Leviathan – True Traitor, True Whore

By Kyle Harcott

I won’t recount here the charges and accusations leveled at Jef Whitehead. If you’re reading this, chances are you already know the story, and the man’s upcoming trial will sort out the truth of his innocence or guilt. Whitehead, aka Wrest, the one-man force behind Leviathan, in the wake of/in answer to such heinous charges, has released True Traitor, True Whore, a soundscape of venomous, mordant spite. The main controversy surrounding the record lies in its unapologetic wrath, as it hammers home a vengeful ugliness shrouded in mystery, enigmatic as it is vitriolic.

There’s an unflinching smear of Whitehead’s rancid acrimony all over the album, granting an uneasy verity to the malevolence and disgust contained in the music – this is not playacting at being ‘evil’. I sense that there is much hatred spilled across the eight tracks here, nowhere more prevalent than the cryptic vocals. Intentionally guttural, garbled, and buried in effects – at times, Whitehead wrestles sounds from his voice akin to a trapped animal trying to gnaw off its own wounded limb; at others, it’s the sound of a man possessed of such a black and bilious hatred he is incapable of containing it and has no choice but to vomit it forth until there is nothing left to retch up. Though few lyrics have been published (and only those most obtuse lines at that), little assumption is required to glean the sentiments in tracks with titles like “Her Circle is the Noose” and “Every Orifice Yawning Her Price”.

Musically, while True Traitor, True Whore is rooted in black metal -as dragged through a mire of nightmarish black psychedelia- it’s too experimental to be labeled as anything so straight-ahead. The record runs the gamut as it incorporates avant-psychedelic passages, as well as experimental progression within its bleak and damnable structure. There’s the chaos-nightmare blasting of “True Whorror”, while “Her Circle Is the Noose” ascends to otherworldly pitch-black space-psych. “Brought Up to the Bottom” incorporates howling noise-rock fury with guitar lines that recall ‘90s no-wave; “Shed This Skin” writhes, descending a downward spiral that explodes into blastbeat fury at the halfway mark. “Harlot Rises” invokes stomach-churning psychedelic acoustic guitar and vague Floyd-isms between its frothing black passages, and album closer “Blood Red and True” sets itself apart from the rest of the record, lurching straight forward with a thunderous, monolithic stomp.

In light of its history and also its eclecticism, True Traitor, True Whore is not an easy, straight-ahead listen – careening wildly down forked paths of experimentation as it does. But the things I found most challenging about it at first, are also the things I eventually came to regard as most rewarding about it. Without question, 2011’s most controversial metal record is also one of its finest.

(Profound Lore)

Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.

  • http://www.nataliezed.ca Natalie Zed

    Kyle,

    This is, of course, an extremely well-written review, as your readers have come to expect from you. You give the album an intelligent, nuanced treatment.

    The only line I disagree with is this: “I won’t recount here the charges and accusations levelled at Jef Whitehead. If you’re reading this, chances are you already know the story, and the man’s upcoming trial will sort out the truth of his innocence or guilt.”

    For those unaware, this is what Whitehead is accused of: http://www.suntimes.com/news/crime/3229375-418/according-whitehead-police-tattoo-report.html

    Because of the nature of his (alleged) crimes, combined with the content of this album, I don’t believe it is possible, or ethical, to separate this artist’s life/actions/politics from his music. Listening to/ engaging with/reviewing this Leviathan album violates every ethical boundary that I have. It’s not something that I could do, and isn’t something I believe is correct. I am extremely disappointed that the album is getting as much attention as it is, in print and online, from outlets and writers that I otherwise respect.

    In a brief conversation on Twitter, you stated that: “It took me several weeks of listening and going over this in my head to determine if I was okay with writing about it. If the man is convicted, I will re-evaluate my stance on his music at that time.”

