2019 seems an odd year for me to be writing a post about my albums of year, and to have so many albums I want to name-check or mention. See, early in the year I stepped down from my role within Ghost Cult – nothing the Cult did wrong, just a question of life and balance. Stepping back from direct exposure to every rock, metal or alternative release should have meant I had fewer albums to care about, but, actually, it’s afforded me more time with each of the albums that I have connected with. Continue reading
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With Norway being so synonymous with Black Metal from its roots to the present day, by now France can hold an equally high association with its latter-day avant-garde offshoots. As much as black metal was always about experimentation and evolution, France is particularly prominent for bands pushing black metal into even further trajectories, from the philosophical and conceptual reaches of Blut Aus Nord to the likes of Alcest and Deathspell Omega encompassing polar opposite ends of the spectrum. Purveyors of mystique Abduction; whilst not necessarily envelope pushers in comparison to the aforementioned are, however, similarly unconventional in their approach as second album Á L’heure Du Crépuscle (Finisterian Dead End) attests. Continue reading
Okay, what’s the deal with bands who name themselves after song titles? Being honest about your influences is one thing, of course, but naming yourself after an album- or song-title – especially when it’s from an acknowledged classic of your genre – seems like one step up from being a tribute band and only playing covers.
Stellar Master Elite, you won’t be surprised to learn, are rather fond of Thorns, and the music on III: Eternalism – The Psychospherical Chapter (Essential Purification) takes its main cues from their eponymous classic debut. Shimmering, riff-heavy Black(ish) Metal drenched in spacey synths and effect-laden vocals, it also borrows openly from 666 International (Moonfog) and Grand Declaration Of War (Season of Mist/Necropolis), firmly embracing that late-90’s vision of the future that’s starting to sound like an artefact of a specific place and time. Not that this is pure nostalgia – they’ve also picked up a beefy modern sound that lends a weight and power that few of its predecessors had.
There’s a lot to like about Eternalism – some genuinely effective riffs, a good sense of atmosphere and a strong vocal performance in particular can validate time invested in it – but just as many things against it. It’s very late 90s approach to experimentalism sounds almost twee compared to (slightly) more recent BM deviants like Blut Aus Nord or DSO. The slow pace and reliance on spooky noises can sap some of the energy from the music and create moments of boredom. Most of all, though, they suffer in comparison to the band they’ve taken their name from – while their sound is superficially very similar to that of Thorns, they lack the feeling of sheer, unbridled creativity and otherness that made that album such a punch in the face at the time.
Competent, often engaging but, ultimately, too content to simply re-tread someone else’s former glories, Eternalism is an album that just doesn’t have enough of its own character to justify its existence in a world where “weird” and “experimental” are often more common than generic.
You can say what you like about Niklas Kvarforth, and many quite justifiably and quite rightly do, and his Shining project, now on their ninth release IX – Everyone, Everything, Everywhere, Ends (Season Of Mist), but he has managed to keep his music from sounding like everyone else, and actually doing something with his darkened black metal act that few others do, creating a sound and atmosphere that doesn’t just ape his predecessor, and that varies from album to album while still being identifiable. The actual success rate in terms of quality of output is a bit more hit and miss (with the common reasoning being that it is the odd numbered albums that are worth bothering with, while the even numbered releases can fail to deliver).
With the intent of Shining to cause discomfort and pain to others, and with IX being described as an album to inspire feelings and reflections of revenge and retribution, the music to hand is surprisingly (disappointingly?) safe; there are certainly no challenging moments that the likes of Deathspell Omega or Blut Aus Nord inspire, or horrific atmospheres akin to a Pyrrhon or Portal in full flow (accepting they are megalodons swimming in a very different pool).
With most of the compositions uncurling to around 7 minutes in length, the blueprint here is one that steps outside traditional Black Metal trappings and away from the cold, depressive harshness of their previous works. Opener ‘Vilja & Dröm’ kicks off with a belligerent chugging groove, and the album flits from modern aggressive Black Metal, like Dimmu Borgir minus the symphonics and theatrics, to cleaner, more Gothic moments as, much like Watain did on The Wild Hunt (Century Media), IX brings a Fields of the Nephilim swathe to the proceedings and a cowboy Western kiss to ‘Inga Broar Kvar Att Bränna’ in particular.
