2020 felt in many ways like a perpetual winter of the soul. Thus far, 2021 feels little different. But time is a lie and black metal is forever. What a delightful truth that is.
Below you will find our collected observation on the shitshow that was last year, as well as our musings on black metal’s trends and some of its best music. Feel free to share your favorites with us in any Heavy Blog channel you can find.
On that note, thank you. From each of us here. This has been an incredibly difficult year, made all the more bearable by your unwavering support of the blog and the music that we all love. We look forward to bringing you all the quality content you can stomach in 2021. We wouldn’t be here without you, and we’re so grateful for your presence in this space.
Back to Basics: Lo-Fi Black Metal’s Resurgence in 2020
Black metal has been defined by its aesthetic in nearly every way from day one. Even those who are completely unfamiliar with the metal world are aware of black metal’s extremely unique and particular style: corpse paint, black and white band photos, album covers showcasing vistas of frozen snow and Carpathian forests captured by the world’s shittiest film, churches burning in the Norwegian wilds. It’s a pretty difficult genre not to have experienced in some cultural capacity, even if you have never actually heard the music. But for those who are more ingrained in the genre’s tropes, one particular aspect of the black metal aspect sticks out fairly prominently, especially in the current age of amazing digital recording technology, and that’s its lo-fi production.
For the uninitiated ear, black metal is most certainly not the genre to use as your introduction to metal as a whole. Its earliest recorded material (thinking particularly back to early recordings from Bathory and Venom) was as rough sounding as music gets. To be frank, most black metal from the first and second wave sounded like it was recorded on their parents’ answering machine during a particularly strong windstorm. For many a metalhead, black metal’s production style has presented and ever-present barrier to entry that has kept the music in its most standard style firmly in the underground. But this distinctive trait was one of the first to be obliterated by post-black metal, which brought the genre to the forefront of the public consciousness in a way that hadn’t been accomplished since the Second Wave’s heyday in the ‘90s. Cranking up the shimmering, melodic tendencies of the genre while adding a robust and rich production dynamic to typically inaccessibly bare music, bands like Deafheaven, Alcest, Wolves In the Throne Room, and Bosse-de-Nage have broken the genre’s playbook wide open, creating a new sound that has captured the hearts and minds of even non-metalheads.
But for all its experimentation into new sonic territory, some of 2020’s most notable and enjoyable black metal releases came with a distinct old-school edge. Releases from classic black metal one-man project Paysage d’Hiver, Stormkeep, Malokarpatan, Lamp of Murmuur, and Spectral Lore mastermind Ayloss’ new endeavor Mystras presented some of 2020’s most thrilling black metal soundscapes by heralding back to the sounds of black metal yesteryear. While metal as a whole has a penchant for glorifying the past, the above records in particular are noteworthy for completely different reasons that continue to highlight the increased diversity that exists in the genre’s current state, while using the genre’s traditional sonic backdrop as a weapon to get their respective points across. While all of the bluster and pomp of black metal tends to snag the headlines, it’s these artists’ use of the genre’s most recognizable tropes that made their music so electrifying and, strangely, forward thinking. As a microcosm of black metal’s continued adherence to its traditional sonic roots, these three records highlight black metal’s penchant for historic reverence, hero worship, and willingness to break its own norms all at once.
When referencing black metal’s adherence to its own self-contained sonic mythos, look no further than Paysage d’Hiver’s Im Wald. Helmed by the man behind the equally lauded atmospheric black metal project Darkspace, Paysage d’Hiver has survived literally every black metal trend to have built a robust legacy that mixes ambient and truly lo-fi black metal into a swirling storm that is as evocative as any in the genre’s history. Over nearly thirty years of songwriting and over a dozen demos and collaborative releases, Im Wald represents the project’s first official full-length release. And what did longtime fans get from this long-awaited opus of black metal released in the year from hell 2020? The exact same that they’ve come to expect, but with even greater ferocity and especially titanic length. Clocking in at two-plus hours, there’s absolutely no compromise to Paysage d’Hiver’s traditional formula. Razor sharp riffs and punishing blast beats buried almost imperceptibly beneath a sheet of snowy fuzz. Those who are not fans of black metal’s past will find little to love here. But for those who have drunk deeply from the well of lo-fi, Im Wald is as traditional and antithetical to modern trends in black metal as this music gets.
