Rupskallex // Black Wings // Album Review

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Black Wings, released September 10th 2021, is the second full-length release from Rupskallex, the unpredictable metal project from one-man-maniac Dan Clarke. A death metal vein generally runs through all Rupskallex releases to date, but it’s one of very few connecting threads linking them all together. Black Wings itself is “blackened thrash metal exploring struggles of ill mental health,” among other topics, while the debut self-titled EP (2019) and first full-length album, Resistance (2020), can only come under the banner of sci-fi-death metal, set against the backdrop of space travel, interstellar warfare, and “horrifying aliens,” complete with occasional beacon sound effects and the like to help set the scene. In contrast to the otherworldly nature of those two space themed efforts, the Pandemic EP (2020), written and released amidst you-know-what, is a more down to earth offering, though to a possibly discomforting degree: it contains ‘Cough Attack’, a track which opens with a seemingly innocuous cough then proceeds to depict the song’s subject going through the stages of covid death, then follows this up with the EP’s closing segment; a totally unexpected, tonally opposite piano passage that wouldn’t be out of place amongst Chopin or Beethoven pieces. Perhaps surprising even himself, two days after the release of Black Wings, Clarke released Sub Oceanum (2021), an aquatic four-song deep sea dive featuring snippets of whalesong amongst brutal, glacially heavy, Gojira-like riffs. Talk about impossible to pin down.

Spreading black wings over bleak territory, Rupskallex’s second full-length effort covers a range of issues and topics pertaining to the darker side of modern life and human nature in general, which (spoiler alert) is a curse, according to the title track. There are songs on the record that deal largely with mental health struggles, including but not limited to anxiety, depression, paranoia, isolation, alienation, panic, and suicidal ideation, as well as the external factors that can lead to internal suffering, such as the alienating, often depersonalising nature of modern working life within the current ‘wealth before health’ economic climate, as well as the lack of adequate public services and help available to surmount the darkness within before it can potentially become all-consuming and fatal.

Alongside these are tracks in which rage, frustration, and spite are unleashed in a whirlwind of misanthropy that “goes straight for the jugular in a venomous, blackened strike toward the world.” Sometimes the targets of these brutal, no-holds-barred attacks seem singular persons, while other times they appear to be society in general and the world at large.

The album also features what has to be the best song ever written about that time a double decker bus was burnt out at the top of the Shankill Road.

Consisting of eleven tracks including a closing instrumental piece, Black Wings includes four songs found on previous releases, like the demo version of ‘Joke’s on Me’ which appeared on last year’s Freebies EP.

The album opens with the title track, which, perhaps unexpectedly, begins with a genuinely beautiful piano piece. The tone is bright and the tempo unrushed, creating an almost tranquil effect. The melody itself is half-sad, especially when a subtle bass starts to creep underneath, accompanying the keys. What comes as no surprise is that we’re in calm-before-the-storm territory, and after a quiet minute, the song explodes into life, with a snare hit that sounds like a bullet being shot out of a gun pressed against your ear. Alongside this come sprawling guitar notes amidst unholy vocals proclaiming ‘black wings of death’ before ferocious blast beats and tremolo picking underpin an agony-filled scream capable of making a bald man’s hair stand on end. The break-neck pace gives way to more mid-paced fare for the song’s verses, which wrangle with existentialism and hopelessness, before it picks up speed again for the chorus, the first of which afterbirths a stunning solo – a relative rarity across the album’s concise thirty-five minute runtime. Almost acting as arias, the song ends with the same piano refrain that it opened with, this time played in reverse.

What is immediately evident after the end of the first song is that the album’s production is exceptional. The vocals are effective, raspy shrieks, but clear enough for the lyrics to be perceptible. The guitar tone itself is one of the highlights of the entire album. Crunchy and distorted, with a weight to it that it carries well, it also retains full melodic faculty, with its trebles mixed well against the mids and lows. It gives the impression of being the sonic equivalent of an angel trying to crawl its way out of hell, nails scratching crag walls, bright luminescence trying not to be swallowed by infinite darkness. The guitars, drums, and vocals are spread nicely in the mix, all three channels complimenting each other with none of them having to fight for clarity. For the most part the bass rests in the background, pounding away under the drumming, which for many is precisely what it’s supposed to be doing, but there are a few moments peppered throughout where it comes to the fore and snags a few bars all to itself.

The title track gives way to ‘Night’, a solid song detailing the symptoms and causes of panic attacks, spat out in a manner sometimes reminiscent of a harsher ‘Sweating Bullets’ style Mustaine. The song is carried by steady riffs and a great melodic chorus. Next comes ‘Joke’s on Me’, which opens with a lonesome bass pluck under which a kick drum starts thumping, together giving the effect of a clock ticking down, of time running out; the song itself decrees that “all you know will destroy itself.” When it gets going the double-bass drumming hammers away, barely stopping until the bass steals the limelight for a while, providing some breathing room until the rest of the musical elements return underneath a repeated mantra of hopelessness.

In perhaps another Megadeth-inspired moment, ‘N(o)ne’ opens with a guitar riff/drum combo that echoes that of ‘Kill the King’. Like many others found throughout Black Wings, the apparent acceptance of defeat, almost grieving quality of the screams of the song’s chorus of ‘we

are one, we are none’ crawls under the skin, like the shrill cry of an animal left alone following the death of kin, the sort of emotion depicted visually in August Freidrich Schenck’s masterful 1878 oil painting ‘Anguish’.

