Another month, another addition of the frostiest column on the planet. Kvlt Kolvmn has been having a field day in 2020, with some of the most trying circumstances globally being met with some thoroughly amazing music. As has become the custom around these parts, our listening coffers have been filled to overflowing with some of the iciest black metal releases bringing a significant cool down to the hottest months of the year. We’re stoked to share some of our favorites with you.
If there’s anything that the month of July showed us, it’s that the tent of black metal continues to enlarge and fortify itself as one of the most sonically diverse in the music world. But it’s not just songwriting and lyrical content that has painted such a unique brush this year. Even the production game has seen its fair share of diverse offerings, with bands like Mystras and Gaerea (both featured this month) working on exact opposite ends of the spectrum to equally potent results. The continued development and growth of the genre and its various splinters is encouraging to hear, and July was another example of black metal’s continued efficacy.
Scott and Eden are on board once again to share with you our favorite releases from the month past. We hope you enjoy them as much as we have, and let us know what records struck your fancy in the comments.
Stay frosty and safe, friends.
Cream of the Crop
Mystras – Castles Conquered and Reclaimed
It’s been a busy year so far for Ayloss. As the mastermind behind Spectral Lore, the musical magician dropped a sprawling, utterly magnificent collaborative project with Mare Cognitum, which several months since its release is still trucking along in my regular rotation. That record alone could tide his devoted fanbase over, but last month saw him release another black metal project under the moniker Mystras. For those familiar with the sounds typically conjured by Ayloss’ projects, Castles Conquered and Reclaimed is a jarring sonic shift that will undoubtedly be considered one of his most simultaneously divisive and revered records. For myself and my compatriots here at Heavy Blog, we find ourselves planted firmly in the latter category, with Castles standing as one of Ayloss’ most engaging, powerful, and stylistically singular releases to date.
It’s impossible to talk about this record without mentioning the production. While Spectral Lore has tended toward a more grand, rich tone that invites listeners into a starry atmospheric firmament, Mystras takes the exact opposite approach, building a wall of lo-fi production quality that feels much more reminiscent of the first wave than Alcest. Such an intense stylistic shift certainly threw listeners (myself included) upon initial listen, but further exposure has rendered this decision a brilliant one, causing it to stand out boldly in Ayloss’ already stellar discography. As Eden far more eloquently described in his review of the record, the lo-fi production aesthetics that permeate Castles add intentional and potent emphasis to the bed of seething anger and passion that bleeds through every crack and crevice of this record, adding appropriate harshness and abrasion to songs of nonconformity, rebellion, historical reckoning, and contemporary calls to action. Rather than just a simple choice to make the album feel artificially “trve”, Ayloss has instead constructed a statement that to its very core holds tightly to its overarching message.
But all of the appropriate aesthetics one can muster cannot veil poor songwriting, and thankfully Mystras delivers on the promise of its sonic foundation in spades. Bounding black metal is juxtaposed with traditional folk music that not only serves the lyrical content of the record well, but adds just the right amount of respite from the tremolo-fueled gale. The riffs constructed in the title track and “The Murder of Wat Tyler” are straight-up ear worms, while the album’s majestic instrumental interludes are far more than filler, adding Obsequiae-esque levels of folk-based musical dimension that only serve to further fuel and deepen the raging fire that propels the majority of this record forward. It’s a deft mix of thoughtful songwriting, impressive instrumental prowess, and effectively utilizing a sonic aesthetic to drive home an important message.
There’s still plenty of time left in the year for a few curveballs, but I have a hard time envisioning a year-end list that doesn’t include this mesmerizing piece of work. Ayloss is a not-so-hidden treasure for the metal community, and works like Castles will only further deepen his influence and legend. Whether or not you find black metal’s lo-fi attributes appealing, the songwriting here is strong enough to compel even the surliest of black metal sonic purists to grab a pitchfork and dismantle the systems that oppress and subjugate us all. A superb musical experience.
Best of the Rest
Gaerea – Limbo
Back in 2018 Portugeuse black metal luminaries Gaerea dropped a megaton bomb on our unsuspecting ears with Unsettling Whispers. It was as assured a black metal debut as I have heard in a significant amount of time, offering up brilliant songwriting lashed to a seemingly bottomless well of emotional resonance that was in turn overwhelming and magnetic. It’s a record I still spin fairly regularly, and with that constant exposure hype surrounding the band’s sophomore effort (with new label Season of Mist) was exceptionally high. But as we devotees of metal are all too familiar with, the sting of disappointment is an ever-present factor when it comes to follow-ups to incredible debuts, so needless to say I approached Limbo with a fair bit of trepidation. Several listens deep, I can happily state that the Gaerea we grew to love from Unsettling Whispers are here to stay, as Limbo is very, very far from a disappointment.
In terms of emotional explosiveness, songwriting flair, and an uncanny ability to write hooky riffs embedded in chaos, Limbo excels. Whether or not to the level of their debut is certainly up for debate, but there’s no denying the sheer magnitude of all that works well here. Opener “To Ain” should put all doubts that Gaerea are a band to be reckoned with to bed, as its fierce motif builds, dissipates, ebbs and flows and eventually explodes into a raging, emotionally and melodically powerful finale that harkens back to the exceptional opening salvo of their debut. Clocking in at 11 minutes, it’s another impressive example of Gaerea’s ability to maintain high levels of listener investment over a not-insignificant period of time.
