Greetings, ice lovers. Welcome once again to Kvlt Kolvmn. We’ve got some weird-ass entries for you this month, and can’t wait to get you up to speed on some of our favorite releases of the year.
As is the custom here on KK, we’re interested in bringing you unique and strange sounds from the world of black metal and all its adjacent forms, and July brought forth a particularly pungent stew of filthy releases in some of the less orthodox spaces of the black metal world. In our monthly deep dive into the world of black metal we’ll be highlighting the influence of doom metal on black metal’s evolution, as well as highlighting a few historic and contemporary recommendations for anyone interested in jumping into what has to be the most odd-on-paper pairing in the extreme metal space.
So kick back and enjoy as we walk through the weirdness that continues to be black metal in 2021. Be safe. Take care of one another, and as always…
The Frost: The Odd Couple
Music history is rife with unique pairings. Some have worked exceedingly well (think here about collaborations between the London Symphony Orchestra and a veritable host of rock and roll staples), while others… eh. Here’s looking at you, Metallica and Lou Reed. Blending disparate sounds always seems like a good idea on paper, but it’s apparent for anyone who has spent a significant amount of time curating their own music taste that some monstrous experiments are better left dead on the operating room table. On paper, I would have made this argument against the existence of blackened doom, and frankly there are still times where I feel that it holds weights. Outside of speed metal and funeral doom, it seems to me that there is no less obvious pairing in the extreme metal space than the amalgamation of black and doom metal. Not only are they stylistically oppositional in tempo, general production aesthetic, and style of performance, they very rarely see eye-to-eye on content. Which is why it’s relatively shocking to me that they not only work well together, but have often produced some truly stellar works of metallic art.
There’s just about nothing in the descriptions of either of these genres that should congeal. But congeal they do, and in ways that often result in some classic releases. The Ruins of Beverast is a project that has long been blending funereal textures with a black metal core that feels both ethereal and immediate, vacillating between soul-crushing heaviness and sequences of blast beaten aggression that somehow never feel out of sync with one another. Mizmor is another that I could place in this category, with its blend of folk influence and blackened doom weaving a web of existential delight that’s hard to duplicate. But what specifically about these projects makes them work so well? I think the answer to this lies in a deep understanding of what the core tenets of black and doom metal are, and an ability to exploit those foundations through superb and careful songwriting.
In my estimation, there are a few key areas of resemblance that can tie black and doom metal together, though these threads are often shared by the smallest of margins. The first is a penchant for atmosphere, which I think most avid listeners of either genre would attest to being critical to each. The second is a focus on tempo as a primary component of each chosen sound, and the fact that these two genres sit on polar opposite ends of this spectrum makes for one of the more challenging hurdles to overcome. The final, and potentially most important similarity, between these two titanic styles is melody. While such tuneful songwriting may be buried in a riff that takes three minutes to develop or underneath a swirling squall of blast beats, both of these genres contain a level of melodic tunefulness that is requisite to their core sound. In my estimation, the secret sauce of blackened doom metal is a songwriting style that allows these three elements to coalesce in ways that feel coherent and, somehow, married in an unholy alliance that creates a feeling of seamlessness between the whiplash-inducing fluctuations in pace and tempo. It’s here where a few bands begin to separate themselves from the pack.
To break down what effective blackened doom looks and sounds like, I’ll use two recent examples that highlight how the above strategy can be put into practice. The first, focusing mainly on atmosphere and melody, is in Altars of Grief’s fantastic sophomore album Iris, which has grown on me significantly with the passage of time. Why this album works so well, in my estimation, is its emphasis on the atmospheric qualities that tie black and doom metal together. Their chosen avenue of confluence is through synths, which are a staple in both genres and provide a melodic and atmospheric core that feels eerily familiar for fans of either genre. “Child of Light” is a perfect example of how to make this mixture of sounds hit home, with a melodic and atmospheric structure that feels right at home in either genre. It’s a good example of how to make commonalities into art.
