Happy Halloween, 2017, from your nefarious friends at Kvlt Kolvmn! Hard to imagine a better day for this column to land near, what with all the ghouls, spirits, demogorgons and Eleven’s traipsing around with their sugar receptacles and real world terror encroaching from every corner of this planet. God, what a miserable year in so many ways. Thankfully, that misery has not extended into the world of black metal, which continues to drop sensational releases month after month. October is no exception. This month saw the release of several exceptional albums that not only continued to solidify the importance of black metal’s existence as one of the premier subgenres within the metal universe, but also its ability to offer complex, fierce statements of countercultural urgency. That last component is important for one particular album that screams thoroughly against some of the prevailing philosophical dogma that runs rampant in the darkest corners of the subgenre. Despite the most truly reprehensible portions of its collective ranks, black metal can indeed speak the language of justice.
Enough talk. Let’s metal.
A Pale December – The Shrine of Primal Fire
Given the Euro-centric nature of black metal history, it’s pretty remarkable to think that North America has arguably taken on a more influential role in the genre’s landscape over the past couple of decades. And while my native New England is about as far away from the Pacific Northwest as you can be in the U.S., there are several geographic parallels that create a kinship with my home state and the wilderness that spawned the Cascadian black metal movement. Since Weakling set the movement into motion in 2000 with Dead as Dreams, familiar faces like Agalloch, Ash Borer, Wolves in the Throne Room and more put American black metal on the map by incorporating varying degrees of shoegaze, ambiance, folk influences and so on. The movement has obviously splintered into a myriad of directions, and with Agalloch entering early retirement, there’s been an opening for young bands to take up the folk-inspired torch, something A Pale December have done an exceptional job of on The Shrine of Primal Fire.
Despite hailing from Italy, the band far surpass their stated goal of crafting an “atmospheric black metal devoted to the Pacific Northwest, yet mixed with blackgaze and a taste of depressive rock.” This is a well-developed record filled with an abundance of interlocked moments of genius that diversifies Cascadian standards to breathe new life through familiar acres of evergreens. From the eerily beautiful, The Mantle-esque interlude “Call of the Ancients” to the epic “A Lost Lineage” blanketing valleys with a grandiose atmo-folk finale, The Shrine of Primal Fire feels as though it was crafted by a band entrenched in the culture of the Pacific Northwest since birth. Every track touches on a fresh slate of new ideas that stay true to the Cascadian formula while deviating just enough to feel like an inventive foray into new territory. This sometimes leads to some unique surprises, such as the tasteful blackjazz midsection on “Cimmerian Veil.” It’s an invigorating moment on a record full of attention-grabbing highlights, making for an album that atmospheric black metal fans should consider an essential listen this year.
Dawn Ray’d – The Unlawful Assembly
As hinted at in the paragraph opening this week’s column, unsavory elements of racial and cultural superiority find a home in black metal at a seemingly much more frequent clip than other branches of the metal tree. While the NSBM movement has been around for decades and is nothing new, today’s political and social climate have made such views even more intolerable than before. This is without question a very good thing, but such views have done little to change actual output in the scene. Thankfully, Dawn Ray’d are here to drop some relentless, violently propulsive anarchist, anti-fascist black metal that is fundamentally excellent both in lyrical and musical content.
I’m pretty hesitant to jump on the hype train for bands that espouse current events-oriented political themes in their music. Not because I disagree, but most often because the music lacks universality and therefore staying power. Sure, this music might be relevant in 2017, but what about five, ten, fifteen years from now? Dawn Ray’d transcend this trap by formulating lyrics that speak to more overarching and universal issues regarding race relations, political power structures, and the unraveling of our social fabric, making this a listen that I can see myself returning to for years to come. But that’s only valuable if the music is good. Praise be to the metal gods, because it most certainly is.
The music on The Unlawful Assembly is as diverse and rich as its lyrical content. Presenting straightforward, aggressive modern black metal not dissimilar in intensity and beauty to Yellow Eyes as the album’s foundation, the band incorporate strings, acoustic passages, and stirring neo-folk melodies to bludgeon home their message. The interlude at the halfway mark of “Fire Sermon”, the strings that weave and splice through the finale of “The Abyssal Plain”, the deliberate, acoustically tinged sonic textures bookending “Island of Cannibal Horses” all serve as sterling examples of the aesthetic Dawn Ray’d are attempting to convey, and they work brilliantly. Each of the individual tracks on this record feel fresh, varied, yet of a consistent theme that makes the record feel uniform without becoming mundane. It’s a musical tour de force that stands as one of the best debut albums of the year in black metal. Don’t miss out on this.
