Latitudes and Longitudes of Darkness: Four Remarkable 2013 Black Metal Albums
Black metal's compass may be spinning in many different directions in 2013, but at its best, the genre remains neither safe nor accommodating.
Venom's 1982 album, Black Metal, provided the name for the genre, Bathory's self-titled 1984 album brought the ungodly raw propellant, and the '90s Second Wave horde added their bloodthirsty, symphonic, atmospheric, and folk-leaning evolutionary fuel. The defining elements of early black metal -- blitzkrieg tremolo riffing, berserker blast-beats, shrieks from the abyss and abrasive productions -- still ring loud in a plethora of inhospitable bands around the globe who honor the murderous motifs first carved by the genre's pioneers. However, black metal's sound and thundering echo has traveled far beyond the fjords and snow-topped peaks of its beginnings.
Many black metal bands now push well beyond the borders the genre established early on, furiously hacking distinct ideological and musical pathways. Yet, no matter how disparate their sounds, no matter whether they inhabit micro-scenes, have macro-visions, or are misanthropes who wish to remain wholly anonymous, all bands drawing from black metal recognize that the genre has a formidable and modifiable cache of sonic and thematic ordnance. Munitions from black metal's armory are used in every sub-genre of metal. But not only have bands utilized black metal's foundational elements in their original form, they have also reconstructed those elements into new configurations via markedly different visualizations.
For many black metal bands, corpse-paint, Satan, or anything remotely sinful is irrelevant. Mother Earth, the rights of indigenous peoples, metropolis-driven personal anxieties, and science fact and fiction play a stronger role in their creations. That reshaping of black metal's parameters has brought its share of controversy. Hateful grumbles have arisen from the underground to accompany black metal's diversification and transformation, and differing philosophies about what constitutes 'true' black metal engage in battle. Whatever side of the fence you sit on -- and it's worth noting that black metal is supposed to pour scorn on restrictions and rules -- much magnificently single-minded music has emerged from both the venturesome and orthodox black metal camps.
In 2013, a raft of upcoming albums show evidence of black metal’s bountiful diversity and vitality, and its sphere of influence: from Arckanum (Fenris Kindir) and Pest (The Crowning Horror) to recent releases from Woe (Withdrawl), Horna (Askel lähempänä Saatanaa), Botanist (IV – Mandragora) and Spektr (Cypher). However, four particular albums this year have shown that while black metal's compass spins in many different directions, at its best the genre remains neither safe nor accommodating.
The latitudes and longitudes of imagination (and savagery) exhibited on the albums covered in this month's Ragnarök are a testament to black metal's core inspirational strengths. They underscore the genre's ability to motivate recalcitrant artists to create powerful and passionate releases, no matter how far they deviate or how close they hew to black metal's original fount of ferociousness.
All Points Black
48.8742° N, 2.3470° E: Aosoth: IV: An Arrow in Heart
I like to imagine that an ominous blood-red sky hung over Paris when Aosoth formed in 2002, because determined, demoniacal ritualism sits at the twisted heart of the band's thematic inclinations. Swearing allegiance to a boiling cauldron of hostility, Aosoth took its name from a deity in the Order of the Nine Angles branch of Satanism, and the trio came to prominence with the unrepentant unholy rite of 2011's III: Violence and Variation.
Unlike French black metal bands such as Deathspell Omega or Blut Aus Nord -- both famed for their often fierce experimentalism -- for Aosoth, the allure of the deep-set malevolence inherent in black metal orthodoxy remains strong. Aside from the obvious occult mystery of its diabolic doctrine, there's nothing cryptic about Aosoth. Its nefariousness, and its worship of black metal's progenitors, has always been explicitly clear.
US Release Date: 2013-04-16
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/r/ragnorok-aosoth-ivanarrowinheart-cvr-200.jpgThe band's latest villainous venture, IV: An Arrow in Heart, follows on in the same vein as III: Violence and Variation. Similarly, it seethes with black-hearted misanthropy, but where III… was a step forward compositionally for the band. Seeing it reduce the tempo to amplify the Mephistophelian melodies, IV… features even stronger and more potent incantations.
With a bass- and percussion-heavy production, and polished like a sacrificial blade, IV: An Arrow in Heart is laden with the temper of old-school orthodox black metal, a disposition set to rouse a profound sense of unease. Tracks such as the 14-minute album highlight, "Ritual Marks of Penitence", and the similarly epic-length "Under Nails & Fingertips" and "One With the Prince With a Thousand Enemies" are monstrous churns of abomination and antipathy. The hallmarks of black metal traditionalism (intricate, icy tremolo, and torturous vocals) weave through surges of dissonant doom and blasphemous atmospherics. The feedback fuzz running beneath the spoken word passages of "Broken Dialogue 1 & 2" underscores the necromantic wickedness.
