There’s a three-inch deep pile of snow in my front yard. A blizzard before Halloween. The earth is ready for the ascension of winter’s theme music, covering all in a sea of white, dark, and cold. A perfect atmosphere for our latest installment of Kvlt Kolvmn, which features some of the frostiest and most engaging black metal to be released this year.
If there were a phrase to describe black metal’s output in October, it would be “high profile”. Some of the genre’s biggest and oldest names lurched forth from the darkness to release arguably some of their best work, adding some notorious heft to a year that has in large part been filled with great albums from lesser known bands. Black metal still sits atop the metal genre pile as the premiere force in 2019, and October did nothing to unseat it.
As is customary, Scott and I are here to deliver unto thee some of our favorite releases. Please feel free to add your own in the comments. What gems did we miss? How brutally should we flagellate ourselves? Give us the goods.
Alcest – Spiritual Instinct
Writing about France’s premiere post-black metal band is tricky. Neige, band leader and musical mastermind, has worked with some deeply unsavory characters in his career. Outright fascists Peste Noire being the principal offender here. Such allegiances have kept several bands from coverage in this column. So why is Alcest exempt? Perhaps they shouldn’t be. But Neige’s recognition of his problematic past and his written rejection of said viewpoints brings up an interesting dilemma for black metal fans. Speaking only for myself, I found his response to his less than savory past both moving and worthy of commendation. I may be proven wrong in my assessment of the man and his band’s intentions, but until that time I will take him at his word. Welcome to discuss this point of view in the comments, with a most humble acceptance that I may be wrong. That said, let’s talk music. Because it’s quite good.
Spiritual Instinct is, in my mind, one of the band’s most consistent and quality releases. The songwriting here melds all the elements of the band’s best work with a new guitar tone that adds significant flavor to their unique style. Those itching for a massive diversion from Alcest’s established sound will leave this record disappointed, but those attached to the foundation the band has laid will be deeply rewarded. The aching beauty of “Les jardins de minuit” kicks off the album with a gorgeous bang, and things only get better from there. Perhaps more than any of their previous records, Spiritual Instinct stands as an extremely varied affair. “Protection” builds on the opener’s heaviest elements, while“Sapphire” pits the band in the grooviest territory they’ve ever traversed. But true to form, “Le Miroir” brings back the shimmering beauty of the band’s traditional sound, setting up the album’s closing and title track for maximum impact. It’s a record that champions diversity without ever losing cohesion, showcasing the band at the top of their game.
The short synopsis of the above is this; If you love Alcest, Spiritual Instinct will continue to bring you joy. If you’ve never latched yourself to the band’s sound, this record won’t be the one to win you over. As a devotee of Alcest’s post-whatever sensibilities, Spiritual Instinct is everything I wanted and more.
Read More: Review
Botanist – Ecosystem
Usually Jonathan and I trade off albums we’ve already reviewed when it comes to revisiting them with Kvlt Kolvmn and Death’s Door. Candidly, there’s only so much anyone on staff can write about a single album without repeating themselves. Yet, I couldn’t help but share a few more words about Ecosystem for this month’s black metal roundup. As you can read with my review linked below, Botanist have once again returned with an evolution of their sound, which has cemented them as the most unique and intriguing blackgaze band currently operating. They achieve this with the help of hammered dulcimer and a sweeping, eclectic compositional.
Having covered this already, I’d like to instead muse on something I glossed over in my review. Needless to say, Botanist are heavily attuned with nature when it comes to crafting their imagery and musical themes. While this could easily fade into the background as a given with any Botanist release, I think it’s something worth celebrating in perpetuity. If you’ll excuse the pun, Botanist’s music feels incredibly rooted in nature, more so than other contemporary pagan and atmospheric black metal band. It’s the kind of feeling Wolves in the Throne Room conjured when they first broke onto the scene; an image of druids filling the woods with ritualistic music under the hush of nightfall.
