After initially not being extremely impressed with Deathspell Omega’s much-lauded Paracletus, I recently revisited it. I discovered what I had missed in previous listens and now I can appreciate it for the masterwork that it truly is. And doing so has made me interested in bands like them who play black metal with a higher musical pedigree. The term technical black metal is such an oxymoron that it shouldn’t exist but of course, it does. Launching into a search for bands who play simultaneiously play at both ends of the spectrum was not easy, but I came across some fascinating examples that are too good not to share.
Recommended by a friend, this first group adds in even another very un-black metal inspiration to their already barely-existent sub-subgenre: Christianity. Religious view aside, Drottnar are too talented to be ignored. Their most recent album, 2012′s Stratum is simply jaw-dropping. Guitarists this skilled tend to play in wankery tech-death bands, a far cry from the common colleague of Fenriz. Self-proclaimed defenders of “bunker metal” these war-obsessed mongrels are as schizophrenic as they are intelligent.
A bit closer to home, the Bandcamp crowd may know this Brooklyn quartet. They remind much more of the infamous French masterminds, but they take the same formula and amp it up to its extreme. Faster, more dissonant, and more experimental, they have little in common with their shoegazing, hip neighbors.
While nowhere near as technical as the first two bands, Mörk Gryning’s final album has just enough of an angular, industrial edge to drive it into territory more complex and convoluted than 90% of their Swedish countrymen. The fist-pumping riffs and nonstop tempo changes made their swan song an instant classic that most likely never see its equal in this corner of the black arts. Ending on a high note is always welcome, but one this high creates a disappointing void.
Atmospheric, hypnotic, and trance-inducing these bands are not. Nor will your average basement dwelling solo project be able to replicate such such mastery without a few more years locked in the dark. But bands like these improve the outlook of their genre by injecting some much needed skill and forward-thinking songwriting. The tremolo is dead. Love live the tremolo.
This year I’ve tried to pay closer attention to what specifically I’m looking for in my listening and what sort of themes/sounds/styles evoke the greatest emotional response. It’s made for an interesting take on the albums I’ve picked up, especially looking at how I view releases over time and my initial reactions vs an album’s long-term playability. Because of this, I’ve realized that end of year lists can be somewhat — okay, a lot — arbitrary because albums that you’ve have had 11 months to digest will clearly elicit different feelings than ones unleashed three weeks ago. That’s partly why I’ve waited as long as possible to post my choices for the best of 2013, so I ensure that I have proper gestation time for the new releases sitting in my library. I’ve already seen too many lists that hail week-old albums as the cream of the crop. All good art needs time to incubate, no matter how incredible the first impression may be.
Firm as I can be in my choices, I’ve left out anything that gave me the slightest doubt so I limited the list to 20 this year. My top picks have been solidified for some time, while other may still be slowly gaining. As it is now, here are my favorite releases of 2013.
20. Skeletonwitch – Serpents Unleashed
Skeletonwitch have been chugging along with their brand of blackened death-thrash for a decade now. Adding only slight changes to their sound along the way, they’re a band that focuses more on consistency than experimentation. While their fifth album is hardly a change in direction, Kurt Ballou’s fancy knob-twisting finally gives them the production they deserve while the more refined riffery makes Serpents Unleashed impossible not to enjoy.
19. Fyrnask – Eldir Nótt
Fyrnask’s debut was a Bandcamp hit, but his follow-up seemed to get a little less exposure. It’s a challenging, epic journey through the densest thickets of atmospheric black metal and it’s impressive to see so much creativity and nuance flowing forth from a single brain. Those who thought Altar of Plagues’ last album a bit too experimental will find solace is this rising German star.
18. Deafheaven – Sunbather
Creating an even more massive schism between kvltists and hipsters, Deafheaven’s sophomore album is as polarizing as it is undeniably unique. They take the blackgaze movement to its logical conclusion with major chords and shimmering soundscapes that takes a frostbitten black starting point and makes it, well, pink.
17. Code – Augur Nox
While not as immediately gratifying as their previous effort, Augur Nox is still an exciting mass of black infused progressive metal. The new singer emulates Kvohst’s firebrand preacher style perfectly as the rest of the band brings an intense yet polished take on the avant-garde.
