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Posts Tagged ‘Black Metal’

Since I had such a lark spinning through some of my favorite accounts bleakness from down Italy way, why not have another go of it?  This time: Germany.  Deutschland.  Sounds ominous, no?  Well, although we could draw further parallels between Italy and Germany (weren’t they both involved in some, shall we say, unpleasantness, this past century?), it is not the shared love of goosestepping but rather a similarly dark and twisted vein of black metal richness that draws me to both nations.  So, allow me to present to you a choice smattering of tasty metal morsels from the only nation in Europe that could have produced the ‘no smiling allowed’ machine music of Kraftwerk and, um, Nena.

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Klabautamann, Merkur (2009)


I’ve also got one of their previous albums, called something appropriately nature-y like Our Journey In The Woods (sorry, too lazy to look it up), which is also pretty good, but holy SSSSSSHIT this album nearly came out of nowhere.  It’s progressive and angular without the obnoxious and pretentious connotations that those terms usually evoke.  It’s aggressive and mental but still explores a pleasantly wide palette of sounds and colors.  Some of the dudes are also in the band called Island, who have a newer self-titled record that I haven’t tracked down yet, but their previous EPs or demos or whatever shit came out a while ago called Orakel, which is well worth checking out.
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Secrets Of The Moon, Carved In Stigmata Wounds (2004)

Don’t know what it is in the water, but there’s a powerful strain of German orthodoxy which seems to have little to do with the Swedish/French style (Ondskapt, Malign, Deathspell Omega, and on and on).  This German orthodox black metal is a bit more measured in its approach, almost stately.  I’m thinking here of Secrets of the Moon, obviously, but also Dark Fortress and, to a slightly lesser extent, some of mid- to late period Lunar Aurora.  This is perhaps the pinnacle of serious, ‘no fun’ black metal, but this album absolutely KILLS it.
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Drautran, Throne Of The Depths (2007)


There’s nothing terribly new going on here, but this album has got an awesome title, really cool cover art, and a masterful take on vaguely pagan-ish black metal.  I know, I know, but before you run screaming in horror to throw on Killers or Defenders of the Faith, this ain’t no tin whistle face-painted bullshit.  It’s essentially a slick take on that ineffable German orthodoxy, without the orthodoxy, while tossing in a whole bunch of classic Emperor-isms.  This album is just all kinds of smooth, and I mean that in the best way possible.
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Vinterriket, Der Letze Winter – Der Ewigkeit Entgegen (2005)


Much like Hellveto or Striborg or (until recently) Xasthur, the one dude behind Vinterriket suffers from a serious lack of self-restraint.  If you try to keep up with the relentless onslaught of new albums, EPs, splits, and ‘Best Ofs’, you’ll run yourself straight into the ground.  Plus, most of this dude’s stuff is, frankly, boring as shit dark ambient.  This album, however, mixes that dark ambient with a furious blizzard of the coldest black metal.  Kinda like Darkspace or Paysage d’Hiver, I guess, but less long-winded than the former, and FAR less eardrum-piercingly harsh than the latter.  This album is fantastically paced and sequenced, and it’s just all kinds of excellent.
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Desaster, 666 – Satan’s Soldiers Syndicate (2007)


Ah, finally.  Some metal during which it is Okay To Smile.  Seriously, you’ve got my permission.  Enough of the dour ‘my lit teacher didn’t like my poetic homage to Edgar Allan Poe’ grumbling.  This is ferocious, accurately sloppy black/thrash.  Play it, then play it again only louder, and hell, why not drink some beers, too?  Then toss on some Aura Noir, who are not German, but share this same sloppy fun metal approach.  Go on.  You deserve it.
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The Ruins Of Beverast, Unlock the Shrine (2004)


Alright, now that you’ve thrashed and smiled to Desaster, Fun Time Is Over.  Well, at least, if you’re going to have ‘fun’ with this album, it is a very SERIOUS kind of fun.  Anyway, this is one dude who was the dude in the band Nagelfar which everyone who ever told you about was very careful to emphasize “No, really, it’s not the same as the Swedish Naglfar, y’know, the guys who are kind of like the kids in the grade just above Dimmu Borgir, who kinda tried to bully them and look tougher but were really just jealous that the young punks were more popular.”  Whatever.  This album kicks ass.  It’s mostly black metal, I guess, but with a cinematic scope.  Replete with non-stupid sampling and non-trite industrial aspects, this is a genuinely spooky affair.  Th’Ruins’ other two records are also good, but this first one is the most finely honed AND experimental.  Tasteful, tasty.  Taste it.
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Geist, Galeere (2009)


Honestly, the cover art kind of tells you everything you need to know about this album.  The band logo tells you it’s at least vaguely black metal, and the creepy almost-capsizing ghost ship reveals a spooky nautical vibe.  And yep, that’s pretty much how the music delivers.  Excellent grim black metal in that Teutonic mold (see also Funeral Procession, I suppose, but definitely Inarborat, for more of this German not-quite-a-scene, not-quite-orthodoxy), but nicely evocative of a doomed seafaring voyage.  Creaking timbers, washes of guitar like huge black waves in the night.  Dive in and seal your watery fate.
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Katharsis, VVorldVVithoutEnd (2006)


This one is also of a sort of orthodoxy, I guess, but more of the Ajna Offensive type than your Dark Fortresses and Secrets(es?) of the Moon.  Anyway, a seriously ghoulish aesthetic, scorched earth sound, and insanely stretched out compositions reveal a demented group of individuals behind this caustic work of bleak black art.  Yeah, the albums before this one were pretty good, and Fourth Reich wasn’t half-bad, either, but this is definitely where it’s AT for the Katharsis (anti-?)ethos.
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I sort of forgot about the whole Prophecy Productions folk-ish scene (with, oh, what do you call ’em, Empyrium and ah, shit… Dornenreich, that’s who I’m thinking of), but maybe if you include them and the whole Lupus Lounge label/scene, I don’t know, does that count as a German scene or sound?  Who cares.  These are some excellent records.  You can trust me; after all, I write a blog on the internet.  Still, all of this goes to show that there’s plenty of blackness that ain’t anywhere near your Norways and Swedens.

