What a month. What a lovely month! Cue Fury Road soundtrack, but make it black metal. That’s the sound of March blazing in with a righteous, unholy fury in the world of black metal. What a month it was. There’s plenty of icy goodness to revel in, so let’s cut right to the chase. This month, we’re highlighting a few one-man projects that caught our attention, as well as a few classic acts with notable release more than worthy of mention. Additionally, we have an interview with Ayloss from Spectral Lore, who catches us up on his latest records under his flagship moniker and Mystras, as well as what the near future holds for his various projects. So let’s get to it! As always, stay frosty friends.
Black Magic – The Ascending Dominance of Solo Black Metal
More than any genre outside of perhaps pop and folk/singer-songwriter, black metal revels in its ability to be written, produced, and performed with minimal supporting players cluttering up the margins. Even the above genres stated as comparisons very infrequently feature only one individual covering all essential tasks for a record’s construction. There’s almost always a host of hands in the pot, but that’s not always the case with black metal. In fact, over the past several years some of the most notable records in the genre have been released by one-person projects. As the internet age accelerates the advancement of technological capability, this form of musical expression only continues to grow. For the sake of the future of black metal, I say all the better.
For all of its current relevance, one-person black metal operations are nowhere close to new. From its inception (for both better and worse), black metal as a genre has championed independence and a rogue mentality as a core function of its philosophy. One need only look at album covers from black metal bands across the past few decades to get the hint that many of these artists like being left alone, and that predilection has been a staple of black metal’s aesthetic since day one. But rather than this perspective being reflected primarily in the lyrical content and album artwork of a given record, black metal musicians took that motif several steps further, exemplifying their thematic isolation by manifesting it in the real world through solo album construction. The main difference between the present day for solo black metal artists and their forebears is the dual increase in quality and prolificacy. While Bandcamp is still teaming with hordes of basement dwelling edgelords making only what is trve, the limelight has become littered with solo artists dropping some of the best releases each year. This rise in popularity is, for a form of music that prides itself on anonymity and seclusion, notable.
In this very piece, the work of Mare Cognitum and Malist is showcased as some of the best black metal of the month. Over the next few months, works from Ayloss (Spectral Lore, Mystras) will undoubtedly spill thousands of words of praise. In my top ten black metal records of 2020, four of them were solo affairs. There’s been a precipitous rise in the output of quality solo black metal projects, which could come from both the current isolated state of the world as well as the widespread availability of technology designed to give solo creators more adequate tools to refine their visions.
Some acts have used these circumstances to push their music into more expansive, thoroughly epic and strange territory (Esoctrilihum’s deathly musings, for example), while others have opted to maintain an almost primitive yet equally ferocious approach to the genre (Lamp of Murmuur and Paysage d’Hiver come to mind here). It would take a hefty chunk of this piece to list out all the solo acts that have been making a definitive impact on the genre’s current landscape, which is only further testament to its growing viability. But however individual artists choose to make their music, there’s no doubt that increased availability to technological platforms have created both more robust artistry and effective ways to message and sell records. Bandcamp has been pivotal in this movement, and will only continue to be as solo black metal continues to become more and more viable with the passage of time.
While the ascendency of solo black metal may be a cause for consternation for some, it’s the opinion of this writer that it can only lead to good things for the genre as a whole. Black metal creativity is at an all-time peak, and given that resources for bands have been historically scant over the past 12 months, many artists who have begun releasing material have done so completely on their own, continuing to provide the world with high quality output while ensuring both their own safety and the perpetuation of their visions. But I don’t see this trend leaving the black metal community anytime soon as COVID-19 vaccinations increase, mainly because it’s been constantly present throughout the genre’s history.
There is a definitive place for cold, dark, lonely and punishing black metal in the genre’s atmosphere, and I predict we see nothing short of a prodigious increase in solo artistry as time continues. The genre can only be served well by increasing its ability to give solo artists a consistent platform and space to wail their woes to the moon and back, and I firmly believe we as black metal fans can confidently embrace the increasing popularity of solo black metal artists. At this rate, several of my favorite black metal records from the past few years were produced by one individual. May that level of quality continue in perpetuity.
