The influence of nature and earth on black metal has become somewhat more of a recurrent theme in recent times. Some of black metal’s current champions such as Drudkh, Wodensthrone and Winterfylleth have embraced inspiration from such landscapes, in some degrees from their own locales rather than necessarily the stereotypical Satanic lyrical content of the genre’s forebears; also offering a more atmospheric approach. On this split, From Moonrise To Moonset (Blackwood), we see the contributions from two upcoming UK bands of such an ilk, with some variation in style and result.
The first half sees contributions from Torver, beginning with an ominous, gradually building introduction track, complete with wolf howling and strings, setting the tone and expectations quite high. The following tracks ‘Naked Moonrise’ and ‘Lunar Ritual’ are both bold examples of forward thinking Black Metal, alternating in pace between a slow crawl to more uptempo, and combining typical shrills with an eerie chant like drawl. A lot of positives to take but sadly it becomes unstuck by a thin production which buries the vocals far into the mix and kills some of its atmospheric air.
In the production stakes Arcane North’s half fairs a whole lot better and thus has a much more encapsulating tone to it. Vocally this is on much more familiar territory but elsewhere it still holds an ambitious streak, but is simultaneously familiar for the less au fait with the genre. As a result it is much more immediate and is certainly the more recommended part.
Neither band gives a complete or perfect offering, but both bands show a lot of potential, if not very much to differentiate in an arena that is starting to get a lot more crowded.
To be honest, I hold a fairly high level of scepticism when someone passes me an album by a new band and declares, loftily, that “you will like it”. Like some kind of rabid Pavlovian dog, my defences go up, my cynicism kicks in and my brain invariably utters the phrase, with arch knowing: “Oh! I will, will I?!” I then usually spend the subsequent listening of aforementioned album looking for ways to give it a bit of a kicking. I know this is neither big nor clever but, well, it just IS.
I mention this because I come to this review not to bury Cambridge black metal outfit Terra, but to praise them. Reader, I need to eat my proverbial hat, cover myself in sackcloth and ashes and admit that the person who gave me the Terra debut album to review was bang on: I do like them. I like them a lot [see… Assoc Ed]
This debut album of dark, hypnotic black metal is three tracks long but three continents wide in terms of its vast creative canvas. For a debut album it sounds remarkably accomplished, almost timeless in its effect and it should, if there is anything approaching justice in the musical world, see them rightly applauded.
If you’re desperate for that critical pitstop of a pigeon-hole then I guess that this trio inhabit that strange hinterland called “atmospheric” black metal. Before any of you pedants cry out that this pre-supposes that there is black metal that ISN’T atmospheric, I use the phrase to shorthand that if you’re familiar with Winterfylleth, Wolves in the Throne Room or Skagos then you’re likely to have an immediate affinity with what these boys are all about.
The three tracks on this untitled début (Hibernacula) – ‘I’, ‘II’, and, yes, you’ve guessed, ‘III’ – are all, in their own ways, pretty damn brilliant. There is a raw determination in the vocals of singer Ryan Saunders; whatever trials and tribulations this man has been through, he has found an outlet for his pain and redemption that seems validating and almost valedictory. This personal journey of facing personal mortality is ably supported by some brilliant musicianship: dark, brooding basslines from Oliver Walton and some terrific, elemental drumming from Luke Braddick create an experience that ebbs, flows, leaps and soars through a panoply of emotions, textures and moods.
This is black metal without artifice or pretence but black metal with resilience and personal fortitude. Terra might only just be starting to set out their stall but what a stall this is.
In 2015, when an album has lo-fi or muddy production, it’s generally fair to assume that some kind of statement is being made. Our Metal ancestors often had to struggle bravely with bad equipment, disinterested producers and no money at all, but in an age where anyone with an internet connection and the patience to learn can produce a listenable sound without significant expense, those bands who release rough, messy-sounding albums are generally choosing to do so.
I mention this here because the production is the first thing that strikes you about Oceanclots (Acephale Winter) – “lo-fi” if you want to be positive about it, “a fucking mess” if you don’t. Biscuit tin drums, box-of-angry-wasps guitars, vocals that sound like someone in the next room screaming through a pillow – you’ve heard cheap Black Metal before, you know what I’m talking about. The second thing you notice, however, is how much is going on underneath that buzzing noise.
Dhampyr play “atmospheric” Black Metal in which the a word describes not the background farty hand-waving that it often does, but a dense, layered wall of sound in which raw, savage Black Metal riffing clashes with classical picking, harsh Noise and ambient dreaminess to create something which is both chaotic and oddly contemplative. It’s not an easy listen by any means – most of the eleven tracks are open and meandering, easy pay-offs are traded in for abstract ambience and at all times the intentionally raw production creates an atmosphere of minimalist passivity which runs counter to the preferences of most Metal fans – but if you succeed in engaging with it in the right mood it can be a genuinely moving one.