Owlcrusher, however, runs an entirely different blackened doom metal template that focuses primarily on tone and tempo to equally impactful results. The fact that people still sleep on this band’s self-titled album is insane to me, as it currently stands as one of the darkest, filthiest, most unrelentingly punishing blackened doom records I’ve ever heard. It’s this crushing, utterly hopeless vibe that helps Owlcrusher marry black and doom metal beautifully, but with a vastly different approach to Altars of Grief. Rather than focusing on synths or atmospheric alignment as the sole connective tissue regarding disparate style-mashing, Owlcrusher use the inherent differences between tempo structures to create a dissonant sound that is intentionally and effectively unnerving. Like the black metal riffing buried beneath an absolutely titanic central doom riff sequence in “Feeble Preacher”, which creates a feeling of tonal discord that only further accentuates the band’s obvious attempt to use their music as a tool of ugliness and misery. We pick up a similar pattern in the latter half of the album’s title track, which builds a black metal edifice that eventually overtakes the more dominant doom riffs in emphasis, allowing this oppositional tempos and tones to create a hateful edifice that sounds like nothing else in metal.
Thankfully, as both black and doom metal have evolved there are plenty of modern examples of these two genres coalescing together in epically effective fashion (two of which you will find written up below). It’s one of the greatest evidential examples of something that metalheads have known for a long time: genre boundaries are made to be broken. More than perhaps in any other space both in extreme and popular music circles, black metal continues to shine as a bastion of relentless and fearless creativity. If it shouldn’t work, artists the world over are going to try and make it work. More often than not they succeed, and it’s wonderful to see disparate genres blended to create something new and invigorating. Blackened doom, in my mind, is just beginning to hit its popular stride, and I cannot wait to see how many of the titans within this space continue to grow and elevate its sound. For now, we can rest in the fact that there is, indeed, a method to the madness that will only grow with time.
Fugitive Wizard – Obscuri Æternum
Listen, I’ve been around the block a few times at this point. I’ve heard experimental music in droves and have fallen in love with countless amazing albums. All of which to say that it takes a substantial album to really wow me and knock me off my feet and Fugitive Wizard’s Obscuri Æternum has done just that. It really sounds like nothing else. At its core, it is motivated by two “opposing” forces, in scare quotes because the project’s whole raison d’etre is fusing those two forces together to create its unique formula. On one hand, you have blistering, lo-fi black metal. No, more lo-fi than that. More lo-fi. On the other hand, you have a form of synthwave or dungeon synth or electronic ambient, depending on the track.
Sounds weird? It is but it also works to create one of the best albums I’ve heard this year. The secret is, of course, that both sides of the whole work equally well. The lo-fi black metal, guitars churning out walls of feedback and “cold” sound, is anchored around excellently blistering vocals and a real sense for the style’s composition. This is most on display on the opening track, “Eldritch Knights”. But listen for those first hints of electronics, as a synth line plays over select parts of the main riff. But the attention is still kept on that riff and the black metal trappings which accompany it, channeling harsh, brutal derision as only good lo-fi black metal can do.
“Lord’s Grave”, the track which follows it, already unfurls the electronic promise hinted at by the first track. And here’s the important thing: it’s not an interlude. It’s not “just” a few electronic minutes and then the black metal is back. The ambient dungeon synth (reminding me most of Fogweaver in its delicate melodies) is just as fully fleshed out as the lo-fi black metal parts of it. The track evokes this sort of distant nostalgia or morose peace, a melancholy which the genre is so good at creating and channeling. What’s even more impressive is that, in tone, composition, and the overall progression of the track, “Lord’s Grave” manages to be just as immediate and engrossing as its predecessor, leaning on lushness and evocativeness to replace the aggression and speed of the opening track.
The electronics continue doing their thing until “Wayward Barbarian”, where the lo-fi black metal and ambience clash into one amazing track. The entire album is amazing but that track is particularly mind-blowing as it brings together the two parts of the band’s sound into majestic fruition. I’ve written enough words about it, however, and would now like to send you to listen to the album itself. You can start wherever you’d like but “Wayward Barbarian” is as good a starting point as any. Listen to how the smooth, rich electronics compliment the jagged and acerbic riffs that book end them and how, eventually, they meld together once again. It’s safe to say you won’t hear anything quite like it in 2021 and perhaps beyond. Obscuri Æternum is truly a unique piece of work and one that every fan of forward thinking black metal should listen to.
Best of the Rest
Craven Idol – Forked Tongues
When it comes to genre-splicing, I’ve always thought “blackened thrash” was about as seamless as you can get. The two genres have similar lineages and at their purest form still share some key sonic traits: speed, raw attitude, memorable riffs involving tremolos. As someone who latched onto black metal quickly but remained dubious of thrash, Skeletonwitch served as an invaluable bridge between the two realms. I got the wretched vocals and evil atmospheres with the added bonus of thrashy riffs and a blistering pace.