Paysage d’Hiver – Kristall & Isa (2008)
Yes, I know that I’ve already written about this project in this section before. But there are few solo black metal projects that better exemplify the impact of the style more gracefully and powerfully than Paysage d’Hiver. Over the past 24 years, there are few if any artists that have made a more indelible impression on the black metal landscape than Wintherr, with a flood of “demos” that have ranged from ambient to classic atmospheric black metal with steadfast consistency in quality. With another album set to drop this spring, it seems a fitting time to retro one of my favorite works from the project, Kristall & Isa.
Released in 2000, Kristall & Isa comes as the culmination of an artistic period for Wintherr that saw the release of six records in three years. While “prolific” and Paysage d’Hiver often go hand-in-hand, this release followed on the heels of Wintherr’s self-titled record, which is considered by many to be one of the greatest genre releases of all-time. Rather than attempting to replicate that record’s success, Kristall & Isa finds Wintherr’s songwriting at its most crisp and anthological, while also portending to the even greater and more sprawling heights the project would eventually reach for. Clocking in at just under 40 minutes, it’s one of Paysage d’Hiver’s most compact releases. But Wintherr’s uses his truncated approach wisely, serving up what often feels like a greatest hits compilation for the project.
Opener “Isa” unfurls like a blizzard, immediately blinding the listener with a constant pummel of tremolo-picked madness encased in an overwhelming blanket of atmosphere. Blanketed beneath this bombardment of winter gales is a smattering of synth passages that give the track an unearthly, magical feel, as if one is being chased through the storm by the spirit of winter itself… and it isn’t happy that you’re there. The next two tracks highlight Wintherr’s penchant for ambience (which also manifests itself through his work in Darkspace), only to continue into black metal madness that feels like a direct continuation of “Isa” in “Der Kristall ist Eis”, which is the highlight of the album and overall just an incredible example of all that atmospheric black metal can be. If you’re looking for a place to dive into regarding Paysage d’Hiver’s expansive discography, this is the place to start.
So much of what solo black metal currently is and can be stems directly from the uncompromising and pioneering work of Paysage d’Hiver. There are few projects that surpass its breadth, scale, and consistency, and if the future of one-person black metal looks as promising as its past, I think we’re in fine shape. Cheers to wintry goodness as the world warms.
Ayloss (Mystras, Spectral Lore)
We could not be more excited to feature a conversation with Ayloss for this edition of Kvlt Kolvmn! His gracious and detailed answers provide a ton of insight into his own process as a songwriter, as well as details on his very busy 2020, which included releases from his Mystras and Spectral Lore projects, as well as a sneak peak into what the near future holds for the band. We hope you enjoy!
Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us! As you are probably already well aware, we at Heavy Blog Is Heavy are big fans of your work. For those who might be less familiar with you, can you give us a brief introduction to yourself and your projects?
Ayloss: Hi, My name is Chris (or Ayloss if you prefer), I’m a Greek guy living somewhere in Athens and I’m doing music in my bedroom, in styles such as black metal/ambient (Spectral Lore), medieval black metal/folk (Mystras) dungeon synth/electronic (A Compendium of Curiosities, Ontrothon-Saga of the Ancient Glass, Under A Banner Black As Blood) epic black/death metal (Divine Element) and more.
2020 was a busy year for you, with releases in collaboration with Mare Cognitum as Spectral Lore and with an entirely new project, Mystras. Let’s talk about the former first: How did your collaboration with Mare Cognitum come to be?
Ayloss: The collaboration was an idea of our label, I, Voidhanger Records, with the intention of providing a kind of sequel to our first collaboration, Sol. Initially there was even a third band in the project which however left at some point, as we did not see eye to eye on certain important subjects. So we completed the project on our own, even if it took us three years in total, of which I was mostly responsible, as Jacob had finished his tracks much earlier. But I guess in the end taking our time worked in favor of the record.
Having worked on other split/collab releases with artists like Underjordiska, Jute Gyte, Nachtreich, and Locust Leaves, you’re obviously no stranger to collaborative projects. Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine feels like a particularly impressive mix of both yours and Jacob’s styles to my ears. With this in mind, I’m curious to hear about how you approach songwriting for collaborative projects. Does that process differ from that of your solo efforts?