Oceanclots is a rich, immersive and genuinely fascinating album with a lot to offer someone prepared to work at it, but it demands a lot from the listener, and at times the pay-off is too wilfully abstract to entirely satisfy. It’s also arguably longer than it strictly needs to be, later tracks meshing into an ambient soup from which it is hard to distinguish individual details.
Probably not something that many listeners will visit regularly, but worth having for those moods when it really clicks.
There are two things I want to get out of the way before I get into this. The first is that I’ve never really seen the appeal of the whole Atmospheric Pine Forest BM thing – even ignoring the uncomfortable nationalist overtones, Winterfylleth, Wodensthrone and Drudkh et al leave me cold, and A Forest Of Stars seem like a band who had a great idea for an image, but rushed into the studio before they’d written any songs. It’s not a style I’m inclined towards, despite its current popularity, so when an album in that style does click with me it’s something to pay attention to.
The second thing is that Fen have made me rewrite my End Of Year List just over a week before the deadline, and for that I am not happy with them.
On paper Fen are very much part of the aforementioned Black Metal subgenre, and their previous albums have all passed me by much like their peers, but despite no obvious shifts in style Carrion Skies (Code 666) manages to transcend the limitations of its chosen style. A big part of the problem with this music for me is that “atmospheric” is frequently an excuse for nothing to happen – big, heart-rending riffs take their own sweet time to float majestically past, and everything is filled with a sense of mounting tension that never goes anywhere – but Carrion Skies is dynamic. Songs are long but eventful, striding purposefully from huge riffs and tormented shrieks to more contemplative passages as if THERE’S ACTUALLY A GOOD REASON FOR THEM TO DO THAT, rather than it simply being lazy musical short-hand for “we are interesting”. There are suggestions of latter-day Enslaved at several points, but without the sense of lazy back-slapping and tedious “maturity” that plagues their recent albums.
Another thing that’s frequently absent from the more “atmospheric” or “progressive” Black Metal bands is passion. Indeed, it’s a concept that Black Metal bands frequently struggle with balancing effectively, either overloading on it to the point that they’re constantly spitting fury anger and nothing else, or they’ve traded in all their feeling for vague “atmosphere” and ripping off a bunch of second-hand Pink Floyd references (hello again, Enslaved). Carrion Skies is a passionate album, charged with fist-waving bravado, teary-eyed loss, bits that go Duh-Nuh! Duh-duh-nuh! and all the other ridiculous stuff that makes Metal great, but it balances that passion with a thoughtful, contemplative approach to song-writing which strengthens rather than detracts from it.
What really makes Carrion Skies stand out not just in its own subgenre but in Extreme Metal in genre is the depth and range of expression. Extreme Metal is by nature monolithic – that’s frequently one of its selling points – and it’s rare to hear an album that spends much time exploring more than one mood. We can have Angry, Sad, Majestic or Bat-shit Insane, but having more than one of them across an album is ambitious, and blending several together in a rich, unfolding tapestry of more than one feeling? Is that even legal?
Carrion Skies is certainly one of the Metal albums of the year in any sub-genre, and a genuinely impressive achievement for a band who until now have usually been mentioned in reference to other, similar bands. It ranks alongside new releases by Pyrrhon and Tombs (with whom they share some similarities, but Fen are the rawer, rockier, more achingly human cousin to Tombs’ Neurosis-driven thunder) as the richest and most emotionally expressive Metal albums of 2014, and should have something to offer even to people who haven’t previously found Fen and their peers terribly interesting.
Following up from their demo Season of Sacrifice earlier in the year, Amidst the Trees (Forever Plagued) is the debut album from Finnish two-piece Taatsi. Taking their name from a sacrificial stone located in northern Finland, everything about the band image conveys a connection to nature and ancient spirituality, retreating from humanity and returning to the earth. It is apt then that they describe themselves as ‘Nature Mystical Black Metal,’ with each track fitting firmly within atmospheric black metal.
At just 30 minutes long, the album cycles through keyboard melodies backed by mid-paced guitar harmonies and topped off with distant screeches from vocalist A. When done well, atmospheric black metal can transport the listener to cold and distant lands, carving out vast mental landscapes of forests and mountainous peaks. Taatsi however have failed to inspire, lending more to directionless meandering lacking any real sense of progression.
While the keyboards go some way to creating mystery, from opening track ‘Malign Ghost of the Wood’ to closing track ‘Hunts in the Night’s Mind,’ they dominate the sound, forming a constant barrage of noise.It doesn’t take long for the sound to become tiring and repetitive, lacking in any real inspiration or new ideas throughout with only slight changes of style in tracks like ‘Gateways of the North’.
Amidst the Trees has nothing new or inspiring about it. The constant inoffensive and repetitive nature of the album leaves it languishing and ultimately, although the album plays at earthly spirits and ancient wisdom, it fails to really inspire or capture any depth of the imagination.