16. Inquisition – Obscure Verses for the Multiverse
The diabolical Seattle duo finally, and rightly, emerge from the black metal underground with their sixth full-length. Although it occasionally descends into mid-paced trudgery, the incessant mind-bending riffs keep the cosmic journey a shockingly good one. One of the few bands that can pull off a great-sounding album sans bassist.
15. Vastum – Patricidal Lust
As I wrote over at Metal Bandcamp, these Bay Area death crusties offer up another great slab of chugging and stomping depravity. With surprising solos, dual vocalists and ever-expanding riff patterns, fans of death metal old school and modern alike will find plenty to be unwillingly seduced by here.
14. Synkvervet – Vår Avmakt
By far the best debut of the year, these Norwegian newcomers take Emperor worship to a new level with their refined symphonic black metal. They get the keyboard tone and phrasing just right and make it fit naturally along with the rest of the band, and even pull off programmed drums that aren’t a complete distraction.
13. Noumena – Death Walks With Me
This year proved to be a bit of a melodeath revival for me. The first extreme subgenre I came to love hasn’t had all that much to write home about recently until nonstop offerings from almost all of the genre’s top contenders in just the past 9 months. But discovering Noumena is what really got me interested again with their slight tweaks of the Finnish formula raising them up to the top tier. Turns out experimentation with poppy melodies and female vocals is a recipe that works wonders.
12. Fir Bolg – Towards Ancestral Lands
I never thought I could bring myself to listen to an album with cover art so atrocious, let alone love it. The one-man French side project mixes Celtic folk sounds with Immortal-esque riffs and vocals that work surprisingly well. The hooks and upbeat choruses bring that rare sense of fun to black metal that makes you look at the genre a bit differently and appreciate it ever the more.
11. Altar of Plagues – Teethed Glory and Injury
By far the most challenging album on this list, Altar of Plagues evolved their sound for what would be their final album. Dissonance reigns supreme as the Irishmen incorporate industrial influences and do away with double-digit song lengths, making this a swan song for the ages.
10. Acrimonious – Sunyata
As I wrote towards the beginning of the year, these Greeks’ psychedelic nods make their style of blackened witchery a monument to behold. It’s rare to find black metal that’s both this forward thinking and blazing with Hellenic fire.
9. Enforcer – Death by Fire
Essentially Kill ‘em All 2013, this album never left my stereo during the summer. The perfect mix of infectious riffs, aggression and downright fun, it’s a template for young speed metallers everywhere. Enforcer prove that although the genre may not have much new to offer, that doesn’t mean strapping on your leather pants and rocking balls-out ever goes out of style.
8. Arsis – Unwelcome
After their disappointing Starve for the Devil I was apprehensive about another Arsis album, especially considering the band had gone through even more lineup changes and even temporarily left James Malone behind. But the new crew ended up writing the best album since their debut and even pulled off a classic new wave cover alongside their blistering anthems.
7. Kalmah – Seventh Swamphony
As one of the bands that got me into extreme metal, Kalmah quickly lost my attention after their initial trio of blackened melodeath classics. I decided to give them one final shot with this horribly titled album, and I’m glad I did. The Kokko brothers’ masterful interplay is better than ever and the songs are an upbeat and headbangable treat. A true return to form for a band that desperately needs to tour the US.
6. Thrawsunblat – Wanderer on the Continent of Saplings
Fusing black and bombastic folk metal, Joel Violette continues his uber-Canadian project with fantastic results. The album follows Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, screaming a metallic tale of a hero on an epic adventure that both embraces and transcends the best of modern melodic metal.
5. Blood Ceremony – The Eldritch Dark
Leaning more towards occult rock than anything metal, these Torontonians take their Tullisms a step further into the folk land as they explore the witchwood. The men of the group hold things back a bit and let Alia O’Brien’s flute and organ take front and center, casting an unequaled enchanting spell.
4. Inter Arma – Sky Burial
This monolith of black-tinged sludge is so massive I’m still wrapping my head around it and discovering nuances nine months later. Epic in scope and delivery, these Virginians add a few Americana nods through the swampy foray that makes us this year’s best multi-genre assault.
