The year of our infernal underlords 2022 is beyond its halfway point. It’s time to break it down through a quick jaunt of our favorite releases of both last month and the year at large thus far. Oh yeah, baby. It’s Kvlt Kolvmn. Let’s go.
As always, this column is a culmination of our individual favorites at the year’s halfway point. There will undoubtedly be changes to our year-end lists as more records hit our eardrums (and previously released material rises to prominence), but below we present you with a brief encapsulation of the year to date. Spoiler alert: 2022 slaps.
Be sure to leave us your favorite black metal-adjacent records of the year thus far in the comments.
Swampborn – Beyond Ratio
Subtlety is not exactly the first adjective you associate with black metal and there’s a good reason for that. Black metal, at its core, is a gothic, Romantic genre which means (among other things) that it emphasizes the dramatic, whether that be a sort of jubilance or a darker, frost-bitten melancholy. However, re-creating the flamboyant with subtle means is perhaps the hallmark of great black metal; after all, we’ve had four decades of black metal by now, and we’ve heard not just all of the direct approaches to the majesty of black metal but also plenty of innovations and different avenues to accomplish it. Which is why subtlety is now so necessary to create truly fresh and outstanding works fo black metal, which Swampborn’s Beyond Ratio certainly is.
It’s easy to sample this aforementioned subtlety for yourself; just hit play on the album and check out the opening track, “Entropie”. Specifically, listening for those faintly haunting synths that usher in the track’s middle passage. They work beautifully with the aggressive, and quite groovy, main riff of the track, turning it into something much more fragile and faintly sinister with their tones. Later on in the track, booming, electronic drums accompany the synths, which turn into much more pronounced and ambient melodic accompaniment, while the track’s convoluted solo unfurls itself across your ears. The sensation is akin to none, communicating a sort of grandiose madness and disorientation that then lingers in the “background” of the track until the moment it ends.
The album is filled with such hauntings, utilizing blistering guitars, pronounced synths, and unusual combinations thereof with the band’s groove section to create one of the more mesmerizing albums of 2022, within black metal and out of it. Beyond Ratio is a whirling pit of flailing limbs, gathering up in their grasp snatches of otherworldly music. It achieves the majestic flair of black metal with supposedly straight-forward means (that is, the overall track structures and guitar riffs) while simultaneously embellishing it with original and fascinating pieces of musical insight.
Best of the Rest
Esoctrilihum – Consecration of the Spiritüs Flesh
Sometimes black metal compels you with symphonic epicosity. Sometimes it wows you with genre-bending twists and turns. Sometimes it gives you all the crackling, barely legible second wave nostalgia feels your black heart can handle. Sometimes it smashes your face. French one-man powerhouse has in turns accomplished nearly all of these feats over its brief yet rich history, but the project’s seventh full-length offering in five years brings a laser focus to audio aggression that is so concentrated that it feels like it could collapse major cities. Consecration of the Spiritüs Flesh is without question the most utterly punishing and relentless music the project has yet created, and is also far and away my favorite of its releases. It’s a truly stunning achievement.
In a similar vein to last year’s fantastic Plebeian Grandstand record, Consecration delivers a salvo of experimental black metal that feels as unexpected in tone as it is borderline perfect in execution. Esoctrilihum is known for its excessively long, sonically expansive and diverse records that push both boundaries and patience. While I’ve enjoyed each of the project’s releases up to this point, one-man wrecking crew Asthâghul’s decision to economize his songwriting process to a lean, mean 40 minutes pays enormous dividends here, resulting in the project’s shortest and punchiest release by far. His increasingly potent ability to self-edit is one of this record’s most impactful features, allowing for Consecration to deliver the most straightforward and meaty manifestation of Asthâghul’s beautifully tortured aesthetic to date.
