissonance on “Digital Beast” while melodies weave through their prominence with detailed precision. Similar arrangements take form in the catchy rhythmic flow of “Allegiance to the Meaningless,” and with finger-picked barrages connecting the chords that drive “Justify Your End.” The latter also thoroughly utilizes the low-end before a slower transition spreads the notes for a chance to better comprehend their full immensity. Derangement is reflected in the strange discordance of sliding riffs on “In Search of Sanity,” and a grave mood is amplified with funereal keys on “Voluntary Prisoners.” Dissonant notes are conjured in the riffs until progressing into a dark outlaw spirit on the mysterious untitled track, which leads to other ominous manifestations before closure approaches on “If I Broke Your Face.” These melodies offer a final display of contempt for the worthless as this trip through the dark side of the soul and societal underworld reaches its end.
Since the vocals are cleanly sung, most of the lyrics are comprehensible while listening, which makes their impact more direct. They focus on homelessness and the aspects of behavior and society that facilitate it. A recurring association with parasitic crowds is portrayed on “Same Old Suspects,” and personal responsibility is avoided while misfortune ensues. If drugs aren’t referenced here, they definitely are on “Mirror in the Face” as this carelessness continues with “You’ve been there before; you’ll go there again.” Lies and denial are a common thread joined by the lack of ambition addressed on “Static of Uncreativity” and “MirrorMindFuck.” This is also related on “Allegiance to the Meaningless,” with thinking deemed a “lost sensation” and more of the common emptiness among certain people from earlier tracks. This all leads to a dead end on “Never What You Were” with a complete ignorance as to why. The underlying intent here is clearly motivational, and “Ghost of an Excuse” drives this point across when dwelling on the past instead of striving for a better future. Eventually this dead end leaves no choice but to move forward.
The homeless perspective also observes denial and ignorance at the other end of the spectrum with “I have to live in the kind of shame you hide” on “Estranged.” It grimly describes “a home made of death and piss,” and how those outside this brutal reality act like they’re suffering, but don’t truly know pain yet. This continues on the title track with “you think you’re too good to be living on the streets” while “not living for tomorrow, only yesterday” revisits other themes above. It also alludes to society’s role in breeding poverty when portraying a “victim of a system that cheats.” This is detailed further with influence from the powers that be through media and censorship, which leads to questions of “reality” on “Fairytale Ideologies.” Technology is exposed on “Digital Beast,” with social life becoming impersonal as jobs and skills are outdated. It depicts how “all of our value is given away for free” and there’s “too much competing for less.” Higher crime is a natural outcome as livelihoods are threatened, and it’s answered with a false sense of security on “Voluntary Prisoners.” This is shown to be another means of systematic control while stressing the importance of thinking for yourself. Whatever you may believe, it raises awareness that “if you don’t program your own mind, it will be programmed for you.”
A clueless pawn hypothetically experiences the outcast life on “If I Broke Your Face,” and it shows how being stripped of an attractive façade leads to less trust, opportunity, and interest from others. Instead of getting breaks in life, they will have to earn the hard way. The subject remains ignorant of these facts, however, and is abandoned while still unable to look at themselves. This is the worst possible consequence, and it’s inflicted like a final contemptuous blow for the definitive end. There is much more to contemplate in these multifaceted lyrical themes, but ultimately the message is about striving to make the most of, and think for, yourself, because anyone can easily fall prey to society and its parasites.
Whether it’s personal misery or just the miserable state of our society, XASTHUR redirects this negative energy back to its source through the lyrics and finger-picking wizardry on Victims of the Times, along with more familiar elements that expand its tone and atmosphere. The clean vocals are an intuitive choice for this genre and their bleakness is on point, but the hate-projecting screams of Malefic will always be missed. It could be interesting to see Scott try and incorporate a few of those into future efforts. Since metal is my own personal preference, this musical style demands a specific mood and context, which is also true for many metal records, but under the right circumstances I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this work to the point of not wanting it to end, and then being given more as the abundance of tracks continues. Of course, The Funeral of Being and Telepathic with the Deceased will remain classic, but the present XASTHUR shows the misanthropy is still resolute. As Scott wrote in the accompanying book “the music has changed, but the mirrors haven’t. They have only become more clear and explicit.” If you are open to music outside of metal, Victims of the times is a rewarding venture that shows darkness comes in many forms, and reality is much harsher than fiction.