The Ashes of a Treacherous Silence

Thirteenth Sign

There have been plenty of metal songs, and perhaps albums, about serial killers. They tend […]
By Kira Schlechter
October 12, 2020
Thirteenth Sign - The Ashes of a Treacherous Silence album cover

There have been plenty of metal songs, and perhaps albums, about serial killers. They tend to be pretty bloody, over-the-top affairs done from a purely physical, gut-wrenching perspective. But if they are created from a psychological, internal, more observational stance, they can be even more profoundly disturbing. The latter is the tack Nottingham, England-based melodic death/thrash metal band THIRTEENTH SIGN has taken with their latest, the fascinating, and disturbing, "The Ashes of a Treacherous Silence." According to several reviews, the conceptual album is based on some of Britain's most notorious serial killers (in this case, I'd say two, working in tandem). Apparently, too, they were inspired by QUEENSRYCHE's "Operation: Mindcrime," although this obviously has a very different storyline, and that becomes very apparent as the album goes on.

Of course, our story begins with a backstory, which starts after the creepy instrumental "Wn-3617" (an eerie repeated piano melody and sound effects) with "The Bond Of Wicked Blood." A smart, tight thrash melody, clean and separated with a nice lilt, alternates guttural and clean vocals, which they do throughout. The chorus has a coolly erratic rhythm that's straightforward in the first two lines and changes up in the next two; in the bridge, the groove lengthens as the story changes and develops. That story - containing just enough well-chosen details - hints of struggles with infertility ("Pregnant for a decade/Conditions dark and grim"), a child long wanted, a mother becoming obsessed ("She praised the earth he walked on"), and a father's indifference ("Paternal hostile hand"). There's more than hints at incest ("Incestuous acts flourished and perished childhood" and "A strange maternal bond") and of the resulting child becoming "an everlasting nightmare/Evil personified."

The first nods to "Mindcrime" are the operatic touches of the choir and the rain sound effects at the end of the track; the songs are tightly knit with no breaks in between. Full of muscular, controlled riffing, "Impulse Control" starts with a series of images about perhaps a car accident (fleshed out by the prechorus with the line, "Comatose for seven days/Cerebral cortex corroding"). The chorus seems to hint at what results from that brain damage ("A strange yearning for the surreal/Guilt subdues, acting ensues"). The last verse is the mother by his bedside praying for his recovery ("The 'miracle birth,' reborn again") and describing what he's become ("Damaged and broken, his conscience confused").

"Electric Hammer" is a horrific call and response (the hammer being an analogy for electroshock therapy), set to a wicked groove. We might be looking at the mother's background here, or perhaps the mother of a critically important later character (stay tuned). Either way, she had "Deeply troubled parents, catatonic by the third" (perhaps meaning a third child) and experienced "Daily beatings, shared with no remorse." The experience stayed with her in later lines - "Years of horrific abuse, the violence she had known/Postnatal depression, nerves start breaking down." The electroshock of the title was done while she was pregnant ("In this ward, while the volts were flowing/Deep within the womb, a tiny child was growing"), so the resulting child was doomed from the beginning ("Conceived in union, mentally ill and coldest heart/Genetic dice were loaded against her from the start").

"Demons Within" visits our main character later in life and we see he's struggling ("The path he walks is paved with blackened temptation"). The harbinger of doom that is the almost spoken prechorus heralds a chorus filled with potent imagery as he finds dubious love ("The golden boy and the peroxide whore/Their love naively inked into their skin"). The bridge introduces our second crucial character as their paths begin to cross: "Dressed in silken lies, lost in a fantasy world/A hunter preying on the weak and the young."

At last they meet in "Locked In A Deadly Embrace," which begins and ends with a spoken-word section that sounds like movie dialogue (the next track starts the same way). It's a harrowing touch; the lines go by so quickly that you can't make them out, but it certainly solidifies the mood. Our main character, the "golden boy," encounters "the spider," the "blackest of widows." He is "Showered with stolen extravagance" (what a great line) and gets entangled in something far worse than he'd previously experienced. Three are hints that the two have a child or children and that she perhaps kills one ("The child's stoic refusal to display any fear or emotion/Pushed the arachnid to extremes, now blood is on her hands"). But this is only the beginning of the horrors to come.

And come they do in full force in "The Spider's Web." The two begin a series of sexual tortures and murders inflicted on troubled young women ("Runaways from institutions, no one would care to seek"). They didn't intend to kill their victims, as the morbidly catchy chorus notes ("Death was not the intention, but the only way to silence their screams") - the contrast between the words and the music there is particularly effective. Here the band's discerning eye for language brings the story to life as they relate chilling details like "Mutilation re-lived in shared discussion" (the two killers reminisce about their deeds) and explain the main character's rationale too perhaps - "The violence a vicious reaction to his own inadequacy," that being sexual, as we learn later. The web begins to unravel when one of the victims escapes and hangs on to the secret for 20 years ("Sworn to secrecy and abiding the rule of the threats/Two decades until the truth would surface and unspin the spider's web").

"Walls Of Jericho" is somewhat of an interlude in the action. A female singer acts as perhaps the personification of the survivor in "The Spider's Web," her voice undermixed to sound like a dream - or maybe a voice from the grave. "Never understanding why I was left to rot," she sings, "in the care of walking evil." It's haunting and awful and contains more of those powerful, unsettling details - in the bridge, we learn that the killers had "scruples" ("The black book of the menstrual cycle/Offers them limited salvation"), and we are given hints at perhaps a greater motive ("A madman creating his own race/Loved ones lost to experimentation").

