Monstrous, Nightmarishly Ugly -- Perfect
The Sanctum of Human Darkness
(Dark Descent; US: 15 Dec 2012; UK: 15 Dec 2012)
The Sanctum of Human Darkness, the sophomore release from Finnish death metal trio Desolate Shrine, is one of the most sinister death metal albums this year—in truth, it’s my favorite. Monstrous, nightmarishly ugly, and slathered in distortion and crooked harmonics, The Sanctum of Human Darkness was a seething, malformed and reverb-heavy squall of pitch-black death metal. The most perfectly torturous battering you could have hoped for in 2012. With two vocalists, RS and ML, and with LL handling all the instrumentation, Desolate Shrine built upon the yawning abyss of blackened death metal established on its potent debut Tenebrous Towers. The band added in even more overdriven dissonance, burying its buckling melodies under swarms of noise and an utterly noxious tone. Finland is famed for the causticity of its extreme metal (see Archgoat, Hooded Menace, Impaled Nazarene, Anal Blasphemy etc), and The Sanctum of Human Darkness’ bricolage of all things misanthropic, abrasive and abhorrent did that scene’s aesthetic proud. The album was a dense, impenetrable fortress inhabited by deranged demons—charging from the portcullis with viscera-bespattered refrains. Sounds perfect, right?
See also: the extraordinary run of releases from Desolate Shrine’s label Dark Descent. The Colorado Springs based label has had a fantastic 2012, releasing a succession of wonderfully macabre, maggoty and despicable albums, including excellent works from Horrendous (The Chills), Anguish (Through the Archdemon’s Head), Emptiness (Error), Anhedonist (Netherwards), Father Befouled (Revulsion of Seraphic Grace), Paroxsihzem ( Paroxsihzem) and Maveth (Coils of the Black Earth).
Jodis: Black Curtain
The announcement earlier this year that Hydra Head would stop releasing new works was a shock for fans. The highly respected label has released many seminal experi-metal albums over the years, as well as excellent albums in 2012 from Old Man Gloom, Mamiffer/Pyramids and Nihill. Fittingly, Hydra Head’s last full-length new release ended operations with a perfect requiem from Jodis—where label founder Aaron Turner is joined by James Plotkin and Tim Wyskida. Jodis’s Black Curtain, the follow up to 2009’s Secret House, found the band closing Hydra Head’s reign not on a skull-crushing note, but with an elegiac and haunting call. Turner’s mournful vocals (chanted, susurrus and echoing) were combined with Plotkin’s down-tuned distortions and deliberately paced riffing, and Wyskida’s sparse and weighty percussion. Intricate drones were constructed to emphasize the exquisiteness of sorrow. Black Curtain‘s lacunal spaces and fissures of silence granted room for its lush warmth to gather. The album drifted in a minimalist, uninhibited manner, but within that meditative state was the acute awareness of strength held in reserve. Black Curtain was soothing and liberating, but its true success lay in its brooding menace, the storm clouds gathering on the horizon.
See also: self-titled split by Mamiffer/Pyramids, Locrian/Mamiffer (Bless Them That Curse You) and Slomo (The Grain).
Locrian: The Clearing/The Final Epoch
Experimental metal/noise trio Locrian has been prolific over its eight-year career, and has received much acclaim for coalescing multiple sonic strains into innovative forms. The Clearing/The Final Epoch, the band’s first CD release for new label Relapse, combined a re-release of 2011’s previously vinyl-only The Clearing with an additional disc of rare material. The Clearing was a darkly imaginative concoction of buzzing and sci-fi-flecked electronics, with dark ambient and industrial tones set against cataclysmic shrieking metal. Submerged within were eerie acoustic harmonies, and brief flickers of light, smothered with slicks of contorted guitar and static-ridden noise. The Final Epoch only upped the unease, with its malformed minimalism splintering off to encompass titanium-strength squalls and ear-splitting screeds of black metal. Locrian has a distinctive, disquieting aesthetic, and The Clearing/The Final Epoch was a superb illustration of the band’s ability to disturb and dazzle.