While a production aesthetic is only one small facet of what makes an album work, Paysage d’Hiver’s approach to its work has always been one bathed in mystery and dripping in atmosphere. There’s just about no other way that this project could create this type of mood without a lo-fi production job, and it shows in how truly captivating this behemoth stays from start to finish. While much of the genre’s fascination with lo-fi production has come across as gimmicky and has become especially flat as black metal has developed, Paysage d’Hiver sticks out from the pack for one particular reason: It uses production to create a definitive effect on the listener. While Paysage d’Hiver has more claim than most working in black metal today to tracing its roots to the sonic bloodline of the Second Wave, it’s the project’s understanding of “why” lo-fi production worked in the first place that makes it so special. Black metal’s most famous releases did more than just come across like a bunch of kids playing shitty guitar in their parents’ basements (though that sometimes was literally the case), and instead used these cheap production techniques to create a world that is literally unparalleled in music. Paysage d’Hiver kept that spirit alive and will in 2020, transporting listeners to black metal’s early years with authenticity and power.
Outside of Paysage d’Hiver, a few other bands stuck the old-school landing this year as well while using the aesthetic for entirely different reasons. Lamp of Murmuur’s Heir of Ecliptic Romanticism blended the cavernous howls and lo-fi edge of Second Wave black metal to create an album that felt equal parts homage and bold step forward. But that mixture of simultaneous forward and backward gazing was nowhere more palpable than in Mystras’ Castles Conquered and Reclaimed. Of the records mentioned here, it may be the most lo-fi, and may honestly be one of the most difficult records to sit through for haters of lo-fi production that exists. This record is completely and utterly bound to its production aesthetic. There’s no way of avoiding it or overlooking it. But that strict adherence to some of black metal’s oldest tropes is what makes it such a fascinating listen. This is mainly due to its content, which is about as firmly political and anti-fascist as it gets. Given black metal’s less-than-savory reputation as a haven for some of the most profane and despicable political, philosophical, and moral views on the planet, this blend of definitively liberal sentiments ensconced inside the veneer of classic black metal is both clever and insanely effective.
If one were to look at black metal in a historical prism in an attempt to find the core of the genre’s artistic philosophy, two trends that would pop up predominantly would be its adherence to the past and its willingness to break its own rules of structure regularly. This contradiction is perfectly encapsulated by the lo-fi black metal releases of 2020, which both honor the genre’s traditions while simultaneously showing a complete willingness to destroy them. In its own use of tradition, black metal has a tendency to subvert itself; to warp it’s very essence into something far more expansive in scope and powerful in execution than it has ever experienced before. The old and the new coexist in constant flux within the confines of black metal, and that is a glorious thing, bringing each year some of its most profound and intense music. While black metal continues to fight and find its identity in the 21st century, records like these show that the power held in the past is not without profundity or meaning. Sometimes, adhering to the past is the most subversive thing one can do, and here’s hoping more bands use black metal’s oldest tricks for positive, evolutionary ends.
Jonathan’s Top 10
- Oranssi Pazuzu – Mestarin kynsi (psychedelic black metal)
If I had a dollar for every time we’ve written in this column some variation of “can this even be called black metal?”, I’d be a wealthy man. For all of its backward tendencies and unsavory characters, there are few if any genres in music that are as willing to bend stringent genre expectations than artists that work within the black metal market. Alongside the likes of Zeal & Ardor, Deafheaven, and the whole host of post-black metal practitioners stands Oranssi Pazuzu, included in these ranks but also set apart. There are practically no bands blending psychedelic rock influences and black metal in the way that these Finns are, and Mestarin kynsi may be the best album of their career so far. Scratch that, it is. Stacking wretched black metal vocals and a few tremolo flourishes atop a cyclical, winding, woozy sonic veneer, Mestarin kynsi is one of the band’s most wildly ambitious and consistently dazzling efforts. An absolute treat for the sense, I haven’t heard a black metal adjacent record that I loved more in 2020.
