Thursday, December 20, 2012

Cerebral Blackness Worldwide, Part II

In our last instalment, we took an overview of the black metal coming out of North America in 2012. Let's continue our look with the some western European countries. One release of note that I will not be covering here is Blut Aus Nord's final piece of their 777 trilogy, Cosmosophy. I want to address the three 777 albums together, and so will be leaving that out.

Location: Birmingham, England
Band: Anaal Nathrakh
Album: Vanitas
 Oh. My. God. I wasn't ready for this. It's arguable that one is never ready for the assault upon the senses and emotions that is Anaal Nathrakh, but I ought to at least have a year to recover between albums. Last year, they put out Passion, an album that I described as aural Stockholm Syndrome. I loved it. Now, just a year later, they're back with Vanitas, and I'm loving it just as much. It's different than Passion, undoubtedly. It has a swagger to it that we haven't heard from the band before. Just the sheer weight of the guitar tone is unparalleled in the band's back-catalogue. The use of electronic modifications is also higher on this album, with some electric drums, slicing effects, and digital noise. That alone isn't anything ground breaking for the band, but the way they put it all together is so skilful that you will swear you've never heard anything like it before. From the 30-second scream that ends "Forging Towards the Sunset" to the stuttering guitars of "Todos Somos Humanos" to the dusty organ of "A Metaphor for the Dead," this album is full of nothing but highlights. Can they ever top this?

Location: Leeds, England
Band: A Forest of Stars
Album: A Shadowplay for Yesterdays
 Things get weird with A Forest of Stars. With stage names like "Mister Curse" and "Sir Gastrix Grimshaw" as well as period costumes, these Brits seem like something from a demented Dickens novel. They spin the bizarre and macabre tale of a madman named Carrion, the rape-born child of Miss Crow. There are a lot of lyrics, and you pretty much have to read them all to understand the tale. I find the vocals to be the weak point of the album, especially at the beginning, but by the time you make it through the first third of the album, Mister Curse has grown on you. The music is definitely on the psychedelic side, containing great swaths of electronic wiggling and nonsense (reminiscent of The Mars Volta, honestly), but it's not bizarre like Unexpect or Sigh. For the most part, it sounds like down-tempo black metal with an extreme carnival-barker for a vocalist. At least, that's the impression that I get. I've not heard any of A Forest of Stars' back-catalogue, but I'll have to look into it now.

Location: Sunderland, England
Band: Wodensthrone
Album: Curse
I did not know until writing this article that Wodensthrone was from England. I honestly thought they were Scandinavian. That ought to tell you something about the quality of the music that they produce. The songs are long and flowing, the drums are rapid and varied, the guitars chug and churn. A healthy dose of reverb on the vocals makes them quite expansive, and they hover over the music like an evil spirit on the hill. Wodensthrone does an excellent job of integrating synths into their sound, a la Emperor. Most of the time, you won't even notice they're there, unless you're trying to pick out the component elements of the music. This is how it should be. The songs themselves have a remarkably triumphalist feeling to them, with "Battle Lines" being my favourite. Honestly, all the songs are long—the shortest (not counting the intro) is six minutes, and the next shortest is seven. But Wodensthrone never feels drawn out or overplayed. Rather, each movement and each song flows from part to part. This is Wodensthrone's second album, and has a much sharper, more insistent tone to it than their début, Loss. I trust that this band has nowhere to go but up.

Location: Ipswich, England
Band: Cradle of Filth
Album: The Manticore (And Other Horrors)
Cradle has been around for a long time now. You've probably heard them and formed your own opinion long ago. If you hate Cradle with a passion, this album will do nothing to change your mind. On the other hand, if you enjoy them, this is a good release. It's somewhat less immediate than 2010's Darkly, Darkly, Venus Aversa, which had such a crushed-black-velvet-jacket charm to it, but musically more fulfilling than anything else the band has done recently. Dani tries really hard, and hits all the shrieks—take a listen to "Manticore" for an example. He hasn't sounded this fresh in quite a few years. That said, he is getting older, and just doesn't have that out-of-control madness to his voice that he managed pre-Midian. The riffage is much more punk and thrash influenced than black metal, and blast beats are few and far between. Honestly, there aren't really any black metal elements left in Cradle, aside from Dani's vocals. The female vocals are well-done, and the synths and strings all mix well. After three listens, though, nothing stands out like "Lilith Immaculate" did last time around. Nothing is horrible, but nothing is grand either.

Location: Alicante, Spain
Band: Gothmog
Album: Aeons of Deception
This is Gothmog's second album, and I am glad to say that it sees them much improved from their début, A Step In the Dark. Gothmog play a bombastic style of symphonic black metal that has more in common with Dimmu Borgir than Emperor, but they do it well. Most of the songs crank along at high tempo, with flailing tremolo riffs and blasting beats, but the band slows it down with interesting tempo changes in songs like "The Bargain Struck." The vocal delivery definitely reminds me of Dimmu Borgir, with howled main vocals and occasional power-metal inspired clean chants. The band strengthened the entire vocal department for this album though, and I never found myself cringing like I occasionally did on A Step In the Dark. Overall, the whole album feels very "crushed velvet jacket" to me. The lyrics contain flowery and dramatic depictions of "darkness" and "hopelessness" and such things. I suppose it all feels distinctly Spanish in a way that the Norwegian bands never can, and I believe that attitude suits this style of black metal quite well. Gothmog have yet to write a truly memorable album, but if they continue to improve at this rate, they aren't too far off.