It is literally taking ALL of my self-restraint not to exeunt this post with some sort of “something or other über alles” statement.  Let’s call it quits there, before I embarrass us all.  (Un)Happy listening.

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For no particular reason other than a few serendipitous songs popping up when I was playing my music on random the other day, I thought I might do a little bit of a country profile here.  Well, scratch that.  I’m not particularly interested in surveying all of Italy, scouring its lacquered boot from thigh to heel for all the heavy metal fit to print.  Instead, I present for your edification and/or casual annoyance a few of my favorite metal albums from the center of history’s most whined-about empire.

The land of Berlusconi is, if the records I’ve chosen to highlight here are any indication, far more than the libidinous Mediterranean caricature and reckless administrative policy would suggest.  By no purposeful design, just about all of these albums tend toward the black-ish side of heavy metal’s family tree.  Perhaps most notably, then, given the genre similarities, is that for the most part, these acts don’t seem to all be coming from one centralized black metal scene* (the way we imagine things do in France, Finland, Mozambique, or wherever).  Chalk it up to the proximity of Vatican City, perhaps, or a lingering fondness for the somewhat corpulent severity of Il Duce.  Who knows.  Something is rotten in the state of Italy, a confused Hamlet might emote (well, not Hamlet himself, of course, but, just fuck along and let me have my wordplay, you ass).
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Spite Extreme Wing, Vltra (2008)

This black metal band first intrigued me with their previous full-length, Non Dvcor, Dvco, but it’s on this, their most recent and, sadly, last album,  that they really shine.  A great dry production lends excellent clarity to the generally straight-ahead black metal within, which is given just enough touches of the avant-garde to keep the listener on her toes.  The tracks are all untitled, though the band slips in both a Misfits and a Beatles cover, which blend in rather better than one might suppose.  Special credit should also be given to that gorgeously evocative cover art.  No need to be tethered to the ol’ black and gray tones forever, black metal chums.
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Stormlord, Mare Nostrum (2008)

This album kicks so many tremendous servings of ass that it really ought to be illegal.  I suppose the best way to describe Stormlord is ‘blackened power metal’, but lest that dreadful word-mash make one think of Children of Bodom or whatever fucking black metal Dragonforce churned out before they were Dragonforce, have no fear.  This is purely epic, regal metal that deserves a far greater audience.
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Void Of Silence, Human Antithesis (2004)

Void of Silence is a somewhat clean-sounding doom/death act from Italy, through which has rotated a number of excellent vocalists.  2004’s Human Antithesis has the distinction of featuring the unparalleled vocal talents of Alan Averill of Primordial fame.  Just earlier this year, the band released a brand new album which is also quite tasty, featuring the vocals of Brooke from The Axis Of Perdition.  His vocals on that new album are something of a revelation, given the bile-flecked delivery of pure caustic rage typical of TAOP; with Void Of Silence he sounds like someone who has just realized he can belt out true epic doom vocals, and wants to wring every last possible speck of emotion from each phrase.  Human Antithesis is probably still the better record, with sounder songwriting and the more stridently confident vocals of Nemtheanga.  Honestly, it’s worth the price of entry just for the title track along, a gargantuan 20 minute journey to the deep, dark recesses of doom, like the crumbling edifices of history so oft-represented in the band’s artwork.
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Absentia Lunae, In Vmbrarvm Imperii Gloria (2006)

Absentia Lunae is probably my favorite band of the ATMF stable, which also includes Melencolia Estatica, Locus Mortis, Urna, Arcana Coelestia, and others.  To be honest, most of those bands share a similar aesthetic and sound, so if you like one of them, chances are you’ll enjoy most (if not all) of the rest; still, Absentia Lunae’s first album ekes out a triumph in my book, for its rather stately take on this much-abused genre.  It has that rather depressive air, without ever veering anywhere near to the abominable pit of mawkishness and repetition known as ‘depressive’ or ‘suicidal black metal’.  Blech.  Go listen to Dio, you fucking mopes.
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Hiems, Worship Or Die (2009)

Side project of dude from Forgotten Tomb, which project, frankly, I couldn’t give two shits about.  I really dug Hiems’ first record Cold Void Journey, but it was really just a perfection of a particular crisp, blasting version of black metal, whereas its follow-up adds a bit of black and roll spite and a touch more experimentalism, to quite headbangingly catchy effect.
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Beatrik, Requiem Of December (2005)


I know, I know.  I’ve just been yelling at you about this album recently.  Thing is, Beatrik’s swansong of an album is so utterly gripping that I feel like it needs to be shared.  Seriously, why aren’t you listening to this album RIGHT NOW?
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HomSelvareg, HomSelvareg (2005)


This band is also broken up now, which is a shame, really.  Their self-titled album (which, in its re-release – pictured above – also features bonus tracks from an earlier demo) is absolutely nothing new in the realm of black metal blasting, but it just feels so right.  The 1990s had the paradigmatic Grieghallen production, with its lofty reverb and wispy clarity; HomSelvareg’s album – rather like Hiems’ Cold Void Journey – has an entirely different way of doing things, and it just touches me in all the right places.  Gross.
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Thee Maldoror Kollective, A Clockwork Highway (2004)