    I don’t think that you’re alone, Kyle, in taking this position. This appears to be the stance most publishers and media platforms have adopted. I believe, firmly, that when it comes to legal proceedings, of course everyone is innocent until proven guilty. But when it involves the music we choose to listen to, and when the crime is of such a horrific, violent, hateful nature (his bond was 100k, so the police clearly believe that they have something to go on), giving attention, time, and space to this album is not right.

    To put it in simpler terms: you say that a conviction will change your mind, that you would rather listen to the music now and reserve judgement. Respectfully, and still with great affection for you as a person, I completely disagree. You are saying that you cannot, in good conscience, ignore an album that may be aesthetically good because of an alleged crime. Instead, you have opted to take the risk of writing about, and celebrating, the work of a man who may be proven to be a violent rapist.

    I think your priorities, in this specific instance, are wrong, as are the priorities of everyone who has written about, listened to, promoted or released True Traitor, True Whore before an official legal ruling on the case is determined. There is other music to listen to, other brilliant records written by artists who have not (allegedly) beaten and sexually assaulted their girlfriends with a tattoo gun. It seems that most people would rather not think about it, would rather make every effort to separate the person, his actions and the controversy from the album. In the end, that is not something I can comfortably do, and I am honestly disappointed that so many are capable of disassociating themselves in this way.

  • http://www.writingisfighting.com Lainad

    Amen, Natalie.

    And Kyle, this is not directed to you personally, but I agree with Natalie’s sentiments. I think that the larger problem with this issue is being subjective in our thought processes – which in some ways, is perfectly natural to a point, but when it comes to emotional/verbal/physical/sexual abuse of women and/or minorities (religious, ethno-cultural, etc), it seems pretty easy for many to make those kind of comments,like “well, it doesn’t affect me, so it doesn’t matter.”

    When talking about music, espcially a musical genre in which community is essential in keeping it alive and thriving this type of thought-process is really hypocritical. I wrote over at Invisible Oranges that I wondered what female metal fans thought about this particular album, and someone wrote that they were offended that “women listeners” as a collective should be offended, as though we were weak, hypersensitive victims who could be easily distraught by this type of thing. But it isn’t that.

    Physical violence against women should not be dismissed over some guy’s “freedom of speech.” I sincerely do hope that Whitehead is innocent of the charges, but what concerns me is the theme of the album in which he uses to excorcise his anger and hurt over the accusations. Did the people around him who assisted him in this album think it was okay? Did the record label think to themselves, ‘dude, do you think that perhaps this is going to offend people and potentially be used against you when your case goes to court? Did anyone wonder about the messages within the title and within the track titles it says to women black metal fans? To me it says that the metal community is only for white men – or men in general, which is not the case. It also says that it is okay to call a woman a whore, simply because you want to, that we do not matter unless we are in servitude to our metal boyfriends.

    Bullshit.

  • Jon

    Cheers to both of you, Natalie and Laina, for bringing this issue up here. Kyle, this is a well-written review, and I hope you agree that its quality and your presented points mean that it’s a valid starting point from which this discussion can happen.

    The issues and dilemmas that everyone here has brought up are ones that I’ve had to deal with as a black metal fan and supporter. It’s a genre that, at its best, criticizes the most banal and hypocritical aspects of mainstream culture. Even though there is disagreement within the scene about what kind of world people want to see, the genre’s most powerful potential is dulled when people simply reinforce through actions or silence the kind of abusive crap that is around us everyday. Whether Whitehead is innocent or guilty doesn’t change the fact that the scene’s reluctance to comment on his case makes black metal seem as hypocritical as the culture it challenges and rages against. It’s a problem that white male fans like myself can often ignore instances like these in the name of art, whereas other fans, particularly women, can’t necessarily.

  • Kyle

    Natalie, Laina and Jon –
    Thank you for your insightful responses. As you are all writers I respect a great deal, know that I heartily appreciate many of your counterpoints and the discussion they open up. When I was asked by Sean to review the Leviathan record, I knew that to do so would not be without its hazards, but I had hoped I could tackle the review in such a way that did not offend, and so accepted the challenge. As I mentioned to Natalie on Twitter, it took a lot of mental wrestling to write something I felt appropriately summed up my personal reaction to the music.

