Kvlt Kolvmn 2017 // Black Metal’s Year in Review

It’s pretty incredible to reflect on how much Kvlt Kolvmn has grown over the last couple years, especially when it comes to how consequential it’s been for Heavy Blog’s coverage of the vast web of metal subgenres. What began as an outlet for me (Scott) to occasionally ramble about my newest black metal fancy eventually grew into the first of our monthly curated columns and a means of consistently reflecting on the genre’s greatest acts and pertinent trends. The credit for this is due almost entirely to my kvlt kohort Jonathan, who consistently baffles me with his ability to endlessly and profoundly write about seemingly every genre in existence. He’s been an invaluable contributor and great friend since joining the blog this past January, and I can’t express how much I appreciate the way we’ve been able to bond over everything from craft beer to football (despite the Patriots-Broncos rivalry) and, of course, music.

Now that you’ve indulged my sentimentality, let’s dive right into the reason you’re here – our thoughts on the state of black metal in 2017, both in terms of its trends and key albums. We certainly have a stacked itinerary of topics to cover in this regard, including the benefit of having no consensus movement or album, the continual ascent and experimentation of Krallice and our recap and analysis of National Socialist Black Metal receiving some long-needed scrutiny in the wake of events like the White Nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Thankfully, Jonathan and I round out the post on a lighter note with our respective top 15 albums of the year, including a shared AOTY that we each picked independently (mild spoiler alert: it’s certainly one beast of an album). So without further ado, let’s dive into the year’s onslaught of all things cold, grim and trve!

Scott Murphy

Black Metal Lacked a “Sunbather” Narrative This Year

Genre trends were a key phenomenon our monthly column curators sought to explore within their respective year-end posts. Though metal is perhaps the most fecund genre when it comes to ever-flowing innovation, there are specific movements and landmark years in its history that are worth chronicling and reflecting on, such as the 1991 death metal explosion or the rise of Cascadian black metal in the early 2000s. In our current music climate, this has largely shifted toward micro-movements and intense discourse about a few key albums each year, as metal innovation has trended toward digging deeper into existing genres rather than spreading outward and upward into creating entirely new genres (djent being a recent, obvious exception). And while this trend has certainly been apparent in the world of black metal over the best several years, 2017 was striking in that no discernible common thread took place throughout the entire year. We racked our lists of key releases and revisited past installments of Kvlt Kolvmn and reached the same conclusion: 2017 was a year marked by an immense amount of exceptional black metal created by bands who operated independently from one another and didn’t collectively produce a clear, unique movement.

Now, this isn’t meant to insinuate the community turned a complete blind eye to black metal this year, nor that there were no significant discussions about the future of the genre (we’ll touch on that genre). But other than the superfluous debate over whether Sacred Son’s new EP had a “kvlt” enough album cover, there truly wasn’t any clear album or band that dominated the year’s discussion, nor was there a musical style born out of a slew of new releases like there was with the rise of blackgaze. This becomes more glaring when compared to the past several years, when a handful of bands (and usually one specific band) were anointed as black metal’s premenient force of the year by the metal community and music journalists at large. 

Though we won’t be publishing our annual AOTY aggregate for the metal industry for another week or so, just think to yourself about what black metal albums actually made the cut for this year’s lists. Were there any standout, universally acclaimed acts that rivaled the likes of Deafheaven or Liturgy? Any niche, mysterious choices here and there like Ghost Bath? Any veteran mainstays like Alcest, Agalloch or Deathspell Omega being awarded? The answer may be “no” for different reasons for some of these bands, but the point still remains—there was no clear, consensus pick for black metal album of the year. There were certainly recurring picks throughout all these lists, such as Wolves in the Throne Room’s Thrice Woven, Enslaved’s E and Myrkur’s Mareridt. Yet, the only one of these that was chosen with any apparent regularly and granted consistently high marks was E, and at this point, Enslaved are playing their own brand of blackened progressive metal rather than true black metal (this isn’t a criticism by any means, just an observation). And overall, none of these bands received nearly as much acclaim as bands like Converge, Power Trip, Code Orange, Mastodon or Bell Witch, to name a few. And as bands like Deafheaven and others have demonstrated, black metal is accepted enough to capture the general metal community’s attention.

Yet, perhaps more importantly, no specific sonic thread was woven through what different bands were doing with the genre. And while everything we’ve written so far might lead you to believe a negative conclusion is incoming, we believe quite the opposite is true. Metal fans have made it abundantly clear that any change must be executed in specific, undefined ways, and the popularity of genres like blackgaze and bands like Deafheaven and Liturgy have proven how insanely divisive and all-consuming consensus picks can be in terms of the focus of metal discourse. This being the case, it’s actually a refreshing change of pace not to have any new subgenres to argue over or acclaimed bands to defend or lambaste. Instead, we were simply able to enjoy another stellar year of excellent black metal flooding Bandcamp, as you’ll see we’ve kept careful tabs on when you reach our top 15 albums lists at the end of this post. And maybe with all the energy we’re saving from not arguing over genre tags and “overrated” bands, we can instead focus on addressing the white elephant in the room (again, more on that later).