This lot are a bunch of fucking weirdos, that’s for sure.  While the previous album from the Kollective, New Era Viral Order, will probably speak a bit more clearly to one’s blackened inclinations, I prefer A Clockwork Highway, on which the ambient, industrial, soundtrack elements become the actual building blocks of the songs, rather than superficial drapings atop fuzzily elastic-sounding ‘industrial metal’ riffing, as was too much the case on the previous album.  Alongside the strangeness of latter Manes and (maybe) Ulver, this TMK album is a great mood piece, albeit one that will never quite let you fully relegate it to mere background.
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Aborym, Fire Walk With Us! (2001)

Aborym have also just put out a new album – Psychogrotesque, out now on Season Of Mist – but for my money, this remains their best moment.  Fire Walk With Us! is genuinely unsettling music that ripples with a current of untamed electricity.  Yeah, it’s black/industrial, so if that’s not really your thing, I understand the hesitation to fully engage with this.  But, c’mon, it’s got Attila Csihar (of Tormentor, Mayhem, etc., etc.) on vocals, and the album closes out with the great tandem shot of a woozy cover of Burzum’s “Det Som Engang Var” and a seriously disorienting ambient/noise track in “Theta Paranoia.”  This record won’t just raise the hair on your arms; it will turn your arms into robot appendages, which will corrode and rust before your eyes while your gaze is transfixed by album cover’s red moon rising over a technological apocalypse.  Give it a chance – let this album get under your skin.
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This is, of course, ignoring your Bulldozers and your Ephel Duaths and your Abgotts and your, erm, Rhapsodies of Fire.  Exhaustiveness is not the point.  However, finding something new (note that every one of these releases comes from the past decade) from one of Europe’s less prominent extreme metal breeding grounds, well, it’s like picking out a choice figure out of the pandemonium (should that be panangelium?) of the Sistine Chapel.  (This preceding sentence brought to you by the familiar trope in music criticism that Michelangelo’s paintings are an easy analogue to a few dozen angsty young musicians bashing out hymns to the devil.)  Salute!
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*Though such congregations do crop up here and there – see the grouping of artists around the ATMF label/ethos for a prime example of that in action, or, more loosely, the always-intriguing Code666 label.  Always curious to know if a few bands develop, followed by a sympathetic label, or if it goes the other way around.  Case studies abound, assuredly.

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It’s official: Spinal Tapdance is bringing down the Decision Hammer (patent pending) on an entire (and entirely overstuffed) genre to declare The Best Song In All Of Black Metal.

Play it loud and bang your goddamn head:

Darkthrone, “In The Shadow Of The Horns” (from A Blaze in the Northern Sky, 1992)

Perhaps you’ve got a different notion in your cobweb-addled brain as to what the Best Song In All Of Black Metal might be, but I submit to you the following: You are incorrect.  Mssrs Culto and Fenriz politely request that you sit on a crocodile.

I am willing to entertain the suggestion that there are objectively “better” songs out there, meaning more elegantly composed, aesthetically pure, rifftacularly creative, grimly atmospheric, and so forth.  Fine.  But frankly, none of your favored bullshit can hold a Transilvanian Hunger-candelabra to the maniacal dedication of this steamroller of a song.

The lineage is easily traceable, from Venom’s first two albums to Celtic Frost’s early work to Bathory’s genre-instantiating Under the Sign of the Black Mark to this, Darkthrone’s first black metal record.  But that’s just the thing: this one song, this seven minutes of cackling, unhinged black glory, is essentially the intensification – if not perfection – of all that made Venom, Celtic Frost, and Bathory great.

This tune spreads its hungering maw wide, blood-flecked spittle pooling around the wreckage of lesser ghosts; it leers and lurches and lunges and whispers, “Come in and welcome your doom.”

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Sure, there are other contenders from the vast Norse pantheon:

(Or, from the Swedish master himself…)

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Fantastic songs, all.  But gimme Fenriz’s relentless death-stomp of a tempo on “In The Shadow Of The Horns” any fucking day of the week.  Seriously.  And have Nocturno Culto’s vocals honestly ever been as full-throttle and ear-wreckingly hideous as towards the end of this song?

Black metal has ventured down myriad shoots and branches of this first rotted tree in subsequent years, but I’ve yet to hear a tune as corrosively brilliant as this, the Best Song In All Of Black Metal.

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In addition to my regular dose of all things vile and extreme in metal, I’ve been listening to quite a bit of jazz lately.  A few weeks back I was spinning Miles Davis’ record My Funny Valentine, which is a live concert recorded at the Philharmonic Hall in New York in early 1964.  One of the great pleasures of listening to live music, but especially to jazz, is following the back and forth of communication between the band members.  The particular track which stopped me dead in my tracks was the quintet’s run-through of the Cole Porter jazz standard “All Of You.”

This is a band set to 'slow burn'

Here is the audio (in two parts) of that same quintet playing “All Of You” in July of 1963, which appears on the album Miles Davis in Europe.  I couldn’t track down easily accessible online audio of the version which appears on My Funny Valentine, which is unfortunate, but this rendition still gives great insight into the near-telepathy of the band – especially the astonishing rhythm section of Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums.

Tony Williams is an incredibly active, almost aggressive drummer here; check out his ability to highlight Miles’ most strenuous phrases without stepping on them (from about 3:00 to 4:15 on the first half of the track).  But what really gets me hooked listening to the band play this tune is the lightning-fast communication between Carter on bass and Williams on drums while Hancock is laying down his piano solo (this is the majority of the second half of the track, all the way until Miles comes back in for the chorus around 5:30 or so).


If you’ve got yourself a copy of My Funny Valentine at hand, I prefer the version on there, but both versions demonstrate the single-mindedness of the ensemble.  All of this got me to thinking, though, that the type of collective improvisation on display with Miles’ quintet is an exceeding rarity in heavy metal.

