Greetings, frost-bitten hoard! Welcome to another edition of Kvlt Kolvmn. Much has transpired since we last entered the ice walls of black metal’s highest quality tundra, so let’s get right to it.
Outside of one big glaring mess of an election looming over nearly everyone’s head, the spookiest month brought with it some genuinely exemplary black metal. Whether in the form of one-man wrecking crews (which we’ll discuss more in a minute) or full ensemble retro-western tremolo apocalypse, we can’t fault October for diversity and style. In a time period absolutely ripe for black metal incursion, our favorite genre for all things cold and evil delivered the goods. Praise be.
This month, we have a few treats for you to rot your teeth to, including an interview with Arkheron Thodol. So strap in and get ready for the good stuff. As always, stay healthy. Stay well. Stay frosty.
The Frost: One-man machine
Black metal, more than perhaps any genre in music outside of the singer-songwriter world, is inundated with solo artists. Which is honestly something that has both bewildered and delighted my musical existence since my introduction to the genre over a decade ago. The penchant for this music being so prone to solo releases is, however, somewhat unusual. One need only take the structure of the music itself to exemplify why its propensity for one-person operations is so perplexing. Most black metal combines multi-instrumental construction, which means that at minimum a solo artist would need to be proficient in at minimum two to three instruments, as well as in basic production mechanics to be able to release a solo black metal record of quality. All of these barriers to entry haven’t stopped a veritable deluge of one-man releases to populate streaming sites, as this format has become one of the more popular in the genre.
But why? It’s not like there aren’t a plethora of musicians capable of performing this brand of music. Across the globe black metal remains one of the most enduring and controversial genres of music, with a fervently devoted fanbase and listener pool. So why so many solo projects? There are a few explanations that could be posited regarding that question, and the first deals with the core tenets of the genre itself.
From black metal’s inception, themes of isolation, loneliness, social extrication and disdain for organized and structured society (particularly of the western, Judeo-Christian variety) have been pervasive. Some of the genre’s earliest practitioners, including such essential and influential acts as Bathory and Burzum, operated on strictly solo terms. While bands like Mayhem and Emperor brought the genre a hefty amount of notoriety during the second wave that engulfed Northern Europe in fire and controversy in the early 90s, it could be argued that the heart and soul sonically of the genre belonged to the solo artists (however unsavory in content and personal philosophy their practitioners may have been). This difficult and isolated creation dynamic reflected the music that was being created, and has endured into a veritable industry of solo operators peddling some of the darkest and most fundamentally interesting black metal currently being created.
For all its faults, the year 2020 has brought with it a significant amount of proof that one-man black metal acts are operating at a peak of creative power. Paysage d’Hiver’s Im Wald, as a starting example, is one of the most impressive one-man black metal albums I’ve heard in some time. While the mysterious project has been operating since the mid-90s, there are few projects that better exemplify the cold and unrelentingly bleak and beautiful heights that a solo black metal vision can attain. It’s distant, lo-fi production style fits the iciness of this music perfectly, and the album’s long-form song structures allow the atmosphere that has always been a staple of black metal to overtake listeners completely. One of the decade’s most eagerly anticipated black metal releases, Im Wald did not disappoint. But that record, while a figurehead for solo black metal’s capabilities, is just the tip of the iceberg. Spectral Lore’s Ayloss created Mystras as a vehicle for a populist political vision that lives thematically in the Middle Ages, delivering one of the most singular and impressive black metal releases of the year. Lamp of Murmuur made good on the promise of its earlier demo work with a full-length debut that fully justified the hype. One-man black metal projects are growing in number and influence at an exponential rate, and given our current COVID-19-engulfed existence shouldn’t diminish in scope anytime soon.
This isn’t a bad thing, either. While the adage of Bandcamp’s black metal pages being strewn with ill-advised lo-fi basement projects, there is more than enough quality solo black metal being made to elicit excitement at the format’s prospects. One key aspect of this steady increase in quality output and influence of one-person black metal operations is the more affordable and widespread availability of production and recording software and equipment for those who also produce their own work. Though you wouldn’t necessarily know that when listening to modern one-person black metal acts that intentionally use lo-fi tactics to capture the spirit of black metal on an aesthetic level. But if you’ve followed bands in this style for any extended period of time, it becomes clear that production values have increased dramatically. Board master Colin Marston’s Xazraug in particular lives out this changing dynamic to a tee, showing in gorgeous detail how creators have the tools they need to handle literally every aspect of their creative process on their own and at high quality. Coupled with Bandcamp’s accessible and artist-friendly distribution chain and YouTube’s ubiquitous presence, the present moment is definitively the best time in history to be a solo black metal artist.
