US black metal has gone from Scandinavia’s unwelcome runt sibling to being widely recognised as responsible for birthing some of the most beautiful, bestial and bizarre sounds in the genre. With Agalloch, Nachtmystium, Cobalt, Wolves In the Throne Room, Absu, and more recently acts like Liturgy and Deafheaven, USBM has a habit of pushing the envelope. For Jef Whitehead, aka Wrest, sole member of longstanding USBM outfit Leviathan, this undoubtedly comes from within. If 2011’s engaging but questionable “True Traitor, True Whore” was an emotional reaction to sexual assault allegations surrounding Whitehead at the time, reaping twisted but flawed results, then its follow-up “Scar Sighted” is perhaps Whitehead’s shot at redemption and rebirth.
“Scar Sighted” doesn’t feel like a quantum leap for Leviathan but more of a consolidation of what has made the project so tantalising, and it’s all the better for it. In stark contrast to the vulnerable and raw nature of “True Traitor, True Whore”, “Scar Sighted” is confident and in charge of its own energies. However that doesn’t make it comfortable, for these energies are still that of pure ugliness and despair. Rather, it feels focused enough for its swathes of rage, miserable tension and atmosphere to be directed squarely at the listener for maximum impact.
For a start it is sonically massive, retaining the necessary dirty primacy but in a manner that is all-enveloping and unapologetically powerful. This suits the aural terror brought on by the gutsier Leviathan of recent years, a recognisable but somewhat different beast to the depressive black metal rasp of “The Tenth Sub Level of Suicide”. At its most rampant, this current offering is an absolute abomination in the best way, developing more of a pulverising death metal feel than some previous works on tracks like ‘Dawn Vibration’ and ‘The Smoke of Their Torment’ with its unnerving stabs of dissonance riding the bulldozer. A key strength of this record is that more so than many other albums that are this damn nasty every single song has its own identity, never blurring together despite the torment. ‘Within Thrall’ offers some of the most experimental moments and some of the most traditional, its wall of throaty chanting giving way to a black metal riff Euronymous would have been proud to call his own, while ‘Gardens of Coprolite’ is deceptively melodic with its moody bass line and intriguing percussion.
Wrest handles every role within the music with finesse and huge injections of flair, especially his unconventional and rather glorious drumming and a nigh unmatchable vocal persona from the lurking menace of his growls to dejected shrieks to what can only be described as the babbling, truly unsettling moans of a madman. The record takes a true turn into the devastatingly disturbing within the final half an hour, its touching and breath-taking centrepiece the cavernous and suffocating title track with its engulfing melodic keys and deathly croaks gripping for the full ten minutes. Here it becomes apparent just how good Scar Sighted really is; music doesn’t often reach these heights of sheer bleakness, the torment and ravaged mind of a imposing and apparent monster revealing itself and seeping from the manifested wounds.
With a newfound openness when dealing with press and cover shoots holding his baby daughter, Jef Whitehead is seemingly in a better place than he was four years ago around the release of “True Traitor, True Whore”. “Scar Sighted” though isn’t a work displaying emergence into the light at the end of the tunnel. This is unique and forward-thinking black metal that doesn’t achieve that simply by trying to be pretty. It instead thrives and glowers in unshakeable gloom, and with focus and creative drive matching anything else in Leviathan’s career. A masterstroke of misery and fear, and a reminder of how unforgivably absorbing the depths of extremity can be.