2019 began a shift in perspective for me regarding the month of January. It’s been belabored to death that the month is not usually kind to music fans, particularly those who enjoy the frost-bitten sharpness of black metal. It’s the time of year when everu basement-dwelling trvthseeker and their grandma seems to release an anonymous, recorded-on-vintage-Talkboy solo record replete with recycled riffs and suspect kit work. All this to say it’s not normally the best of months for Kvlt Kolvmn. But thankfully, the past few years have begun to change my sentiments around the value of music releases in January for the better. 2019’s January release schedule saw itself pop up in my year-end lists multiple times, a rarity historically. And after reviewing the releases that gave me the most satisfaction in 2020 thus far, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a repeat performance.
The black metal released this past January included some absolutely essential heavy hitters, and we couldn’t be more thrilled to share our perspectives on them with you. From folk-tinged mayhem, to the post-blackest post-black metal to ever post-, and even further down the rabbit hole with some deeply experimental is-this-even-black-metal goodness, January failed to disappoint time and time again. Which is just about the best type of failure one can experience in life, I should think. But enough idle chatter. Let’s talk good music. As always, Scott and I present to you our favorite releases of the month below. Please feel free to add your own in the comments.
Stay frosty, friends.
Cream of the Crop
Vengeful Spectre – Vengeful Spectre
This record straight up slaps. Period. End of review.
Kidding, obviously. Vengeful Spectre deserves a lot more detailed love than that. Though the above remains absolutely true as a simple, concise album description. The enigmatic project from the Guangdong Province in China delivers a blistering siege of folk-tinged, atmospheric black metal in their stunning debut, which is without question one of the most assured and aggressively confident opening salvos I’ve heard from a black metal band in ages. There’s next to nothing about this record that is unexceptional, and those willing to give it the time and attention it deserves will be amply rewarded.
Those who wade into the record’s razor-sharp sonic world won’t need to wait long for ample satisfaction, as Vengeful Spectre wastes no time introducing listeners to its deceitfully punishing aesthetic. Opener “The Expendables” opens with the sound of wind-whipped canvas and cracking fires, accompanied by Chinese folk instrumentation that adds an eerie element to the proceedings. But Vengeful Spectre as a whole spends little time with needless world building. As soon as the listener is given a general feel for the time and place the band wishes to evoke in their music, guitars and drums erupt in an absolutely frantic burst of tremolo-picked, blast-laden carnage that mixes melody and mayhem with expert precision. It’s six minutes of severe audio punishment that perfectly balances engaging riff-building, solo shredding, and caveman brutality, setting the tone for the remainder of the record.
Subsequent track “Desperate War” continues along the path laid by its predecessor, setting the tone with a brief intro that evocatively paints a picture of a war-torn battlefield, grassy valleys drenched in blood. Some of the riffs in the track’s opening minutes smack of the percussive mastery of Slugdge, eventually propelling itself into melody-soaked Emperor territory. But for all the dramatic bravado, the track, like the record itself, never once ceases to be an absolute blast to listen to. “Wailing Wraith” and “Rainy Night Carnage” continue along the above trajectory, but add various flourishes that keep the album from ever growing stale. “Wailing Wraith” in particular pulls off a black ‘n’ roll principal riff that smacks of Misthyrming’s latest masterwork, encouraging more concert hall headbanging than bedroom glowering. The vocals here, a potential sticking point for some, wail and screech with the banshee enthusiasm of Deafheaven’s George Clark, making for some fairly abrasive moments. Closer “Despair and Resentment” finishes off the record with a dark, folk-influenced banger that feels like the most fitting culmination of the record imaginable. It’s propulsive, atmospheric, vicious and ultimately memorable.
I can not recommend Vengeful Spectre’s stunning debut highly enough. It’s bold, assured, willing to experiment, and never anything less than thoroughly entertaining. I’m hard-pressed to recall a black metal debut that has impressed me more thoroughly than this one. An absolute masterclass in balance, and a record I will most assuredly be spinning all the way through December.
Best of the Rest
Belore – Journey Through Mountains and Valleys
Speaking of epic, atmospheric black metal, France’s Belore also dropped a doozy of a debut on our unsuspecting asses in January. Journey Through Mountains and Valleys is a record that didn’t take me very long to warm up to, and those who dive deeply into its various charms will certainly see why. After the rousing success of last year’s latest Obsequiae record, there’s been a The Palms of Sorrowed Kings-shaped hole in my heart, and Belore do enough solid work here to just about fill it.
