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Music

Splitsville: What Makes a Truly Great Metal Split?

Artwork by Converge frontman Jacob Bannon.

The domain of the heavy metal full-length is a thunderously powerful realm, but so too is the sphere of its more compendious cousin, the split release. This month's Ragnarök investigates five recent releases, exploring the whys and wherefores of what makes a truly great metal split.

Gilead Media is a record label based in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Founded in 2005 by Adam Bartlett, the label deals primarily in vinyl releases, although it has an active Bandcamp page for those less inclined to spin the black circle. Bartlett handles all the aspects of Gilead Media's operations, dealing with the endless minutiae of running a DIY label. Underground labels like this, run by dedicated music fans, form the backbone of the metal scene. For little, or more commonly zero, financial reward, such labels provide the all-important skeletal framework onto which the metal scene affixes its muscle.

The determined spirit that Gilead Media and its many kin exhibit has always nurtured the metal scene. In that underground the most interesting ideas and sounds germinate and come to fruition. One of the more bountiful crops, reaping fantastic yields and providing fans with extra sustenance over the years, is split releases. The best metal is all about tilling the artistic soil for ideas, working hard till your hands are calloused, and hopefully cultivating rich and nourishing results. What have any of these farming metaphors got to do with Gilead Media? Well, the label has harvested a prize-worthy release with the new split release from black metal groups False and Barghest.

Splits 101

Split releases have played a crucial role in highlighting metal's varied and increasingly cross-pollinating sub-genres for decades (as they have for a variety of genres -- punk, electronica, or otherwise). Historically, acts usually contributed a few tracks each to a split, divvying-up the running time fairly evenly. These days, it's not unusual to find acts providing a single mammoth track, and all manner of permeations pervade.

Keeping track of a band’s discography can prove difficult if it happens to be prolific, releasing material on multiple labels in multiple formats as well as self-releasing works on the side. Splits add to the confusion, because in many cases they are limited physical releases--although the digital age has done much to negate the difficulty of locating them. Splits comprise acts of similar and dissimilar sonic brogues, and with metal’s wanton commingling, conceptual and philosophical similarities are often the binding traits.

There are many advantages to sharing a split release. Aside from reducing costs--an important element in a genre filled with struggling artists and labels--a split also allows a band to promote its work to another’s fan base (and vice versa). Bands can also link themes across splits, or indulge in a little competitive one-upmanship, seeing who can out-brutalize or out-dazzle the other. That makes the listening experience even more stimulating, as you mull over whose contribution you favor. Splits are often beautifully packaged, an opportunity for visual artists, labels and bands to collaborate more adventurously, especially on limited edition releases.

Of course, splits are not always put together with the best intentions; some are mere stopgaps between releases, some are bootleg cash-grabs of no benefit to either artists or fans. Others are comprised of previously unreleased tracks that should have stayed that way. Still, when they work well, mystical or more temporal motifs combined with barbaric, intricate or catchy hooks make for stellar splits. Obviously, those very same qualities are crucial for a full-length too, but given the succinct format of a split, there's little time for filler.

Splits 102

The metal genre is replete with classic split releases. Many are formative, seminal works, routinely cited as hugely inspirational and offering the first (sometimes only) glimpses of bands that would go on to define metal's various sub-genres. There are untold thousands of splits in the annals of metal, and whittling those down to a chosen few is near impossible. Splits are usually (but not exclusively) subterranean releases, and also deeply personal works for fans, often hidden from the mainstream and spoken of in whispers.

Accordingly, it's difficult to judge the artistic hierarchy of splits. Cleary, '89's Napalm Death/S.O.B split, and '99's Thorns/Emperor release are important in a historical context. But are they more important to fans than, say, '05's Graves at Sea/Asunder split, or '04's Xasthur/Leviathan and Agalloch/Nest releases? Katatonia and Primordial’s 10-inch split from '97 might represent the perfect combination of acts for some. But so too might '11's Creeping/Glorior Belli 12-inch, Rites of Spiritual Death, or S.V.E.S.T and Deathspell Omega’s collaboration from '08, Veritas Diaboli Manet in Aeternum. (Yet others might point to '89's Metal Duck/Lawnmower Deth’s Mower Liberation Front/Quack 'Em All as a true highlight.)