But the record’s shorter tracks are no less potent. “Null” and “Urge” provide the album’s most compact blasts and work just as well as their more extensive counterparts in effectively displaying the band’s abilities as songwriters and musicians. In the latter regard, much praise can be given to each member of the band, but special kudos belong to the band’s vocalist and drummer, who offer up absolutely riveting performances from minute one. These performances in particular highlight one of the most impressive aspects of Limbo, which is Gaerea’s recognition of what they do well and their militant allegiance to perfecting that craft. While this may cost the band some points for innovation, it’s difficult to fault them for refining their strengths when the music is this effective. Overall, I count that approach as a definitive win for the band, cementing them among the forefront of melodically-inclined black metal bands working today.
It’s an amazing thing when a sophomore record lives up to its expectations, and Limbo firmly belongs in the category of follow-up successes. Whether or not it eclipses their debut will only be apparent with time, but for now we can bask in the infernal glow that is another hefty and emotionally stimulating piece of work from one of the best young bands in the black metal game. A fantastic effort.
Snakeblade – The Kingdom
As I said in our premiere of the album, The Kingdom’s most immediately endearing quality is clearly how much fun all of the people involved in making it were having. This is worth noting again because it’s really not an adjective that you normally see associated with black metal. Recognizing this, and having had some more time with the album by now, I tried to dig deeper and figure out what exactly makes this release more fun than other black metal releases. And then it hit me: it wasn’t the black metal at all but rather the power metal influences which intersperse it, adding a lot of dynamics and, well, fun into the mix .These little touches create a wider range of musical expression than “just” black metal can attain.
Don’t get me wrong, black metal is one of the more expressive genres out there, if used correctly. But it also has a predilection for monochromatic ideas and aesthetics. Similarly, power metal is also not known for its subtlety or variety. But it is known for its epic moods, colorful sounds and general agility. So when you put those two things together, like Snakeblade has on this album, you get something that is inherently complementary, contradicting the other’s weaknesses.
Check out “The Nine” for example. The previous track, the wonderfully named “To the Pits With the Balrog” and the opening track are both black metal assaults. But “The Nine” opens with these large, expressive chords that immediately change the pace, setting the color palette a little differently for the track. And the track capitalizes on that palette as well; beyond its three (uuhhh, four? Depends on how you count them) solos smack dab in its middle, it also has galloping riffs, more majestic power chords that echo the opening notes, and just an overall sense of grandeur that makes it a great middle track for the album, changing things up to keep the momentum going.
Of course, even on “The Nine”, the black metal is never far behind. The abrasive vocals are the most constant element on the release and provide those frosty, grim vibes in droves. The drums also tend to stay around the fast BPMs and blast-beat techniques that blakc metal loves, coating everything in that sheen of desperate violence that the genre does so well. This brings things to a tight, neat close, creating the hefty and powerful package that is Snakeblade’s The Kingdom. It’s an album which leans on both of its influences in turns to create a blend of both that is more charming, more aggressive, and more fun than either of them could have created alone.
Spirit Possession – Spirit Possession
When I revisit the releases that spawned extreme metal, I fantasize about hearing them when their ideas were completely fresh to listeners’ ears. As much as I love living in the Golden Age of Metal, I imagine it must have been incredible to hear early iteration of black, death, and thrash metal when no music had ever sounded like that before. Thankfully, many folks share this sentiment, including modern metal musicians aiming to capture that exact period within a modern context. Each year I’m more impressed with the success bands are able to achieve with this approach as they refine the quality of old-school revivalism.
Spirit Possession’s self-titled debut have placed the super duo among my favorite bands progressing this movement. Besides the incredible album cover, SP’s lineup immediately grabbed my attention and stoked my anticipation. Ashley Spungin (ex-Insect Ark, Ormus, Tarus) handles drums and “handmade synthesizers,” while Steve Peacock (Apprentice Destroyer, Mastery, Pale Chalice, Pandiscordian Necrogenesis, Ulthar) fronts the group on guitar and vocals. This on-paper pedigree translates into an excellent collection of songs that perfectly balances the duo’s experimental backgrounds with classic elements of primitive black metal.
In practice, this manifests in a reinvigoration of the early Bathory blueprint, which incorporates elements of dissonant black metal while maintaining that OG, raw production style. Bathory is probably the best comp to mention here, but Peacock and Spungin truly hark back to the days when extreme metal subgenres didn’t have concrete names and identities. The album contains classic, heavy metal guitar tricks juxtaposed with ripping first and second wave black metal. And while the riffs are rooted in these classic ideas, Peacock’s affinity for angular, chaotic songwriting adds just the right amount of intrigue to the equation.
Yet, amid it all, what I love most about Spirit Possession is how thoroughly enjoyable it is. Sure, there’s plenty of experimentation on every track, and the album maintains a bitting edge throughout. But if you love the early days of extreme metal as much as I do, this is an incredibly refreshing ode to a period of endless innovation within a genre established with an ethos of breaking he rules. Peacock and Spungin honor that tradition on a truly dazzling debut, which I hope is only the first installment in a stellar discography.