See also: Terence Hannum ( Burning Impurities), Sky Burial (There I Saw the Grey Wolf Gaping), Gog (Ironworks) and Kreng ( Works for Abattoir Fermé 2007–2011)
Thousands Raised to the Sixth
(Handmade Birds; US: 18 Jul 2012; UK: 18 Jul 2012)
Our Love Will Destroy the World: Thousands Raised to the Sixth
Here at Raganarök we mind our Ps and Qs. However, there’s really no other way to describe the multi-monikered career of New Zealand’s famed avant-guitar explorer Campbell Kneale as anything other than an endless mind-fuck. Kneale’s works are dense, corybantic, unconventional and grueling; his chief concern is to investigate and excavate, no matter the cost. His latest project under his Our Love Will Destroy the World banner, Thousands Raised to the Sixth, was a stunning success. The double disc album reconnoitered multiple genres from East to West, and filtered blissful psychedelia via mutilated drone—all stacked into nuanced strata. Thousands Raised to the Sixth cajoled and corrupted with sounds both beguiling and bloodthirsty—its audio collages both substantial and skeletal. Kneale’s work is an examination of fortitude and receptiveness, but this time, rather than pouring on the acid, it was resoundingly polychromatic. While there was a lot to absorb on Thousands Raised to the Sixth—with faint utterances and foggy, eccentric dreams to be uncloaked—one thing was certain, it was a masterwork of experimental music.
See also: breathtaking works from Handmade Birds label-mates Utarm (Apocryphal Stories) and Preterite (Pillar of Winds), and murky noise from fellow New Zealand fiend MRTYU(Witchfucker).
(Les Acteurs de l’Ombre Productions; US: 27 Apr 2012; UK: 27 Apr 2012)
The Great Old Ones: Al Azif
The influence of author H.P. Lovecraft on heavy metal can’t be understated; his Cthulhu mythos, and copious other Lovecraftian themes, are ingrained in metal’s marrow. Bordeaux-based black metal quartet the Great Old Ones built an album around Lovecraft’s necromantic work this year, doing so with that familiar French grace, and plenty of horror-filled vigor. Al Azif was close to an hour’s worth of shimmery black metal mixed with dingy, old school hyperborean salvos. Like its lyrical inspiration, the album was unearthly, transforming Lovecraftian terror into the eerily entrancing. However, its greatest strength lay (like Lovecraft’s work) in what lurked beneath the surface. Al Azif‘s atmospheric black metal was familiar for fans of the subgenre. But the influence of post-rock, and the album’s thickset production, meant its multi-layered melodies and often unorthodox structure had a tangible sense of dynamism, making the band’s summing up of realities beyond the mundane all the more successful.
See also: Deathspell Omega (Drought), Dodecahedron (Dodecahedron) and Alcest (Les Voyages de L’âme)
Aluk Todolo: Occult Rock
French instrumental trio Aluk Todolo’s Occult Rock, was exactly the kind of album that you want to keep secret. Not because it’s in any way weak—quite the opposite, Occult Rock was pure palliative bliss—but sonic nostrums this sublime are hard to share. Occult Rock was one of 2012’s very best releases, regardless of genre, and it was steeped in trance-inducing black metal, drone, and space rock, all enshrouded in a Krautrock and kosmische mist. With eight marathon songs spread out over 85 minutes, Occult Rock mined a hazy, narcotic vein, with the cyclical thrum of repeated rhythmic phrasing and the mordant nucleus of preternatural metal ever present. Aluk Todolo’s creative vision of an “organic mix of Krautrock‘s strangeness and black metal’s coldness” was unquestionably realized. Occult Rock‘s hypnotic pulse was thick with psychedelic and subliminal ‘70s grooves, along with doom-laden and atonal lo-fi black metal. While ‘transcendent’ is a word thrown around a lot in metal, Occult Rock basked in its arresting audio sorcery and summoned up otherworldly and phantasmagorical experiences at will.
See also: Arktau Eos (Unworeldes and Ioh-Maera), Hexvessel (No Holier Temple), Sabbath Assembly (Ye Are Gods) and Opium Warlords (We Meditate Under the Pussy in the Sky)
In late 2012, Portland, Oregon-based Hell released the inky slab of funeral doom and amp-destroying, blown-out sludge of III. Shorter than its predecessors, I and II, and comprising two songs, what III lacked in overall duration was more than made up for in terms of brutish weight and throttling atmosphere. With both of III‘s songs drawing close to 20 minutes each, it was a harrowing, elongated dirge—a low-end, reverb-drowned crawl that led straight to the gates of Hades. Few albums came close to III‘s massively distorting tonality this year (imagine Sunn O))), Moss or Corrupted dripping with even more mucilaginous resin). The album’s bleeding-throat gargles and crust-laden doom were tuned so slow that in parts it became a mesmeric blur of potentially injurious drone. But cutting through that black tar were beautiful ambient sections, where cleanly picked and melancholic notes worked their way glacially into the choking feedback and mountainous riffing. III was miserableness and desolation par excellence—in every respect, gorgeously grotesque.
See also: Hell/Thou (Resurrection Bay split), Bädr Vogu (Exitium CD reissue), Coffinworm (Great Bringer of the Night compilation), Samothrace (Reverence to Stone) and Inverloch (Dusk… Subside).