But such emphasis in relative brevity in no way shorts Asthâghul’s ability to continue experimenting with and pushing the boundaries of black metal. Here, the experimentation is more subtle, buried deep within the core of a manically aggressive black metal maelstrom rearing its head more and more clearly on repeat listens. Beneath the insane blast beats and riff-heavy rage, the project’s forward-thinking tendencies simmer and writhe in tracks like “Thertrh” and “Sydtg”, boasting robust melodic and instrumentally diverse sections that complement the aggression perfectly. But for every dalliance into beautiful melody there’s a thoroughly punishing section riding atop or waiting just behind, always bringing the listener back to the hell that awaits. It’s a balance that is struck flawlessly throughout the record, feeling more like a change in emphasis than a full-scale sonic redirection. Everything you love about Esoctrilihum is still here, just cranked to the absolute extent of 11.
Not gonna lie, Consecration of the Spiritüs Flesh is a tough listen, but in all the right ways. It’s unrelenting emphasis on chaotic, hyper aggressive avant-garde black metal only serves to further highlight the album’s more melodic experimentations, resulting in a sequence of tracks that feels as balanced as it does punishing. It’s a genuinely incredible feat of songwriting maturity and technical execution that once again proves Asthâghul is a mad genius with a whole lot to say. Let’s hope to our infernal underlords that his musical well of tortured magnificence remains full for many years to come.
Krallice – Psychagogue
The mile-long discography of New York experimental black metal act Krallice has now officially grown by two all-time greats this year alone. Their tenth full-length Crystalline Exhaustion dropped back in January as an early surprise to us all and garnered widespread acclaim in the process. That record saw the band shaking things up with many of its members swapping instruments around, which surely helped the band unlock some new creative impulses and expression. The end result of the experiment felt fresh for Krallice, whose well-established weirdo black metal was accentuated by ornate, glassy keyboards.
Psychagogue plays around yet again with this lineup of Mick Barr on bass, Colin Marston on keys and additional percussion, Nick McMaster on guitar, and Lev Weinstein holding down the drums. It doesn’t necessarily stray that far musically from what we’ve already heard this year, but small choices made by Marston’s keyboard tones and the band allowing more distinct forms to appear (non-Euclidean as they may be) help to set this record apart from its predecessor.
While Psychagogue is firmly an atmospheric black metal record, it often feels a touch more rhythmically structural and epic in tone compared to the cool and icy atmospheres of its predecessor, with the exception of the blurry and aptly titled “Deliberate Fog”. The 13-minute “Arrokoth Trireme” for example feels strangely orchestral and screams of war. The title track leans heavily on some technically robust drum performances under angular avant garde guitars, bringing to mind the likes of Ad Nauseam. Finale “Reprisals of Destiny” initially feels brutal and filthy, dipping more into their dissonant death metal side a la Mass Cathexis or Ygg Hurr before it dissolves into what amounts to a black metal orchestration of a horror soundtrack, with synth choirs accentuating the album’s fatal end.
This collection of four songs doesn’t feel nearly as focused and intentional as Crystalline Exhaustion, but you can nevertheless trust Krallice to bring thoughtful, progressive, and engaging black metal to the table. I have no insights into the creation of Psychagogue, but if it was no more than a purge coming off the end of the Crystalline Exhaustion sessions, it’s still firmly in the upper half of the band’s prolific discography.
White Ward – False Light
I stared at the dark ceiling on a hot summer night back in 2019, listening with an uneasy but rapt level of attention as “Dead Heart Confession” unraveled sinisterly in my ears. It was my first playthrough of White Ward’s magnificent sophomore effort Love Exchange Failure, and I distinctly remember hitting replay twice as that particular song drew to a powerful close. The moments where a particular moment or track in a record floors you so profoundly that you simply can’t get through them without repeat listens are few and far between, but they’re immensely special when they occur. I bring this up because the next time I had a moment so profound was last month, when I heard “Phoenix” from the band’s brilliant third full-length record False Light for the first time. It’s special. This band is special. This record is special.