- Paysage d’Hiver – Im Wald (atmospheric black metal)
Cold. Snow. Wintry blindness. Frostbitten tundras and frozen landscapes. No single voice in music captures these elemental atmospheres like Paysage d’Hiver. Decades of demo releases under this solo project’s belt, it’s about time that we get a proper full-length record. Im Wald does not disappoint. A wall of atmosphere pervades every single second of this record, from the sounds of the winds of winter that intro these tracks, to the buried sound of the guitars and drums, there isn’t a single second of this record that fails to transport the listener to a very particular place and aesthetic. But more than a vehicle for visions of mountainous landscapes buried in snow, the icy riffs that pervade the record provide its melodic backbone and the principal reason that Im Wald succeeds so mightily. This record, throughout its titanic length, is chock full of effective riffs, presented with more clarity than in any of the project’s previous releases. Front to back, it’s a fully absorbing and ethereal effort that is one of the year’s best.
- Skáphe – Skáphe³ (dissonant black metal)
It’s hard to find a sound that sings to the most decrepit portions of my soul than anything that incorporates Icelandic black metal. The atmosphere, scale, and intensity all combine to create something that sounds like nothing else on the planet. International collaboration is unfortunately too infrequent in this genre, and Skáphe thankfully buck this trend by blending the best elements of American dissonance and Icelandic atmosphere to create a record that’s one of the most mesmerizing and insanity-inducing releases of 2020. D.G.’s vocals are utterly horrifying, recalling with even harsher clarity his work with Misþyrming, but ultimately it’s Alex Poole (Chaos Moon) who steals the show. The instrumentation here is simply unhinged and uniformly superb, and with increased production quality, detractors of the band’s last two records will find little to complain about here. This is the band’s best record so far, and a sure highlight of 2020.
- Mystras – Castles Conquered and Reclaimed (lo-fi black metal)
When I was first getting into black metal, the bands of the second wave (namely Mayhem and the early work of Darkthrone) did not appeal to me. It wasn’t that I didn’t recognize their unique contribution to the metal world as it stood in the late nineteenth-century, or how its razor’s edge sensibilities could appeal to an ever widening fanbase. It was honestly just the production. God, I hated it so much. It wasn’t until diving deeper into the genre’s origins after a few years of exposure to some of music’s harshest sounds that I began to appreciate the aesthetic. Mystras’s Castles Conquered and Reclaimed is one of the best examples of how to take the classic sounds of black metal, flip them on their head, and transport listeners to a world of the artist’s choosing. Politically, aesthetically, and in every facet of this record, Mystras explodes with life, fire, and invention. It’s a record that will take a few listens to get used to, but once you’ve fully bought into this world, there’s no turning back.
- Havukruunu – Uinuos Syömein Sota (folk black metal)
In case it wasn’t clear, I love me some atmospheric black metal. Transport me to a dark, snowy forest replete with monsters and ghouls, baby. My top five should give enough indication of my love for this space of the black metal world, and Havukruunu released one of my favorites. Uinuos Syömein Sota is a veritable riff fest that should satisfy just about any and every black metal aficionado, and those looking for teleportation to frozen tundras far away will also find plenty to sink their teeth into. The band’s improvement in songwriting is obvious and palpable, making Uinuos Syömein Sota a decisive step-up from their already deeply impressive debut. There’s so much to love here, and without a doubt it’s one of my favorites of the year.
- …And Oceans – Cosmic World Mother (symphonic black metal)
- Xazraug – Unsympathetic Empyrean (avant-garde black metal)
- Serpent Column – Kathodos (dissonant black metal)
- Wayfarer – A Romance with Violence (atmospheric black metal)
- Dawnwalker – Ages (progressive black metal)
Return to the Luminiferous Aether: Black Metal’s Ongoing Romance With Science Fiction
Back in 2016, I wrote an article about the ties between metal and science fiction. Funnily enough, the article seems a bit outdated to me by now because I missed out black metal. This was before I had really started getting into the style, so it makes sense that I didn’t include it. However, the thematic relationships are definitely there; it’s no surprise that science fiction, a genre that has books that can be described as “cold”, “melodramatic”, and “posthuman”, would work well with black metal. And, indeed, 2020 was a banner year for the crossover between the styles. All across black metal, from multiple genres, locations, and styles, music poured in that was using science fiction and space as its aesthetic underpinning. I think that, beyond “just” an album here and there that into the literary genre, 2020 was even more fascinating because it saw many types of album approach science fiction from many different directions. Let’s take a look at how that worked.
