A runaway train recklessly catapulting off the rails at top speed towards certain doom. After a brief tension building introduction this is what Closet Witch deliver on their second album Chiaroscuro. Save for an interlude at the midpoint, which comes as a welcome gasp of breath amidst a somehow pleasant drowning, this album is punishing and relentless. The second impression Chiaroscuro calls forth after a terrifying train deepens the pervasive watery imagery: a woman, possibly the titular Closet Witch herself, screaming in anguish as ocean waves crash against the rocks all around her.
Grindcore is a genre of extremes. Extreme sonically. Extreme lyrically with extreme themes. Extremely short song lengths. (Famously some AxCx songs occasionally stretch past the 30 second mark while Napalm Death hold the world record for shortest recorded song.) Overlooking a genre prone to gimmicks and inherently challenging is understandable, but there is a depth of quality expression waiting for those willing to endure the extreme. The abrasion of a chainsaw has a way of cutting right to the point. The fat of meandering lengthy explorations is trimmed and the meat leftover is richer for that absence.
Controlling chaos, like taming fire by hand, is a precarious tightrope act. The outcome can be spun gold if lightning strikes to be deftly bottled. Out of such focused pummeling comes a sort of beauty. A gorgeous side of the grotesque is at work here. If at times grindcore and other extreme metal genres are a shotgun, Closet Witch are a razor blade. There is a piercing intensity to their effort on Chiaroscuro which instead of being scattershot is laser focused. One track seamlessly blends into the next holding on tight while a larger picture is formed. Drums of rock filled trash cans roll downhill colliding into guitars fuzzed out a mile wide in an all-consuming depth and pressure. This barrage is met with the constant companion of vocalist Mollie Piatetsky’s death wail screams in equal parts agony and rage.
For all the heaviness on display the quieter moments of Chiaroscuro have a lasting impact. “Intro” sets the tone right out of the gates. An unsettling horror movie soundtrack builds and builds anxiety rising as the drums come in slow at first until we are thrown right into the onslaught of the album proper. The A-side closes with an “Untitled Track” which serves as a time for placid reflection. A solemn meditation invoking the rattling chains of Jacob Marley’s ghost underscored by unholy murmuring. Voices in the cemetery. “To the Cauldron” ends the album with a kind of dissonant farewell. A final moment of calm, the storm of a once bubbling pot has stilled for now.
Observing the presentation and personnel involved it becomes apparent that Closet Witch have crafted Chiaroscuro from the ether with care and attention to detail. The cover art by guitarist Alex Crist is intensely gripping, devastatingly beautiful while conjuring something darker. The duality of the strikingly clean soft feminine face with the moths on her head, hand, and at her throat is engaging and off putting. The liner notes in delicate script and art of a zombie-like hand emerging from dense foliage set against the same neat starry background as the cover are again a juxtaposition of horror and elegance. All of this artistry perfectly mirrors the aural experience of the album. Chiaroscuro also features several guest appearances: Andrew Cline (Ice Hockey), Frankie Furillo (The Central), Dan Lee (Wanderer), and Dylan Walker (Full Of Hell). This stacked lineup of talent accentuates an already strong core of musicians.
Lyrically Chiaroscuro is just as consistent as the music. Recurring themes of abuse, greed, power imbalances both personal and societal, helplessness, fear, painful memories, and overwhelming dread dovetail alongside the band’s sonic violence. ‘Keep the facts locked up tight, ignorant minds put lives on the line, money hungry feed the machine,’ excoriates “Well Fed Machine”. “You, Me, & Venus in Decay” explores the ‘Sickness in Love’ in refreshingly honest fashion. The vocals on this album are not a futile shout against the wind, but instead are emboldened alongside its howl. ‘Covered eyes means I can’t cover my ears, in tune to your cries,’ wails “Haunting”. Imploring, almost begging: Aren’t you pissed off? Don’t you see what I see? Here is my pain! Here is my fear! Where is your outrage?!? ‘Smelling your Funeral Flowers doesn’t bring me joy.’
Our reaction and response to the horrors of this world speaks volumes. Too often it is easier to fall into despair or worse still the complacency of denial. Anger for all its negative aspects can be motivating toward far more positive outcomes. Children in cages, police brutality, climate anxiety, toxic masculinity, body autonomy, famine, pestilence, and war. The modern world can seem at times like a buffet of awful. The challenge then is to not become paralyzed by indecision or wallow in fear. Don’t turn away from the brutality of this apocalyptic life instead scream along with Closet Witch.
Cover artwork by Alex Crist
Insert artwork by Alex Crist and Mollie Piatetsky