Of course, improvisation plays a fairly large role in many types of heavy metal.  The most obvious example of this is the guitar solo.  We know, too, however, that not all guitar solos are improvised – if you see Metallica playing “Fade to Black” or Slayer playing “Raining Blood,” I think there’s an expectation on the part of the fans that the solos, which may at one point have been largely improvisational (though I have my doubts about that), will be played more or less true to the way they have been burned into their brains through years’ worth of listening.

Still, the guitar or other instrumental solo break is the most obvious example of improvisation in heavy metal.  In the classic structure, the guitar solo is a type of compositional break, used much in the way a pre-chorus or bridge is used to transition from one part of a song to another.  A solo will often occur on top of a basic riff structure which has already been introduced in a verse or some other section of the song.  It serves, in this way, to introduce novelty within an already-recognized framework.  The essential structure of the song would be unchanged by the removal of the solo, in most cases.

Then, of course, you get into all sorts of avant-garde stuff, with manipulated feedback, distortion, and the detritus of found-sounds and other oddities.  I don’t think most people going to see Merzbow or Skullflower, for example, have exactly the expectation of hearing recognizable “songs” from these groups/dudes.  In these cases, then, improvisation is less a decorative addition to a predetermined structure (as Hammett’s whammy-fondling is to a Metallica jam), and actually becomes the basis of composition.

Both of these models, however, are entirely separate from what goes on with Miles Davis’ group from 40-odd years back.  Certainly, there is a basic structure to the piece.  The melody of the original tune serves as the most skeletal reference, but the essential building blocks of the song are the tempo and the chord changes.  Beyond that, however, as you can hear in this recording, pretty much anything goes.  Sure, there’s a design in the order of solos – Miles introduces the theme, then launches off into a fantastic deconstruction of it, before it gets handed off to Coleman on the tenor saxophone.  After the tenor break, Herbie Hancock takes over on piano, before Miles comes back in at the end to revisit the melodic theme and bring the piece to a close.  By that description, then, it would seem that this follows the first model of improvisation, where there is a predetermined structure upon which soloing sits as a purely decorative flourish.

But to interpret the collective improvisation of Miles’ group here as a rote reading of a standard tune with traded riffs on the theme would be to do them a great disservice.  The crucial thing to follow in this live recording is the absolute vibrancy of the communication between all of the different members.  I find it easiest to pick out when following the interplay of the rhythm section – bass, drums, and piano – which is especially vital during Hancock’s solo break.  See, whereas the Metallica tune would be played exactly the same way without the solo included, if you remove any one of these three lines from “All Of You,” you would miss out on how these three guys are structuring and restructuring the rhythm and melodic texture of the song as they play it.  When they slip into a half-time swing beat for just a few measures, and then seamlessly back into the regular tempo, you have to wonder: If one of those components were absent, would it have the same impact?

The crucial element of the improvisation which goes on in “All Of You” is precisely that it is a collective improvisation.  There are five guys up on stage, and they are essentially having a conversation with each other.  Miles brings up the topic and swishes it around in his mouth for a while to see how it feels, but then he opens up the floor for comments.  Coleman agrees with Miles, for the most part, but elaborates on a few points.  It goes on like this.  The timing of Williams’ cymbal hits is dependent on what he hears Carter playing on the bass, or how he imagines Hancock will shake up his rhythm in the next two bars.  Carter walks his bass along quite amiably, but listens for Williams’ emphasis, and tracks along with him when it feels right.  If you take away one of these speakers, the conversation crumbles.  Balance is lost.  The nays have it.

To extend this somewhat-tenuous metaphor further, most guitar (and other) solos in heavy metal are basically like some guy yelling while everyone else carries on a conversation.  Take out the dude’s yelling, and the conversation continues apace.  You might be getting the impression, by the way, that I don’t at all care for guitar solos, which is not actually my point.  I think guitar solos can be pretty rad, and I enjoy a face-melting shredfest just as much as the next metal fan.  What I’m trying to stress, though, is that heavy metal might find itself expanded in interesting ways if it made room for this type of collective improvisation that one is likely to find in good jazz.

If I had to take a stab at figuring out why this is the case, I suspect it has something to do with the aesthetic of transgression and personal triumph which is so widespread in heavy metal.  The lyrics and topical concerns of much heavy metal are about strength, overcoming adversity, having the courage to be different, and so forth.  Obviously, these themes are expressed in vastly different ways, whether we’re talking about the hardcore youth gang pep talks of Hatebreed, or the motif of Nietzschean haughtiness and individual superiority common in black metal.  When it comes to expressing these ideas musically rather than textually, a fairly obvious way to do so is by highlighting the virtuosity of individual musicians.

Jamey Jasta's Seven Habits for Highly Effective Backstabber Overcomers

For the most part, the closest one might come in heavy metal to collective improvisation is with dueling guitar solos (or dueling guitar-keyboard, guitar-bass, or whatever else).  The problem is, these flights of multi-musician fancy don’t typically involve the same type of musical conversation as in jazz.  Instead, if you see Dream Theater live, for example, you will find John Petrucci doing a back-and-forth with Jordan Rudess on keyboards, where they trade off several bars, each trying to out-play the other.  There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that sort of coupled soloing; in fact, it tends to be quite entertaining.  Still, the model remains that of the individual virtuoso (or of two individual virtuosos, in which case the number ‘1’ remains a more important signifier than the number ‘2’), struggling heroically against all odds to emerge victorious, having slayed all rivals with the intensity and sincerity of her skill.

