In some circles, USBM has long been a dirty acronym. Much reviled for its less-than-trve-kvlt aesthetic, black metal originating from the United States has seldom been considered an equal with its European peers. Over the past decade, several bands have begun to chink away at the wall of cynicism surrounding USBM to varying degrees of success. Nightbringer is one of these bands. If you have not heard their music before, think the bombast of Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk-era Emperor, coupled with a slightly less insane mix of Deathspell Omega’s freneticism, the sonic oddness of Dodheimsgard, and the chilling atmosphere of Blut Aus Nord.
Nightbringer are no slave to their influences, however’ Hailing from Green Mountain Falls, Colorado, and with a career spanning five albums released over a decade, frontman Naas Alcameth and his comrades in annihilation have attempted to create a musical realm of black metal darkness that balances reverence for traditional structures with their own original vision. On the whole, it’s safe to say that they have succeeded in this endeavor. 2014’s Ego Dominus Tuus was a brilliant masterclass in atmospheric black metal done right, and has since served as a creative cornerstone highlighting Nightbringer’s potential. While the black metal scene flounders in controversy and misfortune surrounding live show cancellations across the scene and alleged (and I use that word very purposefully) ties to Neo-Nazi and far right political movements (Marduk, Woe, Inquisition, etc.), it is apparent that the genre needs a win. Thankfully, Nightbringer deliver on the promise established in their last record by releasing their most diverse and accomplished record to date: Terra Damnata.
Nightbringer waste no time immersing the listener in their world. Opener “As Wolves Amongst Ruins” draws wide the doors of the album with a wretched scream, a tremolo-drenched opening minor key guitar barrage, and a swift introduction to the blasting powers of drummer Menthor. It’s a fast, aggressive, manic opening statement that also highlights several distinguishable characteristics of Nightbringer’s sound throughout the record: heavy atmosphere, a deep commitment to melody, vocal diversity, an absolutely manic rhythm section, and intricately layered guitar work. Prepare for death by a thousand cuts, as the excellent guitar pyrotechnics courtesy of Alcameth, VJS, and Ophis on this album are razor sharp and impressively melodic.
Right out of the gate, Nightbringer sets its sights on creating a soundscape buoyed by epic, soaring melody, which makes Terra Damnata stick out from many of its black metal peers. This album is absolutely chock full of incredibly melodic songwriting. From the ominous opening notes of “Misrule”, to the towering crescendos of “Midnight’s Crown” and “Serpent Sun”, Terra Damnata positively drips with the band’s dedication to melody. The production style of this record also compliments these compositions by choosing not to bury them in a sea of intentionally poorly produced fuzz. Instead, rich and clear production work allows these melodic passages to rise high in the mix, making their inclusion all the more obvious. These production decisions also allow the more atmospheric elements to Nightbringer’s sound to permeate nearly every song, hitting that sweet spot of mood-setting without overwhelming the mix. It is highly commendable work, and enhances the overall album experience greatly. Which, you know, is all well and good. But a great sounding experience only goes so far in creating a noteworthy album. If the songs are crap, all of that production wizardry and catchy melody means close to nothing. Take heart, dear reader. These songs are far from awful.
While it would be a grave mistake to exclude the contributions of a stalwart cast of incredibly talented musicians and songwriters, the “special sauce” of Nightbringer’s unique approach to black metal can be largely attributed to enigmatic frontman Naas Alcameth. Honing his skills in bands such as Akhlys, Bestia Arcana, and Excommunion, Naas Alcameth is not afraid to bring some unique and daring elements to Nightbringer’s overall sound, and his band’s approach to creative songwriting helps the album transcend the tremolo/scream/blastbeat formula and remain as a whole interesting and very rarely dull. One of these interesting flourishes is Nightbringer’s liberal use of synth passages that feel like a mix of 80s power metal gone horror and the soundtrack to Luigi’s Mansion. This is typically not a sentence I would write for an album that I enjoy, but believe it or not it really works here. Not only because it adds a playful flair to the album, but also that it adds some thoroughly unusual and unpredictable elements to the songs that contain them.
The track “Of the Key and Crossed Bones”, which utilizes synths liberally in its opening and closing sections, works in a sort of infinite loop, book-ending the frantic guitar and vocal work (which uses effects to fiendishly disturbing results) in a blanket of circular atmosphere. It’s one of the highlights of the album, and an excellent example of using unique soundscapes as a songwriting tool, rather than a kitschy ploy. “Midnight’s Crown” and “The Lamp of Inverse Light” also utilize synth-heavy passages to incorporate effectively eerie elements to the overall onslaught of the music. The inclusion of these elements may be arguable as a positive depending on one’s affinity for synths in metal, but here they fit the music like a glove, and add a dynamic texture to the music that is often lacking in other black metal records.
On the whole, black metal has grown deeply saturated as it has evolved. One only need check Bandcamp’s black metal page to realize just how many black metal projects are churning out new material, fighting for your attention. Out of this hellish mass Nightbringer stand above the competition as a bastion of creativity and skill, and a shining example of what USBM is capable of. Terra Damnata encapsulates all the things Nightbringer do well, and is one of the most enjoyable black metal records I’ve heard this year.
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Nightbringer’s Terra Damnata is available April 14th through Season of Mist. The album can be purchased at this location.