    In complete honesty, the ONLY reason I did not retell the charges against Whitehead in my record review was because I figured anyone reading a Leviathan review at Hellbound was likely in-the-know enough to be aware of them already. That’s all. It was obviously not some sneering, callous, sexist attempt to downplay or dismiss what are heinous charges.

    I have to ask all of you (because, in your comments, I strongly feel you have called my own values into question) – is there nothing remotely questionable in any of your music collections? Not one piece of music by a morally-questionable artist with possibly repugnant personal beliefs or attitudes? No death-metal albums with ‘just-joking’ songs about being stripped, raped and mutilated, or fucked with a knife? No hardcore albums by performers known for making homophobic statements? No black metal albums by…? You get the picture. I hate to go here, but I do have to wonder where the outraged comments were earlier in the year when Hellbound was publishing interviews with unapologetic convicted murderer Varg Vikernes, and reviews of his newest Burzum record. Those pieces in particular are free from outraged comment by any Team Hellbounder as far as I can see.

    My point is, just as reading an incendiary Bible passage doesn’t make me want to go off on a crusade to convert or kill non-christians, or enjoying Wagner’s ‘Walkürenritt’ doesn’t turn me into a foaming anti-semite, listening to –enjoying, even- the new Leviathan record doesn’t make me a misogynist, nor does it brand me a defender or sympathizer in the slightest with batterers and rapists (alleged or otherwise), and I bristle with offense at the very suggestion that it does. I can sharply draw the distinction between art and artist, and if any of you met me in person, you’d be able to glean within a very short time that I am reasonable, moral, relatively politically-correct, and yes, even feminist – even if I occasionally enjoy music by artists that many would deem reprehensible.

    I applaud your personal choice to actively denounce and ignore the music of Leviathan, and I will defend vehemently your right to do so. I do not even expect you to defend (or even attempt to grudgingly accept) my choice to enjoy the album, but I would have expected slightly more benefit-of-the-doubt from people I consider respected colleagues in writing about extreme music.

  • http://www.lainad.typepad.com Lainad

    Hey Kyle,

    First, as I mentioned, even though I can understand why you might feel so, this wasn’t a personal slight. I do feel though that you, like others who have reviewed this album, were writing from your personal reaction and not thinking so clearly about how others would react in relation to supporting a questionable album. As I mentioned in my comment that this is a natural and subjective reaction, but troublesome as well. It seemed as though it was ” am I going to catch shit for this” versus, “I feel that the theme of this album is problematic.”

    I do resent the straw-man arguments of ” well what do YOU have in your record collection?” “Where were you when the Burzum interview / review was published by Hellbound?”

    First, I make a conscious effort not to purchase music by artists who have made public pronouncements on their questionable views on race gender or right-wing political views in public. I have written a book that will be out next year that is partially centred on this issue, as in, can we separate the artist from the music they create? Do we need to blacklist every artist who is not perfect in our eyes? I agree, it is a very difficult question. As someone who is a racial and social activist who writes and works to promote equality among everyone, and someone who is just as passionate about that as I am about extreme music, I have hit this wall several times.

    We cannot know what everyone is thinking. And while everyone is entitled to their views on whatever, as long as those views ARE NOT MADE PUBLIC and do not compel them to physically or verbally abuse other people and or threaten violence, What can I do? I do not know the personal backgrounds of all the musicians that I listen to. But I will discard the music of those in which I have found out things that are against what I believe. And I have.

    I refuse to financially support racists, bigots, homophobes and misogynists. I will not write about them, either – even commenting on this post is something I would rather avoid, as we are doing exactly what the artist and record label want – giving them promotion. Have I photographed a few? Probably, based on the dirty and stunned looks I occasionally get in the photo pit at a show. If you read the post I did for Hellbound on the MetalSucks piece a couple of months ago, you will understand why I feel this way. And I am not going to apologize or back down from what I believe.