What does this mean for black metal as a whole? In the age of the internet, one can only assume that the current state of the world, coupled with widespread acceptance and ease of access to high quality equipment, will help this style of black metal continue to grow and flourish. As a big tent black metal listener, providing additional opportunities for voices with exacting visions or limited resources to be heard can only broaden the artistic pool that black metal currently resides in, and more good black metal is a decidedly good thing. So consider this a full and public embrace of the one-person black metal project. Long may it reign.
Kvlt Vavlt: Ulver – Bergtatt – Et eeventyr i fem capitler (1995)
I know this segment is supposed to unearth hidden gems and underappreciated albums from the black metal, which hardly describes Ulver’s best known contribution to the genre. Personally, I prefer the (slightly underrated) Nattens madrigal (1997) from the band’s Black Metal Trilogie, though Kveldssanger (1996) is probably the most unjustly forgotten of the three releases. But in terms of long-standing impact, it’s impossible to understate how influential Bergtatt remains in the folk-tinged black metal scene.
That’s part of the reason I picked Bergtatt for this month’s Vavlt, along with the fact this year marks the album’s 25th anniversary. But more specifically, I started musing about the Trilogie and Ulver’s career in general after our recent Genre Genesis post on “Russian Doll.” My wife Lauren likes to learn a bit about each band she’s assigned for the column, and she was particularly fascinated by Ulver’s career trajectory. After observing that the synth-laden tones of the track didn’t quite qualify as metal, I showed her a couple tracks from Bergtatt and Nattens madrigal to prove that they had indeed delved in heavy music at one point.
But it’s a little odd when you think about it, right? At this point, Ulver fans have kind of accepted that the band had their three-album run in their ’90s heyday before getting into synths and soundscapes and whatnot; at this point, they’ve spent more time as a non-metal band than the contrary. Yet, it truly is unique how much of an impact the band made on black metal in such a short period of time before abandoning the genre entirely. There are numerous black metal bands, legendary and otherwise, who spend their whole careers producing albums that live in the shadow of Ulver’s Trilogie, which they churned out in back-to-back-to-back years.
I genuinely believe that; black metal, neofolk, and the combination thereof wouldn’t be the same without this three album run, and particularly without the band’s accomplishments on Bergtatt. Right out of the gate, “Troldskog Faren Vild” opens with a blueprint for pagan black metal, which sounds so foundational that it almost (read – almost) sounds cliche in 2020. Galloping tom rolls, guitar melodies draped in atmosphere, ethereal chants peering out through the musical fog — you couldn’t script the Platonic ideal of pagan black metal more perfectly.
This track alone would separate the album from its peers, that is, if the rest of the Norweigan black metal scene was even operating in the same space. From a thematic, musical, and vocal perspective, who else in the mid ’90s was playing black metal in the specific style? You could argue Enslaved and Burzum were incorporating elements of folklore into their music around the same time, but not to the degree Ulver leveraged the traditional folk playbook on Bergtatt. From the well-placed and performed acoustic guitar throughout to the overarching fantastical narrative, Ulver helped elevate a softer yet poignant side of black metal.
Of course, this is still a metal album at its core, and you don’t need to skip ahead to Nattens madrigal for some frosty riffs. After an acoustic intro on “Soelen Gaaer Bag Aase Need,” the band breaks out the tremeloes, blasts, and shrieks missing from the opening track. It’s a welcome burst of energy every time I revisit the album, especially as the track unfolds and the band continues their expert blend of black metal’s beautiful and sinister sides. I particularly love the romp in the midsection of “Braablick Blev Hun Vaer,” where the guitars and drums lock into a deadheat to see who can outpace and out-extreme the other. Plus the piano and field recording break towards the end of the track is a nice touch.
