It’s always a revelation when you discover a metal band that resonates with you deeply, one that hits you right in the gut, or tugs at the old heartstrings. However, it’s even better when you find a band that calls to mind, with searing intensity, agonies you’ve tried your very best to forget. If that all sounds a touch masochistic, keep in mind that the best heavy metal has always summoned tragedy or torment in one form or another. Case in point, the latest album from Netherlands-based black metal trio Nihill. Verdonkermaan is a dissonant hypnotic blur of atmospheric invocations and wretched vomitus – but those aren’t even its best features. It also echoes the hellacious memories of one of the worst nights of my life.
You see, a few years back I was extremely ill in hospital, feverish and delirious with pain. I remember a doctor leaning over me and saying “meningitis” and “lumbar puncture”, and then I watched as he unwrapped the longest hypodermic needle in existence. If you’ve never had a lumbar puncture – or, keeping with the spirit of a metal review, a spinal tap – essentially a 20-odd-gauge needle is inserted into your lower back and fluid is drawn from your spinal column. It’s an unpleasant experience, as excruciating as it sounds. It’s the kind of thing you definitely should wish upon your worst enemies.
Now, I realize you haven’t come here to read about my medical woes. But Verdonkermaan, Nihill’s concluding album in a trilogy, is extremely evocative of just such disturbing procedures. Like its equally harrowing predecessors, Krach and Grond, it mixes the horror of imminent suffering with the terror of being at the mercy of someone who looks as if they’ll take hellish delight in harming you.
As with anything invasive, Verdonkermaan is nerve shattering from the start, with fiendish and raw black metal eliciting stratospheric heights of anxiety on the 10-minute opener “Vuur: The Deathwind of Resurrection”. Vocalist Michiel Eikenaar (who also fronts excellent experimental black metal outfit Dodecahedron) screeches with demoniacal abandon, while all around him a premonitory vortex of blackened noise swirls. You couldn’t hope for a more unsettling beginning. Off-kilter and unorthodox, the song perfectly represents Nihill’s vision of destruction and decomposition; like that needle that pierced my back, it comes with the realization that no amount of anesthetic will dull the impending trauma.
Nihill sits on the avant-garde end of the black metal spectrum. The band crafts black holes of noise, sharing commonalties with Stygian French experimentalists Blut Aus Nord, and black/noise artists such as Gnaw Their Tongues and Wold. The five lengthy songs on Verdonkermaan form an inverted sacramental suite, where catchy refrains and congenial hooks are entirely absent. The album is a 43-minute remorseless surge of buried melodies and eccentric animus, accompanied by the callousness and frostbitten discomfort of bitter and abrasive black metal.
Built around splintering shelves of rancor, “Spiral: The Tail Eater” and “Oerbron: Returning to the Primal Matter” comprise static-ridden riffs, ice-cold feedback, and masses of sinister overtones. “Gnosis Pt. IV” is diaphanous in comparison; its bone-chilling whispers and hypothermic drone are acutely unnerving, increasing the claustrophobia. By the time you reach the aptly titled final track, “Trauma: Crushing Serpens Mercuriales”, the free-form turmoil of Nihill reining-in, realigning, and plowing ahead into even more fragmenting mayhem makes for one darkly divine gyre. Nihill’s dive into the raging pyres of chaos and esotericism is unconventional, but there’s a very clear sense that the band is in complete control of its direction.
Like my lumbar puncture, there’s method to the madness. Although, admittedly, Nihill’s purpose isn’t likely to prove beneficial to your health. The band seeks to corrupt (this is the blackest of black metal, after all), taking as much delight in tightening the vice as it does in contradicting expectations. Where you might expect some coherent or linear structure there is none. Only misanthropic crawls heaped upon atonal cacophonies – completing the trilogy in a wholly appropriate cataclysmic crescendo.
When the doctor pushed that needle through muscle and sinew towards my spine, existentially gruesome images flashed through my mind and monstrous wails filled my head. That’s exactly the kind of emotional state that Nihill induces. The band takes understandable experiences and thrusts them into surreal realms. Verdonkermann contains all the familiar elements of black metal – blastbeats, harsh production, dissonance galore – and is replete with a black-hearted nefariousness. But those familiarities exist as reference points, as Nihill takes the recognizable and mutates it all with devilish glee into an elongated smear of filthy noise.
As I discovered when that hypodermic was being slowly withdrawn, such experiences are conduits into a cosmos of unexplored pain and bewilderment. Verdonkermann is a purgatorial blast into diabolical spheres, a fitting end to a tormenting, three-album procedure, and a dirty needle stabbed straight into your spine.