As a sidebar, I don’t mean to play too much into the hands of those who believe that heavy metal is about nothing but virtuosity.  I think that’s far from the truth, and that’s actually one of the main problems I had with the otherwise quite interesting book by musicologist Robert Walser, entitled Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music.  Apart from seeming quite dated now (it was originally published in 1993), I think Walser relies too heavily on the notion that the primary mode of transgression in heavy metal arises from instrumental prowess.  Still, it’s an interesting book, and one of the (very) few academic books on the subject of heavy metal, and may well be worth your time to wade through some of the overwrought passages to discover the musicological and critical theoretical insights.  It’s available here from Amazon, and certainly plenty of other places, too.

Sorry for not giving a shit about Van Halen

Well, I’ve definitely banged on about this too much already, so I’ll try to wrap things up.  I think where Walser has it wrong, and why I don’t want to overemphasize this highly atomized, individualistic reading of heavy metal as sheer virtuoso performance, is that there are plenty of metal bands out there that succeed precisely because they avoid emphasizing one musician’s skill above that of another, and instead focus on working as an entity.  Neurosis comes to mind first, primarily because I’ve been rocking their new album Live at Roadburn 2007 recently.  Here is a band, though, which seems less like a collection of individual voices, and more like a collective, through which different voices occasionally speak.  That model is all fine and good, and obviously the amount of reverence shown a band like Neurosis is an indication that I’m not the only one who thinks this way.

What remains un- (or at least under-) explored in heavy metal, though, is exactly this kind of collective improvisation, this quickly-shifting musical conversation between members of the band that I find so thrillingly present in these live recordings of Miles Davis and his band.  I’d like to see metal bands able to move from these two poles of either playing completely as a pulsating organism (the ‘Neurosis Model’, say) or as a preconceived structure atop which the Nietzschean Over-Man dazzles with his unfathomable mastery (the ‘Metallica Model’, say – I’m not claiming that Kirk Hammett is the pinnacle of guitar wizardry, it’s just the example already in play).  Instead, there remains this tantalizing third way, in which a band locks in the skeleton of a song structure – a set tempo, maybe, or a flash of half a guitar riff – and then launches into an actual conversation between equals.

This is, for the most part, far less flashy than a Steve Vai guitargasm, and requires more patience and closer listening than the monolithic heft of Neurosian song-mountains.  It’s as much about listening as it is about speaking, but if the bands can learn to listen, and we listeners can learn to listen to the ongoing conversation, heavy metal can yet achieve a more intimate sense of community; a community not just of fans who listen to the same music, nor of individuals who gain access to community by virtue of technical merit.  A community always in the process of creating itself; an improvised community.

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Negură Bunget, Vîrstele Pămîntului (2010)

Romanian black metal mystics, at it again

Well, as you may well know, there have been some shake-ups in the Negură Bunget camp since 2006’s magisterial Om, leaving only Negru, the drummer, of the original members to carry on under this name.  I don’t particularly care about whatever disagreements led to the split, and have already suggested elsewhere that thankfully this drama never quite reached the farcical levels of the Gorgoroth drama.  The real question, of course, is, How does this stack up next to the visionary Om?

To this humble listener, the results are a bit of a mixed bag.  The core sound and intent of the band seems relatively unchanged, inasmuch as these Romanian lads are still banging on after a rather mystical, folk-ish take on black metal, heavily incorporating various non-traditional instrumentation into their potent and heady blend of magic.  Drudkh remains a none-too-shabby point of reference, as do American stand-outs Agalloch and Wolves In The Throne Room.  This, perhaps obviously, is all for the good.

These songs benefit greatly from the inclusion of not only some excellently non-cheesy keyboards, but also various folk instruments such as flutes (or pipes; it’s a bit hard to tell), horns, and a tasteful selection of extremely taut drums and other percussive sounds.  If you recall some of the wood-sticks-being-banged-together percussion from 2002’s ‘n Crugu Bradalui, you’re on the right track.  Negură Bunget’s take on folk-ish black metal is a highly melodic sort, with the melody typically quite wandering, and generally carried by tremelo guitar.  The core of the sound, however, is highly textured, which is most frequently accomplished by overlaying both acoustic and distorted guitars for maximum classiness.

On another positive note, the production here is generally quite clear, which allows for all the different components to be heard; you won’t really be left guessing as to when you’re hearing keyboards versus when you’re hearing “live” folk instruments, and the bass, especially, is given prominence at some key moments when it demonstrates some wonderfully deep oscillations.  The only complaint about the production, really, is that occasionally the drums sound a little off; the cymbals, especially, sound to these ears somewhat clipped, which I suppose is probably better than an overly splashy cymbal sound, but was still somewhat distracting.

One of my primary concerns in the transition to this new line-up was that the vocals of long-time mainman (and, frankly, ridiculously-named) Hupogrammos Disciple’s would be sorely missed.  Thankfully, though, the harsh vocals of new vocalist Corb are wonderful.  They are hoarse, deep, and impassioned, and recorded clearly enough that I imagine if I spoke Romanian, I’d have no trouble following the words.  At times, they remind of Sakis’ latter-day vocals in Rotting Christ.  Unfortunately, the few times that the band turns to clean vocals do not fare nearly so well.  On “Chei de Rouã,” in particular, the clean vocals are distractingly off-pitch, almost veering onto the Urfaust or Circle Of Ouroborus axis (which works with those bands, by the way, but not so much here).

I’ve mostly been positive so far, and truth be told, this is still a very good record.  Nevertheless, there are several details which keep this from reaching anywhere near the transcendent heights of Om.  My biggest complaint, really, is that the album never really gets any momentum, and when it does pick up a little bit of steam, it is arranged in such a way as to be almost self-defeating.  Too many of the songs are in the mold of a classic slow-tension-building-to-a-cathartic-outburst design.  Individually, this works very well, but because this happens again and again, listening to the album feels like the band is trying to begin the whole thing over again with each new track, rather than proceeding more organically from one song to the next.

