White Ward – Futility Report

mulating our opinion of an album before diving back into the endless sea of new releases. Sometimes, however, a confluence of factors generates a scenario in which one album stays in rotation for an extended stay before pen gets put to paper. White Ward‘s Futility Report is an album I’ve been trying to write about since January, when I heard its first publicly released song. It took about 30 seconds of that track to convince me this was a band worth paying attention to. They were kind enough to send me a review copy, but shortly thereafter, the always-excellent label Debemur Morti Productions joined me in recognizing the band’s quality and snatched them up, putting what had previously been planned as an independent release on hold. The album is finally coming out on May 12, but it’s been a staple of my listening cycle for nearly three months now, so this review has been simmering in my head for longer than your average writeup. Why wait another second? Let’s get to the art at hand.

White Ward is a six-piece band from Odessa, Ukraine, with fairly standard metal instrumentation aside from the presence of a full-time saxophone player. “Metal with saxophone” is an easy way to get me to listen to pretty much anything; it’s also all-too-commonly a recipe for disappointment. The majority of times, it’s a band with one or two brief guest spots of saxophone, which can be done either pretty well (WRVTH’s “Lured By Knaves” is my personal favorite) or pretty awkwardly. Sometimes you get a full band that knows how to use the sax optimally, like the legendary Kayo Dot or older Shining; other times it doesn’t work out, like in Aenaon or newer Shining. You might guess that I place White Ward firmly on the positive end of that spectrum. Alexey Iskimzhi’s sax parts are tasteful, technical, and well-integrated into the music, so much so that you rarely find yourself actively thinking “this is good metal with sax” and more just “this is good metal” – or even “this is good music”.

Indeed, there’s much more to this album than “metal with saxophone”, and it’s not an all-over-the-field avant-garde circus like Diablo Swing Orchestra or Unexpect, either. At its roots, this is slick, modern post-black metal, but the branches veer into post-punk, electronic, jazz, and melodeath elements. There’s even an undeniable undertone of – I’m terrified to use this word for the connotations it will evoke, but one has to address it honestly – metalcore. Wait, don’t close the tab! This is not Killswitch Engage trying on blast beats; it’s the opposite of that. This is a band firmly confident in their black metal identity, but unafraid and unashamed to incorporate elements from a variety of sounds and genres to convey the music they want to convey. That’s one of the many facets that make this release so fresh and vibrant.

The album’s artwork hits you first; if you’re familiar with the aesthetic of Terra Tenebrosa, it’s hard not to draw that comparison based on the creepy mask visages shown on the cover. That leads the astute listener to expect something in that dark avant-garde vein before the first notes even play. And what a pair of first notes they are. “Deviant Shapes” guides you into the album with two stark, clean electric chords. (You can tell something about a band by whether their clean parts are done on electric or acoustic guitars.) As best I can tell by ear, the chords are something like B♭maj7 to D♭m, which is an extremely unconventional juxtaposition. The first chord feels like it wants to resolve to either Gm, Dm, or maybe Am, but D♭m is as far removed from those possibilities as you can get – and it works! It sounds beautiful and haunting, sets the mood for the album, and enables instant appreciation for the band’s compositional acumen. This two-note motif provides the backbone for an intro with ambient electronic percussion, a meandering bass line, and a clip from the film Jacob’s Ladder – a suitably bizarre subject for this work, albeit the only clip of its kind in the album. A no-nonsense eight-measure transitional passage introduces the sound of the full band, before a precise and vicious blast beat section sets the stage for the first vocals, a thick and meaty scream from singer Andrew Rodin. This drops off into a Lantlôs-style noir jazz post-rock part where the sax makes its debut. As this section closes, the band teases a build that anticipates a return to their previous blastiness, only to take a delightful left turn into post-punk reminiscent of Amesoeurs. Another atmospheric interlude with jazzier details fades into a massive double bass section. Then they play with timing a little bit, doing some 10/4 chugging, which is an example of that previously-hinted metalcore appropriation – when do black metal bands ever “chug”? The final section marries some of that rhythmic chugging on guitar and kick drum with a soaring tremolo lead straight out of post-rock 101 – shades of Deafheaven at their finest – and a clean picking part closes the song. In just over seven minutes, White Ward have shown us more creativity and technique than most bands can be bothered to muster up on a full-length album.

“Stillborn Knowledge”, probably my favorite track from the album, kicks off with another two-chord motif, in distortion this time, which takes us to back-to-back lightning-speed blast beat section that last for a staggering 1 minute and 20 seconds before relenting. The second of these sections marries classic black metal tremolo picking with a gentle lilt of that delectable saxophone. An ambient part conjures the sound of Lights Out Asia, with twinkling guitars and sax featuring prominently over a lo-fi electro beat. The next section is a monstrous, half-time battering ram of a part that evokes post-metal titans like Isis and Russian Circles. This transitions to a ripping, Soilwork-esque part that culminates in a face-melting, emotive guitar solo of the sort that is almost never featured in traditional black metal nor in modern post-black. When they tire of this, they shift back into their vacation home of noir jazz for the outro.