Switzerland may not often be recognized for the superiority of its black metal output, but with bands such as Celtic Frost, Samael and Bolzer all hailing from the country any new group stepping forth really does have some serious heritage to contend with. Taking up this mantle are Schammasch, a four-piece band from Basel. Revealing themselves to the world with their debut album Sic Lvceat Lvx back in 2010, they have returned this year with a massive 84 minute follow up double album, Contradiction (Prosthetic).
Despite the length, this is not an album that should be picked apart by track; it simply slips easily through from beginning to end, defying the seeming need to be broken down into smaller chunks of time. There are however some differences between the two halves of this double album. While the offerings of the first CD are violent and dismal blackened tomes, the second half draws back with a heavier post-black influence, transforming into something entirely more introspective without losing any of its power.
The quality of this album is obvious right from the beginning, starting as it means to continue with a punishingly long 10-minute opener. Atmospheric and menacing, Contradiction winds its way through a myriad of influences, only held together by the ever-present layer of distortion from the guitars. Despite not grounding themselves in a particular genre, the different styles seem to fuse organically with both metal and non-metal influences falling together into a dissonant and dark cacophony. It is this encompassing other styles and fearless experimentation that makes this band stand so strikingly far apart from many others producing extreme metal today.
It may only be their sophomore album, but Schammasch have created a record both challenging and endlessly refreshing, a truly remarkable sonic journey from beginning to end. This is certainly not a band you want to ignore for too much longer.
Founded back in 2006, Aurvandil have released only demos, splits and an EP between 2007-2010. The first steps into the full-lengths were done with Yearning, in 2011, and now I declare Aurvandil are a serious confirmation within the atmospheric black metal sub-genre because of the brand new Thrones (Eisenwald).Including four magical hymns of Iron and Ice to cleanse the Earth of false designs, Thrones is able to take our body and soul into the gelid northern landscapes in order to reach the hyperborean purity.
The using of melodic and slow acoustic guitars in the album kick off with ‘For Whom Burnest Thou’ is like a ritualistic moment which is preparing us for this immaculate journey that will transcend us onto glacial rivers and misty mountains. These two environments I just described are personified by heavy and long hypnotic guitar riffs that are beautifully transfigured as cold breezes running in our veins. However, that’s not the only work done with guitars as we have some melodic lead passages that can be seen as black/post metal performances, like in ‘The Harvest Of Betrayal’ or ‘Ingen Lindring’.
‘Summon The Storms’ may be seen as the epic peak with its almost twenty minutes running time where all Aurvandil characteristics and aesthetics are blended. It’s genial and certainly created through hard work.
The frozen and harsh vocals are heard all along the album; sometimes a little far, but I interpreted this feature as being in an ample landscape. The lyrics include what best defines this kind of music: ancient values and the eagerness to fight a rotting modern world.
I dare to say I haven’t heard such good straight atmospheric black metal album since the day I bought Walknut’s Graveforests And Their Shadows. Thrones is marvelous, iconic, intriguing and devoted to the cause. It’s a must-have for the past-seeking devotees and for those who have embraced the majestic atmospheric black metal movement.
After being in the works for a long time, Avichi’sCatharsis Absolute (Profound Lore) has finally surfaced, and for the most part it’s been worth the wait. Piano interludes open and close the album, with 4 tracks of ferocious black metal packed in between. Whilst the album isn’t exactly accessible, the melodic undercurrent that runs throughout the album makes it slightly more welcoming than other obscure one man projects such as Fyrnask. The harsh, repetitive riff at the end of ‘Flames In My Eyes’ is reminiscent of Darkthrone’s classic era, although it doesn’t feel half as frosty given that this album actually has some production quality. This is no bad thing though, as the production quality gives strength to ‘Lightweaver’, and heightens the anthemic qualities of ‘Voice of Intuition’. What is most noticeable about the album is the use of melody. This is particularly apparent on ‘Lightweaver’, where twisting black metal riffs, keyboards, and chanting intertwine to create a surprisingly catchy song. ‘Voice of Intuition’ is also surprisingly catchy, given the anthemic qualities of the song. A very audible vocal line of “SPEAK TO ME!” is bellowed out across a strong, almost black ‘n’ roll rhythm.
‘All Gods Fall’ is by far the longest track on the album, clocking in at 12 minutes. Here, Avichi slows things down, and gets atmospheric without ever falling into post-black metal tropes. Unfortunately though, it isn’t quite as memorable as the tracks that precede it, meaning that this otherwise great album goes out with a bit of a fizzle as opposed to a bang. It’s by no means a bad track, but the punchiness of the first 3 songs is sorely missed. The track is followed by the aforementioned piano outro, which at this point feels as if it drags, as opposed to adding any atmosphere to the album.
Whilst the album has undeniably strong moments, it is ultimately let down by ending on a meandering 12 minute track which feels lacking in focus, followed by a dull piano outro. If it had ended with one of the middle 3 tracks, it would probably offer a lot more incentive for repeat listens. Despite these negative points, Catharsis Absolute is a decent album, as the tracks which are good, are very good indeed.