SM

Krallice Continue Their Sonic Ascent and Exploration

While a unified movement did not manifest within the black metal community in 2017, there was no shortage of innovation among its ranks. The most sterling example of this adventurous bent has to be Krallice, who have released three albums in the last 365 days. While quantity does not always equate to quality, Krallice are too busy creating intricate, complex, and utterly mesmerizing music to be bothered by the norms of mere mortals. This has been a trend throughout their entire career, and in many ways serves as a unique example of how black metal is evolving from its frostiest early days and is creating room within itself for various sounds and approaches that are revolutionizing both what black metal is and what it can be.

The band’s sonic evolution throughout their career is intriguing. Their journey began in 2008 with their self-titled debut record. While a story such as this typically trends along a particular trajectory (band starts off in basic subgenre, music evolves to include new subgenres, people get mad, band perseveres/dies, etc.), Krallice are unique in the fact that their music has never exactly sounded exclusively like any particular subgenre of metal. While their debut represents what is probably their closest hew to a traditional black metal record (opener “Wretched Wisdom” provides all the evidence one needs to see the fundamental underpinnings of black metal in the band’s music), elements of the avant-garde and post-metal were definitely visible, though perhaps serving more as a discernible undercurrent rather than an in-your-face compositional factor. The band’s second record, Dimensional Bleedthrough, presented a less traditional black metal structure, relying more on manic technicality and jagged construction in their extended compositions to create a decisively more epic album, clocking in at over an hour and fifteen minutes.  The band’s third record, Diotima, attempted to incorporate the elements established in both previous records to more mixed results, leaving the band’s sonic trajectory and future a bit of a mystery.

 

What was not mysterious, however, was the band’s impact on the landscape of black metal. During the years between the release of their debut and Diotima, Deafheaven released their intriguing debut Roads to Judah, Bosse-de-Nage unleashed their polarizing self-titled debut, and Altar of Plagues blew minds with their mix of black and post-metal in White Tomb. While there are obviously a great many influences that shaped the black metal scene in the late aughts, it is difficult to find a band in black metal that was having a greater and quieter sonic influence than Krallice. This path to black metal transcendence reached its most striking manifestation with the release of Years Past Matter, which saw the band bring in an emotionally-charged, melodically resonant musical aesthetic to the forefront of their compositions, resulting in the band’s most truly beautiful and intricate work up to that point, and their watershed moment both critically and musically.

 

So the narrative is set, right? Krallice, the little New York black metal band that could, had reached its sonic conclusion. Even writing that sentence seems hilarious. Anyone familiar with the last two years of the band’s output can answer that question with an emphatic “no.” Ygg Huur was a righteously shrill and jagged avant-garde smorgasbord that eschewed the warmth of Years Past Matter almost entirely, while Prelapsarian served as a fundamentally delicious second course in the avant-garde insanity previously established. It was like Krallice had become an entirely new band. Then we get to 2017, where Krallice took yet another sonic left turn. Loüm brought in the band’s strongest death metal vibes to date, and brought in a match-made-in-heaven collaboration with Neurosis bassist and backing vocalist Dave Edwardson. Go Be Forgotten, the second and arguably best of the band’s two 2017 albums, created a frosty, atmospherically vibrant sonic palette for the band to unleash the most straightforward and powerful music of their career. It is one of the most easily discernible, digestible albums the band have yet created, while simultaneously being one of the most utterly unique in their catalog. Never stagnant, never boring, always in perpetual motion, Krallice are the black metal enigma that we didn’t know we needed.

 

While there may not be many fundamentally unifying trends in black metal this year, the career of Krallice gives those of us who love this music a peek into its modern evolution, and the seemingly limitless supply of musical ideas and potential contained within it. Krallice may not be “trve,” but that’s utterly irrelevant when viewing black metal in macro. Brilliant young bands like Yellow Eyes, Dawn Ray’d and Thantifaxath have pushed the black metal envelope even further this year, altering what black metal can and will be through bold experimentation and risk-taking. Perhaps, outside of any discernible sonic trends, we can hold to modern black metal’s manic sense of adventure as a theme that prevailed in 2017.

Jonathan Adams

National Socialist Black Metal Received Overdue Scrutiny

As we alluded to earlier, the generally low-key nature of this year’s black metal discourse provided plenty of room for a larger discussion about one of the genre’s most pervasive controversies. The lingering internal divisiveness of National Socialist Black Metal (NSBM) has long spurred infighting within the black metal community about whether or not fans should separate art from the artists. Yet, this debate has never seemed to amount to much more than lighting up various comment sections. At the end of the day, individual black metal fans either reject, champion or overlook the bigoted ideologies expressed by NSBM bands, without any larger shift being made by the community at large.