Diving into the political tumult underway in Ukraine is not something I have the energy to expand upon. You know. It’s bad. The music coming out of this country currently feels like it has a different weight attached to it, and False Light is a 20 ton stone barreling down a mountain. To say that the band have with this record cemented their legacy as one of the best extreme metal bands on the planet would be a gross understatement. False Light is simply sensational through and through, doubling down on the elements that make the band so unique and special in the genres they occupy while not being afraid to infuse some new elements into the mix. Sax and tremolo-picked guitar leads fly willy nilly as is tradition, but long stretches of acoustic guitar work and deeply sung clean vocals like those found in “Salt Paradise” add a dynamic heft to the proceedings that make False Light stand out in the band’s discography. There’s also (to my ears at least) an increased emphasis of long-form guitar solos, such as the magnificent finale of “Silence Circles”, which add an additional strain of emotional heft to the proceedings. There’s old, there’s new, and it’s all good.
I could truly spend hours writing about how incredible this record is. If you’ve yet to give it a listen, I cannot recommend that you do so highly enough. White Ward have doubled down on the elements that make them such a unique property but have not lost sight of the sense of melodic adventure that keeps their albums from feeling repetitious. False Light is a truly spectacular and mesmerizing album that solidifies White Ward’s place among metal’s most forward-thinking and elite artists. A sensational, emotionally resonant release.
Individual Mid-year Lists
5. Kvaen – The Great Below
The trvest of the trve don’t like thinking of black metal as a genre capable of fun. Which is in and of itself kind of hilarious, as some of the genre’s principal second wave staples (primarily Darkthrone and Immortal) have reveled in tongue-in-cheek tomfoolery for literal decades. But Kvaen isn’t worried about such judgments, making for the second time in three years a black metal record that is completely and stupendously rad. These tracks are catchy and fun as all hell, unleashing riff after riff with a technical precision and thrashy sense of campy fun that most black metal bands could only dream of achieving. Kvaen is for real, here to stay, and unleashing some of the best and most thoroughly enjoyable black metal in the business.
4. Blut Aus Nord – Disharmonium – Undreamable Abysses
After nearly three decades of existence and at least five certified classic records in the black metal arena, one might expect a band to rest on their laurels, surveying the landscape they helped create with grim satisfaction. But such is not the will and testament of Blut Aus Nord. Instead, this year they chose to unleash Disharmonium, a spiritual and practical successor to 2019’s Hallucinogen that eclipses that psych-infused record in nearly every measurable metric. Foreboding, atmospheric, extremely intense and musically sensational, Disharmonium is the most complete and powerful statement the band have released in a decade, and one of their most potent releases overall. Sensational stuff.
3. White Ward – False Light
Not much more I can say here. Record is spellbinding.
2. Esoctrilihum – Consecration of the Spiritüs Flesh
1. Swampborn – Beyond Ratio
Eden covered this far better than I ever could above, but damn is this record incredible. I don’t think there’s a release in 2022 that I’ve listened to more times than Swampborn’s utterly spectacular debut Beyond Ratio. To put it plainly, this record fundamentally slaps. Blending second wave and post-black metal aesthetics seamlessly with and Igorrr-esque sense of madness, tracks like “Aspiration a L’absolu” and “Sleepingstatic” infuse manic aggression with jazz-ensemble-at-a-carnival vibes that feel utterly unique in the black metal sphere. This is music that is as inspiring creatively as it is effective in its execution. The songwriting is impeccable, with an astonishing number of earworm riffs that seep into the brain and find easy root. It’s a memorable, dense, magnificent collection of tracks that after at least two dozen listens hasn’t come close to becoming stale. Wouldn’t be surprised if this record didn’t budge from its current place on my end-of-year top 10. An instant classic.
