Welcome to Kvlt Kolvmn. Another month of hell, another month of premium black metal. Our favorite places may be unsafe to visit, but icy soundscapes of death and evil are always a healthy substitute. Hope your continued quarantine is chock full of some of the best black metal has to offer.
That’s about all the bland positivity I can muster about the current state of health on the planet. This nightmare continues unabated (and with renewed force as of late), and Americans in particular have been marching steadily into the COVID abyss. It’s a shit show out there, so we at Heavy Blog are hoping that you’re staying safe and living compassionately. June gave us a bountiful black metal soundtrack to wallow inside to, and we’ve detailed our favorites of the month for you all below.
As is now the custom, both Scott and Eden drop some fine words on some fine releases from June, and we hope you enjoy the records selected here. Feel free to drop your own picks in the comments. In the meantime, stay healthy and say frosty.
Cream of the Crop
Xazraug – Unsympathetic Empyrean
Those who read my review of this incredible album last month probably knew this was coming. I’ve sung the praises of Colin Marston at length over the past few months, but for all of his stunning work in 2020, Xazraug’s magnificent Unsympathetic Empyrean takes the cake as his most compelling and thoroughly mesmerizing project thus far on this cursed trip ’round the sun. Fans of experimental, progressive, symphonic, and atmospheric metal of all stripes take heed: This is an AOTY contender.
From its opening seconds it’s clear that Unsympathetic Empyrean is going to be a singular experience. Synths, eerie choral passages, blistering black metal tremolo and a thundering percussive section all combine to create a track that is among the most lush, intricate, and effective of Marston’s storied career. His work in Krallice can be felt here in more ways than one here, particularly in the guitar work, which is in turns melodic, dissonant, and razor sharp. Buttressed by an overwhelming level of atmosphere throughout, Marston’s expert performances on each instrument here prove him to not only be the fantastic musician we already know he is, but also an incredibly compelling songwriter. “Relentless Ignorance”, “Ruinous Sepulchral Delusion”, and the record’s title track are each among my favorite black metal tracks of the year, and there isn’t a single moment of this record that wastes its potential. If you are a devotee of any of Marston’s other projects, Xazraug gives you plenty more to love.
Unsympathetic Empyrean is nothing short of an instant classic in my book, reaching the level of albums like Bestia Arcana’s Holokauston and Akhlys’ The Dreaming I as a collection of tracks that hooked me deeply and profoundly on first listen, and has only become more engaging and enjoyable on repeat listens. I have a hard time seeing Xazraug’s debut landing anywhere outside my top five black metal records of the year, and I highly suggest you give this record a go if you’re in the mood for a sonic adventure unlike any you’ve heard in some time.
Best of the Rest
Aversio Humanitatis – Behold the Silent Dwellers
Given the current state of our world (spoiler alert: it’s bad), I’ve been in the mood for some truly misanthropic music. Thankfully, that’s been black metal’s M.O. since day one. Of course, black metal has a storied issue of directing that hatred in problematic ways, which Jon and I have vocally decried with this column. But when the ire of band’s lyrics is our general failure as a society, them I’m all aboard and ready to rage. Plus black metal’s inherently sinister sonic template further bolsters the mood further.
So what better band to lean on in these dark times than Aversio Humanitatis (i.e. “aversion to humanity” in Latin). Lyrics aren’t available on Encyclopedia Metallum yet, but Behold the Silent Dwellers exudes pure contempt for everyone and everything on our planet. It helps that vocalist/bassist “A” strikes a balance between sorrow and sneering with his delivery, in both cases landing on a sort of lamenting roar.
It’s the perfect accompaniment for the music thew trio unleashes across the album’s six tracks, which offers some of the most varied straightforward black metal I’ve heard this year. That might sound like an oxymoron, but hear me out. This is a savage black metal release at its core, revolving around all the core tenets of the genre that make is such a compelling style. Yet, each track subtly draws from different part of the black metal universe, with some dissonant riffing here, a bit more atmosphere there, and some general progressive tendencies throughout.
Just take opener “The Weaver of Tendons” as an example. The track launches into being with a ripping blast beat/tremolo combo before settling into some melodic riffing, then ultimately unleashing some vicious, chaotic chord progressions. And that’s just in the opening two minutes; by the midpoint, the band slows down for a mid-paced, atmospheric interlude before amping back up to a flurry of crashing cymbals and riffs. The rest of the album follows along this same trajectory, and I encourage you to join me in head banging in rage as each track unfurls.