Every time I listen to the album, I forget how criminally short it is at just 34 minutes. No sooner am I enjoying the gorgeous, acoustic-driven “Een Stemme Locker” when I realize the finale is imminent. Thankfully, “Bergtatt – Ind I Fjeldkamrene” is a perfect capstone for the album, with the most virtuosic acoustic guitar playing on the album and some of its best blackened moments as well.
In hindsight, the perfect summation of styles on the track foreshadowed the split that would occur on Ulver’s subsequent releases, with Kveldssanger homing in on the band’s neofolk stylings and Nattens Madrigal unleashing a raw, frigid black metal assault. As much as I love that aggressive black metal approach, you have to credit the foundation Ulver laid on Bergtatt that made it possible, while also laying the groundwork for countless folk-themed black metal projects to come in the late ’90s and early ’00s. It’s a seminal release for a reason, and if you’re the rare person who follows this column but hasn’t heard this album, then I encourage you to remedy that ASAP.
Kvlt Kommvnion – Arkheron Thodol
It took one look at the artwork for Arkheron Thodol’s Rituals of the Sovereign Heart to know that this is an album I wanted to listen to. It took once listen-through to the album to know I wanted to dig deeper. As I state in one of the questions below, Rituals makes me thinks of artists like Botanist or Panopticon but it has a denseness to it that goes even further than either of those artists. It also seems to have its own, rich, unique, mystical world underpinning its music; it glimpses at you through the artwork, the track names, the album’s description, and its lyrics.
All of this and more made me want to talk to the band themselves. Luckily, I run a music blog, so I get to do that. I quickly reached out to the band and they responded just as fast. What resulted is the interesting, bewildering, and rich interview below, containing black metal, a dash of occultism, secret histories and green aesthetics. Make sure you listen to the album as you read; it will certainly enhance both sides of the experience. Rituals of the Sovereign released on October 30th. You can listen to it, and buy it, from the Bandcamp link below.
Greetings Arkheron Thodol! Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. First off, for those unfamiliar with it, can you explain the story and idea behind your band’s name?
Initially as our drummer was too high to be coming up with band names, he attempted to combine the Greek mythological word Acheron(the river of woe) with the Tibetan word Thodol(liberation), but somehow, while he was teetering too close to the void, an R made it into Acheron. Hence Archeron Thodol. After about a year or so, we got sick of people pronouncing it Archeron like archer, so we changed the c to k. Later, after that, our guitarist was digging into how we could ascribe meaning to this totally fabricated word. I noticed the greek root ἀρχε- (arkhe-) had the meaning of first or “primordial as in archetype”, and the root (Ron) in Hebrew meant “song of joy”. So with the word Thodol affixed to the end of the phrase, we have “To Liberate the Primordial Song of Joy”. We thought that was pretty kewl!
Continuing along the lines of the ideas behind your music, what first drew me to Rituals of the Sovereign Heart is the fantastic album cover art. Can you explain how the artwork relates to the album’s name and the concept behind it?
The wonderful art was provided by Probokosyi. He had put it up for sale on his Instagram page under the same name. I had seen it one day and immediately told him we wanted to purchase it from him. We found the art to be very inspiring and fitting with our mythos, so we played off of the concepts we thought could be found within that piece. Within it there is an anatomical heart with an eye opening up from it’s center. From the top of the heart all manner of roots, grass, mushrooms, and trees are sprouting upwards. It’s evident by the fox and owl resting in this ecosystem, that this purified heart is playing host to a variety of beings and persons. This certainly for us, conjured up animistic concepts about persons in the more than human world.
Looking at that cover art, it’s apparent that nature plays a big role in your music. This is true for a lot of the black metal that is made in the US. Do you think that being based in Montana contributes to your relationship with nature and music?
Yes nature is a big part of our lives. As biological creatures we are an integral part of nature, regardless of how much certain sectors of civilization would attempt to convince us otherwise. As humans our intended role and purpose of manifestation is to be stewards to this place. The intelligence and expression we refer to as Earth or “nature”, is at the very least equal to our own. If this consciousness thought that we had completely rejected it, it would most likely do away with us in rather quick fashion. This statement is not meant to draw lines between what we perceive as human consciousness, and “Nature’s” consciousness. It’s all the same thing, just expressed in different gradients.
In the notes for the album you say “To disengage from Empire is not to fight it, but to starve it…” I find this idea fascinating. Do you consider yourself to be anti-imperialists?
