Welcome to Kvlt Kolvmn, lovers of all things frost-bitten. Over the past few days I’ve been trying to figure out a way rationally and calmly verbally express my effusive, utterly unbridled enthusiasm regarding the uniformly excellent quality of February’s crop of black metal releases. It’s proven to be a fruitless endeavor. So let me state it as plainly as I’m able in written form: February 2020 was one of the best months for new black metal in recent memory. Full stop. Not September. Not October. February. That’s wild. The releases listed and mentioned here are only a small sample of the absolutely insane number of excellent black metal releases that have slapped us silly over the past month, and if time allowed we could easily add another dozen records to an already relatively substantial list. But alas and alack, free time remains elusive. So here is a distillation of our favorites from an insane February. Prepare your body.
The early months of any year seem to contain a few black metal gems, which is fitting given that the darkest and coldest months serve as the most appropriate backdrop for such nastiness. But this year has been absolutely wild so far when it comes to quality black metal. I would not be at all surprised if several of these releases showed up on my black metal and overall year-end lists. Of note, melodic and atmospheric strains of black metal were on absolute fire over the past 30 days, giving us more than our fill of delightfully dark and epic compositions to chew on. It’s been one helluva month, and if the year continues on this trajectory we’re looking at an all-timer. Let’s go.
On an exciting note, Scott and I welcome our very own editor-in-chief and supreme potentate of blackened bluster Eden Kupermintz to the fold. A man with some of the most varied and fantastic tastes in black metal, we look forward to partnering with him as the year continues bringing the existential pain. Additionally, we’ve decided to tack on a little tidbit to the end of this column entitled “Frost Bites”, which will be utilized to add some less detailed notes about albums that we enjoyed but were not able to cover as in-depth during our listening time throughout the month as others. Hope you find something tasty.
As always, give us your picks for the best black metal of the month in the comments. Stay frosty, friends.
Cream(s) of the Crop
Dzö-nga – Thunder In the Mountains (atmospheric black metal, pagan black metal)
In our annual search for the predominant trends in the genres we cover, it seems like black metal is aiming to make that endeavor straightforward in the first couple months of the year. With fantastic releases from the likes of Belore, Dzö-nga, and Skyforest (more on them later), the genre niche of epic, folk-inspired melodic black metal is off to an incredible start in 2020. I previously mused on metal as an encapsulation of the sublime in my review of Wilderun‘s Veil of Imagination, quoting Edmund Burke’s definition of the sensation as “productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”
Among the aforementioned artists, Dzö-nga’s Thunder In the Mountains might just be the best example of the sublime in motion. The Boston group create a gorgeous, dynamic blend of black and folk metal with a sonic reach far beyond the Bay State. Each of the album’s six tracks is its own grandiose composition with enough impact to instill immense intrigue into any first-time listener. Frankly, any of these songs could have served as lead singles for the album; there’s truly no glaring weakness to anything Dzö-nga aims to accomplish here.
There are two primary reasons for this, starting with the band’s seamless combination of influences. While listening to Thunder In the Mountains, I constantly wavered between using the labels “blackened folk metal” and “pagan black metal,” along with a number of related genres in between and on the fringes of these styles. Put simply, Dzö-nga couldn’t have achieved a more perfect balance between the folk, classical, and metallic elements of their sound. Every swell of strings and soaring vocals is paired with a rugged, blackened foil, whether that’s snarling vocals or expertly crafted guitar riffs.
Secondly, the use of strings and other arranged instruments is boosted by the company which Dzö-nga keeps as well as their own talents. Whether played by the band themselves or courtesy of talented guest musicians like Raphael Weinroth-Browne, the instrumentation on Thunder In the Mountains feels organic and vibrant. Instead of synthetic substitutes, the components that make up the album’s vivid sonic portraits are expertly written and performed in their own right, making the sum of their parts all the more successful.
In just two months, black metal has established an early an convincing lead as the year’s highlight genre. That’s thanks in no small part to albums like Thunder In the Mountains, which demonstrates how to honor a genre’s traditions while pushing it forward into new, exciting territory. This is a must-listen for fans of black and folk metal this year.
Kvaen – The Funeral Pyre (black/thrash metal)
Black metal, perhaps more so than any of the various branches in the metal tree, prides itself on exclusivity. Sometimes to the point that inaccessibility and “trveness” are considered the only appropriate qualifiers for whether or not a black metal record is worthy of attention. Which is a shame, really. Those familiar with our views on black metal in this column are no doubt aware that we eschew such tomfoolery, mostly because that form of stringent adherence to particular sounds would by necessity force us to miss releases from projects like Kvaen. Which would be a truly terrible thing, as The Funeral Pyre is one of the most thoroughly enjoyable releases I’ve put my ears to this year.