Creature – Ex Cathedra
One of the most interesting phenomena on which I haven’t written enough is what happens to your relationship with music over time. There’s the pretty obvious “I liked this and now I don’t” (or the equally obvious opposite) but there are more subtle journeys to be had with music. I personally find the “I liked this because of this but now I like this because of that” to be the most interesting of the lot. It signifies that your original love of an album was strong enough for you to spend time with it, time which made that love grow into new, and often better, forms.
That’s what’s happened to me with Creature’s Ex Cathedra ever since its release (and ever since we premiered a track from it). When I first heard it, I loved it for the overwhelming black metal grandeur of it all, those massive riffs backed up by trumpets to create the shock and awe that black metal is so good at creating. And I still love that; the album has fast become one of my go-to releases if I just want to be crushed by my music. But what has kept me coming back to Ex Cathedra is not that grandiose flair but rather the composition of the classical instruments on it, like the strings and brass instruments on it.
More than “just” accompanying pieces, these instruments are expertly composed and realized on this release. You can hear that by listening to tracks like “Fugue en Sol Mineur”, the opening track. There, these “backing” instruments aren’t coupled tightly with the more traditional metal instruments and so they have more of a life of their own. And what a life! From the deep trumpets of the opening segment, through the Baroque-like synths and all the way to the many iterations of these sounds, this track is filled with great tones, musical ideas, and progressions.
So, with time spent in the album, Ex Cathedra feels even more fully realized and fleshed out than I originally realized. Far from “just” a weird black metal album, it’s a well composed and varied conceptual release, dedicating the same amount of time and passion to all its disparate parts.
Firelink – Firelink
Video games and essentially any other form of media outside of a consul have had a rough history in terms of quality adaptation. Outside of the value of nostalgia, most video game films categorically suck, and don’t even get me started on cash-grab book and television interpretations. It’s a rough world for translations of our favorite gaming stories, which is what makes metal’s relationship with these worlds so shocking and encouraging. Tomb Mold, SoulMass, Visigoth, and a host of other fantastic bands have released material deeply indebted to video games, and Georgia’s Firelink are the next in a long line of Soulsborne-inspired bands that have released a magnificent album in this cross-pollinated world. Building on their fantastic debut in every way, their self-titled sophomore outing is a dark triumph.
Compared to their first record, Firelink feels like a much heavier affair, focusing itself on the more punishing aspects of the band’s sound. “Cerulean Athenaeum” kicks things off in raucous fashion, presenting the band’s aesthetic with rousing levels of zest and intensity. More so than in their debut, Firelink are here to punish listeners with an equal level of intensity as is found in their inspiration’s ashen, cavernous labyrinths. The guitar work in particular is effective and often exquisite throughout, while the vocals are just as brutally efficient and diverse. But it’s not all brutality. “Where Demons Bore” displays the band’s knack for atmosphere and world-building as a complement to their more intense passages, and “End of Piety” blends everything the band does well into an explosive whole that is fast becoming my own personal favorite in their already excellent discography.
Front to back, Firelink is an intense, diverse, and thoroughly entertaining listen that has staying power. If we were ranking video game-inspired media, you’d have to put this record somewhere near the top of the pantheon, and I cannot wait to see how Firelink continues to expand their sound as they age. Two albums in, they’re already one of the better bands making black metal today. Here’s hoping this trajectory of uniform excellence continues unabated for many years to come.
Inexorum – Moonlit Navigation
While I wouldn’t classify melodic black metal as underappreciated, it’s definitely become less of a staple in the modern black metal scene. Scroll through Bandcamp and you’ll find countless bands focusing on the atmospheric, dissonant, and post- ends of the black metal spectrum, and all these styles have countless celebrated bands and classic albums in their lore.
But with melodic black metal, the conversation usually starts and ends with Dissection, with some occasional love for bands like Sacramentum and Windir (I always considered Rotting Christ to fit in with the Hellenic scene, but they might count too, I suppose). Suffice it to say that any new additions to the genre pique my interest, especially when they reach the level of quality heard on Moonlit Navigation.