We consider dynamic nuance. The sole point of all occult or scientific exploration is of remembering the pre-conditioned celestial mind and thereby reconnecting to the primal self. The transmutation of the conditioned mind by the act of reversing the light is the primary means by which the navigator realizes it’s true potential. This process is only possible through the pure science of transcending fear and desire by the simultaneous observation of inward and outward phenomenon. As this alchemy unfolds, the navigator is freed from the confines of mental copies of time and space and becomes a more authentic manifestation of the unique and infinite. This is how the empire is starved. The active process here is not one of opposition but of personal curiosity and exploration. Through true authenticity that defies any attempts to copy it’s brilliance, the homogeneous prison of the mundane empire passes away and life is allowed to flourish and evolve to its greatest potentials.
One of the merch options that you have with this album is the “Amulet of the Lightsmith Coven” Can you shed more light on this pendant and its meaning for you?
This is somewhat related to the previous response. The Amulet is intended to be used as a talisman, to remind someone of what they are aspiring towards. The glyph is a representation of the magick of the primordial essence, all creative potential(the cosmic wells of the Ginnungagap). To “smith” or fashion something worthwhile, from the ore of the light of inspiration, which is to be found within and without.
The music on Rituals of the Sovereign Heart and the nature themes make me think of bands like Botanist, Panopticon and Falls of Raurors. Do you see yourself as part of this growing, American atmospheric black metal scene? What are some of your other influences?
While we very much enjoy all those bands, our intention is not to head in a particular direction. Each member of this band is influenced by a variety of different styles.
Tribe Called Red, Converge, Dystopia, Magma, Jethro Tull, Neurosis, Santigold, Dead Kennedys, Hell, Cult of Fire, Yob, The Clash, Tom Waits, Wardruna, Ifing, His Hero is Gone, Moonsorrow, Obsequiae, Hildegard Von Bingen, Bach, Wagner, Beethoven, Havukruunu, Richard Strauss, Howlin Wolf, Morbid Angel, Opeth, Enslaved, Bell Witch, Death, Rush, Bathory, Iggy and The Stooges.
Finally, how are you all handling the new reality we are faced with today? Are issues of climate change, public health, and our uncertain future something you think you might tackle through music in the future?
These literary works describe some of our individual methodology for navigating through current and future events:
Understanding Reality – Chang Po-tuan
The Secret of the Golden Flower
The Invisible Rainbow – Arthur Firstenberg
Nightside of the Runes – Thomas Karlsson
Visual Magick/Helrunar – Jan Fries
Book IV/The Book of Thoth – Crowley
Arcanum Bestiarum – Robert Fitzgerald
Veneficium – Daniel A. Schulke
The Kybalion – The Three Initiates
The Collected Works of Plato
The Collected Work of H.P. Lovecraft
The Book of Azathoth/The Azathoth Tarot – Nemo
Thus Spoke Zarathustra – Nietzsche
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
Uzumaki – Junji Ito
The Hero With a Thousand Faces – Joseph Campbell
Condensed Chaos – Phil Hine
Psychic Self Defense – Dion Fortune
How to Know Higher Worlds – Rudolph Steiner
Egregores/Between The Gates – Mark Stavish
Chaos Protocols – Gordon White
Dune – Frank Herbert
Mulamadhyamakakarika (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way) – Nagarjuna
Book of Five Rings – Miyamoto Musashi
Thanks very much for inviting us, and the questions! The five of us have enjoyed this chance to reflect together.
Cream of the Crop
Zeal and Ardor – Wake of a Nation (EP)
Let’s not tiptoe around the issue. 2020 was a very public, very raw examination of police and state-sanctioned violence in the United States. This long-standing issue of order and good governance has been exacerbated ten-fold by the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and a host of others who were needlessly killed by police officers this year. Unless you’ve liberally been living beneath a very thick rock, I don’t need to explain to you any further the cultural and social impacts that these killings had on the American people and global community, especially for people of color. It’s been a heinous, deeply unsettling year, and Zeal and Ardor are here to catalog it in 17 utterly mesmerizing, terrifying, and brutal minutes of experimental black metal/gospel goodness.
