The name Great Dismal Swamp sounds like it might have been made up with a slight tongue-in-cheek nod to the comic value of some over-the-top band names, but little did I know that it is actually a place! A great mire near the USA’s eastern coast with a somewhat peculiar history, from the information and photos available the Great Dismal Swamp appears like an entirely alien world of fog-ridden mystery. It’s appropriate then that a similar description could equally be used for this musical project, a unique, eclectic and vivid sonic concoction that combines traditional elements from noise, drone, black metal and doom without ever really sounding like any of them.
Hailing from Virginia, one of the two states which the titular swamp crosses lies within, Great Dismal Swamp clearly aim to evoke the sights, smells and stories of their namesake. Following on from their 2019 debut album 1763, which was full of direct references to the history of the swamp, Virginia goes about the evocation in a rather more surrealist fashion.
The album opens with Alpha Drone, which layers together haunting psychedelic noise and terrifying black metal growls. It slowly introduces you, both sonically and lyrically, to the otherworldly landscape that follows. Ritual For Cleansing The Forsaken And The Mire They Inhabit begins with an abstract wash of organs, drones and sweeping noise before a rather metal drum track begins, albeit one that sounds deliberately synthetic. All the while there are these obscure disharmonic vocals that remind me distinctly of those that intersperse through the Mars Volta album Frances The Mute. It builds very gradually and in the second half the drums become more insistent and the drones become louder as the whole thing starts to envelope the aural space.
I Saw The Future cuts in to lead us in a different direction, one much darker and grim. The growling vocals return but in a more speech-like capacity, and behind the heavy drones are lines of black metal guitar. It’s very reminiscent of Black One era Sunn O))), with the black metal melodies blending into the drone-doom timbres. The Earth Is An Animal follows in a similar drone style but in a much more minimalist way. The vocals really take the lead here, and particularly the lyrical metaphors of humanity’s damage to the planet. After a few minutes the drums enter and the whole thing builds into a pulsating march of industrial power.
Virginia is a record to be experienced as intensely as your ears and brain can handle…
Lucifer, Son Of The Mourning does something quite unexpected when it samples, or perhaps interpolates, the Max Romeo reggae classic Chase The Devil (which you might also know from The Prodigy track Out Of Space). It’s a short harsh noise piece that, beyond the novelty of the sample, I’m not sure really brings anything significant to the album. It feels a little out of place, although considering the eclecticism of the record that may well have been the intention. To Drown, To Sink is another shorter track, but it gets us right back into the thick of things with a mountainous stomp of dark noise and deep beats.
The Cityscape In Which My Nightmares Dwell starts off sitting more in the ambient spectrum, with the melancholic clean guitars and spoken words creating a dream-like atmosphere. Suddenly, at just over halfway through, the track makes a brutally stark change into a furious piece of industrial black metal that reminds me somewhat of Blacklodge, Mysticum or even Ulver. The album ends with Finally, The Machine Dies, a completely jarring two minutes of glitching noise and beats that wonderfully summarises the subversive nature of this record.
I’m not sure if I actually enjoyed Virginia, so to speak. I enjoyed the sounds, and I enjoyed the sensations they evoked, but there’s a particularly harsh and chaotic nature to this album that makes it quite difficult to fully take in. There are times when it sounds completely unique, especially when the focus is on the noise elements, but during the more definable drone-doom tracks the sounds feel quite familiar.
The thing is, I don’t think Great Dismal Swamp ever intended Virginia to be something enjoyable. Rather, Virginia is a record to be experienced as intensely as your ears and brain can handle; and when I look at it from that perspective, the muddy waters of the Great Dismal Swamp don’t exactly dissipate, but they do start to make a lot more sense.
Scribed by: Will J