3. Satan – Life Sentence
I’ve never been that much of a traditional heavy metal fan, and this album made me realize how stupid I am for that. Absolutely addicting, these reunited middle-aged Brits released one of the best NWOBHM albums in history after over two decades of hiatus. Their twin guitar assaults and tight-as-leather songwriting make for one of the easiest aural binges of the year. No band should be able to recover from a quarter century break, but Satan rise above all odds with an album that puts most 80s classics to shame.
2. Vreid – Welcome Farewell
The Norwegian black ‘n’ rollers keep getting better with age as they fully become riff-centric phenoms on their sixth full-length. With painfully good solos and abrupt tempo changes, they prove that the power of the fjords holds a never-ending supply of musical inspiration. I was lucky enough to sit down with songwriter Hváll on their tour bus earlier this year and ask him how their magnum opus was formed.
1. Tribulation – The Formulas of Death
With such a heaping of praise given to their debut, it would have been easy for these Swedes to stick to their guns and shoot out a damn good sophomore effort. Instead, they opted to change course and experiment with their thrashy death roots by adding in a heaping of psychedelic and progressive flourishes and came out with a masterpiece. There isn’t a single moment on the album that isn’t perfectly placed or written. Seeing the band open for Watain while wearing women’s clothing and gothic makeup only made me love them more, as it became clear they know exactly what the hell they’re doing. Tribulation have managed to break free of the the bonds of Swedish Death Metal while taking control of their country’s much-lauded scene.
2013 wasn’t as initially hard-hitting as 2012 but it’s had a lot of slowburners that gain momentum over time and helped shape the way I process the music that I buy, and for that I’m thankful. It’s also been a year that shows the subgenre world is in a transitional period. While this site will always be dedicated to the promotion of atypical black metal, a few disappointing releases made me realize that the “post”, “Cascadian” and “gaze” bubbles have essentially burst, and there isn’t much more to be desired in those realms. But intriguing melody and otherworldly influences will always find their way into black metal, no matter how deep they’re hidden. My goal in 2014 is to explore more older influential acts while still keeping up with newer innovators. It’s going to be an exciting time to do so, as just the first few months of the new year already have over a dozen high-profile releases from some of the world’s best acts. As always I’ll do my best to cover those, as well as any surprises that pop up along the way.
One of my favorite albums of 2012 was the debut from Greece’s Hail Spirit Noir. The insane psychedelic and progressive elements mixed with black metal made for one of the most unique releases I’ve ever heard, in any genre. So a few months ago when I was emailing the band about if they had plans to release it on vinyl I was pleasantly surprised to learn that they were putting the final touches on their follow-up. Titled Oi Magoi (The Magician) it is now complete and will be unleashed in less than two months, a quick turnaround to be sure. Look for the album on January 20th via Code 666. The track list for 49 minute album is as follows:
1. Blood Guru
2. Demon for a Day
3. Satan is Time
4. Satyriko Orgio (Satyrs’ Orgy)
5. The Mermaid
7. Oi Magoi
Things have been quiet of late. Most of my time has been focused on my new job and metal musings for Metal Bandcamp as that site and my passion for it grows. Proper reviews may still occasionally pop up here, but not as consistently as they once did. In terms of the music I’ve been listening to, I have been trying to split my time between the latest/greatest and lesser-known gems I may have skipped over in years past. Three releases in particular have grabbed and held my attention as I continue to explore the annals of black metal’s more melodic and experimental side.
The first may be well-known to anyone who digs deep into the side-project world, but 15 years later it still strikes me as an incredibly unique listening experience. Diabolical Masquerade was a project of Anders Nyström of Katatonia and the prodigious Dan Swanö. It takes a goofy, less serious approach to black metal; filling it circus-like symphonics and off the wall compositions. Their 1998 final proper album Nightwork perfected their sound and is a must for anyone who needs a break from bullet belts and christbashing.