However, as is often the case with unaddressed issues, new developments and current events have a habit of stoking the embers and igniting new conversations. After coverage of the white nationalist Unite the Right march in Charlottesville this past August broadcast the motives and faces of neo-Nazis and the alt-right to a wider audience, conversations within the metal community shifted back toward black metal’s decades-long relationship with NSBM. A group of metal musicians writing as “The Anti-NSBM Working Group” published an open letter on MetalSucks addressed to Hells Headbangers (HH), an online store and record label distributing and releasing a host of underground metal releases and merch. The letter identified a number of NSBM bands and labels distributed by HH—including Darker than Black, Pagan War, Werewolf Records, Elegy RecordsIntolitarian and SSP/Deathangle Absolution—and asked the label to remove these and all other NSBM-affiliated music and merch from their site and refuse to support any NSBM bands moving forward.

As you can probably imagine, this letter wasn’t particularly well-received by everyone in the black metal community, and as of this post, HH has yet to respond or remove NSBM from their site. Of course, there were certainly responses from other outlets, including open letters to “crybaby social justice warrior metalcore blog MetalSucks” telling them to “shut the fuck up” (we’ve specifically chosen not to link to these sites so as not to award them with any traffic). Perhaps the most high-profile response came from Matt Harvey, frontman of Exhumed, Gruesome, Expulsion and Pounder. In his incredibly long piece hosted by Decibel (whose editors endorse his position), Harvey’s main argument is that while he’s against the ideologies expressed by NSBM, censoring the subgenre would be contrary to metal’s ethos of free expression. To quote the self-proclaimed “meat” of his argument, “metal is apolitical—insofar as it owes no intrinsic allegiance to a specific ideology like some other subgenres do.” And though Harvey believes bands like Absurd and Graveland are are “straight-up wrong, morally and factually,” he ultimately feels that ” if we turn metal into yet another political thing to disagree about we lose something irreplaceable…we should all agree that heavy metal rules because it has no rules.”

NSBM is obviously a polarizing, complicated topic to unpack, and since this post is intended as a contextualization of black metal as a whole in 2017, we won’t turn this into an exhaustive piece on one subgenre (though we most certainly could). Instead, we’ll lay out two key reasons why we personally choose not to support or listen to NSBM, and why we feel the metal community ought to consider doing so as well. For clarity and simplicity, these points are as as follows: 1.) censorship =/= boycotting & 2.) morality matters more than music.

Firstly, it’s crucial to establish what our stance is and, more importantly, what isn’t. We don’t want NSBM musicians to be prevented from ever playing, recording or releasing music, and we don’t want their music to be banned from ever being listened to again by anyone who chooses to do so. The ironic thing about modern day “free speech” arguments and “anti-SJW” rants is that they often misunderstand what free speech entails and jump to fatalistic conclusions. When we say we want to boycott NBSM, it seems like a subset of those who disagree interpret that to mean we believe it should be eradicated. While we do genuinely feel that black metal would be better off without having NSBM smear its overarching ethos, those who respond in this way fundamentally misunderstand what it means to boycott something. If we choose not to listen to NSBM, does that mean it automatically ceases to exist for those who do wish to hear it? If HH stops distributing NSBM, does that mean no label anywhere can distribute it, or that bands couldn’t self-distribute? Music listeners, labels and distributors are individuals with rights of their own, and NSBM bands aren’t entitled to their support. “Bigot” isn’t a protected class of people, and if individuals or independent companies choose not to engage with people who hold discriminatory views, they have every right to do so. It’s incumbent upon NSBM bands to prove to listeners, labels and distributors why their music is worthwhile and their message is worth supporting, and if they fail to achieve this, that’s on them.

While this first point is more or less just an outline of how human interaction works, this second point is more personal and will ultimately be a choice individual listeners will have to make. The main reason we don’t listen to or support NSBM is actually quite simple: we abhor the beliefs espoused by these bands. Their messages are defined by hate and run contrary to our morals. This isn’t to say we never listen to music with lyrics we disagree with; Scott is an atheist who listens to religious artists, and Jonathan is a Christian who listens to antitheist music. But there’s a huge difference between disagreeing over larger existential questions and holding vastly different outlooks about the basic rights and treatment different groups of people deserve. Now, this fits into a larger argument about separating the art from the artist when lyrics don’t apply; there’s been disagreement among Heavy Blog’s staff about whether or not musicians who commit crimes still deserve support, even though their music doesn’t contain offensive material. But when it comes to NSBM, where the subject matter is the problem, then we find it difficult to separate that from an artist’s music. And in all honesty, how can you? How can you separate an artist from their art when what they create is a manifestation of their own hateful outlook on life? Again, it’s ultimately up to each individual metal fan to decide which bands they’re comfortable supporting. But in our view, we find it impossible to ignore NSBM’s atrocious views, and if you take nothing else from this post, we urge you to consider joining us in boycotting bands that make the metal community less inclusive.

