The earth warms, but the internal cold persists. Black metal roars into the summer with some of its most entrancing work so far this year. It’s Kvlt Kolvmn, baby. Winter lives.
Good lord were the last few months a revelation on the black metal front. Multiple albums being presented here will undoubtedly make my overall year-end list, with atmospheric, experimental black metal reigning supreme in a sea of high quality releases. It’s genuinely alarming to me how much quality 2023 has seen in this genre so far, and our mid- and end-of-year lists are going to be pretty tough to create. What a wonderful problem to have.
I’m utterly confident that you’ll find something to enjoy here. Let us know your favorites in the comments over on our Facebook page. Stay frosty, friends.
Dissolve Patterns - Dissolve Patterns
Dissolve Patterns is one of those albums I could fit into multiple columns, partly because it is an intricate and ambitious release and partly because it is a sprawling one. At the core of this release is a sound very much like its cover art: cold and unfurling out into the void. It’s tempting to call parts of it funereal doom, as they unspool slowly and with extreme melancholy. But when the starfire explodes at the center of these negative spaces, it is decidedly frigid and tinged with black metal, abrasive screams mingling with furious drums and tremolo-assembled guitar lines. The thing is, if you come to this release searching for “just” these moments of explosive catharsis, you will be sorely disappointed.
Dissolve Patterns is a whole different kind of release. Usually, bands tend to either create a balance between the ambient and heavy parts of their sound or prefer the heavier compositions, relegating the quieter moments to interludes. But here, the balance is completely skewed in favor of the droning, slowly building, atmospheric and beguiling empty musical spaces that are created with meticulous care. The outlier is the heavier segments which, of course, makes them all that heavier. The last track, the enigmatically titled “IIII” (enigmatic because it is the fifth track on this release, the count having skipped over the nadir of the third track, titled “-”) might be the best example as to how this happens.
Most of this track is an elusive guitar line, winding its way through echoing drums and haunting silence. But right after its middle, the track explodes into black metal fury, before once again letting that guitar line return. Except this time it’s even more “twisted” and psychedelic, carrying a tinge of the malice generated during the earlier explosion. This tinge, this residue of power, is then built on once again and the outro of the track rises from its own ashes. It is an incredibly complex way to write a track; add in the myriad of strings used on the album, the bizarre time signatures that guide a lot of this work, and the overall production which feels muted yet somehow incredibly close and cloying, and you’ve got yourself quite a unique release. Psychedelic black metal? Droning ambience? Funereal doom? None of the above? Perhaps. But surely one of the more interesting releases of 2023, regardless of categorization.
Best of the Rest
Aara - Triade III: Nyx
Atmoblack means a lot of things to different people, which is both part of its innate charm and generally hazy classification as a black metal subgenre. It can be described as a softer, gentler, barely black metal subgenre in the vein of bands like Unreqvited just as easily as a foray into the lo-fi folk-influenced meditations of Wolves in the Throne Room and Havukruunu or an examination of the cold, empty, hazy darkness of existence perpetuated by acts like Darkspace and Paysage d’Hiver. That’s excluding the grandiose minor-key melodic gyrations of Ellende or Afsky, which present entirely different sounds from the above bands while being no less atmosphere-drenched in their approach. It’s potentially the most difficult of black metal’s many branches to pin down, which makes it as exciting and invigorating as it is confusing. For this particular review, Swiss black metal masters Aara channel a theatrical black metal vein akin to A Forest of Stars with the conclusion of their Triade trilogy of records entitled Triade III: Nyx. It’s bombastic, sprawling, menacing, melodic, and deeply transcendent on technical, performative, and atmospheric levels. In short, it’s a got dang masterpiece.
Those who love the blend of aggression and melody in the works of Mare Cognitum, Panopticon, and Spectral Lore will find plenty to love in Aara’s atmoblack stew, as the band have here come very close to fully mastering the balance between audio violence and epic, grandiose melodic highs. Opening track “Heimgesucht” is an absolute masterclass in black metal songwriting transcendency, evolving steadily from ambient atmospherics to absolutely magisterial melodic black metal with an ease only attainable by a band that knows exactly what it wants to achieve and has the will and technical chops to attain it. Aara is at the absolute top of their game here, churning out meticulously crafted riffs atop tremolo sections and general blasting in a manner that feels alarmingly and frustratingly effortless. The production is also spectacular, matching the black-metal-in-CinemaScope approach to the songwriting with a amplified and robust approach that is louder than usual for this type of music, but in a manner that heightens the drama rather than detracts from it. There are no bad songs on this record, and each of them is produced and performed with nuance and incredible skill.
As far as standouts are concerned, special commendation has to be given to guitarist Berg and drummer J. for absolutely crushing everything in sight with their harmonious, cacophonous performances here. The rhythm section in particular is one of the most robust, varied, and truly exceptional I’ve heard on a black metal record in years. The creative use of fills on display feels reminiscent of the work of Ulcerate drummer Jamie Saint Merat, blending devastating blasts and tricky, woozy interludes and fills with a level of skill and competence that is close to unparalleled in this genre. It’s truly wondrous stuff. If there were a potential area of contention I could see forming around Triade III: Nyx, it would probably be Fluss’ vocals, which to my mind is an argument that holds little to no water. Of course preferences vary, but in a similar manner to Deafheaven’s work the vocals here serve as a bracing, inherently intense component of the band’s identity, helping them stand out from many of their atmoblack contemporaries. The primal, otherworldly screeching of Fluss is an inextricable and borderline instrumental portion of Aara’s music, which is seen nowhere more clearly than in “Emphase der Seelenpein”, which features Fluss’ vocals on a higher and slightly obscured register within the production, adding to the overall atmosphere that the album consistently generates. I’d go as far as to say that Aara would not be the same band sonically without the high pitched screeches and wails of their talented mic maestro, and here Fluss’ performance is once again superb.