The next album I found laying in the depths of the internet is Black Lotus’ Harvest of Seasons. The short-lived Canadian group managed to pull off a fantastic piece of atmospheric black metal for their swan song, focusing on the seasons and the natural changes undertaken by the world on a yearly basis. It’s an uplifting, majestic journey. Unfortunately the album is almost impossible to find as their label pulled all digital rights for it (aforementioned new job is in the digital music world, so I get to see firsthand how these things work), but if you can track it down I can give you my word you will not be disappointed.
Finally, we travel back to Europe for a band that is very much alive and kicking. Norwegian/English group Code just released the fantastic Augur Nox a few days ago, but it’s their 2009 album Resplendent Grotesque that really caught my ears. In the vein of Enslaved of Borknagar, the band shines black metal’s rough patches to a glimmer and fills them with clean singing and slick guitar work. They’ve undergone massive lineup changes and take roughly four years between albums, so it’s safe to say the band will not likely outdo their sophomore masterpiece.
Look for my end of year list in the next three weeks or so. It may be a bit later this year as I’m trying to absorb everything I still need to pick up and be more mindful of what music truly affects me. My top five or so have been set in stone for the past few months and while I don’t expect those to change I look forward to organizing and reflecting on all the rest.
Corpse paint is one of the longest-running symbols of black metal. While many think it has more than outstayed its welcome, it lives on and always will. Starting as a staple of shock rock, it naturally migrated to the most shocking genre of music the world had ever seen, the second wave of BM of the early ’90s where it flourished and ultimately peaked. It was a symbol used to show a great number of things, but ultimately became more associated with the Norwegian scene and they style they created than any metaphorical meaning.
When you see a band wearing corpse paint, you can safely assume what their music is going to sound like before they even pick up an instrument. Relentless, high energy and most likely satanic or occult in theme, the image is as – if not more – important than the music itself. There’s many forms the black and white face paint can take, ranging from the deadly serious of Gaahl to the cartoonishly comical of Abbath.
But in the end, it will remain an important aesthetic component to these bands, and I’ll admit it can be tastefully done on occasion. Above are a few shockingly intense photographs of Natremia, highlighting the effect good corpse paint can have on a band’s image. Taken by my friend who is an amazingly talented photographer, the high contrast pictures brings out the bleak qualities defined by both the paint and the music. The Bordeaux-based horde will debut their first full-length on September 16th.
Last year, Anicon quietly debuted their EP – and themselves – simply by posting it on Bandcamp and waiting for the world to discover it. Word quickly spread as the Colin Marston-mastered release was quickly identified as something more than just another Brooklyn-based BM crew. And now we have a new, free release from the clandestine group; a three track demo of the highest quality. “A Nest of Suns” reminds heartily of something as delicate and intriguing as Cobalt would produce, proving this is just more than just black metal as it’s defined.
No word on whether the three songs are unrefined creations of an upcoming effort or just the band appeasing those of us who have been gorging on last year’s release for too long. But just like last year’s release, it’s a welcome addition to the thriving scene of USBM.
Two incredible musicians have just announced a split together, and it instantly became one of my most anticipated records of the year. Stevie Floyd of Dark Castle/Taurus/awesome tattoos fame is collaborating with Drift of a Curse’s Erik Moggridge to release a twelve track collaboration seeing the musicians trade vocal and guitar duties. Moggridge, a veteran of the Bay Area thrash and death metal scene, has spent the past few years on his solo acoustic project, Aerial Ruin. I’m not normally one for lone acoustic music, but 2011′s Valleys of the Earth is one of my most-listened to relaxing albums, and most metalheads will find solace in his gloomy, almost doom-ridden folk. And while I haven’t listened to too much of Floyd’s Taurus, Dark Castle put out some extremely interesting and crushing doom that fits nicely on the Profound Lore roster. Additional dark wizardry will be provided by infamous USBM lurker Wrest.
Unfortunately there are no samples of the split to check out yet, but it promises to be “a wholly absorbing, folk-centric offering” so it’s not hard to imagine something similar to Aerial Ruin. The split will be available for preorder on digital or vinyl via either of the artist’s Bandcamp pages. The still-untitled album will be available August 1st.
Bölzer - Aura
Sigh - Scenes From Hell
Anciients - Heart of Oak
Immortal Bird - Akrasia
Mörk Gryning - Mörk Gryning