German band Eïs (formerly Geïst) lost the bulk of its members and was forced to change its name in 2011, but remaining duo Alboîn and Marlek came back strong in 2012 with Wetterkreuz. An icy blast of second wave melodic black metal (infused with vivid flashes of synth), the album had five lengthy tunes. They conveyed the isolation, majesty and intimidation of blizzard-topped mountain ranges, and were interlinked by a howling, bone-chilling wind. Wetterkreuz‘s dissonant buzz was bitterly atmospheric; the band’s combination of mid-tempo riffing, gravelly vocals and underlying keyboards conjured up the nature-centric attraction of late ‘90s Nordic black metal (rather than the patchouli-scented ‘00s). Still, as much as Eïs drew from a classic period in black metal’s history, the band were not simply toying with the tropes of old. Wetterkreuz was skillfully produced, and there was abundant nuance in its jagged melodies and glacier-sized walls of noise, allowing the album to engulf as much as it transfixed.
See also: the might of Behexen (Nightside Emanations), Mare Cognitum (An Extraconscious Lucidity) and Pseudogod (Deathwomb Catechesis).
Sutekh Hexen: Larvae
Blackened noise experimentalist Sutekh Hexen released two LPs, two EPs and a compilation in 2012, each of them marking new transmogrifications and reference points on its cartogram of occult artistry. Larvae was the band’s first release for 2012. While it retained the relentless dragging of claw and spitefulness of 2011’s Luciform, it represented an opening up of Sutekh Hexen’s sound—its corrosive sheets of distortion offering transcendence, as well as regression. Larvae‘s treble-ridden guitars and malignant vocals lay beneath ritualistic noise, but acoustic guitars, and calmer refrains offered stark contrast, making the darkest sections all the more effective. Larvae was replete with metallic gloom, but the skewed electronics and field recordings of its black heart made it truly compelling. Sutekh Hexen’s adroit layering of mangled noise turned the butchered into the bewitching, and while Larvae was chaotic in texture and tone, it provided an abrasive cleansing of the soul.
See also: Gnaw Their Tongues (Eschatological Scatology), Kevin Drumm (Relief), Ash Pool (Cremation Is Irreversible EP) and Steve R Hess/mise_en_scene (Non-Distinction).
Theologian: Chasms of My Heart
The Chasms of My Heart was one of two full-length releases from Lee M. Bartow’s Theologian in 2012, and was a shift in tack for this respected artist of power electronics and industrial noise. Bartow’s spitting and ill-tempered cascades were modified on The Chasms of My Heart, presenting a more thermospheric than exospheric ambience. While the album incorporated Bartow’s customary layering of synthesized distortion and programmed drones, instead of punctuated stabs, it unfurled as a broader soundscape—its tides of noise constructing a reservoir of fathomless woe. Chasms of My Heart was replete with portentous dirges, but its multifarious layering of voice and vehemence was cradled in an often shoegaze and choral-like sheen. Of course, anger still played its part; Mephistophelean wails and grating noise lacerated the tracks, but in parts the album radiated a beatific glow. Chasms of My Heart was the most intimate album from Bartow yet, and it is one of his most prepossessing and praiseworthy works.
See also: Micromelancolie and Sindre Bjerga (Prayer Calls) and the Caretaker ( Patience: After Sebald and Extra Patience: After Sebald).
Dephosphorus: Night Sky Transform
Greek trio Dephosphorus’s second full-length Night Sky Transform contains elements of grindcore, death metal, black metal, sludge, noise rock and post-hardcore—the blending of all being highly dexterous and original. The album’s conceptual arc tackled big ideas. Gazing into the cosmos, Dephosphorus asked deep questions about our place in the universe, wrapping that inquiry around grinding, angular and aggressive tunes that rapidly shifted tempo and veered off to encompass those myriad metallic styles. Underpinning all was an evolving search for meaning that fearlessly ignored genre and defied categorization, with the band harnessing whatever tools it required to investigate the unknowable. Innovation and introspection were the keys to Night Sky Transform‘s attraction. Dephosphorus had impressed with, Axiom, its astro-grinding debut, but Night Sky Transform wasn’t so much a ‘one small step’ forward, more a ‘giant leap’. From production, arrangement and delivery to its meteoric impact, Night Sky Transform was imaginative and intelligent, melding philosophic and scientific uncertainties into formidable and inventive action.
See also: Cosmos & Culture, Cultural Evolution in a Cosmic Context by Steven J Dick and Mark L Lupisella (a free NASA e-book that inspired the band), Cold Womb Descent ( Rise of Ldaovh, an ambient project crafted by two astronomers, and influenced by “astral creations and clouds of cosmic dust”) and VagusNerve, with its kosmische, feedbacking interstellar jaunt (Go Back to the Sirius).