Other than the blackest, darkest depths of winter, I find that summer’s zenith is when I listen to black metal the most. The genre’s obsession with every manner of the frigid, frostbitten, grim pastoralia one associates with the long Scandinavian cold season is practically a simulation of stepping into a freezer once it gets hot enough outside that just thinking about something cold is meaningful. The snowy sounds of Immortal, Dissection, Windir are, essentially, my replacement for air conditioning when the heat waves make their way to Chicago.
A new record has joined my summer black metal rotation this season: the debut LP from Canada’s Arctos. It’s not my first taste of them; back in 2017, I wrote up their first EP, A Spire Silent, and declared that the band “join some great moments of emotional tension and pastoral beauty to [a] meaty, riff-heavy take on the genre… [it] drives a cinematic vision of a forest blanketed in snow.” Perfect for my needs in these dog days, no?
It was, therefore, with aplomb that I dove into Beyond the Grasp of Mortal Hands when I received my copy of the record. Fortuitously, I found exactly what I was looking for: Arctos have done little tampering with the mood they seek to conjure through their music, creating exactly the sort of soundscapes I need at the moment without foregoing the confidence to lay down some solid, punchy riffs in the process.
Arctos operate in a manner that is both straightforward and successful, switching between three distinct modes whenever necessary: the first, which forms the core of their sound, is a style of melodic black metal that feels particularly indebted to the chug-heavy style of melodeath popularized in the mid-to-late aughts; the second is a more atmospheric take on black metal that smacks of modern acts like Saor or labelmates Can Bardd; the third is the sorts of neo-folky, synth- and acoustic instrument-heavy intros, outros, and interludes that tend to form a notable constituent of both of the black metal styles that make up the heavy part of this triptych sound. Of course, there’s a lot of overlap between all three, and in operating with these three sounds Arctos are hardly doing something novel here, but it’s in their knowledge of exactly where and when to switch, and into what else – when to transmogrify acoustic guitar into furious blasts of sound, when to transition on the fly from crescendo to meaty riff, when to let the intensity of the metal peter out into something far mellower – that they achieve far more with this sound than most bands do this early in their career.
There’s also the fact that Arctos just write great parts. Not to simplify the emotional and mental calculus of music appreciation all the way down to the simplicity of “this band makes good songs because they write good riffs, and they made a good album because the songs are made of good parts,” but Arctos just genuinely have trimmed away a lot of fat, found the excellent beating heart of melodic black metal, and used it to craft some truly stellar moments on Beyond the Grasp. All the excellent transitions and knowledge of momentum in songwriting in the universe won’t get you anywhere if the ideas you’re flowing between aren’t good in their own right.
Although there’s not anything particularly new to what Arctos does on Beyond the Grasp, they have two amazing things going for them: their ability to create something incredibly tactile, vibrant, and alive out of sounds that have been done to death, and their talent in evoking all the ice and frigidity of black metal on every song. Beyond the Grasp of Mortal Hands may not be a new high bar for the genre, but as far as debuts go, it’s strong as hell and shows a band that knows exactly what they’re doing. I have a hunch we’re gonna be seeing Arctos in the big leagues in the near future.
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Arctos are releasing Beyond the Grasp of Mortal Hands through Northern Silence Productions on September 20th. Preorders and merch can be found through the bandcamp link above.