Black metal. What does it even mean anymore? The internet kerfuffle over Sacred Son’s album artwork for his eponymous debut once again presents the age old question of what is and isn’t “trve”. For myself, I consider this argument to be a bit superfluous. Technology advances, society shifts, tastes develop and refine, and the definition of whatever is pure in art alters itself with the times. Sure, there are specific tropes that make black metal what it is, but that in no way means that this subgenre does not have room for development while maintaining the sinister core of what makes black metal, well, black metal. I would go toe-to-toe with anyone who claimed that Leviathan, with all its genre-mashing opulence, was any less fundamentally evil and true to the spirit of black metal than, say, Bathory or Mayhem. This may be sacrilege to some, but I’m sticking by it. There is plenty of room in this style of music for madcap experimentation and growth, and stifling that because an album’s art doesn’t include corpse paint is beyond ridiculous.
Now that I’ve offended just about everyone, on to the delights of September! Once again, Scott and I have curated a list of black metal records for you that both fall into the traditional format of the subgenre, and also transcend its confines into more experimental territory. As always, please argue, caterwaul, and protest in the comments and provide us with the albums you found the most intriguing in the month of September. Enough exposition. Let’s get down to it.
Botanist – Collective: The Shape of He to Come
Black metal has arguably the most eclectic genre palette in the metal pantheon. Though simple at its core, the genre’s aesthetics have been applied to countless concepts and shaped to include a multitude of other genres and accompanying instrumentation. Yet, the guitar still remains the one constant element in nearly all iterations of the genre, whether as a lo-fi wall of distortion or thundering gallop over equally blistering blast beats. It’s a rare occurrence when a band decides to forgo this six string staple, and even those that do often struggle to pull off the balancing act of conveying black metal’s specific moods and motives without the genre’s standard lineup of instruments.
Of course, as with any experiment, those able to successfully pull it off often achieve results that surpass that of a traditional approach. Such is the case with Botanist, a San Francisco-based group creating blackgaze that sounds less like a soundtrack for the bustle of the Bay Area and more like the manifestation of mystic night time activity within redwood forests that goes unseen by human faculties. What sets the band apart from the mystical blackgaze of peers like Alcest is their use of hammered dulcimers, an instrument with ancient roots and a celestial tone. There are few ways in which the stringed tabletop trapezoid can be compared to a guitar, and when it comes to Botanist’s approach to blackgaze, their music is all the better for pursuing a sonic palette more attuned with traditions of folk music and spirituality.
Since their ambitious double album debut with I: The Suicide Tree / II: A Rose From the Dead in 2011, project mastermind Otrebor has guided the project’s worship of the natural world and carefully evolved Botanist’s sound toward more lush and expansive territory. Otrebor has maintained a conceptual approach to the structure of the band’s discography, cataloging full-length releases and EPs within separate compositional trajectories and accompanying each release with the context with which it was conceived. During the creation of their excellent 2014 album VI: Flora—explained to be the sixth installment in their full-length discography, released prior to a fifth album to come later—Otrebor began planning a separate release, which would incorporate writing and performing input from Botanist’s cast of collaborators and touring members. The result, aptly titled Collective: The Shape of He to Come, is the first of the “Collective” series, which, according to Otrebor, “means that it diverges from the model of Botanist studio albums as the result of me, Otrebor, doing everything, and instead recording more like a full band with distributed responsibilities.” The result is arguably the most fulfilled embodiment of Botanist’s sound that enhances every aspect of Otrebor’s signature approach to songcraft, allowing for an increase of musical depth and scope that both longtime fans and newcomers will find alluring.
Each track on The Shape of He to Come is comprised of moments and ideas that continuously engage the listener’s interest and builds upon what previous tracks have already accomplished. As soon as a haunting, baroque dulcimer solo opens “Praise Azalea, the Adversary,” the sonic scenery of a forest enchanted by specters is immediately cast across the listener’s mind, with the dissonant release of atonal notes and screeches that follow unveil undertones of nature’s sublime force. From there, Botanist weave melodies and black metal structures replete with awing melodies and celestial power. The title track feels like a seamless marriage of Alcest and Bergtatt-era Ulver that exudes a perfect ratio of strength and beauty. Hearing melodic, all-encompassing dulcimer tones echo out over precise blast beats while a serene chorus soars above is nothing short of transcendent.
The unexpected surprise of adding more musicians to the mix is this consistent themes of Bergtatt-esque atmospheric black metal informed by the added grandeur of folk-inspired writing. As each track unfolds, these bolstered manifestations of Botanist’s sound demonstrate both the strength of Otrebor’s foundational style as well as the power of collaboration. The Shape of He to Come is a must listen for fans of blackgaze and folk-heavy atmospheric black metal, and hopefully the album’s successes will inspire more artists to tinker with the idea of fostering a subgenre of guitar-less black metal that delivers equal measures of ambition and quality. And even if Botanist remain the sole torchbearers of this movement, their output will still remain a beacon of originality and fulfilled intrigue.
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ColdWorld – Wolves and Sheep
ColdWorld exist in that deliciously controversial space between traditional black metal and it’s more atmospheric sister. While the Georg Borner has never played by the rules of prescribed black metal, his last album, Autumn, tampered with the formula established by his previous work in more atmospheric and epic ways. Following suit, ColdWorld’s new EP Wolves and Sheep takes the most atmospheric bent of the band’s previous work and escalates it exponentially, creating some of the most ethereal and brooding music of Borner’s career.
