Greetings, frost-bitten hoard! Welcome to another edition of Kvlt Kolvmn. The weather is beginning to turn, leaves are falling in droves and the first pricks of cold are seeping into the air. It’s finally here: Black metal season. May our infernal underlords smile upon thee. It’s entirely redundant at this point to comment on how shitty a year it’s been in just about every measurable metric. Which makes black metal’s absolutely stellar output over the past several months both a welcome delight and completely unsurprising. Miserable times call for miserable music, and black metal’s modern proprietors have delivered unto us a world of goods. I won’t say 2020 was anything short of a monumental failure for humanity, but the soundtrack wasn’t half bad.
This month, your devoted authors found ourselves mired deep in the milieu of personal life stuff, and I must be frank. Our new music listening wasn’t as broad as is the custom around here. But even with that fact in mind, it’s crazy how many great albums we were still able to wrap our ears around. Below, you’ll find a slew of excellent releases that run the gamut stylistically within the genre, and more than a few of them will end up on some year-end lists. Quantity doesn’t always beget quality, and that was most certainly the case for us as we discussed coverage for this month. We hope you find plenty of quality craziness to sink your teeth into.
In addition to the amazing releases covered from September, we’ve got a deep dive into the elements of style as black metal has evolved, in addition to a write-up of a wintry classic. Enjoy the spoils and, as always, stay frosty.
On the Elements of Style
In 1919, Cornell University professor William Strunk privately published a small writing manual entitled The Elements of Style. Within its few and incredibly influential pages, the author broke down what he believed to be the core elements of effective writing. The book would soon be widely considered as one of the most essential texts in the English language, and in 1959 was expanded by author E.B. White (he of Charlotte’s Web fame) into a more robust and updated version, which sees print to this day. There are few works on the technical aspects of effective writing that are more lauded in the English-speaking world, and it has rightfully been considered an essential classic.
The issue is, hardly anyone uses it anymore.
Like nearly everything invented, language is a construct that constantly adapts, evolves, and changes along with the cultures it exists in. Slang has revolutionized communication over the past few centuries in particular, and dialect/vernacular can differ wildly between locations literally only a few miles apart. This breadth of meaning and interpretation of style in both verbal and written contexts have made books like Strunk and White’s relics of a particular time and place, casting a far less definitive reputation on works that have for decades been considered tried and true staples of the proper and correct.
In similar fashion, black metal has evolved in style and function from a particular brand of sonic punishment into a rich, diverse smorgasbord of sounds, textures, and themes that in a plethora of ways only vaguely resemble those established by their forebears. If one were to take a historic perspective on the genre from a stylistic point of view, it’s clear that many of black metal’s earliest and most influential bands have become musical versions of Strunk and White, laying a concrete foundation for a sound that naturally evolved and expanded beyond their original vision, and just like in the realm of language, evolution came whether they liked it or not.
By point of comparison, it’s not hard to point to bands like Mayhem, Darkthrone, and Bathory as the stylistic progenitors of the genre. Foundationally, these groups created a very specific sonic motif that for decades has been adhered to as a standard order of operations for black metal bands. We all know the sonic elements as well as we remember our basic grammar lessons in grade school: intentionally lo-fi production, squealing tremolo-picked guitar, blast beats buried in static, and vocal screeching to the moon. They’re so distinct that it’s almost impossible for any metalhead even moderately familiar with the genre’s various styles to fail to definitively point it out when they hear it. Couple that with a striking and uncompromising visual aesthetic and you have yourself, as it were, the elements of a core style. But, as in all creative mediums, rules are made to be bent and broken.
Reading, for example, Cormac McCarthy or James Joyce is an absolute nightmare for stylistic absolutists in the tradition of Strunk and White. Postmodernism in particular revolutionized the face of language and meaning in writing, with authors like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo reinventing not only how the English language is ingested and stories are told, but also how to create meaning out of that jumble of words. Following this strain in the world of black metal finds more than a few parallels. When viewing black metal through the prism of its post- iterations, Deafheaven, Bosse-de-Nage, Mamaleek, and Alcest feel as different from the bands that founded the genre as postmodern fiction writers did from Charles Dickens. In every way, black metal is changing, growing, and evolving into an entity that in many respects only vaguely resembles its earliest iterations.