First, there’s the albums that drew the “classic” sort of inspiration from space and science fiction. This path is the one which goes through the “coldness” and size of space to inject its black metal with the frosty vibe which it needs. The end result, much like the death metal we discussed in that original post all the way back in 2016, is music that has a massive canvas, able to fill it with grand gestures and ideas. Much like science fiction itself does! There’s a reason the genre “went out to space” beyond “just” aesthetic fascination; space is the ultimate canvas because no matter how big you dream, space is just bigger. This is true for music as well and especially for black metal bands, who are always finding their ambition and the “size” of their music curtailed by the backdrops which they choose for their albums.
The big example of this thematic interlinking is, of course, Spectral Lore and Mare Cognitum’s Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine. The very name evokes space and the solar system but it also goes one step further: alongside the album’s cover art, the title alone injects that image of space with secret and deep meaning. Diving beyond the limits of popular astrology, the two projects once again conjure some of the largest and most evocative black metal around. Just listen to “Mars (The Warrior)”. Open a window if it’s cold where you are right now or turn on the AC if it’s not and feel the frozen depths of space coming for your lungs. The massive blast-beats, the guitar riffs scorching across the mix, and, of course, the vocals who sound like the very planets grinding together.
Another good example for this “space as a backdrop” sort of interaction between black metal and science fiction is late comer Caelestra. Although here the emotions and colors for which space is used are brighter and more wide-eyed, the album still has the same sort of grand canvas and ambition as the aforementioned Wanderers. An altogether slower release, Black Widow Nebula also feels even larger than that split, truly grabbing up the canvas that space offers as a topic. Just listen to the opening track, “Solaris”. Here, the images that should come to you are more astral in nature or perhaps even technological; imagine super-structures stretching out under a yellowish sun, the field of stars unfurling behind them. Of course, as the track progresses, the same “coldness” that we found above is also introduced. This is, after all, black metal and the mighty tremolo riff cannot be denied.
From these abyssal and overwhelming chasms, we turn to a different mode of science fiction. After all, the genre is not all doom and gloom or frigid space opera stretching between the flickering nodes that are the stars themselves. There’s a lot of brightness, momentum, and genuine first for exploration which runs through science fiction and that sort of aesthetic has also found itself into black metal this year. It’s not that the music becomes “happy”, per se, because how much “happy” or boisterous black metal do you know? Rather, black metal which hinges on the brighter and more dynamic aspects of science fiction seems to also be more dynamic itself, channeling the thrust of the engines, the fires of innovation or the heady ideas of cerebral science fiction in its music.
The first example is Creature’s Ex Cathedra. I have written elsewhere on the blog about this underrated album and its distinctly French take on space, exploration, astronomy, and the spheres. I think it’s enough here to listen to the opening track of the album, “Fugue en Sol Mineur”, to get a feeling for that bright dynamics which I referenced above. Unlike Spectral Lore or Caelestra, the music here is more upbeat and forward-moving. From the delicate wind instruments that paint pirouettes in the background of the mix, through the high octane guitar riff, and all the way to the operatic vocals, everything screams with the acrobatics of flight and the headrush of travelling to distant places. All of that is even before the music tapers right before the end of the track to leave the wind instruments “by themselves”, once again bringing to life that feeling of pageantry and celebration in the face of exploration.
The second example of this brighter approach to science fiction, and the last album we’ll discuss in this here piece, might seem odd. Upbeat is not exactly an adjective you’d immediately associate with Dawnwalker, whether on Ages, or elsewhere during their career. That’s why “open” or “expansive” might be a better way to describe what I’m trying to get to here and what I was trying to get to when I was writing about Creature above. Whereas the first group of bands that we discussed have a sound that is certainly “large”, it is more intense, dense, and even oppressive. On Ages, Dawnwalker channel the same kind of far-reaching science fiction that Creature does, albeit from a different perspective. The science fiction evoked by their album is less of the French fin de siècle and more from the roots of the Anglosphere’s science fiction, where we might call out writers like Olaf Stapledon or Clifford Simak.
