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When I was first introduced to the entity known as Stalaggh a few years ago, the Dutch blacknoise maniacs crawled under my skin immediately. Couldn't really come up with a precedent for what they were doing, taking recordings of the screams and wails of mental patients and layering them against a fearsome tableau of dissonant skull-scraping noise, Merzbow levels of grinding harsh feedback and heaps of low-fi improvised black doom all but hidden by their thick curtains of demonic skree. It certainly made for some demented, evil sounding noise, and the three albums that they released made up a suffocating, bizarre body of work that seemed to challenge even the mighty Abruptum for the crown of nihilistic, abstract black horror.
In 2008, the band announced that they were going to alter their sound and change their name to Gulaggh, with the new incarnation of the band now focusing on creating their terrifying soundscapes using orchestral instruments instead of the blackened ultra-harsh distortion and feedback of their previous works. And while their new sound isn't as harsh or oppressive as the Stalaggh material, Gulaggh has managed to create something that is equally disturbing and nightmarish with their debut album Vorkuta, resembling some strange fusion of abstract European improv and the howling background sounds from an exorcism ritual.
The first in a planned trilogy of albums, Vorukta was first released in 2009 by New Era Productions. The album went out of print, but has now been resurrected by Crucial Blast in a revised package for newcomers to Gulaggh's otherworldly dissonant dread. Comprised of a single 45 minute track, the band crafts an epic surrealistic sound-collage formed from violins, saxophones, trumpets, electronics and voices. It begins with what sounds like a old recording of a Russian voice, distorted and echoing, played over a surface of noisy hiss and scraped metal while a far-off kettledrums rumbles in the distance. As the album continues, more sounds appear, stretched out metallic scrapes and deep bass rumblings, sheets of grimy drift and gleaming electronic glitches, and soon the voices begin to enter, the moans and wails of anguished voices merging with the ominous murky ambience, followed by brass horns bleating and straining, violins plucked and scraped, that booming baleful tympani quickening it's thunderous throb, lowing strings resonating below, flute-like whistles wheezing while the throng of screaming, groaning voices becomes louder and more prominent, slowly and inexorably ratcheting up the atmosphere of fear and sickness that hangs over Gulaggh's bizarre aural nightmare.
This bleating, honking, scraping din is like a cross between some demonic chamber ensemble tuning up and a free-jazz group achieving maximum dissonance. Things get really chaotic halfway through when the voices start to swarm in at once and a lone drummer enters the picture, pounding out frenetic free-improv rhythms while the mass of cries and howls and atonal instruments climbs to a fever pitch. The last ten minutes of Vorkuta slowly melts into a din of screaming children (themselves patients from a youth mental hospital) and furious honking horns and scuttling percussion swirling together, like some insane Ayler session drowning in bedlam, and then the sound fades out on a dark drifting fog of droning reeds and depleted horns and low voices, finally coming to a close when that sinister voice from the beginning of the album reappears and brings this in a full circle.
Intensely harrowing and deeply creepy, Vorkuta is one of the more uncomfortable listens I've experienced with its equal parts hellish free-improv, dissonant chamber horror and intensely disturbing sound collage. This new Crucial Blast edition comes in black digipack with metallic silver printing, and is also available for the first time as a high quality digital album.