Black metal has a history of problematic behavior. From the onset of the Second Wave, the subgenre has come under attack for its outward manifestations of physical violence, arson, and abject anti-normative behavior. Needless to say, in the few decades that this type of music has existed, things have changed. Atmospheric black metal and blackgaze have taken prominent positions in the world of metal, exploring thematic and musical content that has expanded the boundaries of black metal in impactful ways. But as much as things change, they also remain the same. We can thank former Watain’s live guitarist Davide Totaro, Taake, Marduk, and Inquisition for that brutal reminder over the past few months. As is custom, the metal community erupted with opinions, commentary, and insult-slinging across the wide world of the interweb. Discussion of these topics is healthy and good, but it hasn’t changed much over the past few years as scrutiny of bands’ and musicians’ allegiance to and evangelization of neo-Nazi and/or fascist imagery has reached a fever pitch. Free speech vs. hate speech, artistic freedom vs. social responsibility, SJW cuck vs. Nazi punk, and the beat goes on. I’m not here to add anything particularly new to the conversation, but would instead like to make my thoughts clear on the subject as it pertains to this column and my own personal views on the subject. [Note: I co-sign everything Jonathan says below; he articulates our views better than I ever could. – Scott]
I am an advocate of the freedom of speech. I believe that it is a sacred and fundamental right deserving of protection and active legal defense. I also firmly believe in the right of the consumer to choose what they consume, and because of this take no issue with boycotts or outspoken distaste for content or products that a consumer finds repulsive, even if I myself don’t find the product under boycott offensive. Music is a consumable product. It exists within a structure that typically necessitates purchase in some form in order to consume (all you pirates out there being the obvious exception to this rule in general terms). If a consumer does not wish to participate in the consumption of a product due to its content, that is their right. If individuals wish to take this a step further by exercising their legal right to actively protest groups whose views they find abhorrent, so be it. No one’s freedom to speak is being violated in this interaction. But here lies the kicker: The freedom to say something IN NO WAY PROTECTS YOU FROM THE CONSEQUENCES OF YOUR VIEWS. I find neo-Nazism, fascism, and all political and social ideologies that call for violence against and/or murder of groups of people predicated on their nation of origin, skin color, or other genetic/chosen/arbitrary traits to be abhorrent. I will not support any bands propagating these views with my money, my time, or my words. My voice is not a particularly loud or influential one, but in good conscience I refuse to support bands that espouse these ideologies. This column will not cover music from bands that actively espouse these views or utilize their imagery with reverence because I believe it to be morally reprehensible and I will not use a platform I have been given to give these philosophies a positive voice. I will make mistakes in this endeavor, because I am human and my research skills in this arena while balancing full-time employment and a family are decidedly imperfect. I ask for your help in this regard, and for your grace as well.
I love black metal. I love its musical approach, its wild and untamed spirit, and its willingness to subvert norms in order to create that which is as expressive and free as anything you will find in art. I draw a hard line regarding views that call for the mass extermination of entire people groups, and will not support them in any way, shape, or form here. You are more than welcome to listen to whatever music you like and find conscionable, and I am not here to dictate anyone’s taste. Rather, this is about my voice in this space. If this angers you, that is your right. This might not be the column for you. If you disagree with these methods and wish to actively discuss the issues at hand, I welcome you with open arms and am more than willing to debate the merits of these statements. If you are a propagator of the views that I have mentioned above, quite frankly, you are the problem.
I’ve said my piece. Now, let’s talk music.
Afsky – Sorg
The debut record from Danish solo artist and Solbrud member Ole Luk, Afsky, is an impressive achievement. As most who are familiar with this column are aware, I have my issues with one-man black metal acts. Mostly because they’re absolutely everywhere, attempting to out lo-fi one another in a masochistic and inexplicable race to the bottom. Not so with Afsky, who manage to balance an obviously DIY aesthetic with fundamentally interesting and evocative black metal that both honors the spirit and tradition of this music while forging its own emotional journey. It’s good stuff.
Album opener “Jeg Baerer Deres Lig” is an immediate example of the sound Luk is going for. The atmospheric, gorgeous opening sets an emotional tone that feels more in line with artists on the far end of the atmoblack spectrum, but the music doesn’t settle into this space for long. A few minutes into the track we are transported into a heinous, blistering assault of tremolo picks and drum blasts that can easily stand with the best and brightest that black metal has to offer. But the track further transitions into some slower, more measured pacing, rounding off the track with some tempo and mood changes that are notably creative and sound lovely. The remainder of the album takes these elements and combines and expands upon them in different ways, all with the same result: Beautiful, atmospheric, deeply emotive black metal.