We can see these influences both in the concept of the album and its music, both exhibiting the sort of mystic and rarefied storytelling that came to define that sort of science fiction. Ages tells the story of a universal cycle of death and rebirth, where, as the name hints at, millennia come and go according to some astral, half-perceived plan. The music supports this kind of narrative as well; it often crosses into the realms of doom metal, calling upon massive chords and riffs to convey that feeling of worlds ending. Ages also uses, to great effect, a host of vocal melodies, choirs, and effects to create the sort of echoing, “hallowed” perspective on space that this style of science fiction so often utilizes. But, at the end of it, Ages is also a thoroughly black metal album, blending all of these mechanisms and ideas with a core that is decidedly abrasive as only black metal knows how to be.
And that’s it! I fully expect black metal (and metal in general) to continue to foster these thematic relationships with science fiction over the next few years and, perhaps, “forever” (as much as any of us can conceive, as humans, what forever means). And after all, why shouldn’t it? As the past has shown us, this is an incredibly fruitful and inventive field for black metal and there are plenty more ideas, modes, and aesthetics left to channel in science fiction. Excelsior! Per ardua, ad astra.
Eden’s Top 10
- Feminazgul – No Dawn for Men (post/atmospheric black metal)
There should be a rule. I’m calling it “Eden’s Rule”. Original, I know. This rules reads: “if there’s an album where not one, but several lyrical lines have been stuck in your head for more than a month, you automatically have to choose it as your number one album”. Rolls right off the tongue, right? Seriously though, Feminazgul’s No Dawn for Me has been, as the kids says, living rent free in my mind all year (this was more painful for me to write than it was for you to read, I promise you). From “Bury the Antlers With the Stag”’s opening scream to the haunting synths replete across the album, the release has burrowed itself into my mind and heart.
It has become the black metal album I go for when I need to rage, when I need to burn with righteous fury, when I need to remember that the patriarchy, the right, capitalism, and all the pain in this world are not things to be accepted but things to be fought against and that yes, sorrow is OK but there is power within us to resist. It is this album that, more than any other, captures the essence of the struggle that is black metal for me, in the year of our Satanic Lady 2020. Play it fucking loud.
- Amiensus – Abreaction (atmospheric black metal)
If my top pick for this list makes me want to rage and resist then Amiensus make me want to dream of the better world that lies at the other side of our beautiful struggle. Abreaction is a heart achingly beautiful release, doing everything that atmospheric black metal does and doing it incredibly well. From the dreamy, cleaner passages (like the one that opens the album), through the more blistering and over the top fulfillment of their sounds in the epic, blackened passages that follow, and all the way to the heart-wrenching strings on the album, Abreaction perfectly encapsulates for me why I love atmospheric black metal. It effortlessly channels this feeling of yearning that lies at the base of all hope but strips it down from abstract idealism, leaving only the burning passion behind.
- Helfró– Helfró (Icelandic black metal)
Everything bigger than everything else – the album. Helfró take influences from the second wave of black metal and feed them through some sort of experimental enlargement ray. The drums sound like boulders rolling down a mountain, crushing you with their momentum. The vocals seem drawn from the deepest, black well of icy water. The guitars are like avalanches, surrounding you with their frigid airs. There’s choirs, tolling bells, and so much black metal aggression, you won’t know where to turn for the first few listens. Really, this album is one of the most massive works of music I’ve ever heard and it works incredibly well for it.
- Mystras – Castles Conquered and Reclaimed (lo-fi black metal)
I’ve used the word “essence” on this list more than I’d like, as I really don’t like the concept, but I must utilize it once more for Mystras goes to the core of what I love about black metal and its political potential. As I wrote at length elsewhere on the blog, Castles Conquered and Reclaimed does amazing work at looking at the history of our struggles for freedom and equality and bringing forth the energies of those struggles into the project’s music. The result is a lo-fi, hyper-dynamic release that takes no prisoners in the lessons drawn from its past and its promise for the future. It’s a black metal album that lifts you up, makes you stronger, and reminds you why we fight while at the same time being a great work of music and art.