Clawing shifts in tempo reaffirm the presence of unadulterated evil, and while the focus is on long-form, cyclical compositions, that presence never lessens in strength. When tracks dissolve into isolated refrains, with vocalist MkM howling from Hades, IV: An Arrow in Heart becomes contaminating, and there's something welcomingly unnerving in the album's ability to worm its way under the skin. If you're of a (sac)religious nature, IV: An Arrow in Heart will no doubt speak straight to your impious soul, but even if you're of a devout athiest, the sounds within are still magnificently corruptive.
Whether you agree with Aosoth's particular philosophies or not, IV: An Arrow in Heart is an album with abundant integrity; the band argues with complete conviction that emancipation (of a sort) can be achieved through the celebration of evil. IV: An Arrow in Heart evokes an unequivocal abhorrence of human kind, and while the album may sonically favor the past, there's nothing antiquated about that message. This is black metal for the here and now, seeking to torment and torture in the present and, obviously, the future. As Aosoth sees it, the herd-like mentality of Christianity is to be crushed, and the band commits to that goal with utter fervency.
36.9742° N, 122.0297° W: Fell Voices: Regnum Saturni
Regnum Saturni is the third album from black metal trio Fell Voices. The Santa Cruz, California-based band of Joseph (bass/vocals), Mike (drums/vocals) and Tucker (guitars) has already released two well-received albums of raw, mesmeric black metal with 2009's Fell Voices and 2010's Untitled, as well as a fearsome 2010 split with similarly minded, and equally monumental, Ash Borer.
Artist: Fell Voices
US Release Date: 2013-03-25
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/r/ragnorak-fellvoices-regnumsaturni-cvr-200.jpgRegnum Saturni represents an imaginative shift in mood and pitch for Fell Voices, though not a radical change by any means. It is the first recorded work since the band's demo to contain any actual song titles, which tie into the album's overarching sonic themes. It's an album where the line between droning black metal and atmospheric noise is increasingly blurred.
Regnum Saturni is a powerfully hypnotic release, as well as an uncompromising and confident artistic statement. Its abstracted elements of black metal will resonate with those who enjoy being battered and smashed by cacophonous and mind-expanding reverberations, where melodies are smothered in a vortex of fortissimo ferocity. Containing three lengthy tracks, the 17-minute "Flesh and Bone", 21-minute "Emergence", and 22-minute "Dawn", Regnum Saturni contains blizzards of elliptical riffs plummeting into tunnels of noise. Unrelenting drumming, squalls of drone, and entombed and agonized vocals howl from chasms throughout. If you're seeking a black metal band unwaveringly following its own cyclonic creative course, you'll find it right here.
Where noise gives way to ringing notes, or warping guitar lines rise from the storm, Regnum Saturni leaves you disoriented and bruised. The maelstrom-like essence of the album is challenging -- though ultimately rewarding -- and feedback-soaked guitar and pounding percussion surge through excoriating passages of escalating riffs, with plenty of gut-punch descents and ascents included.
Where many black metal bands are capable of maintaining ample intensity only in short fiery bursts, Fell Voices sustain the intensity on Regnum Saturni for over an hour. It's a superb example of the frenzied magnitude of black metal taken to even further extremes, yet it also illustrates the band members’ connections to the genre's boiling core. The album remains as corrosive as the rawest black metal from the genre’s early years, no matter its lengthy track times, and the realization that it's a trio making all this noise provides evidence of Fell Voices' mastery of mayhem.
Regnum Saturni is a veritable odyssey of existential despair wrapped around hailstorms of guitars and harrowing, buried vocals. However, for all the album's confrontational creativity, Fell Voices emerges as a band dedicated to crafting music that is not only aggressive but that also harnesses transformative potential. Regnum Saturni digs deep into your psyche, with its relentless onslaught revealing landscapes (and soundscapes) beyond the familiar, and the fact that the album was recorded live in studio only increases the intimate connection to the journey the band undertakes.
Regnum Saturni is a staggeringly good album, especially for those open to Stygian sonics melding with treacherous mental experimentations. It hurtles through caverns and canyons of thunderous noise to wrench catharsis from ruination, and in doing so, Regnum Saturni becomes a beautifully ugly work of utterly brutal transformation.