Dreamshift – Seconds
When people claim a band is drawing from a specific playbook, it’s typically meant to insinuate the music’s lack of pure originality detracts from its quality. But the current state of black metal belies this notion; hardly any band in the modern landscape is operating with a wholly unique set of sounds, due in no small part to the relative simplicity of the black metal formula. Even bands that can’t be directly tied to their predecessors can be clearly placed within a certain subgenre and lineage of sound. And all of this is fine; what possible downside could there be to bands refining and building upon a sound adored by fans of the genre? German-based solo project Dreamshift understands this point and executes upon it beautifully, presenting the most dynamic and alluring iteration of Sunbather-core I’ve heard since Deafheaven made the style so divisive. Seconds may not fit the unreachable ideal of originality created by genre purists, but it accomplishes the one task that truly matters—producing some damn good black metal.
All of the key players are present on Seconds—the massive walls of sunkissed guitar melodies; sound samples in the vein of Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor; post-rock builds and climaxes, and so on. The main difference here is in the “post-” post-black metal feel of the record, in that Dreamshift operates within a sphere of influence removed further from trve argvments than Sunbather, which bore the brunt of these critiques. The black metal canon has grown to accept this brand of blackgaze a bit more than they did a few years ago, and Dreamshift seemsto recognize that. Seconds feels like an unabashed embrace of the style Deafheaven laid out; there’s no restraint or shoehorned traditional black metal passages to detract from the exceptional melodies and song structures present on the record. To me, fearfulness of adhering to established standards is the true danger threatening black metal. I’d rather have an exceptional extrapolation from an established formula than another ho-hum black metal album, and Seconds delivers on the former of these two scenarios with blackgaze goodness abound.
Raventale – Planetarium
The archetypal four-track, long song black metal album typically leans toward slow progressions rather than show-stopping immediacy. Nobody informed Raventale of this stereotype, though, as they launch Planetarium into the Stratosphere from the first note and refuse to let up for the duration of the album. The Ukrainian quintet makes eschewing black metal tradition the central goal of Planetarium, producing four gargantuan tracks accented by massive production and impassioned performances. Enslaved had younger siblings with a voracious admiration of melodic black metal, it would sound a hell of a lot like Raventale.
As I previously mentioned, the first moments of “Gemini – Behind Two Black Moons” propel the album into the majestic swirls of galaxies in the outer reaches of space. The opening melody strikes a perfect balance between mourning melancholia and pure beauty, a theme that remains constant throughout each of the countless melodic marvels on the album. Grim Me’s keyboard passages on he album are a subtle asset in accomplishing this, as they provide just enough body to increase each track’s atmospheric impact without becoming excessive or campy. This comes in particularly useful when the band ventures into extended, angelic atmospheres; when Morthvarg Scar retracts his vocals on “Bringer Of Celestial Anomalies,” the swell of instrumentation makes for a sublime musical trajectory. It’s one of many signs that Raventale have their songwriting locked down but open for progression, and that dedication to excellence with an eye toward new ideas will continue to propel the band forward with more great releases like Planetarium.
Sicarius – Serenade of Slitting Throats
When I was a kid, my mom would clean the house during summer afternoons while listening to tapes or the radio. Sometimes she would listen to music, other times political talk radio or self-help tapes. One tape that I remember distinctly was a recording of a sermon by a fiery, vitriolic pentecostal minister. His message was about the evils of modern society, and how Satan himself had slithered his way into every facet of American popular culture. Christmas. Literature. Hollywood. But most of all, music. He spent a solid ten minutes railing against the evils of heavy metal, which he believed to be directly involved in devil worship, Satanism, and the utter destruction of God’s chosen country. I sat and listened to his tirades intently, thoroughly enraptured by his righteous anger that I neither understood nor cared about. When I think back to the description this minister gave of metal, the first band that comes to my mind is California’s Sicarius and their fantastic album Serenade of Slitting Throats. Make no mistake: this is the metal your pastor warned you about. It exists for the most latter of days; a soundtrack to the impending apocalypse. It is pure evil. It is simply glorious,
It’s hard to quantify how vicious this album is. You wouldn’t know it was a black metal record at all from the vibes emanating from the opening track “Flatline Nexophilic”. Soft piano lilts its way through your ear holes with gentle and subdued melodies that could belong on a Josh Groban record (don’t leave, bear with me), only to eventually be consumed by the swirl of harsh guitars and electronics that create an ominous atmosphere leading to the album’s second cut, “Ferox Impetum”. “Cut” is an appropriate word here, because the music comes flashing out of the ether like a long, cold knife severing flesh from bone on its way out in a ferocious storm of wickedness. Immediately apparent in this track is the amount of clearly defined riffs the band incorporate into their tremolo-picked assault. Think Anaal Nathrakh (with whom the band shares producer Mick Kenney) followed by a chaser of Thorns and you’ll be somewhere in the general vicinity. Throughout the record, the instrumental work is stunningly effective. The album’s title track is a swarming hive of guitars and blast beats that are not once anything less than utterly punishing, while tracks like “Torture Trials” and “The Beast In Your Heart” highlight the heights of brutality the band are able to conjure. There are distinct hints of death metal in this record as well, which provide some absolutely ferocious interludes throughout the tremolo blasting. It’s a metal conglomeration in which every disparate element fits seamlessly together, but you probably won’t care. You’ll be too busy banging your head and punching a hole in the wall.
