Ever since the release of their self-financed ‘Advorsus’ in 2016, Sheffield’s Kurokuma have marked themselves out as one of the UK’s heaviest bands. Across a series of EP releases over the next few years, their uncompromising blend of sludge, doom and hardcore has gained them a very loyal cult following.
The band’s first full length, 2022’s ‘Born of Obsidian’, has plenty of weight, but also allows the trio to really stretch out. It’s five numbers retain a sludgy core, but there are times within their heavy framework where the lengthy workouts take unexpected twists, showing the musicians to have a far more expansive set of influences than some of their Crowbar and Melvins loving peers. The intro to the opening number ‘Smoking Mirror’ is a case in point, since it opens with a quirky jazz drum part and clean bass, setting everything in place with more of a groove than anything previously shared from the Kurokuma universe. Even when the expected heaviness kicks in – which it inevitably does several bars later – drummer Joe Allen keeps the rhythm going underneath the sledgehammer guitar sound, which in turn, actually has a much sharper tone than previous Kurokuma works have ever suggested. Those with keener ears will also spot that this recording boasts a much cleaner mix which really allows these newer musical experiments to flourish. Part of its relative sheen (and it is relative, since the band are still as heavy as bugger and not at all commercial) comes via a much more expensive production courtesy of Sanford Parker, known for his work with Eyehategod and Chris Connelly, which really adds something to the overall professionalism. The belated arrival of a hardcore inflected vocal, meanwhile, makes everything feel as if everyone’s pulling in three directions, but it really works in terms of aggressive metal. However, by the time everything speeds up, the hardcore and doom hybrid asserts itself as classic Kurokuma, so there’ll be no need for the narrow minded listener to consider this in any way a “sell out”, and once an ominously spooky guitar solo – sounding like Lamb of God’s Mark Morton channelling the ghost of Jeff Hanneman – brings a huge musical shift, giving the doomy metal an almost progressive feel, there’s every feeling that this is the work of a band at peak confidence. Elements of an Egyptian tinged melody add plenty of colour to a heavy sound, but venturing into even darker places, the final passage finds Kurokuma almost revert to type as the guitars adopt a much sludgier tone, throwing out a few Sabbath and Crowbar-centric riffs in a massive, monolithic style as Joe smashes his kit into oblivion, helping to drive a very repetitive riff towards its inevitable demise. In terms of opening statements, this does everything you’d hope for and more, showing how much these Sheffield lads have grown musically since their last days on the road in a pre-pandemic age. It’s genuinely terrific, a recap of Kurokuma’s heavier traits and more besides, sending ‘Born of Obsidian’ out with best foot forward.
Following a massive crack of snare, ‘Sacrifice’ powers forward with a repetitive, chopping riff – part threat, all volume – recycling the same sound over and over until the point it starts to feel tiring and a bit obtuse, and then Kurokuma switch gears for one of the greatest sludge riffs they’ve laid down to date. A few bars of said riff is enough to signify this tune as a classic with an insanely heavy tone, and returning to the previous riff coupled with an equally strong hardcore vocal, the groove grows into a progressive sludgebeast that shows off a great power. Eventually finding time for a burst of thrash, it very much feels as if most of Kurokuma’s finest traits have been wedged into these four minutes. It’s so heavy and oppressive, though, it’s actually hard to believe that it isn’t twice as long as it actually is. Looking at it another way: if the riffs appear to be that demanding, the band are certainly doing something right!
The best moments of this album come when the band are unafraid to experiment, and ‘Jaguar’ definitely shows a side to Kurokuma that’s previous been fairly well hidden. Dominated by an almost funk derived bass groove, the track opens with an almost dance-able rhythm – part world music, part funk rock, part prog rock. Here, a world of clean toned guitars lend a spooky tone to the drum-heavy sounds with the trio unleashing their inner David Byrne. Eventually, they revert to something more expected by applying a really distorted guitar, and this, coupled with a world of hardcore shouts and almost black metal derived screeching provides another brilliant example of how their brand of extreme metal has been unafraid to grow. By the time an instrumental break arrives, the core sound feels like a jam between Kylesa, Tool and Godsticks, all underscored by the ongoing tribal groove. With some extra percussion elements derived from Brazilian rhythms, the influence from classic Sepultura becomes as obvious as a flying mallet, and when thrown together in this way and heavied up by about three hundred percent, it’s insanely cool. Despite some obvious influences, it’s anything but derivative, though, and the opportunity to be immersed by the weighty guitar sound throughout is most welcome. If anything, ‘Under The Fifth Sun’ shifts almost into autopilot at first, with more obvious Sepultura influences at its heart, but on this nine minute jam, there’s more than first meets the ear. A transition from sludge into an almost shoegaze/blackgaze noise adds yet more intensity to the Kurokuma palate, and the way they use that sheet of unrelenting distortion to weave the sonic tapestry of heavy prog, a pinch of psych and shoegaze into something very much of their own making further suggests a band branching out far beyond their expected sludge metal tropes.
Even though the sheer quality of ‘Mirrors of Obsidian’ makes it hard to pick easy highlights, time shows ‘Ololiqui’ to be the album’s most enduring track – and certainly one that’s broadly representative of Kurokuma’s huge arsenal of sounds. It features a truckload more Brazilian elements mixing with massive, sludgy riffs in keeping with the rest of the disc, but there’s also a lot about its overdriven approach and crashing drum part that calls back to older Kurokuma recordings, since an even heavier heart that brings some extra sludge when needed. A clean almost film score-like accompaniment from a second guitar part and fat grumbling bass ensure nothing feels safe or stale, whilst a throat-rawing vocal (more in line with side project Bible Basher) seems intent on sending weak willed listeners running for the hills. It’s all brilliant, but for the uninitiated it could feel like a very long slog until the track’s most exciting elements rise via a groove metal riff played by the sludgiest bass you’ll ever hear and a doom/harcore crossover riff drives an impressive climax. For those able to make it that far, it promises a genuine treat. With everything pulled mercilessly across a slow eight minutes, this track shows a tighter and far more fearless band at work.
Such are the intensities of the band’s core sound, it always worked well when delivered in an EP format – three or four numbers and about fifteen minutes to be the optimum for effectively pummelling your audience into submission. That’s not to say this full length isn’t great – it’s superb – but less those blessed with less hardy ears might well find this quite hard going in one sitting. Approached as two EP’s the aural assault works so much better, since a break midway (as if getting up to turn the record over) allows for some important reflection and an almost necessary recharge. It’s safe to say, though, that ‘Born of Obsidian’ will appeal to most of Kurokuma’s fans, and is certainly strong enough – and just about varied enough – to be considered their first truly essential work. A heavy, intense, and very smart slab of metal.