Every December, young and old gather excitedly for the annual end of year list season, becoming intoxicated with joy or apoplectic with anger as they gaze upon the chosen fare. Such lists are a grand opportunity to unearth new sounds. Personally, their appearance fills me with a rapturous fervor — but then, I can get fairly orgasmic about a well-ordered shopping list, too. Obviously, not everyone is bursting with climactic joie de vivre during list season. Collective and individual lists carry all the biased passion of authors and editors, and understandably, opinions about their validity are hurled about. Everyone’s entitled to his or her opinion of course, even if it comes wrapped in a torrent of feculent abuse.
Lists that delve into the cacophonous spectrums tackle genres already fuelled by vociferous convictions, and commentary boxes soon fill with the mutilated remains of writers’ opinions. (And you’ll find websites rating lists as well, granting space for second-degree burns.) Such is the way with the louder domains; they’re founded on sulfurous sentiment, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. At the end of the day, music is as intimate and visceral as you can get, and the fact that it provokes such intense reactions only affirms its significance — at least, that’s the mantra I sing to stop myself weeping uncontrollably because Goatfucker666 called me a very bad name.
Well, here at Ragnarök, we don’t go in for kvlt credibility, or worry about what’s stylish or cool. As a gray-bearded lump who spends most of my time pondering how to furtively siphon funds from the grocery money in order to buy a Lego Millennium Falcon, I have a distinct lack of said kvltness and coolness. Instead, in the six months of Ragnarök’s existence, the aim has been to highlight creative ventures with a strong sense of integrity — all of them linked in some manner to a loud aesthetic, even if delivered in a devilishly tranquil manner.
This year’s final Ragnarök continues that theme with an alternative end of year roundup, of sorts. Rather than counting down any top picks, this columns focus is on works that you may have missed during the year. You’ll find artists from black and death metal, drone and noise — plus another couple of cheeky choices I snuck in at no extra cost. Many of my favorites from the year are listed here, those I haven’t had the opportunity to write about elsewhere, and they all deserve to be mentioned.
It’s an incomplete list, chiefly because it lacks your contributions. While I’d encourage you to seek out the artists mentioned in this column (if you’re not already celebrating their work) there’s also that commentary box below. I want to hear about your choices of the year’s under-recognized albums, ones you’ve not seen on anyone else’s list. Whether this is your first visit to Ragnarök, or whether you’ve been following the column since its inception, thanks very much for stopping by, and happy Yule. (Special thanks also to my editor, Karen, who actually has to read this stuff.)
Welcome to Ragnarök’s inaugural end of year roundup — my own Gloomy Award nominations, if you will — where there are no winners or losers, just a raft of commanding and creative contenders. And this year’s nominees are…
Label: Terratur Possessions
US Release Date: 2012-04-10
UK Release Date: 2012-04-10
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/r/ragnorak-imperator-cvr.jpgDødsengel: Imperator
Black metal is no stranger to colossal, ambitious works; endless symphonic twaddle is regurgitated every year. However, Imperator, the two-disc, 150-minute occult-fuelled epic from Norway duo Dødsengel, was the boldest black metal album of 2012. Dødsengel’s third full-length channeled orthodox and progressive black metal, psychedelia, and droning flourishes into a monolithic suite full of hypnotic and darkly tempting allurements. Admittedly, some would see Imperator‘s duration as pure self-indulgence, and they’d be right. But what is black metal if not brazen and arrogant? The heavily ritualized aura and sheer audacity of Imperator was reminiscent of the defiant shifts in Blut Aus Nord’s temper as it investigated black metal’s potential, and as a complete journey, Imperator was exquisitely baleful throughout. Imperator was unquestionably challenging, but Dødsengel’s vision, and its desire to experiment, was all bound together in a masterful display of recalcitrance and scornfulness–a true test of one’s mettle.