When making claims about the revolutionary nature of black metal’s most notable and forward thinking current crop, it’s helpful to note what exactly about them is facilitating this reputation. For those steeped in this music, those answers should be fairly obvious and have been discussed and raled agains ad nauseum. George Clarke’s choice of clothing, Mamaleek’s complete lack of traditional black metal songwriting structure, Alcest’s lyrical content and bright production values, or White Ward’s incorporation of jazz-based instrumentation have all been pointed out as massive steps in a new direction for black metal. Or, by the genre’s staunchest traditionalists, not black metal at all. This latter critique mirrors ridicule heaped on postmodern literature upon its ascendancy. In all forms of art, establishing concrete rules around what makes an art form what it is creates an inorganic division between what is acceptable and what is not. What is “trve”, in the case of black metal. But this rigidity is also inherently contradictory, as the spirit that established black metal to begin with is one of outright rejection of societal rules and structures, and a rebellion against society as it is traditionally organized. Which is the odd space where we find ourselves today.
I would argue that black metal’s evolution, while ridiculed by some as “untrve”, is not only a natural and good thing, but a sign of the genre’s health and continued relevance. This growth and transformation is not only being expanded by the genre’s newest bands, either. Mayhem’s latest record contained more robust and clear production than they’ve ever incorporated, while founding member of black metal staple Emperor, Ihsahn, is widely considered one of metal’s most creative and progressive voices sonically. Darkthrone is barely recognizable when using Transylvanian Hunger as a benchmark. The old guard, rather than stick solely to tradition, has evolved as well. This is a good thing.
I would not make the claim that those who don’t appreciate the music made by post- or more progressive black metal bands are inherently backward or incorrect in their preferences. Our stylistic proclivities are just those, and I know plenty of people whose opinions I deeply respect that cannot stand many of the bands I listed above. That’s perfectly acceptable. But a larger sense of the evolution of black metal’s elements of style is key to not only recognizing how the genre is changing, but in maintaining the universal spirit that gave it such a devoted fan base to begin with. Rebellion, nonconformity to societal expectation (which is a dicey topic that we’ll save for another edition), and freedom are cornerstones of what black metal is and can be. As long as this spirit is fostered, celebrated, pushed to excellence and maintained, black metal has a continually brighter and more influential future. Which, to be frank, is an often ignored aspect of black metal’s own elements of style.
Paysage d’Hiver – Self-titled (atmospheric black metal)
When considering the core elements that made black metal the unique and uncompromising entity that it is, it’s impossible to have that conversation without mentioning production elements. One of the most prominent aspects of black metal’s early days and releases is that tinny, screaming-into-a-tape-recorder-from-the-1970s sound that became ubiquitous throughout the genre. As stated above, however, many of these bands have since taken their production aesthetic in a more clear and robust direction. This is not the case with Paysage d’Hiver. Over the span of two decades, this project, helmed by Wintherr (also a member of atmospheric space-based wanderers Darkspace), has released 16 records in demo, full-length (FINALLY), and compilation formats that have almost exclusively lived in the wintriest sonic world in all of black metal. While some of those split releases have been created with artists the blog finds less-than-favorable (calling out a particular split with Drudkh here), the overall body of work created by Paysage d’Hiver is unimpeachably magnificent. It’s the sound of a solo artist howling directly into the face of a mid-winter gale, with nary a blanket or fire in sight. And while the rest of black metal has moved into brighter and more punchy sonic territory, Paysage d’Hiver remains a stark testament to the utterly magnificent power of black metal to create textural landscapes that are in and of themselves all-encompassing. Paysage d’Hiver releases are absolutely overwhelming in scope and atmosphere, and there’s no greater (or more influential) release in the project’s catalog than its self-titled demo from 1999.
Before diving directly into this release, it’s important to break down the stylistic elements that make Paysage d’Hiver a unique and influential black metal staple. More than a traditional black metal band (focusing mainly on the tremolo-picked guitars and blast beats, though those elements are certainly present), Wintherr holds a deep obsession with atmosphere. The lo-fi elements contained in Paysage d’Hiver’s music are tied directly to the project’s goal of immersing the listener in a world of winterized darkness, bereft of light or warmth. The project does this not only through its fuzzy production values and visual aesthetic, but through the incorporation of ambient musical textures that often completely overtake a record’s black metal bent. Those familiar with Darkspace know exactly what kind of sounds are being referred to here, and the project has a few releases that focus almost exclusively on those ambient sounds as opposed to traditional black metal elements. It’s a thoroughly all-encompassing sonic style that has stayed uniform almost exclusively from the project’s inception, and helps it stand out as a unique and uncompromising genre-blending institution in the black metal world.
