Is black metal real?
Sheath your quills and hold your emails, please. Yes, of course black metal is real in the sense that it is comprised of actual sounds, rhythms, melodies, vibrations of the tympanic membrane. But in the sense of subjective, shared social reality, is black metal real? Or to put it differently: does black metal need not to be real in order to thrive?
Black metal has long been in the vanguard of courting mystique, atmosphere, lore, obscurity, rumor, and anonymity (or at least severe social detachment). To the listener, these elements can honestly impart an enhancement of how the music is experienced. But importantly, they do so without needing to be perceived as real. Even when listening to the most sideways, willfully obscure, intentionally antagonistic black metal, I know that behind the noise are plain-ass people who need to pay rent and one time forgot to buy the right kind of cabbage at the grocery store.
But does the music need that separation from reality to work its magic?
At the risk of disappointing your surely rapt attention, long-suffering reader, the answer is: shit if I know. However, The Eternal Melancholy of the Wampyre, the debut full-length from Ecuador’s Wampyric Rites, has got me thinking.
For example, too often in raw black metal, poor production is used to mask poor performances or songwriting, and to do so by cloaking those deficiencies in the guise of “aesthetic” or “atmosphere.” The Eternal Melancholy of the Wampyre is defiantly lo-fi in its production, but still clear enough – and with enough loving attention to detail – that each element remains razor-sharp and perfectly intelligible. Even the keyboards, which kick off the album in several minutes of effective if dutiful tribute to the seemingly retconned version of black metal’s second wave currently en vogue in which every single band was at least 50% dungeon synth, sound a bit like a Casio that somebody stuffed back down into a lake in a sort of reverse Excalibur, and yet they set the scene with a convincingly warbling devotion.
Apart from the synth intro, though (which only lasts about the first half of the album opener), Wampyric Rites is entirely in the business of summoning the riff-thunder. Each of the six songs is closely focused on a few key riffs or motifs, and yet even when a song seems slightly more rudimentary in composition, there’s always a sneaky amount of variation under the surface. In “As Light is Absorbed by Darkness,” for example, even though the drums stay mostly in a two-step bass-snare pattern, the drummer constantly switches up the cymbal flourishes in a way that gives a song which otherwise sticks to its same slow meter an illusion of movement like a candle guttering in the wind.
The not-so-secret weapon working in Wampyric Rites’s favor is the powerhouse drumming of Eblis Destructor. Each member of the band turns in excellent performances, but the conviction, versatility, and raw power of the drums truly elevates the album to something special. The spindly guitar lead that opens the title track is a nice touch, as is the frantically skittering cymbal work, while “Grim Funeral Inside the Dusty Dungeons of Time” is a lightning-fast workout that almost veers into d-beat territory, even as the guitars keep things firmly pinned to that classic second-wave skeleton.
With this album, Wampyric Rites joins a rarefied cohort of bands making ruthlessly intense, bullshit-free black metal that extends the second-wave template without either abandoning it or rehashing it mindlessly. Think of Old Wainds, Hirilorn, Setherial, Nehemah, or Grafvitnir, but of course at the center of it all is the undeniable fact that most of the riffs are acolytes of the De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas or In the Nightside Eclipse school. The whole thing culminates in the mammoth closing track, “Under an Amethyst Sky,” which rolls into view with a huge amount of swagger (and even a bit of downright swing) in the drums that goose the doomed-out opening riff along. The whole thing just explodes with energy, careening from section to section with some of the same mix of backwards-glancing traditionalism and “oh shit can we just do this?” glee that Darkthrone inhabited on A Blaze in the Northern Sky.
Ultimately, that’s why The Eternal Melancholy of the Wampyre is such a triumph: there’s enough of that ineffable magic of old that one can imagine whatever tragic vista of wraiths haunting a spectral churchyard one might like, but the unstoppable, physical power of the performances is such that one can also picture the band sweating it out in a cramped rehearsal space with the guitar amp crowding the ride cymbal and a couple half-empty beer bottles tap-dancing their way to a spill from the vibrations.
Sometimes the critical faculties fail. This album is, scientifically speaking, fucking awesome, and it’s as real as you want to make it.