The Swedish group, consisting primarily of one-man instrumental wrecking crew Jakob Björnfot, takes hints from the dark scripts conjured by bands like Deströyer 666, Rimfrost, and other thrashtacular bands populating the metal world. Conjuring a veritable smorgasbord of metallic sounds that celebrates the tremolo- and blast-beat-laden traditions of second wave black metal while injecting a melodic and oftentimes violently riff-heavy approach to songwriting, there’s not a single track on their debut record that doesn’t sound both insanely catchy and utterly wild. It’s a hodgepodge of sounds that works 100% of the time.
Opener “Revenge by Fire” kicks off the album in high gear, catapulting listeners through a tumultuous sea of riffs, accentuated by passages that could have been pulled directly from a Lunar Shadow record. This infusion of black metal, thrash, and traditional heavy metal only intensifies in quality and focus as the record progresses. “Yee Naaldlooshii” is a further distillation of the sounds found in its predecessor but blown up in CinemaScope. It’s an absolutely epic track that should sell even the most fervent of doubters on this project’s songwriting and instrumental chops. From here, the hits just keep on coming. “Septem Peccata Mortalia” opens with a melodic black metal blast reminiscent of work from bands like Emperor and Dark Fortress without losing its thrash-infused energy, while “The Wolves Throne” Geralds back to the most atmospheric and measured approaches to black metal from the second wave. It’s a varied, propulsive, wildly enjoyable ride that doesn’t lag in quality or enjoy ability for even a moment. It’s, put simply, very close to perfect.
Kvaen will be a name that black metal fans will be discussing for years to come. Björnfot’s attention to detail as a songwriter is evident in a record that feels both expansive and deeply focused, producing a collection of songs that reward repeat listens without ever losing their sense of sheer headbang-ability. It’s a masterclass debut, and one of metal’s finest offerings of 2020 thus far.
Best of the Rest
Dark Fortress – Spectres of the Old World (melodic black metal)
Melody-tinged black metal had an absolute field day in February, and no list of influential releases in this space would be complete without mention of one of the genre’s premiere voices, Dark Fortress. For over a decade, these German black metallers have been conjuring atmospheric, expertly written compositions that honor the spirit of black metal’s earliest proselytizers while never failing to sound fresh and propulsive. Their eighth full-length record, Spectres of the Old World, is yet another engaging and impressive release from one of the genre’s most consistent acts, and a record I recommend diving into without delay.
While a band infused to their core with melodic songwriting habits, Dark Fortress aren’t afraid to go full dark with their black metal influences. Opening tracks “Nascence” and “Coalescence” reintroduce the band to listeners with fire and brimstone, featuring enough blast-heavy drumming and tremolo-dripping riffage to satisfy even the stuffiest of black metal fans. But such aggressive work serves to compliment the band’s broader aims within the genre. As Dark Fortresshas developed over the years, their incorporation of more progressive sounds has become more and more apparent with each new release, and Spectres is no exception to this trend. “The Spider in the Web” broadens the album’s sonic scope considerably, featuring an undercurrent of spooky synths and arena-ready riffs that eventually dissolve into jazzy, more acoustically sparse passages. It’s a mix of sounds that exemplifies thoroughly the insane range that Dark Fortress is capable of, and further examples of their diverse style can be found populating the remainder of the record. There isn’t a dud in the batch.
One of the most impressive elements of both Spectres as an album and Dark Fortress as a band is their innate skill in infusing disparate sounds into a cohesive whole in such a way that you wouldn’t even notice that the band had switched up aesthetics, melodies, and influences on you. Their songwriting skill has never been more apparent, and Spectres is an album that I will be spinning many, many times in the months to come. Another superb outing from a band that deserves every ounce of the praise being heaped upon them.
FLUISTERAARS – Bloem (atmospheric black metal)
In a somewhat amusing contrast to what I had to say about the other album on this list that I wrote up, black metal can be at its most powerful with its at its most subtle. This is the lesson that Bloem can teach us; it certainly has the same overwhelming quality of other black metal but it shines the brightest when it tempers that grandeur with more subtle touches and ideas. For example, I certainly enjoy the opening track, “Tere Muur”, for its riffs but its the trumpets that slowly become more prominent as the track progresses that ended up capturing my heart. They add a slightly unsettling and haunting vibe to the music that’s hard to resist, without overbearing the more “regular” sound of the track.
Other such moments can be found on the excellent “Vlek”, with its momentary acoustic interlude which turns into the track’s outro or “Eeuwige Ram” and its strained, heart-wrenching vocals. All of these elements work together to make Bloem a beguiling release; on your first few listens you might find it standard or stock. But the more you listen, drawn in by its subtle allure, the more you discover these little touches, inflections, and ideas which elevate it into a league on its own.
