Historically, black metal is a balancing act. Its tendency toward antisocial, zero-fi production is at constant odds with its love of epic, maximalist grandeur, and legions of black metal obsessives will gladly argue their faces off for either extreme.
Releases from Santa Cruz, California’s Fell Voices have often embodied a rare truce between these two forces. Uncompromisingly noisy, yet prone to song lengths that average around the 20-minute mark, they balance both ideas while abstracting them into something more simultaneously spaced out and raw than your average band of black metal classicists.
Regnum Saturni, the first Fell Voices release to have a true album title and song titles, finds itself caught between an additional set of forces. On one end is a shadowy, trance-like and ferocious black metal, while on the other is a droning, ringing ambient noise reminiscent of an orchestra tuning its instruments. Both sounds trade off with one another throughout the album, the band a stunt-rider effortlessly switching back and forth between two horses. That effortless quality is a key strength for the record, as many recent black metal bands (Fell Voices split-and-tour-mates Ash Borer included) have difficulty integrating non-distorted material with the recorded-in-a-cave, no-fi production of the metal portion of their work.
Fell Voices are of that wave of post-millennial American black metal interested in the genre’s grandiosity but none of its theatricality. Corpse paint has become less and less ubiquitous in black metal, especially among bands in the US, but its absence in Fell Voices’ live incarnation is worth noting in that it speaks to their almost complete lack of stylistic adornment. Both visually and on record, there is a sense that nothing beyond the cycling ritualistic sounds the band is creating means much of anything, or needs to—and while engulfed in Regnum Saturni‘s hermetic, roughly-hour-long embrace, that can be exactly what it feels like.
While it is split into three tracks, the record is most comprehensible as several movements of the same piece. “Flesh from Bone” opens the album, and after two minutes of harmonium atmospherics, the band unleashes a blistering wave of noise befitting song’s title. Besides being the shortest track on the album, it is also arguably the most dynamic (and possibly the best-constructed) of the three sections. The flow from one idea to another is clean and fluid, and though there are more musical “thoughts” in this portion than the other two, it never once feels busy or labored.
Most sections are bookended by ambient harmonium textures, and in places like the transition from “Flesh from Bone” to “Emergence” this can become alienating. The latter song finds its footing by way of a massive, echoing guitar line, but has trouble transmitting that energy into motion in the same way as “Flesh from Bone.” It’s hard not to imagine the song trimmed down with a bit of canny editing on the band’s part, possibly by removing one of its ambient sections altogether. That isn’t to say it doesn’t have its share of worthwhile moments; when the band are on the same wavelength, they produce some genuinely head-bangable (albeit extended) grooves.
A great multi-part work needs a memorable ending, and in that respect Regnum Saturni delivers. Its final of three movements, “Dawn” blossoms slowly outward from a dramatic, shivery opening to a peak that sounds like watching the morning sun going supernova. The subtlety that made “Flesh from Bone” stand out returns here, as well as some of the best examples of old-school black metal grandiosity in Fell Voices’ catalog.
With a sound as enveloping, and with as few inroads or guideposts, as what’s featured here, getting lost occasionally is inevitable. At points during its second half hour, the hypnotizing ambient pummel becomes disorienting, and it’s possible to skip forward several minutes at certain points with barely a discernible difference. Just its sheer size can be daunting. Because of its better-as-a-whole nature, this isn’t music to listen to when getting ready for work or killing 15 minutes waiting for friends; without a solid hour to devote to it, Regnum Saturni is just too much to handle at once.
Not every metal fan will warm up to this disc’s abstracted, extended take on black metal, but those willing to follow black metal history to the final frontier will find a lot to like here. Neither a perfect record or by any means a crossover hit, it is still a step forward for an already exciting band, and that in itself makes it a trip worth taking.