Sometimes, you get the feeling that a band have been steadily cranking themselves up to a creative zenith over a few years. This is one of those special moments. On their third album, Japanese doom witch duo Blacklab turn everything up to 11 to glorious effect and produce a career-best record that highlights the depth of their abilities and influences. Anyone lucky enough to have caught them live will know that Yuko Marino (vocals and guitar) and Chia Shiraishi (drums) create one hell of a racket, and In a Bizarre Dream finally captures their expansive, widescreen riffs and abrasive nature on record.
Opener “Cold Rain” has guttural vocals, a sumptuous doom riff and a clear swagger about it. It’s a clarion call to the Sabbath worshipping rabble in the audience, yet where other bands in metal’s least progressive sub-genre merely wallow in varying degrees of nostalgia and weed-haze, there is a certain sense of purpose and propulsion which stands Blacklab apart from others in the scene. The sluggish down-tuned riffs turn into stuttering punk inflected chords that further splinter off into almost nu-metal territory (it’ll make perfect sense when you hear it, I promise). It’s inventive, showcasing a band with a torrent of ideas who are obviously not happy simply to revisit the same, well-trodden sonic spaces. They wear their influences on their sleeves, yet are bold enough to weave their own magic into the mix to create songs which sound fresh, vibrant and which lean on the past without parodying it.
The skull-shredding riffs continue on “Abyss Woods” and “Dark Clouds”, both of which take the usual doom metal template but add a further pinch of venom just for the sake of it. On “Abyss Woods”, Marino’s ability to switch between a throat wrangling howl and her sweeter, yet no less sinister, singing voice is a thing to behold. The interplay between these two vocal components adds a certain edge to the tracks, as though the singer is wrestling with a number of different personalities at any one time. Ideas of duality abound on In a Bizarre Dream – from notions of identity, the spiritual and the physical, the mesmeric and the mundane.
“Evil 1” is pure filth. The atmospheric drums and spiralling, sludgy riff are pensive, threatening even, and they take their sweet time before morphing into a frenetic crust punk deluge that is a riot of colourful noise and energy. Blacklab’s toying with expectations and personality is played out on the sister track “Evil 2”, which is a calmer, restrained track that feels shamanic in the delivery of the vocals, an invocation to the spiritual rather than a vexatious rant at the material. The track is the turning point of the record, switching from reality and angst to a more ethereal otherworldliness. The production work on “Monochrome Rainbow” and the record’s title track highlight this tonal shift to wonderful effect. The track “In a Bizarre Dream” features calming, chiming bells while a squall of distorted guitars wails merrily away in the distance – the sense of duality again being important with the juxtaposing of the peaceful and the feral.
Blacklab’s name is a portmanteau of two of their favourite bands – Black Sabbath and Stereolab. The highlight of In a Bizarre Dream is “Crows, Sparrows and Cats” which features the latter’s Laetitia Sadler on vocals, and there’s a genuine sense of glee at the heart of the track which bounces along like nothing Blacklab have done before. Shiraishi’s metronomic drumming is in the spirit of Jaki Leibezeit and Klaus Dinger and it’s the heart of the track. Sadler’s sweetly intoned vocals juxtapose rather than compliment the grunge guitars; the three musicians working in perfect symbiosis yet still with a certain degree of separation that is only exacerbated when vocal lines between Sadler and Mario intertwine yet never fully converge. The riff that opens the next track “Lost” couldn’t sound more like Tony Iommi’s work if it tried. The comparison between these tracks shows the range of influences at play here, but also how Blacklab explore the parameters of these genres to create something fresh.
“Collapse” is a righteous punk racket, the ghost of The Stooges’ Ron Asheton is evoked in Marino’s thrashing out of the chords while Shiraishi knocks merry hell out of her kit in the style of Petbrick’s Igor Cavalera. It’s perfectly orchestrated mayhem and a perfect way to close the record. It’s Blacklab at their most menacing and most assured.
In a Bizarre Dream is Blacklab fulfilling the potential that was evident on their more lo-fi debut Strawberry Moon 2.0 and the psych riff heavy punk blasts of the glorious follow-up Abyss. The production work of Jun Morino here, along with Wayne Adams on mixing duties, elevates the album way above its peers, highlighting the depth of the writing and musicianship. Both of Blacklab’s earlier albums, as good as they are, somehow feel a little apologetic and lacking in genuine bravado, but happily this is no longer the case for a band who deserve to be seen as true torchbearers for the doom metal genre.