Winter has come. Temps have dropped precipitously. The frost rules the night. Oh yeah. It’s black metal season.
Except for me, because I live in Denver and it was 75 fucking degrees yesterday. We’re all going to hell in a handbasket. But Kvlt Kolvmn is here to make the descent into extinction more bearable. Black metal dropped several bombs in the latter part of 2021, with almost all of them bringing enough quality to potentially crack my top 10. It was an amazing year which has only accelerated in excellence with the changing of seasons.
We look forward to bringing you our end-of-year analysis and picks in the coming months. In the meantime, feast on the glorious storm of tremolo-picked insanity that November and December so bountifully provided.
vvilderness – As Above, So Below (atmospheric/folk black metal)
In the fields of atmospheric black metal, the role of the somber and the melancholy is usually reserved for a backing role. When you let those darker themes take central place, you usually cross over into the realms of depressive black metal, so those bands who don’t want to go that far usually employ melancholy as a foil, a contrast for the black metal heaviness at the core of the album. Which is great; that contrast is a damn good way of creating engaging music. But there are a few artists out there who are able to pull off a sort of balancing act akin to rope walking. They are able to deepen the more haunting and depressingly somber sounds in their music while staying firmly within the confines of atmospheric black metal. Think Exulansis or Thrawsunblat. And also, think vvilderness.
It has, admittedly, taken me a while to get onboard the vvilderness hype train. Back in 2017, their Devour the Sun was lauded by many of my friends and fellow writers but, while I certainly enjoyed the album, I felt like there was something in it that was missing. It rang a bit hollow to my ears. But gladly, whatever it was that I found lacking has been completely repaired or added on As Above, So Below, the one person project’s latest release. Most of all, the folk elements of the vvilderness sound have been fully fleshed out and deepend, evoking that deep melancholy that I cited above. It’s hard to overstate how beautiful the undulating, resonant string instruments employed in these passages sound. You can hear it on more “interlude” tracks, like opener “Our Souls Bear the Weight of the Stars” but also smack dab in the middle of the more aggressive, scorching tracks like the following “Grey and Gold”.
On that track you can also hear how the project never crosses into that sphere of depressive black metal by keeping the metal itself upbeat, aggressive and fast. Especially listen to around the four minute mark, as the hurdy-gurdy pins the riff from below with a boisterous energy the causes the whole sound to become buoyant and evocative. This is also true for the rest of the instrumentation, the guitars and drums never giving way to the lethargy that we might imagine the slower, more contemplative parts of the album might confer on the rest of it. The end result of all of this is atmospheric black metal that remains incredibly engaging, turning “Grey and Gold” into an epic track even though it is relatively short at six minutes and forty one seconds. There’s something more about the track, contributed to both by the quieter passage in its middle and the abrasive, heavy riffs which make up the rest of it.
The entire album simply sings with this tightly maintained and crafted balance between deep, rich melodies overflowing with introspection and winter’s chill and epic, monstrously ambitious riffs which conjure mountain peaks and sweeping vistas. This makes As Above, So Below one of the richer black metal releases this year, containing multitudes of build-up, release, coiled potential, and explosive crescendo.
Best of the Rest
Aquilus – Bellum I (symphonic/folk black metal)
Griseus is one of those records that fundamentally changed my perception of a genre’s capabilities. Aquilus’ masterpiece of symphonic and folk-tinged black metal reshaped my perception of what this type of music could be, and I still listen to it regularly. Sure, there are plenty of other black metal bands who have done critical work in pioneering this style (Emperor chief among them), but none have captured my mind as vividly. So the hype was real as Aquilus’ long-awaited follow-up to his debut went from hope to reality. I was very skeptical whether Bellum I could live up to its titanic predecessor, and I’m pleased to report that it does. In spades.
The first of a planned two-part epic, Bellum I continues the project’s tradition of epic, lengthy, and raucous black metal compositions infused with synthetic and orchestral trappings and topped off by stunningly beautiful key work. On a textural level, there are many similarities in style between Griseus and Bellum I, and while this could be a major gripe for some who’ve waited a decade for this record, Aquilus avoids the possible glaring negatives of this approach through vastly more focused songwriting. If there were one gripe to be had with Griseus, it’s that many of that album’s lengthier numbers had sections that, while beautiful, meandered to the point of confusion. Bellum I is a tighter, much more focused affair that feels like an intentional and successful refinement of the formula that made the project’s name. This more intensive approach to songwriting is evident from the record’s opening moments and continues unabated throughout to towering, often transcendent results.