Essentially, one of the reasons that Om came off so masterfully is that not only were the individual songs excellent, but the songs were written and the album was sequenced such that it still felt more or less like separate movements contributing to a greater whole.  On Vîrstele Pămîntului, most all the individual songs are excellent when listened to in isolation; strung together in this fashion, though, they seem far too much like brief flashes of something that could have been stitched together differently to produce a greater cumulative effect.  This leads not only to the problem of too many slow-building tracks, but also to the fact that many of the songs fade out too quickly once it seems like they’ve finally hit their stride.  This results in some rather awkward transitions.

Still, I don’t mean to give the impression that this is some sort of trainwreck.  As I’ve said, the individual songs tend to work quite well on their own terms, and the overall sound and vision of the band is still admirable, and relatively unique in the world of contemporary metal.  The two purely instrumental tracks on here, “Umbra” and “Jar,” deserve special notice for each featuring some very rich folk instrumentation and achieving an ambient effect that doesn’t also bore me to tears, death, or Nasum.  In fact, in light of these tracks, as well as the two acoustic re-imaginings included on the recent re-recorded version of their 2000 album Măiastru Sfetnic, it struck me that an all acoustic, ambient/neo-folk album by this band could be very interesting.

So, all in all, this doesn’t match up to Om (nor, to be fair, did I ever really expect it to).  What it does do, however, is to continue to weave their dark spell of meditative metal for Transylvanian forests, and I’m still quite happy to come along for the spinning of these heathen tales.

Overall rating: 78%.  Wasn’t broke, but didn’t fix.

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Altar Of Plagues, Tides (2010)

What are the Irish always so fucked off about, I wonder?

Following fairly hotly on the heels of last year’s excellent debut album White Tomb comes this hefty (36 minutes) EP from the Irish black metal band Altar Of Plagues.  Another of the almost uniformly-excellent bands on Profound Lore’s current roster, Altar Of Plagues wields a meditative, dense fusion of elemental black metal and the drawn-out song structures of insert-your-favorite-variety-of-“post-“-influenced-metal-here.  This EP, which I seem to recall reading was written on the road (the band thanks the Roadburn Festival in the liner notes), is a nice little teaser for future efforts, and thus is not quite up to the high standard set by White Tomb, but doesn’t quite seem as though it was intended to be.  To put it another way, I think that this band’s style is generally better-suited to the album-length statement, but these two tracks certainly show no precipitous drop in quality.

Of the two lengthy songs on offer here, I think opener “Atlantic Light” comes off slightly better, in large part due to its meatier feel.  (Somewhat ironic, innit, that the track “Atlantic Light” comes off as all-around heavier than the slightly more spacious “The Weight Of All”?)  The track kicks off with a nearly depressive black metal-styled plod, which eventually locks into that stretched-out, black metal/post-rock groove the band lived in so comfortably on previous releases.  The comparison is probably a bit played-out by now, but these guys probably sound closer than anyone else to the pissed-off progeny of Wolves In The Throne Room and Godspeed You! Black Emperor.  “Atlantic Light” is also notable in the vocal department for throwing in some sludgey/noisecore-styled bellowing, which very nicely complements the more traditional post-BM rasping.  These touches, though slight, might even give the band a bit of crossover appeal to fans of the somewhat spacier cast of the sludge/doom/hardcore/post-fucking-whatever spectrum (particularly Minsk, Rosetta, or Mouth of the Architect).

“The Weight Of All” touches on a somewhat wider palette of the band’s sonic and textural repertoire, perhaps unsurprisingly given its nearly 20-minute running time.  Some of the nicest songwriting touches crop up towards the end, where the band goes from washes of ambient/noise drones, into a carefully-paced section of blasting, and then finally into a great momentum-gathering final push of double bass-led gravity.  This is a band which really takes its time developing its ideas, which may require a bit of patience from the listener, but offers a fine contrast to the current glut of tech/death blast-athons.  While we’re on the subject of blasting, the sections of blast-beating are generally few and far-between on this release, but when they crop up, especially in the penultimate  movement of “The Weight Of All,” they have a pleasantly organic, loose, and almost shambolic quality, perhaps attributable to the exceptionally rattle-y snare drum.  Where this slightly off-kilter blasting might sound sloppy if attached to your more garden-variety Satan-and-frostbitten-nipples black metal, I find it carries the the suspended, droning melody of these songs rather nicely.

The production on this EP is quite a bit muddier than on White Tomb, but for some reason it really works well with the songwriting.  The crisp, clear production of the full-length worked well for the band’s sound as well, so I don’t know if the slightly dirtier tone here works only because of the few touches of sludge vocals thrown in, or maybe just because this whole release has the feel of a really promising young band out on the road, impatient to get some new ideas thrown down to tape before the moment passes; regardless, this sounds much more live, and really puts the listener in direct conversation with the mournful hue of these patient, well-crafted songs.  All in all, though I’d much rather hear another full-length from this Irish band, these two songs whet the appetite nicely until the crepuscular, creaking world they apparently inhabit inspires them to further feats of sorrowful, avant-garde bleakness.

Overall rating: 75%, light & weight.

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Castevet, Mounds of Ash (2010)

Is this a landfill? A bomb crater? The shoreline of a fog-draped lake? You be the judge.