Fans of atmospheric black metal should jump on this record immediately. Luk understands quite deeply the heart and intent behind this type of music, and draws out emotional responses that could rival the Alcests and Deafheavens of the black metal world without once falling into any sort of “-gaze” category. This is premium one-man black metal performed and written with urgency. Excited to hear more from this project.
Borgne – [∞]
There are few components of black metal that are more crucial than atmosphere. Successful black metal almost invariably pulls in a heft amount of the stuff, whether through production values, synth work, guitar tone, or a slew of other sonic components. Swiss industrial black metallers Borgne understand this concept more than most, creating albums that are both brazenly harsh and overwhelmingly ethereal. These elements converge beautifully in [∞], the band’s seventh and most uniformly compelling record to date.
There’s very little to this record that fans of the more industrial side of black metal won’t enjoy. Bornyhake’s guitars blaze and slice with the icy precision of a frozen knife, while Lady Kaos’ keyboards add to the maelstrom with a transcendent undercurrent of cascading noise. Think Anaal Nathrakh with just a shade less relentless brutality. The tracks on this record flow into one another seamlessly, and the band’s obviously focused songwriting takes listeners into some pretty fantastical soundscapes. “I Tear Apart My Blackened Wings Pts. I & II” are a perfect example of the type of chilling and propulsive songwriting this band is capable of, and contain some of the best work of the band’s career to date.
It’s hard to go wrong here. Fans of industrial music will find more than enough to fill their cup, while the black metal faithful get an expansive, epic journey into a cold, lifeless heart of darkness. One of the more compelling black metal releases to reach my ears this year. Immensely impressive.
Chaos Invocation – Reaping Season, Bloodshed Beyond
A little further down, you’ll see me recommend a fantastic avant-garde black metal album that takes a myriad of risks that defy genre norms. In the process, I may or may not critique “blastbeat-laden tremolo assaults just for the sake of hitting as high a BPM as possible” (which also may or may not be a direct quote). While I firmly believe that albums pushing boundaries are often the most interesting and best to come out of any given gerne each year, there’s immense importance to a genre’s conventions being continuously refined and restated each year as well; “remember your roots” and all that jazz, if you know what I mean. That’s one of the things I love about Kvlt Kolvmn: each month, Jonathan and I will come together to highlight albums from polar opposite positions on he black metal spectrum, which is not only a sign of solid curation (and teamwork), but also a key sign that the genre is healthy, thriving and bursting with talent. Rambling aside, what I’m trying to say is Chaos Invocation have penned an absolute beast of a record with Reaping Season, Bloodshed Beyond, chock full of ripping, straightforward black metal played exactly the way it should be: no frills riffs and blasts from start to finish, with plenty of interesting flourishes to keep things fresh along the way.
From the initial blast-driven gallop of “Calling from Dudail” and onward, Chaos Invocation proves they’re more than just another Marduk clone lurking in the shadows of Bandcamp. T., the band’s verbosely-named drummer, delivers the type of aggressive, speed-obsessed performance that made Opus Nocturne so great, while A. (guitars) proves his knowledge of the entire black metal canon. Even on relatively simple tracks centered around heavy-hitting riffs, A. knows exactly when to throw in a melodic flourish, off-kilter chord progression or dissonant passage, and on slower tracks like “Obsession Is Always the Answer,” they create an even more foreboding atmosphere that incorporates all these elements simultaneously, calling to mind Mayhem’s (severely underrated) Grand Declaration of War. This musical synthesis is elevated even higher by vocalist M., an animated growler that sounds like a more level-headed Attila Csihar. Their vocal performance ebbs and flows with the music perfectly, leading the charge on bludgeoning riff fests and swirling around the murk on the album’s experimental dirges. The album establishes Chaos Invocation as a triple-threat that’s capably hoisting the torch of black metal’s past above an avant-garde sea and still remaining one of the brightest bands in the genre.
Lychgate – The Contagion in Nine Steps
Welcome back to the latest installment of “Does Scott Actually Enjoy Symphonic Black Metal?” The saga first began with our For Fans of Emperor feature, whom I always considered “one of the good ones” when it came to symphonic BM. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find a relevant recommendation that I genuinely enjoyed; that is, until I stumbled upon An Antidote for the Glass Pill. Coincidentally enough, I just wrote about how bands can successfully avoid the “sophomore slump” in our March edition of Death’s Door, word vomit which is applicable to Lychgate’s phenomenal second outing into the world of avant-garde symphonic BM. As I wrote for our Emperor piece, “Every twisted organ and echoing oddity conjures the feeling of a desolate church haunted by a horrendous past being torn to shreds by the spectres that endlessly roam its halls. Emperor’s persistent, ripping BM and steadily broadening progressive experimentations are obviously channeled here, and the results Lychgate achieve should intrigue even the most fervent symphonic BM detractor.”