See also: adventurous, albeit not so lengthy, pursuits from Lunar Aurora (Hoagascht), Velnias (RuneEater), and Botanist (III: Doom in Bloom / Allies).
Album: Stagnant Waters
US Release Date: 2012-10-29
UK Release Date: 2012-10-29
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/r/ragnorok-stagnantwaters-cvr.jpgStagnant Waters: Stagnant Waters
The self-titled debut from French/Norwegian trio Stagnant Waters pitched headfirst into an improvised ‘Dadaistic’ mire of crashing industrial guitars and electronics. Vocalist Svein Egil, drummer, electronics operator and clarinetist Aymeric Thomas, and guitarist and bassist Camillle Giraudeau crafted an album that was about as far removed from the band’s moniker as possible. With spontaneous recordings that barely came close to being accessible, Stagnant Waters‘s maniacal collision of black metal, ’90s noise and experimental rock was a madhouse-bound plunge into a disharmonious orgy. Its obnoxious, clinging aftertaste would have made John Zorn, Throbbing Gristle and Einstürzende Neubauten blush. As you’d expect from an improvised work, it was all wild modulations and clanging intonations. If you can imagine a collection of serial killers playing avant-jazz on electronic cutlery in the midst of a chemical spill, you’re getting close to the free-for-all dementedness found here.
See also: magnificent insanity from Wizard Rifle (Speak Loud Say Nothing) and Furze ( Psych Minus Space Control).
US Release Date: 2012-03-03
UK Release Date: 2012-03-03
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/r/ragnorok-inter-cvr.jpgThe Sequence of Prime: Inter-
As Brandon Duncan, the mastermind responsible for the Sequence of Prime’s pan-dimensional, paradigm-quaking Inter- pointed out in a recent interview, “Everything about space, scientifically, aesthetically and metaphorically, is pure metal.” On Inter-, the follow up to 2010’s cybertronic bombardment Virion, Duncan explored the fabric of reality and the enormity of space, with a narrative focus encompassing theoretical physics, black holes, and all manner of cosmic horror. Aptly, Inter- was Tardis-like in its depth; Duncan packed a colossal amount of lyrical ideas and turbo-thrashing mayhem into 24 frenetic minutes. Hypotheses mixed with grinding vortexes, and bolide fireballs relentlessly rained down on technical wizardry. The music and conceptual scope of Inter- was hugely impressive. The fact that Duncan handled all the instrumentation and vocals, designed all the artwork, and gave the album away for free (as well as providing a handy reading list) only made the package more extraordinary. Inter- was superb, in very facet, and Duncan addressed the unfathomable interstellar void with an astronomical amount of inspiration and mad genius.
See also: pick of the year for digital zine, Backlit. This is a collaboration overseen by Brandon Duncan and overlord of the That’s How Kids Die website Josh Haun. Excellent contributions come from The Dragon of M87 and Metal Review authors Dan Obstkrieg (metal writer of the year, if we’re playing favorites) and Jordan Campbell. Backlit‘s aim is to “drag the old school metal zine into the future” and that goal was resoundingly met–issue #0 being beautifully presented and rich with nostalgic (but not dated) traces.
Label: Nuclear War Now!
US Release Date: 2012-03-31
UK Release Date: 2012-03-31
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/r/ragnorak-contragenesis-cvr.jpgIgnivomous: Contragenesis
Ignivomous is routinely compared to death metal pioneer Incantation, but the Australian quartet is no tired imitation. Sure, Contragenesis, Ignivomous’s follow up to 2009’s nasty Death Transmutation, owed a debt to old school death metal, but it paid that with due reverence, honoring the core elements of early ’90s death metal: brutality and filth. From its iron-fisted and unhinged riffing and soloing, to its dirty blast-beats and cavernous growling vocals, Contragenesis was all about obliteration–iniquitous, muddy melodies oozed from every song. Ignivomous’s focus was clearly on vicious old school authenticity, and Contragenesis reeked of the carnage and perversity of classic death metal. It was raw and chaotic, but its familiarity with days of yore took nothing away from its dark artistry. Ignivomous’s technicality, combined with Contragenesis‘s viscous, roily production, served as a wicked reminder of death metal’s finest, and most powerful, attributes.