Album stand-out “Eternal Unrest” provides the best example of the above approach. It’s a track that progresses over its vast 13-minute runtime through what feels like four or five different songs. But each transition, each new beat, feels organically tied to its preceding parts, both in general tone and through the continued use of a central riff that serves as a thread pulling the varied tapestry together into a singular work of art that may stand as the project’s most impressive feat of songwriting to date. But the impressive construction of this track only reaches legendary status because each of these sections sound so damn good. Not one beat feels out of place or unnecessary, and as the track progresses it ages like fine wine, only improving with each new masterfully realized idea.
The entire record holds the above motif, sliding effortlessly between sections of symphonic and black metal rage. Even interludes like “Moon Isabelline” and “Embered Waters” feel both well placed and beautifully realized, providing moments of respite and giving the record space to build atmosphere in the vein of Panopticon, Falls of Rauros, Agalloch, and Alcest. But it’s the symphonic maximalism that helps Aquilus stand apart from its contemporaries. Like Dimmu Borgir in CinemaScope, Bellum I always makes good on its audio worldbuilding, providing moments of catharsis like “Lucille’s Gate” to give the atmosphere of the record a distinct and definitive punch. It is, in its best moments (which are many), utterly exquisite.
Taking black metal in a similarly gorgeous direction to what Wilderun has lately been accomplishing in the world of progressive and atmospheric death metal, Aquilus has once again struck sonic gold with Bellum I. The more I listen to this record, the more deeply I love it. Complex, widescreen, meticulous, passionate, and truly beautiful, it’s everything I hoped the follow-up to Griseus would be and then some. Accomplishing everything it sets out to do and living up to unbearably intense hype, Bellum I is a triumph. I cannot wait to hear the second half of this epic. We may have a symphonic black metal masterpiece on our hands.
Der Weg einer Freiheit – Noktvrn (atmospheric black metal)
Black metal isn’t music that too often moves me to tears. Der Weg einer Freiheit does, though. Over a span of three consecutive records this group of Germans have elicited emotional responses from me that are rare and beautiful. I’m deeply attached to their music, and given the quality of their songwriting I feel no shame in allowing myself to be swept away by their deeply emotive brand of atmospheric and post-black majesty. I will be honest and say it took me a few listens to get into Noktvrn. But sitting out on my front porch one particularly fine winter afternoon giving the record another go, “Finisterre II” hit me like a brick wall. A few moments of swelling tears and awe later, they’d hooked me again. Noktvrn is excellent.
Predicated off of the classical music style of Nocturnes found prevalently in the works of Frédéric Chopin, Noktvrn is more blatantly dark and majestic than the band’s previous work, which is both notable and a welcome point of focus for a band that has mastered the art of emotive black metal. All of these tracks were written in the dead of night, and it shows. There are still plenty of moments of rage-filled black metal blasting (“Monument” and “Morgen” provide ample evidence of that), but the album is most transcendent and impactful in its moments of uniqueness and sublimity. By far it’s most controversial moment is “Immortal”, which simmers and slithers over a simple yet transfixing few notes with enough reverb to make The Edge proud. Uncharacteristic clean vocals are both jarring and welcome, allowing the band to focus on a more raw, unfiltered approach to their typically maximalist sound. That track’s vacillating between minimal, haunting aesthetics and gargantuan black metal blasting makes it stand out among the band’s traditional songwriting focus, and presents a fantastic progression for the band that I would love to see more of.
But it’s tracks like “Gegen das Licht” that pull the old and the new together in ways that make the album feel both anthological and bracingly fresh. Spending full minutes building atmosphere into a sonic explosion is a post-everything staple, but here Der Weg einer Freiheit take this motif to new heights, offering 11 minutes of utterly blissful music that stand among the best they’ve yet written. It’s a glorious sequence filled with power and resonance, eventually leading into the soft, elegiac finale of “Haven”, which brings the whole thing home with crystal thematic clarity. It’s a truly monumental experience.
I don’t know where this album sits in regard to the rest of the band’s catalog, but it’s clear that Noktvrn belongs among the most emotionally resonant and expertly executed black metal records of 2021. The more time I spend with it the more entranced I become with its elegance and adventurousness. Given time, I could see this record eclipsing even their most universally praised efforts. It’s a journey well worth taking again and again to see if it gets there.