It becomes very hard to take this album at one crack considering the storyline (which hits its turning point at this spot) because it's definitely upsetting. While it might not resort to cheap thrills like cartoony bloody gory details, the details it does provide are brilliantly-worded, subtly shaded horrors - like in "Walls" with the line, "The crops camouflaged/The shallow tomb in which she lay/Kept close, for control in death." The band has that uniquely British gift for including the exactly correct information to generate the most visceral of reactions.

"Leach" begins with courtroom dialogue, these effects further reinforcing the debt this album owes to "Mindcrime." This is when our "golden boy" - the accomplice to the crimes - is brought to trial. "Rule 43" in the first line, by the way, is from British criminal procedure, which states that "any prisoner can apply to be taken into solitary confinement ... for his own protection." So the "golden boy" has done. This track might be about the attorney in the case ("Sole keeper of sordid confessions"), and obviously the "golden boy" won't cooperate unless it's this attorney - "without her involvement, he will not recompense." She in turn is naturally having a hard time dealing with his manipulations, as the chorus implies ("Medicated sleep, numbing the senses/Confused by ever-changing stories"). The lurid details - "Centre of a national story became intoxicating" - overwhelm her and she can't take the pressure ("She threatened resignation unless he confessed" and "Tried to stop for her own peace of mind, overdosed on self-pity"), but she's the only one in whom the accomplice will confide.

"The Bone Collector" too begins with sounds - a police chopper, a siren, a news reporter describing what was found while police were investigating a missing persons report - this is "where the innocent died." The description gets more detailed and is slowly drowned out by military style drumming as the track starts in earnest. This describes the discovery of the place where the crimes took place and it's gruesome ("Mutilated, naked, and disgraced, left to rot with the tools of their crimes"). The chorus is sung, and in a way, it's soaring, as if to say finally this is over ("Angel wings, beat like hawks'/Rise above this wretched place/The light that blinds their eyes/Is the light that ends their nightmares").

After the instrumental transition "The Perpetual Darkness" - blending cello, acoustic guitar, and hushed dialogue - the horror is nearing an end as we begin to find out the truth. A choir perhaps acting as divine judgment begins "Ashes For Eternity," then orchestration segues cleanly into percussive bass and drumming, then into riffing that echoes the choir melody. It's a bit ambiguous - is this our "golden boy" vowing to stay quiet to protect "the spider"? Or is this her saying she will never disclose what happened in order to protect him? Lines like "I'll take this life to set you free, I'll take our secrets with me/The truth will burn in the fires below" and "Forever in my heart, despite your wicked betrayal/I will abide the pact if you maintain your silence" keep things murky - and that's a good thing.

Our trial begins in "Silent Witness" with the news reporter describing "the spider" against a backdrop of stirring, condemning music. The prechorus colorfully describes the judges ("Twelve scarlet robes") and the chorus fills in the meaning of the title - these are the victims, the "silent witnesses," "a circle of death/Forensic science will let them speak." They are having their day in court and the survivors will back them up. There are some victims, though, who are less credible, it seems ("Ordeals exaggerated for their financial gain/Circumstantial evidence, jurors struggle to pinpoint the blame"), but ultimately, the forensic evidence doesn't lie. All along, the "golden boy" has been protecting "the spider," but his stories are inconsistent, so she comes to trial.

The little details here are what makes this track: "Rouge enlivened her sullen features, preparing for her interrogation" and "Justice sits on a vast wooden dais, gigantic and foreboding/Dark veneer and heavy navy cloth, Mussolini's brutal architecture" and "Forensic magpies, picking at pieces/Clues shining in a swamp of death and decay" (boy, that last one's good). We learn too that "the spider" had "a penchant for deviant lesbian sex" (hence the mensruation reference in "Walls"). The judge recites the verdict of life in prison before the solo section starts. Meanwhile the "golden boy" is left to rot in jail, where he will "wait for her, where no shadows fall," and the reporter notes "the spider" said not a word in either admission or self-defense.

"The Scars Of Betrayal" gives the innocent the last word - either the victims who have survived or perhaps the children the couple had together, or maybe both. Again, it's nicely ambiguous. Because the "golden boy" "took his answers with him" and "the spider" keeps her silence ("But still she makes no sound/Questions lie unanswered for eternity"), they are left facing conflicting feelings - "Guilt of loyalty, ashamed of their devotion," "Replaying memories, remembering conversations," and "Their skin turns inside out when they reminisce/Their evil genes still haunt their reflections" (this is why I thought it could be their children here; they "fear of being sentenced to a lifetime of hate" because of who their parents were). The bridge is just devastating and tragic and awful, full of survivor's guilt, and the wrenching guitar solo underscores that feeling: "Words on the pages confirm their fears/The whole world stops to stare, but doesn't care/Blocking it out conceals the pain, but the media exhumes the sadness" (how beautifully worded). "The bones make it real," that is, the truth has come out, and "the suffering is ending," leaving them to "try to live again" and "learn to love again."

This is an extraordinary work, meticulously researched and detailed, precisely told and honed for maximum impact. The subject matter is horrendous, and it's best taken in small doses, but the way THIRTEENTH SIGN has presented it here is rather a masterpiece of restrained, nuanced storytelling.

10 / 10









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"The Ashes of a Treacherous Silence" Track-listing:

1. Wn-3617
2. The Bond Of Wicked Blood
3. Impulse Control
4. Electric Hammer
5. Demons Within
6. Locked In A Deadly Embrace
7. The Spider's Web
8. Walls of Jericho
9. Leach
10. The Bone Collector
11. The Perpetual Darkness
12. Ashes For Eternity
13. Silent Witness
14. The Scars Of Betrayal

Thirteenth Sign Lineup:

Reno Ramos - Vocals
Dale Stringer - Guitar
Chris Hubbard - Guitar
Dave Thomas  - Bass
Lloyd Stringer - Drums

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