- Kaatayra – So Quem Viu o Relampago a Sua Direita Sabe (atmospheric black metal)
You can probably file this one under “most underrated release of the year”. Not enough people are aware of Kaatayra’s amazing, atmospheric and folk-tinged black metal. The one-man project, hailing all the way from Brazil, makes a sort of black metal that really can’t be compared to much else. It’s thick, multi-layered, filled with a multitude of instruments and music ideas that beggar the mind. We say this a lot on the blog but his album is a true journey, bewildering and confusing at times but always with beauty hiding behind the next corner. It’s also a hard album to get into so spend some time with it; I promise you, you will be richly rewarded with some of the most interesting black metal around.
- Dawnwalker – Ages (progressive black metal)
- Eye of Nix – Ligeia (atmospheric black metal)
- Dzö-nga – Thunder in the Mountains (symphonic black metal)
- Botanist – Photosynthesis (post/atmospheric black metal)
- Yovel – Forthcoming Humanity (black metal)
Shut Them Down: Celebrating Antifa Successes in the Black Metal Community
Since we switched to this format for our end-of-year posts, we’ve seemingly dedicated space in all our Kvlt Kolvmn roundups to denouncing NSBM. That won’t stop with this year’s post, considering the prevalence of fasicst ideology and action in society throughout last year and just the first couple weeks of 2021. But instead of rehashing our stance on NSBM (TL;DR – Bad, don’t do it), I want to use this space to highlight some actual goddamn progress from last year. Granted, we’re not talking about monumental leaps like Varg joining Antifa. But after a year where seemingly everything that could go wrong did, let’s take a moment to celebrate how far we’ve come — and remind ourselves what we need to keep fighting for.
Our first example will lean a bit on hearsay, since the relevant posts have been taken down. Ilya of Imperial Triumphant (which I consider more death metal than black metal, but I digress) posted a list of his “Top 5 Black Metal Albums of All Time” via Revolver, which featured albums by Deathspell Omega and Hate Forest. Anyone who’s heard Imperial Triumphant’s music would know DsO is an obvious influence, and the other picks were equally established black metal bands any like-minded metal band would cite as inspirations.
Ilya was greeted by a lively comment section pushing back on the inclusion of the aforementioned artists. Hate Forest is a well-known NSBM band, while DsO has flown a bit under the radar as a problematic band. Fas – Ite, Maledicti, in Ignem Aeternum was an incredibly important album in my formative metalhead, which is why it hurts so much to read that the band is “very proud of the brilliant actions of intolerance that took place during the National-Socialist era in Germany, and in Europe during WW2. To gaz the jews and so many liberal thinking people was fantastic. We, in Deathspell Omega, are definitely fascistic thinking people, and proud of it.”
The reason you can’t read this post for yourself is because Revolver took it down, and Ilya released an accompanying apology for not knowing that these bands harbored such heinous views. Whether or not he meant that is besides the point and open for speculation. What matters is enough people in the metal community spoke out to put pressure on Revolver and the band for endorsing these views. Make a mistake, that’s what happens when you publish a post labeled “top albums of all time” and include artists with dangerous, bigoted beliefs. Of course, you’d hope that these types of bands wouldn’t be highlighted from the onset. But policing from the industry is an incredibly promising next step.
The logical extension from there is prominent companies following suit of their own volition, which happened to Inquisition with the release of their newest album. I already wrote about this controversy at length in our December installment of The Void Screameth, so here’s a quick recap: Agonia Records and Season of Mist resumed their relationship with Inquisition, whose members have child porn charges on their record and a history of (at best) Nazi sympathization. When people started placing orders for the Inquisition’s new album, Bandcamp seemingly began cancelling orders without consulting anyone in the band’s camp. This came after Agonia had to go to battle with commenters calling out the entire situation and Inquisition”s problematic past.
