It’s not unusual for progressive metal artists to create a concept album based on a sci-fi setting (Voivod), a sinister cult (Queensrӱche), a classic piece of literature (Mastodon), or even a fantasy world (Edge of Sanity). But Finnish psychedelic death metal quartet, Hundred Headless Horsemen, go one step further by inventing their own medical condition called Apokalepsia, which, in their own words, ‘is a group of symptoms characterized by recurrent seizures.’ According to their definition, ‘These episodes can vary from brief and nearly undetectable interludes to long periods of vigorous shaking, hyperventilation, suffocating despair and a failure to function in a world defined by its imminent devastation.’ You’re right to re-read the last two sentences and wonder what the hell to expect from such a unique proposition.
First thing we must do is challenge the band’s self-identification with the novel term, psychedelic death metal. Apart from the occasional use of harsh vocals, there is nothing in their repertoire that touches upon this most enduring of extreme genres. But that’s not in any way a criticism, for the music of Hundred Headless Horsemen is dark and claustrophobic and metallic in other ways. Opener, ‘The Road’, is as haunting and hellish as the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name in the way it builds upon ambient drone sounds and clean guitar passages into an enigmatic Tool hook. The vocals are low in the mix as if the singer is trying to communicate from a portal in the extra-terrestrial world. We get groove, ritualistic percussion and a gallop of dissonant chords, but the vibe is an unmistakable post-metal one like Cult of Luna at their darkest. ‘No Longer Human’ is the same – an auditory hallucination of atonal guitars, post-punk bass and malevolent vocal abrasions. One must acknowledge the creative talent here. The band could make an accompanying video to this song with a man looking over his shoulder in paranoia and fear of an imminent seizure.
Perhaps the biggest left turn is the middle of the album, where the band embrace a grungy direction with stoner metal licks. The switch from post-metal to pentatonic rock is a baffling and regressive one. How can you go from the avant-garde of Isis to the fuzzy blues of Kyuss on the same record? ‘Breath of Death’ starts with tranquil water streams and eerie effects but then embraces The Jesus Lizard and Tad like a bastard child of the early 1990s. ‘Echoes’ follows the same path. Yet it’s back to the unforgiving envelopment of anxiety on ‘Spleen’, where the quartet mix harmonic minor riffing with lead melodies that could be from a Gibson Les Paul. Once again, the hostile vocals want no sympathy or understanding – this is the genuine distress of an apokalepsia victim (remember: this is a fictitious medical diagnosis invented by the band).
Closing track, ‘Cataclysm’, retains a 70s rock flavour but smothers it in a post-metal dirge of doom riffs. By this time, the fusion of the two contrasting styles becomes more coherent, but there’s no doubting it’s a bleak experience mired in chronic paranoia and anxious foreboding. Hundred Headless Horsemen are as morbid as their name suggests.
A dose of death metal might be the only thing lacking here. Apokalepsia is a curious work of art and reveals many new facets on repeat listens. The band remain anonymous, yet their music is anything but innocuous.
Release Date: 21/05/2021
Record Label: Inverse Records
Standout tracks: The Road, No Longer Human, Spleen
Suggested Further Listening: Tool – 10,000 Days (2006), Isis – Panopticon 1 (2004), Kyuss – Blues for the Red Sun (1992)