It truly enhances the listening experience when an artists is able to convey this kind of mindset so vividly, as is the case with Botanist and Ecosystem. And even if you find none of these elements especially appealing, trust me when I say that Ecosystem is worth your time just on its musical merits alone. I’d argue that the full experience is what makes Botanist special, but even at the most basic level of crafting memorable, exceptional black metal, Botanist excel well beyond many of their peers.
Read More: Review
Dawn Ray’d – Behold Sedition Plainsong
In stark contrast to Alcest, UK folky black metal outfit Dawn Ray’d are as unambiguous in their message as is humanly possible. Presenting a stark contrast to the darker corners of the genre by espousing radically anti-capitalist/fascist views, their music represents a deep-seated subversion of the tropes that too-often dominate their chosen black metal space. Which is fine and dandy on a philosophical front, as long as the music’s good. Thankfully, in the case of Behold Sedition Plainsong, it absolutely is.
I’m an absolute sucker for black metal that utilizes traditional folk instrumentation to create additional emotional impact. Dawn Ray’d succeed in this endeavor throughout their blistering and deeply emotive sophomore effort. The strings and sparse guitar work that introduce opening track “Raise the Flails” are a perfect introduction the album’s compositional heart. Think Saor with a tad more aggression and you’ll come close to pinning down what these Brits are peddling. Production value on this record straddles the fence between warmth and lo-fi intensity in a manner similar to Yellow Eyes, giving the album a simultaneously timeless and contemporary feel. Each of the tracks contained here are certified bangers, with “The Smell of Ancient Dust” and “Songs in the Key of Compromise” being two standouts. It’s an engaging listen from start to finish.
I’m not one to laud bands for their politics alone, but Dawn Ray’d are an easy band to get behind. The quality of their music speaks for itself, and whether or not you find yourself in full alignment with their message, it’s music worthy of your time and attention. A stellar second effort from one of black metal’s most aggressive young voices.
The Great Old Ones – Cosmicism
Plumbing the depths of Lovecraftian mythos is a tale as old as time in the metal world. Rivaled only by the genre’s allegiance to Tolkien, Cthulhu has been given more war time than any other literary or religious figure outside of Satan himself. Which should make the music of The Great Old Ones some fairly lame shit. Given their inclusion in this column, it should be fairly clear that it isn’t. Four albums into an already stellar career, the band’s musings on Lovecraft’s cherished and dark world remain engaging and thoroughly complex. Their latest offering to the deep, Cosmicism, may be their most affecting statement yet.
Opposed to fellow Lovecraft nerds Sulphur Aeon, TGOO unleash a sound replete with atmospheric black metal magic. The music on Cosmicism evokes feelings of crashing waves on a darkened and torrential shore, utilizing dissonant minor keys to evince a sense of off-kilter dread that never derails the band’s cohesive sound. “The Omniscient” is a perfect example of this dynamic, creating alternating lead and rhythm guitar sections that simultaneously propel the track into strange plucked and strummed territory, only to see these two sides converge in the track’s blistering finale. The latter half of “Lost Carcosa” develops in a similar manner, juxtaposing minor key work with a triumphant rhythm that balances the elements of the band’s vaunted source material brilliantly. Start-to-finish, TGOO’s songwriting and performances are exceptional.
The entire record is a delight from start to finish, and other than potentially trimming a few tracks I can find little fault with it. If you aren’t completely disenchanted with Lovecraft, TGOO present perhaps one of the best working examples of how to beat a text to death with style and substance.
Mayhem – Daemon
This won’t be a normal Kvlt Kolvmn spotlight, so let me get my praises out of the way first. Daemon is a Mayhem album to its core, pulling directly from the groundwork laid on Chimera (2004) and further expanded upon with Esoteric Warfare (2014). It’s fast, brooding, and sinister in the exact right moments, leaning on all the Norwegian black metal traditions that fans are surely anticipating.
