At its core, the main appeal of black metal is how absolutely visceral it is. Although there are plenty of bands for whom this doesn’t necessarily apply – groups like Alcest and Wolves In The Throne Room – the vast majority of black metal, from the 2nd wave in the 90’s and forward, brings to the table a gut-wrenching meatiness and weight that no other form of metal can ever really put forth. It’s here that black metal finds the mainstays of its sound: the primally fast, animalistic blast beats and tremolo guitars easily conjure to mind images of brutal Scandinavian winters, forests covered in blankets of glistening snow, and most importantly, the human need to constantly be moving forward while existing in such a place.
The more ethereal American side of black metal (disclaimer: even though groups like Lantlos and Alcest are linchpins in this subgenre, the music is strongly focused in the North American content, particularly the US, and so that’s how I’ll be referring to it) takes this primal and moving sound and redirects it, shifting the focus from the brutality inherent in nature to the other side of the proverbial coin: its beauty. Groups like the aforementioned Wolves In The Throne Room, and one-hit wonders Weakling, have paved the way for a melancholic form of black metal, somber pagan Cascadian meditations by way of folky leads, guitars redolent and shimmering with reverb, creating a wholly new dynamic out of the same formula as is used in the more traditional, 2nd-wave, Scandinavian form of black metal.
Surely, there must be a midpoint between the two forms, some region where this binary becomes a venn diagram, where the best of both worlds come together in a combination that is equal parts beauty and anger, primal fire and rushing winds, a geographic and sonic midpoint for these two sides of the same coin.
Enter Iceland: not exactly a country known for its metal output in the same way as its Nordic brethren, this small island nation contains a thriving black metal scene that is slowly worming its way into the world of metal at large, first breaching through the underground with last year’s stellar release by Mispyrming, Songvar elds og oreidu (Icelandic for “Songs Of Fire And Chaos”). Songvar combines the best elements of the two black metal communities together with songs that at times channel the typical grandeur of American black metal with its soaring pagan tremolos and melancholic feel, but then switches, quite fluidly, into the all-out attack typical of a country populated by Nords.
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Although Songvar elds og oreidu is the first release from this insular scene to garner international acclaim, early on in 2016, a collective of artists, going by the band name Nadra, released Allir vegir til glotunar (“All Paths To Oblivion”), and it compounds on the greatness of Songvar tenfold. Hailed as “the first great black metal album of 2016” by Metalsucks, Allir vegir is a triumph in the field of black metal, first and foremost because of its insanely good songwriting, but also because of the way it so deftly and easily fuses together the sonic qualities of these two worlds of design. Opener “Fjallid” immediately kicks off with a riff strongly reminiscent of the pagan, naturalist world of Cascadian black metal, a form popularized by Wolves In The Throne Room, and moves through beautiful, soaring leads cleanly into a sound so chaotic and ferocious that it almost out-Watains Watain. The whole release is a total joyride through this world of fusion, proving that the Icelandic scene has an incredible handle on every aspect of this genre, as 14-minute epic “Falid” proves quite well. There’s nary a minute of downtime on this ferocious release; every second is spent propelling the record forward at diabolical speed.
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On the more melodic side of things lies Toska, whose self-titled release from last year displays a band mixing the naturalistic, folky American black metal sound with the typical synths and more tempered assault of bands like Dissection and Windir, pioneers in the melodic black metal style. They rein the American influence back in nicely on “Night II – Throbbing Tumulus”, providing an excellent look at just how much Scandinavian there still is in this island outlier. Easily the most rhythmically oriented release presented here, Toska gives us a fantastic look at how the American forms of black metal can fluidly be combined with the more melodic side of of the Scandinavian world to create a style all its own.
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Even though it’s from all the way the hell back in 2009, the eponymous EP by Carpe Noctem is another perfect example of the combination of beauty and ferocity that pervades throughout the isolated Iceland scene. This release bears all of the scene’s standard hallmark, and even though it predates any breaking-through into the mainstream of internet metal culture, it shows that there’s definitely been an established sound in this scene for quite a while now.
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Another factor of the success in the Icelandic black metal scene is the incestuous quality of the scene (referring to way members are often shared between bands, just to clear the air on that). A quick look at, for instance, Nadra’s rateyourmusic page shows a huge, huge number of related artists, including Mispyrming and Carpe Noctem. The only comparison in terms of the amount of artists shared between bands is the Bay Area technical death metal scene, which is certainly also known for members’ proclivity to switch between bands and have multiple projects going on at once. This creates a sense of fluidity and cohesion in the sound of various bands, allowing for a ‘trademark’ sound, something which is easily noticeable in the Icelandic scene.
Both sonically and geographically equidistant from both Europe and North America, Iceland has always served as a midpoint between the two continents. This combination of middle-man qualities and relative isolation has allowed a rich, unique culture in all areas of life to develop, and this holds just as true of black metal as it does everything else. Deftly and strongly combining the traits of both the North American black metal scene with that of their Scandinavian ilk, they’ve created a sonic fusion unlike anything else in the world of extreme music. If you ever find yourself wondering where to search for your next favorite black metal release, never forget to look to the north.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Icelandic black metal scene, this interview by Kim Kelly with D.G. of Mispyrming is an excellent place to get the voice of an insider.