Wake of a Nation is an extraordinary release on multiple fronts. As a work of art nestled in the band’s catalog, it’s a slight return to form for a band that is continually pushing sonic boundaries and redefining what “black metal” even means. The guitar work breathes deeply of the roiling sonic fire that has fueled the band’s most aggressive tracks. “Tuskegee” is a vicious blast of controlled aggression that marches and plods with a militant zeal, with raging blast beats accompanying a slightly more vicious package than we have become accustomed to hearing from the band. “Trust No One” follows this trajectory, delivering punishing riffs and intense drum work that splits time with the organic boot-stomping of the band’s spiritual fare. It’s a great mix of sounds that feels distinctly Zeal and Ardor.
But the elements that make this EP stand out from the band’s previous releases come down to delivery and diversity. “Vigil” is an absolutely haunting opener that offers an emotional plea that is as spine tingling as it is effective. On a content level, you know exactly where this music is taking you, and it prepares you for that emotional journey with beauty, despair, and seething anger. That rage, more than any element of any music the band has yet produced, pushes Zeal and Ardor out of gimmick territory and into fully realized potential. For the first time, the full picture of who Zeal & Ardor can be is laid bare, and it is truly monumental. The honest and deep grief displayed here is both a fundamental and righteous condemnation of a country’s refusal to deal with its racist past and present, its propensity for and acceptance of state-sanctioned violence against unarmed people of color, and the genesis of a creative spark that moves Zeal and Ardor from fun sideshow to creative and cultural powerhouse. This record should never have had to be made. But here it is, and with it the full fury of a band on fire.
I cannot encourage you to listen to this EP strongly enough. As a cultural piece of history, it is one of black metal’s most direct and deeply important statements of cultural pain and rage. It is one of the most engaging experimental statements by a black metal-influenced band I’ve heard in years. Wake of a Nation is essential listening.
Best of the Rest
Botanist – Photosynthesis
The following metaphor might be a bit folksy, but I’m going to roll with it. Each new Botanist album feels increasingly more befitting of the band’s namesake, like a cleansing walk through nature. Here in New England, the onset of fall is as expected as the eventual fade into winter. And yet, it’s no less beautiful and breathtaking each year, as the leaves burst into vibrant washes of color and swirl in colorful gusts as the wind carries them away.
I look forward to Autumn walks in much the same way I anticipate each new Botanist release. Since I started following the band with I: The Suicide Tree / II: A Rose From the Dead (2011), the core structuree of their sound has remained intact, even if their approach varies greatly from your typical black metal fare. It’s amazing how swapping out one instrument — in this case, replacing guitars with hammered dulcimers — can materially change the trajectory of a band’s output. While there have been twists and turns on every album, the dulcimer-driven blackgaze that first attracted me to Botanist has remained their calling card with each new offering.
But just like the experience of nature, each year makes me stop and appreciate what’s in front of me for just a bit longer, viewing the scene with broader perspective from lived experience. I listen to Botanist in much the same way. Black metal evolves as quickly as any genre, with new bands constantly arising with fresh ideas. Yet, every time I put on the latest Botanist release, I’m still taken aback by how much their voice resonates amid all the noise. With a kind of assured experimentation. They never leap into the avant-garde for the sake of it; each composition is simply a progression of what they do well, which is itself a genre-bending approach to songcraft.
Perhaps more impactful is the enhanced production value the band have brought to each installment in their discography, which compliments the gorgeous, textured direction they’ve taken their music in. While I still appreciate the rawness of the band’s earliest releases, it’s more satisfying to better hear and appreciate the dulcimer’s…well, dulcet tones. Coupled with crisp, confident drumming and elevated vocal performances, Photosynthesis offers yet another compelling collection of reasons to celebrate a band that continue to refine their craft.
Lamp of Murmuur – Heir of Ecliptical Romanticism
We’ve discussed the impact of the work of solo artists on black metal over the course of the genre’s existence a fair bit already, but there’s no way that we would skip over one of the styles crowning achievements in 2020. For those unfamiliar, Lamp of Murmuur has become one of the most hyped and buzzed about projects in the one-man black metal world, and with good reason. The release of the project’s four demos and single EP spread over the course of only a few months gave plenty of tasty morsels to chew on before the release of a debut full-length, and I’m pleased to report that Heir of Ecliptical Romanticism more than lives up to the expectations thrust upon it.