With this framework in mind, Paysage d’Hiver’s self-titled demo is an absolutely gorgeous and icy slab of ambient black metal that balances every aspect of the project’s sound over the course of its riveting 54 minutes. Consisting of three tracks each clocking in at over 15 minutes in length, there’s little room for piecemeal listening. This is a record intended to be heard in its entirety in one sitting, and I cannot recommend that method highly enough. Opening track “Welt aus Eis” kicks off with a black metal blast that’s as intense and wild as anything you’ll find in any early second wave records, churning out a barrage of incredibly intense riffs that, despite the layering of frosty atmosphere, burst through the ice with some distinct and effective melody that’s almost, dare I say it, catchy. As the track progresses, however, things open up into a far less suffocating dynamic. Around the 7-minute mark, Wintherr eschews the rhythm section entirely, diving into a reverb-heavy guitar coda that is simultaneously gorgeous and eerie, adding a completely new and open sound to the track that in no way diminishes its atmospheric motif and impact. It’s these types of shifts in sound that help keep this release feeling varied and compositionally unique, keeping listeners in rapt attention throughout.
The album’s remaining two tracks both follow a similar formula to the opener without feeling repetitive. Doubling down on the most intense aspect of the project’s black metal sound, “Gefrorener Atem” is a bruiser of an atmospheric black metal banger, unleashing a wintry rage that remains to this day some of the most straightforward and punishing sequences of black metal in the project’s long and storied discography. But it’s in finale “Der Weg” where all of these elements come together the most seamlessly. Black metal, ambient passages, and a final five minutes that are some of the most ethereal and transcendent I’ve heard, balancing organic and synthetic elements into a seamless and ecstatic whole that sends the record off in borderline angelic fashion. It’s the perfect finale to an overall exceptional and overwhelming listening experience.
Just a cursory toe dip into the world of Paysage d’Hiver makes it clear that today’s atmoblack would not be the same without this project’s groundbreaking influence and genre-bending tendencies. One of the few bands universally loved by black metal traditionalists and post-black aficionados alike, I cannot stress highly enough how worthwhile full investment in this discography is. Its self-titled record is one of its most balanced and impactful offerings, and belongs definitively on the list of greatest black metal records of all time. If you have yet to dive into the frozen depths of Paysage d’Hiver, there is no better time to jump in.
Cream of the Crop
Amiensus – Abreaction (progressive black metal)
My relationship with Amiensus has been a weird one up until now. I heard about the band through their work with the excellent Oak Pantheon, one of my favorite atmospheric black metal bands. The two have released some great splits that really caught my attention. As a result, I tried to dig deeper into Amiensus’ back catalog but nothing ended up grabbing me as much as their work with Oak Pantheon. Don’t get me wrong, it was definitely good. But some emotional or compositional component felt like it was missing for me.
But all of that changed with Abreaction. Whether the band themselves have taken their music to new heights (which I think is the case) or something inside of me just changed with time (to be honest, this is also probably true) but Abreaction finally feels like what I’ve wanted out of them for so long. Take “Divinity” for example, the second track off of the album. Listen to its amazing strings, which reminded me of Exulansis and their heart-breaking compositions, whether in their supporting role or as the main instrument around the four minute mark. Listen to the more melancholy guitar flourishes at the track’s close. Listen to that expressive bass, which graces the entirety of the album, and tell me you don’t feel something.
The entire album is like that, drawing on the by-now rich tradition of emotional, evocative and sweeping American black metal to bring forth a work of music that is, to be frank, often tear inducing. I much prefer my black metal like this, focused on contemplation, introspection, and moroseness than on willpower or, the worst, “evil” (whatever the hell this means). But the danger of this sort of black metal can be a lack of momentum, of drive forwards, a willingness to linger on ideas longer than is good for them or for the music overall. It’s tough to find that onward energy and inject urgency into more ambient music.
