It has ended. The dreadful, malevolent, incomprehensibly shitty year that was 2020 has finally receded into the rear view mirror of our collective social consciousness. Which is, sadly, only emblematic of a ceremonial passing. COVID still ravages the global populace (though we can be infinitely thankful that medical solutions are currently shortening its timeline of dominance dramatically), global politics are still in severe disarray, and there’s more outward toxicity and hatred than I’ve observed in my lifetime between people. It remains a dark time, and I wish I had less gruesome perspective to share. But it’s a black metal column. Should we expect otherwise?
To be utterly candid, I spent the majority of this month re-listening to releases that brought me some level of joy this year and prior. That isn’t to say that there was a general dearth of quality releases, but at least on my end representation will not be entirely broad. Nevertheless, Scott and Eden have joined forces to highlight some incredible records that saw the light of day in December, and we are confident that you will find plenty to enjoy within them.
While the global outlook remains dismal, we can take comfort in the knowledge that progress (both in art and in life) is a constant reality, and when we don’t see it we can be our own agents for good. Let’s be that, and let exceptional music continue to be a catalyst for rejuvenation, clarification, and action. Happy New Year, friends.
Cream of the Crop
Dawnwalker – Ages
The question of what constitutes black metal is an undying one. Every month I’m approached by releases that push the boundaries of my own basic understanding of the genre, launching anew the age old inquiry of “is this even black metal?” I tend to fall into a big-tent philosophy regarding most branches of the metal tree, and black metal in particular has gotten plenty of exercise regarding its sonic definition. UK progressive juggernauts Dawnwalker are the latest band in my musical universe to push this question to the forefront, and while Ages’ inclusion here may ruffle some feathers, I feel fairly confident that the quality of the music will more than compensate for any genre-based agitation. It’s damn good, folks.
With the word “progressive” already thrown into the fray, it should come as no surprise that Dawnwalker tread a more definitively post-black metal path than many of their contemporaries. Their fourth full-length record is as hard to pin down as it is exceptionally crafted, but its quality in execution and conception is borderline undeniable. Tracks like “Ancient Sands” stick out like a sore thumb in a collection of tracks that is uniformly enjoyable and unpredictable. Moments of transcendent, progressive guitar and percussive work are mingled with blast beats and Bosse-de-Nage-levels of emotional appeal. If you find yourself wondering how Opeth might sound if they noodled a bit less, blasted a bit more, and adopted a black metal aesthetic “The Wheel” gives you a decent indication of how such an evolution might manifest itself. Through each successive track, Ages presents a beautiful mix of progressive elements with more heavy elements. Broken up by interludes that actually add to the album rather than feel like a detraction and you have a well-paced journey into the wilds of what modern metal and black metal can be.
Whether or not you find the above elements appealing will determine your mileage with Ages, but if you’re willing to let down your guard and allow it to take you on an epic sonic journey that pulls equally from Band of Horses, Enslaved, and Falls of Rauros and culminating in a listening experience that is deeply satisfying and infinitely repeatable. As a distinctly unique entity in a world chock full of derivative history worship, Dawnwalker have crafted an album more than worthy of all the time and attention you can give it. Exceptional stuff.
Best of the Rest
Caelestra – Black Widow Nebula
Some albums just call out to you from the get go and, as we’ve said many times on the blog before, cover art has a lot to do with that. Good cover art shows you that the artist is serious or that they put some thought into their album’s delivery. But great cover art goes even further, establishing the mood and theme for an album. It tells you: “you want to listen to this”. It doesn’t even have to be “good”. That is, great cover art is not necessarily professional looking or high-grade (though that helps). It’s heartfelt and sincere and that’s something that’s really hard to capture.
Take Caelestra’s Black Widow Nebula is an example. Is the cover art the most amazingly executed one that I’ve seen? It’s not. But does it evoke something unique, a sense of grandeur and massive scale that makes me want to listen to the album? It sure does. And, as might be hinted at from the cover, grand and massive are certainly adjectives which can also be used to describe Black Widow Nebula. The album melds progressive black metal with synthwave inflected tones and ideas in an incredibly interesting way, granting the whole thing a sort of science fiction which I haven’t quite heard before.
Listen to the opening track, “Solaris” for example and listen to how the intro transitions into the track proper. Right before the blastbeats hit, there are these big organ sounds that wouldn’t be out of place on any dark synthwave album. Later, after the heavy and furious middle passage of the track, an effects laden vocal line splits the resulting silence, exalting in the contrast between the previously noisey passages and the space now created for it. The outro then returns to the guitar-focused, drum-heavy sounds of the middle of the track and the track finally ends.
The main result of this sound, which continues throughout the release, is exactly what is evoked in the cover art; there’s a feeling of harsh space that black metal is so good at capturing when blended with science fiction. But the synthwave influences (and other instruments used throughout the album, like great clean vocals, choirs, deep throat singing, and more) give everything a slightly different tint, more introspective and wondrous in nature. This creates a truly unique album and one that understands that vision, theme, and atmosphere are just as important, if not more so, when experimenting with black metal and mixing it up with sounds and ideas from different genres. This vision is what grants the complexity on Black Widow Nebula a feeling that is way more than just technical skill, crossing into the border of successful and ambitious artistic vision and execution.
Ritual Inscription – Ritual Inscription
Among my musical resolutions for 2021 is paying closer attention to the death and black metal tape scene. In our year in review recap, I praised demos as a sort of farm system for the next noteworthy bands in the genre, though they can simply serve as a quick-hitting sample of underground talent. Whatever direction Ritual Inscription ends up taking, this four track sampler is more than worth the listen if you’re into raw, driving black metal goodness. Plus, they’re from New England, and I always love supporting locals.