See also: Revenge (Scum.Collapse.Eradication), Hooded Menace (Effigies of Evil), Deathevokation (Revel in Flesh) and Wrathprayer (The Sun of Moloch: The Sublimation of Sulphur’s Essence Which Spawned Death and Life).
Album: Flesh Cathedral
Label: Daemon Worship Productions
US Release Date: 2012-12-03
UK Release Date: 2012-12-03
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/r/ragnorok-fleshcathedral-cvr.jpgSvartidauði: Flesh Cathedral
Comprised of four ten-minute maleficent tracks of ratcheting tension and degenerate menace, Flesh Cathedral, the debut full-length from Icelandic quartet Svartidauði, was dense, pernicious and utterly corruptive. A cacophonous blend of churning swampy noise laced with the lysergic taint of a trip gone very, very wrong, Flesh Cathedral didn’t so much as dive straight into the igneous heart of black metal, as tear it from its chest. The album mixed often-skewed tremolo riffing, rumbling bass and burly percussion–with croaking howls, growls and ear-splitting shrieks scattered among its deviant swerves. You’d hardly call Flesh Cathedral experimental or progressive, even though the songs stretched out–those terms seem far too grandiose for its feral barbarity. However, its fetid divergences drew from Killing Joke as much as from Deathspell Omega, and the band explored whatever musical route it desired, so long as it was stained with blood and bile. It’s difficult when presented with an album like Flesh Cathedral to compliment it without taking away from its inherent filthiness. Suffice to say, it was magnificently rendered squalor and ruination. A staggeringly good debut, from a band with much to offer to black metal’s wayward sphere.
See also: impressive self-titled debuts from Anicon, Vattnet Viskar, and Fhoi Myore, as well as Oak Pantheon (From a WhisperRuining You), Wildernessking (The Writing of Gods in the Sand) and Rahu (The Quest for the Vajra of Shadows).
Album: The Grand Tormentor
Label: Osmose Productions
US Release Date: 2012-06-12
UK Release Date: 2012-06-25
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/r/ragnorok-grandtormenter-cvr.jpgWitchrist: The Grand Tormentor
Along with fellow New Zealand blackened death metal berserkers Diocletian, Witchrist are commanding exponents of begrimed and merciless war metal. The band’s 2012 release, The Grand Tormentor, was a 50-minute plummet into stygian depths and enigmatic mysticism. Mixing bloody and profane doom with cyclonic, über-distorted death metal, The Grand Tormentor emanated a clotted, oppressive atmosphere. It lurched from one heaving churn to the next, exuding all the maliciousness and murkiness required to seal its primitive, primal tension. The Grand Tormentor was less tenebrous and warped than Witchrist’s debut, Beheaded Ouroboros, but that change didn’t mark a lessening of intensity. Witchrist ensured its more straightforward mid-tempo dirges remained crushingly heavy–the slower, sludgy sections granting room for all the putrescence-dripping riffs to be admired. The Grand Tormentor still bludgeoned with ruthless abandon, but its tale of celestial battles was more readily understood. With clarity came even more strength.
See also: Diocletian (who released the Annihilation Rituals compilation and superb Disciples of War split with Weregoat in 2012) and Vassafor (with 2012’s Obsidian Codex full-length, andElegy of the Archeonaut compilation).
