Greetings, Trav’lers. Once again, the moon has crept its way into total darkness, reminding us of the ever-eroding sands of Time. It is often accepted that Time is a man-made construct, an idealogical invention in humanity’s eternally futile attempts to seize control of nature. Yet can we not bear witness to the birth, growth, and aging of a tree, all whilst seeing a similar pattern reflected in our own selves as our perspectives evolve and our bank of experience alters our point of view? Do we not take note of the phases of the moon, the movement of the stars, the shifting of the tides as they work through infinite cycles, all in harmony like cogs of an empyrean Rube Goldberg machine? While the increments in which it is measured and perceived were indeed crafted by mere mortals, Time itself is an infinite expanse of chance, happenstance, and possibility caught in this spiraling web of forces we, as mere flies trapped in the snares of the Great Spider Of The Infinite Cosmos, could but wish to fathom. It reaches beyond the scope of our comprehension, twisting and weaving in its ineffable boundlessness as the Fates align – yet, to our limited perception, it steadily marches forward in a seemingly unilateral direction.
Now imagine a precise point most minuscule in that interstellar web: The early nineties, when black metal as we know it today was birthed. The first strokes of the second wave were an attempt to go against the natural order of things, to break free of the binds of forward temporal momentum. It was a necrotic spell designed to raise the past from beyond the grave. The very soul of metal that was going, at least in the minds of the necromancers whom so brashly performed this ritual, off-course from its original spirit and needed, to put it colloquially, a swift kick in the nads. These progenitors found themselves in dire need of an alternative to the increasingly cookie cutter formula of the underground’s darling at the time: Death metal. Little did the young practitioners know of the waves that would grow from the ripples into a beast unto itself. Twenty years in the future and it seems those fickle little hands of Time have been up to their old tricks. With death metal again flirting with the edges of what could be considered commercial success (or, more realistically, unequivocally popular in the metal sphere), black metal has, in turn, been pushing out a slew of inspired creations: The lot of them daring to be bolder, weirder, and more fiercely personal than their rival siblings in extremity. The old spectre of the movement still lurks within the music, despite the beast it has transmogrified into well outside of the scope or control of its original creators. Like Time, it is birthed unbound to the whims and desires of those who would seek to imprison it or attempt to cage its very soul.
Or it could just be that the isolation of the current age has corrupted Time and spurred an abundance of creativity? Like a madman furiously scribbling poetry and frantically doodling across the cold concrete of his cell, these musicians have ferociously decorated the would-be walls of Time that bind them in an attempt to seek some sort of salvation amongst the insanity. After all, what is music but humanity’s artistic imprint on Time? Regardless, what follows are works that gleam amongst the infinite and ever-expanding backdrop of black metal, yet remain proudly untouched by the influence of trends within this temporal orb – this is music that was destined to be unleashed, to be heard, to be felt, and not some status symbol, or ideogram of clout, or vehicle for sick graphic design brandished on an eight-sided t-shirt through the available-now-only-for-a-limited-time-until-we-do-it-again marketing scheme pushed by labels seeking to capitalize off the dramatic upsweep in death metal popularity. This is about the raw spirit of underground metal – doing it because it’s a calling. It’s that very spirit that’s kept the underground alive for so many years: It’s not the occasional surge in popularity of bands or styles, it’s the heeding of the call of a soul dedicated to a craft – and may that seemingly insignificant blazing flame against the empty backdrop of infinity never, ever be extinguished.
svrm – Розпад
There seem to be a few patterns occurring as this particular feature continues to take form. While it was originally intended to shine fresh light on underground artists in black metal, there has been a tendency to check in on a few on the bands mentioned in prior editions. With how much I’ve come to love Ukraine’s svrm over the past few years, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to see how the one-man project has been coming along.
svrm play a very Ukrainian style of black metal: Think lots of epic, sweeping autumnal soundscapes – atmospheric without ever losing the vicious bite of true black metal. Part of this snarl comes from the sheer conviction in the vocals. Tortured and pained, they reflect the mindset of a country seemingly cursed in eternal strife and conflict. There is something that connects on such a primal, human level: This sort of music just feels like an unfiltered, unbridled outpouring emotion that comes only from experiencing the true gravity of struggle. While the latest effort doesn’t feel quite as bombastic and cohesive as last year’s Занепад, it still upholds a quality that’s come to be expected of the young prolific artist. svrm experiments a little more readily with acoustic passages, however, they don’t quite flow as fluently into the greater structure of the songs as they have on the past three efforts. In fact, at times, they seem to interrupt the progression of the songs, pulling the listener out of the total immersion in the music. In layman’ terms, occasionally everything feels a little bit too choppy.
However, when the record hits, it hits. Precisely one minute into “Розпад,” we’re met with a tempo drop into a melody fit for Autumn Aurora complete with a full payoff as the song accelerates to a climax. “Mовчання” may well be some of the band’s finest material to date in terms of channeling that defiant, yet sorrowed triumph so trademarked to the region. If anything, it feels like things move a little too quickly, as opposed to allowing these moments of excellence to simmer and transition a bit more smoothly and fluidly. I think svrm would benefit from trusting in their melodies to draw things out a hair more, to find that river of hypnotic fluency that they are most certainly capable of. These melodies are so good I say again to the band: trust in them.
While I’ve always appreciated the concise lengths of the band’s works (lovingly referring to them as “bite-sized Drudkhs”), I think allowing a bit more time for transitions could benefit svrm. I’d love to see what they could do with a forty-minute or so album properly crafted for a vinyl release and the workings of a good studio. The home recording approach has me more than sold: Someone please give this project the budget it deserves! Despite the criticisms listed here, I still firmly believe in the band and want to see them really go for something huge, lest they end up plateauing at this level of output. They’ve still got a stranglehold on unbridled passion and ecstatic melodies, they just need to figure out where to go with it and get the backing needed to reach their opus levels of creativity and output.