Seriously, this is getting unfair.  Profound Lore Records is so hot right now, that it shouldn’t be too long before metalheads want to start badmouthing one of their releases just to go against the grain; granted, the Crucifist album from last year wasn’t my absolute favorite, but it was still scuzzy, dirty black thrash/punk, and it was a whole lot of fun.  The point is,  Canada’s Profound Lore continues its remarkable winning streak with Mounds of Ash, the debut album by New York’s Castevet.  I suspect these guys will generally get tagged as ‘black metal’, but as with much of Profound Lore’s stable, that’s only a loosely accurate description; y’know, the sort of thing where you’d say, “black metal, but…”

Although this is all too easy a touchstone, given that Colin Marston recorded this record, one definitely hears echoes of Krallice’s blend of deconstructed black metal and experimental song structures, or of other (fellow) New Yorkers Liturgy.  Where both of those bands blind the listener with scorched earth guitar leads and white-knuckle intensity, however, Castevet rely much more on interlocking rhythmic patterns and a greater sense of space between the component parts.  That is, where Krallice and Liturgy succeed by taking the basic tremelo-picked building blocks of black metal to their logical conclusion by treating constant blasting and shredding as the constituent notes of slowly shifting melodies, Castevet take a more rhythmically patient path to the same sort of meditative endpoint.  Album opener “Red Star Sans Chastity,” for example, starts off fairly immediately with a twitching, off-kilter rhythm, but eventually falls away from this to the build back up to it again, leading to a fantastic game of tension and ultimate payoff, which carries through right to the dime-stop end of the song.

It’s not all black metal here, though.  The vocals are deeper and a bit more hoarse than your typical black metal rasp, maybe somewhere about halfway between hardcore shouts and death metal incantations.  They are also used somewhat sparsely, which suits the music perfectly.  Apart from taking the bits of black metal which suit their darkened ambition, Castevet also evoke bands like Tombs and Sweden’s Burst (who will be sorely, sorely missed), in that they manage to take elements of post-hardcore and some of the brightness of progressive metal, and translate all of that into songs with the patient ebb and flow and the elegantly structured slow burn of Neurosis, but viewed through sped-up film.

Special notice should be paid to the songs “Grey Matter” and “Harvester.”  The former is especially nimble, and features some fantastic machine-gunning rhythms underneath the somewhat warped guitar melody of the “verses” (I use the term with some hesitation, mind).  Check out especially the absolutely mindblowing section starting shortly after the 4:00 minute marker, in which a somewhat muted guitar lead plays to a different meter underneath the blasting of the rest of the band.  Stunning stuff.  A horn-backed instrumental, “Wreathed in Smoke,” leads nicely into the closing track, “Harvester,” which is notable, again, for an excellent slow build which crescendos about half-way through with some great crash cymbal and stabbings of noise before fading out in a swath of distant ambient washes.  The album is over in a tidy 40 minutes, and leaves the listener battered, with little else to do but fumble around for the “Play” button again.

If I haven’t already made it clear, let me say outright that the rhythm section on display in this record is wondrous to behold.  The drummer especially deserves close listening for striking the perfect balance between just keeping up with some complicated rhythm figures and hitting just the right amount of accents and fills.  Mastodon notwithstanding, a fill-crazy drummer can make a band sound way too busy; here it’s just right – complex drumming which doesn’t call needless attention to itself.  Call it black/prog/hardcore/post-/dark/whatever; if genre designations fail (as they ultimately, always, do), and if we have to play the adjective game, then I’d say the best words to describe this album are driving, hypnotic, tense, and haunting.  Some minimal and very tasteful artwork makes this an excellent all-around package.  This is most definitely recommended if you like some of the other avant-garde type black metal bands on Profound Lore, especially Ludicra, Saros, Caїna, The Howling Wind, Altar of Plagues, Krallice, Cobalt, &c., &c.  Maybe the best recommendation I can give this is that it is another fantastic Profound Lore band, and almost completely unclassifiable.  Well, except that I’ll be classifying it under “Play often, and fucking loudly.”

Overall rating: 90%.  This shit is already pretty fierce, but when you remind yourself that this is their debut album which already possesses this much vision and self-assurance, it’s pretty fucking frightening.

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I thought I might take a quick crack at running through the discography of an artist I really love.  If this works out (or if it at least amuses me), I might try it out on other artists as well (and would welcome suggestions for doing so), particularly if I’m feeling a bit lazy at the time to crank out full reviews for a shitload of albums.  I also reserve the right to skip certain albums that either a) I don’t feel like I have anything to say about, b) are for some reason less ‘major’ works, even if they are technically classified as full-lengths, or c) I don’t actually own the thing.

Anyhow, the tired cliche about Ulver is that they are a completely mercurial bunch of tricksters (yuk yuk – lead singer Garm AKA Kristoffer Rygg used to go by Trickster G), changing their core sound with each and every of their full-length releases.  Thing is, that’s pretty much true, although I would add that I don’t think their “core” has changed with each album, if by “core” we understand “basic artistic motivations.”  From the start, these Norwegian metallers have been committed to exploring all the hidden corners of rich, dark music, even if the specific instantiation of those guiding principles sounds more or less radically different each run-through.  They emerged as a part of the Norwegian second wave of black metal in the early 1990s, but quite quickly established themselves as a group apart from the criminal activities and frequently ridiculously Satanic posturing of their national cohort; four albums into their career and they had basically left black metal behind entirely.

Bergtatt (1995):

Their debut album is a remarkably coherent artistic statement, and represents a quite early (and extremely robust) foray into the black/folk metal hybrid that would later gain so much currency throughout the European and American metal scenes.  Bergtatt is an excellent fusion of clean singing, ferocious howls (Ulver is Norwegian for ‘wolves’, after all), melodic riffing, galloping drums (with that pitch-perfect cavernous production), acoustic flourishes, and expertly paced songwriting.  Basically, Agalloch circa Pale Folklore ate their fucking hearts out to this stuff.