US Release Date: 2012-07-20
UK Release Date: 2012-07-02
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/r/ragnorok-northumbria-cvr.jpgNorthumbria: Northumbria
Northumbria, the Toronto-based ambient metal duo of Jim Field and Dorian Williamson, released its powerful, entrancing self-titled debut this year. Comprising five exquisite and lengthy ür-drone suites (improvised and recorded live in a 19th century church) Northumbria was, aptly, a cathedral of sounds. Using nothing more than amplified guitar and bass, Field and Williamson’s hymns were thunderously moody, but, like the site of their recording, they also offered sanctuary and great comfort. Tinkling gothic timbres and ethereal wisps of post-rock tranquility drifted throughout Northumbria. While the James Plotkin-mastered release reverberated with tumultuous movements, there was diaphanous, heartbreaking ambience aplenty. Northumbria‘s plaintive waves conjured images of stumbling across snow-covered prairies, post-apocalyptic vistas or lying safe in a loved one’s arms. Through it all Northumbria‘s unfurling, moving passages offered catharsis and clarity, and while drone can be barren and featureless, Northumbria was stunningly fertile–rich with emotional resonance and simply beautiful noise.
See also: Menace Ruine (Alight in Ashes), Vozrozhdeniya (La Naturaleza del Cansancio), Thomas Köner (Novaya Zemlya) and Sunn O)))/Nurse With Wound (The Iron Soul of Nothing reissue).
Album: Dragged from Our Restless Trance
Label: Forcefield Records
US Release Date: 2012-02-29
UK Release Date: 2012-02-29
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/r/ragnorok-draggedtrance-cvr.jpgBastard Sapling: Dragged from Our Restless Trance
With its first full-length, Dragged from Our Restless Trance, US black metal five-piece Bastard Sapling released one of the best black metal albums in 2012 — debut or otherwise. Taking its cues from old school Scandinavian legends such as Immortal and early Ulver, Bastard Sapling drew from the guts of black metal’s forefathers (note its remorseless iniquity and malice), but branded its work with an individualistic sigil. Dragged from Our Restless Trance‘s mix of primal, lo-fi black metal with a strident tempo saw Bastard Sapling setting its eye firmly on tradition. However, rather than creating a rote revision, those orthodox elements were one of its greatest strengths; its frantic tremolo picking, snarling vocals and sustained aggression proved there was still plentiful creativity to be found in black metal fundamentals. Still, Dragged from Our Restless Trance wasn’t all a celebration of a bygone era. The album also had an abundance of contemporary zeal, particularly where lachrymose atmospherics touched upon death and doom metal, and adroit technical fills emerged from the fusillades of fury.
See also: 2012’s Odz Manouk and Tukaaria reissues on Profound Lore, label Rhinocervs’ RH-12, RH-13, RH-14 and Muknal (self-titled demo, and split with the Haunting Presence).
Album: Angel’s Necropolis
Label: Ván Records
US Release Date: 2012-12-10
UK Release Date: 2012-12-10
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/r/ragnorok-angelsnecropolis-cvr.jpgYear of the Goat: Angels’ Necropolis
Satan sells, and the past few years have seen a steady stream of ‘occult’ rock acts trading in magic and mystery. Unfortunately, many of those bands have produced nothing more than clichéd bilge, but thankfully there are bands for which occultism is more than a symbolic crutch. In 2011, Germany’s indomitable VÁN Records ended the year spectacularly with an avowedly magickal release courtesy of the Devil’s Blood’s The Thousandfold Epicentre. In 2012 the label did it again with Swedish sextet Year of the Goat’s Angels’ Necropolis. Given Sweden’s dominance of the retro rock market, it was no surprise to find Year of the Goat’s ’60s and ’70s jangling psychedelia and doom-prog having certain sonic similarities to fellow Swede hard rock luminaries Witchcraft and Graveyard. But when Year of the Goat spoke of Angels’ Necropolis as an “an alternative gospel”, there was no doubting the band’s ill-omened sincerity. Angels’ Necropolis had hooks galore–riffs, harmonies and mellotron melodies flowing freely throughout. Yet, while Year of the Goat showed plenty of musical mastery, it was the band’s dedicated diabolism that truly underscored the significance of Angels’ Necropolis. About as perfect a Christmas present as Old Nick could deliver.
