Album Review: soastasphrenas – Moirae

[Phrenokomion; 2023]

There is beauty in chaos. The Berlin-based band soastasphrenas understand this on a cellular level. Their debut record Moirae juxtaposes the unbridled ferocity of hardcore with the textures and tension-and-release dynamics of post-rock to create a singularly coherent album that, despite being split into 10 tracks, often plays as a single 20-minute long journey of a composition, with melodic figures and lyrical themes being repeated throughout to provide listeners with handrails to hold on to as they traverse the tumultuously stormy landscape of the record.

The perceptive reader amongst you may have noticed references to chaos, hardcore, and post-rock, and immediately recognized that soastasphrenas surely owe a considerable debt of influence to late 90s and early 00s first-wave screamo and emoviolence. All the ingredients are present in abundance: rapidly-shifting song structures, simultaneously wild and precise playing, and an emphasis on feeling above everything else; nowhere is this more apparent than in the larynx-destroying vocals that give this glorious, ugly mess its trauma-damaged, despairing humanity.

Moirae could have been released around the turn of the millennium and been of a piece with contemporaneous releases by Orchid, pg.99, Portraits of Past, Saetia or envy, and the band would probably take that as a compliment of the highest magnitude. Comparisons only get you so far though, and Moirae is no pale imitation. It’s a strikingly powerful record that demands your attention and rewards it endlessly; its brief, 20 minute runtime, nigh flawless sequencing, and cyclical structure lending itself to obsessively repeated plays.

Like most records of its ilk, Moirae wears its emotional heart on its bloodied sleeve for all to see. There is very little, if any, poetic obfuscation in the words the band’s vocalist, credited only as Nate, screams into the mic. The lyrics are almost blunt to a fault, and discomfitingly overwrought. Self-destruction or at the least self-erasure is a prevalent theme. The album is suffused with existential dread, the spectre of death looming large but not necessarily unwelcome. After all, in a world gone mad and characterised by unspeakable cruelty, endless cycles of meaningless drudgery, and deep-seated inequality and injustice, opting out, be it by nihilism or suicide, can feel like the only sane option.

Speaking of sane, “soas tas phrenas” is a Greek phrase meaning “of sound mind,” which is not exactly the expression that comes to mind upon hearing the maelstrom this group whips up. Moirae would appear to serve as the soundtrack to a rageful, depressive episode, but there’s no doubt that soastasphrenas are drawing on another concept from Ancient Greek philosophy; that of catharsis. For all its suicidally hopeless declarations, listening to Moirae is a paradoxically life-affirming experience, underscoring the point that giving expression to our darkest thoughts has value, can purge them from our systems, and bring some measure of peace to troubled minds.

Nowhere is this approach more evident than in the first ‘proper’ track of the record, “Asleep as you Recover”. The preceding opener “Awake as you Rot” begins like a fighter limbering up, the band stuttering to life before a count-in of snare hits announces a bewildering barrage that lets the listener know what they’re in for. The transition to “Asleep as you Recover” is handled perfectly, as, all of a sudden, soastasphrenas collectively sweep you off your feet with a track that, with its ascending guitar parts and uncommon (at least in this genre) attention to melodic songcraft, sets a new benchmark for accessible yet uncompromising modern screamo. It’s simultaneously violent, despairing and hopelessly beautiful, and about as epic as a two-and-a-half-minute song could be.

And that epicness feels deliberate and earned. Throughout the song, Nate grapples with the feeling of being trapped between a past he can’t outrun and a future that seems out of reach, in the hellish limbo of the present moment (”tomorrow’s not supposed to come / where am I supposed to run?). It’s a theme that runs through the length of Moirae like a thread, tying together its cyclical narrative of hopelessness, death and rebirth. Unsurprisingly, the album’s title refers to yet another Ancient Greek concept, that of the three ancient gods of fate and destiny, known as the Moirae, a name that itself means “allotted portions”, as in man’s lot in life.

soastasphrenas, then, are addressing nothing less than the cruel hand of fate, inescapable destiny, and the meaning(lessness) of life itself. With that in mind, the following pair of tracks “Eleventh Hour” and “This Is Going To Hurt” address precisely the point when all hope is lost and death feels like the answer. And boy, they weren’t kidding: it does hurt.

The first track is a brief interlude that sounds like the band playing at the end of long, dark corridor, possibly in a locked room with no way out. Then, for 45 seconds, soastasphrenas demonstrate how emoviolence is meant to feel: fucking painful. “Moment after moment / frequent thoughts of suicide,” cries Nate. This is spiritual anguish writ large, made physically agonising, as anyone who has experienced persistent suicidal ideation can attest. That is until Nate hoarsely shouts, “this is not a test” and the band drops the intensity and settles into a funereal, post-rock lull. The impassioned vocals cry out as if above the ramparts, cracking and breaking over the plodding, patient instrumental and recalling the particular, desperate timbre that Efrim Menuck adopted with Thee Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra and Tra La La band. It’s a beautiful progression that’s truly wrenching, culminating with a desolate refrain of “end me, I’m begging.”

But this is not the end. The second half of the record manifests the ‘rebirth’ portion of the story. In an interview with Idioteq the band made clear that Moirae is about “[burying] the past and [reanimating],” thus recontextualising an apparent suicidal gesture as a metaphorical purging of a past self that’s holding him back from moving forward. “Reborn Again” and “Shed My Skin” expound upon this theme, and whilst it’s a well-worn one, soastasphrenas inject it with urgency through songs that demonstrate their mastery of tension and release.

“Solace” provides a welcome reprieve, in keeping with its subject matter, and is further testament to the attention that the band has paid to presenting Moirae as a seamlessly blended, cohesive whole. It recalls the excellent single-track album, Territorios by the Spanish band, Tenue, who coincidentally (or should I say completely appropriately?) have shared a bill with soastasphrenas.

The guitar part from “Solace” carries over into the closing trilogy of “A Suffering Spirit Proves the Heart is Still Beating”, “This Cycle Keeps Me Alive” and “Your Last Chance to show the World That You Exist”, as multiple voices cry and mutter like intrusive thoughts, before an almighty post-metal riff comes crashing down, shattering the relative peace, wreaking ungodly havoc, and reducing everything to rubble. The playing during the quiet parts is skeletal, recalling the horribly tense moments in a song like Mogwai’s “Like Herod”, where the dread that the heavens will fall is almost worse than the feeling when they do. “When you’re in it, it’s hard to tell yourself that you’ll get through it” – the triptych of songs, in its very structure, embodies the cycle of destruction and rebirth that Nate repeatedly maintains “keeps [him] alive.”

The final moments of the album are marked by a sublime and towering guitar part that seems to bring the record round full circle to the feeling of weightlessness evoked by “Asleep as you Recover”. For a record so steeped in existential despair, “Your Last Chance to Show the World You Exist” sees the band interpret what could be read as a hopeless sigh into a rallying cry. This concludes Moirae on a note that suggests that, for all the endless cycles of pain and suffering and arduous recovery, there is light in all that darkness, and even a flickering flame on the cusp of extinguishment can recover to become a roaring, life-giving fire. At the end of it, in all this chaos, there is beauty to be found. And for those who’ll listen, they’ll find it in the sad and violent noise of soastasphrenas.