54.9000° N, 124.5000° W: Skagos: Anarchic
These days, it's the city-dwelling, rationally minded black metal bands that seem to get orthodox aficionados griping about trve kvlt kredentials. Yet, a couple of years back, it was the atavistic and eco-centric Cascadian and folk-imbued scenes from the Pacific Northwest that were drawing fire for being, well (shock horror), popular. Given that the majority of bands were simply making music that spoke of their rustic desires or concerns, it's churlish to begrudge them for attracting likeminded fans (or for the attention), and it's from that same sphere of geographic and ecological interconnectedness that Canadian duo Skagos was born.
Label: Eternal Warfare
US Release Date: 2013-02-01
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/r/ragnorak-anarchic-skagos-cvr-200.jpgBased in Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Sakgos was formed in 2007 by bassist and vocalist Ray Hawes (formally of excellent ambient black metal band Fauna, and blackened anarcho-crust band Iskra) and guitarist and vocalist Isaac Symonds. Fueled by "humanity's failure" and an escape from the "revolting course of hollow communities", Skagos seek to reconnect with (and reawaken) elemental traditions. The band's critically lauded full-length debut, 2009's Ást, had much in common with atmospheric, verdant fare from the likes of Wolves in the Throne Room, Alda, or Falls of Rauros. Skagos shared a magnificent 52-minute split release in 2010 with anarcho-black metal band Panopticon.
The band's latest release, Anarchic, is three years in the making, with two tracks, "Anarchic I-IV" and "Anarchic V-VII", broken into further sub-movements. Anarchic is a departure from the blazing hearth, backwoods fury of Ást, being more ethereal, delicate, and imbued with languorous hypnotics set against ragged blasts of black metal fury. Musically, in parts, it is reminiscent of Alcest and Agalloch tussling with Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, although referencing other bands takes nothing away from Skagos's deeply personal intonations. Lyrically, Anarchic focuses on the never-ending cycle of life and death, with its voyages to the hinterlands of black metal being intrinsically bound to the earth, and the tracks rich in organic creativity and fertility.
"Anarchic I-IV" begins with a dreamy shoegaze drift that sees its benevolent and meditative timbre develop into something altogether darker and wretched as the rough-edged guitars and vocals of "Wetiko – Cannibalism" arrive. "Await; Dawnrise" and "Spring Speaks Truth" follow on with gentility set alongside brutality, each taking a turn to rise and fall with the cyclical rhythms. (And a spoken-word narrative that reeks of incense and earnest intent appears should you be in any doubt as to the band's sincerity.) "Anarchic V-VII" tills a similar field. Ambient and post-rock meet pitch-black guttural growls and loam-laden grunt on "Corvidae", "Entropy" and "Feral Dawn", with swells climbing to mountainous peaks before tumbling down with vicious momentum. The abrasive and punishing textures of black metal meet otherworldly fears along the way.
Mesmeric harmonies flow through ritualistic suites on Anarchic. Some tracks are laden with doom and consternation, while others are more firmamental, free to soar in the sun. The wisps of gossamer sound, and the heftier riffs, drums and vocals, grant a sense of the diverse building blocks of life, and, of course, the decimation thereof. Extramundane trepidations and the aches of disconnectedness are felt strongly, but so too is the natural process of death fertilizing new life. There's comfort to be found in the perpetual primordial process. Anarchic certainly reflects the sadness of passing, its bestial black metal riffing bringing the foreboding night. However, the album's exquisite washes of reverb and entrancing, melancholic melodies also evoke the break of dawn.
Ultimately, Anarchic's greatest strength is that it resonates on two levels. It counterpoints the endless beauty and barbarity of nature, and reflects our own societal ills, where interconnectedness can be shattered in a heartbeat. Skagos has changed tack on the new album, but the very same emotional honesty of Ást is present. A cleaner production, and a more nuanced approach, certainly doesn't lessen the album's impact. If anything, Anarchic only calls more attention to what we already know: we're killing the Earth, and in the process, our deepest, most primordial, connections are being extinguished. Anarchic is a paean to our demise, and one hopes, our rebirth.
51.9000° N, 8.4731° W: Altar of Plagues: Teethed Glory and Injury
Any discussion about how far black metal has journeyed since its genesis invariably runs into the same question out on the fringes--namely, where does black metal end and post-black metal begin? Obviously, there's an audible difference between traditional black metal and that which draws heavily from other genres for additional inspiration. However, when a band’s roots are nurtured in black metal's soil and it happily cross-pollinates with a swath of other genres, it can be hard to tell whether the resulting harvest is black metal at all.