Amiensus do that expertly on this release by always tying the more ambient ideas into the overall picture they’re looking to present on the album. Take “A Convocation of Spirits” for example. It opens with this brooding, ambient introduction. But once the guitars, strings and heart-wrenching vocals arrive, you realize that those few unspooling, introductory chords are informing the entirety of the track. It creates this cohesion and perhaps that’s what I was missing in previous releases, something to anchor my listening as the album unfolded. With Abreaction, Amiensus have finally broken through into the top echelons of what black metal of this kind can do for me by appealing to and creating this cohesion. This helps drives the music’s message home, poignantly reminding me of the inherent sadness of being alive and helping me to process it and come to terms with it.
Best of the Rest
Yovel – Forthcoming Humanity (black metal)
“So where’s our peace? A thousand times, we died for this” so goes a whispered line on “Woe to the Vanquished”, the third track from Yovel‘s latest release, Forthcoming Humanity. As I said when we premiered a track from this album not too long ago, Yovel make the kind of unapologetic, leftist black metal that we all need right now. On Forthcoming Humanity, their message of perseverance, struggle, and uprising has never been stronger. It’s not just the lyrical content on the album although, alongside the many powerful samples used on the album, the lyrics are one of its more powerful traits.
Forthcoming Humanity is also backed by excellent compositions and performances. From the way that acoustic guitars underpin Donald Rumsfeld’s horrible, ghoulish voice, to the furious blast-beats that clear his devilish manifestations from us, through the incredible and dense guitar playing on the album, every speck of Forthcoming Humanity was created with consideration not “just” for lyrical content but for the music which accompanies it. This creates a powerful combo: when you linger too long on the message, the music is there to follow up with its visceral and unchained black metal, searing emotions across your ears.
It all comes together into an extremely powerful album, one of the best that the still-nascent RABM scene has produced. It also continues the currently forming creation of a powerful, antifascist black metal scene in Greece (watch out for an Ayloss, of Spectral Lore and Mystras fame, guest spot on the sixth track). That is another regard in which this album blurs the rules between music, content, and message. It cannot be understood as any of these in solitude. It is not “just” a musical creation. It is not “just” a political manifesto. It is not “just” another step in the construction of a scene. It is all of these together, the many enhancing the one, the parts enhancing the whole. It’s one hell of an album.
Dynfari – Myrkurs er þörf (post-black metal)
Stick with me on this – do you know the types of albums that make you forget what album you’re listening to? They might be outside of genre conventions, but they might also simply sound like such a distinct, unique blend of sounds that it’s hard to pinpoint what you’re hearing exactly. In fact, you might realize at some point that you’re actually not all that interested in genre tags anymore. The music is just so good, and so transportative, that it hardly matters what vessel is delivering the music; it’s all about the journey.
Dynfari present such an adventure on their latest offering, one in a long line of albums that explore the out constitutes of what constitutes a “black metal” album. Citing Agalloch here is an obligatory, relevant starting point, but Dynfari take the folk-tinged blsack metal formula to such beautiful, expansive extremes that it feels very much of their own creation. Myrkurs er þörf makes me feel weightless and disinterested in when my feet and the earth will meet again. It’s the kind of post-black metal that leans heavily on the prefix, while still offering plenty of the heavier elements to expand its appeal to black metal fans of more traditional persuasions.
In this sense, Dynfari embody the singular spirit of Icelandic black metal. Unlike the waves of the album’s foundational years, what I love most about the Icelandic scene is how it’s sound isn’t defined by any specific grouping of elements. Instead, it fits exactly what Dynfari aim to achieve: expansiveness, emotional weight, genuine strength. All non-specific descriptors from a musical sense, but very potent and fitting in terms of the actual effects that wave over you with each listen.
Serpent Column – Kathodos (dissonant black metal)
There is no black metal band that has made me feel more invigorated about the health of the genre over the past two years than Serpent Column. The project’s first release was an attention grabber to say the least, but last year’s Mirror in Darkness was an absolute dissonant triumph in every sense of the word that set the project apart from its contemporaries. The compositions were wild and unpredictable, the instrumentation superb, and the intensity impossible to deny. I’ve sung this record’s praises since its release, but I had no idea that we would be getting more material so soon after its initial drop. 2020 has brought us not one but two releases from Serpent Column, and I couldn’t be more jazzed about them. The Endless Detainment EP was a brief shot in the arm of frenetic dissonant black metal that brought with it something less prevalent in the project’s early work: melody. There were some catchy ass riffs that creeped through the fundamentally belligerent shroud of chaos permeating the record, and Serpent Column’s third full-length release, Kathodos, takes that melodic motif and runs with it. It’s the richest, most vibrant, and mature Serpent Column release to date.