In terms of where IX sits in the Kvarforth canon, it’s fair to say it doesn’t rival V: Halmstad as the go to and defining release of his career, but is more of a worthwhile investment of your time than the limp Klagospalmer (both Osmose). Much like a lot of the music on display, though, it sits comfortably in the middle. If its intention is to unnerve and distress, the protagonist does much more of that away from the music, than he does with it.
Abstract is the new brutal. The principal focus of Extreme Metal has always been to make music that sounds as violent or destructive as possible, but over the last couple of years a growing number of bands in different sub-genres have embraced a more subtle approach. Whether it’s Gnaw Their Tongues and their followers blending Black Metal with Noise elements, Blut Aus Nord embracing dissonance or Portal deconstructing familiar Death Metal into something totally other, it’s becoming more common to encounter Extreme Metal which doesn’t so much punch your face as make you doubt its existence.
Primitive Man are one of a current circle of bands – Sea Bastard, Keeper and Indian among their peers – engaged in stripping so-called “Sludge”, that ugly child of Punk and Black Sabbath, of its Blues influences and sense of groove and focussing entirely on its capacity for bleakness and discomfort, and are arguably the leaders in their circle when it comes to abstraction. Home Is Where The Hatred Is (Relapse) continues from their independent debut album Scorn with thirty minutes of abstract rhythms, broken chords and growled vocals that steadfastly refuse to describe anything as uplifting or recognisable as a riff. It’s a thick, genuinely unsettling morass of noise and almost ambient amp abuse, and when they do allow themselves a brief moment of Grind-fuelled violence at the start of Downfall it’s almost a relief – though one that’s rapidly overtaken as the song collapses once again into dissonance and atmospherics. There are similarities to Khanate, of course, in their use of dissonance and unorthodox song structures, but as their name would suggest they seem less artful and refined, more… well… primitive.
It is extremely difficult to criticise HIWTHI, not because it’s without flaws, but because any apparent weaknesses (tracks blurring into another; the lack of satisfying climax; the sense of dislocation and frustration that pervades) are so obviously the result of very deliberate choices by the band. They’re not bugs, to borrow from the clichés of IT, but features. This isn’t the dirty, angry Rock ‘n Roll of Eyehategod or Iron Monkey, and it doesn’t seek to press the same buttons – this is genuinely ugly, unsatisfying, dissonant music from a band who aren’t interested in catharsis or making you rock out.
Anybody here with broad tastes recall The Blue Nile? They of 80s Indie Electronica fame? For some reason the wrought moments of their minimalist, stark melancholy spring to mind when harmonized, plaintive vocals burst through the chaotic ambience of Texan super-project Pyramids. The rest sounds nothing like, of course…
Doubtless somewhat responsible for the complex, occasionally harsh noise surrounding those honeyed tones, Blut Aus Nord‘s Vindsval and Gorguts‘ Colin Marston join Mike Dean‘s men for sophomore album A Northern Meadow (Profound Lore). Lead track ‘In Perfect Stillness, I’ve Only Found Sorrow’ emerges like some lo-fi, Post-Black Doves; shoegaze Indie strains blending with slashing yet melodic guitar, while the high-pitched, soaring vocals bring Thom Yorke into the equation. Though this is the early template, strange soundscapes envelop the structures with the intricate rhythms and Post leadwork furthering the Radiohead connection, albeit with more weight to the body – an at times crushing sequence of blows bursting a colliding crescendo of noise in both ‘The Earth Melts Into Red Gashes…’ and ‘The Substance of Grief Is Not Imaginary’.
As the titles suggest cheery this ain’t, yet the euphoric effects of the music at times contrast from the intent and that pensive, melancholy voice despite the obvious emotion of the whole: the resonant, rising harmonies and emotive, synthesized atmospherics of ‘Indigo Birds’ charging the soul and calming the frozen wastes of agonised, railing riffs.
