The US black metal scene is filled with headstrong, unique artists and wildly varying geographic and stylistic accents. However, for all its heterogeneousness, the scene has one common denominator; namely, that the artists within often follow their paths with a single-minded purity of vision. Bands may get knocked for being too urbane, bucolic or (gulp) transcendental, and easy tags are thrown about (glimpse of a tree line—it must be Cascadian) but there’s no doubt that the best bands have stayed true to their artistic ideals regardless of classification fuss and bother.
Ignoring taxonomical concerns, Californian quintet Ash Borer has been building a profile since its formation in ‘08 with just such single-minded creativity—its idiosyncratic work is widely appreciated for its integrity and imagination. A demo in ‘09, a split release with Fell Voices in ‘10, and a self-titled debut in ‘11 were all excellent examples of raw, feral, and distinctly US black metal. Each brought the band a new level of attention.
However, Ash Borer’s new album, Cold of Ages, is a huge compositional advance, being a great deal more atmospheric and finely textured than its debut. It’s a beautifully harrowing and multifaceted exploration into the artistry of desolation. The extra time spent writing and recording as a fully-fledged five-piece (as opposed to the trio that shaped the debut) has resulted in a detailed and hypnotic release. The four songs on Cold of Ages range from 11 to 18 minutes plus. Each sees icy sheets of corrosive black metal drench ambient drones, and all the switchblade flicks of nuance and synth-laden gloom are captured expertly.
Like many black metal bands that travel the epic route, Ash Borer uses cyclical harmonic devices to maximize the mesmeric potential of its songs. On the new album though, some of the hard crust from the band’s past work has been scraped off its enrapturing rhythms, to reveal an icier shoegaze sheen. The 16-minute “Descended Lamentations” opens on a swirl of bitter synth and steadily building dissonant guitars, till three minutes in, when it all erupts in reverb-rich riffing and fierce percussion. Built around repetitive tremolo melodies, the song is eventually borne away on a liquid drone, but throughout it tumbles into abysses only to claw its way out. That cyclical riffing paired with crooked melodies fosters its trance-like aura, and secures its metaphysical tone.
That same sense of structure runs throughout the album. Savage interchanging rhythms filter through walls of noise, only to be stripped naked to reveal intense moments of clarity and sub-zero isolation. “Phantoms”, with its mid-tempo harshness and echoed piercing vocals, catches a few hooks as it traverses a gloomy gorge before falling headfirst into a raging torrent—ending with an eerie pulse of ambient synth. On “Removed Forms” the band evokes a dust-bowl scene. It begins with a dustier, almost Americana-styled intro before waves of distorting riffs arrive. Then the band dumps the buzz and blur for a mid-song moment of post-rock-like beautification, before incinerating it all again, allowing it to smolder out on a discordant drone.
In those songs’ variances Ash Borer shows its skill in balancing the devastating with the dexterous, but it’s most evident on the nearly 20-minute highlight, “Convict All Flesh”. Beginning with a sour, droning riff and harsh bellows, it is fleshed out by ethereal choral vocals from Worm Ouroboros’s Jessica Way, which in turn are swept aside by a deluge of guitars and drums. Binding bulk to the brooding and chilling, wild howls lie buried in the mix, and a furious surge of alternating riffs pile layers atop layers towards the track’s mid-point, where everything falls away. Eastern picked notes arrive, set against a gelid and godforsaken guitar line, till once again the song picks up speed and burns out on a trail littered with the detritus of abstract noise. It is a wholly stunning track, Ash Borer’s best yet, and it is brought to a spectacularly desolate conclusion.
Whether Cold of Ages reflects the repeated patterns of nature and life, a nihilistic devotion to demolition, or rebirth from the ashes has been left open to interpretation—there are no lyrics here. What is very clear, however, is that Cold of Ages is hugely important for the US black metal scene. Ash Borer has stamped a mark with this album that should rightly see the band spoken of alongside influential acts such as Weakling, Agalloch, Von, Krallice, and Wolves in the Throne Room. Certainly, Ash Borer has something distinctively individual and highly imaginative to add to the scene, and the prospect of what looms ahead is thrilling.