Ayloss: Definitely. I’m a bit of a chameleon in that context, I like to get influenced by the artist that I’m collaborating with, which is kinda the purpose anyway. No sense in throwing 3 demo tracks each and calling it an album. So, I try to mix things as much as possible, start from scratch, find a concept, borrow each other’s riffs and make variations, play on each other’s track, share samples etc. The only one which wasn’t a collaborative effort so far was the Jute Gyte album, as Adam had already completed his track by the time he asked me. Perhaps the most collaborative one was the split with Underjordiska (we had even done “underwater” bathtub recordings and other crazy shit like that) followed by “Sol”, our first collaboration with Mare Cognitum. On “Wanderers” it was more like exchanging ideas and working separately, but as Jacob mastered my tracks in the end everything came together just fine.
Your records tend to be incredibly thematic, pulling influence from philosophy, literature, and a whole host of musical styles and motifs. Wanderers is no exception to this trend. Can you illuminate for us some of the influences behind this record? What music, literature, philosophies and works of art impacted its construction?
Ayloss: That’s an interesting question. I can’t say there was particular research done before composing the record. I’ll admit that about that time, I’ve stopped trying to write deeply conceptual lyrics and I’ve started going for more personal ones, which I believe in some way was a step ahead. In comparison to Sol where I’ve delved into a cosmology rabbithole of trying to make sense of how and “why” the solar system exists (up to a point where I don’t understand at some parts what I was trying to say today, although I still think it’s some of my best lyrics) “Wanderers” was very simple thematically, for me at least. Pick a planet, form a concept around it. “Earth” comes from the reading I’ve been doing about climate change and the upcoming catastrophe. I could say “Uranus” shows the influence of feminist thought. “Saturn” is a parable on a perceived revolutionary meaning of Saturnalia and “Mercury” is a simple metaphor about what it means to be political, which is I guess the angle that most of my lyrics have taken lately. It’s hard to remember what music and works or art influenced me around then, I suppose there wasn’t much of a conscious process since we already “had” a style with “Sol” and we wanted to advance it.
Being primarily a solo artist, what have you found to be the most difficult and rewarding aspects of collaboration?
Ayloss: The hardest part of collaboration is usually present in a band. It has been always difficult for me to take steps back, which is how I ended up doing most of my music as a one man band. The great thing about split albums or one time collaborations, is that by definition I consider them experimental endeavours and it’s primarily about the communication and sharing between the musicians for me, so the pressure about the result comes second. Plus there’s usually a bit more distance, there’s “my” tracks and “your” tracks, so there’s less of a compromise. The compromise is for sure the hardest, and the best is listening to a result which you wouldn’t have created on your own without input from another human being and enjoying it. It is and it isn’t yours.
Switching gears to your record under the Mystras moniker, Castles Conquered and Reclaimed, there are a few very obvious differences between this offering and Wanderers. Let’s start with the content of the record itself. Even a quick glance at the lyrics and song titles indicates a deeply political undercurrent to the music contained here. Can you walk us through the philosophy behind and messages you were hoping to convey through this record?
Ayloss: The intersection of black metal and the medieval era was always intriguing to me. Mysticism, romanticism, heroism, grittiness and brutality. Of course it’s no wonder that it is dominated with eurocentrist and traditionalist, conservative, or neo-masculinist perspectives wishing a return to an idealized past. Creating the project of Mystras was a decision that I’ve taken while I was thinking a lot about the idea of reclaiming and that if one has a direct, open and bold stance about what they believe in, then even the most “problematic” (I hate that word, but it’s true) genre can be re-adopted, because even if one was (at some point) sharing some of these perspectives and therefore had been attracted to it for not very good reasons, it’s impossible that ALL of them to be shit reasons, you know?
Things we love are a reflection of ourselves, and there’s always a good and a bad part in that, as there is in us. So, there is always something worth salvaging. And the medieval era is of course also an era of great artistic beauty, philosophy, art and history, apart from a fertile ground for such misconceptions and cheap projections. As is black metal itself, of course. Therefore, creating Mystras has been sort of a declaration of intent for me not to abandon black metal as I was more and more growing alienated to the ideas and attitudes that dominate it. Epic black metal runs in my blood after all. So what I had to do, is to play the music that I wanted to play by challenging the stereotypes that are associated with it. In the case of medieval black metal, it’s the identification with the noble class that is the most common. Yet, it was the commoners that were building these masterpieces of stark architecture that rise triumphant into the sky and fascinate us to this day…
Therefore, Mystras is castle metal for the peasantry storming the castles and claiming them back. This is the angle I’d like to keep for Mystras.