SM

Jonathan’s Top 15 Black Metal Albums of 2017

15. Draugsól – Volaða Land

2017 was a quieter year for Icelandic black metal, with some smaller releases populating an otherwise fairly muted landscape. That isn’t to say that the region didn’t produce some quality music. Draugsol’s debut record Volada Land is a shining example of everything great this movement has thus far conjured. Impeccable musicianship, icy production, throaty and fierce vocal stylings, and an atmosphere of dread as stark and beautiful as the land from which it originates. It’s a fantastic album from start to finish, and includes a hefty amount of melody to go with the raucous black metal onslaught.

 

14. Sicarius – Serenade of Slitting Throats

Album titles in metal often seem a word association game, with little significance or pertinence to the lyrical content within a record. This is not the case with Sicarius’ fundamentally brutalizing debut record Serenade of Slitting Throats. The music sounds exactly like that: Having your throat sliced open by a thousand tremolo-picked notes, furious drum blasts, and wretched vocals. It’s a twisted, violent, uncompromising record that makes an immediate impact. You will find few songs in metal this year as utterly aggressive as “The Beast in Your Heart” or “Ferox Impetum”. Think Anaal Nathrakh drowned in the Second Wave and you’ll have a pretty clear picture of what you’re in for. An outstanding debut.

 

13. Wode – Servants of the Countercosmos

Wode took the black metal world by surprise last year with their excellent debut self-titled record last year. They didn’t waste any time releasing a follow-up, this year’s Servants of the Countercosmos. While the amount of time between records may be short, Wode apparently matures in dog years, because this is an improvement on every aspect of their debut. The production is deeper and crisper, allowing each instrument time to shine in the mix. The performances are tighter and the songwriting is far from listless (“Crypt of Creation” and “Celestial Dagger” in particular churn and dance with nefarious purpose), packing an insane number of fantastic passages in its blistering thirty-minute runtime. It’s a natural and important evolution for the band, leaving me incredibly excited to see where they go next.

 

12. american – Violate and Control

American hit me like a bag of hammers a few months ago. Industrial music and black metal do not always mix well, but when they do (Thorns and Anaal Nathrakh, for example), the results can be straight fire. That’s the company these little known band from Virginia belong in, because their sophomore record Violate and Control is as gnarly a record as you are likely to hear this or any other year. The guitars (which also incorporate some interesting sludge elements), drums, and vocals all combine to create the sound of a machine hell-bent on Earth’s destruction. The audio assault can be a bit overwhelming at times, but stick with this record and the unique, noisy intricacies of the songwriting in tracks like “Necklacing” and “Amorous and Subdued” will transport you into a mechanical hell that you may not want to escape from. Riveting stuff.

 

11. Xanthochroid – Of Erthe and Axen I & II

A lot has already been written about Xanthochroid’s operatic, sprawling double album Of Erthe and Axen, so I won’t regale you with all the stuff you’ve already heard. Yes, the two parts flow seamlessly together to create a cohesive and brilliant whole. Yes, it’s a fantasy junky’s wet dream in metallic form. But more than that, these albums show the cinematic heights that black metal is capable of regarding storytelling, narrative, and compositional cohesion. Individually, both of these albums have their shining moments (Part I’s “To Higher Climes Where Few Might Stand” and “The Sound Which Has No Name” and Part II’s “Of God’s Bereft of Grace” and “Of Strength and the Lust for Power”), but digested in sequence they create something truly special. Like Wilderun, Xanthochroid are masters of melding the gentlest and most dramatic of sounds with the most abrasive and punishing. May they reign forever.

 

10. Wolves in the Throne Room – Thrice Woven

Seriously, how great is Wolves In the Throne Room? One would be hard pressed to find a black metal band that has had a greater influence on the evolution of atmospheric black metal than they, and with Thrice Woven the band has once again reclaimed the title of giant in their subgenre. While Celestial Lineage and Celestite presented unique (though not universally well-loved) diversions into uncharted territory for the band, Thrice Woven could be considered a howl from the depths of the band’s past, recalling some of the band’s most fantastic moments from albums like Diadem of 12 Stars and Two Hunters. While these callbacks are a healthy course correction for the band, they are not indicative of this album’s entire sound. It’s a beast all its own, and the better for it. “The Old Ones Are With Us” and “Angrboda” are two of the most unique and powerful songs the band has created, and justifies the album’s existence by itself. But don’t worry, the rest of this record is excellent as well. All around a fantastic entry into the band’s storied catalog.

 

9. Dawn Ray’d – The Unlawful Assembly

If you believed black metal was incapable of leftist protest music, Dawn Ray’d are here to say that your assumptions are stupid. The Unlawful Assembly is a folk-infused black metal rampage of antifascist rhetoric of significant political and social import. But this record is so much more than a screed. The typical (and valid) complaint regarding protest records is that the music is slapped together haphazardly to serve some greater political message. You may agree with that message, but something to say does not good music make. Thankfully, Dawn Ray’d make amazing music. It’s fast, intricate, thoughtfully composed and drenched in a populist folk texture that emboldens the message with a sonic compliment. It’s a great record by a young band who has a lot to live up to after this.

