The organ that invokes "/ Beyond the Light," the centerpiece of the debut album by Richmond-to-Raleigh trio Gauchiste, sounds titanic but distant, removed but looming. It's as if the organ of some remote cathedral can't be silenced while, miles away, a microphone simply picks up the signal.
During the track's five minutes, the organ's drone moves in and out of the fore while bursts of static and hums of radiant guitars scatter across the surface. But the organ is always there, forever exhaling lurid phosphorescence. Except, well, there is no organ. Asked about that sound, Tomas Phillips and Craig Hilton—the two pieces of the band who still live in Raleigh—stare blankly at one another, then laugh and then compare the hum to a similar tone on another tune. Finally, Hilton tries to conjure an explanation for the sound whose origins they can't recall.
"There's no telling. I have just a whole slew of stuff I've recorded over the years, and I have no clue where I got that sound," explains Hilton. "Most of the sounds, I actually made; I didn't take an organ sample and loop it. It came from another instrument but ended up sounding like an organ."
That ambiguity and embrace of the unknown are certainly representative of Gauchiste, a seven-track album woven from phantasmagorical sounds that seem transmitted by sources unseen rather than played. Indeed, Phillips, Hilton and Tannon Penland mostly made the album with their computers, fastidiously manipulating and mixing these sounds into immersive sprawls. More important, though, is the correlation of the organ mimesis to the very slippery sense of self-definition embraced by Gauchiste itself, three musicians who have spent their lives playing either heavy metal in practice rooms or building tracks with laptops and processors. Now, in doing a bit of both at once, they've joined a compelling canon of musicians blurring once presumably distant borders.
"I know a lot of metal guys who would hear the Gauchiste and go, 'So, is this a soundtrack? Are these sound effects you guys made?'" says Hilton, reclining against the back of a coffee-shop chair in a black leather jacket and massive silver rings, a look that betrays that he's a metal guy, too. "That's always the case—anything that goes out of key, god forbid. But for me, it's a pretty natural synthesis."
A truss of stylistic paradoxes, Gauchiste not only combines the brevity of heavy metal with the patience of minimal electronic music but also builds the ominous soundscapes of the latter with the massive riffs, sudden drum blasts and sarcophagus vocals of the former. If you're looking for easy tags, Gauchiste—the French word for leftist, with political connotations of Communism and extreme beliefs—is not metal and certainly not techno. Precariously and rewardingly, Gauchiste thrives in some undefined, inflammatory space—between both realms, but not apart from either. That sort of genre-jumping transgression doesn't satisfy everyone, of course.
As Hilton hints, both heavy metal and electronic music depend on definitions of rules, using strict musical and stylistic parameters to differentiate what belongs in one subgenre versus another. The online lexicon of heaviness Encyclopaedia Metallum, for instance, includes lengthy message board discussions of why some bands aren't metal enough for inclusion; the online electronica guidebook Resident Advisor tags each review with one of a dozen different styles—house, tech house, experimental, electro, minimal, dub and so on. When boundaries are broken in either of these fields, pejorative names (posers, dilettantes, scene kids) are quick to get called.
Still, during the last several years, metal and electronica have made strange, fertile and sometimes controversial bedfellows, with their unlikely hybrids producing some of the most compelling releases in either respective realm. Though generally circumscribed to the heavier end of the spectrum, the slowed, subterranean metal of Sunn O))) bears a close kinship with ambient electronic benchmarks. One-man French black metal band Blut Aus Nord has lifted sounds wholesale from techno, while producers like Ben Frost and Andy Stott have lifted liberally from the darker side of the aisle. Britain's Demdike Stare—which comprises two electronica hot shots—recently tagged their ghostly trances as "occult house" or "black house," while stateside groups like Salem, Prurient and Locrian navigate essentially evil ether with tones and techniques from both fields. Exploring without allegiance to one side or another, Gauchiste fits squarely in that gray haze.
Though Gauchiste is more than the sum of its pedigrees, the pasts and intersecting paths of the trio's members inform their sudden arrival. Phillips came of age in the fecund Raleigh hardcore scene of the late '80s and early '90s, when metal and punk began their slow, uncertain bleeds into each other. He even toured as the lighting technician with legendary Raleigh crew Confessor for some time and started a band called Bloodbath. But he built his real musical reputation during the last decade with a sterling set of releases and live installations that pivoted between classical and electronic composition. Phillips' work focused much less (if, sometimes, at all) on beats than texture and timing. Hilton has been in and out of various heavy local outfits for years, playing guitar in Gothenburg disciples Here Lies and a Guns N' Roses cover band while building an impressive catalog of long-form sound art on labels scattered around the world. Phillips and Hilton, then, have long been creating music in liminal zones, testing borders and eyeing the other side.
But Penland, as he'll readily admit, is a time-tested metal lifer. Penland plays guitar in Loincloth, a ferocious three-piece whose metal elevates the term math-rock to multi-variable calculus. After nearly a decade as a band, Loincloth released it first LP, Iron Balls of Steel, via metal giant Southern Lord on Jan. 17, the same day Gauchiste issued its debut. In just 39 minutes, it ricochets through 16 instrumental anthems, Penland's guitar playing pinballing with the rhythm section that once belonged to Raleigh's Confessor.
Half of that rhythm section was Steve Shelton, Phillips' childhood friend and former bandmate long ago in Bloodbath. He introduced Phillips and Penland when they lived in the same Raleigh apartment complex. The timing could barely have been better: Penland recently had been turned on to the European band Young Gods, whose extreme sense of dynamics and mix of live instruments, sampling and programming suggested to him that metal wasn't necessarily three sweaty dudes in a rehearsal room. After spending several years in Montreal, earning a doctorate while immersed in the city's rich experimental music scene, Phillips heard the band Necrophagist, four Germans whose adventurous mix of styles reminded him of the wilds that metal could exploit.
"Metal is actually one of the few genres to genuinely evolve over the years. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I couldn't believe how far metal had come in terms of technicality," says Phillips of hearing acts like Necrophagist and, later, Sunn O))). Back in Raleigh, Phillips worked on a batch of Confessor remixes, turning the metal of his youth into the noisy sprees of his present. He'd found a new avenue for his improvisational and electronic skills.
Phillips and Penland became fast friends, talking about records and books. That affinity soon turned into musical collaboration. Hilton had been living at this nexus of metal and electronic music for the better part of two decades, so Phillips knew he'd be a perfect fit. The trio started passing ideas across state lines via e-mail, Hilton and Phillips taking their time to show Penland the possibilities of his computer.
"I think we did with him what a very good friend of mine who introduced me to laptop music did," explains Phillips. "That was to have a lot of patience with his impulse to latch onto a sound or an effect, but also to know when to say that there are other possibilities."
Indeed, where Loincloth works by packing a lot of action into very small spans of time, Penland found that this new setup could be extreme in its own right by turning a basic sound into something he'd never even imagined—just like that inorganic organ at the start of "/ Beyond the Light" or, really, just like this intersection of the heaviest metal and slightest electronics.
"In my case, writing music is often about loud spaces with live instruments," Penland says. "It truly was an exciting process to take something that started as guitar and stretch it into what sounds like a human voice, organ or something scratching at the window. If you are patient, the possibilities are endless."