While you’re obviously no stranger to incorporating unorthodox instrumentation into your records, Castles has some particularly unique acoustic string and woodwind instrumental sections. There’s an especially medieval-sounding vibe to these passages, which for me created a very distinct, time-bound atmosphere to the record. Why were these musical and historical themes important, particularly given the album’s political context?
Ayloss: Since I’m making medieval black metal, I’d better convey a musical sense of the medieval as well. Apart from the imagined sense of the medieval which is what we do when we’re playing tremolo melodies in electric guitars that “sound” like they’re coming from that era (which is not at all a problem, but may be a little limited), there’s also a real wealth of amazing music that’s pretty obscure and deserves to be heard today, even moreso recontextualized in a contemporary way, which is what should happen with folk music for it to survive as something else to a relic. That was the reason for choosing to cover an instrumental like “Contre Dolour” which I found in a record I love, called “Μedieval Music of the Francs of Cyprus”. The other three instrumentals were chosen for a combination of conceptual/political and musical reasons, as they were all based on folk songs that in some way carry the idea of rebellion or disenfranchisement with the ruling class.
On the note of the multi-instrumental nature of your projects, I’m curious to hear more about your musical background. When did you start playing music, and how did your skill-set evolve into multi-instrumentation?
Ayloss: I started with classical guitar at 8 years old and that was the single instrument I was playing until picking up the electric guitar pretty late, around 19-20, if I recall well. At the same time I started my first experiments with production and computer tools like midi for making music. To be honest, I’m not that much of a multi-instrumentalist, I can only play a bit of piano in addition to guitar and I’m not very good at it, so I end up editing my midi notes a lot. And I guess playing dissonant violin notes for drones and tambourine doesn’t count. Maybe it’s about time to pick up a new instrument or two and earn that title! In other words, I’d say that my skill set is pretty much the same since 10-15 years now, it’s only that I’ve become better at it.
I’ve always been fascinated by track sequencing, and on Castles the above-discussed mixture between riff-heavy black metal and more gentle instrumental passages is stark. What is your process behind sequencing tracks in your records, and does the back-and-forth between heavier and gentler sounds in Castles hold any particular significance for the sound and/or message of the record?
Ayloss: Yes, the sequencing was very intentional and stark is a good way to describe the contrast. On the other hand, there’s also the opposite aspect: when a brutal and rough black metal track is ending and something sweet and gentle begins, I’m interested in that effect too. Because as we know there are lots of very “tough” people in black metal that get enraged with the sound of a happy melody in a black metal record, and I find that very amusing. But to give a more serious answer, I think the juxtaposition of the beautiful and brutal is very characteristic of the medieval age. The first one is how its music sounded, the second one is how everyday life actually was for most people. And as modern depictions tend to focus on just one of these two aspects, I thought that way is good to include them both.
Track sequencing in general is an interesting subject. I’m definitely trying as much as I can to create a storyline in an album and to avoid just putting the stronger/punchier tracks in the beginning to comply with the fact that the largest part of the audience just gives you a minute or two to judge if something is worth listening to. (Thank the Gods for bandcamp’s featured track!).
Just as stark as the content of the record itself is its production backdrop. The distant, hazy production of this record balances atmoblack and Second Wave aggression brilliantly. In an era of increasingly crisp and pristine production values, why choose this style of recording?
Ayloss: This particular subgenre of black metal is almost always drenched in cassette noise, distortion and reverb so it was a no brainer for me honestly. Or at least, this specific aesthetic I wanted to evoque. Black metal cassettes of the 90’s with drawings of castles in the cover and so on. It’s something that I’ve never tried before and I’m excited to explore this kind of sound, although I think the next Mystras album will come out a little cleaner.
Black metal in both historical and modern manifestations continues to find itself a haven for fascist, sexist, and racist viewpoints that continue to place deeply troublesome and destructive worldviews front-and-center of the music in both content and imagery. Given that your projects exist in (at least to my perception) an oppositional nexus to these philosophies, what is your perspective on the current influence of the NSBM movement in particular within the larger narrative of black metal and how do you recommend musicians and lovers of this music address/combat it?