Inexorum’s sophomore album follows a string of black metal triumphs from the Gilead Media. Last year alone we saw fantastic releases from Falls of Rauros, False, and Yellow Eyes, all of whom landed among our favorite black metal releases from 2019 (Mizmor’s latest album was also excellent, but more of a “blackened” release on the doom metal spectrum). Naturally, this kind of track record set the bar high for what I hoped Inexorum would have to offer. To say that Moonlit Navigation met my lofty expectations wouldn’t be accurate; truthfully, Inexorum absolutely shattered them.
On Moonlit Navigation, Inexorum delivers one of the most powerful metal releases I’ve encountered this year. The band leverage the melancholic melodic of meloblack, strength of melodeath riffing, and grandiosity of good ol’ fashioned metal. Some of the melodies reach the scope of epic doom that reminded me of Pallbearer’s Sorrow and Extinction or the slower moments from Wolves in the Throne Room’s discography. But the driving black metal core is very much Dissection 2.0. Put simply, Inexorum are faster, leaner, and bolder than their influences, and it produces an absolutely phenomenal album in the process.
It’s truly difficult to pick a highlight. From the opening moments of “Ouroboric State,” the album is nothing but fiery, epic riffs delivered with a a package of dynamic songwriting. Track after track, Inexorum continue to dazzle with sweeping compositions touching on the strengths from each of the aforementioned subgenres. If I had to pick a favorite track, “The Breaking Point” is pure brilliance and arguably the album’s most diverse track. The song incorporates elements of vintage, frosty dark synth from black metal of yore, except without any of the cheese. It works incredibly well as the band bisects ripping riffs with a beautiful interlude highlighted with dual guitar solos. It’s a showcase of the band’s creativity, and why Inexorum will continue the tradition of Gilead bands making my year-end list.
Paysage d’Hiver – Im Wald
In my estimation, atmospheric black metal is one of the most effective and interesting subgenres within the world of black metal, and it’s not hard to see why. Extrapolating on black metal’s core penchant for icy and emotionally gripping riffs and amplifying the atmosphere surrounding them to 11, atmoblack takes the base sounds of black metal and presents them in hazy CinemaScope. Alcest, for all their detractors and post-black leanings, are popular modern masters of this form, churning out emotionally resonant black metal records that are chock full of riffs and thoroughly drenched in atmospheric grandeur. When the term atmoblack gets thrown around, many metalheads immediately think of this sound. But there’s a colder, darker side to this subgenre, occupied by sounds that can be found in early releases from The Ruins of Beverast and in the ambient nightmares of Darkspace. It’s a fog-shrouded, hallucinatory style that feels a bit more like trudging through a dark wood in a blizzard or hurtling alone through the black void of space than staring at those same stars from a grassy field. Atmoblack legend Paysage d’Hiver deals frosty death in this latter iteration of the subgenre, and his latest album Im Wald is one of the best examples of that sound in a very long time.
As a fair warning, for all its magisterial beauty and songwriting eloquence, Im Wald can be a brutal, punishing listen. At exactly two hours in length, there’s more than enough material to quench the thirst and then mercilessly drown fans of every black metal passion level. Two hours is, nearly every time, a bridge too far for me. When I could listen to three or four records in the time it would take me to hear one, I’m most likely going to skip. But given Paysage d’Hiver’s illustrious reputation in this sphere I couldn’t deny its latest manifestation a listen. I’m so glad I took the journey. This is one of the most immersive, intricate, sonically consistent and deeply rewarding atmospheric black metal trips I’ve taken since The Ruins of Beverast’s Rain Upon the Impure, and is potentially the best release of this project’s storied career. The riffs are brimming with subtle melody and variation, and the instrumental performances are wild and executed to perfection. From the record’s opening frame to its crushing finale, there isn’t a moment that comes across as throw-away or bland. It’s an ultimate realization of potential for a particular type of sound, and pointing out individual highlights just seems irrelevant at this point. It’s meant to be consumed as one titanic whole, which is exactly how I recommend you approach it.
I’m still processing all of the intricacies here, and given more time I could see this record taking a prominent place on my year-end list. But only time will tell. For now, I’d list Im Wald as an essential, mandatory listen for anyone who loves atmospheric and ambient-leaning black metal, and give it my highest recommendation. 2020 has been an absolute banger in the black metal department, and don’t be surprised to see this record reign supreme for many as we round out our favorite picks on what’s been simultaneously an incredible and utterly horrifying year. Mesmerizing stuff.