Thursday, November 29, 2012

Cerebral Blackness Worldwide, Part I

As I've mentioned, I've enjoyed a lot of black metal this year. Since I haven't had a chance to put together any full-length reviews, I want to do a quick sweeping overview where I point out quite a few albums that you ought to be listening to from all over the world. Ready? Let's start in the west, and go roughly east (although I'm going to group by country, so there might be a bit of back tracking when moving from south to north and vice versa).

Location: Arcata, California
Band: Ash Borer
Album: Cold of Ages
When I think of cold, bleak metal, I don't generally think of California. I suppose I ought to alter my perceptions, as five-piece band Ash Borer takes the 4-track, 15 minute average song length album format common of "4th wave" and knocks one out of the park. This album has all the reverby goodness that you would expect from this kind of thing. Howling screeches that are absolutely indistinguishable, raw guitar tones, blasting drums. Check, check, check. I've listened to a surprising amount of Ash Borer this year, because I find that it puts me in a very trance-like state. If that's what you're looking for in your black metal, I highly recommend it. They're a young band, and I hope to see them grow in their sound. At this point, I definitely like the band, and think they have great potential, but I couldn't tell you what exactly sets them apart from the other west-coast US black metal bands.

Location: Los Angeles, California
Band: Abigail Williams
Album: Becoming
Unlike many of my metal friends, I actually enjoyed Abigail Williams last album, even though it was derivative and lacked some cohesion. It was catchy and I listened to it quite a bit. The problem is, instead of continuing in that vein, and trying to craft a more unique take on an old sound, the band has once again changed styles, and is now tackling the "4th Wave" black metal sound of Wolves In the Throne Room and similar bands. Frankly, they ought to have stuck to "3rd Wave." Three major style shifts in three albums is just too many. No matter what they do, they sound like a band copying a style, because that's what they are. Abigail Williams needs to settle down and try something more than once. Considering the drama that we've seen from them this past year with members leaving and re-entering the band and breakups and reformings, that seems less and less likely. It's a shame. I'll just have to keep In the Absence of Light on my guilty pleasure list knowing it will never get better.

Location: Portland, Oregon
Band: Agalloch
Album: Faustian Echoes
 Agalloch is known for their folk-tinged metal, and they have some seriously essential albums to their name, from The Mantle to (my personal favourite) Ashes Against the Grain to Marrow of the Spirit. This is the first of their five EPs that I have picked up. Featuring lyrics taken directly from Goethe's Faust, the EP is a real concept piece. To my ears, it's quite a bit darker than what Agalloch has produced in the past, with much more emphasis on the black than the folk. "Faustian Echoes" is the only song on the EP, but at 21:35, it's certainly a lot of music for your money, and the band uses film samples to transition the track through its various movements. The guitars are particularly strong on this album, just dripping with great organic tone.

Location: Black Hills, South Dakota
Band: Woman Is The Earth
Album: This Place That Contains My Spirit
Like Ash Borer, here's an American black metal band producing a 4-track album. The average song length is a little bit less here, but I tend to think of them in the same category. This trio uses synthesizers heavily in order to create the atmosphere they are aiming for, and need them to fill out the bottom end, as their guitars are very treble-happy. The drums are also amazingly sloppy, at times almost to a painful degree. Still, the enthusiasm with which Jarrod Hattervig pounds the skins is undeniable, and this attitude what pushes it forward. The band is currently unsigned, which makes it very hard to find their material, and I'm a bit surprised. I would think that a band with this kind of pagan sound would be highly sought after in today's metal scene. Then again, what do I know about the industry? I can see this band making big strides in the future, so it's one to keep an eye on. In the mean time, if you're looking for some raw, home-grown sounding metal from a town with "Black" in its very name, you can't go wrong with Woman Is the Earth.

Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Band: Oak Pantheon
Album: From A Whisper
Oh, here's the folk/black sound that I expect to hear from Agalloch. How did it end up over here? Oak Pantheon may wear its influences on its sleeve, but you can't fault this talented duo, because the music is absolutely fantastic. Opening track "Descend Into Winter" brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it. I'm not sure what more I need to say than that. The music is rich and layered, with expertly mixed drums. The band uses pianos, bells, and synthesisers occasionally to add to the musical cloud, but these elements never seem like a crutch or an afterthought. Both members of the band sing, and both play guitars and bass, and I believe this inner unity is reflected in the organic sound of the music. It never sounds "rehearsed," but rather that it's flowing directly from the soul. It's good to hear that the Minneapolis metal scene is alive and well.

Location: DeKalb, Illinois
Band: Nachtmystium
Album: Silencing Machine
 The last album sounded organic and rich, like soil, trees, and leaves. This album sounds like a tesla coil exploding. This is obviously intentional, as it's a result not only of the music, but the production style. I'm not sure if it's a phasing effect on the amps, or if they're running some sort of ultra-gritty synthesisers in the background. But there's this constant electrical buzz that at first sounds like a mistake, but within 30 seconds has become so integrated into the music that you barely notice it. The vocals sound like they're being shouted through a child's megaphone. Again, at first it seems wrong. And then you realize that it's all part of the machine. The album features a surprisingly strong bass performance—something that's easy to miss on your first listen through. After a disappointing last album or two, it's good to hear Nachtmystium exploding again.