Go listen to this thing now. One of the most brutal, violent, utterly relentless black metal albums I’ve heard in a long time. A stalwart example of everything that is cursed and depraved in the world. Highly recommended.
Yellow Eyes – Immersion Trench Reverie
What else is there to say that hasn’t already been said in our review of this record? Plenty. So let’s get to it. For the uninitiated, Yellow Eyes is a Brooklyn-based black metal band that came to fame with their 2015 release Sick With Bloom. When one hears “Brooklyn” and “Black Metal” in the same sentence, the mind wanders to hipsters sipping premium coffee and bitching about the cost of living while acting like they enjoy Neutral Milk Hotel. Thankfully, Yellow Eyes transcend the stereotype by creating a musical deluge that more than holds its own in a world of trvth. Their black metal is a unique conglomeration of traditional tremolo-picked, blast-beaten goodness, coupled with field recordings, atmospheric elements, and a few folk flourishes thrown in for good measure. Their latest record, Immersion Trench Reverie, serves as a further construction upon the foundation laid by their previous record, expanded to immense and truly ecstatic proportions. This is a natural evolution of their previous work that shines in every way, and is one of the better black metal records to be released this year.
The music contained within Immersion Trench Reverie is exceptionally composed and performed. From the opening bells of “Old Alpine Pang” through the vacillating blasts and sonic opulence of “Jubilat”, this album is end-to-end fantastic. Flourishes like the female vocal harmonies in “Shrillness in the Heated Grass” and “Blue as Blue” add incredible texture and variety to these sometimes bludgeoning tracks, creating a kaleidoscope of sound that few black metal bands can replicate. The production on this record feels a healthy mix of old and new, allowing the music to feel adequately traditional without falling into the trap of simple hero worship. Yellow Eyes here create a sound that is immediately distinguishable as their own, and the metal world is all the better for it.
Give this record its due. It is well worth the time you will invest in it. Black metal has been the home to a vanguard of exceptional young talent over the past decade, from controversial bands like Deafheaven and Bosse-de-Nage to more traditionally-minded groups like ORM and Havukruunu. Somewhere in this mix of tradition and progression sits Yellow Eyes, who bring a solidified sound all their own with Immersion Trench Reverie. Fans of black metal of all shades and striped should relish this release.
Ziggurat – Ritual Miasma
We don’t often cover demos and EPs here, due mainly to sheer volume of releases Jonathan and I have to sift through each month. Given how difficult it is to narrow down our selections among full-lengths, there isn’t much room left over for shorter releases that don’t provide a fully fleshed out sonic portrait. Of course, there will always be exceptions, which is why Ziggurat stands here above the rest, having eviscerated the above stereotype with a demo tape more vicious and replete with quality than many of the album’s I’ve heard this year. The Israel-based band demonstrate and extraordinary amount of technicality along with a penchant for powerful melodies on Ritual Miasma, resulting in four expertly crafted tracks that left me craving a longer follow-up.
One of Ziggurat’s best qualities is their mastery of death metal aesthetics and their ability to bolster their brand of black metal with heavier components. Drawing from the murky blueprints of Altarage and Incantation, Ritual Miasma presents several elements made more sinister by embracing the shared qualities of black and death metal, particularly with the darker overall atmosphere and meticulous drumming fit for a tech death album. The blast beats on “Summoning the Giant Serpent” and “דיבוק” in particular establish a blistering pace delivered with razor-sharp precision. The faster moments on the releases make the band feel like the long lost sibling of Behemoth, albeit lying more squarely in the “deathened black metal” camp rather than among the blackened death metal crowd. Yet, Ritual Miasma isn’t entirely a blast and bash affair; closing track “Death Rites Transcendence” presents a dirge that perfectly splices the slower moments from Incantation and Leviathan for a crushing mid-paced romp, and “Blind Faith” proves the band can produce a straightforward black metal assault without sacrificing their own unique voice.
The only critique of Ritual Miasma is one often levied at short releases—we need more music, pronto. If this is what Ziggurat can produce with just a handful of tracks, one can only imagine how much of an infernal beast their proper full-length debut. Here’s hoping we won’t have to wait too long for our next helping.