 

8. DSKNT – PhSPHR Entropy

Good lord. This album is evil. I don’t know how else to describe it. With PhSPHR Entropy, DSKNT has unleashed upon the world a debut of staggering proportions. Imagine a most unholy alliance between the mathy oddity of Dodecahedron and the ominous sonic textures of Deathspell Omega and you’ll start scratching the surface of what this record brings to the blood-soaked table. Tracks like “S.O.P.O.R.” and “Resurgence of Primordial Void Aperture” offer the type of bile-filled, suffocating black metal that most fans of the subgenre will immediately enjoy, but it’s the left-field bits like the instrumental noise machine “Kr. Vy. Rites” that set this album apart from other twisted black metal fare. DSKNT intends to confuse, discombobulate, and punish, and this album does all of these things with relish. A sterling debut from what I hope becomes an avant-garde black metal institution.

 

7. Yellow Eyes – Immersion Trench Reverie

There are few black metal bands that are operating at the level of excellence that Brooklyn’s Yellow Eyes is. Their previous album, Sick With Bloom, was in my mind a watershed moment for both the band and atmospheric black metal as a whole. With Immersion Trench Reverie, they have built upon the sterling foundation set by Bloom with a record that refines and exceeds the excellence of its predecessor in every way. This record is so damn good. The inclusion of field recordings, extended and ethereal choral passages, and a production aesthetic that feels simultaneously quite old and very new make this one of the most truly unique listening experiences of the year. The songwriting is exceptional, with “Old Alpine Pang” and “Shrillness in the Heated Grass” containing genuine earworms that morph and evolve throughout each track’s run-time, creating a genuine kaleidoscope of familiar sound that few bands can successfully replicate. This is Yellow Eyes’ finest hour, and hopefully there are many more to come.

 

6. Der Weg einer Freiheit – Finisterre

Der Weg einer Freiheit have been making fantastic, emotionally charged black metal for nearly a decade now, and each subsequent album builds upon the last in a way that feels natural and powerful. With Finisterre, the band continue on this upward trajectory with their most soaring and devastating record to date. This is a really special band making special music, and their unique skillset and songwriting aesthetic are on full display here. From the emotional weight of “Aufbruch”, to the manic blasting of “Skepsis, Pt. I”, the band displays each of its strengths in a way that dwarfs their previous work. This is without question the band’s best record, dripping with pure talent, stifling atmosphere, and emotional weight. If you haven’t heard it yet, stop being dumb and do the thing.

 

5. Krallice – Go Be Forgotten

I have written 700+ words about Krallice already, so I’ll keep this brief: Go Be Forgotten is one of the best records the band has yet created. It is unpredictable, impeccably structured, and performed with all the typical verve and execution that makes this band tower above many of their peers. It’s imperfect and wonderful, and you need to hear it.

 

4. Dodecahedron – Kwintessens

Dodecahedron is a weird band. Their music is often so frenetic that one wouldn’t be faulted for feeling like they’d accidentally put on The Dillinger Escape Plan trying on black metal for size. The compositions here are frantic, kinetic, and hectic. But within the bananas songwriting and musicianship contained in Kwintessens is a unifying, intricate sonic aesthetic that pervades the entire album, constantly providing jaw-dropping moments amidst a flood of sound. These tracks are very far from randomized mayhem, but are purposefully elusive and intense, giving listeners a varied yet unified experience that is never once dull or uninteresting. The production is solid, the performances are ferocious, and the songwriting is incredibly clever. This is one of the most wall-to-wall excellent black metal releases of the year. Please don’t let its obtuse nature fool you into giving this thing the attention it deserves. There are uncountable black diamonds encased in this noisy landscape, and the rewards are far beyond worth the effort.

 

3. Jute Gyte – Oviri

I honestly don’t know how to describe Jute Gyte. Adam Kalmbach is a musical genius, and his ability to create sounds that sound, legitimately, wholly unique is unparalleled in the world of black metal. With an absolutely insane work ethic and literally dozens of records under his name during his project’s decade of existence, it’s hard to figure out where to start with the man’s discography. My advice: It doesn’t matter. It’s all insane, and Oviri only further proves this theory. What a batshit record. The atonality of the music, the incorporation of electronic elements and distorted vocals, the frenzied, shallow beats, all combine to create a sound that literally no one else in the metal world can replicate. This band and record stand in complete separation from the rest of the black metal pack, and listeners brave enough to wade into the deranged waters of Oviri will find themselves immersed in a world of weird that is well worth the effort. An insane and captivating record that sounds like nothing else in metal.

