BLACKLAB – Under The Strawberry Moon 2.0

BlackLab are a sludge, doom and fuzz metal duo from Japan. Their album ‘Under The Strawberry Moon’ was released in 2017 in a very limited pressing. Recognising their potential to appeal to an overseas audience, UK indie label New Heavy Sounds remixed the album, beefing up the overall sound and subsequently gave it a broader distribution. The resulting ‘Under The Strawberry Moon 2.0’ isn’t just heavy. It isn’t just doomy. It’s positively devastating.

It’s eight songs create a wall of sound that makes many sludge and doom bands appear half-hearted, with it’s opening track, ‘Black Moon’, sounding especially effective in it’s slow and menacing approach. From the outset, slow riffs are churned out, creating an ominous musical backdrop, before quickening pace slightly to ensure the heaviness has a semblance of melody. With the assistance of hugely distorted drums, ghosts from previous Melvins and Conan works collide with a real anger…and it’s an instant classic. Vocally, things are interesting too: the presence of a female voice shifts everything a step closer to Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard, but unlike those Welsh stoners, the voices are treated with echoes and distortion for extra unease, and with a heavy accent Yuko drifts between witch like howls, ugly and atonal croons and full on hardcore yelps – occasionally even with a pinch of a black metal influence for extra spookiness. There’s a chorus buried beneath the sludge, always giving the feeling of an actual song desperate to escape, but the riff is king…and by the time the original riff returns for a final round of crushing doom before tailing off into distortion and feedback, there’s no doubt that this has been a job well done. Shifting the mood away from doom and into heavy fuzz, ‘Hidden Garden’ at first presents a riff that sounds like Black Sabbath’s ‘Electric Funeral’ dressed in devastingly heavy wah-wah pedals, making it more accessible than the previous track in an instant. The fuzzy, wah-ed tones are just brilliant…but just as you’ve become attuned to those, the track shifts into a solid, chuggy riff that sounds like a Japanese garage band channelling the very best moments of Black Moth. With a warbling, impassioned vocal, there’s enough of a human edge to counterbalance the wall of noise, while huge crashing drums reinforce the rawness of the recording. With the Sabbath-y riff eventually returning as a bed for a wantonly ugly solo before the track descends into more hardcore punk yelps and thrashier guitar work, a huge amount of ground is covered within just three and a half minutes, making this an instant highlight.

With two superb tracks giving album a very strong footing from the outset, everything then takes a detour into even darker places. ‘Spoon’ begins as if it’s a fuzz blues experiment, before cymbal-less, tribal drumming and deep fuzzy noises steer everything away from straight doom. With a more stripped back feel and increased focus on the drums, the tune feels strangely occultish and the inclusion of Japanese lyrics being crooned behind echoing filters really increases the feeling of the other worldly. Huge, crushing doom riffs eventually reappear and steer the number towards a heavy pounding fuzz metal freakout accompanied by insane shrieks, by which time, all of the weaker-willed listeners may be ready to move on. In fact, they probably already have. For those willing to go the distance, ‘Symptom of The BlackLab’ provides the next highlight and proves that for all of their intensities, the duo aren’t without humour. This short instrumental borrows riffs from Black Sabbath’s title song and – more obviously – ‘Symptom of The Universe’ and twists them to their own ends, which in this case, is three minutes worth of intensive fuzz punctuated by the sounds of a ridiculously loud snare. It’s essentially a long intro for the spooky ‘Warm Death’ which crawls across seven minutes with the obtuseness of early Melvins colluding with the heaviness of Boris. Such a slow workout allows a few cleaner guitar sounds to bolster the verses, which results in something more even more uneasy than ‘Spoon’. The quiet vocals sound like a cry; the aggressive vocals turn to hardcore shrieks to make their point. With a minimalist tune that’s sometimes barely a tune at all, it’s a surprise that this manages to be so appealing. At the point things sound as if they could fall apart, BlackLab usher in a far more traditional metal riff – three parts sludge, one part Fu Manchu – thus giving the album one of its greatest grooves. While it won’t have a mass appeal, for those who get Black Lab at this point, this’ll be a favourite, as will ‘His Name Is…’, a far simpler affair driven by a swaggering riff that sounds like Black Moth played back through enormous broken speaker cabinets. In terms of distorted sludgy metal, this track doesn’t especially think outside of the box, but since so much more of the album draws from more obtuse sources, it’s a real pleasure just to experience Yuko and Chia rocking out in a more traditional fashion.

Moving towards the end of the album, ‘Fall & Rise’, too, opts for simplicity over flash, with Yuko’s distorted voice belting out over a classic Kirk Windstein inspired riff, on a tune that’s all crawling, dirge laden chords and plodding drums – maximum trad doom here – before the epic ten minute closer, ‘Big Muff’ utilises as much ugliness and distortion as its title implies. There’s more distortion in the four minute intro alone than the rest of the album combined – this is real instrument abuse, with dials all cranked past eleven. At the four minute mark, you’ll finally realise that the slow distorted grinding isn’t actually an intro at all… The slowness shifts into ugly chopping sounds and eventually morphs into improvised distortion manipulation, as per Neil Young’s ‘Arc’, only four times uglier. By seven minutes, the distorted noises begin to resemble slow doomy riffs once more and by nine everything’s fallen apart into a clattering mess. If viewed as an art piece, it’s easy to see why this closes the record; if viewed as a listening pleasure, like The Distillers’ ‘Deathsex’, you’ll only ever listen to this track all the way through once… When the silence eventually comes, it’s disorienting; it genuinely feels as if you’ve been subjected to a sensory assault.

This isn’t for everyone, but for those who love riffs, fuzz and the unique slant that Japanese bands often bring to their art, ‘Strawberry Moon 2.0’ is an unmissable experience. …And it is exactly that: far more of an experience than an ordinary metal album. It’s a genuine mindbender… For those strong enough to take on this musical challenge: you’ll love it, but prepare to feel mentally and physically drained afterwards.

August 2018