HWWAUOCH - Protest Against Sanity (Amor Fati)

If you’ve read other reviews of HWWAUOCH’s Protest Against Sanity on the metal blogosphere, you’ve likely seen the word ‘psychedelic’ thrown around to describe the band’s borderline illegible approach to black metal (BM). This knee-jerk categorization isn’t necessarily inaccurate—the album’s freaky surrealism begs the term—but it does raise a pesky question. What exactly does it mean to call a metal album ‘psychedelic?’ What accounts for the disparity between bands branded with this tag? We’re already in expired-product territory with Protest Against Sanity, so it won’t matter much to HWWAUOCH if we try to find some answers with a little trip down memory lane.

In the late nineties and early aughts ‘psychedelic’ marked an intersection between ‘stoner’ metal and sludge, often with reference to the fuzz-pedal fetishism and bluesy post-Sabbath stomp of bands like Sleep, Electric Wizard, and YOB. Acts like Mastodon, Kylesa, and Baroness (along with a host of bands on the Southern Lord label) were also corralled under this tie-dyed banner a few years later, as they grafted sounds from prog and alt rock into the same template. At that point in time ‘psychedelic’ signaled something markedly different from HWWAUOCH—something that might now be labeled psych-doom, what with its mid-paced grooves, flashy guitar pyrotechnics, and conventional classic-rock songwriting.

Thankfully, the meaning of the term was blurred this past decade by a new generation of gory and corpse-painted psychonauts. It was used to describe death metal (DM) acts like Blood Incantation and Mithras, who followed a trail of breadcrumbs left by Timeghoul and Finndeath trailblazers to unveil the existential horrors of space. At the same time, it was attached to Brooklyn BM phenoms Yellow Eyes and Krallice (among others), whose oneiric atmospheres and hyper-technical, symphonic compositions carried a distinctly hallucinogenic effect. The impact of these bands splintered in cracks across the Atlantic, where the term popped up around wholly different strains of BM forged in the Icelandic and French scenes. In Reykjavik, artists like Misþyrming, Wormlust, and Svartidauði were heralded for ensorcelling blast-beat fury with occult mysticism, transforming arctic twang and seething dissonance into potent entheogenic tools. Meanwhile, Blut Aus Nord, Spektr, and Esoctrilihum were called 'psychedelic' for augmenting French BM decadence with zonked-out exotica from a variety of non-metal genres, folding these influences into their oeuvre with surgical studio precision previously flaunted only by experimental indie and electronic artists.

By now, the term has become something more slippery, often involving droney synths, kaleidoscopic songwriting, and gutsy production. More importantly, the notion that 'psychedelic' metal was a unified subgenre with fixed characteristics faded as bands began to interpret the idea through their own idiosyncratic—and subgeneric—lenses. This paradigm shift led to a multimodal renaissance, a far-flung explosion of the far-out. As a result, there are more permutations of drugged-out metal percolating in the underground nowadays than there are novel research chemicals on darknet black markets, and a lot of it plays by its own cutthroat rules.

Enter HWWAUOCH, the paragon example: Protest Against Sanity isn’t for the faint of heart, but its witchy nihilism offers its own depraved definition of ‘psychedelic’ while setting a new benchmark in the subgenre-that’s-not-a-subgenre. Their perverse take on trippy is a toxic homebrew, a nightmarish vision of war metal inspired by ego death, existential dread, and Lynchian dream logic. It takes a pass on common paraphernalia like laser-show synths, bongo circle percussion, or gauzy production, but when its dystopian acid haze reaches fever pitch, you can all but see the band’s eyes roll back into their heads as they levitate off the floor.

The album opens with the terrorism of “Cryptosphere,” a ketamine-fueled hellride into bat country with Dr. Gonzo riding shotgun while snorting lines off a loaded revolver. It’s an oppressive and antagonistic slab of postmodern paranoia that makes good on the album’s title with a hostility toward anything resembling cool-headedness or restraint, stripping naked before leaping headfirst into a bottomless pit of body horror and recreational schizophrenia. The most striking element is the unhinged vocal performance, which channels the padded-room hysterics of doom acts like Burning Witch and Khanate to run a larynx-shredding gamut from anguished horror to blood-slicked glee. Throughout the runtime, these cacodemonic ravings are slathered in grimy FX that give HWWAUOCH’s style a dirty metropolitan feel, conjuring the rancid viscera of a needle-strewn back alley. Casting even more shadows on this debauched urban aesthetic, the bass lines are loose and slinky—funhouse-mirroring the slackened metallic buzz of Korn’s slum-rumbling rap rock, albeit with a more venomous sting (see “Destroyer” and the title track). The guitar tone is scuffed with a similar weighty abrasion, making even high-register riffs hit like a cinder block heaved from a ghetto overpass. These sounds are further mangled by the overblown production, which acts as a blast furnace, igniting the mid-range and charring low-end throb into pyroclastic flow.

HWWAUOCH's gutter-rattling delirium passes the 'psychedelic' sniff test, but how does Protest Against Sanity relate to other very different sounding records that are confusingly also placed under the same umbrella, like Can's nervy Tago Mago, or MGMT's lysergic synth-pop opus Little Dark Age? By shedding prosaic psych-doom tropes and delving deep into the unknown, experimental metal bands like HWWAUOCH share in a kindred process of seeking clarity through discombobulation, hewing closer to the ineffable experiences that inspire their otherworldly sounds