Third track “Homecoming” welcomes the listener with ambient glockenspiel in a framework that sounds like it could be a nighttime exploration theme in an RPG. The metal sections that bookend the song are both slow-burning affairs, making this song a little less spectacular than the previous two, albeit perfectly suiting its position on the album. The song’s middle is just an acoustic layer shy of being comparable to Novembre, while the subsequent section veers almost into hardcore-influenced territory before returning to that melancholy dirge pace from before. Interlude track “Rain as Cure” allows the band to more fully embrace their noir and electronic sensibilities outside the pretense of metal; a fingersnap sample provides the click track for this beautiful exposition. Far from being a throwaway interlude, this is a carefully crafted statement that demonstrates the band’s ability to compose in an atmospheric context without it being solely to segue between heavy parts. The song also has a swing vibe, the shuffling rhythm of which prefigures the turn that will be taken on the following track.

“Black Silent Piers” was my first exposure to White Ward, and the song that sucked me in to instant fandom. Previous songs largely stuck to 4/4, but here they give 6/8 a shot, sounding like a blackened Opeth circa “The Funeral Portrait”, which is perhaps the highest complement I can pay any band. The main progression is again very simple, but it’s what they build over it that makes it so effective. The 6/8 diversion only lasts a minute or so, though, as they construct a sludgy, post-black midsection to showcase the sax once more. After that comes perhaps the most pure blackness on the album, with a ravenous blast beat and tremolo section highlighting drummer Yurii Kononov’s machinelike stamina. Later, a clean guitar introduces a melodic theme over some Eastern-tinged ambiance, and this briefly gets the full band treatment to cap off the penultimate track.

The album-closing title track proves the band haven’t exhausted their bag of tricks yet, as a plodding guitar provides a doomy, post-metal introduction. The grave pace persists even as double bass makes the walls start to tumble down around 2 minutes in. The first two verses are perhaps the band’s most creative sections, as I have a hard time pinning down a band to compare them to. They begin to build toward the climax – a crucial yet often ignored part of a good album closer – with a couple more fast-blasting sections. The main theme of the climax is established after this, and a little more building sets up the full-blown, half-tempo canonical version around the 5-and-a-half-minute mark. This uses a lovely blend of heavy guitar, clean lead, and sax before it bows out to unveil the album’s true ending – a glitchy, industrial beat beneath crunching dissonant guitars, with twisted recollections of the last lyrical line reminding us of the album’s mantra: “All the efforts are futile.” I’m not sure that’s the direction I would have gone had I been in charge on the composition, but it ends up working – just like pretty much every other unconventional choice they made on this masterful debut. For one more band comparison, believe it or not, the outro reminds me of what Diablo Swing Orchestra pulled off with “Justice for Saint Mary”, which is still one of my favorite musical “twist endings”.

As you can tell from my repeated references to other bands, White Ward doesn’t break a lot of new musical ground with any one particular aspect of their sound. What they accomplish, though, is a fusion of existing styles into something that’s never been fused before. They take a lot of risks with their genre palette without ever coming off as gimmicky, and without fear of judgment from any fanbase. They won’t be black metal enough for some black metal fans, or have enough weird time signatures for some prog fans, or have any clean vocals to draw in any screamo fans. Yet the space they occupy in between so many different subgenres is a unique one, and one that I think will appeal broadly to open-minded listeners from many walks of metal. I said it a few times, but White Ward excels at establishing two- or three-chord bases; it’s the dimensions they surround those simple elements with that provide the real shine to the music. The production is crisp and massive, perhaps more in that melodeath/metalcore ballpark than in the atmospheric black realm, but it suits what they do extremely well, giving power to the crushing heavy parts and allowing the electronic-driven atmospheres to breathe without rendering anything sterile or lifeless. At just over 40 minutes, Futility Report packs a lot of ideas into a small space, but almost every idea is a winner, leaving me craving more from these Ukrainian craftsmen. Good work by Debemur Morti locking them up; here’s hoping that partnership fosters the production of much more of this brilliant material.

Debemur Morti (Label)

Band: White Ward
Album: Futility Report
Release date: 12 May 2017
Label: Debemur Morti Productions

1. Deviant Shapes – 7:22
2. Stillborn Knowledge – 8:06
3. Homecoming – 6:33
4. Rain As Cure – 3:13
5. Black Silent Piers – 6:34
6. Futility Report – 8:38
Total running time: 40:26

Andrew Rodin – vocals
Yurii Kazaryan – guitars
Igor Palamarchuk – guitars
Alexey Iskimzhi – saxophone
Andrey Pechatkin – bass
Yurii Kononov – drums

Additional members:
Alexey Sidorenko – lyrics
Vladimir Bauer and Alexandr Smirnov – additional composing contribution

Filetype listened to: MP3
Bitrate: 320kbps CBR
Sampling frequency: 44,100 Hz, 2 channels