Plebeian Grandstand – Rien ne suffit (avant-garde/dissonant black metal)
If you’re also a non-French speaker, allow me to highlight just how apt Rien ne suffit (“nothing is enough”) is as a title for Plebeian Grandstand’s latest maelstrom. We have to be quick, though; the genre pvrists are going to catapult us into the “trve black metal” debate when they hear how the band has further expanded their blackened mathcore formula.
If you’re unfamiliar, records like False Highs, True Lows (2016) combines dissonant black metal with elements from the chaotic hardcore spectrum, a unique pairing on paper that actually makes a ton of sense as you let it tear your face off. Sure, this is more like drowning in the ocean than riding the second wave, but it’s all the ocean to me; suffocating, oppressive salt water that leaves you perpetually unsatiated. Basically, if you’ve enjoyed Serpent Column’s recent output, this should be right up your alley.
After a five-year hiatus, Rien ne suffit shows just how unsatisfied Plebeian Grandstand are with the ways they’ve bastardized the standard black metal formula. All the band’s black-math goodness has now been infused with the world of noise and power electronics, like Full of Hell collaborating with Dodecahedron (Full of Flat Faces?). We’re not talking about full-on Merzbow worship or anything like that, but the band definitely knows when to employ these added elements effectively.
Electronics aside, the band’s core sound is fiercer than ever. The blast beats sounds like they’re trying to hammer to the middle of the earth as quickly as possible; the vocals are as pained and panicked as ever; and the guitars unleash the kind of all-encompassing, unsettling atmospheres you might expect. Put it all together, and you have a late submission for avant-garde metal project of the year.
So Hideous – None But a Pure Heart Can Sing (post-black metal)
I’ll be straight with you. I’d never listened to a damn note of a So Hideous track before None But a Pure Heart Can Sing. I’m not approaching this absolutely gorgeous record from the perspective of a long-time listener, but as a new diehard fan. Which is exactly what I count myself as after having spent significant time with this latest release. Holy shit, folks. This is the real deal.
If someone told me that a band existed that had mastered the post-rock grandeur of Cult of Luna and coupled it with the best aspect of post-black from the likes of Deafheaven, Møl, and Bosse-de-Nage, I’d tell them to shut up because such a thing did not exist. I would be wrong. It does, and it’s fucking glorious. “Souvenir (Echo)” proves that as it kicks the proceedings off with an Imperial Triumphant-esque hum that explodes into a doom-laden blast of crashing guitars and pounding drums, topped by an utterly impassioned vocal performance by Christopher Cruz, who is phenomenal throughout. The track builds tension and grandeur through the gradual insertion of strings and keys, which eventually meld with the tracks fantastic guitar and drum work into a finale that’s truly spellbinding.
That’s only the first track, and it’s not even the best or most interesting one here. “The Emerald Pearl” launches into an opening that feels like what would happen if Ennio Moricone scored a Raymond Chandler film adaptation. But when the guitars eventually kick in and you think the track’s about to send you into post-metal orbit it dives instead headlong into a thoroughly amazing section replete with orchestral strings and horns, growing and growing in intensity until the whole thing finally erupts into post-metal heaven… only to start the whole process over again in shortened fashion with equal effectiveness. All of this happens in the span of just under six minutes, which highlights an effective economy of songwriting which is both rare and welcome.
On that note, the record itself is a brisk half-hour, which feels deeply antithetical to stylistic expectations. But this crisp runtime forces the band to focus intently on every note, every progression, with an economy that is laudable. There isn’t a moment here that feels wasted, making the journey from start-to-finish feel both lightning fast and deeply complex as None But a Pure Heart Can Sing flies to its fantastic conclusion.
If there was one criticism I could levy against So Hideous’ truly spectacular new record, it’s that it isn’t long enough. In a section of the musical world filled to the brim with bloat, this is a rare criticism from me. I could have done with 15-20 more minutes of this, easily. So I suppose I’ll just have to dive deeply into the band’s back catalog and wait impatiently for their next release. None But a Pure Heart Can Sing is a mesmerizing, beautifully realized record that often abuts and often achieves transcendence. If you have yet to give this record a listen I strongly encourage you to change that. I feel confident in stating that it will be among the best half hours you spend this week. Flat-out fantastic.