In many ways this is the aural depiction of a nervous breakdown, the conflicting emotions crashing together, those fluctuating rhythmic structures and occasionally blackened riffs being the violent mood swings. The complexities and contradictions in the sound are both zenith and Nemesis, highlighting both the harshness and the beauty but also occasionally dampening just as things threaten to explode. Picture Red Sparrowes or Alcest if you will, with the hostile anguish retained just to tease whilst remaining an integral part. The dark-Mastodon feel of ‘Consilience’, a sinister organ adding to the portentous mass, closes an album in equal parts exquisite, beguiling yet a sprawling achievement; one most definitely worth sticking on every time you’re dwelling on that crossroads between depression and ecstasy.
I’m going to just come right out with it – I’ve never really seen the appeal of Dødheimsgard (I refuse to call them DHG – that’s non-negotiable). Their third album 666 International created a considerable wave in the late 90’s Black Metal scene, heralding a cyber-future that had the fans wiping off their panda-paint and buying glowsticks and leather trench-coats, but neither it, nor its equally feted follow-up Supervillain Outcast (both Moonfog), really clicked for me. The “progression” seemed too forced, the electronic elements awkwardly realised and the whole thing just a little too redolent of the Emperor’s new clothes.
I point this out simply because I’m about to lose my shit over A Umbra Omega (Peaceville), and I want to make it clear that I’m not just buying into the general consensus here – with this one, they’ve finally caught my attention.
Despite opening with the glitchy, fragmented electronics of ‘The Love Divine’, one of the first things that becomes apparent about A Umbra Omega is that the “cyber” elements of the last two albums have been dialled down noticeably, replaced with a much broader selection of influences. The songs move jaggedly but with surprising fluidity through Jazz breaks, modern classical music, more restrained electronics and some good, old-fashioned box-of-angry-wasps Scandinavian Black Metal.
It will doubtless anger some fans to say this, but there’s something almost backwards-looking or quaint about A Umbra Omega’s approach to progression. The face of “avant-garde” Black Metal in 2015 is very different to what it was in 1996, and Dødheimsgard’s approach still owes more to the carnivalesque playfulness of Arcturus or goth-tinged drug babble of Ved Buens Ende than DeathSpell Omega or Blut Aus Nord’s chaotic black-hole worship (this review brought to you by hyperbole.com). This is by no means a criticism – indeed, Dødheimsgard remind us of the one thing that the newer style of “experimental” Black Metal bands often forget to include in their time-shifting trans-dimensional horror; character. Despite how wacky things get here, there’s a constant sense of personality, wit and style that pervades each track on A Umbra Omega, drawing together what could otherwise be disparate musical elements into a genuinely effective whole.
As I observed in my recent review of the new <code> album, being weird is ultimately a fool’s quest – each year it gets harder and yields diminishing rewards. Perhaps that’s where Dødheimsgard lost me on previous releases – being experimental and breaking new ground seemed to be the primary objective – but on A Umbra Omega they sound like a band who’ve come to terms with their own weirdness and focussed on the task of writing a really excellent set of songs around it, rather than showing off how wacky they are. A genuine master-class in why Black Metal can still be interesting without having to choose between retro-traditionalism or forced experimentation.
Most bands go through different periods of stagnation and productivity, however there are few that can boast such extreme fluctuations in releases as French based Blut Aus Nord. For a career that began with an almost well-paced output, recent years have seen a flurry of work unleashed. For many bands this can see a slip in the quality or consistency of their records, however Blut Aus Nord defy this trend, being one of the few bands that manage to astound with every album, consistently defying expectations. While every album may be different and offer a new musical direction, there’s no denying that they all have a distinct sound that only main man Vindsval can achieve. Their latest offering is no exception.
Saturnian Poetry (Debemur Morti) comes in as the third album in the Memoria Vetusta series, following on from Fathers of the Icy Age (Impure Creations) in 1996 and more recently Dialogue with the Stars (Candlelight) in 2009 and quickly proves the most relatable of the series, and of Vindsval’s work as of late, particularly when compared to his 777 series or even his most recent split with P.H.O.B.O.S., Triunity (Debemur Morti), and is one of the best-defined and most enjoyable albums the band has released to date. Many of their previous releases have tended towards the avant-garde, alienating the listener with dissonant harmonies and awkward time changes, however Saturnian Poetry takes a step back from this constant push towards new ground. Some may view this as regression, falling back into the vast realms of relatable music, but the album still carries the distinct Blut Aus Nord sound without feeling like they have traded in any of their principals, or turned to a more mainstream position.
