“Nightworld” starts with a feint — a gnarly uphill-trudge of a riff, suggesting an entirely different kind of extreme metal — but in less than 20 seconds, the song takes a hard left turn, melting into a glimmering amalgam of arpeggiated guitars, ethereal doom, and atmospheric black metal. Genre-hopping experimental black metal may be par for course in 2016, particularly from one-man USBM acts like San Francisco’s Palace Of Worms, but the band’s third LP, The Ladder, goes one further than most by wrapping its schizophrenic tendencies in perfectly wrought pathos. Songs shift and uncoil in fits of imagination, following the logic of a fever dream, but always chasing a melodic thread, never losing sight of what matters.
At eight minutes in length, the structure of “Nightworld” closely tracks the larger structure of the album as a whole: Like watching an insect in the throes of metamorphosis, we start with something hideous then witness as it transforms and takes flight. An opening salvo of guitar aggression is quickly smothered in a tapestry of tattered ideas, beaten into shape, and led towards the light by a haunting vocal sequence. In the span of those few minutes, we dart and weave through sludge, doom, black metal, crust, and even chorus-drenched post-punk guitars that channel the sublime glory of the Chameleons. Suddenly the harmonic structure falls away; the song draws to a close as a backdrop of emotionally charged post-rock chords comes to the fore, spiraling upwards in unexpected catharsis.
The closest overall analogue to Palace Of Worms’ particular brand of schizo weirdness is probably Leviathan, who also came up in the Bay Area and used similar passages of hallucinatory clean guitar strewn between atypical metal on last year’s incredible Scar Sighted album, though the emotional effect is entirely different. By contrast, Palace Of Worms never give in to the nihilism hinted at in their songs; instead, that underlying melodic core keeps the songs afloat and pushing forward, while keeping you glued to your headphones. The chord progressions toward the end of “Nightworld” wouldn’t sound out of place on an Agalloch or Deafheaven record, with that same cloudburst sensation of ecstatic release, but you have to dig through the detritus of a dark imagination before you get there. It’s well worth the trip. With The Ladder, Palace Of Worms have given us one of the strangest and best albums of the year, carved wholesale from an unhealthy mind; it’s a fractured masterpiece of outsider art that rewards repeat listens. Listen.
The Ladder is out 4/8 via Broken Limbs.