I’ve written before about black metal’s love affair with the idea of the auteur, most at length in one of my favorite pieces, my longform essay on black metal and Romanticism, where I discussed the idea of the tortured artist/genius figure. To borrow what I said there, “the figure of the Romantic genius, the tortured artist who is so in tune with the world, [is] so adept at unearthing its secrets that they know no respite from the pull of a higher power… in black metal’s epicenter there has always been the same kind of figure, the loner who possesses something which puts them in the perfect position to translate the human experience into something entirely new”. There is a kind of magic that only the hyperfocused single-mindedness of a work of art spun up by one person acting alone can achieve; there is something beautiful and personally touching about one person laying themselves so bare and eschewing the touch of anybody else on what they have to present to the world. Put simply, wow, black metal can be uniquely arresting when it’s the product of one person’s mind instead of a band acting as a group.
There’s a danger here, though, as well: this laser-focused fixation can lead to immense tunnel vision and skewer the probability of some necessary diversity entering the creation at hand. For good artists, this single-mindedness is something to keep in mind and account for. For great artists, this monolithic pursuit is something not to be avoided but folded into the project. The good single-person projects bring many elements into their music under the banner of expanding their focus. The great one-man outings hone that singularity to a knife’s edge and carve the smallest, most surgically precise niche possible.
Karg, the product of Austrian black metal aficionado J.J., lies somewhere between good and great on Dornenvögel. His brand of atmospheric-leaning black metal blends the snow-blinding brightness of bands like Cantique Lepreux and Fluisteraars with the melodic crunch of J.J.’s other band Harakiri For The Sky; Dornenvögel‘s run-time is spent twisting earworm melodies, which occasionally have a slight tinge of post-hardcore’s less primitivist melancholy, into soaring blasts of frigid black metal. “Black metal, but with [x thing]” is a tried-and-true trope that’s survived this long because of how well it works, and the fact that J.J. is a veteran of a different band that does something relatively similar works in his favor: Karg sounds like a veteran at work, someone doing what should be done where it is necessary and knowing exactly how to weave riffs and melodies together for maximum effect.
The problem, then, does not lie at all in the craftsmanship at hand. Nothing here is amateurish in the slightest and everything smacks of an adept hand, but the album is overlong and rarely flexes any sonic muscle beyond what’s absolutely necessary. By no means is Dornenvögel a bad album, but it can be somewhat… monotonous. Even its shortest tracks are around the eight-minute mark, and all told, the album runs for roughly an hour and fifteen minutes. None of its tracks cry out to have been pruned and everything feels sufficiently urgent and energetic for atmospheric black metal, but the sheer amount of material on Dornenvögel does not exactly leave me crying out for more Karg or entice me to view this as a must-listen album. The addition of plenty of guest vocalists, most of whom helm excellent bands in their own right, is certainly welcome, but it’s a classic case of being too-little-too-late.
Like the truly great artists in the subgenre of one-man black metal, J.J. certainly embraces the idea of exploring every nook and cranny of the sound he’s going for here, but Karg ultimately feels hamstrung by its own length and the lack of meat on its sonic bones. In the realm of his peers, similar projects in just this year alone, like Vilkacis, Entropy Created Consciousness, and Convulsing, have done far more with less. Don’t me wrong, Dornenvögel is far from bad, but it’s hard to truly call this album essential or even recommend it to all but the most ride-or-die fans of atmospheric black metal.
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Karg released Dornenvogel on November 16th through Art of Propaganda records. All sorts of cool merch is available on their bandcamp page, which includes vinyl, CDs, and some shirts that kick mad ass.