Words like “mature” can often equate to “boring” when referring to extreme metal, but that couldn’t be further from the truth in regard to Kathodos. As Serpent Column has developed, each new release has explored new corners of the most chaotic and intense sounds in black metal’s repertoire, culminating in each new expression feeling unique in the context of the project’s discography. Kathodos maintains this tradition but takes it to a more noticeable extreme than previous releases have, marking it as a marked step forward in terms of songwriting and presentation. Opening track “Departure of Splinters” pulls out a hilarious fake in its opening moments, kicking off with a Portal-esque swirl of blasts and discordant guitar work only to hit a hard stop and then burst into one of the project’s most memorable and catchy riffs yet. It’s reminiscent of the more rock-oriented approach taken by Misþyrming on Orgia, maintaining dissonant and punishing roots while simultaneously letting their melodic tendencies shine. Such a turn of emphasis could have worked out disastrously for a musical entity so well known for its penchant for punishment, but here and throughout the record the results are nothing short of stupendous.
That isn’t to say the Serpent Column that we’ve become accustomed to has vanished. Not in the slightest. After a melody-heavy opening sequence of tracks (including a supremely effective sonic breather in “Night of Absence”), “Dereliction” brings us right back to the most potent and powerful moments of Endless Detainment, careening through a blazing riff that weaves in and out of thoroughly wild drum work with the precision and ease of a band far older than Serpent Column. But it’s halfway through that the track becomes most interesting, diverting into a crackling noise fest that could fit nicely on a Full of Hell record. The unexpected bits keep coming in “Seinsverlassenheit”, which concludes with an instrumental/ambient passage that feels more Unreqvited than Mitochondrion, and that’s just fine by me. Especially when it’s followed by an absolute rager like “Splinters of Departure”. It’s this penchant for balancing exploration and familiarity that helps make Kathodos such a delight to listen to. There’s a level of control here that allows the record to vacillate in tone and texture without ever losing its central identity and, thankfully, leads to immediately gratifying results.
If you’re looking for Serpent Column to continue churning out Mirror in Darkness with each new release, Kathodos will leave you disappointed. This is an even more complex, accessible, and rewarding record for those willing to plumb its depths, and I could not recommend that expenditure of time highly enough. It’s an absolute pleasure watching this project develop, and I for one cannot wait to see what sonic vistas it takes us to next. A superb outing by one of modern black metal’s most consistently beguiling bands.
Skáphe – Skáphe³ (dissonant black metal)
It’s kind of crazy how only a handful of years ago, Skáphe were just ”that mysterious band with the black and red cover.” I distinctly remember the shock and awe I felt when I first heard the band’s debut, which hit me when I was still a black metal tenderfoot. I knew all the classics and the bigger, more palatable names (hello Deafheaven). But nothing could prepare me for the suffocating atmospheres and searing dissonance that Skáphe have perfected over the last few releases. At the time, it was truly terrifying; the kind of metal that reminds you of that basic infatuation with a kind of sonic darkness only this specific genre can provide.
Now, six years later, Skáphe have only continued improving upon an already enthralling formula. It’s to the point where I have a hard time wrapping my head around how much they’ve grown their sound with each new release. But here we are, and yet again, Skáphe have released a contender for black metal AOTY. At this point, there are very few challengers who could take the crown, in my mind.
So what do I mean by improvement? Well, for one, Skáphe³ simply sounds better. However they managed the production process, Skáphe maintained the cavernous, encroaching sound that’s a signature of their sound, while simultaneously increasing the clarity and quality of their recording. It’s an improvement on all levels, but perhaps most so with the percussion. The guitars still do their thing and excel all the while, with enormous melodies and atmospheres bouncing every which way until every corner of each song is touched by darkness. But not only is the drumming faster than ever before, it’s also sharper and more impactful. I mean, just listen to those double kick rolls…*chef’s kiss*
At this point, I’d rather not command any more of your attention and prevent you from giving this bad boy a spin. Go ahead, I insist.