Hræ – Þar sem skepnur reika (Icelandic black metal)
In case you were living in a hole, Iceland is kind of a big deal in this neck of the woods. Bands like Sinmara, Misþyrming, Wormlust, Svartidauði, Zhrine, and many more have been setting the black metal world aflame with their volcanic interpretations of the second wave sound, driving the genre in sonic directions that combine razor sharp riffs and dread-dripping atmosphere into a seething cauldron of black metal menace that’s nightmarishly effective. It’s one of the most important regions producing this brand of music in the world, and with their stunning debut, Hræ can now count themselves among the small Scandinavian country’s elite acts. Yes, it’s that good.
To sum it up plainly, Þar sem skepnur reika is a snarling, violent beast of a record. The riffs, the instrumentation, and the atmosphere are utterly soul crushing. If you’ve come for premium Icelandic black metal that meets the quality you’ve come to expect from Icelandic musicians, you won’t leave disappointed. But what’s particularly intriguing about this record is its ability to bounce back and forth between contemplative, unnervingly dissonant, and utterly vicious at the drop of a hat without ever diminishing the overall experience. There’s a balance to Þar sem skepnur reika that elevates the album beyond a veritable riff fest and into that eerie territory that Icelandic black metal bands thrive in. “Lofsöngur hinna rotnu” is a good example of this, digging into mid-tempo dissonance and atmosphere as a central motif and surrounding it with buried guitar aggression and drum blasts that never make the music feel anything less than intense. Which isn’t to say Hræ can’t bludgeon and pummel everything in sight with the best of them. Welcome tonal balancing aside, “Drep” delivers fast and aggressive riffage worthy of the darkest and nastiest of the band’s contemporaries. It’s a menacing, angular journey that aims to please and disrupt in equal measure and accomplishes both missions in spades.
Icelandic black metal is poised for another huge year, and if Þar sem skepnur reika is just the tip of the iceberg, we’re potentially in for one of the most diverse and effective the scene has yet produced. Drown in the dismay of Hræ prepare your mind for a brutal trip.
Izthmi – The Arrows of Our Ways (post-black metal, melodic black metal)
Post-black metal will always be associated with Deafheaven, but it’s really cool to see how this loved/reviled black metal subgenre has evolved over time. Not every band is attempting to create the next Sunbather, which has opened the scene up to some really interesting and effective approaches to this style. Enter Izthmi and their unique blend of deeply melodic and overtly intense black metal that does their home state of Washington and its Cascadian forebears proud.
For those who love their black metal songwriting epic and sweeping, “To Traipse Alone” is a gift from the gods. Guitarists Autumn Day and Brett Tomsett put their significant prowess on full display, demonstrating a dizzying ability to churn out fantastic riffs at an almost alarming rate. The performances across the record are top notch, with drummer Nolan Head turning in particularly notable work. These musicians’ collective powers congeal most fluidly in “Useless is the Song of Man, From Throats Calloused by Name”, which features first-rate musicianship in a track that could give most post-black metal compositions a run for their money in the emotional effectiveness department. While the interludes populating the album may annoy some, the tracks on this record are uniformly interesting and engaging, and at no point during its 45-minute runtime do I wish I was listening to something else. In almost every sense, The Arrows of Our Ways delivers the goods.
Izthmi probably won’t change your mind if you’re a detractor of all things post-, but for those willing to sink into this record’s charms a sonic feast of epic proportions awaits. It’s worthy of your investment, and stands as one of the more compelling debuts I’ve heard in a bit.
Regarde Les Hommes Tomber – Ascension (progressive black metal)
Regarde Les Hommes Tomber are very good at what they do. Riff and melody-forward black metal with more than a touch of progressive lean, these French musicians and songwriters have churned out consistently solid content since their self-titled debut dropped back in 2013. Their third full-length record, Ascension, is in many ways an accomplished continuation of their established sound, but that is in no way intended as a slight. Regarde Les Hommes Tomber have perfected their progressive black metal sound here, resulting in what may very well be their best release to date.
If you count yourself among the many that like your black metal varied in composition and expertly performed, Ascension will give you everything your heart desires. “A New Order” balances heft and dexterity perfectly, churning out chunky riffs that never cease to carry distinct, ear-worm-inserting melodies that will stick with you long after the track has ended. But you won’t have much time to contemplate its charms, as “The Renegade Son” bursts forth in a pool of transcendent guitar passages and pummeling drums. It’s a sonic whirlwind that best exemplifies what you’ll get throughout the rest of the record, which in no way diminishes in quality as it progresses through its 46-minute runtime.
If you’ve enjoyed the band’s previous releases, Ascension won’t disappoint. If you’re new to Regarde Les Hommes Tomber, there’s no better launch pad into the wonders of their music. As a simultaneous distillation and incremental expansion of the band’s established sound, Ascension offers a deeply enjoyable and immersive listening experience to all who’ll give it a chance. Which I highly recommend you do.
