At what point is black metal too nice? Orthodox black metal basically begs this question every time it rears its ever-so-serious head. The paradoxical beauty of much of this movement of the past half-decade or so has probably got a pretty good rationale behind it: if its creators really believe in Satan as a divine force on par with God (that’s a big ‘if’, of course, and frankly, who cares?), then one could make the case that music in praise of that divinity should be warm, inviting, even seductive, in order to bring converts to the cause. Of course, one could also make an equally reasonable case that, ideologies be damned, if you’re going to call it black metal, you’d better be prepared to give me some ugly noise that puts a wicked grin on my face and an arthritic crick in my relentlessly-banged neck.
This somewhat academic set-up does have a point, given that the musical attack of Avichi’s second album is decidedly less frantic than on the 2007 debut, The Divine Tragedy. The Devil’s Fractal makes up for the relatively more subdued approach with much stronger songwriting chops and a rich brew of largely midpaced, moody and mesmerizing black metal. Still, this leaves the prospective listener in the position of deciding whether she prefers her black metal raw or sophisticated. Of course, one might judge ‘raw’ to be a euphemism for ‘imprecise’, and ‘sophisticated’ a euphemism for ‘tame.’ Words are tricky devils like that.
Avichi’s approach to black metal throughout The Devil’s Fractal is a sophisticated (for better or worse) and stubbornly measured take on the Midwestern black metal of Judas Iscariot or Krieg with a touch of Absu and maybe even Immortal thrown in, with the faintest hints of a mainstreamed version of the modern French wooze-‘n-blast. (See the speedy, churning, Deathspell-ish midsection of “Under Satan’s Sun.”) The rich build-up of lead-off track “Sermon on the Mount” is fierce and melodic enough that its crest could easily spill directly into a Primordial arms-wide outpouring, yet it yields to an insistently forward-driving black groove. The greatest feature of The Devil’s Fractal is the way that the stern vocals are so well grafted onto the riffs, which gives the vocal lines the impression of being pitched like the guitars when they are merely a full-throated and even monotonal croak. “Tabernacle of Perdition” is one of the best examples of this ruthlessly rhythmic melodicism, particularly throughout the climax of the last minute or so.
Still, despite the obvious craft that animates this sumptuous bed of dark sounds, there’s a nagging part of me that still thinks this is all a little too, well, ‘nice’. Black metal shouldn’t have to be dogmatically ugly (though the Finnish scene makes a compelling case for the artistic and ass-kicking merit of exactly that dogma), but the inner teenager/asshole in me also keeps insisting that black metal also shouldn’t be this easily digestible. “Kaivalya of the Black Magician” maintains the gruesome, unwavering focus of the rest of the album, but adds in just enough of a chaotic roiling to finally give the impression that, at any minute, the song will escape the grasp of its players. This makes it easily one of the best songs of the album, although it also serves to highlight the often frustratingly measured approach taken elsewhere. The two-part title track that closes out the album lasts for nearly twenty minutes, but introduces such a wealth of melodic flourishes and well-connected sections that its well-behaved black metal orthodoxy regains some striking composure. The song’s first half closes out with a hypnotic, droning guitar cadence that might have tipped into tedium if not for some nicely intricate cymbal work.
The Devil’s Fractal is probably one of the purest genre exercises yet released by Profound Lore, which is partly surprising due to the fact that, for as much as the startling diversity of different acts grouped under the same sterling umbrella is commented on, somewhat less frequently mentioned is the fact that the lion’s share of those bands tend to take an extremely liberal view of their respective genre(s). That is, it’s not just that SubRosa and Blood Revolt sound nothing like each other, but also that each has a very motley way of sounding like itself. This doesn’t make Avichi a bad fit with the label, then, because the strength of Profound Lore as of late is that there is no one “fit,” per se, but a somewhat rare genre exercise this album remains. Avichi’s riffs are well-defined and occasionally memorable, the production sparkles with thick gristle, and the Miltonian sermons are delivered with sufficiently grim focus that the album wouldn’t seem out of place on Norma Evangelium Diaboli or any other such “no smiles allowed” label. As a confident and frequently excellent incarnation of professional and well-rounded black metal, The Devil’s Fractal is a resounding success, but every now and then I just want to hear a bum note, a dropped beat, a cracked voice. The danger I seek in black metal isn’t about Luciferian metaphysics or a bunch of dudes feigning antisocial personality disorder; I want the danger of a band so absolutely committed to playing the shit out of their ragged songs that the whole damn thing comes off the wheels.