Shub Niggurath: Testament

Shub Niggurath: a mysterious name for a mysterious band, who have come up with one of the most perversely compelling albums I have heard in a long time. It transpires that they were named after a demon created by the horror writer HP Lovecraft, and were active in France from the mid-80s to the mid-90s. During that time they released two albums, Les Morts Vont Vite in 1986 and C’Etaient de Très Grandes Vents in 1991. They continued to record until the sad death of bassist Alain Ballaud in 1995, and Testament collects those recordings for the first time. Ballaud’s death is particularly cruel, since on the evidence provided here Shub Niggurath were a group at the height of their powers.

The album contains ten untitled tracks, varying in length from two to ten minutes. Despite the three-year period covered by the recordings, they sound very much of a piece with each other. This is key to the album’s appeal, which lies in the creation of an atmosphere of bewitching heaviness.

In fact, Testament is the music that the largest black hole in the universe must emanate as it remorselessly devours everything around it. Guitarist Jean-Luc Hervé delivers huge, chordal block riffs that lay the foundation for splintering, angular solos, while the late Ballaud’s sub-bass rumbles vie for headspace with Edward Perraud’s powerhouse free drumming. It’s as if the 1973-4 line-up of King Crimson has been pressed into service as the house band in Hell, with Hervé acting as Fripp to Ballaud’s Wetton and Perraud’s Bruford. And just as David Cross’s weedy violin lines marred some of Crimson’s output, so Veronique Verdier’s tentative and unnecessary trombone provides the only faltering moments on this album.

There’s plenty of assured group improvisation here, loading the core trio’s interplay with an exploratory, organic feel. This is especially evident on the first and quietest track, in which spare percussion edges restlessly around subterranean bass throb and eldritch metallic scraping. By the second track the guitar and drums have really kicked in, with great towering structures of fuzz and sustain recalling Ascension or an amped-up AMM. The pace barely lets up over the rest of the album, as the music becomes ever denser and more ominous. These extended freeform workouts left this listener awestruck, humbled and fighting for breath.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 12, 2004)