Fans of the second wave should fall in love with this album immediately. From front-to-back, there isn’t a moment that doesn’t absolutely bleed quality black metal. Opening monster of a track “Of Infernal Passions and Aberrations” provides listeners with 10 minutes of unfiltered melodic and intense black metal passionately performed. There are few black metal tracks that I’ve heard this year that offer as much universally acceptable black metal ownage, with each blast and riff fitting seamlessly into a thoroughly mesmerizing whole. Synths, razor-sharp guitar work, and murky, pounding drums all combine to create a black metal bonanza that stands tall among the year’s finest genre manifestations. If this track was all that the project produced, I’d consider it a smashing success. But there are seven other tracks where that came from, with each offering their own fresh addition to the rock-solid foundation built by the album’s opener.
I could write multiple paragraphs about each track here, and maybe at some point I will make that happen. But for this all-too-brief snippet please take my word that Lamp of Murmuur is channeling something altogether brilliant and infinitely enjoyable in its full-length debut. Just try to keep yourself from humming a few of these riffs days after listening. I dare you. A thoroughly auspicious debut from one of black metal’s rising stars.
Wayfarer – A Romance with Violence
Being a native of Colorado, I have a definitive soft spot for metal bands that call the Centennial State their home. Death and doom metal have produced dozens of bands from the state over the past few years, creating one of the most diverse and influential metal scenes in the country. But black metal isn’t without its fair share of entrants into the Colorado metal fray. The most famous of which is Cobalt, but given the quality of A Romance with Violence I wouldn’t put Wayfarer too far behind them.
On their fourth full-length record, Wayfarer push themselves closer to meeting their full potential than ever before. Steeped in old west sonic tropes and mythology, Wayfarer have always presented themselves as a more distinctly American and unique entity within the larger context of the black metal world, and at no point in their career are their idiosyncrasies more obvious as strengths. The album’s opening number sounds stripped directly from a Deadwood saloon, only to burst into a western-tinged two-part opus entitled “Gallows Frontier”. The two tracks that make up this sequence are among the best and most ambitious of the band’s career, and set the stage for the album’s thematic and sonic direction brilliantly. The riffs and melodies here are deeply satisfying, making the band’s maturation as musicians and songwriters clearly evident. “Fire & Gold” maintains the dynamic created by the record’s opening salvo and dives even deeper into the western mythos the band has created, feeling like the soundtrack to the darkest western Hollywood could ever produce. It sounds like nothing else in black metal, which could be used to describe the album as a whole.
All of this may sound like gimmicky hokum to many black metal fans, and generally I would agree with that sentiment. But when the music is this well constructed and performed, it’s impossible not to view it with reverence and legitimacy. This is an album completely unafraid of carving its own progressive, sonically unique path, and whether or not you find yourself enamored by its genre charms it’s impossible to deny the ambition and quality here. In my mind, A Romance with Violence is one of the most engaging and interesting black metal albums of 2020, and one that I cannot recommend highly enough. Wayfarer have officially joined the ranks of premium extreme metal in Colorado and the country as a whole, and I’m all the way here for it.
Lord Almighty – Wither
Between this and Arkheron Thodol, it’s a good month for black metal covered in moss and crawling, living things. In Wither’s case, Lord Almighty’s contribution to the annals of black metal for October 2020, this nature-soaked vibe is packaged a bit differently. Namely, the album is less atmospheric, instead filled with those punk influences that ran so deep in the early days of black metal. The vocals are filthier, more direct in their aggression and derision. The drums are thicker, more pronounced, tattooing lines of robust punches on the mix. The guitars are perhaps the instrument where the epicness of atmospheric black metal is most maintained by soaring riffs which provide the core of the album’s sound.
And don’t miss those solos; god, the guitar solos on this album fucking rule. The opening track, “Cry of the Earth”, probably has my favorite one; the way the drums slow down for a few seconds at its end, ushering in the solo’s death, before jumping right back into furious blast-beats is one of the best moments on the album. In general, it has all of these clever compositional touches, swimming with agility between its more aggressive mode (which dominates most of the album) and its more grandiose, melodic vibes. The end result is an album which can be heavy as all hell but also oddly moving, strumming the strings of both rage and hopeful melancholy.