Though the above comparison is more than a shade imperfect, Belore do drive home a heavy, epicosity-drenched strain of black metal that smacks of plenty of time studying the songwriting majesty Summoning and Caladan Brood. The tracks contained here are rife with synth-forward and cleanly sung passages that bring to mind long-lost epochs and epic landscapes replete with war and loss. “The Valley of the Giants” evokes this atmosphere perfectly, balancing intensity, sadness, and melody with seamless precision. The horns that awake “The Whispering Mountains” are no less spellbinding, while the track builds over time into a stunning collage of epic riffs and expert drum play, provided with aplomb by one-man wrecking crew Aleevok. Top to bottom, the tracks on this record seethe with undeniable vitality and energy that is nearly impossible to deny. From the pipes and woodwinds of “The Howling Fields” to the tribal intonations of “The Initiation Ritual”, Journey Through Mountains and Valleys is as diverse as it is enjoyable.
Fans of any of the above bands will find themselves plenty to love in Belore’s fantastic debut record, which has enough memorable riffs and living, breathing vitality to encourage repeat listens for many months to come. If you’re looking for something to lift your spirit from this mortal plane and into a narrative far greater than our feeble daily lives, Journey Through Mountains and Valleys will provide your imagination with a more-than-adequate soundtrack. Excellent work.
Inanem – Blackwork
Over the years, a distinction has grown between “prog” and music that is “progressive.” It’s a bit of an odd development from the days where ’70s psych rock bands progressed the genre forward, to a point where there are plenty of contemporary “prog” rock and metal bands that aren’t doing anything especially forward-thinking. This being the case, it’s refreshing to hear a band that is genuinely molding established genre structures into bold new patterns. IT’s all the more exciting when such an experience happens so early in the year, as is definitely the case with Inanem’s excellent debut Blackwork.
The brainchild of Keith L. Pedziewiatr is a self-described “7 track progressive production” that delivers on its promises of adventurous, dynamic black metal. After a brief dark ambient intro, “Amygdala” unleashes a balanced assault of the senses that sets the tone perfectly. Pedziewiatr seamlessly blends passages of blast beats and dissonant riffs with more traditional, mid-paced black metal romps, intertwining these sections with unsettling atmospheres and off-kilter guitar leads. This approach makes Blackwork feel both squarely rooted in black metal while simultaneously pulling the core of the genre into the stratosphere.
What’s equally impressive about Blackwork is how well Pedziewiatr keeps the listener engaged. As soon as the album seemingly settles into a groove at the midpoint, “Stigmata.Clairvoyance” arrives out of the deepest confines of space to deliver a meteoric shift in sound and creativity. The track is a gorgeous, mysterious post-black metal affair that sounds like space-phase Kayo Dot playing their best interpretation of Agalloch’s The Mantle, with some progessive death metal guitar melodies thrown in for good measure. While “Impletum” successfully builds on these themes, “Stigmata.Clairvoyance” is truly the defining moment of the record, and should leave progressive black metal fans craving whatever Pedziewiatr has in mind for the next Inanem production.
Oh, and the album’s finale is a cover from the Dark Souls soundtrack. Need I say more?
Staurophagia – Sidereal Sacraments
Atmospheric black metal is somewhat of a catch-all term these days; by its nature, virtually all black metal is atmospheric. For the most part, having a specific genre tag offers a convenient descriptor for bands that fall somewhere between second wave traditionalism and the more modern, experimental slants of the genre. I ruminate on this as I listened through Sidereal Sacraments, as it’s perhaps the most “atmospheric” black metal album I’ve heard in sometime. Staurophagia’s brand of “blackened harsh ambient” leans heavily on the hazy, hypnotic effect of heavily distorted blackened tremeloes, with some pretty transfixing results.
Many of the tracks on Sidereal Sacraments verge on any of the “-gaze” offshoots that have overtaken the metal underground in recent years. It sounds a bit like Planning for Burial or Have a Nice Life tackling the blackened ambiance of a band like Wolves in the Throne Room. This manifests most noticeably in the production and performance of the guitars and supplemental electronics, which combine for truly mesmerizing sonic arrays. Though percussion and vocals are able to pierce through the mix, the band’s engulfing approach to songwriting creates massive waves of sound that are as meditative as they are abrasive. I imagine it’s comparable to practicing yoga under a waterfall.
The band doubles down on this sonic focus with their approach to vocals, which were “transmitted through a shortwave radio and re-recorded on a tape to make it more raw.” Though black metal’s obsession with “rawness” doesn’t always pan out, it works surprisingly well on Sidereal Sacraments. Though the vocals are relatively sparse, this recording technique adds another element to the mix of unique record. Traditional black metal shrieks and howls likely would have been lost in the fray, but the vocals in their present form capably mesh with the cacophony of riches on display throughout the album.
