Why use lo-fi production today? Sure, back in the day when black metal was starting out, lo-fi was less of an intentional thing and just a sign of the times and the means by which the people making the music made it. But today, there is no “need” for lo-fi production, by which we mean that other options are there for the taking. To be sure, many black metal artists turn to lo-fi production as a superficial aesthetic gesture, a way to easily appeal to fans of the genre and say “we’re in your in-group”. Then there’s one layer deeper, where lo-fi production is a non-superficial aesthetic gesture, where it is used to communicate abrasiveness, anger, rebellion, and hate. In that case, lo-fi is a big “fuck you” sign to musical norms, to establishment ideas of beauty and the role of music.
But if you go even deeper, lo-fi production can be an even stronger rallying call, an anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist banner. Calling back to the low-middle class which first launched black metal, choosing lo-fi production for your black metal can be a political statement. It says “I don’t need tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment to make beautiful music. I don’t need to pander to what music is supposed to sound like to make something worth listening to”. Of course, it’s a rare lo-fi album which actually goes that deep; it requires that your production be backed up by more than just a sound, a more complete approach to riotous, defiant, political, and aggressive black metal.
And who better to nail that complicated blend of aesthetics, politics, sound engineering, and composition than Spectral Lore himself? Except this time, he’s operating under the name of Mystras, a project from which we’ve already premiered a track. But now that we’re faced with the full thing, the abrasiveness of the guitars on “Storm the Walls of Mystras”, the track we previously premiered, makes even better sense. The production, the arrangement, and the composition of the instruments on Castles Conquered and Reclaimed is a magnificent example of what this style of music can achieve. It is a highly political and unapologetic black metal album that manages to also be achingly beautiful.
In fact, that aching beauty, communicated by folk instruments mostly on interludes, is a central part of the message that the album is trying to get across to the listener. It is a message filled with sorrow and admiration for those who have fought before us for justice and equality. Listen to the doublet of “The Cutty Wren” and “The Murder of Wat Tyler” for example. The former is a traditional English folk song, sung by the rebels of The Peasants Revolt of 1381 as they demanded a fairer society and freedom from the yoke of the nobility and the monarchy. This sound is mournful, calling to mind a lost history, a chance betrayed, but a hope we still linger to with its wistful guitars and pacing.
“The Murder of Wat Tyler” however communicates the anger and defiance that still rings in our hearts when we hear of the brave men and women of the rebellion. Wat Tyler was one of their leaders, cruelly executed when negotiating with the king. “His” track is much more aggressive, those lo-fi guitars seemingly echoing endlessly in the mix, echoing endlessly like the struggle that Tyler himself was a part of. Of course, this is Spectral Lore, so folk inspired guitars adorn the track as well, creating that contrast that he is well known for. Add in towering vocals that back up the main, abrasive vocal line and you have the full formula, an acrid, massive black metal track like only this man can make.
The album continues to swim in between these two influences or modes, reminiscing with sorrow about the past while also calling forth the passion that still drives us to fight for justice. The lo-fi production is the glue that binds everything together and amplifies that passion, refusing to let its music be consumed in a straight-forward or gentle manner. It adds a sheen to the music, a sharpness, and a danger to it that elevates its black metal beyond “just” aesthetics and into a disposition, a declaration of intent.
Of course, you can listen to this album only for its music; it has some pretty damn fine music, with plenty of riffs and melodies for you to sink your teeth into. Hell, even fans of Spectral Lore Gnosis will find something here for them, as the project’s always present Greek-folk influences shine through on some of the later tracks on the album. But if you open yourself up to what the music is trying to convey beyond “just” its sounds, if you think about what the tone, the composition, and the production all say to you, you’ll find a stirring call to arms. It looks at the past with a sad eyes; the castles have been conquered. But it also refuses to give up; the castles will be reclaimed.
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Mystras’ Castles Conquered and Reclaimed releases July 17th via I, Voidhanger Records. Make sure you head on over to the Bandcamp page above and pre-order it.