Ayloss: I think the way to go is to first of all not reduce the issue to NSBM. The hard thing to admit is that black metal is a genre that was built on some very interesting and some very bad ideas from the beginning (at least in the way it manifested in the Norwegian scene) and the admiration of nazism is just one part of it. I know that this is something that most musicians in the genre don’t like to think about, as it reduces the “authenticity” in the scene of whoever is sharing such a view, but is still playing this kind of music. Not to say that it admits a certain complicity because a lot of us were at least in part excited about the wrong reasons back in the day. But personally, I’ve abandoned every desire to be considered authentic, “true” or whatever. The one true thing to do is to deconstruct something that you love and throw away the shitty part, even if in the end what remains reveals to you that the “form” isn’t anymore the same. So, I have absolutely no problem for my music to be considered “not really” black metal, because in a way it’s quite true.
But on the other hand, everything is in constant flux, so what’s considered “not true black metal” today maybe be considered “true black metal” tomorrow. Can you imagine black metal music without the bootlicking and the desire for cheap, misanthropic edginess and ridiculous circle-jerking elitism? I know it’s hard and it makes gatekeepers lose their sleep, but it’s totally possible. In fact, I believe this is the only way for it to exist without being a haven for fascist, sexist, and racist viewpoints, as you mention.
Of course, that’s probably not going to fully happen because lots of people are continuously entering black metal BECAUSE and not despite these reasons. It has unfortunately cemented itself historically as a genre that’s friendly towards such dispositions. But what’s in fact possible, is to build a small haven of resistance that allows people that oppose these ideas to express themselves and maybe little by little, there can be a wider transformation this way. The part of the scene that I mostly care about is bands like Dawn Ray’d, Yovel, Feminazgul, Trespasser, Book of Sand, Neckbeard Deathcamp, Uprising, and many others that don’t shy away from taking a bold stance. There is definitely something profound in black metal music and it deserves to be explored with passion, integrity and honesty to oneself; not to be made mundane with the easiest kind of hate that’s just a cover for your crippling insecurities. Lucifer laughs at you when your black metal aligns itself with the opinions of conservative christians and other shitty cowards, that’s for sure.
In regards to how one should combat fascism, that’s pretty simple for me. It’s with force in the streets. And everyone knows it’s ridiculous and a half-job to buy the fucking album of someone that’s going to fight you. So, it’s pretty simple. Don’t promote nazi bands, don’t be friends with those that do, don’t pretend you’re not seeing when this happens and don’t make exceptions because this band is making really good music or whatever. Support radical bands and causes that directly oppose them. If everyone did these simple things, fascist entryists would be absolutely unsuccessful in every music scene.
What’s next for Ayloss? Any particular projects or releases in the works that we can start salivating over?
Ayloss: The new Spectral Lore full length, “Ετερόφωτος” is coming out on April 23d. It’s some of the most aggressive material I’ve written lately, as this album is somewhat of a follow up to “Sentinel”. Colin Marston has done an excellent job on remixing and mastering the album, so it has the strongest sound I’ve ever had up to now, I’m quite excited about it. I’m currently writing the next Mystras LP. And also if you’ve followed my dungeon synth/ambient stuff, I have a new project together with Spiner of Pnyx which is called Under A Banner Black As Blood and will be releasing its debut within the next month. And I must also remind of my new project A Compendium of Curiosities which has already released 2 eps and one LP in rather different styles, from neo-medieval music to chiptune influenced dungeon synth to ambient/electronic.
Rapid Fire Round
What was your favorite album of 2020?
Ayloss: Moses Sumney’s Grae. Best metal album: Esoctrihilium’s Eternity of Shaog.
What is your favorite album of the decade?
Ayloss: This is such a difficult thing to answer, so many different criteria to consider. Ι’d have to be thinking for days. Ι’ll give you 5 albums of the previous decade from bands that deserved more recognition.
Falls of Rauros – Vigilance Perennial
Skagos – Anarchic
Ethereal Shroud – They Became the Falling Ash
Nucleus Torn – Andromeda Awaiting/Golden Age
Kauan – Sorni Kai
And five non-metal choices:
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie and Lowell
Sophie – Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides
Moses Sumney – Aromanticism
Kayo Dot – Coffins on Io / Plastic House on Base of Sky
Arca – Mutant
What is your favorite album of all-time?
A: Same as before… Impossible to answer, so I’ll talk about an album that I have a special connection with and isn’t mentioned too often nowadays. It is Arcturus’ La Masquerade Infernale. In a way, it is the first music album that has totally put me under its spell and has cemented my fascination with dark, experimental music. Who would have thought that metal would be able to reach such depth and subtlety of emotions while transferring you into another space? It’s one of the few albums that I’ve been listening to since I was 15 years old and still feels emotionally as fascinating and inspiring to me as ever.
Cream of the Crop
Mare Cognitum – Solar Paroxysm (atmospheric black metal, melodic black metal)
Last year, when Simon reviewed Mare Cogntium’s collaboration with Spectral Lore, they described the projects’ music as “the only existing portals to completely unique realms” and “robust in sound to the point of being self-indulgent”. I massively agree with those two statements, as well as with their assertion that there’s something in how both projects approach that self-indulgence which makes it work where others fail. Put differently, Mare Cognitum can be said to channel something inherent about the majestic and gross over-indulgence of black metal, taking that exact feeling of grandeur and majesty and feeding it through a range of aesthetic gestures which purify it. Unsurprisingly (and as we’ve covered in the past), these aesthetics draw on space and science fiction for their fuel.
On the project’s latest release, Solar Paroxysm, all of these attributes and textures are in play, somehow writ even larger. Solar Paroxysm is perhaps the project’s most grandiose and magnificent release. Some of the previous albums were heavier or more punishing in their coldness. But this latest release is the most sweeping. All you need to do to experience this is turn on the first track, “Antaresian”, and listen to the lonesome backing guitars which cut through the main riff of the track near its middle point or how that middle passage manifests itself through the tight drumming work and the ever unfolding intricacies of that same main riff. It almost feels like, with different production and vocals perhaps, this could well be melodic death metal. It has that same sprawling feeling, all of the sounds and textures elongating across the soundscape as if reaching between the stars for their connection.
Of course, when you aim this high and far, you need something that will anchor down your music. In Solar Paroxysm’s case, these are the above mentioned drums and the vocals and the way they work together. Over and over again, an increase in one comes with an increase in the other; listen again to “Antaresian” and how the higher pitched, abrasive vocals find themselves screaming their most furious admonitions above the most blistering of blast-beats. This is no coincidence; the combo creates a sensation of elation, of catharsis, of ascension, of something being taken to the next level. In fact, that feeling, of a bursting upwards of emotions, of something exploding from inside of you, is what this album does best; more than any of Mare Cognitum’s previous works, it grabs you by the hand and, instead of describing to you what’s happening, puts you there. It’s a rare album that can be this large and this emotionally effective at the same time but Mare Cognitum has pulled it off with Solar Paroxysm. Yes, the main feeling here is awe but it’s a deep-seated and personal kind of awe. Awe you can feel and not just think.
Best of the Rest
Christian Cosentino – Lawn (orchestral black metal)
Given how much music we all consume in our role as “music journalists,” it takes a lot to truly surprise us. But from the moment Eden shared Lawn in Slack, I knew Christian Cosentino was on to something special. Given how long symphonic black metal has been around, it was only a matter of time until some orchestral black metal crossed my desk. And trust me, I’m not talking about some brief string patches thrown into a separately written black metal track. No, Lawn genuinely sounds like well-composed modern classical tailor-made for the kind of modern, post-black metal that Cosentino is clearly fond of. The blend touches on other related and unique genres along the way, with some neo-classical and even nu-prog flourishes along the way. As a result, Lawn draws on the majestic side of black metal for a truly beautiful, sublime listen. This isn’t your typical black metal display, and the preceding sentences will surely give our trve kvlt audience a stroke. No matter where you land on Lawn, you at a minimum have to concede it’s one of the most unique black metal adjacent records you’ve heard in some time. And beyond that, I’d argue Cosentino’s creativity transcends novelty and produces some incredible, forward-thinking black metal.