Beyond these Second Wave vibes, Mayhem continues to incorporate their signature stylistic accents. Relative newcomers Teloch and Ghul channel the classic Mayhem guitar sound perfectly, with evil arpeggios and icy tremolos twisting and turning throughout each track. They syncopate perfectly with Hellhammer, who continues to be one of the best OG drummers still playing in the black metal scene – or perhaps in the metal community overall. And then, of course, there’s Attila Csihar, who returns once again to provide some of the weirdest vocalizations you’ll hear on any black metal record. He’s always helped set Mayhem apart, and his continued presence is a welcome addition.
With all of this aside, what struck me during my listens to Daemon is how much the trajectory of Mayhem’s career changed in what feels like an instant. After the seminal De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas (1994), it seemed like the band was heading in a more experimental direction with Wolf’s Lair Abyss (1997) and especially Grand Declaration fo War (2000). They embraced facets of the early-’00s avant-garde metal scene while still penning some of the most savage black metal of their career. Even Ordo ad Chao (2007) showed some promising, darker compositional ideas, albeit with some dreadful production choices.
Yet, even though Chimera popped up in the middle of all that mid-career tinkering, it actually served as the most accurate indicator of which sound the ban would ultimately settle into. The band will always have their own unique brand of black metal, but that style will still be relatively straightforward when compared to the diverse territories that moderns band have pulled the genre into.
Despite my tone, I actually don’t think there’s anything wrong with this. Sure, I wish the band had pursued the more adventurous sound they were developing at one time, but I’d rather have them make quality, straightforward black metal than retire permanently. And let me be clear: Daemon is a good album without any glaring faults. Anyone who appreciates well-written black metal should find plenty to enjoy here.
The conclusion I drew from this whole thought web was a more general reflection on veteran black metal bands compared to other genres. Any number of metal subgenres are enjoying a resurgence in demand for their original sounds. Old school death metal and thrash have never been more popular, and “traditional” metal has been enjoying an extended revival over the last few years. In turn, older bands that pioneered these styles in the first place have also enjoyed a slight bump in visibility as their sound becomes more relevant than it has in years.
While I’m open to counterarguments, I don’t see the same phenomenon happening with older black metal bands. The predominant styles of black metal these days are all squarely modern inventions, with blackgaze and avant-garde/progressive bands carrying the torch forward. There is of course no shortage of bands playing trve black metal, including new and veteran bands alike. But that sound isn’t nearly as in demand as more modern strains of black metal, which makes me curious to see the evolution of the genre.
In the meantime, Mayhem are still Mayhem, and you should listen to Daemon.
Rimfrost – Expedition: Darkness
Black metal isn’t a genre that I would typically describe as “fun”. Sure, Immortal/Abbath and a litany of bizarre and over-the-top Satan-obsessed black metal bands provide some good laughs, but the genre’s overwhelming habit of taking itself deathly seriously negates some of the fun experienced in other subgenre’s in the metal tree. Rimfrost Break this dour trend to pieces with their excellent album Expedition: Darkness, which is not only an extremely enjoyable album to listen to, but is also one of the more finely crafted black metal releases of the year. It might not turn your frown upside down, but it will bring to your face a snarky grin or two.
It’s a fairly rare occurrence that black metal gets my neck muscles working, but the poor souls beside me on my last international flight got a hefty dose of good ol’ headbangin’ as soon as the sweet sweet riffs of “Damned Jaws” Hit my ears. One of my favorite tracks I’ve heard this year, it’s an example of the thrashy heights that modern black metal is capable of. If you’re not hooked at this point, you may be dead. The remainder of the record builds on these elements to create something that’s just about as upbeat as you’ll find in black metal, without ever losing it’s aggressive edge. It’s just awesome.
Anybody looking for a thrash-influenced black metal banger can’t go wrong with Expedition: Darkness. One of the most enjoyable records I’ve had the pleasure of hearing this year.
1349 – The Infernal Pathway
Cloak – The Burning Dawn
Maïeutiste – Veritas
Shrine of Insanabilis – Vast Vortex Litanies