I’ll be the first to admit that perhaps I am not the most qualified person to be reviewing albums that fall under the black metal heading. Back in my early twenties I began to grow weary of the oppressive, often pummeling sonic approach that characterized so many metal bands that hung on the more extreme edges of the genre. As I found myself needing to disconnect from this persistent vitriol (and in the case of black metal, sheer nihilism) that launched upon the listener with a kind of anger that I found increasingly discomfiting, I began to lean more toward emotive post-hardcore and another genre that was slowly spreading its captivating and calming wings here in the States, post-rock. As time went by the distance between metal and myself grew wider, until a little over five years ago when I ran across Deafheaven not long after the release of Sunbather.
It was at that point that some things clicked and re-engaged inside of me. For as far as I had strayed, the reality was that I grew up a “metal kid.” There is a part of me that is inherently drawn to certain elements of heavier music; I had left much of the genre behind because I had soured on the relentlessness of the heaviness, not because I didn’t appreciate well-placed aggression. I had also grown exasperated with many of the people I knew who expressly identified as metal-centric scenesters, but that’s something for a different piece. But now here was this music that I had largely written off re-appearing to me with an infusion of many of the elements I turned to in my initial divergence from the form. There was space for quiet reflection, shimmering beauty, a softness to balance and lighten the harder edges, a dedication to exploring emotions in a more complex manner. It was like someone sat in a room for 10 years designing a path for me to get back into metal, and Sunbather was its launch party.
Since then I have happily opened myself back up to certain realms of the genre, and the ones that have proven to be particularly resonant have been post-black and blackgaze, which combine the propulsive, desperate energy of black metal with the quieter reflectiveness and nuanced soundscapes of post-rock. I subsequently discovered bands like Alcest, Year of No Light and Les Discrets that I had missed out on during my hiatus, as well as newer artists like Oathbreaker, Show Me A Dinosaur and Trna that have been expanding the palette even further of late. So of course, I was intrigued to hear of St. Petersburg, Russia’s Somn, a group featuring members of the latter two bands that was set to release their debut record The All-Devouring via Elusive Sound, a label that has proven time and again to have a very trustworthy roster.h
The thing I enjoy about a band like Somn is that just the occasional addition of melodic atmospherics brings enough balance to the violence that is at the forefront of the compositions, allowing for that minor tweak in tone that shifts the mood from oppressive to triumphant. Too often the black metal I’ve experienced has no issue providing overpowering riffs with crushing impact, but the reality for me is that I don’t like feeling bad, and black metal just makes me feel bad. This isn’t to say that The All-Devouring is a particularly sunny record, as one may have gleaned from the title, but the infusion of post-rock textures and screamo dramatics allows listeners to soar where other records may serve only to bury them.
Take for instance a track like the standout “Awe” (a song that no doubt lives up to its name); there is a darkness surrounding it, and the first half of the song is ripe with traditional black metal sonics – racing drums, fevered guitars, tortured shrieks, and it’s all very effective. But it’s the second half of the song that sets it apart for me. As the pace settles down around the three-minute mark there is just a minor glimmer of hope present in the chord progression that begins to open up into something increasingly more hopeful and inspired. The track continues to spread its wings and expand its palette until eventually the band returns to a more blistering pace, and this is where everything comes together, where the orthodox traditions of the genre are enlivened with a sensibility that is refreshingly uncustomary.
The themes of The All-Devouring serve the duality of the songwriting well. Again, we see the acknowledgment of pain and suffering – the fears and anxieties of our waking hours becoming the grotesqueries of our dreams. But rather than portraying this as a ghastly, crushing loneliness, Somn invites listeners to recognize that we all share in this experience, and urges us to embrace the idea of collective experience. In a way it’s a terrifying idea, but to name it is to take its power, and to share it is to destigmatize it. These sly infusions of hopeful aesthetics – both thematically and musically – allow The All-Devouring to be true to its roots while also offering a warmer shelter for those experiencing it. Or, all the shred, without the existential dread.
Somn joins and ever-powerful collection of St. Petersburg artists on the Elusive roster that are establishing the city as a true mecca for music that marries abrasiveness with beauty – aside from Trna and Show Me A Dinosaur, there is also the stunning, cacophonous shoegaze quintet Blankenberge. It’s an area of the musical world that has become a force to be reckoned with, and this record further cements its unique and expanding brand. If you’re someone like me who has a taste for black metal soundscapes but isn’t quite looking to plummet headfirst into the engulfing void, you may find that The All-Devouring is exactly what you’ve been looking for, emotionally devastating heavy music that you can still feel good about.
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The All-Devouring is out now through Elusive Sound, and is available for streaming and purchase on the band’s Bandcamp page.