5. Devil Master – Ecstasies Of Never Ending Night
Perhaps an unlikely record to wind up on a black metal best-of list, but Devil Master are just pure fun with the way they blend black metal and hardcore punk. There’s a reason that Devil Master were personally picked by Gerard Way to open up My Chemical Romance shows this year. Ecstasies of Never Ending Night is far too slept on this year, given its dancy black n’ roll styling that could replace the void left by Nachtmystium if it were only just a little bit weirder.
4. Krallice – Crystalline Exhaustion
What black metal retrospective would be complete without Krallice? They’re reliable and prolific, sure, but as deep in their discography as we are, they’re putting out some of the best material of their career. Crystalline Exhaustion’s experimentations with personnel and interesting use of synthesizers elevate the record above your standard atmospheric black metal, but then again, that’s Krallice for you.
3. Blut Aus Nord – Disharmonium – Undreamable Abysses
Avant garde black metal juggernauts Blut Aus Nord continue the psychedelic experimentations set forth on 2019’s Hallucinogen, but with greater effect. I’ve said this several times across Heavy Blog platforms, but this record is 45 minutes of intense ethereal whooshing, and if you’re down with that, you’ll love Disharmonium. It’s Lovecraftian and almost cartoonishly spooky, in the best ways.
2. Luminous Vault – Animate the Emptiness
The blend of black metal, industrial, and post-punk on Animate the Emptiness is so deeply satisfying that it leaps towards the top despite how tentative one might feel this record’s relationship to black metal actually is. This experimental outfit made up of members of Artificial Brain and Bloodmist have crafted one of the most creative records I’ve heard all year with this one.
1. White Ward – False Light
What can I say about this record that I haven’t already? These Ukrainian experimentalists are easily my favorite black metal band around today, and through hard times and insurmountable expectations, they’ve delivered a progressive and avant garde masterpiece with False Light. Black metal, dark jazz, post-punk, and groove metal all play a part here, and might just eclipse Love Exchange Failure as their best.
Eden’s Picks From Beyond the Void of Space and Time
5. Krallice – Crystalline Exhaustion
I’m not this blog’s biggest Krallice fan but god damn, do I love Crystalline Exhaustion. It feels more immediate, necessary, and tightly wound than any of their previous releases and, for some reason, that’s what I need them to sound like. Crystalline Exhaustion has exactly zero waste to it, taking the already effective and recognizable Krallice sound and cranking it up to eleven. Also, those synths are absolutely killer.
4. Nechochwen – Kanawha Black
This is this year’s pick for the more atmospheric and progressive side of black metal. Blending fierce and dynamic riffs, fantastic drums (no, really; fantastic), and fera and cleanl vocals, Kanawha Black is an album that knows exactly what it sets out to accomplish and then does just that. Throw in acoustic passages, intricate track structures, and just an overall epic tone to everything and you’ve got one of black metal’s more moving and gripping albums in 2022.
3. Tyrannus – Unslayable
Sometimes, you want to put a hand on the exposed wire that is black metal and just feel that metallic energy surge through your bones. For those times, you have Tyrannus’ Unslayable, a furious album that does not let up for one second. In its simplicity, it hides plenty of feel and love for the genre, pumping those into sounding the absolute most aggressive, abrasive, and “fuck you” black metal as possible. This is black metal cognizant and welcoming of its punk roots and it fucking rules.
2. Swampborn – Beyond Ratio
From my own review above: “a whirling pit of flailing limbs, gathering up in their grasp snatches of otherworldly music”. Enough said.
1. Doldrum – The Knocking, Or The Story of the Sound that Preceded Their Disappearance
As you might have noticed from this list and from my other writings on black metal, I like the genre to sound weird, oppressive, haunted, claustrophobic, and unashamed about its own melodrama. All of those things describe Doldrum’s release to a tee: the vocals sound like they’re being snatched from some chthonic abyss of pain. The guitars writhe like snakes in a damp pit. The drums churn like so many blind moles eating away at the earth. This album sounds like (and is about) being abducted by creatures from the beyond. Madness! Pain! Release! Fury! Will! It has it all.