In August 2012, Californian black metal band Ash Borer released its sophomore full-length, Cold of Ages, to much acclaim. It was a richly detailed and harrowing album, and its four marathon tracks covered a lot of different tundra—from abrasive storms of black and melodic rustic metal to murky synthesized passages to chilling drone and noise. Cold of Ages was a noteworthy entry in the U.S. black metal canon, and a justly praised release. The fact that the band had recently expanded to a five-piece meant it had a sense of experimentation, resulting in a more textured and layered sound. The band’s 2009 demo, 2010’s split release with Fell Voices, and self-titled 2011 debut were all excellent examples of underground feral black metal. But while those releases were crusty, raw, and jagged, Cold of Ages had a fuller production that was as enveloping as it was assaulting. It showed a further whetting of the band’s barbaric technique—an evolving methodology that has seen Ash Borer broaden its palette by incorporating more atmospheric tools and lengthening its songs, thereby revealing a wider picture of overarching bleakness.
Ash Borer’s latest release, Bloodlands, is a two-song, vinyl only EP that shows the band staying true to its artistic ideals by following its own distinct course. The band’s sense of threatening skies is spread over the dense and stratified 15 minutes of “Oblivion’s Spring” and the 20 minutes of “Dirge/Purgation”. Both tracks were recorded live and mixed on 1/2” tape, giving them a rawer, more visceral sound in keeping with Ash Borer’s earliest releases. However, Bloodlands is no step back in time. It continues Ash Borer’s quest to find that grim union of despondent dynamics and cruel coherence. It is a bitter and hypnotic expulsion, with Ash Borer manipulating the melodies to lure you in, before beginning the savaging of the soul and the flaying of flesh.
The journey commences with “Oblivion’s Spring”, and oblivion is certainly the key word here. Ash Borer offers a tour of desolation by beginning with a glacial and echoing guitar line supported by the eerie synth, before all is engulfed in a blizzard of tremolo iciness and unearthly howls from the abyss. From there on in, cyclical roils of intense and often atonal riffing, tumultuous drumming, and blood-curdling vocals construct a direful melody that rises and falls throughout. The song drones out on more sinister synth, evoking inhospitable landscapes scoured of light and life.
While “Oblivion’s Spring” guides you through chasms of despair, “Dirge/Purgation” is an odyssey of entombment. “Dirge…” is four minutes (give or take) of rumbling and synthesized dark ambience. A dark threnody-like intro, with distorting waves of shoegaze guitar and clotted heartbeats of percussion, add a sense of beauty to its gloom. “…Purgation” follows on, with mid-tempo seething riffs that escalate and escalate, and then escalate some more, utill all is consumed by strident noise and feedback. As with all of Ash Borer’s lengthy excursions, “…Purgation” fluctuates; its mesmeric core melody combines with the menace of unsure footing, as the torrents of riffs, drums and shrieked vocals amplify the merciless ferocity.
Much like the tracks of Cold of Ages, Bloodlands’ songs reflect the recurring patterns of life: birth, awakenings, hope, anguish, anger, and a rebirth through struggle and confrontation of our true selves, our base desires and our fears. The EP is taut (despite its length), with Ash Borer refining its shifts from harshness to light. The band infuses its songs with textural depth and tides of emotionality without losing focus on the overarching current. Much of that gravity comes from the heavier use of synth, which is astutely incorporated into Bloodlands’ portentous cascades.
For any black metal to be effective it needs to meet two simple artistic requirements: create a credible atmosphere and convey the ill-tempered emotion therein. Ash Borer doesn’t simply communicate those elements; it enshrouds the listener in them. That is why Bloodlands has such a powerful impact over its 34 minutes, and that is why Ash Borer is one of the most important bands of U.S. black metal.