 

2. Thantifaxath – Void Masquerading as Matter

I soliloquized about this band at length in my review last month. Put plainly, Thantifaxath are one of the most creative, talented, and truly exceptional black metal bands working today. Their debut album, Sacred White Noise, was one of the best albums I had heard in years in any genre when it was released in 2014. It’s only fitting that their latest EP should eclipse their mesmerizing debut. Void Masquerading as Matter is a revelation. The insanely intricate songwriting, the sonic curveballs, and the bold choices all work. There isn’t a single misstep on this EP, and I have a hard time imagining how the band can improve on this. Yet I’m utterly confident they will. This is one of the best metal recordings of the past few years.

 

1. Bestia Arcana – Holókauston

The demonic, delightfully evil crown jewel of 2017 is undoubtedly Bestia Arcana’s Holokauston. From start to finish, this is the best black metal record I have heard in the last three-to-five years. That’s a bold statement, I know. But I have stood by it since I first heard this beast of a record months ago, and each subsequent listen has made it all the more evident that Colorado’s Naas Alcameth (also of Nightbringer and Excommunion) is one of the metal world’s premier talents. Everything that makes black metal unique and amazing is here, cranked to 11. “Hellmouth” and “Howling” are two of the best black metal tracks of this decade, boiling and churning with an otherworldly energy and ferocity. The album’s two other tracks are far from slouches as well, creating a unified four-part epic that will most assuredly stand the test of time. The dread-filled and suffocating atmosphere, occultic and biblical themes of destruction and doom, and long, winding compositions that never once lose their focus or manic energy make this one of the most aesthetically pleasing and compositionally sound black metal records in years. It’s also not a record you put on in the background. It’s a narrative experience, the kind of music that you allow to wash over you as you stare blankly into the dark, equally mesmerized and terrified. No other black metal record in 2017 comes close to Holokauston. Hands down the best record black metal has to offer this year.

 

Scott’s Top 15 Black Metal Albums of 2017

15. Vaivatar – Vanitas

Every year, there always seems to be at least one symphonic black metal album that causes me to question whether or not I actually dislike the genre as much as I think I do. This is no small feat, either; pretty much everything about symphonic BM is a deterrent for me, from the kitschy aesthetics to the excessive musical theatrics. Yet, when an album in this subgenre clicks for me, it truly excels, which is precisely why I love Vanitas as much as I do. Vaivatar give me the best of both worlds, blending the dynamic sonic palette of symphonic BM with everything I love about the genre at its core. With powerful riffs paired with well-written orchestral and symphonic elements and produced with just the right amount of grit and heft, Vanitas has endless appeal for both fans and detractors of symphonic BM.

 

14. Der Weg einer Freiheit – Finisterre

When I first wrote about Finisterre for Kvlt Kolvmn back in August, I ended up jotting down one of my favorite musings on the genre: “The history of black metal is defined by bands approaching the genre like an empty canvas with ragged edges.” Perhaps more so than any other band on this list, Der Weg einer Freiheit understand what it means to balance a genre’s past and future in order to further its heritage. To quote myself again, what I love about this band is their ability to touch on all and none of BM’s traits  simultaneously. Nearly every moment on Finisterre has a reference point in the genre, and yet, it simply feels like no other band could write it quite like DWEF have laid it out before me. Other albums on our lists are pushing black metal beyond its limits (and arguably beyond recognition, in some cases), and there’s absolutely a place for that in the genre to ensure it continues to grow and thrive. But when I need an album that reminds me why I fell in love with black metal in the first place, it’ll be difficult to find a recent competitor close to Finisterre. 

 

13. Draugsól – Volaða Land

Staying power is rare when it comes to first quarter albums. Every year end list has albums from the first chunk of the year, of course, but it’s often difficult for albums on the cusp of a top 25 or 50 to make the cut when they’ve had so many months to drop out of a person’s memory. And then there are albums like Volaða Land, which received my first HLT of 2017 and now earns a place among my favorite black metal albums of the year. It was a relatively quiet year for Icelandic BM after an explosive stretch of releases from amazing young bands, but Draugsól kept attention fixed on the island with a stellar iteration of the scene’s signature sound. Expect a a roaring display of traditionalism shaped with vibrant hues of atmosphere and dissonance.

 

12 . Ziggurat – Ritual Miasma

Traditionally, I haven’t paid much attention to EPs and demos when it comes to new black metal. Most of my favorite BM albums are long, winding and expansive, so quick hits are often enjoyable on first listen but do little to stick with me over the year. I figured this might be the case with Ritual Miasma, until I found myself spinning the release back to back several days in row. When you craft brutal black metal with strong death metal sensibilities the way Ziggurat can, it’s almost compulsory to press repeat once the final song plays. Granted, I’m definitely looking forward to hearing a longer project from the band, and preferably in the near future. But for now, it’s difficult to ask for much more than the aggressive, “deathened BM” on Ritual Miasma.