Location: Louisville, Kentucky
Band: Panopticon
Album: Kentucky
 Here's something very strange. At first, you think you're listening to a bluegrass album. You start tapping your foot and maybe doing a little dance. Then the second track begins, and holy shit blast beats. Yeah, blast beats and penny whistles. The album is a conceptual exploration of the oppression of the coal miner in Kentucky, a point they push home with vocal samples from old news footage, as well as bluegrass interludes. The black metal is actually quite well performed. The tremolo guitars are relentless, and the drums have an almost sloppy fervour to them. There is a surprising amount of lead guitar playing for a black metal album, and these lead pieces have a very bluesy/bluegrass twang to them. It's definitely a unique sound; one that could only come from America. One thing that I would like to hear, though is a bit more integration of the black and the bluegrass, instead of mainly contrasting them in the interludes. Taake used a banjo solo in a song. I don't see why Panopticon shouldn't play a mandolin over blast beats. After all, it is a tremolo instrument.

Location: New York City, New York
Band: Krallice
Album: Years Past Matter

One year after releasing the ill-accepted Diotima (I enjoyed it, but many didn't), Krallice is back with another shard of swirling metal. Unlike Diotima, Years Past Matter has been well accepted in the metal community. I think it's their best work yet. The hypnotic patterns that I've come to expect from Krallice are all here, but unlike last time, where they felt like crystal shards that required great mental work to assemble, here they are liquid glass that glows and flows. The bass has an expansive resonance to it, and the drum performance is absolutely stellar. There are no track titles to speak of, so it's a little bit difficult to recall which songs are which. But when you listen to the album, it is memorable. And you must listen to it. Many, many times.

Location: New York City, New York
Band: The Howling Wind
Album: Of Babalon
Another black metal duo, The Howling Wind play a mid-tempo, tremolo-heavy, low-tuned variant of the style. Where some American black metal is about knife-edged fury (Nachtmystium) or mind-swirling complexity (Krallice), The Howling Wind has a surprising heaviness to it. Make no mistake, it's not death metal by any stretch of the imagination. But by tuning down and emphasising the low end with their production, they give the music a heft that some feel is lacking from the "Necro Sound." This is a dissonance-heavy record that I've found rather less than immediate. I don't believe I've ever listened to the album from start to finish in one sitting. But now and then, I feel it start to break through, and so I keep it around. I'm hoping it will be like Aosoth's III (which the album does remind me of), and eventually unlock into something incredible.

Location: Alberta, Canada
Band: Weapon
Album: Embers and Revelations
I'll admit that I've never really "gotten" Weapon. This is their third album in their black/death style, and I know they have a fairly dedicated following. I never find myself reaching for their albums, though, even though on paper it seems like I ought to love the band. The band does managed to avoid the common black metal mistake of using a tonally rich song intro that makes the rest of the track sound hollow, though, as their music is sonically rich the entire time. The speed of the tremolo-picking is also astonishing, calling to mind the arm-destroying speeds of Immortal. Perhaps I'd like Weapon better with a different vocalist. I hear a slightly rap-like swagger in the vocals that reminds me a lot of Max Cavalera-era Sepultura, and it just doesn't seem right for a black metal band. I've included it in this overview because I know a lot of other people regard it highly.

Location: Montréal, Canada
Band: Rage Nucléaire
Album: Unrelenting Fucking Hatred
Speaking of Canadian things I don't understand, Lord Worm. For those who don't know, he was the vocalist for Cryptopsy, a band I recently heard described as "death metal George Lucas." Anyway, he grunted for them, and was much beloved. Then there was drama. Now he's back with a black metal band, and he's not grunting as much as howling now. It's some pretty fast, generic sounding black metal, at that. You have songs like "Hunt With Murderworms, Sculpt With Flies" that sound like they stole Metallica riffs, and you have songs like "30 Seconds In the Killhouse," which is, sadly, 5:30 long. As I said last year when reviewing Anaal Nathrakh, if your lyrics are going to be "aaaaaaahhhhhhhhggggggg," then you'd better fucking mean it, and this band doesn't. I included it on this overview because of Lord Worm. If you're a Lord Worm fan, check it out. If you're a Metallica fan, listen to "Murderworms" from 2:00 on. Other than that, you can probably leave this one.

That about covers North America. Join me later for Part II where we move "across the pond" and see what Europe is up to.

God Seed Release New Video

You wouldn't know, since I haven't posted anything on here in a year, but 2012 has been a fantastic year for black metal, in my opinion. One of the best releases this year is the first album from  God Seed, the band that Gaahl and King Ov Hell, formerly of Gorgoroth, have formed after being denied the use of the name Gorgoroth. Their album I Begin has gotten quite a lot of spins from me, and will be appearing on my Year-End list without question.

They've just released a music video for stand-out track "Alt Liv." The track premiers today on Metal Hammer, and you should be able to view it there. The video should also be embedded in this post, although you may not be able to view it here at this point.

The aesthetic of the video certainly isn't what I expected, but I think that's what makes it good. It's not just a bunch of corpse-painted dudes with too many spikes and a bunch of pseudo-Satanic paraphernalia standing around. Make sure to check out God Seed's I Begin for some real Norwegian black metal. Hopefully I'll have a review of it up here some time soon.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

It's Been A Long Time

2012 has been a strange year for me when it comes to metal. From January until about June, I barely listened to any metal at all. As the year has rounded up, I've been getting back into the ferocious genre, but I've been enjoying an inordinately large amount of doom metal, and not really having a taste for death metal at all. Of course, my enjoyment of black metal has only increased with the years, and there have been some staggeringly good releases this year. In fact, I've even released a track of my own, which I suppose I ought to talk about here.

I will try to put together a few posts here before the year ends, so that I don't just have a Top 20 of 2012 list be my only contribution of the year. If you're interested in what I've been doing with my time, I've been recording music and writing a novel or two. You can check out my writing blog, which I do update twice a week, and sometimes more often.

Salon Auteur