Maybe it’s the change in the weather, or the average day falling into an early, seemingly perpetual night. Perhaps it’s the trees, left barren and naked against the pale sky. Or it could be my own sense of depleted, frustrated exhaustion as the end of the year draws nigh. Regardless of the reason(s) for my infatuation, October has always been THE month of premium black metal for me. There’s no better time (outside, maybe, February, which is categorically the worst month of the year by every measurable metric) for the iciest, darkest music on the planet to further chill my already frozen bones. Thankfully, October did not disappoint in the new black metal department. In fact, it marks the second month in a row where I’ve been dumbstruck by the sheer volume of quality releases. The genre seems to get stronger and stronger as the year goes on, and it’s a glorious sight to behold.
As always, we’re here to present our favorite releases from a positively overstuffed month. We hope you enjoy them as much as we did. Feel free to unleash fire and fury on us in the comments for all the records we missed. Either way, there’s quality black metal to be had. Feast.
Cream of the Crop
Imperialist – Cipher
While I have long touted the essential nature of the sophomore record to the long-term trajectory of a band’s career, in the current glut of amazing metal, dropping a dazzling debut is just as, if not more, vital. Within the consumptive case of ADHD that permeates the streaming age, getting noticed right off the bat is essential for both survival and hope for career continuation. Good thing Imperialist hit a home run on their first at-bat. Their debut record Cipher is a space-based odyssey of epic proportions that is not only one of the best black metal debuts in a good while, but one of the best black metal records of the year. Full stop.
Based on the incredible cover art of Adam Burke, it would be safe to assume that Imperialist are riding the most recent wave of sci-fi metal enthusiasm spearheaded by the likes of Vektor and Hoth. While the thematic material may steer close to the epics composed by these two bands, Imperialist helm a sound completely their own. It’s a Heavy, propulsive, cathartic blast of black metal that’s as straightforward as it gets without ever once feeling simple. “The Singularity” exemplifies these traits perfectly, bringing guitar-based heat and heft in equal measure. This balance is enhanced by fantastic production that brings some low-end heaviness without skimping on instrumental clarity. While the band present a unique approach to black metal, they’re not without some fairly clear influences. “Advent Anathema” and “Umbra Tempest” certainly provide nice throwbacks to Immortal at their peak. But the callbacks to black metal legends contained on Cipher never get in the way of the band’s own unique sonic imprint, with tracks like “The Dark Below (Crota’s End)” displaying Imperialist’s ability to go cinemascope in the composition department with ease and efficiency. I could pick nearly any track on this record to dissect in the above manner, which is a testament to the consistency of theme and songwriting on Cipher. It’s everything I could ask for in a debut black metal album and then some.
Transcending Obscurity Records has been pulling out all the stops lately, and Imperialist is just another worthy feather in their cap. If quality black metal that makes you want to punch something is what you crave, look no further than Cipher. An utterly impressive full-length debut.
Best of the Rest
Cultes Des Ghoules – Sinister, or Treading the Darker Paths
Cultes des Ghoules’ Sinister, or Treading the Darker Paths is ugly. Very ugly. Everything about it reeks of putridity and evil. The artwork, production, aesthetic, and instrumental and vocal deliveries congeal together in an impenetrably vile and violent musical package that leaves the listener with a peculiar, iron-like taste in their mouth. In short, it’s exactly what black metal is supposed to sound like. If I had to pick one record this month that exemplified the history and spirit of black metal on a historical level, it would be this one. Prepare for well-constructed torture.
Unlike its predecessor Coven, Sinister clocks in at a manageable 55 minutes. This more succinct (which isn’t saying much when the record is almost an hour long) approach bleeds into the compositions contained on this record. Riffs loop and repeat with a highly rhythmic regularity, pushing forward to almost orgasmic crescendos time and time again. It’s shocking how opener “Children of the Moon” can repeat its main riff so many times without becoming boring. This may be some of the most compositionally simple songwriting of the band’s career, but that doesn’t make it any less effective. “Day of Joy” and “Where the Rainbow Ends” may be among the most powerful tracks in the band’s catalog, and follow a similar cyclical trajectory. It’s an album that’s as consistent as it is rewarding, and proves that barbed technicality is no substitute for effective riffs. It’s good stuff.
Eneferens – The Bleakness of Our Constant
One descriptor that I rarely give black metal is “emotional”. Not because the music isn’t capable of it (Alcest/Deafheaven/Mgła anyone?), but rather that it’s rarely the type of music that gets me in the heart. It’s a frigid and austere genre, and that’s part of the reason why I love it. But when I do find one of those rare albums that do tug at my heartstrings, it’s a euphoric experience. A sort of release against the cold hardness of the genre’s past and ever-entrenched present. The epic, emotionally resonant sound in Eneferens’ stunning third album The Bleakness of Our Constant is a respite from the tortured insanity of traditional black metal, leading me to new heights of investment and enjoyment. It’s a doozy, and a welcome one at that.