 

11. Dodecahedron – Kwintessens

When I first stumbled upon Heavy Blog back in 2012, there were two album reviews that made me a regular reader: Dragged Into Sunlight‘s Hatred for Mankind and Dodecahedron‘s self-titled debut. The latter of these albums was transformative for my view of black metal; I’d grown to view the genre as nothing but linear blast beats and tremolos, and now here’s a band skewing the genre’s core ideas and launching them into incredible new territory. Five years later, Kwintessens builds upon this foundation and improves everything that initially attracted me to the band’s style. While they easily could have phoned it in to quell fans’ anticipation after five years of silence, I’m thrilled to see the band returning rejuvenated and eager to continue exploring their sound.

 

10. DSKNT – PhSPHR Entropy

There was no release this year Jonathan hyped up more than PhSPHR Entropy. Before and after he wrote his review, he touched base with me to ensure the album was on my radar and would earn a spot on my ever-expanding list of albums I need to spin. And while Jonathan is almost always on point with his recommendations, this was probably he strongest release he urged me to listen to all year. DSKNT take everything I thought I loved about avant-garde black metal and amplifies it in ways I’ve never considered before. This is suffocating, dissonant aggression at it’s finest, and anyone seeking a proper auditory punishing needn’t look any further.

 

9. Birkenwald – MDD

As a New Hampshire native, I’ve always had an affinity for birch trees. They’re an abundant feature of our natural landscape and one of the most beautiful accents to the picturesque views of a brisk winter day. This granted MDD‘s cover art with an advantage while I did my regular scroll through Bandcamp, but it’s ultimately Birkenwald‘s music that kept me returning time and time again. All blackgaze and post-black metal bands incorporate post-rock into their music, but I struggle to think of a band who better synthesizes black metal and post-rock the way Birkenwald do. They incorporate the strongest elements from both genres in such a way that each of their strengths are enhanced by the foundations laid out by the adjacent genre. It’s the perfect soundtrack for a sunny winter day, where golden rays shine through birch tress to illuminate the beauty of the world.

 

8. Botanist – Collective: The Shape of He to Come

As diverse a genre as black metal can be, even many of the most experimental bands still stick to a standard instrumental lineup. Finding a BM band without guitars is exceptionally rare, which makes the success Botanist achieves without the staple instrument all the more noteworthy. Replacing guitars with hammered dulcimers sounds like a gimmick on paper,  but in practice, it’s one of the most striking, unique and electrifying ideas ever to be introduced to the genre. Collective: The Shape of He to Come sees project mastermind Otrebor affording the band’s longtime contributors and live performers a chance to contribute to an album’s songwriting, and naturally, the result is the band’s most diverse sonic offering to date. It’s a stretch to fully pin this to any specific BM subgenre, but fans of blackgaze and folk-tinged post-black metal with plenty of personality and oddities should feel right at home.

 

7. Kafirun – Eschaton

Speed is such an incredible asset in black metal’s arsenal. I may prefer albums that chart new, strange territory, but I’ll always drop everything for a great, traditional approach that churns out pummeling riffs and blasts at a breakneck pace. Enter Kafirun, whose latest album Eschaton takes this approach and pile drives the listener straight into the bowels of the abyss. It’s such a perfect encapsulation of Marduk-core at its best without feeling derivative in any way. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself putting this one on repeat; it’s infectious and hits just as hard on subsequent listens.

 

6. Inferno – Gnosis Kardias (Of Transcension and Involution)

Though I would’ve never guessed this based on my initial listens to Gnosis KardiasInferno are the foil of your standard black metal veteran. Once a legendary act approaches the tailend of the their career, it’s almost assured that they’ll settle into a comfortable, complacent pocket that sees them going through the motions and achieving lukewarm results. None of this could be further from the truth when it comes to Inferno, who sound more focused and voracious than ever nearly two decades into their career. Though rooted in traditional BM, everything about Gnosis is indicative of a band looking to subtly up their game by focusing on the intricacies of each track. It’s more tastefully avant-garde and adventurous than any latter-career offering I’ve heard from an older band in the past few years.

 

5. Skáphe – VII

If I surprised myself by putting an EP on this list, imagine how odd it was to realize I’d be putting a single track so high up in the ranking. It’s a testament to Skáphe‘s dominance of avant-garde black metal that a 20-minute experiment could rival the quality of their first two albums, both of which now feel like primers for what VII acheives over its taxing, suffocating run time. With a perfect blend of composition, production and sinister aggression, Skáphe continue to write the modern playbook for how to effectively execute an exhaustive listen that’s enjoyable to march through. This is catharsis at its finest, and one of the best ways to spend 20 minutes this year (or any year, for that matter).