Vast ethereal landscapes captured in layers of distortion, erratic drumming and harrowed screams throw us into a desolate but majestic landscape. There is truly only one way to describe this album: cold. Despite its tendency towards grand melodic lines, Saturnian Poetry avoids large symphonic instrumentals, instead making the guitars the main feature of the music with majestic chord progressions backed by occasional synth or vocal lines. It does however contain Vindsval’s usual tendency towards progressive structuring, rapidly twisting through varying soundscapes as each song unfolds. There is also a marked improvement in production quality, and with such an intensive mix of instrumentation lines, this allows the subtler touches to shine through.
This release also marks the entrance of drummer Thorns, whose vast collection of previous work includes Frostmoon Eclipse, Deathrow and Acherontas. While previous albums have featured talented collaborations with artists or programming by Vindsval, Thorns seems to gel naturally with the music in a way that the others haven’t managed in the past. His tendency towards unusual patterns, breaks and crashes seem a natural part of the music, and often prove some of the most compelling performances on Saturnian Poetry.
Opening on a soft electronic intro with ‘prelude’, it’s a deceptively calm start before the ravages of ‘Paien’ kick in and the sound of the album truly unfolds. Both ‘Paien’ and ‘Tellus Mater’ set a vast, majestic tone that carries through, allowing for soaring vocal lines and large but chaotic guitar parts. There are few moments on the album that really steps back to allow the listener to rest, save for the intro and sections of ‘Forhist,’ whose mid-tempo riffs are often interspersed with manic fills across the drum kit. While the album fits together best as a whole rather than being taken by its individual parts, it’s ‘Henosis’ that provides the stand out moments. Opening on the albums more majestic sound, it intersperses hints of Blut Aus Nord’s more dissonant tendencies halfway through the track, an effective and welcome nod to previous work while simultaneously embracing the new style.
‘Metaphor of the Moon’ and ‘Clarissima Mundi Lumina’ take this another step further when closing the album with a subtle shift in sound. Low growls and stabs of awkward uneasy guitar cutting through, these tracks are significantly darker than the others – each track is a descent toward the closing darkness and demands the listeners full attention if they ever hope to draw the best out of this album.
Saturnian Poetry sees Vindsval provide some of his most compelling music to date and further cements Blut Aus Nord as one of the most exciting black metal acts in the scene today.
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Blut Aus Nord are one of those bands whose discographies should come with a map. Starting off with an atmospheric, expansive approach to Black Metal, they’ve spent two decades letting that approach lead them through a variety of approaches and styles, each united by the same cosmic aesthetic and adventurous spirit.
Their contribution to the Triunity (Debemur Morti) split shows them operating in a similar territory to 2007’s Odinist, but with a much greater reliance on structure. The more Metal moments of the first 777 album also spring to mind at points – thick, almost chugging guitars overlaid with haunting, progressive-minded leads and processed vocals. What’s interesting here is how much ground they’re able to cover in just under twenty minutes – the three tracks run together into an expansive whole which manages to be both heavy, introspective and surprisingly aggressive in parts; a great bite-size introduction to the band, and a perfect confirmation for fans that they’re still pushing their own distinctive musical vision forward.
One of the problems with splits is often that the bands are too similar in sound – Triunity avoids that by picking two acts who share aesthetic qualities but are musically quite distinct. With repetitive processed guitars, clipped mechanical vocals and sinister ambient noise, P.H.O.B.O.S most readily call to mind early Godflesh if they gave up on all that urban decay business and looked to the cosmos. “Industrial” – surely among the most abused words in music – is a good enough fit here, but this is an eldritch, half-tangible factory in the middle of a desolate spiritual wasteland, staffed by ghosts endlessly working at machines whose working conform to no known principles of engineering. Possibly making things for Argos.
Of the two sides, BAN’s is the most accomplished and satisfying in itself – P.H.O.B.O.S rely perhaps too heavily on repetition, and over such a short length can seem a little hollow – but Triunity shows two bands offering a similarly mystical take on two different styles, and is an engaging and captivating listen either in parts or taken as a whole.
8 / 10
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