While Craven Idol doesn’t remind me of Skeletonwitch musically, they offer the same kind of perfect blend of what I look for from both thrash and black metal. Depending on your vantage point, Forked Tongues will either sound like one of the most evil thrash records or pissed off black metal records you’ve ever heard. This is Bathory and Hellhammer meeting for a fight to the death under the moonlight, with live music provided by Dark Angel.
I’m usually a “big picture” kind of reviewer in our columns, but I have to zoom in on “Iron Age of Devastation.” What an exceptional blackened thrash banger. Literally everything you might want from the genre is on display at an insanely high level: top tier frosty riff that bleeds with thrashy intensity, rapidfire vocals and percussion, and whining guitar squeals atop it all. If that track alone doesn’t convert you, then maybe the left hand path will always elude your understanding.
Praise the Plague – The Obsidian Gate
In just a few paragraphs, you’ll be reading about a band that blends black and doom metal to atmospheric, primordial perfection. This is not that record, though the “perfection” bit may still apply, just in an entirely different way. Where much doom-adjacent black metal seeks to create a dense, rich atmospheric world replete with hints of folk and sometimes a melodic tinge that feels reminiscent of traditional metal, Praise the Plague are operating on an entirely different black-doom dynamic. Damn this record is DARK. It’s a simmering, glistening pool of ooze and oil at the bottom of a cave, waiting to ensnare all life stupid enough to fully immerse itself in its murky depths. It’s a hitter through and through.
While black and doom metal often make strange bedfellows, it’s hard to deny that when it hits there’s nothing else like it. The juxtaposition of laborious, achingly slow sequences with bracing bursts of audio insanity can often result in something that feels like emotional and auditory whiplash, but when executed with aplomb you get records as scintillating as The Obsidian Gate. Opening track “The Descent” feels reminiscent of both deliberate second-wave worship and a homage to the murky doom of bands like Spectral Voice. Gaerea also comes to mind in the deeply melodic black metal passages that soar throughout the record. The band are at their best when combining these elements into something ethereal and punishing, such as in the opening moments of “Blackening Swarm II” (which has one of the more effective black metal sequences I’ve heard in a good while) or the final moments of “Great Collapse”, which blend black and doom elements with seamless perfection. Praise the Plague should also be commended for putting down some incredibly bracing songwriting, especially considering this is only their second full-length outing. Well done indeed.
If you like your black metal darkly atmospheric, doom-injected, and rife with the kind of chaos that causes internal existential dread, there are few albums that will tickle your fancy more aggressively this year. The blend of darkness, melody, supreme riffage and mesmerizing songwriting has moved this record into my rotation on repeat and I don’t see it leaving anytime soon. Essential listening.
Underdark – Our Bodies Burned Bright on Re-Entry
The UK black metal scene is mostly known for conservatism. This might mean actual, political conservatism, which is sadly still rife in all corners of metal, but also musical conservatism. In that sense, much of the black metal that is produced in the UK today doesn’t really keep up with the advances being made to the genre all over the world, not just in the US. Many would tell you that this is a good thing; that black metal is an inherently conservative or regressive genre of music. In a way, they’re not wrong; those ideals always informed parts of the black metal sound. But to claim that this is the way black metal must be is also wrong. It ignores the inherent spirit of rebellion that keeps black metal alive and what is rebellion if not a force for change, for making things anew?
Luckily, there’s an increasing number of bands working in the UK who agree with us. They insist on moving black metal forward and doing new things with it, whether those new things are musical, lyrical or political. A great example is Underdark, a band which made a few waves in the scene, in the UK and out of it, after releasing a killer single in 2020 titled “Plainsong/With Bruised & Bloodied Feet” and even before that, when they merged as one of the first openly leftist, RABM bands. Now, the group are back with Our Bodies Burned Bright on Re-Entry”, an album that offers an interesting mix of the more traditional ideas and sounds of black metal and more modern, “post” black metal ideas. The end result is an album which hits all the right notes but isn’t afraid to explore around a bit, especially in the vocals department.