 

4. Tetragrammacide – Primal Incinerators of Moral Matrix

Why does war metal seem to offer the same thing every time? Granted, it’s always  a great experience, but there’s only so much you can do with a formula that essentially boils down to “play as violently possible.” As contradictory as it might seem to ask for variety and composition in war metal, Tetragrammacide have figured out the perfect formula to both fire on all cylinders and ensure the machine is well oiled. Primal Incinerators of Moral Matrix has an incredible amount of forethought and relative finesse behind every note, and while there’s no shortage of unbridled intensity, it feels so much more purposeful and fulfilling than your standard war metal fare. Concentrated chaos abound, the album is a must listen for BM fans of all stripes, and hopefully it’ll set a new standard for how to make its subgenre excel.

 

3. Violet Cold – Anomie

My relationship with blackgaze is comparable to my feelings about symphonic black metal, albeit with a different initial starting point. Unlike symphonic BM, I’m a huge fan of the blackgaze template, as the subgenre combines numerous genres I love and elevated the result into an exceptional final package. It’s blissfully melodic and awash with emotion, and yet, I find it difficult to embrace much of what the gene has to offer nowadays. I can certainly enjoy Sunbather-core almost as much as the source material, but there’s just no staying power for a lot of modern releases. It’s difficult to “wow” listeners when your approach is almost identical to something that was known for being incredibly unique when it debuted. With that said, I can say with no caveats or hesitation that Anomie is far and away the best blackgaze album I’ve heard since Lantlôs‘s .neon. Drawing from their roots in Azerbaijan, Violet Cold operate perfectly on every level, adding in the perfect amount of world influences to a masterful display of blackgaze melodies, builds and climaxes. Anomie should be required listening for every blackgaze band moving forward.

 

2. Jute Gyte – Oviri

I’m the first to admit I’m pretty illiterate when it comes to the technical aspects of music. I’ll gladly write paragraph after paragraph about the contextual, historical or musical significance of an album, but I simply can’t dive into the nitty gritty of an album’s compositional techniques like other members of our staff can. Thankfully for me, I haven’t had to learn much of anything about the concepts behind microtonal music to realize Jute Gyte is arguably the most thrilling act in modern black metal. A one-man show run by Adam Kalmbach, Jute Gyte’s output has pushed the boundaries of what I believed to be the limits of chaotic BM. His music introduces new meaning to the avant-garde metal label, with dizzying flurries of dissonant, jarring notes encased in complex structures. Kalmbach’s studious approach to black metal forgoes a lot of the emotion and atmosphere of other chaotic black metal bands like Deathspell Omega, leaving in its place coldly-calculated bouts of disorienting, suffocating noise sure to intrigue listeners at the very least and, more likely, leave them gasping for air and begging for more. Oviri certainly isn’t for everybody, but those willing to give the album even a cursory listen will be rewarded with an extraordinary display of metal pushed well beyond its comfort zone.

 

1. Bestia Arcana – Holókauston

While Jonathan and I didn’t coordinate at all when it came time to compile our AOTY lists, it’s honestly unsurprising that we both settled on Holókauston as our clear pick for the greatest thing black metal had to offer this year. Interestingly enough, I stumbled upon Bestia Arcana just a few months before they released their sophomore album. I’d found their debut To Anabainon ek tes Abyssu on a whim and immediately became obsessed with it, only to find a new album on the way before I could grow impatient for new material. My good fortunes were only elevated once I pressed play on Holókauston and flung myself into atmospheric black metal operating at a level unmatched by anyone else currently working in the subgenre. The album further demonstrates just how much of a pillar Naas Alcameth has become within the temple of modern black metal, not to mention his incredible work with Akhyls and Nightbringer. Though his entire discography is full of thunderous albums and performances, Holókauston is a triumph that somehow exceeds the high expectations he’d already established for himself, and you’d be a downright fool not to embrace the menacing atmospheres, pummeling blast beats and monolith riffs that define what Jonathan and I unequivocally crown as the greatest BM album of the year by a wide margin.

 

Honorable Mentions

A Pale December – The Shrine of Primal Fire

Ars Magna Umbrae – Through Lunar Gateways

Árstíðir lífsins – Heljarkviða

Ashenspire – Speak Not of the Laudanum Quandary

Black Cilice – Banished from Time

Celeste – Infidèle(s)

Cloak of Altering – I Reached for the Light That Drowned in Your Mouth

Crurifragium – Beasts of the Temple of Satan

Death Fortress – Triumph of the Undying

De Magia Veterum – Naked Swords Into the Wombs of the Enemy

Dreamshift – Seconds

Endalok – Úr Draumheimi Viðurstyggðar

Grima – Tales of the Enchanted Woods

Kaosophia – Serpenti Vortex

Krallice – Loüm

Lorn – Arrayed Claws

Morphinist – Lust

MRTVI – Negative Atonal Dissonance

Netra – Ingrats

Nullingroots – Into the Grey

Raventale – Planetarium

Saqra’s Cult – Forgotten Rites

Scáth na Déithe – Pledge Nothing But Flesh

The Great Old Ones – EOD: A Tale of Dark Legacy

Ungfell – Tôtbringære

Worthless Life – Conscious in Coma

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