The EP consists of two tracks, which equate to nearly twenty-five minutes of material. The opening title track serves as a meandering, amorphous wisp of smoke, contorting and reshaping itself throughout its twelve-minute runtime. Vocal distortion, dreary atmospherics, and bursts of black metal aggression all combine to create an epic soundscape that is a love it or hate it proposition. If you liked Autumn, you’ll love this. Same for the EP’s second track, which continues the above trends to create an overall experience that is unlike most other EPs you will hear this year. This is black metal gone rogue, twisting itself in ways that are both oddly familiar and strangely foreign. It’s confounding and wonderful, and fans of the band’s more atmospheric tendencies will relish every second of this EP.
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Satyricon – Deep Calleth upon Deep
Satyricon. Even the mention of this band’s name sends black metal diehards into histrionics. The band’s last self-titled record was one of the most unusual twists of style heard in black metal in a good while, and was not received very kindly by the band’s faithful. I was intrigued by the promotional tracks released for their latest record, Deep Calleth upon Deep, and was curious to see how the album would pan out. Much to my surprise, Satyricon have here released not only their best album in a decade, but one of the best albums of their career. Front to back, Deep Calleth upon Deep is an absolute delight.
The album’s title, derived in literary tradition from Psalm 42:7, is in Christianity a call for communion. By the same token, this record could be considered a similar cry, but to an entirely different group of people. Opening track “Midnight Serpent” is one of the most inviting opening salvos of the band’s career, and makes evident that the band have not fully abandoned the sound established in their last record. Before the trve run for the hills, this isn’t a bad thing. The harder, blacker edge pervades the majority of these tracks, while the simple, melodic edge the band has established as of late shines forth in all its simplistic vibrancy. This trend continues throughout the majority of the record, with “Blood Cracks Open the Ground” and the album’s title track further highlighting this melding of styles. That isn’t to say the album is without its predominantly nasty black metal elements, as “Black Wings of Withering Gloom” and “Burial Rite” bring the darkness to the album’s finale. It’s a wide-ranging record that incorporates a lot of sounds, and does it impeccably well throughout.
If you hated the band’s last record, I would strongly recommend giving this a try. If you loved it, there’s plenty to enjoy here. Satyricon have here released their best album in a very long time, and fans of black metal of all stripes should find it infinitely enticing.
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Void Tendril – Ensnaring the Demiurge
The world of demos can be a challenging one to navigate. For every Blood Incantation or Spectral Voice there a dozen god awful, poorly produced demos released on Bandcamp by bands that put obviously little effort into creating something aesthetically or sonically pleasing. The United Kingdom’s Void Tendril avoid the latter fate in their first demo, Ensnaring the Demiurge, by fully embracing the “incomplete” nature of their work and using it to their advantage. The production is just a tad more lo-fi and raw than that of other blackened doom groups like Bereft, creating a more jagged and terrifying space that lets both the black and doom metal elements of the music shine with all their abject ferocity and vigor. For fans of either subgenre, pay heed. This band is going places.
Opening track “A Crone’s Reptilian Eye” gives you just about everything you could want from a black/doom track. Loads of atmosphere, annihilating and oppressively slow riffs with plenty of heft, and some truly nasty guitar tone. It isn’t until the drums kick in with all their blasting fury that the album appears to be something other than a dark doom metal record, and man oh man do they make an impression. At this juncture of the track, the vocals and guitars spread their dark wings in a frosty gale of tremolo picks and diabolical, grotesque utterances that scream from the darkest corridors of hell itself. These two competing soundscapes intertwine and battle throughout the remainder of the record, as doomy and ferocious riffs vie for time supremacy as the vocals vacillate between clean and soaring or absolutely putrid. It’s a dramatic and heavy war that brings nothing but incredible results for the listener. “The Vampiric Embrace of Fame” and devastating finale “An Hourglass Catacomb” balance these elements so well that it’s almost impossible to believe that Ensnaring the Demiurge is this band’s first official material. But it is, and thank our infernal overlords for it.
In all, this is one of the best and most assured demos I have heard this year, and fans of doom and black metal should in equal parts find many things to relish here.
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Wolves In the Throne Room – Thrice Woven
The career of Wolves In the Throne Room has been bit of a rollercoaster for black metal fans. Their transcendent Diadem of 12 Stars was one of the most truly remarkable black metal debut albums of the past fifteen years, crystalizing a new methodology and world within black metal: Cascadian. Two Hunters did nothing to dispel this notion, instead amplifying it to heights seen only rarely in the subgenre. Then the band began to transition sonically, releasing Black Cascade and Celestial Lineage to a much more divided audience. Then came Celestite, whose ambient instrumental journey sent the band’s fan base into a total meltdown. Who even was WITTR anymore? What could we expect from them in the future? Thankfully, the answer to that question is Thrice Woven, which finds the band combining their various influences and stylistic evolutions into a cohesive whole that serves both as a healthy throwback and a bold assertion of what made the band so special in the first place.
From the onset of the record, the band make their intentions clear. The folk-infused opening of “Born from the Serpent’s Eye” sets the tone for the rest of the album, taking the listener on a nearly ten-minute odyssey through the band’s unique approach to this music. It’s quintessential WITTR, and brings listeners right back into the world they’ve so meticulously created for over a decade. Subsequent tracks “The Old Ones Are With Us” (complete with ominous Scott Kelly spoken word awesomeness) and “Angrboda” highlight the bands more ambient and melodic sides, with the opening of the latter rising from the ground like a swarm of locust, darkening the horizon on their approach. “Mother Owl, Father Ocean” and stirring finale “Fires Roar in the Palace of the Moon” provide a powerful and fitting end to an album that sees the band recreating some of the most potent sounds of their career in fresh and effective ways.
While probably not their best album, Thrice Woven brings back to the fore the elements that make WITTR one of the most potent and unique black metal bands working, and sets firmly their reputation with the likes of Alcest, Panopticon, and Saor as one of black metal’s most innovative and talented modern purveyors of the sounds of nature and folk music in black metal. A noteworthy and highly enjoyable record.
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