Sykforest – A New Dawn (melodic black metal, atmospheric black metal)
There’s something intoxicating in hearing someone else commit to their style with abandon. That’s the secret of a lot of music: we’d like to break free and let loose in our lives but many things hold us back. Music lets us imagine and experience a version of ourselves that has commited to something as deeply as the artist has. Black metal is perhaps the genre that most makes use of that wild and emancipated feeling, doubling down on feelings of grandeur and raw expression. That’s certainly what makes Skyforest tick at least and what makes A New Dawn such a pleasure to re-listen to. Even after you’ve figured out everything happening musically, there’s a rush just from letting that music wash over you.
As I wrote in my review, the secret is in the strings. They add such a savage, majestic air to this release that sets it apart from its fellow album. Skyforest are completely unapologetic in their use of this instrument, letting it run as far and as high as it would like. The end result is a sweeping, massive type of sound which reaches right into your heart and yanks on our wanderlust. And isn’t that what all great black metal, all great music, should do? Namely, set your heart on fire with its scope? On A New Dawn, Skyforest are certainly able to do that, blending their solid black metal with majestic effects and grand compositions to create a thrilling, moving album that has “epic” written all over it.
Sons of a Wanted Man – Kenoma (post-black metal)
As nice as it is to watch a metal band’s meteoric rise to fame, I can’t be the only one who misses OG Deafheaven and the post-black metal trend they burst onto the scene during. Trust me, I love the evolution of blackgaze and the genre’s “post-” phase, as well as the disparate genres that have been pulled into black metal’s fold to make this possible. But there’s always been something to love about powerful, driving black metal enhanced by rather than consumed with melodic elements. This isn’t a call for regression to tried and trve norms, just a longing for a seemingly fading trend.
Thankfully, Sons of a Wanted Man have answered that call with a raging statement from the genre that honors its “post-” and “black metal” components equally and exceptionally. Since the moment I heard lead single “Amor Fati,” I knew Kenoma was going to offer the exact strain of black metal I’ve been missing from my regular rotation. It’s an album that’s fast, brooding, and epic in precisely the right moments, and it continues to keep me enthralled with each listen.
Something I’ve focused on with my recent reviews are the linked concepts of “balance” and “dynamic songwriting.” I’ve gravitated toward bands and albums that offer an array of elements in a cohesive package, something Kenoma has on every track. As I mentioned above, the band’s core post-black metal formula ebbs and flows beautifully within each composition and on a track-by-track basis. Walls of tremolos, blast beats, and shrieks will give way to menacing, chunky riffs before swelling into an emotive wash of atmospheric melodic riffs. Additionally, selective use of ethereal singing throughout is an impactful added bonus whenever these vocals appear, such as on tracks like “Canine Devotion.”
Kenoma provides everything that initially attracted me to post-black metal, and I suspect I’m not alone in that sentiment. I encourage anyone infatuated with the early- to mid-2010s black metal scene to give this a spin ASAP.
Blaze of Perdition – The Harrowing of Hearts (melodic black metal)
Perhaps the best black metal band making music in Poland (which, fair warning, is a scene that harbors more than a few VERY unsavory characters), The Harrowing of Hearts is an album with a concept that my quasi-reformed soul can get behind. There’s few aspects of this album that aren’t played to perfection. A must-listen for fans of melodic black metal.
Omnikinetic – Omnikinetic [Demo] (N A S T Y USBM)
Uh. This is pure filth. Excruciatingly lo-fi, hi-octane, ultra-premium grade nastiness from Portland, Oregon that left me shook upon initial listen. Consider this demo a wild shot across the bow for a band that I have no doubt we’ll be hearing a lot more about in the coming months/years.
Raspberry Bulbs – Before the Age of Mirrors (black metal, hardcore punk)
Though the geography and timelines of history don’t support this connection, I’ve always found sonic parallels between the early US hardcore punk scenes and what Bathory and Venom were doing across the pond; just listen to the self-titled Bad Brains debut and tell me it’s not kvlt af. Raspberry Bulbs have picked up this historically dubious torch and made it a reality on Before the Age of Mirrors, an album that pulls as much influence from Under the Sign of the Black Mark as it does from hardcore classics of the late ’70s and early ’80s. It’s a unique blend of classic traditions that works incredibly well.
Tombs – Monarchy of Shadows (black metal)
The black metal titans are back at it again with another dose of straightforward violence that continues the always-solid trajectory they’ve established over the last decade. The riffs are nasty, the performances sharp, and the songwriting as focused as ever. It’s another great entry into a thoroughly enjoyable discography.
Voidfire – Ogień Pustki (melodic black metal)
I wish I had more time to spend with this torch of a record before writing up this column. There isn’t a bad song in the batch, and the instrumentation in particular is consistently exquisite. Don’t sleep on Ogień Pustki, as I expect this one with further listening to stand tall for many come end of year.