See also: two other top contenders in the sinful rocking game: self-titled debuts from Jess and the Ancient Ones, and Devil.
Album: Vápna lækjar eldr
Label: Ván Records
US Release Date: 2012-07-17
UK Release Date: 2012-07-15
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/r/ragnorak-vapna-cvr.jpg Árstíðir Lífsins: Vápna lækjar eldr
Árstíðir Lífsins’ sophomore album, Vápna lækjar eldr, was a rich, hauntingly beautiful and spirited affair. The nine-member band (from Iceland, Norway and Germany) sang rousing odes to hearth, home, nature and heritage, in a historic Icelandic dialect–weaving traditional Scandinavian folk and heathen black metal throughout. Vápna lækjar eldr was expertly paced and arranged, and with a tale based on historical literature and recent research it told of medieval Icelandic culture, minus the clichés. Rollicking Viking metal is endless fun, but Vápna lækjar eldr‘s blending of traditional, acoustic and electric instrumentation was distinctive and veridical–perfectly balancing its delicate sections with ferocious, exhilarating passages. Backed by vocals–mixing baritone barks and folkloristic choirs–the music and saga aligned seamlessly. This bolstered the album’s overall evocativeness, and underscored the stouthearted feel of its fiery songs. Vápna lækjar eldr was a true work of art.
See also: evocative fare from Skagos (Anarchic), Wheels Within Wheels (split with Merkaba and full-length with Aptrgangr), Women is the Earth (This Place That Contains My Spirit) and Finsterforst (Rastlos).
Monstrous, Nightmarishly Ugly — Perfect
Album: The Sanctum of Human Darkness
Label: Dark Descent
US Release Date: 2012-12-15
UK Release Date: 2012-12-15
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/r/ragnorok-sanctumdarkness-cvr.jpgDesolate Shrine: The Sanctum of Human Darkness
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).
Album: Black Curtain
Label: Hydra Head
US Release Date: 2012-10-02
UK Release Date: 2012-10-02
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/r/ragnorok-blackcurtain-cvr.jpgJodis: 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).
Album: The Clearing/The Final Epoch
US Release Date: 2012-08-14
UK Release Date: 2012-08-27
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/r/ragnorok-clearing-cvr.jpgLocrian: 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)
Album: Thousands Raised to the Sixth
Label: Handmade Birds
US Release Date: 2012-07-18
UK Release Date: 2012-07-18
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/r/ragnorok-thousandsraised-cvr.jpgOur 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).
Album: Al Azif
Label: Les Acteurs de l’Ombre Productions
US Release Date: 2012-04-27
UK Release Date: 2012-04-27
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/r/ragnorok-alazif-cvr.jpgThe 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)
Album: Occult Rock
Label: Ajna Offensive
US Release Date: 2012-09-21
UK Release Date: 2012-09-21
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/r/ragnorok-occultrock-cvr.jpgAluk 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)
Label: Eternal Warfare
US Release Date: 2012-10-09
UK Release Date: 2012-10-09
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/r/ragnorok-hell-iii-cvr.jpgHell: III
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).
Label: Prophecy Productions
US Release Date: 2012-11-13
UK Release Date: 2012-10-22
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/r/ragnorak-wetterkreuz-cvr.jpgEïs: Wetterkreuz
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).
Label: Handmaid Birds
US Release Date: 2012-02-21
UK Release Date: 2012-02-21
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/r/ragnorok-larvae-cvr.jpgSutekh 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).
Album: Chasms of My Heart
Label: Crucial Blast
US Release Date: 2012-09-24
UK Release Date: 2012-09-24
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/r/ragnorok-chasms-cvr.jpgTheologian: 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).
Album: Night Sky Transform
Label: 7 Degrees Records
US Release Date: 2012-08-20
UK Release Date: 2012-08-20
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/r/ragnorok-nightsky-cvr.jpgDephosphorus: 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).