For metal fans who hadn’t heard the music of Malefic before his one-man black-metal band Xasthur signed to Hydra Head in 2006, the two resultant records, Subliminal Genocide and Defective Epitaph, must have come as a shock. Those two pillars of despair found black metal folding in on itself, eating away at the frostbitten aggression of Xasthur’s European peers until all that was left was a tarpit of murky dissonance and soul-sucking screams. In many ways, Malefic wasn’t making metal. His funerary keyboards and bell-toll guitars were more akin to the intensely depressive ambient music of Burzum.
If Subliminal Genocide and Defective Epitaph were sonic suicide notes, then this re-release of Xasthur’s debut full-length, A Gate Through Bloodstained Mirrors shows Malefic slitting his wrists the wrong way, fumbling with his noose knots. Originally issued in 2001 in an edition of 150 CD-Rs, Mirrors was the first Xasthur album with Malefic as the sole member, and it shows: Instruments are thrown together in slapdash fashion, with all the seams showing. Malefic made no effort to hide where he punched in the buzzsaw guitar lines on “Suicide in Dark Serenity,” which phases in and out of focus throughout its twelve-minute expanse. Drum machine, guitar fuzz and keyboards are all a bit out of sync on “Possession,” coming across like a scratch track for a later version.
A clear line extends from the no-fi production of Mirrors to the muffled atmosphere of Xasthur’s superior later work, but neither the mixing nor the songwriting are as nuanced as they would be on later releases. While nobody’s going to confuse Mirrors for a Darkthrone record, at this point Malefic still incorporated elements of traditional black metal. And as evidenced by the bloodless cover of Mütiilation’s “Eternal Empire Of Majesty Death,” the Xasthur blueprint doesn’t get on so well with straightforward blastbeats and guitar flurries.
The biggest disappointment of A Gate Through Bloodstained Mirrors is that it’s almost entirely instrumental, depriving us of Malefic’s secret weapon: his voice. There’s a reason Sunn0))) chose this guy to record vocals on Black One — he does parched pterodactyl screams like no other. With a forty-minute bonus disc of unreleased material supplementing the seventy-eight-minute album proper, Hydra Head’s re-release of Mirrors should be cause for approving hails. Instead, it’s a laborious listen.
With Subliminal Genocide and Defective Epitaph, Malefic created two abyssal masterpieces of craft and psychic terror. On A Gate Through Bloodstained Mirrors, Malefic is standing at the edge, as yet unwilling to jump in.