It’s so common that it’s become an archetype in black-metal circles: the solitary auteur, locked up in a dark room, creating hostile, atmospheric death music that’s anti-everything. Anti-god, anti-world, anti-self. Cobalt are different. They’ve got two such auteurs in vocalist/lyricist Phil McSorley and everything-elsist Erik Wunder.
And the nihilism of your average black-metal one-man-band sounds almost decadent when you compare it to McSorley’s current circumstances: He’s stationed in Baghdad as a U.S Army Scout, one of the more dangerous positions an enlisted foot soldier can hold. While other black metal creators ponder death and hatred from the comfort of their suburban bedrooms, McSorley is faced with it on a daily basis. “I hate most people and I am in the middle of a war,” he opined in the April, 2009 issue of Decibel. “I don’t have any politics. I don’t care. This is reality, everyone else is living in Pepsi-land.”
A candid admission, given that Cobalt’s third album, Gin, doesn’t reveal itself readily. The rasped and screamed lyrics go unprinted in the liner notes; all we get is the hostile mission statement “This record is a springboard to fuck the universe. Let’s aim our arrows at the new sun” and a dedication to Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson. “A Clean, Well Lighted Place” is named after a Hemingway story; Gin’s 61 tracks represent the age at which he died. The title “Two Thumbed Fist” refers to Thompson’s mayoral campaign emblem). These writers both engaged booze, violence and self-destruction with the same full-frontal embrace as do Cobalt. And they both died of self-inflected gunshot wounds.
Suicide’s a profoundly personal way to go. Wunder’s tumbling musical escapades reach beyond the self, absorbing multiplicities of sound: acoustic Americana (“Gin”) and black metal blasts (“Arsonry”), spiritualist Neurosis surges and stomping punk (“Pregnant Insect”). There’s nary a wasted stretch on these mostly five-to-ten minute songs. Even guest vocalist Jarboe, she of the pretentious cameo, sounds at home on “Pregnant Insect.” The whole thing is recorded with absolute clarity by Dave Otero (Cephalic Carnage/Martriden). The spitshining would bury a band with music any less expansive than Cobalt’s. On Gin, the clarity’s in-your-face, not squeaky. Tool-like tom rolls circle around the stereo space of “Two Thumbed Fist,” collapsing walls and battering in McSorley’s repetitive vocal scours. Gin is cut from purest obsidian, black and smooth.
There’s friction between the darkness behind this music and its “clean, well-lighted” production; you won’t find any of black metal’s obfuscation or death metal’s luddite mentality on Gin. That’s part of the album’s appeal. Like Hemingway’s pithy prose and Thompson’s psychedelic philandering, Cobalt confront us with their art, dare us to look away. Don’t.