Hello. Kvlt Kolvmn. You know the drill. ‘Tis the spring of our collective discontent. The four walls of my house are more familiar to me than ever before, feeling often more like a physical and existential prison than a home. I’m sure many of you feel the same. More than at any point in recent memory, black metal has served as a balm to my heart and mind, allowing me to channel frustration and anger into a productive and inquisitive place that has led me to all sorts of amazing releases I may have otherwise missed. There aren’t many silver linings to the current global situation. But racking up a fair amount of new playlist material from the world of black metal for those moments where we need to stare into the abyss and contemplate the swirling pool of existential nightmares that comprise existence is a small consolation.
As has been ballyhooed nearly constantly since 2020 began, black metal continues to have an absolute field day in the quality release department, churning out incredible music at a clip that already has eclipsed what many other genres will produce in the entire year. Most of us here at Heavy Blog have no clue how we are going to create our year-end lists, and April did us no favors in this regard. Experimental, atmospheric, melodic, or menacing… you name it and April delivered in spades. We’re excited to share our favorite releases of the month with you, and look forward to hearing about the records you enjoyed in the comments.
The world is a bowl of excrement currently, and a new golden age of black metal could not be more warranted or welcome. So let’s bask in the frost-bitten glow in one of the most inventive and prosperous chapters within the genre’s bloody history.
As always, stay frosty and well.
Cream of the Crop
Helfró – Helfró
That black metal today comes in many flavors is an established fact; atmospheric, progressive, avantgarde, with death metal, without death metal, oldschool, and so forth. However, that black metal today comes in many different sizes is a more overlooked property of the music. Allow me to explain what I mean: there are multiple approaches to generating the particular texture or theme of sound which makes the cataloging part of our brain go “oh, this is black metal!” You can achieve that feeling with something small, like a thin, tremolo picked guitar line that echoes within a cavernous main riff or a screeched vocal line tracing defiance across a clearly much larger and dominating backdrop. These “smaller” sounds create that sense of loss, melancholy, and resistance that black metal is so often imbued with.
But you can also generate the black metal aesthetic by going incredibly large. Massive guitar lines, blastbeats, choirs, deep growls, and crashing bass can also create the sensation of the majestic, the overpowering, that before which we are meaningless, that black metal relies and draws its strength from. At the end of the day, these two approaches create the same end result: music where the human is depicted as meaningless, of little consequence, weak, and in need of purification in the face of the cosmos, nature, history, man’s own desires, god, or change itself. However, while both approaches can invoke this sensation and create great black metal, the larger approach has come to dominate the genre in recent years. There are, of course, exceptions, but, generally speaking, black metal bands have been obsessed with the massive and the overwhelming over the insidious and the thin.
Which is a good thing if that’s the kind of black metal you like, which I do, because it creates some truly momentous albums. Case in point (yes, we’re finally getting to the album here): Icelandic titans Helfró and their awe-inspiring, self-titled debut. Released on the 24th of April, Helfró is large black metal and then some. All you really need to do to get what I’m talking about here is tune in to the first track, “Afeitrun” (which, if Google is to be trusted, which it absolutely isn’t, is “detoxification” in English, an apt name for an opening track). After exactly a minute of intro (which actually fits into the “smaller” type of black metal I described above, with its lone guitar track slicing across the silence) the track fully explodes into its grim majesty. You’ll first notice the drums; oh lord, those drums! They’re so fast but their tone is so dominant, creating an impossibly massive wall of (articulated and dexterous) sound behind the other instruments.
The second thing which will probably grab you are the vocals. They are pronounced, fully fleshed out, and, once again, very large. They don’t echo in the distance, they pummel you full on with the intensity of an avalanche or a storm; the idea is for you to feel small, broken down, and yet empowered at the same time. When you get to the “cleaner” choir down the line, on the second track of the album, the mighty “Ávöxtur af rotnu tré”, a musical part which in other black metal bands might be described as “ethereal” and here is more “haunting” or “sacral”, you’ve got the idea: you’re in a cathedral of music and you should kneel. The last thing you’ll notice is just how much is going on in the background of all of this, how many guitar lines and ideas are pinging off in the back, constantly etching complexities in the base thrust of the track. Nothing is left to chance, everything meticulously composed to make sure it meshes into this larger than life, corrosive, cold, faceless, somehow intimate, whole.
And this is just the first track. The rest of the album has plenty more of where this came from, with more ideas around vocals and choirs, echoing bell-like sounds, more riffs than you’ll know what do with, and just an overall sensation of a mountain constantly crashing down on you. This is what generates Helfró as an instantaneously black metal band: you just get that inescapable, void-between-the-stars, massively nihilistic and powerful sensation that screams black metal. All hail, all bow, all is void before the mighty power of Helfró’s assault.
Best of the Rest
Malist – To Mantle the Rising Sun
Atmospheric black metal is generally a mixed bag for me. Often it either feels too soft and atmospheric while lacking a definitive punch, or too frenetic and harsh to be considered truly atmospheric, placing emphasis on riffs rather than structure. There are a few bands that consistently charm me (Alcest, Unreqvited, Obsequiae, Blut Aus Nord, etc.), there are infinitely more that just don’t stick with me. Russia’s Malist, the solo atmospheric black metal project from multi-instrumentalist Ovfrost, has certainly proven itself as a stickier one. 2019’s In the Catacombs of Time has grown in stature for me since its release, and when I heard just a year later we’d be getting another full-length release I couldn’t have been more hype. Thankfully, the project’s sophomore release To Mantle the Rising Sun lives up to my lofty expectations and then some.