The title track is probably one of the best examples of this. It’s first half features ideas that will appeal to any fan of the “basic” black metal formula: the riffs are fast and they hit hard, channeling the sort of frigid abrasiveness that lies at the genre’s core. Above them scorch acerbic vocals, drawing a line of pain and defiance at the top of the mix. The drums are where things slightly depart from the classical sound, with a more muffled mix turning the blastbeats into a satisfying and robust wall of sound. But the true departure can be found on the track’s second half, where a mostly quiet, ambient, and slowly-building-towards-crescendo passage can be found. The vocals return but their timbre has changed; they’re influenced here by DSBM and emo, more openly dripping with anguish and despair. The music follows suit, draping itself in funereal colors to accompany them.
That is, until everything blows up near the end, revisiting the track’s original fury with a vengeance. Everything sounds all that heavier for moving through that quieter passage, performing the feats of contrast for which black metal is best. This is a prime example of how Underdark bolsters their black metal by moving outside of it, creating an exciting and, most of all, effective album that manages to convey its emotions through the often stifled medium of black metal in a powerful way. It’s a promising debut release which, though somewhat raw and exploratory in many ways, delivers on the band’s promise in a very satisfying way. It says “we love black metal and we’re not going anywhere”. Long live the fighters!
Vouna – Atropos
In case you’re not familiar, I’m a pretty big fan of Wolves in the Throne Room. There are few black metal bands that have provided listeners with more arresting, stimulating and consistently excellent atmoblack, so their name attached to anything piques my interest. It’s honestly how I found out about Vouna, a blackened doom project helmed by multi-instrumentalist and composer Yianna Bekris. Her association with the band brought me to her music, but it’s the music itself (performed and written solo) that made me stay. It’s not very often that black and doom metal meet for such an immensely pleasurable experience, but with the project’s sophomore effort, Atropos, we can move Vouna into the small but mighty league of greats who have blended these styles beautifully.
Atropos is, above all else, a deeply atmospheric affair. Heralding back to the WITTR comparisons, the influence of that band on Vouna’s music is start. Take opener “Highest Mountain” as an example, which kicks off with an acoustic passage that feels deeply reminiscent of cascadian sounds from Two Hunters or Thrice Woven. But the beauty of Atropos is that it wears its influences on its sleeve but never attempts to simply replicate its source influences. It’s a beast that unfurls, propulses, and devastates in its own unique and powerful way. That opening track alone is more than enough evidence to bear this point out. Bekris’ ability to effectively vacillate between folk, immense doom riffs, and thoroughly punishing black metal blast beats is simply stunning, creating sonic worlds that feel entirely singular in their sonic familiarity. Bekris is a master crafter of soundscapes, and each new track on the record presents its own kaleidoscope of textures that both add to the unified feel of the record while sticking out in their own right. The militant and crushing “Vanish” brings to mind the work of funeral doom masters like Mournful Congregation or My Dying Bride, melding melody and all-encompassing riffs with a sense of grandeur few can attain in this space. It’s a record of many shapes, all of which are thoroughly captivating.
Atropos is one of my favorite doom and black metal-adjacent records that I’ve heard this year. On her second outing, Bekris has crafted a superb blend of black and doom stylings that never contradict or overwhelm one another, but instead work in seamless unity, creating a sonic space that is as menacing and gorgeous as it is all-consuming. I couldn’t be happier with this record, and I look forward to many late nights staring up at the night sky to its bestial howl.
Mayhem – Atavistic Black Disorder / Kommando
I know recommending Mayhem in a black metal column is about as boring as it gets, so I’ll keep this brief. Atavistic Black Disorder (or side a) is exactly what you might expect from Mayhem post-Chimera. This is fast, menacing, slightly progressive black metal that once again features zany vocals from Attila Csihar. It’s a bit more straight-laced than the relative experimentation we heard on Esoteric Warfare, but it will definitely do the trick if you’re looking for some trve blve black metal.
What really interested me about this release was Kommando (or side b). It’s no secret that hardcore punk influenced black metal, so it’s fun to hear Mayhem offer a metallic spin on some punk classics (apparently recorded during the Daemon sessions). They stay pretty true to the originals by Dead Kennedys, Discharge, Ramones, and Rudimentary Peni, though the production and drumming especially have more punch to them. As far as mini-releases between studio albums go, this should serve as a nice placeholder for fans.