TRANSMANIACON – The Darkening Plain

The Darkening Plain

Delivering four songs in approximately 47 minutes, the 2014 release from London-based doom/dark psych rockers Transmaniacon is not for the faint of heart.  Housed in a sleeve depicting a desolate post-apocalyptic horizon dominated by robots (expertly conceived by artist Ian Miller), part epic hard rock, part concept album, ‘The Darkening Plain’ is a both a frightening and frighteningly grand work, especially aimed at those who love things from the fuzzier and (occasionally) less heavy end of the doom rock spectrum.

Willing to commit commercial suicide before they’re even off the starting blocks, both band and label New Heavy Sounds (home to the fabulous Black Moth) are clearly willing to throw caution to the wind, having chosen a twenty-four minute epic as their opening statement.  Other bands have kicked off their careers in a similarly obtuse fashion (IQ’s 1983 release ‘Tales From The Lush Attic’ is a great example of similar grandiosity, though not style) but combined with the idea of the concept album, Transmaniacon toy with an artistic bombast few would be willing to stake their careers on…at least not so soon.  It’s a big and bold approach, but they pull it off with a strong confidence and almost prog rock sense of ambition and for those brave enough to step into their world of dark tales, of techno-fear and eco-horror, ‘The Darkening Plain’ brings intensity aplenty, not least of all during that opening number ‘Quintessence of Dust’.

Inspired by Jerry Shirley’s apocalyptic tale from which this band takes their name, ‘Quintessence’ presents the best part of half an hour’s listening time, more of an aural experience than a mere piece of music.   There’s barely enough time to get acclimatised to the band’s sound before the apocalypse begins – three chords chime, the vocals indulge in wordless wailing…and bang…the slow riffing takes hold.  Never as downtuned as some doom merchants, but there’s still a weightiness to the Transmaniacon method.  Some of the emergent sounds are more in keeping with early Blue Oyster Cult and a smidgeon of Uriah Heep than Sleep or Acid King (albeit things are still cranked with a slow, almost bluesy Sabbathy intent at first), occasionally making way for a flurry of lead guitar notes or an uprising of organ swirls.  The first hook – if indeed it could be considered such – typifies the pending doom on the landscape, as the vocals suggest we can “pull ourselves back from the brink”, while the music simultaneously seems intent to push us over the edge into its spinning void.  A repeated riff and commands to “breath out…or you can choke”, heighten the levels of intensity, before thrusting the listener headfirst into a groove-laden, more upbeat musical pasture – all pounding drums and insistent vocals, laying the foundations for some classic old-style rock.  This heads down, no nonsense approach is strong enough to stand alone and provide the core of a separate track showing the more direct side of Transmaniacon, but here it merely acts as a bridge into something incredibly spooky…

While few might suspect that nothing could make this more theatrical than it already is by this point, the band has other ideas, throwing in a spoken word passage courtesy of Lydia Lunch. Her scratchy voice reads a monologue (the main thrust of which being “everything dies”), before more Sabbathy drones take hold.  In typical frenetic style, the band eventually settle on a heady groove smashing a Judas Priest riff into an Iron Butterfly proto-stoner arrangement (again with a terrific amount of organ on show) resulting in five or six minutes worth of grubby rock that’s worth the price of admission alone.  Swirling keyboards give the air of a sickly sci-fi circus; more spoken word madness heightens the senses…and of course, more stoner riffage – sounding like a heavy rock Hawkwind in a couple of places – ensures this particular musical rollercoaster never wimps out. ‘Quintessence of Dust’ is a masterpiece of epic proportions.

Less complex, yet no less intense, the slow, doom-laden riff that opens ‘City of Chaos’ brings crushing 70s proto-metal with every lumbering chord.  Crunching slowly, this seven minute festival of doom hardly ever lets up.  In fact, for the first three minutes, it doesn’t even deviate from its original pace or chord structure, lurching slowly as it goes with guitars cranked and the organ adding a huge amount of weight.  The vocal, meanwhile, cries throughout with the titular city of chaos repeated almost every other line.   After Transmaniacon have crushed your skulls, they step up a gear or six, launching into a fast – but very brief – interlude.  With overdriven guitars and atmospheric keys, this brief romp echoes moments from the Earthless catalogue with the promise of head-bobbing goodness, but just just as it finds its feet, it slips back into sludgy doomsville.  Chugging relentlessly for most of its duration, this is great doom – superb even – but ultimately unlikely to sway the unenlightened.

More concerned with staccato chords and gang vocals, ‘Eye For An Eye’ shows a far punchier side to Transmaniacon’s barrage of sound.  The Hammond organ that crept in an out of ‘Quintessence’ is awarded a dominant role, pounding out slabs of noise underpinned by a solid performance from the rhythm section.  The simplistic hook – again largely concerned with the repetition of the song title – gives this collection of songs something more immediate, but it’s the terse vocal style of the verses that really makes this tune work.  The strong English accent combined with a sharp delivery lends itself more to art rock than anything  typically stoner-esque, while the edgy musical backdrop places parts of the arrangement (again) closer to early Blue Oyster Cult and ‘Quark, Strangeness & Charm’ era Hawkwind (albeit cranked up) than Sabbath or any of their ilk. There’s much to love as their groove takes hold, all buzzing guitars and heavy organ.  Pulling into the big climax, the Hammond chords carry on a pace as the guitars break free from heavy riffing into swirling and atmosphere driven soloing.  The lead break is brief but surprisingly effective; leading everyone back into the chorus hook, the band wrap things up much in the manner they began, the choppy riff keeping everything buoyant throughout.

Last up, ‘Chasing The Insane’ is perhaps the weakest track, though “weakest” is a purely relative concept.  The intro grabs the ear instantly by way of an unashamedly Sabbathy riff before dropping back to allow a meaty bass to take the tunes weight.  A vocal, meanwhile settles somewhere between a cry and growl in an unsettlingly natural style, but never detracts from the enormous riff lurking in the back.  During the chorus, gang vocals are on hand to help ask the all important question “why did we take this path”; when set alongside phrases such as “the warring of our souls”, this ensures the mood is firmly set to bleak.  Such an outlook ensures this – and the other tracks on the album’s second half – sound firmly like part of a whole work, with elements just as important as the epic opening number and never merely an afterthought.  Of most entertainment here are those backing vocals, almost reminiscent of Lemmy on the Hawkwind number ‘You’d Better Believe It’…but most of the elements have some entertainment value.  Its position as weakest track is partly due to its having to follow the brilliant ‘Eye For An Eye’ – easily Transmaniacon’s most accessible tune – but also partly due to circumstance: something having to be deemed weakest by default.  There’s still plenty of crunch here and enough dark psych and doom goodness to floor the unsuspecting listener.

By the time these four songs are over, the senses feel drained; not due to the heaviness, but far more to do with the sheer number of layers and sonic shifts within the band’s music. It’s not every day listening for sure…short on hummable tunes, but big on ideas and huge on monolithic riffs, ‘The Darkening Plain’ is an incredibly ambitious work that brings plenty to mull over.  Hard going as some of this may be, there are moments of brilliance within, with Transmaniacon sounding greater than the sum of their many (sometimes fleeting) influences.

July 2014