What do both these examples have in common? I let this helpful Twitter thread sum it up for me:
I couldn’t have said it better myself. These things start small and quickly spiral out of control. it takes consistent pushback on these types of bands and enablers to enact change. While this might be exhausting, it’s critical to denormalizing facism and neo-nazism in our scene. The more we treat these ideas as antithetical to metal, the less we’ll see those beliefs spring up in our midst.
To close things out, I want to highlight this antifa black metal playlist from Blog favorite Dawn Ray’d. While progress is first and foremost in the hands of us as listeners, it helps when bands in our scene take a stand themselves. I encourage you to look at our Top 10 lists and listen to the playlist for a look at some of the “good guys” pushing the genre forward musically and morally.
Scott’s Top 10*
- Dawnwalker – Ages (progressive black metal)
Considering how many times we’ve written about Ages over the past month, I hope every black metal fan who reads Heavy Blog has given the album at least a cursory listen by now. Like several bands on my list, Dawnwalker don’t play a tried and trve brand of black metal, which is part of the reason Ages resonated with me so much. The band’s seamless, elegant blend of post-metal, folk, and blackened palettes makes for a stunning affair on Ages. It’s an album that catapults you into soaring heights one moment before dragging you into the darkest depths of rocky coasts the next.
- Liturgy – Origin of the Alimonies (avant-garde black metal)
The band black metal fans love to hate returns with the crowning jewel of their young career. Critics and pvrists can say what they want about Liturgy; I’ve certainly had my issues with some of their philosophical ramblings and The Ark Work in particular. But you can’t deny Hunter Hunt Hendrix’s ambition, and what she achieved on H.A.Q.Q. has been elevated to an entirely new level on Origin of the Alimonies. A black metal opera might sound like a gimmick at best and woeful failed experiment at worst. But the end results are incredibly successful and downright impressive. Hunter may not silence all of her doubters, but she’s no doubt won over a handful of skeptics like me.
- Skáphe – Skáphe³ (dissonant black metal)
Since their breakout release in 2014, Skáphe have evolved from a promising young voice into one of the preeminent voices in dissonant black metal. These guys seem hellbent on upping their game with every release, and considering the wild, unbridled intensity of their music, that’s no small feat. Their third standalone album sees the band improve everything you’ve come to love about their sound. The blast beats and riffs are faster, the slower passages are more crushing, and above all, the overarching atmosphere feels more suffocating than ever. If you haven’t hopped on the Skáphe train yet, there’s no time like the present.
- Gaerea – Limbo (black metal)
This is by the far the most “black metal” release on my list, and for good reason. If you’ve followed my submissions to Kvlt Kolvmn over the last several years, you’ve likely noticed I prefer black metal with a unique, experimental take on the genre. Why listen to bands rehashing the same riffs from the second wave for the millionth time? Gaerea seems to agree, which is why Limbo is an absolute tour de force of blackened excellence played through a modern metal lens. From the riffs to the blasts to the atmosphere, everything about Limbo is a more refined yet powerful iteration of the genre at its best. If you listen to one tried and trve black metal release this year, make it this one.
- Inexorum – Moonlit Navigation (melodic black metal)
I have a bad habit of listening to a classic in my collection, pledging to return to it more often, and then shelving it indefinitely for no particular reason. Such is the case with Dissection’s Storm of the Light’s Bane and a slew of other melo-black classics. Thankfully, there are new bands like Inexorum that remind me just how much I love the subgenre and should give it a much larger place in my rotation. If you’re in search of soaring guitar melodies and an overarching majestic air, then Moonlit Navigation is a must listen from last year’s blackened offerings.
- Serpent Column – Endless Detainment (dissonant black metal)
- Dynfari – Myrkurs Er Þörf (post-black metal)
- Botanist – Photosynthesis (experimental blackgaze)
- …and Oceans – Cosmic World Mother (symphonic black metal)
- Dzö-nga – Thunder In the Mountains (pagan black metal)
*Mamaleek’s excellent new album Come and See landed on my overall Top 50 list, but at this point, their sound is barely on the cusp of black metal. Consider this a caveat or honorable mention, and be sure to check out the band/album if you haven’t already. Excellent avant-garde metal with elements of everything from blues to industrial to noise rock, with some hints of blackgaze along the way.