Kveldssanger (1996):

In retrospect, this album shouldn’t have been such a shock, given the extremely rich folk undercurrents of the preceding Bergtatt.  Nevertheless, this all acoustic album remains quite jarring, especially given its situation between Bergtatt and Nattens Madrigal.  An absolutely gorgeous collection of folk songs collected from and inspired by Norway’s landscape and collective mythology, here these Norwegian wolves focus on delicately-picked guitar and cello suites overlaid with powerful all-male choral vocals, highlighting the impressive baritone of Garm.  A very contemplative album which fits its evocative artwork exactly, perfect for building campfires in the shadow of the fjords.

Nattens Madrigal (1997):

It has always seemed to me that if there were any logic in this crazy world, these first three albums would have been ordered differently: moving from the shrieking, raw black fury of Nattens Madrigal, then to the nocturnal calm of Kveldssanger, and then finally to the black/folk fusion of Bergtatt makes a hell of a lot more sense.  Regardless of the sequence, this is one fucking ripper of an album.  These eight tracks, each ‘hymns’ to wolves (e.g., “Hymne I – Wolf and Fear,” “Hymne VI – Wolf and Passion,” etc.), will completely shred your eardrums with their trebly, willfully underproduced black metal vitriol.  Apocryphal tales suggest that the band blew the money their label fronted for recording this album on alcohol, and then recorded the damn thing in the middle of the forest.  Who gives a shit, really, when the end result is this vicious, punishing, unrelenting, and possessed of such a single-minded vision.  The ongoing battle within metal for who can be the most “extreme” is clearly missing the mark: this album is a seizing, frothing paroxysm of the absolutely primal beauty of heavy music, to be ignored at your own peril.  Forget your Mayhems and Emperors, your Immortals and your Satyricons: this may be Norwegian black metal’s clearest distillation.

Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven & Hell (1998):

And now, as the story goes, for something completely different.  Are you following these dates?  1995/1996/1997/1998.  Ulver put out these four records in four years, covering more ground than an entire music scene typically covers in a decade.  This double album, based off of William Blake’s epic poem cycle, is an absolute mindfuck, which nevertheless can be seen, retrospectively, to have planted the seeds for their future progression and musical development.  Over the course of this album, Ulver expands their sound into a variety of ambient rock/metal (in some ways similar to The Gathering circa How to Measure a Planet? or if_then_else), electronica (especially trip-hop, but also ambient and even some touches of drum and bass – see “Proverbs of Hell, Plates 7-10”), industrial metal (check out the breakdown in “The Voice of the Devil, Plate 4”), and ambient/experimental noise.  The bottom line is, although there is very little “metal” on this record, its fierce experimental streak and further exploration of a number of dark and heavy (more broadly understood) musical styles revealed Ulver as an even more profoundly creative entity than hinted at by their mastery of black metal in the preceding trilogy of albums.  Restless, searching brilliance that ought to be experienced by open-minded metal fans, as well as anyone interested in the fusing of metal, rock, industrial, and electronic styles (fans of Coil’s Musick to Play in the Dark albums should find much to praise here).

Perdition City (2000):

On Perdition City, Ulver jettisons most (if not all) of the rock and metal trappings, and goes pretty much straight-up trip-hop.  The album maintains a very dark streak throughout, with touches of industrial (this album, for example, presages Blut Aus Nord’s fantastic Thematic Emanation of Archetypal Multiplicity EP in some ways) and noise cropping up here and there.  The crackling ambience throughout and occasional saxophone help to create a slinky, urban noir atmosphere; the album is subtitled “Music to an Interior Film,” but I think it’s the perfect accompaniment to Dark City, Blade Runner, or any other dystopian environment.  For a primarily electronic album, it is significantly less busy than a lot of trip-hop, but fans of the bleak, paranoid atmosphere of Massive Attack’s Mezzanine or Portishead’s spy-noir would likely enjoy this record, as would fans of more recent electronic/jazz outfits like the Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble or Bohren & Der Club of Gore.  By this time, though, most metal fans had either given up on Ulver or accepted that the white hot fury of Nattens Madrigal was not to return anytime soon.

Blood Inside (2005) – Note: This skips 2002’s Lyckantropen Themes and 2003’s Svidd Neger, both of which are not exactly new full-lengths, but rather scores for films:

Just when you thought things could hardly get weirder…  Blood Inside is one of those records which is basically impossible to describe.  It’s also totally fucking awesome.  Here, Ulver have moved away from the trip-hop of Perdition City, brought back in some of the rock and other electronic touches of Themes from William Blake’s…, but also tossed into the mix a whole assload of keyboards, synthesizers, and neoclassical programming touches.  I guess you could say it has aspects of industrial, but it is overwhelmingly warm and organic.  Frankly, it’s difficult to give this a higher recommendation than by saying that this album is singular – it sounds like nothing other than Ulver.  From the crystalline beauty of “Christmas” to the Bach-quoting (I think; it definitely sounds like a Bach organ fugue) programmed madness of “It Is Not Sound,” this is an experimental album of stunning vision and execution.

Shadows of the Sun (2007):

This album is probably the quietest thing Ulver has released, and is remarkably pretty.  The focus is on gently rumbling bass notes and keyboard/organ moods, but the real highlight is the clean baritone of Kristoffer Rygg.  A whisper-quiet rendition of Black Sabbath’s “Solitude” featuring breathy, low-register flute accompaniment fits the desolate mood perfectly.  Although they sound absolutely nothing alike, Shadows of the Sun would seem to have a certain affinity with 1996’s Kveldssanger, in that both evoke a nocturnal, contemplative atmosphere; where Kveldssanger‘s layered vocals occasionally sounded triumphant and stirring, however, Shadows of the Sun is understated, still, and, for lack of a better description, profoundly sad.  A beautifully dark lament.

Ulver: Kicking Your Ass And Blowing Your Mind Ten Ways To Sunday Since 1993

Cheers, &c.,
d.

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