Welcome to the fifth part in our ongoing series of Heavy Blog Is Heavy’s “Best Of” selections where we explore a genre of music and each of our dedicated authors picks a favorite album to share a personal experience with. After mixing things up a bit with the previous list, we’ve decided to return to a genre limitation. Remember, we’re interesting in limiting ourselves as much as possible by picking a narrow genre because we believe limitations breed creativity. This time, we’ve chosen to focus on another genre who’s definition is a bit hazy: progressive black metal.
Black metal is one of the most misrepresented and ill-understood sub-genres within the metal community and outside of it. These specific albums add even more chaos to the mix by taking the basic black metal sound and either adding new influences to it or mixing up the basic formula completely: from folk-infused conceptual albums to fearlessly brutal descents into madness, this sub-genre is both abrasive and unique, musically complex and furious. Hold on tight as we spiral into the frost-bitten embrace of these albums.
Agalloch – The Mantle
To be honest, black metal isn’t my thing. I’ve tried very hard to approach this prolific genre but except for a few bands, I haven’t been able to connect with a lot of the emotions and themes presented here. Agalloch however are something else entirely. Their entire discography is so laden with despair and a dedication to unique melodies, that they’ve all struck a deep chord within me. No album better exemplifies their strength than The Mantle. Epic in scope, this album explores one of the themes that Agalloch have become famous for: winter. The music matches suit: rolling chords meld with whispered growls, interspersed with acoustic guitars that freeze the blood. The true hero of this album though, and something I find raises it above the rest of the black metal stock, is its structure. It’s not just one long tremolo pick spanning the length of the album but a unique piece, composed as a whole and exploring many recurring musical and thematic themes. This album truly deserves repeated listens as a whole to appreciate its frigid genius and for a genre as varied as black metal, I find that trait both endearing and challenging.
Recommended Track: In the Shadow of Our Pale Companion
Altar of Plagues – Teethed Glory & Injury
Going into album sessions knowing good and well it will be your last can likely have an impact on the tone and themes of your output. Take Teethed Glory & Injury, Altar of Plagues’ swansong and magnum opus. Much of the band’s prior material landed firmly within the realm of post-black metal, rife with tremolo picking and beautiful yet meandering atmospheres. This final album however sees the band honing their songcraft and yielding industrial influences that allow for a damaged and twisted take on the tiring post-black metal sound. Teethed Glory & Injury truly feels like a stepping stone for the furtherance of black metal that sacrifices neither heart nor hatred and comfortably treads the line between challenging and listenable.
Recommended Track: A Body Shrouded
Ihsahn – After
Spencer “Litins” Snitil
Long since disbanding Emperor, Ihsahn moved on to form his own solo project, and what it has become today is truly remarkable. However, it was his third studio effort, After, that truly solidified him as one of the most important figures in modern black metal. Referred to as the third part in a trilogy, it is more laid back and takes place “After” the main conflict. The album sees Ihsahn delve more into clean vocals and mellow guitars than ever before, all while still retaining his signature heavy and super catchy riffs that make him stand out from everyone else. The title track especially showcases how diverse Ihsahn is, with some brilliant clean vocals and fantastic leopard parts forming the foundation for what becomes one of the best songs he has ever written. After is everything that Ihsahn has done for the black metal community and everything he has done for the progressive metal community in one perfectly cohesive package, and you’ll be hard pressed to find an album that does what this one does as well as Ihsahn does it.
Recommended Track: Undercurrent
Deathspell Omega – Paracletus
I’ve honestly never been a particular fan of black metal in any of its forms, but French avant-garde outfit Deathspell Omega is one of the few bands in the genre that truly stick out for me. What with the philosophical approach to Satanist lyrics, the off-kilter songwriting, and the heavily dissonant, yet fairly clean (for BM standards) production, DsO offer plenty of unique elements to the table while still embracing the core aesthetic of the genre. Despite being released at a time when the band had already established themselves on the “scene” , Paracletus is a pivotal release as it marks the end of the trilogy that defined their direction both musically and ideologically. Though, the real reason why I hold it in high regard is that it’s one of the most suffocating and downright insane pieces of music I’ve ever heard. Right as the opener ‘Epiklesis I’ sets in, DsO takes the listener on a mutilating journey through blast beat-heavy black metal, psychedelia-laden jazz breaks, prog-esque time signature shifts, mathcore levels of aural chaos, and dissonant, wall-of-noise style production. However, Paracletus also offers a uniquely rewarding experience, and though I find myself relieved when it bows out, I always keep coming back for more.
Recommended Track: Devouring Famine
A Forest of Stars – A Shadowplay for Yesterdays
A Forest Of Stars take progression back a few centuries, to the Victorian era of darkened London back streets, crippling disease and strange occult interests. A Shadowplay For Yesterdays is one of those odd rough diamonds that will appear any time a musical style is given enough time to breath — it takes the bleak and sprawling atmosphere of mid-tempo folk-influenced black metal and introduces this strange lore to it, giving it a new sense of depth. It’s not particularly subtle, with large sections of blistering blastbeats being bookended by flute and violin solos or even spoken word but it’s efforts in capturing the dark atmosphere of the seediest sections of Victorian history is surprisingly successful. A record that will appeal to few, but appeal to them greatly.