Ultimately, those personal reactions to split releases make the format so fascinating. The Celestiial/Blood of the Black Owl split from '08 might be something you cherish, and will argue the merits of ad infinitum. However, this year’s Year of No Light/Altar of Plagues and Funebrarum/Undergang splits are equally important--and why isn't everyone still hollering about those Ash Borer/Fell Voices and Panopticon/Wheels Within Wheels releases?

A genuinely great metal split not only provides fantastically thundering music; if you're lucky it also sparks a fire of debate. If there's one thing a metal fan loves as much as some thoroughly bruising music, it's a damn good tussle over who bests who in the riff-wielding arena. Which brings us back to Gilead Media, and a look at five recent collaborations, with the aim of deciphering and illuminating some of the elements that go into making a great split release.

Barghest/False

The recent release from Barghest and False is not the only split Gilead Media has released in '12 that left metal fans frothing at the bit and reaching quickly for their wallets. Resurrection Bay, from prolific swamp dredger Thou and fellow sludgy drone-hound Hell, offered a glimpse into everything that makes a split a success--enthralling tunes, beautiful artwork, and word of its release spreading rapidly through the grapevine. The Barghest/False release continues that lesson.

Barghest, of Louisiana, and False, of Minnesota, have both already released well-received (and well worth acquiring) debuts for Gilead Media. Spawned from the diverse US black metal scene, both bands have a different accent. Barghest concentrates on crustier, old school, vile bursts of black metal, while False, no less an abrasive entity, takes a more serpentine route before letting loose the savagery.

Barghest’s contributions, "Shifting Sands" and "Inhuman Hatred", are both fetid ruptures of misanthropy and bile--the iniquitous, clotted putrescence of heinous Southern metal drips from each track. Counterpointing that, False offers something initially subtler. With more overt Scandinavian influences, the band’s 17-minute "Heavy As a Church Tower" crawls forth at first. Shimmery tremolo riffs and sinister keyboards sculpt a desolate vista, before things become perfectly pitch black as rasping wrathful vocals arrive.

The disparity between the two approaches, and the commonalities of the two acts, makes the split extremely successful. These two relatively new black metal bands reveal the breadth of the contemporary US scene. Both clearly owe a debt to the genre’s forbears, yet each transforms those influences into something wholly its own--the perfect illustration of a classic split.


Alaric/Atriarch

Often, the attraction of a split release is the overriding thematic connections between acts. Such is the case between California's Alaric and Oregon's Atriarch. Their recent split represents two distinctly different stylistic approaches. Yet both bands retain very similar ritualistic and esoteric themes, circling an intersecting core of gothic ruminations.

Alaric released its debut self-titled full-length in 2011 on revered label 20 Buck Spin. The deathrock band, comprising veterans from the Bay Area punk and crossover scenes, plays a blend of post and anarcho-punk combined with icy avant-rock. While certainly not 'metal' in any traditional sense, Alaric's debut was welcomed by fans of heavy rock. Its intensity and atmosphere was unrelenting, similar to the best morbidly toned work of Killing Joke or Christian Death. Atriarch also released its debut album in 2011 on the excellent label Seventh Rule. Forever the End was a heavily ceremonial mix of blackened doom, post-punk and off-kilter black metal. It too was widely acclaimed in both metal and non-metal circles.

What makes this split so special is that it was crafted specifically as a joint release, with both bands aiming to complement each other philosophically and sonically. Atriarch has concentrated on mid-tempo dirges, while retaining every ounce of its apocalyptic feel. Its two tracks, " Oblivion" and "Offerings", are resoundingly grim. "Offerings" slathers on the suffocating doom before robotic post-punk appears, and the band smothers it all with a surge of black metal.

Alaric's three tracks are no less cataclysmic. "Memory Assault", "So Far Down", and "Weep" exhibit a wonderfully bleak ambience. Tribal percussion, and a guitar tone that drifts from hyper to hypothermic, are blended with thick textural waves of '80s atmospherics, resulting in a steadfastly melancholic mood throughout.

The Alaric/Atriarch split represents two bands merging homologous threads to craft a potent mix. Each band faces the same precipice of desolation, and though each has taken a different path to arrive at that point, they both provide nuanced works that are resolutely bound together in their totality of darkness and despair.

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