In an era overrun by information, misinformation, unseen algorithms and viral contagion, to seek out what’s truly human in the face of overwhelming and unfathomable forces has perhaps become our most sacred of tasks. It’s an impulse that lies at the very heart of Plague God, the debut album from Absent In Body – the oppressive, industrial-driven collaboration by members of Amenra, Neurosis and Sepultura. Bound by the same ideals of unity and fearlessly uncompromising honesty of expression that have driven their respective bands to imperious heights of reverence and groundbreaking sonic deliverance, Plague God is by turns devastating and sublime, drawn from musicians for whom life and art are inextricably bound.
Initially the brainchild of Amenra guitarist Mathieu J. Vandekerckhove, and Neurosis vocalist/guitarist Scott Kelly, the band were formed in 2017 after they had initially planned on recording separate tracks for The Abyss Stares Back #5, one of a series of split EPs released by Hypertension Records. Immediately recognising their kinship, and with Amenra frontman Colin H. Van Eeckhout brought in on vocals and bass, what emerged over the course of a near-20-minute eponymous track was a singular, transformative vision – a devotional yet haunted pilgrimage segueing between rich, hurdy gurdy-driven drones and claustrophobic, industrial grooves, as if potholing through the most foreboding of internal domains.
While Neurosis and Amenra albums have been personal, spiritual barometers, one of Absent In Body’s founding principles was to also tune into our contemporary environment and consciousness, to find something enduring and defiant in the heart of our fractured here and now. While there is clear continuity between Plague God and the earlier, Absent In Body track, the new album is a reflection of the intervening years of turbulence, extending its scope as it navigates across five stretches of unstable terrain. From the opening “Rise From Ruins” with Sepultura drummer, Igor Cavelera’s tribal beat emerging from foreboding, near-subsonic oscillations to explode in a tide of corrosive riffs and feral howls, through Sarin’s steadfast, procession-through-purgatory groove, to “The Half Rising Man’s” matrix of organic/mechanic evolution, it’s an album in constant dialogue between the animalistic, the human and the industrial, and a hunger to distil something unpolluted from the fray.
It’s a mark of how personal a project Absent In Body is that it was recorded, not via transferring files, but in person at Amenra bassist Tim De Gieter’s studio in Belgium, Scott and Igor travelling in from Oakland and London respectively when time allowed, and often joined socially by boundary-breaking Integrity mainman Dwid Hellion. With main songwriter Mathieu drawing from his country’s 80s EBM scene, visionaries such as Front 242 and Revolting Cocks co-founder Luc van Acker in particular, the personal collaboration, the ability to fully connect was integral to the forming of the album’s dynamic, and the necessity to find space for expression within the often fixed tempos so uncharacteristic of the artists’ own bands.
For Colin, his vocals normally lashed to the traction of Amenra’s playing just behind the beat, it meant finding new registers to get that visceral sense of friction within the strictures of the sound. Deep, lung-scorched howls; imperious, alien overlord dictates; flayed residues, as if Napalm Death’s Barney Greenway were being dissolved in a vat of acid; hushed, spoken word intonations – all means to give voice to themes of isolation, separation from and closeness to loved ones, attempting to see our surroundings through the prism of information overload: how to connect in a world increasingly hiving us off into self-absorbed enclaves.
Protest music is often perceived as a petition, or a counter-argument against a controlling force. There is another sense of protest, though, that of a machine under stress: articulating the pressures weighing down on it by means of an involuntary, primal response. It’s these states of critical mass at which we must truly find ourselves, under duress maybe, but unblinded and alive. Plague God doesn’t just give voice to these moments of truth, but in the band’s deep kinship integral to every claustrophobic judder, every stretch of atmospheric dread and helpless alias assumed, lies a freedom we both forget and attain at our peril.