Recommended Track: The Underside Of Eden
Enslaved – Riitiir
It’s rare that a band’s current material is leaps and bounds better than the stuff they made when they first started out, and even rarer still is the band who starts strong and improves with every single album. Enslaved are the latter. Over the course of more than a decade and multiple releases spanning traditional/Viking black metal, to the current day albums, charting a course through the murky waters of progressive black, Enslaved have never made music lacking in vision or authenticity, and Riitiir is the pinnacle of their creative vision so far, a work vast and all encompassing that somehow only contains the very best elements of the band’s sound. Some progressive black metal bands, like Deathspell Omega, have delved into the very depths of hellish oblivion, while others like Blut Aus Nord have tried to strike a balance between the Light and the Dark. Enslaved are content to write good songs. Every song on this album sounds carefully crafted and unfolds organically, from the title track to the sprawling epic Roots of the Mountain. The band have taken the sound they’ve been building since Below the Lights and honed it to perfection, creating what is, in my mind, the best album in one of my favorite genres.
Recommended track: Roots of the Mountain
Krallice – Years Past Matter
First things first: is there no end to what Colin Marston is capable of? I wouldn’t really have expected him to sink his claws into anything even remotely resembling black metal, and yet Krallice is a thing that exists. And it is a very good thing. In all honesty, my experience with black metal is somewhat limited, but this album stands out like nothing else. It sounded downright impenetrable upon the first couple of listens, as certain albums tend to do; however, it’s one of the few albums that I’ve found to retain most of its mystique no matter how much patience it’s afforded on the listener’s part. Perhaps it has something to do with the odd, indistinguishable track names? The perpetual sense of tension that shines through every riff? maybe it’s that Colin Marston is on an album that isn’t technical as all hell? (sorry, that particularly gets me) To be honest, I still don’t completely know what it boils down to, and I think that that is ultimately what makes Years Past Matter stick out the way it does.
Recommended track: IIIIIII (7)
ICS Vortex – Storm Seeker
If you ask me who I think the best vocalist in metal is, I’d say it’s definitely Simen Hestnæs. Who’s that? It’s ICS Vortex, vocalist of Arcturus, formerly the clean vocalist of Dimmu Borgir (remember that amazing clean section on Progenies?) and Borknagar. His voice is extremely unique and cuts right into one’s soul. Well, when I heard that he had made a solo album, I was prepared to be amazed, but I got even more than what I expected. Storm Seeker is a crazy ride with black metal riffs taken to weird places. The album is very melodic and at times has kind of a very easy going mood, but underneath it all it’s still clearly black metal. It’s like Vortex took the essence of the genre and then perverted it to make something beautiful. Storm Seeker’s riffage is both soothing and unsettling at the same time. Vortex’s amazing voice just takes this even further, as he sings very weird melodies yet has this ethereal quality at times. This is one album that always takes to a different place when I listen to it, and there is truly nothing like it, because it feels like the music is composed by an alien who heard some black metal and then interpreted it in an extremely unconventional manner. Which might be the case, as ICS Vortex just doesn’t sound human and is about 6’7”. Regardless, Storm Seeker is a must-listen for anyone who wants their perspective on black metal changed. It’s an instant classic.
Recommended Track: Odin’s Tree
Hail Spirit Noir – Pneuma
There is still a kernel of raw, unadulterated black metal at the core of every forward-thinking band in the genre. They are, after all, simply playing an established style “progressively.” However, when it comes to Hail Spirit Noir’s debut Pneuma, that aforementioned kernel instead becomes one of slight doubt. For the sound that the band sent over from Greece truly capitalizes the “P” in progressive, to the point that the black metal portion of the dish seems more like the olive oil rather than the vegetables that it is marinating. The result is a tantalizing concoction that warrants its bizarre quirks with a phenomenal knack for composition. If anyone ever expresses a desire to hear the result of a seventies prog rock band dropping acid in the Oracle of Delphi’s cave while listening to the greatest hits from the Second Wave, they should promptly be provided with a copy of Pneuma and a tab in the shape of the devil’s head.
Recommended track: Haire Pneuma Skoteino
Direwolf – Beyond the Lands of Human Existence
Honestly this isn’t my category and I thought I was going to have to sit it out. But then I reviewed the last.fm list of Progressive Black Metal bands that our boss Jimmy Rowe handed out and finally I spotted something I recognized, Direwolf.
Flash back to a couple of years ago and I was sitting on a deck in Harvard, Massachusetts with the members of Son of Aurelius and their drummer Spencer Edward insisted that not only must I listen to Direwolf, that once I did I would never need to listen to any other music, even his own. It didn’t quite work out like that but still I’m glad I took the Direwolf ride.
Direwolf is the solo project of Behold… the Arctopus guitarist Mike Lerner. The 2007 release Beyond the Lands of Human Existence. In some ways this record combines all of the excesses of both progressive music and Black Metal with both a spaaaaaace and spacy theme throughout. You get a full taste of that on the title track.
Yes this is kitschy music, sometimes so over the top as to be ironic, and yet at the end of it I am glad I let Spencer berate me into listening.. If you enjoy an adventure but don’t take it too seriously, you should check out Direwolf.
Recommend Track: Beyond the Lands of Human Existence
No doubt you have your “To Listen” lists all filled up. We urge you to dive into these albums as a lot of them represent extremely unique and one of a kind creations. For our next list, we’ll probably be mixing things up again and escaping from the genre limitation yet again. Stay tuned for that, and as always sound off below if you have any specific list ideas you want us to tackle!
As always, remember: it’s OK to not like thing.