Release Title: Damned
Label: Profound Lore
Release Date: February 3rd, 2023
Location: San Antonio, TX
Digital Price: $8CAD, Bandcamp
If you were to hear a description of San Antonio’s Crawl for the first time, you might be forgiven for expecting at best another genre-mashing experiment, and at worst an insincere virtuoso’s gimmick. Crawl self-identifies as a “one-man blackened dungeon doom entity”. It’s a mouthful, but the epithet neatly captures the near-perfect balance of leaden funeral doom pacing, gloom-ridden dungeon synth textures and tortured black metal howls that flow viscously and unrelentingly throughout 2023’s debut LP Damned. It’s not the effortless combining of genres that risks looking like showing off, though. Sole member Michael A. Engle, multi-instrumentalist and former live drummer for Japanese drone pioneers and avant-garde noise-rockers Boris, has, on all releases since Crawl’s 2010 inception, taken on the duty of bassist, synth player, drummer and vocalist all at once. That’s literally all at once – both in the studio and on stage, Engle performs all four roles simultaneously, presumably with the kind of insane head-patting-belly-rubbing coordination most of us can only dream of.
You might be forgiven for thinking Crawl is a gimmick, but Damned is ample testimony that you’d be wrong. Opening track ‘Renaissance of Worthlessness’ shows masterly restraint, only introducing instrumentation of any kind after dripping, echoing samples have had time to paint the dank and cavernous setting from which the album’s four songs emerge. Drums and synth come inevitably out of the gloom, with ominous, drawn-out rolls repeating for the remaining six minutes over the same two dragging, dread-inducing synth notes, accompanied by vocals so creeping and indistinct as to sound at times like the hissing of an ancient machine or the movement of distant wind. Second track ‘…This Lesser Form’, boasting a rhythm section led as much by its clanging single piano notes as by its glacial drum patterns, cuts through the tension only to reveal the true extent of Crawl’s blackly monolithic soundscape, opening out onto haunting choral atmospheres underpinned by filth-caked, granite-slow bass lines. Melodically it builds seamlessly from the first track – the one plays into the other as if they formed one long, gruelling piece.
’10,000 Polehammers’, the third track of the album and the first of Side B, is where Crawl’s capacity for real heaviness shows itself. That heaviness is achieved through sheer density of sound – here, from the outset, each layer of instrumentation grinds oppressively against the other, backed by a hissing vocal litany. It’s given true weight and momentum by its trudging, martial drumbeat, fitting the image of a rain-drenched, despondent army marching to their doom that the track title suggests. What’s unique here, too, is that even the reverb-heavy, over-sustained synth contributes to the heaviness. One is easily reminded of funeral dungeon synth act Vanhellig’s The Ghost in the Spire (Ancient Meadow Records, 2021), the only album of pure synth music to exceed a good few metal artists in sheer heaviness. Closing track ‘Poisoned and Shadowed’ centres around a four-note piano melody that never resolves to the keynote – while it’s perhaps the most balanced track of the album, bringing together each element in a kind of final diabolical harmony, it skilfully refuses to offer resolution, sustaining the dread and suspense with which the album begins to the very last moment.
There’s not a lot here for you if variety of melody is your thing. Nor does the sleeve give any insight into the lyrical content beyond what we can make out by listening. A section of isolated lows does appear midway through ’10,000 Polehammers’, – the words “disgusting creatures” and “feel my hate and suffer as I have suffered” are just discernible (and really I don’t know what else I expected). In truth, Damned, more even than Crawl’s previous output of splits and EPs, has to be experienced in full, with a mind open to complete immersion. It’s an example of that wonderful kind of atmospheric work that demands listeners imagine the world and create the story themselves following its cue, rather than spoon-feeding it to them with gaudy artwork and theatrical lyrical content.
There’s a certain feeling that can only come from solo acts creating music this dark, and it is this, rather than the impression of showboating, that Engle evokes in his singular style of performance. For one thing, going solo is the modus operandi of the vast majority of dungeon synth artists old and new (with the notable exception of German two-piece Depressive Silence, whose standing for dungeon synth aficionados is comparable to that of Black Sabbath or Deep Purple for metal fans). By accident or design, Engle’s choice to go it alone signals a firm alignment with the principles and practices of this esteemed school of the murky and medieval. The knowledge, when listening, that a lone figure is churning out these four slabs of sonic medieval blackness in solitude changes how we experience the music itself – we almost imagine we are hearing the despondent musical monologue of the hunkering Dark Souls-esque knight of the album’s cover. Arguably most defined by its metal sensibilities, Damned could still sit alongside the most committed dungeoneer’s hoard of cassettes and not look out of place.
And there’s one other result of this bold choice. A guitar teacher once told me that limitation (to one or two scales, for example, or to a single picking technique) is often, paradoxically, what’s needed for the true liberation of direction and focus in song-writing. It feels as though Crawl follows a similar philosophy. The technical limitations imposed by handling four musical duties simultaneously allow no frills or flourishes, forcing each composition to maintain its ritualistic drive yet allowing each element thereof to breathe. Free of all but the parts necessary to their foul intent, the four tracks on Damned are an irrefusable invitation into Crawl’s horrid world – a world plagued by demons and apparitions, but also a rich and vivid world that we co-create as we listen along. “Hic, in inferno meo”, opens the black-letter inscription on the back of the vinyl sleeve – here in my Hell, indeed.
Listen to and order the album: