Welcome to our half-year coverage of the black metal world, Kvlt Kolvmn faithful! It’s pretty shocking to think that half of the year has already passed us by. We approach the months of primordial frostiness, when the sun shall once again obscure its face and albums filled with ice and creatures of the wintry night will reign supreme. But for now… I guess hanging by the pool is cool.
Black metal has had an interesting go during the pandemic. While real life lyrical fodder has obviously been plentiful, black metal artists of the one-man variety (which seems to be the increasingly popular practice as of late) didn’t see a whole lot of impediment to their work, given the often self-produced nature of one-person projects. This year, we’ve thus far seen a veritable treasure trove of excellent black metal releases, and the gravy train doesn’t seem to be slowing down soon. Which is a huge win for fans of all things frosty.
Below we have detailed a few of our favorite records of the year thus far. We hope you enjoy reading about and listening along to them with us, and we strongly encourage you to share your own lists in the comments or on Facebook. Thanks for sticking with us through the warm months. Winter approaches, and here at Kvlt Kolvmn, does it ever really leave?
Kvlt Kommvnion // Black Metal Rainbows
Some things sound too good to be true on paper. Yet, here we are with Black Metal Rainbows, an insane collection of words, art, and comics from 80+ contributors. They include a wide range of names from black metal and beyond, including Drew Daniel (Matmos, The Soft Pink Truth), Kim Kelly, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix (Liturgy), Margaret Killjoy (Feminazgul), Eugene S. Robinson (Oxbow), Svein Egil Hatlevik (Fleurety, Zweizz), and more. We sat down with editors Daniel Lukes and Stanimir Panayotov and designer Jaci Raia to discuss the inspiration behind Black Metal Rainbows, the state of black metal scene, and more. Also, if you’re interested in supporting the book, check out their Kickstarter campaign.
What inspired you to work on Black Metal Rainbows, and how did your vision evolve as you started working on the book?
Daniel Lukes: Black Metal Rainbows started with a conference called Coloring the Black in 2015, in Dublin, with a goal of broadening and queering the scope of black metal discourse. Deafheaven and The Soft Pink Truth were a big inspiration to us back then, and the field of queer or leftist or post-black metal has grown hugely since. Throughout the process of putting this book together over the years it has been heartening to see so much of this type of music spring up and a real hunger for extreme and underground metal that has a revolutionary and politically progressive message, engaging directly with the big problems we face as a global society: the climate crisis, the widening gap between the obscenely rich and the growing poor, the rise of fascism worldwide, etc.
Stanimir Panayotov: I would just add that the book evolved in a context: personally I was (and Daniel too, to my knowledge) following the “brand” of black metal theory at the time I got invited to the Coloring the Black event and even scribbled around it for fun. As the book progressed (we’ve been working on it for 5 years now) we also realized there’s the pulse of time beating in our favor. There’s generational changes conditioning that pulse, metal newbies don’t want to deal with the shit of hatred. And because we wanted to do a positive project, the concomitant developments in metal as we worked on the book were also an inspiration (think Straight Panic, Homo Erektion, Sunk). So the inspiration also came along the way: just as according to quantum physics every quantum entity is both particle and wave, so for us metal functioned as a wave-particle we worked on the volume.
The book features some prominent and eclectic names from the black metal scene and beyond. What was the reception like as you were reaching out to people you wanted to feature? Were they largely receptive? Did you receive any pushback?
DL: One of the most rewarding aspects of this project has been reaching out and making connections with people based on a mutual love of black metal and hating Nazis. We’re so happy that we managed to get some big names on board, and even happier to feature newer names you will hear more of in the future, such as Margaret Killjoy, Espi Kvlt, Joseph Russo, Aliza Shvarts, Laina Dawes, and Langdon Hickman. Certainly there are some really big artists we would love to have involved, and we have gotten the odd negative reaction, but overall we’ve been awed at the positive reception this book has gotten so far. The encouragement from our contributors and blurbists, and our publisher PM Press along the way has really helped generate a huge sense of enthusiasm for the book which you can see reflected in people’s response online to the Kickstarter campaign.
SP: We’ve received very little negative pushback in the process which is both great and odd. We have a special file of golden shit (hatred and trolling really) and we’re going to probably release something out of it at some point. For the connoisseurs of golden showers, I guess.
Why is this conversation about inclusivity important for the metal community to have?
DL: For too long metal, and especially black metal, has acted like a pathetic boy’s club. The title of Laina Dawes’ book, What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal, sums up that sense of exclusion operating in metal scenes, this idea that anyone who isn’t a straight white dude is somehow out of place at a metal show or in the scene. Fuck that! Everyone should be welcome in metal. Metal is a vital, engaged, outspoken musical genre made by freaks, weirdos, and outsiders for freaks, weirdos, and outsiders, so it’s quite frankly ridiculous that it should be a venue for any kind of bigotry or prejudice, yet sadly it is all too common. Under the guise of edginess, fascism has been creeping into countercultural spaces with renewed force lately, and Black Metal Rainbows is a middle finger to all that.
Jaci Raia: Metal appealed to me when I was much younger because I felt like an anti-social weirdo and hey! there were a bunch of other weirdos that I found solace and belonging with who also liked to listen to extremely loud and heavy music. I’ve met some of my best friends this way over the years and I would never, ever want to deprive anyone of having that experience of community, connection, and friendship, especially if they feel like an outcast in some way. Community is so essential to the health and well-being of humans, and I will do everything I can to fight to make spaces inclusive for everyone.
SP: Late in the process we came up with the slogan “Black Metal for Everyone” as it really captured what we are doing. The BMR t-shirt says precisely that and you can get it only from the Kickstarter so far. The big point here is: You should not trust those who define black metal negatively. To be enraged or against social norms is not the same as exclusion; on the contrary, it means to define what you stand for precisely because you challenge society and culture. The rigid view of trvueness across metal kingdoms has instilled the idea that metal fandom and fellowship is based on aggressive exclusion as a pin of pride. To be trve to metal is not inherently bad or wrong, there’s something truly gnostic about metal belonging and that’s OK – but this narrative has gone awry precisely because trveness is hijacked by the wrong people. If hatred led to some kind of transformation, I would be ok to keep the affect of hate, but it does not do that.
So we don’t need to point to the “wrong people,” they do it themselves. All we say with BMR is really fuck off, quite simply. “Trve metalheads” do not fight over race or gender or sexuality, they fight for justice, independence, and the powerless. A trve metalhead who defines himself as the oppressor of others and beats them is not a revolted revolutionary, this is a textbook example of the historical loser who glorifies his own helplessness and advertises it as some twisted power kink. Black metal and its inspiration from Satan/Lucifer for example is a story about rebellion against the established norms translated into a new timeline of hopes and ideals through music, and to banalize it as excluding non-normative and queer people is a shame.
That said, I don’t mind shaming dickheads, it’s just boring and also a waste of time, but here we are doing it because the fight for justice and transformation is always already personal. So this is not the same as saying “love thy neighbour,” you can hate them all you want, but if your hatred does not indicate any change in you and your world, then you know you’re probably dealing with a closeted incel.
It’s strange to me how black metal was founded as a wild, rebellious genre but now has arguably the worst gatekeeping problem in metal. Why do you think trve black metal fans and musicians are so defensive of the genre’s roots?
DL: Which roots though? Venom’s Black Metal came out in 1982, and there’s a tendency to let the Scandinavian second wave hijack the entire genre, musically, aesthetically, and ideologically. Yet even within the second wave there was a lot of creativity and divergence from what would become boilerplate black metal, and that’s the side we want to focus on: the carnivalesque BM of Ulver, Arcturus, Dødheimsgard, Sigh, for example. In many ways our book is a fuller (or trver) history of BM, bringing back that which has too often been written out of the so-called official narrative. In the 2000s black metal became musically conservative and the growth of NSBM took place, enabling BM to become the metal subgenre most dedicated to attracting Nazis in droves. But black metal has always been a paradox, between the ridiculous and the sublime, the gutter and the stars, conformity and experimentation, and today black metal is arguably more diverse and vibrant than ever, which is why we agree with Svein Egil Hatlevik’s statement that we are now in the “golden age of pluralistic black metal.”
JR: I think, as with any microcosm of culture, when the self-drawn boundaries are threatened or get a little blurry, members get defensive. It’s natural for people to be de-stabilized by change, and sometimes they displace their difficult-to-process emotions outward to those they perceive as a threat to the way of life they’ve idealized and built. Obviously, this is a very smooth-brained way to view the world, and anyone who defines their life through the hatred and misogynistic angles of black metal deserves to be called out [and made fun of, in my opinion].
SP: The gatekeeping fetish can be explained rigorously through social analysis, but long story short, the second wave of BM that attracted and created NSBM wackadoodles coincided with a specific moment in history, where affirmative action and identity politics had the upper hand. Vacuum is a difficult thing to have, and so because of an odd mixture of this highly individualized, romanticized, and dark form of rebellion, which involves a merciless (but often benign) type of aggression, on the one hand, and a certain (not always enjoyable, progressivism notwithstanding) idpol triumphalism, on the other hand, which entails an “I told you so” rhetoric with its practical real life consequences, the genre has attracted shitheads into this vacuum. If our book is deemed divisive, it is because the vacuum space is kind of over. From now on “metal Nazis” will be an oxymoron. Those people should really try to build their own safe space: they are already alone and increasingly isolated.
Do you think the metal scene has made progress in combating sexism and bigotry, particularly regarding NSBM? What have you found encouraging and frustrating about efforts to push back against these ideologies? What can we do better?
DL: I think the scene has definitely made progress, and it’s great to see bands like Employed to Serve, Svalbard, and Venom Prison directly taking on sexism and racism within the scene and beyond, not to mention a host of RABM and antifascist black metal bands like Dawn Ray’d, Woe, Underdark (which Stuart Wain covers in his chapter of our book); now it’s possible to be an openly queer or trans metal artist, in ways that wouldn’t have been possible a decade ago. Boycotting or deplatforming racist artists or abusers in bands is becoming more normalized too: it is healthy that there should be ever more accountability within the scene. The metal press is cottoning on to the fact that young people do care about politics, and do care what political ideas the music they love is transmitting, so I think using metal discourse as a vehicle for talking politics, from gender and race to global warming and alternatives to capitalism can only be a good thing, and we’re glad to do our part in any raising consciousness that we can.
JR: I think we’ve made a fair amount of progress, but over the past few years, Nazis and white supremacists have become more brazen as they’ve basically been given a permission slip to show their true selves. Which makes it more important than ever to rip their platforms away from them. I am hugely frustrated by the constant vigilance one has to practice these days: if you discover a new band, you have to Google them first to make sure they don’t have nefarious politics. It’s basically a joke amongst my friends now that you might as well just listen to Bolt Thrower all the time because they’re a known and safe entity. What I think we can do better is be more vigilant. I think Bandcamp does a pretty good job of stamping out that shit, but what about other large streaming services? I feel like anything that’s even remotely Nazi should be filtered out and removed. These bands will continue to pop up all the time, but if they are just screaming into a void [like, say, in their bedroom] where no one can hear them? Good.
SP: The volume itself tells what we can do better. We can glitter and sink into depression at the same time; we can darken our spaces and rejoice, as often happens; black metal is probably the bipolar musical genre par excellence, so the duality between hypo- and hypermania is nothing surprising, and that’s OK. We’ve had one half of the formula, and now that the book is to be released we know that here “better” means let a hundred rainbows shine, to paraphrase Mao (saying this only to make NSBMs lose their mind).
What’s your AOTY for 2021 (so far)?
DL: Pupil Slicer – Mirrors is a good one: brutal and punishing mathgrind.
JR: Probably the new Cerebral Rot – Excretion of Mortality. Now that I just typed that out, I realized the album title means literally shitting yourself to death and I appreciate it that much more.
SP: The Body – I’ve Seen All I Need to See: a glorious return to a more robust form of genreless desperation.
What album inspired you the most, or did you listen to the most, while working on Black Metal Rainbows?
DL: Dødheimsgard – 666 International.
JR: Honestly, probably the massive classic rock playlist I’ve amassed on Spotify over the past eight years. There’s something comforting about music you know and love that can kind of sink into the background while you’re designing.
SP: Sunn O))) & Ulver – Terrestrials.
What’s your favorite album of all time?
DL: Impossible question, but Mr. Bungle’s Disco Volante is definitely up there.
JR: This is still an impossible question, but probably a toss-up between Black Sabbath – Paranoid and Metallica – Ride the Lightning.
SP: I’ll have to disappoint, but it’s not metal: Coil’s Musick to Play in the Dark Vols. 1 & 2.
Eden’s Top Five
- Christian Cosentino – Lawn
I am tired of writing about this album exactly up until the very first second that it plays in my ear. This album has something too few black metal albums have today and that is joy. My favorite type of black metal (which you can find more of down this list) is black metal that is bursting with the fierce, savage, unstoppable fire that should burn in all of our hearts: the love of life and of art. Christian Cosentino’s Lawn is bursting with that fire at every seam and that is the fire that gives it is unusual, addictive, bright color palette and the sensation that everything is about to fly off the wheel and collapse at any moment. But it doesn’t. It really doesn’t and the end result is black metal which feels vital and important.
- Spectral Lore – Ετερόφωτος
If we’re talking about vitality and love for art in black metal, then one need not go further astray than Spectral Lore. The project has been pumping out innovative, extremely well crafted, and passionate black metal for years now and Ετερόφωτος (I have to copy-paste that every single time, won’t someone think of the bloggers?) is no different. In fact, it is different in the sense that it returns to the more raw, aggressive, and in your face style of the project’s earlier releases. However, there’s nothing conservative about the release; the old sound is thrust head-first into current production techniques, Spectral Lore’s dalliance with ambience and dungeon synth. As a result, the album feels both essential and true to its source.
- Ferriterium – Calvaire
Sometimes, that fire and passion that I reference above comes out as aggression. This can be seen as black metal’s two sided coin; joy is both a warm flame keep us company at night but also a roaring bonfire which screams into that same darkness. For Ferriterium that is certainly the case, as Calvaire is chock full of buzz-saw riffs, abrasive vocals which rail against the darkness of life, and a complete and total dedication to black metal’s more furious side. This is one of those albums that I haven’t played all that much this year because you need to be in a very specific mood for it. But if you’re in that mood, namely one which includes the gamut of emotions which runs between anger, frustration, and determination to triumph, there’s nothing quite like it. Calvaire is one of 2021’s most moving, convincing, and earnest albums, in black metal and out of it.
- Morke – We Are The River
Morke’s We Are the River is the main representative of the American, atmospheric, nature-bound type of black metal on this year’s list. The project’s often-fragile, always-powerful brand of black metal carries out one of black metal’s common maneuvers with expert agility. Namely, the tying of personal fulfillment and the will to freedom with the aspirations and beauty of the natural which lies around us. The music then becomes something that is both worship (in the sense that it looks out at the world beyond it with awe) and internal work (in the sense that it articulates the desires and fears of the person creating it). Atmospheric black metal is the perfect backdrop for this kind of effort, as the music channels both the contemplative and determined, passionate sides of the genre. Majestic might be an overused adjective in the fields of art but it certainly fits this release.
- Wreche – All my dreams came true
Lastly for the top half of this list we have one of the more difficult and intense albums of the year, in black metal or outside of it. When I reviewed Wreche’s All my dreams came true, I mentioned how it attempted to dirty up the sacral and purify the corporeal. As I’ve listened more and more to the album, I’ve also detected the trauma that sits at the center of this effort, torn between the desire to let it transcend into something beyond us and to revel in its depressive muck. The music perfectly encapsulates this, channeling beautiful pianos and synths alongside cold, abrasive vocals and harrowing guitars. Very few albums are emotionally taxing but this is one of them, should you try to earnestly listen to it and feel the contradictory spectrum of emotions it is trying to convey to you.
Extra Goodness: Givre – Le Pressoir mystique
Le Pressoir mystique is of the type of black metal that I don’t normally like. It leans heavily on the lo-fi production that has accompanied the genre since its inception, using it to amplify the abrasive and aggressive elements of that sound. I usually find that style too much for me, as I’d prefer to clearly hear what the artist is trying to convey to me. However, like last year’s Sainte Marie des Loups release, Funérailles de Feu, something about how Givre use the muddy production on their album cut through the noise (heh) for me. To be clear, the albums are nothing alike; Le Pressoir mystique is a lot less angry and brutal than Feu, more focused on the varieties of the religious experience and the agony that’s involved in it.
And yet, they’re also sort of alike in that the raw production serves a purpose other than style. For Feu, it turns the album’s breakneck riffs into a charging wall of blades, a declaration of war. For Givre, the undulating feedback of the guitars and the box-y bass are all about an atmosphere, a certain sense of the distorted or the emotionally distraught. When you put their sound together with the anguished, languishing timbre of the vocals, you get the sensation of pain being expressed and, perhaps, cleansed with the music you’re listening to. Add in macabre synths and time signatures (their lilt can be heard especially on “Blanche biche”, the album’s third track) and you have the sort of medieval, “tainted” vibe that Givre are going for.
The end result is a very effective album, one which sweeps you up in music that seems to come from everywhere because the mix does not constrain it, even when it “should”. Givre’s black metal feels diffuse, all-encompassing, ever-present, perhaps like the divine suffering that it references in its track names, cover art, and title. Whether that is the aim or not, the end result is an album that’s quickly rocketed up my list of favorite albums from 2021 because it always makes me feel a very specific and unique way when I listen to it.
Jonathan’s Top Five
- Mare Cognitum – Solar Paroxysm
I haven’t really fallen in love with a Mare Cognitum record up until last year. Everything I’ve heard from the one-man wrecking ball has been great, but I haven’t found myself returning much to The Sea That Has Become Known or Luminiferous Aether in particular. But last year brought us the project’s collaborative effort with Spectral Lore, Wanderers: Astrology of the Nine, and that record has quickly grown into one of my absolute favorite black metal records in recent memory. Solar Paroxysm continues along the interstellar trajectory established in Wanderers, bringing to bear in my mind Mare Cognitum’s most aggressive and robust songwriting to date. The performances are incredible, and each track feels like an intergalactic freight train barreling into your ear holes with gorgeous and manic precision. Far and away my favorite black metal release of the year so far.
- Panopticon – …And Again Into the Light
It will become apparent if you read through our Kvlt Kolvmn back catalog that I have a soft spot in my darkened heart for black metal that focuses on the personal and internal. Black metal has a penchant toward a hyped-up version of toxic masculinity, where blind rage blasted out toward scattershot targets is only acceptable medium of emotional expression and range. Panopticon‘s latest record flies in the face of this convention to stirring, deeply resonant effect. Just read the liner notes on Bandcamp and you’ll get a clear picture of what Austin Lunn’s intentions behind the album are. Thematically this may be Panopticon’s most personal and moving record, while the music is no less captivating. Whereas the project’s last record split the black metal and acoustic/folk vibes into two separate halves, here all of the disparate sounds are blended into one cohesive whole and it sounds amazing. One of my favorite Panopticon records with a deeply personal message.
- Kekht Arakh – Pale Swordsman
Yup, back to the feels again. Kekht Arakh absolutely blew me away with Pale Swordsman. It feels like a mix of late first wave ugliness with the melody and emotional heft of an 80s fantasy epic. Crying Orc approaches black metal with a level of emotional vulnerability that is borderline uncomfortable, which is one of many reasons the album sticks out. The black metal oriented tracks are lo-fi and appropriately brittle, feeling both dramatic and intense. But the melodic tinges apparent throughout the record are a highlight that elevates the record outside of its first wave worship confines and into something grander. These moments, often where the black metal aspect falls away entirely, prove to be some of the best on the record, and make this record one of the year’s most unique and enjoyable listens. Can’t get enough.
- Malist – Karst Relict
Black metal concept albums aren’t incredibly common nowadays, so it’s always a cause for celebration when we get one. Malist decided to go whole hog by writing a trilogy of records with an extremely interesting and engaging narrative (I’ll let you discover it for yourselves), encapsulated in some incredible melodic black metal. Rather than simply being a record that’s good on its own without the narrative (which it certainly is), the entire listening experience is enhanced by the concept and story behind the record. I strongly suggest you give the first two entries in the trilogy a listen before you give Karst Relict a spin, but however you choose to dive in Malist’s melodic black metal stylings won’t disappoint.
5. Thy Catafalque – Vadak
Meta is one of my favorite extreme metal albums that I have heard since its release. It was also my first Thy Catafalque record, which catapulted the project to the top of my must-listen list each time a new release dropped. Unfortunately, while Geometria and much of Naiv were excellent, neither captured my attention quite like Meta. While it may still be one of the project’s distinct high point, Vadak is quickly becoming its equal. More diverse, lush, and at times ambitious than Meta, this latest release from Thy Catafalque is an absolutely fantastic collection of uniformly interesting and deeply satisfying tracks. Unlike the project’s previous two releases, the blend of orchestral, melodic, and extreme elements is pitch perfect, letting each aspect of the recording breathe and function as part of a seamless whole. It truly is an amazing record, and the only reason it sits in this spot is due to my limited time with it. Give it a few more months and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this record take the whole thing.
Scott’s Top 5
1. Victory Over the Sun – Nowherer
Sometimes I question whether my picks for Kvlt Kolvmn skew too far outside the genre’s nexus. I assume the average black metal fan is more at home with traditional takes on the style than the experimental releases that often catch my ear. But in response to this thought, a louder inner monologue scolds this tepid line of thinking. The beauty of black metal is its ability to bend in seemingly any direction yet still maintain the essence of the genre. That’s exactly why Nowherer is my top black metal release of 2021 thus far, a position that will be difficult for another album to wrestle away. Victory Over the Sun has certainly never held a pure black metal label, but Nowherer sees Vivian Tylinska adding even more layers to her sound. A heightened focus on microtonality and some doomy compositions headline one of the most inventive and downright excellent black metal records of the year.
2. Mare Cognitum – Solar Paroxysm
Every year with every genre, there are albums that simply cannot be denied. It’s not a matter of whether fans enjoy it, but rather the degree to which they appreciate what the artist has added to the stylistic cannon. While Nowherer is my comfortable #1 pick, Solar Paroxysm is a worthy second that hits on everything I love about black metal at its core. This is peak atmospheric and melodic black metal with a cosmic twist; what’s not to love?
3. Noctule – Wretched Abyss
I said it last month, and I’ll say it again: Serena Cherry from Svalbard writing a black metal album about Skyrim? Sign me the fuck up. The only thing that excites me more than Wretched Abyss is the prospect of watching Serena grow Noctule into a black metal tour de force. If you’re at all a fan of melodic black metal, blackened (post-)hardcore, or the combination of the two, then this is required listening from the year’s crop of black metal releases.
4. Lycopolis – The Procession
This is one of those surprise releases I look forward to discovering every year. Nile has made Egyptian influences in metal old hat at this point. But what about a metal band actually from Egypt that uses influences from their home country as an accent rather than the main event? It’s so easy for bands to hide behind the novelty of world music influences, which is why I appreciate Lycopolis focusing on crafting great black metal as their primary mission. Their take on the genre is raw and angry, with room for subtle notes of post-punk and the aforementioned Egyptian themes incorporated along the way.
5. Christian Cosentino – Lawn
Eden already outlined the many reasons you should be excited about Lawn, so I’ll keep this brief. What sounded like an interesting but risky premise has cemented itself as one of the best black metal releases of the year, thanks to some flawless arrangements and execution from Christian Cosentino. Imagine excellent symphonic black metal, swap out the symphonics for orchestral flourishes, and you have a triumphant, powerful display of melodic black metal at its finest.
Ferriterium – Calvaire
Grey Aura – Zwart Vierkant
Malakhim – Theion
Plasmodium – Towers of Silence
Sundrowned – Become Ethereal