Artist: Altar of Plagues
Label: Profound Lore
US Release Date: 2013-04-30
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/r/ragnorak-alterofplagues-teethedglory-cvr-200.jpgClearly, some black metal fans would say no, and there are bands that use black metal's tools that'll denying ever picking them up. Still, countless metal bands take what they need from black metal to plow endlessly divergent trails, be they death metal, crust, progressive, psychedelic, avant-garde or otherwise. The result might make for some sonic and philosophic disarray, but there's a clear attitudinal link to be found between these bands and black metal as a whole. The genre challenges its audience, but band members use black metal’s provocative nature to challenge their own artistic orientation.
That twofold determination to challenge is writ large on Irish band Altar of Plagues’ third full-length, Teethed Glory and Injury. The group rose to fame off the back of 2009's White Tomb and 2011's widely praised Mammal, but anyone expecting a repeat of the epic progressive and atmospheric black metal of those albums is set for a profound shock. Teethed Glory and Injury travels well beyond the borders of its predecessors, and in doing so is a superb example of unwavering artistic defiance from the band's founder and primary songwriter, James Kelly.
For Kelly, a move to the frenzied metropolis of London, a subsequent reliance on computer-based composition, and a sense of dislocation from the metal scene have resulted in a marked change in direction. Black metal certainly still plays its role, with blackened shoegaze and more straight-forward baleful riffing mixing with throat-shredding vocals. However, Teethed Glory and Injury is replete with synth, effects, and electronics (both susurrus and strident) and with staggering pitches of noise that collide with desolate industrial drones.
Teethed Glory and Injury's artwork--monochrome images of buckled bodies--and a similarly themed video for "God Alone" unmistakably advertised the album's different direction in advance. The aesthetic change served as an explicit representation of what to expect, i.e., more expressive innovation than outright black metal butchery. With songs reduced in length from previous fare, Altar of Plagues crams dense, grinding muscle into each track; the resulting compression brings focused force, and more immediate intensity.
Teethed Glory and Injury opens with the creeping drone of "Mills", blasts through the glitch and grimness of "God Alone", before dropping into the percussive heavy post-punk lurch of "A Body Shrouded", all tracks being swathed in black metal's gloom. These first three songs, and those that follow, are bleak, harsh and soul-scouring. Any concerns that the savagery might be lessened by the presence of less overtly black metal fare are resoundingly crushed.
The industrial chug and chant of "Burnt Year", and superb noise-streaked Swans-like tribalism of "A Remedy and a Fever" are suffocatingly intense. The band doesn't forget the pitch-black mood, with "Scald Scar of Water" and "Found, Oval and Final" ringing loud with distortion and despair.
Much of Teethed Glory and Injury is far from the heart of black metal, yet it retains a sense of the genre’s dark nucleus, taking Mammel's more sylvan elements into the pressure-cooker environment of a hard-edged, uncaring metropolis. Case in point, the juxtaposition of melodic and crunching guitar with fragile electronics on "Twelve Was Ruin". This track isn't remotely black metal, yet, when the vocals and the tremolo storm arrive for the final minute, it is entirely reshaped into a more familiar form.
Throughout Teethed Glory and Injury, tranquil synth, drone and effects are trampled by dissonant screeches and buzzing noise, and vice versa. Darkness is overrun with equal abandon by white hot light, and when you think you have a hold on one track, it simply lurches into another spectrum of noise altogether. That's the genius of this album, and its defiance of convention has all the hallmarks of black metal's most intrepid and ingenious artists. In other hands, the album could easily have been a scatter-shot run through of the deafening and discrete. But Altar of Plagues ensures the album remains cohesive by binding it all together with a single thread, compelling you to wait expectantly to hear where the band is heading to next.
Until someone comes up with a better tag, Altar of Plagues will no doubt be labeled a post-black metal band, even though it has clearly transcended that tag with Teethed Glory and Injury. The industrial drone and dark electronics meld spectacularly with bombastic black metal shades, but what is most impressive is how it simultaneously stimulates the cerebrum, tugs at the heartstrings, and challenges notions of what black metal is or isn't. Altar of Plagues' previous endeavors were thought-provoking, but Teethed Glory and Injury travels into the realms of the mind-expanding, showing the wholly imaginative and cross-genre potential of black metal as it launch itself into the future.