While I’m not sure the “junior slump” is a collectively understood phenomenon, The Contagion in Nine Steps is an ambitious record that serves as an example of how to avoid this entirely. From the enhanced symphonic elements to the bold, invigorated riffs to the sweeping compositions, Lychgate’s third offering is an exceptional testament to how broad a pallette black metal bands are afforded by the genre’s sonic scope. Though noticeably lacking in speed this time around, Lychgate prove with Contagion that slow and mid-paced black metal allows access to a different side of the genre, which is in many ways superior to blastbeat-laden tremolo assaults just for the sake of hitting as high a BPM as possible. The melodies written by guitarists S.D. Lindsley and J. C. Young “Vortigern” are woven perfectly with epic passages of organ, synth and piano, creating a spellbinding, cinematic landscape on every track. The vast atmospheres provide Greg Chandler with ample room to shine, and he belts out some truly impressive singing and screaming throughout the album. The album is as close to a black metal opera as one could hope to experience, and as of right now, it also holds the distinction as the only essential symphonic BM album of the year thus far. Seriously, even if you’re a genre skeptic or a casual listener like myself, Lychgate’s style offers a fresh take full of gems that might surprise even the most ardent detractors of the subgenre.
Slaves BC – Lo, and I Am Burning
Every year, there seems to be a release within one of metal’s many subgenres that makes me freeze in place and pay very close attention to what I am hearing. Slaves BC’s fantastic sophomore release Lo, And I Am Burning has thus far this year been my black metal entry into that hallowed hall of records. Holy hell, is this thing good. Mixing the atonality of bands like Dodecahedron and Plebian Grandstand with hardcore leanings, Slaves BC create a soundscape that is harrowing, punishing, and transfixing from start to finish. This isn’t your father’s black metal, and praise to the underworld that it exists.
Though praise to the underworld may be a bit of a stretch, given the band’s thematic focus and lyrical content, which aims decidedly higher in the spiritual cosmos. But you wouldn’t know it by the sounds they conjure, which are to a fault downright oppressive. “Lo”, “We Are All God’s Fault”, and “Lightbearer” blaze by in the albums first moments in a blaze of glory, utterly decimating all in their path. The instrumentation here is uniformly impressive, allowing the atmosphere the band is attempting to conjure take center stage without any particular instrument dominating the proceedings. “Glory”’s incredibly short burst of mania is an excellent example of the band’s melding of hardcore and black metal elements, fomenting in sounds that are about as horrific as you will hear in a black metal hybrid. “XLV” continues this trend in a more elongated format, highlighting the bands thoughtful and skilled songwriting abilities. This is incredibly powerful music that never once loses its nefarious sonic edge. Prepare to be transported and blasted repeatedly under the weight of Slaves BC’s vision.
Not everyone is going to buy into what Slaves BC is trying to sell. This is entirely fair, as this is music that blends genres in a fashion that may be off-putting to some. But those who like their black metal infused with a hefty dose of abject ferocity and jarring atonality will find plenty to love here. A welcome brick to the head. Here’s hoping for lots more.
Sojourner – The Shadowed Road
As a not-so-guilty pleasure, I love me some fantasy metal. Whether it’s the Steven Erikson-inspired Caladan Brood, the Tolkien worship of Summoning, or the straight up Dungeons and Dragons grandeur of Blind Guardian, I will grab my Narsil-replica sword and bellow along with all the stamina and longevity of the Dunedain. Sojourner filled my fantasy cup with their debut record Empires of Ash, and do so with even more success and gusto with their second record The Shadowed Road. Everything the band does well is built upon, expanded, and refined in the songs contained within, and brilliant production by the legendary Dan Swano and Oystein Garnes Brun only serves to make the proceedings sound all the more epic.
As a whole, the album is not short. Clocking in at over fifty minutes in length, Sojourner stuff plenty of magnificent music into an extensive package. But there are very few wasted moments contained within. Whether enrapturing us with the grandeur of vocal harmony in “Winter’s Slumber”, the stately and ominous synth opening of “Ode to the Sovereign”, or the epic compositional heights of “Where Lost Hope Lies”, Sojourner’s ever-improving songwriting ability keeps listeners on a varied and interesting trajectory toward the albums majestic finale and title track, which is about as perfect a closer as an album like this can have. Yes, it’s a tad long. Sure, it’s not black metal that everyone will enjoy. But those who take pleasure in the sounds and images conjured by the bands mentioned above will be delighted.
It’s always a treat to see a young band make good on the promise of their first record. Sojourner do so with The Shadowed Road with aplomb, only hinting towards bigger and better things in the future. My fantasy-loving heart is full. May Sojourner fill it for many more years to come.