Location: Mondeville, France
Band: Blut Aus Nord
Album: What Once Was... Liber II
Black metal masters Blut Aus Nord have been busy again this year. In addition to completing their 777 trilogy with Cosmosophy (which I will review separately), they released the second of their What Once Was EPs. Like Part one, this EP is available only on twelve inch vinyl, which makes it über-KVLT, if somewhat frustrating in this age of Bandcamp. The entire thing it technically a single song, although since it's two sides of vinyl, it's in two parts. The song features that tremendously expansive guitar tone that BAN is known for at this point. The riffs harken back to Sect(s) and earlier work more than the recent work we've heard out of the band. The swirling riffs seem to slowly slide down an M.C. Escher-esque spiral, always going downhill but never getting anywhere. Half of the vocals are indistinguishable guttural growls, the other half are indistinguishable echoing voices. The heavy use of spring reverb and analogue delays gives the entire project an extremely unearthly sound. And at nearly twenty-nine minutes, the EP is quite a substantial length. One could only wish the band would make it available on Bandcamp so it could be more widely enjoyed.

Location: Poitiers, France
Band: Deathspell Omega
Album: Drought
Blut Aus Nord are not the only French experimental black metal band to release an EP in 2012. Also having recently completed a black metal trilogy, Deathspell Omega are back with something completely different. The opener track, "Salowe Vision" (at 3:42, you can't really call it an "intro," even though it's instrumental and segues cleanly into "Fiery Serpents") reminds me of a spaghetti western, with twangy guitars and loose drums. The black metal fury is unleashed in "Fiery Serpents," though, with blast beats and howled fury. The overall sound is much less convoluted than Paracletus, their last full-length, and has a frenetic, surging energy to it that few other black metal bands can muster. Unlike BAN's expansive sound, the guitars are immediate, not hidden in reverb. The bass has growl and presence, and the drums are remarkably clean so you can make out all of the complicated cymbal work that goes into these tracks. I definitely recommend taking a spin through this EP with a focus specifically on the drums. Clocking in at about twenty-one minutes with six songs, this album feels more like an EP than BAN's 2012 offering. I'm definitely excited to hear more from the band, as this work shows them alive and well and full of ideas.

Location: Paris, France
Band: Alcest
Album: Les Voyages De L'Âme 
Alcest combine black metal stylings with "shoegaze" post-metal musical compositions. In theory, this results in melencholy, beautiful music with an edge of sharpness that you wouldn't find from bands like Sigur Ros or Explosions In the Sky. I highly enjoyed their last release, 2010's Écailles de Lune (which has one of the most beautiful album covers that I have ever seen). That album helped me pull through my last finals week in my senior year in college. Unfortunately, 2012 sees Alcest stripped of nearly all their black metal touches. Yes, the music is "pretty," with sparkling clean guitars and crooned French lyrics, but where are the howls and the blast beats? Not until the fifth track, after twenty-seven minutes of "le sigh" do we hear a blast beat and tremolo picked riff break through an angelic choir, and while I enjoy that track ("Beings of Light"), the majority of the album is, frankly, boring. Even in that song, the howls that I thnk are there are mixed so low bellow the "aaahh, ooohhhh" of the choir that I'm only guessing at their existence. The next song, "Faiseurs De Mondes," is much more satisfying, showcasing the full gamut of howls, tremolos, blasts, croons, choirs, and clean guitars that make up the Alcest sound, but that's it. Fourteen minutes out of a fifty minute album is quite disappointing.

Location: Tilburg, Netherlands
Band: Dodecahedron
Album: Dodecahedron
On the other hand, these Dutch maniacs do not disappoint. Their self-titled début explodes from the gates with the highly dissonant "Allfather." The madness doesn't let up for fifty-two minutes. The fact that a piece of music as jarring as this one can hold your attention for as long as that is a testament to how well it is composed. The album contains five songs, the last of which is the three-part opus "View From Hverfell." This final epic is my favourite part of the album, moving through traditional black metal riffs, electronic noise and manipulation, vast echoing clean guitar arpeggios, and random bizarre percussion sounds. The final three-minute build and descent out of "Inside Omnipotent Chaos" is a mesmerising study in sound architecture. The production of the album is surprisingly stark, and even the guitars are not overly gain saturated, allowing much of the distortion to come from dissonant choice of notes, instead. The horn-like tones of fretless bass occasionally poke through the mix, although I'm not sure if a fretless bass was used for the entire album, or just for "View From Hverfell." This five-piece band has created some fantastically cacophonous music with just the right amount of melody shining through to keep you locked to it. I can't wait to see what they produce next.

That's about all for now. I know that there's more black metal from these countries that I haven't heard yet, including a new release from Enthroned which I hope to hear before the year is out, but this is all I've had time to listen to so far. We'll leave Germany for another post. In my next instalment, we'll explore some of the black metal from the homeland, Norway, along with the rest of Scandinavia.