There’s a timeless tradition – well, as timeless a tradition as one can reasonably have in a genre that was born in living memory – of metal engaging with the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Unsurprisingly, for a genre as nerdy and hellbent on escapism, there’s many a metalhead that has looked towards the landscape of Middle Earth as a primary vehicle through which to channel their musical and conceptual ideas. From the classic occultism and fairy-tale lore that fascinated proto-metal bands and the bubbling lysergic cauldrons of stoner metal to the high-flying realms of power metal, there’s really not a genre of metal that hasn’t been profoundly impacted by Tolkien’s storytelling, either directly or otherwise.
Black metal, however, is perhaps the most affected genre in the whole of metal when it comes to picking up where the Lord of the Rings left off. Plenty of legacy acts in the genre, like Burzum and Gorgoroth, take their name from the culture or geography of Middle Earth, and oft-celebrated bands like Summoning have contributed to a plenitude of albums that stake their conceptual claims within Tolkien’s canon.
It is into this tradition that black metal band Keys of Orthanc inaugurate themselves with Dush agh Golnauk, a conceptual album that explores the darkest elements of evil within the Lord of the Rings, aptly using an energetic, serrated-knife style that blends a rather straightforward attack with ice-sheets of sound courtesy of atmospheric guitars and the beautifully cheesy – yet somehow still grim – synthesizers that characterize epic black metal. It’s a whirlwind of music: it attacks from all angles with storm and fury, at some times howling and at others more calm, but always maintaining that feel of unpredictability and aggression. That is to say, Keys of Orthanc succinctly, and with extreme jurisprudence regarding the trimming of fat, channel the sort of natural grandeur that black metal does at its core, but without sacrificing the dark and occult nature that most befits the subject matter at hand.
However, also like a powerful wind, Dush agh Golnauk is, at its core, somewhat insubstantial. Clocking in at about half the length of most atmospheric black metal albums at roughly 35 minutes, five of which are devoted to a meandering outro track, Keys of Orthanc sound like they’re ending this album right as they’re just getting started finding their footing. While the dedication to the task at hand is admirable, more variation both among the tracks and within them would have done Dush agh Golnauk a world of good in terms of maintaining energy throughout instead of merely coasting off their impressive sonic monomania.
While it would be a lie to call this a stellar debut, or even necessary listening, Dush agh Golnauk should not be mistaken for a bad album. Keys of Orthanc have created what is, at worst, perfectly serviceable atmospheric/epic-leaning black metal that merely cannot quite fit the shoes it seeks to fill as a Tolkien-inspired metal record. However, for a first outing, what Keys of Orthanc have managed to do is commendable, and tapping into such a rich conceptual vein of metal certainly benefited them far more than it hindered them; the context of Middle Earth and what it entails can be a huge boon to enjoying a record such as this. I don’t know if I’d recommend this album per se, but it’s absolutely worth keeping an eye on Keys of Orthanc to see how they grow as a band from here on out. They have potential in spades.
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Dush agh Golnauk was originally released in February, but has seen a June re-release complete with vinyl and CDs through Naturmacht Productions. It’s out now on streaming services as well.