From its opening acoustic notes, To Mantle the Rising Sun checks almost every box for me regarding what makes atmoblack the truly unique and special subgenre it can be. “Land of the Bewitched” melds epic atmosphere, punishing riff building, tonal variation, and excellent instrumental performances into a seamless, equally menacing and welcoming whole. Which honestly feels emblematic of the rest of the record, which never once dips in quality or effectiveness. This willingness to alter emphasis from straightforward brutalizing to gentle atmospherics is one of the record’s greatest strengths, creating a dynamic listen that’s never once boring. Where “Shackled Minds” punches listeners squarely in the face with a chuggy riff fest that will get fists pumping and heads banging, “Tempest of Sorrow” reaches Loss levels of emotional resonance while ratcheting up the atmospheric qualities of Malist’s songwriting and production to incredible heights. It all flows together without a single misstep, culminating in a record that from start-to-finish feels exactly like atmospheric black metal should.
I’ve been giving this record more than its fair share of spins, and there hasn’t been a listen that wasn’t front-to-back enjoyable. This is a logical honing of craft for an infinitely talented musician and songwriter, and I can only hope that Malist and its mastermind maintain this level of quality going forward. But if we were only left with Catacombs and Mantle, it would be considered a worthy and exceptional discography. An excellent release.
Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin kynsi
I wrote at length a bit ago about how fantastic Finnish avant-garde black metal masterminds Oranssi Pazuzu’s latest masterpiece Mestarin kynsi is. It’s inclusion on this list should come as a surprise to no active reader of the blog, and a few weeks separated from its initial release my opinions of it haven’t changed. Mestarin kynsi is debatably the band’s single best, most interesting and consistently mesmerizing work to date, and my personal favorite of their discography. Repeated listens have only further cemented these opinions, and I have little doubt that this record will be sitting pretty on a few of my year-end lists.
For those who have not given this record a spin yet, I mean… why not? It’s got everything lovers of the stranger sides of black metal and extreme music could want. Opener “Ilmestys” is a trance-inducing acoustic, tribal ritual that builds the atmospheric foundation of the album, slithering and bubbling in and out of a melodic mantra that feels like a weirdly dissonant earworm that’s hard to shake once you’ve absorbed it. But the true majesty of Mestarin kynsi resides in its explosiveness, which takes first shape in the latter half of “Ilmestys” and builds itself into absolutely monolithic structures in “Uusi teknokratia” and “Taivaan portti”, which complement the more atmospheric sections on the record with black metal blasts as ferocious and varied as they’ve written in their career. Regardless of whether the music is channeling Vangelis-esque dystopian synthscape atmospheres or crushing black metal riff-fests, it’s never anything short of completely engaging and infinitely interesting. Which is just about all one can ask for in an adventurous black metal record.
If you have yet to give Mestarin kynsi a go, I strongly encourage you to change that. Right now. There are few bands that approach black metal with such artistry, intensity, and flagrantly experimental mindsets, and this record is further proof that black metal’s penchant for successfully harboring some of the most wild, varied, and unhinged songwriting in extreme metal remains unmatched. It’s one of the best metal records of the year, and a release that may stand the test of time as the Oranssi Pazuzu’s best.
Sinistral King – Serpent Uncoiling
So far this month I’ve written about two (and now three) metal supergroups that defied my expectations by releasing records that weren’t only tolerable, but downright excellent. Jacob Bannon’s Umbra Vitae and Denver metal dream team Black Curse have given me plenty to praise within a metal band construct that I typically find cheap and tacky, and European black metal juggernauts Sinistral King accomplish the exact same with their debut record Serpent Uncoiling. Comprised of members of Vredehammer, Unlight, and Triumph of Death, Sinsitral King utilize their prodigious talents to create a black metal opus that masterfully blends mid-tempo aggression, ascendant atmospherics, ferocious black metal blasts, and a truly fantastic vocal approach into a thoroughly effective and enjoyable whole.
I’m a sucker for moody intros, and boy oh boy does Sinistral King bleed out the atmosphere at the beginning of Serpent Uncoiling. The opening and title track to the record is absolutely dripping with darkness and dread, from the (oft overused but effective here) sound of buzzing flies to its dark choral intonations, it’s a fitting intro to the music contained in the rest of the track and throughout the record. The guitars build and stack riffs at an alarming rate, jumping from mid-tempo chugs to frenetic tremolo blasting with an ease that only experienced musicianship can bring. The rhythm section is no less punishing, delivering double-bass salvos with thunderous precision. But it’s the vocals that complete the track, propelling it into uniquely exceptional territory. Weaving through the excellent instrumentals, the performance is filled with foul whispers, powerful cries, and a deep range that at times feels like an amalgamation of Nergal from Behemoth, Shagrath of Dimmu Borgir, and Atterigner of Gorgoroth. It’s a truly memorable and fantastic performance that ties the musical elements of the record together with a seamless and relentless energy, elevating already exceptional songwriting into the stratosphere. This is only the first track we’re talking about here, so if you need any further convincing, how about 30 more minutes of the above?
Sinistral King surprised me when I first gave it a listen on Eden’s recommendation, and have continued to delight as time has gone on. Each new listen deepens my appreciation for what this group of musicians have accomplished in their incredibly proficient and invigorating debut, and I foresee myself giving Serpent Uncoiling my attentive ear for many months to come. A truly exceptional debut.
At the Altar of the Horned God – Through Doors of Moonlight (atmospheric black metal, dark ambient)
Draconian Oracle – The Ascending Flame (occult black metal)
Fovitron – Altar of Whispers (melodic black metal, symphonic black metal)
Khôra – Timaeus (progressive black metal)
Nyrst – Orsök (Icelandic black metal)