    About Burzum: Sean (Hellbound EIC) contacted me privately and let me know when the interview was going up. He knew that I have some serious issues with that artist. Because of that (I do not know what he thought I would do – me being an angry black woman and all) I shared with him my concerns, and that was it. He knew that I have written about Varg Vikernes on my blog, and out of respect for him, I didn’t think it was worth it. But generally, yeah, I feel the same way about him – who has been public with his views – as I do about the THEME of this particular album.

    Please do not think that I/we are singling you out. It’s not about you, Kyle, because I personally do not know you at all – it’s about this particular album and the frustration of writers essentially dismissing the problematic issues surrounding this album.

  • http://www.kingdomofnoise.blogspot.com MetalMatt

    Incredibly well written. Makes my review read like it’s written with crayon. If any album deserves so many big words, it’s this one. I too did not make mention of the accusations against the artist. As with Burzum, I prefer to let the music speak for itself regardless of the personal life of those involved in its creation. Although in some cases, that personal life is directly reflected in the music.
    I’ve been up for almost 27 hours so I didn’t read all the comments above but I trust they all are full of valid points.

    Keep up the good work!

  • Jon

    Kyle,

    Please don’t interpret my points as an attack on your individual values as a reviewer/consumer. I’m pleased to see both your review and the subsequent comments together here on Hellbound. If an album with as much controversy behind it as this one is seen as important enough to be reviewed, then I hope this space is also as good as any other to have the debate that goes with it. My point was that we black metal fans need to be willing to talk frankly about the controversy that the genre so often courts and acknowledge that the art is not objective (and neither are reviews of it). We all decide for ourselves what our personal boundaries are when it comes to this kind of material, but I don’t think it’s wrong to expect to be challenged on those decisions. I think that’s much better than either censorship or avoiding the issues altogether. I stand by and share Laina’s and Natalie’s concerns, but I would rather see your review appear here and have it generate intelligent discussion than not have it appear at all.

    To answer your point about what’s lurking in my metal collection, I’ve had to think long and hard about some of the stuff I’ve owned. I’ve often taken into consideration the work itself, the artists behind it, and the contexts in which it was produced. I don’t want to monetarily support or promote artists who seem seriously committed to beliefs or who commit actions with which I have strong ethical disagreements. I’ve gotten rid of a lot of music as a result, but I also have no illusions about or interest in “scrubbing clean” my music collection. For me it’s an on-going relationship I have with the genre(s).

    With regard to why no one commented on Burzum being discussed here on Hellbound, at the time I too had discussed with our EIC my disagreements with Vikernes’ personal views. That said, knowing that not everyone shares my views on the matter, I would rather see the interviews/reviews posted than not have them appear just because they’re concerning a controversial person. Vikernes has been discussed for a long time and in many places, and he himself has cleared up any confusion about his own views and openly acknowledged that people who don’t agree with him are free to decide for themselves whether or not they will listen to his work. If only all artists were so forthcoming!

    The situation behind this Leviathan album has not really been discussed by either Whitehead or anyone else as of yet. The crime that Whitehead is charged with speaks to the possibility of violence or misogynistic attitudes that most women face all the time and through no fault of their own. “True Traitor, True Whore”‘s lyrics are just generalized enough that, combined with what Whitehead is accused of, it’s not surprising that there are people who are not willing to see it as just an artistic statement. If Whitehead is found innocent that might change the context within which this album will be viewed, but right now the associations he’s made between his personal beliefs and his music are not good.

  • http://www.gruesomeviews.com Gruesome Greg

    Wow, just read the Sun-Times story, and this guy seems like an even bigger douche than Varg. Good thing I don’t listen to black metal–moral dilemma averted!

    Mind you, I did get rid of all my Thee Plague of Gentlemen albums a little while back. And by get rid of, I mean played frisbee with them off my balcony. I also made sure to ensure that “Dave Holland is a kid diddler” was written backwards on all my recent Priest Revisited reviews. Wait, wrong website…

    So uh, yeah. :P

    Peace,

    Greg