I have said it before, and I guess I’ll say it again: black metal is at its best when it’s flexible. Sure this may not be the default stance and some probably think that this is antithetical to the black metal ethos, but I say to hell with ethoses. There have been some standout acts in the past few years that have captured my attention by skillfully melding black metal with other sensibilities such as Zeal & Ardor and Astronoid. Along with these bands, a host of other practitioners of the darker metal have emerged matching other influences with their established sound and the results while sometimes mixed, are always interesting. White Ward blew us away with their debut Futility Report in 2017 and established them as a band to watch with their skillful mixture of noir jazz and black metal. They’re finally back with Love Exchange Failure, a sophomore album that could go a long way to establish them as a household name.
Beginning with the cover art for this album, it’s not difficult to tell that White Ward have some new inspiration and subtext woven into their music. While their debut album had a rather obtuse feeling with the robed figure wearing an animal skull gracing the cover, Love Exchange Failure’s cityscape would be written off as passé and generic were this any other kind of music. What this also means is the urban-flavored jazz has been moved to the foreground a bit in the music. The title track begins the album with some city life soundscapes, followed by the second layer of jazz, then the third layer: numbingly fast black metal. Having these layers spelled out initially creates not only an interesting and progressive composition, but also lets the listener know what they’re in for. The track goes on for nearly 12 minutes and there’s not a boring moment to be had. The screeched wailing of the vocals in unison with the saxophone creates a unique and cohesive experience.
Whenever a band has a well-respected debut, the follow-up is always difficult for reasons that I’m sure that all of you readers are aware of. What makes Love Exchange Failure work is that the vehicle stays the same, but the destination has changed. White Ward broke onto the scene with their deviant black metal with jazz sprinkled in and while their direction was apparent, the exact destination was still somewhat in flux. On their second album, the strong theme both sonically and emotionally are capitalizing on a different kind of horror and tragedy: loneliness. The meatier tracks, usually in excess of 10 minutes, seem like vignettes that make this album feel like an anthology more than one complete story. The interludes that separate them are no less impressive with “Surface And Depths” being my personal favorite with its crime jazz, piano-driven build up and the showy clean vocals.
From the first moments of the title track until the final note from “Uncanny Delusions” rings out, there is a sense of cohesion that permeates Love Exchange Failure. The ability to create a set of songs that keep things this tightly grouped emotionally, but are varied and diverse in instrumentation and delivery, is a feat that White Ward should be proud of. Using their already established musical identity of jazz and post-black metal to make an album about urban despair was also a savvy move. While there wasn’t a giant leap forward in their technical skills as musicians, the knowledge of how to double down on what they’re good at shows maturity and that alone will take them places.