Jef Whitehead, aka Wrest, the man behind the long-running project Leviathan, is a seminal figure in American black metal. When I say seminal, I mean, like: first-edition, OG, “came here on the Mayflower” kinda stuff. The first Leviathan demo was released in 1998, the same year San Francisco’s Weakling recorded Dead As Dreams. Now, Dead As Dreams is largely regarded as the album that gave birth to the sound of American black metal as we know it. But even though Weakling recorded that album in 1998, it actually wasn’t even released till 2000, and by then, Leviathan was already an established figure on the nascent landscape. The first Leviathan album, The Tenth Sub-Level Of Suicide, came out in 2003, at which point Whitehead had released more than a dozen demos. (Today, those demos go for a tidy sum on eBay, on the rare occasion they turn up.) Over the last decade-plus, Whitehead has released four full-length albums (and almost literally countless ancillary documents) as Leviathan and one as Lurker Of Chalice; he’s been part of the “supergroups” Twilight and Chrome Waves. He’s played on records by Krieg, Xasthur, and Sunn O))), among others. His body of work is INFINITE. But here’s the thing: You could throw a rock out any window in Brooklyn and hit someone who plays bass for a band that sounds like Weakling … but nobody, nothing, in all of music, in all of the world, sounds like Leviathan.
Not for lack of trying! I’m sure tons of bands have been influenced by him, but I’ve never heard any band that sounds like him. Wrest approaches composition in a way that seems almost alien. His music is gaseous in a world of solids; a subconscious vision in a conscious reality. Even when I try to take it apart piece by piece — these tremulous chiming guitars remind me of Burzum, these swarm-of-bees guitars remind me of Funeral Mist; these howling-in-horror vocals remind me of Weakling, these mumbling-schizophrenic vocals remind me of Mayhem; these clanky atmospherics remind me of Godflesh, these spooky atmospherics remind me of ’70s occult horror films — I can’t put it back together, and I’m always missing something. It’s like being trapped in a maze in a dream: It’s not just confusing, it’s impossible. But it’s also exciting and terrifying and urgent and magical.
The last Leviathan album, 2011’s True Traitor True Whore, was also the worst Leviathan album. It wasn’t bad — the guy doesn’t make bad music — but it was toxic and dense, and it didn’t invite fascination or even pure desperate horror like Wrest’s best work. It was recorded in what must have been a time of utter misery and fear for its author: In January 2011, Whitehead had been arrested and charged with sexually assaulting his then-girlfriend. He was looking at a 34-count indictment, what could have been a lifetime behind bars. That was the atmosphere in which True Traitor was recorded, and that was its subject matter. It’s a hard record to contend with on any level. But some six months after its release, Wrest was a free man: The prosecution dropped 28 of its charges against Whitehead, eventually trying him on only six. He was found not guilty on all but one — aggravated domestic battery — for which he was sentenced to two years probation. (In the wake of the verdict, I talked to Chris Bruni, who owns Profound Lore Records, Leviathan’s label since 2011. Bruni told me: “[Whitehead] never assaulted [his accuser] whatsoever and even the domestic he got charged with is false. It’s bullshit.”)
The new Leviathan album, Scar Sighted, comes from someplace else altogether. With the worst chapter of his life behind him, Wrest moved from Chicago to Portland, sobered up, and fell in love with fellow musician/tattoo artist Stevie Floyd (frontwoman of Dark Castle and Taurus). They opened a tattoo shop together. Last year, they had a baby. If you follow them on Instagram, you get the impression they have built for themselves a happy family and a contended life doing what they love. And that was the atmosphere in which Scar Sighted was created. You can hear it, too. It’s a confident album, a warm album, a huge album, something you can get lost inside. It’s not exactly what you’d call uplifting music — it’s still, more often than not, abrasive, discordant, gnarly — but it’s unusually robust by Leviathan standards, even wondrous. It sounds amazing, for which no small amount of credit is due producer Billy Anderson. Anderson helmed two of 2014’s best-sounding metal albums — Pallbearer’s Foundations Of Burden and Agalloch’s The Serpent & The Sphere, both of which were also released by Profound Lore — but Scar Sighted might be better than both. Wrest’s music still feels vast and labyrinthine, but where prior Leviathan albums submerged you in darkness and offered only occasional flickers of light to help you find your way around, here you can see every detail on the cavern’s walls, you can truly grasp its size, its depth, its dimensions. Turns out this thing is even bigger than you’d imagined.
Lots of Leviathan fans will tell you their actual favorite Wrest record is the 2005 album he recorded as Lurker Of Chalice. And they are not wrong: That record is a fucking jewel. It’s not black metal though; it’s much closer to ambient. But it’s not that, either. It feels like the score for an especially surreal childhood dream, like music composed and hidden deep inside the recesses of one’s subconscious, somehow unlocked and made manifest. It feels like a tone poem inspired by Robert Blake’s character in the David Lynch film Lost Highway. Wrest never made a second Lurker record, partly because, how the fuck do you follow that? But Scar Sighted feels like a concession to return, sporadically, to those abandoned grounds — it’s almost a midway point between Lurker Of Chalice and Leviathan’s great 2008 album Massive Conspiracy Against All Life. There are extended sections on Scar Sighted where he’s working again in Lurker’s soft, muted tones, its squiggly, mutating textures. He scales back, gets quiet, allows the music to be very small or very pretty or very distant or very illusory. He strips away everything except the background — the blurry clouds, the happy little trees, the horizon line — and forces you to focus on that. Or not focus; you can drift off. Either way, when the fighter jets return — those incongruous guitars, those inhuman vocals, those insane drums — soaring downward and into view from behind the clouds, they’re even more impressive: inspirational and awesome, perhaps, like the Blue Angels flying in formation, or terrifying and alarming, like machines of war descending on an enemy target. Then, the noise, the chaos. Things jump in and out of focus, in and out of time. The rhythms dissolve, the structures collapse. It’s insanity.
Scar Sighted includes 10 songs, and when I first heard it, there were four or five that, to me, sounded like appropriate possibilities for a premiere, an introduction (a “single,” if you will). But the one eventually chosen by the band and label, “All Tongues Toward,” which you can hear today, is the best possible choice, I think. It has everything. And I don’t care how far you search, you will not hear anything else that sounds like this. Listen.
Scar Sighted is out 3/3 via Profound Lore.