Empyrium – Über den Sternen (atmospheric black metal, folk metal)
Gentleness is a virtue, especially when describing something as vibrant and as fragile as the natural world. In that case, “gentleness” can be strong, as steady as a brook and as ephemeral. On Über den Sternen, neo-folk/black metal veterans Empyrium gather this duality into a powerful and nuanced work of music. Kept alight firstly by its acoustic guitars, the album is a joy for anyone interested in the ways in which folk music can be performed today. Add to this deep, sonours, operatic, and cleverly deployed clean vocals, sometimes sprinkled with the whisper-screams of black metal of yore, and you get a diverse and subtle album that will continuously catch you off guard. This album is for when you want to feel wanderlust, when you want to feel the world calling to you from all around, for when you want to remember the fragile, strong, ephemeral, present, invisible power of the natural world.
Malist – Karst Relict (atmospheric black metal, melodic black metal)
Malist has been on a tear as of late. Which, in the case of a project that released its first of three records just two years ago, means that Malist has always been on a tear. Over the short span of the project’s existence, mastermind OvFrost has churned out some of the most technically impressive and deeply thematically ambitious black metal I’ve heard in that time span. If you have yet to give the first two records in his “Karst Realm” trilogy (In the Catacombs of Time and To Mantle the Rising Sun) a listen, quit being a dingus and change that immediately. Because Karst Relict deserves your full attention and as much context as you can give it.
While I won’t regale you with the full narrative behind the “Karst Realm” trilogy (I highly encourage you to explore that for yourself), one doesn’t necessarily need knowledge of the album’s thematic content to appreciate just how brilliant the songwriting and performances are on this record. While Malist has always leaned toward the more melodic side of black metal, Karst Relict takes that tendency to the next level, infusing the project’s traditionally epic compositions with a keen sense of melody that pervades the entire record. You feel it right up front in “Remaining Light”, which kicks every ass on the planet as an opening track. OvFrost’s compositional maturation over three full-length records is in full effect here, dropping riff after classic riff with expert precision. This record is loaded with enough memorable sections to fill multiple albums, and is without question a fitting culmination of OvFrost’s story arc.
But the album does a lot more than riff, which is at least in part what makes it stand out both within the black metal pack and in Malist’s discography. “Timeless Torch” opens up an acoustic world that cuts through the black metal brutality like a clarion call, while “A Way Through Limbo” takes the breakneck pace of the record and mellows it out gorgeously, shifting from one gorgeous passage to the next, culminating in an emotive explosion that gives OvFrost’s haunting clean vocals time to shine. From the militant chugs of “Chthonic Trinity” to the folk-infused vibe of “Descent into Ruin”, Karst Relict runs an impressive gamet between immense/intense and soulful/deeply melodic without ever feeling disjointed or overly chaotic. It’s the most impressive Malist album to date.
If you like your black metal melodic, variety rich, and teeming with thematic context and lore, you won’t find a better album released thus far in 2021. Karst Relict has been in constant rotation for months now, and I already cannot wait for the next Malist record to drop. But until that time, I’ll have Karst Relict’s epic magnificence to keep me company. A thoroughly fantastic release.
Morke – We Are the River (atmospheric black metal)
As you might be able to tell from my other entry to this column, what interests me in black metal that deals with nature is that it can be used as a powerful metaphor for the human condition. Oh, don’t get me wrong; I love a good fog-drenched mountain top just like the rest of us. It’s beautiful in its own right, something transcendent, well beyond human concerns. But where nature really impacts me, whether in real life when it stands before or when it is being used as a literary device, is where it speaks to things inside of me, to things in my life. This is exactly what Morke’s beautiful, touching, and rich album, We Are the River, is all about. Channeling a difficult period in the life of Eric Wing, the main driving force behind it, the album deals, through natural metaphors, with depression, loss of passion, the hardship of life in our modern age, rediscovering yourself, and striving against these hardships.
It’s also a brilliant collection of music in its own right; there’s something of the lo-fi in its production but more rooted in the Pacific Northwest traditions of green, lush, vibrant black metal than in the caustic influences of the second wave. It can pummel you with riffs, blast-beats, and harsh vocals to the same extent that it can take you away on a journey to forested environs or simply caress your heart with longing and bliss. In short, it’s a great black metal album.