Following a deeply realized atmospheric black metal blueprint, this record is as warm and inviting as an ocean lapping against your feet on some moonlit beach. It’s an enveloping sonic experience that never fails to impress both in composition and performance. “The Onward Reach” includes nearly every element that makes atmoblack such an enticing subgenre within the black metal world. Blastbeats ala Wolves In the Throne Room along tremolo picking and ghoulish growls lace the opening of the song with a sense of power and menace while managing to stay transcendently pretty. The remainder of the track breaks out clean vocals, extended instrumental pieces, and an outro that’s brimming with sparse, gently realized melody. Love what you hear? You’re in luck. The rest of the record builds on this foundation with climax after melody-saturated climax, stuffing every moment with enough beauty to bloom a garden in midwinter.
In case it wasn’t obvious, I really love this record. Eschewing the pitch black nihilism of its parent genre for something altogether more hopeful lyrically and sonically, The Bleakness of Our Constant is exceptional, transcendent music. Bravo.
Kriegsmaschine – Apocalypticists
There are literally zero conversations about black metal that I am part of where Polish juggernauts Mgła go unmentioned. Their sheer, aberrant nihilism and deeply affecting presentation of said philosophy is so powerful as to have given me many late nights with “Exercises in Futulity V” on repeat. It’s jet black poetry at its finest. One of their other project, Kriegsmaschine, takes a slightly less esoteric and emotive approach to black metal while retaining the same technical wizardry that makes Mgła the giant they are. Their latest record, Apocalypticists, is a thoroughly engaging record from start to finish, and worthy of the time of any Polish black metal fan.
When I mention the technical mastery of these musicians, it’s impossible not to allude directly to the utterly mesmerizing drumming of Darkside. His usage of cymbals in particular in “Residual Blight” is just unreal, and it appears to me that everything the man touches is pure gold. The guitar work and guttural vocals of M. in “Lost in Liminal” and “The Other Death” are no less captivating, proving once again that in the band members department, sometimes less is a whole lot more. This entire album is swimming in enough atmosphere and expert musicianship to drown many a lesser (and more richly populated) black metal band, as these two know exactly where they want you to go and take you there with little fuss or pomp. It’s black metal in high gear from note one.
If you enjoy the works generated by Mgła or Polish black metal in general, there’s little here you won’t enjoy. If you’re dipping your toes into this cesspool for the first time, there are few better places to start. A fantastic release.
Outre – Hollow Earth
Speaking of Polish black metal, sometimes it seems like this particular breed of darkness just wants to break your head open with its bare hands. Less technically focused than Mgła, Outre are here to instead drown you forcefully in a pool of wretched atmosphere and aggressive riffing until dead. Their sophomore effort Hollow Earth is their most clear statement of this sonic intent yet, and is one of my favorite black metal records of the year thus far.
“Spheres Within” kicks the proceedings straight into creepsville, as wretched screams, atonal hums and Hans Zimmer-esque WOMS fill the sonic landscape with existential dread. Positively ferocious “The Order of Abhorrence” follows directly after, unleashing full-scale chaos. In similar fashion to their aforementioned scene progenitors, the drum work here is superb, imbuing the music with a simultaneous sense of order and anarchy. This is especially palpable on “Combustion”, which also includes some of the heftiest, nastiest black metal riffs you’re likely to hear this year. As the album progresses, it becomes abundantly clear that Outre have no tolerance for breathing room. Hollow Earth is a blistering assault that doesn’t relent even once throughout. This is as violent as black metal gets, and it’s amazing.
This record missed out on our Cream of the Crop designation by mere inches. It’s a monstrous collection of darkness that obliterates all in its path. Listen and be destroyed.
Sargeist – Unbound
Undoubtedly the surprise release of the year, Finnish black metal masters Sargeist unleashed their fifth full-length, Unbound, this month to almost no fanfare or warning whatsoever. Its understated release should not, however, serve as an indicator of its quality. To the contrary, Unbound may be the best collection of songs the band have yet recorded. Not since 2010’s Let the Devil In has the band sounded this sharp and ferocious. The songwriting is magnificent, and with instrumental performances more than up to the task of taking these songs and pushing them to their maximum potential. It’s a beast of a record through and through.
If your enjoyment of an album is predicated on its opening, Sargeist just may be your salvation. Channeling the likes of Mayhem and Darkthrone’s early black metal material, “Psychosis Incarnate”, “To Wander the Night’s Eternal Path”, and “The Bosom of Wisdom and Madness” unleash an unholy trinity of black metal magnificence unlike any I’ve heard so far this year. It’s a damn fine opening to the album, and establishes the band’s emphasis on riff building. The sheer amount of unique and ridiculously effective riffs in these first three tracks never falls short of impressive, with each track presenting its own unique flavor of guitar-based mayhem. The last minute and a half of “Bosom” is particularly impactful, chugging and raging with all the confidence of a band that knows their way around a good song. Which every single one of these tracks are. There’s not a dud on the record, giving the album some insane replay value. I’ve yet to tire of a single one of these compositions, and don’t think I will for quite some time. It’s the complete package, and I am so glad it exists, even if I do wish I’d been given a little time to get HYPE.