One of the album’s strongest songs also happens to be one of the world’s most unique, because of the incredibly specific nature of the subject matter. After the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, the already relatively precarious nature of political and cultural tensions within Northern Ireland became even more precarious following the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which was intended to avoid a hard border being put in place between the north and south of Ireland, requiring checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain but not on goods entering the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland. This closer economic alignment with the EU was viewed by many Unionists and Loyalists (those who favour NI staying part of the UK rather than uniting with RoI) as being a hard border between the north of Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, and it invoked a sense of betrayal. Despite generally-speaking being the ones who predominantly voted for Brexit, they’re unwilling to accept the Northern Ireland Protocol, and in its wake, there were incidents of aggression, intimidation, rioting, and violence throughout the region, including the hijacking of a public bus that was then set ablaze.

‘Unrest’, the fifth track of Black Wings, was written about this incendiary set of circumstances as well as the general terror-strewn stalemate-of-sorts that has existed since the 1998 Belfast Agreement ended most of the violence of the Troubles. The song is scathing. Observing the situation, Clarke is seething when he asks, ‘How can you justify civilians marked as targets, all because […] you got what you wanted?’

Taking a look at the puppetry that led to the situation, Clarke highlights that people had been ‘manipulated [and] played for fools’ but attempts to remind people that violence and harming innocent people ‘is not a fitting means to make some sort of point’, ultimately reiterating that ‘there is no reason for violence as culture [and] there is no reason society should suffer’.

His ability to take a relatively complex situation, especially to those unfamiliar with the situation, and address varying strands of it succinctly and creatively all the while delivering an eviscerating amount of contempt through the lyrics and vocal delivery, is astounding. And, it’s an excellent song, to boot. As unrelenting as the situation seems to be – ‘standing on the powder keg’, in his words – the guitars and drums of the faster sections act like an attack of their own, while the stinging single notes during the verses almost act as pointing fingers jabbing this way and that as he berates those responsible for the situation.

In contrast to the complex nature and context of ‘Unrest’, ‘Relentless’ is a short and simple, straight-to-the-point lambasting of an unnamed person or persons. A ferocious riff speeds into the first line, ‘You remind me of a tumour’. You can imagine where the song goes from there. It is indeed, as its title suggests, relentless. The transition from it into ‘Blow Me Away’ is nothing

short of insane. Tremolo picking comes to an abrupt pause after which Clarke repeats, ‘MAKE. IT. STOP.’ over and over again in furious desperation, with the guitars and drums played in unison underneath, sharp staccato stabs perhaps mimicking pain felt. It’s a two minute death wish with some nice interplay between the guitars and drums, often playing in tandem to devastating effect.

‘Get Fucked’ is an absolute anthem.
The opening riff is another neckbreaker, a gallop that builds up to the track’s explosive

take-off that sees Clarke confront the British Government, Prime Minister, Monarchy, or all of the above, based on a few choice verse lyrics that probably can’t be put to print. When listening, it’s easy to imagine a string of people standing front row at a gig, fists pummelling the air as they scream ‘GET FUCKED!’ again and again, more people joining in with each iteration of the phrase.

‘Peanut’ has to be the funniest name for a death threat ever. The shortest song on Black Wings, its minute and a half message essentially states: come near me and you’ll not live to regret it. There’s effective contrast between riffing and moments of guitar sparseness, and the solo almost seems jaunty in comparison to everything around it, to startling effect.

‘Nailbomb’ incorporates effective melodies, especially during the chorus, which is an ear worm and a half, another one that would be easy to imagine a crowd singing along to during a live set. The bomb-detonation countdown to the chorus is really well done; the music ramps up the tension and then drops the dynamics. The song’s main riff also falls on the groovier side of things, as danceable as it is headbangable.

Almost as if he’s said all he has to say, which in fairness was a lot, Clarke decided on an instrumental track to close out Black Wings. ‘Death Dance’ opens with another grooving, almost bouncy riff before entering batshitcrazy-BPM territory. The title is fitting; the track should come with a health warning. It has bars of melodic, floating guitar as well as a leisurely, take-a-breath solo bass riff scattered amongst the insanity that is the rest of the track. A fantastic choice to finish off the album.

Creatively, Black Wings is an incredibly accomplished extreme metal album that mixes elements of death, black, and thrash metal together to create a sonic fury that matches the emotional core that lies at the album’s darkened heart. It deals with many issues that are unfortunately prescient to countless people alive today, often things which for many are left unspoken, but not for Dan Clarke. He skips the speaking stage altogether and shouts, screams, and shrieks the song’s lyrics with authenticity and utter conviction. Perhaps it’s not for everyone, especially when some of the lyrical content is taken into consideration, but it’s undeniable that the album is fast and aggressive, but at the same time constrained and controlled, similar to the titular storm in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. At a mere thirty five minutes long, it’s incredibly concise, but this does absolutely nothing to detract from its overall impact. It adds to it. The fact that Clarke was

responsible for every single facet of Black Wings, from writing to recording to finishing, right down to the tiniest detail, makes its accomplishments that much more impressive.

Black Wings was released on September 10th 2021 and can be purchased here: https://rupskallex.bandcamp.com/album/black-wings

Rupskallex: https://rupskallex.bandcamp.com/

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Reviewed by Mark Russell

Rupskallex // Black Wings // Album Review
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