I could dive into each track on this spectacular record at length, but that would spoil the fun. I can confidently and emphatically recommend Triade III: Nyx to any fan of atmospheric black metal or of the genre in general. There is practically nothing to criticize here. It’s incredibly well written, it’s performed with skill and power, and sounds fantastic. If you are a fan of atmospheric black metal I can confidently and wholeheartedly recommend Triade III: Nyx. It won’t disappoint.
Altari - Kröflueldar
Icelandic black metal is a regional flavor of the genre that has over the past decade gained a reputation for a particular type of sound. Chaotic, jagged, hallucinatory and deeply atmospheric. Think Mysthirming, Sinmara, and Svartidaudi for a contextual backdrop into the core sounds that have put the small Scandinavian country’s black metal output on the global radar. All three of the above bands are sonically terrific, but Icelandic black metal has a less heralded, more experimental side that is pushing the boundaries of black metal into often uncharted and uniformly interesting territory. The dizzying weirdness of US/Icelandic duo Skáphe, the doom-laden existential misery of Andavald, and the psychedelic violence of Wormlust all fit the bill here, churning out perplexing and deeply rewarding music that hasn’t quite reached the “popular” conscious of black metal fans. Add Altari and their stunning debut Kröflueldar to that latter camp of Icelandic black metal weirdos blending genres with an audacity that is as admirable as it is strange. It’s a bold record if nothing else, but thankfully it offers a lot more than strangeness to laud it.
Kröflueldar, as far as I can ascertain, is what would happen if a band like Jefferson Airplane decided to play black metal. There’s a strong psychedelic rock edge to this record, especially in tracks like “Sýrulúður”, which offers up a woozy, beautiful, dizzying menagerie of sonic flavors and textures that feel as outlandish as they do oddly fitting. There’s also a distinct, atmospheric post-punk vibe to the record that channels the guitar-heavy pulse of Interpol and the airy, defeated melancholy of Fontaines D.C. or shame. “Hin eina sanna” in particular channels this sound in an extended middle passage that’s just a flat-out aggro, reverb-soaked post-punk downer that sounds absolutely incredible. I can safely say that I’ve never heard these types of sounds channeled so seamlessly into a black metal record before, and it makes me wonder why this kind of amalgam hasn’t been tried more frequently.
But before you tune out due to the lack of pure black metal trvth contained in Kröflueldar, rest assured that this is a black metal record through and through, even with its strange and delightful genre-hopping tendencies. Tracks “Djáknahrollur” and “Leðurblökufjandinn” offer plenty of tortured blackened nastiness, even if the rhythm section never quite reaches the blast-beaten insanity that many bands in its regional scene exhibit. It’s a mid-paced record throughout the majority of its runtime, but that doesn’t mean its black metal influences don’t hit hard and frequently. But that will ultimately be for the listener to decide. Regardless, the performances, production choices, and guitar tones that slither through these tracks make for an album listening experience unlike any I’ve had this year, and I’m pretty thoroughly in love with it.
For those who like their black metal a lot more adventurous, Kröflueldar will make your blackened heart sing. The blend of sounds here is both incredibly unique and so fluid that it begs the question: “Why hasn’t this been done a million times already?” Only time will tell of this post-punk psychedelic black metal masterpiece has the legs that I hope it does within the genre, but until then we can sit uncomfortably with the hallucinatory tones of Kröflueldar, one of the most unique and truly exceptional black metal albums of the year.
Returning - Severance
Severance is an interesting release because it almost feels apocryphal to a different group than Returning. The people behind this project are also, at least in part, behind With The End in Mind, who you might recall had a fantastic track called “Returning, Reclaiming” on their previous, and brilliant, release. Severance shares many touchpoints with that other project’s sound; there’s a lot of the same ambience and meticulously produced black metal excursions which I love With The End in Mind for. But Severance also feels wilder, more primal, than any of that project’s releases, a release only as loud and unbridled as it is elsewhere restrained, contemplative, and subtle.
Listen to opener “Path of Ashes” to see what I mean. Be patient through the track’s long intro, calling to mind the forest from which perhaps both the leaves and bones on the album’s cover art come, and prepare for the unfurling of the raw, aggressive black metal that makes up the track’s core. Where With The End in Mind might have kept their rarefied and fragile beauty throughout the track, here the sound veritably bleeds anguish, sacrifice, and personal pain. The release as a whole is no different, channeling a decidedly more direct version of black metal. Interestingly enough, this has not caused the group to compromise an inch of their penchant and skill for quieter, ambient passages, creating vast moments of silence, contemplation, and the building of potential throughout the release. Much like the other album I covered for this month’s column, this one takes some time to get used to but it holds as much within its silences as it does within its powerful, emotive noise.