Unrequited – Mosaic II: la déteste et la détresse
I’ve already written about this beauty, but it bears repeating: as a soundtrack to my daily winter activities in Colorado, Unreqvited have become one of my favorite bands. Their records have given wing to less annoying than usual bouts of snow shoveling, ice driving, and all the other less-than-enjoyable aspects of living in a state with more intense winter seasons. The one-man band’s blend of atmospheric and post-black metal scratches so many musical itches for me, and Mosaic II: la déteste et la détresse is one of my favorite manifestations of the act’s unique aesthetic yet.
Those familiar with Unreqvited won’t be surprised by the atmoblack gyrations of opening track “Nightfall”, with its spacious, forlorn guitar opening setting the tone for the tracks more punishing remainder. But perhaps punishing isn’t exactly the right word, as Unreqvited’s music, even in its darkest moments, is still filled with melody and beauty. Second track “Wasteland” exemplifies this aesthetic quite well, featuring a darker tone than the album’s opener without ever falling into abject despair. The first half of the record is, in all, another shining example of what this act does so well, and while unsurprising showcases the man’s considerable talents as a musician and songwriter.
It’s the second half of the record that, overall, will prove more controversial to many. While I most definitely define myself as a fan of the more gruesome and frost-bitten realms of black metal, I also have a huge soft spot for acts that blend the genre with post-metal elements, and Mosaic II: la déteste et la détresse goes all in on the post- elements as the record progresses. “Pale” mixes these majestically over its eight-minute runtime, bending further and further into Violet Cold/Sylvaine territory. But it’s “Disorder” that begins the album’s full-fledged ascent into pure post- heights with its gentle melodies and acoustic/key/synth passages that are absolutely spellbinding. The rest of the record, consisting of ambient, post-metal three-parter “Transience”, is what definitively sets Mosaic II: la déteste et la détresse apart from its predecessors, and whether you love or hate this sequence will have a strong impact on your overall enjoyment of the record. For me, they represent some of the most adventurous songwriting in the band’s catalog, and in the end color Mosaic II: la déteste et la détresse as a rousing success for me.
While certainly not a universally lovable listen (as most great record tend to shy away from), Mosaic II: la déteste et la détresse represents a step forward for Unreqvited that I am incredibly excited about. The directions in which the project can take its music are seemingly limitless, and with a musician and songwriter this hold and talented at the helm, I feel confident that we’ll be getting quality Unreqvited records for years to come. A worthy sequel to Mosaic I, and another incredible entry into an already stellar discography.
Vvilderness – Dark Waters
As evinced by almost every entry I’ve made into the Kvlt Kolumn Kanon this month, atmospheric black metal had an absolute field day to kick off 2020. Hungarian post-/atmoblack metallers Vvilderness are not exception, eschewing the trvth for a thoroughly widescreen and melody-laden approach to the genre that includes both clean female vocal leads and plenty of tremolo-picked madness to satisfy those still skeptical of this whole post-black metal thing.
Building on the solid work of the project’s debut record Devour the Sun, Dark Waters is a worthy successor in every measurable metric. The songwriting here is confident and naturalistic, allowing the music to ebb in flow in a manner that doesn’t feel too far from the nature-based soundscapes of early Panopticon or Moonsorrow. “Mist Pillars ‘19” is as triumphant as post-black metal gets, adding harmonizing guitar passages that compliment Vvildr’s rasping vocals as an extremely effective counterpoint, allowing the music to feel both menacing and harmonious at the same time. More acoustically bare passages in tracks such as “It Comes With the Rain” and “Havasok / Snowy Mountains” add depth to the depth to the music in a way that sacrifices neither overall momentum nor aggression, instead providing thematically appropriate calms in the proverbial storm that is Dark Waters. It’s a joy to listen to from start to finish.
For fans of the more atmospheric, intensely melodic black metal of bands like Alcest, Dark Waters Will provide you with plenty of material to write home about. While not necessarily a bold, wild step in new directions, Dark Waters highlights the maturation of a talented musician and songwriter, and is a delightful sonic journey that’s well worth the time and attention you give it. A more-than-solid album all around.
Fliege – The Invisible Seam (avant-garde black metal, industrial black metal)
With The Invisible Seam, this “blackened hair metal” trio have produced one of the strongest albums to kick off a year for a genre in recent memory. Fliege offers an incredibly creative bricolage of styles that draws influence from industrial, heavy metal, post-punk, and beyond to push black metal in an entirely new direction.