Ancient Mastery – Chapter One: Across The Mountains Of The Drämmarskol
A steady breeze picks up between the cliffs, growing in strength and flirting with violent speeds before simmering back to a dull whisper. The icy breath of foreshadowing at the introduction to one-man Austrian symphonic black metal project Ancient Mastery’s debut offering is padded with angelic, choral synths that beckon the listener into a faraway dream world. It fluffs the pillow and tucks the sheets a bit, so to speak – preparing its audience and gently suggesting the whims of attention, softly seducing the ears with its coaxing whispers of fantastical worlds and grandiose tales of old. As the drums pick up to a slow, extremely Summoning-esque tattoo betwixt the toms and snare, the desire for attention beckons harder yet. She’s a shifty siren; she’s taking her time with her prey, waiting for the opportune moment to strike when their guard is down and (ahem) their swords be up and attentive for battle. Then, BOOM! Those soft breezes erupt into a hailstorm as we’re thrust into a larger-than-life world of epic majesty and ancient grace.
Our arrival is greeted with every bit of pomp-and-circumstance: The synths ignite in a marvelous display of glory. The vocals crack in with that all-too-familiar reverberated, skeletal call of the darkest metals of olde, but it’s so well suited to Ancient Mastery’s style of epic black metal that it feels like a crumb of comfort as opposed to the trappings of a trope. Across the chorus, ethereal woodwind synths ebb and flow with the subdued touch of the pitch wheel as project mastermind Erech howls about marching to the promised land in an inspiring call to glory. Following a softer passage, the ending brings everything back into full force – victory seems but a raven’s breath away from being clenched.
While “To Valdura” does an excellent job of painting the vast landscape of the album, the first true taste of that glorious triumph is gifted within “The Majesty Of Aztara.” The introductory riff taps directly into that mystique of European folk melody that runs so deep in the vein of the Old World; coupled with the generous amounts of reverb in the blasting section it bursts through like the rushed winds between the very mountains of the Drämmarskol, focusing their power between the walls of sound that contain them. The mighty force flows around mountain peaks as the riffs and melodies shift through several sections before working back to that hooky folky melody. Then the trumpets resound and that taste of victory finally reaches the lips in a glorious breakdown section. While that would have been more than enough for an excellent song, Erech isn’t finished yet. As the trumpets fade and the sweeping winds of the guitars die down until all that’s left are the soft twinkles of the synth, a gentle calm. Then those distant drums pick up, again in that very Summoning-like manner. The trumpets return, this time opening the gates to transcendence: The guitars fill out the sound over a one-two beat and the synths climb out of the stratosphere and to the stars in a beautiful display of songcraft.
Chapter One isn’t out of surprises yet. “The Passage” kicks off with the whispers of pipes and woodwinds over a grooving running kick before hitting the melodic hook. Much like “To Valdura,” a full song structure basically plays out before the epic punch of the climax. This time the trumpets blast forth without warning, blanketing the halls with a brilliant golden glory. When we return to the main hook, this time the drums gallop forth on the snare like the hooves of shadowed steeds through the valleys of Drämmarskol. “The Passage” is a full-on riding out song, complete with some Western guitar work that doesn’t sound too far removed from the classic “(Ghost) Riders In The Sky.” The fourth and final track takes a sharp departure from the styles of the previous three; starting with a strummed picking of acoustic guitar and some gorgeous feminine vocals that ring out in a minor key lullaby. The nightmares wash over as the full band kicks in, with Erech’s familiar rasp providing a dark counter to the harmonies of the introduction. It cannot be stressed enough how difficult it is to pull off this sort of ballad in black metal without falling too deep into the cornfields, but Ancient Mastery pull through with a confidence and sinister grace rarely matched in such an effort. It’s a fitting conclusion to a truly grandiose album, and with Chapter Two planned for release later this year, Ancient Mastery are proving to be a force to keep a close eye on come end of year season.
Available on cassette (Ad Victoriam) and vinyl (Death Kvlt Productions) in February. CD available in March courtesy of Pest Productions.
Valac – Burning Dawn Of Vengeance
Certain soundbites are overused in metal. Some have been used so perfectly that any future usage of the same recorded quotation falls exceedingly flat (prime example being the 1996 track, “And When He Falleth,” by Theatre Of Tragedy being the supreme ruler of the Vincent Price quote from 1964’s The Masque Of Red Death – despite many attempts no bands have quite touched the tension of that recorded moment). While Robert Oppenheimer’s famous quote, most notably the “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” bit, has been used quite frequently in the realms of black metal, it always feels like an ominous welcome. New Mexico’s Valac twist and decay this famous nibble of sound into a fitting introduction to their second full-length, Burning Dawn Of Vengeance. It paints a fitting introduction to the hazy, grey dusts the match the portrait of its cover: the guitars are fuzzy and gratuitously reverberated, painting an almost Judas Iscariot-like landscape across the field of sound.
The riffs on “Awakening Of Valac” shift and phase like a spectre – flitting and haunting the muzzled blasts with a blanket of grim and grit. The tremolo sections dart around like a feather duster, flicking away the cobwebs and dust bunnies as the vocals cry out from a forgotten chest clutching tight memories of a life long past its expiration. The drums avoid the Transilvanian Hunger death trap of constantly blasting – it’s truly the skeletal 1-2-3-4 minimalism on songs like “Weep Behind The Wall Of Illness” or the breakout section of “The Depths Of Despndency” that sell the rhythm section.
Valac’s most recent effort captures a style oft sought after yet rarely obtained: orthodox bare rawness that eschews the barriers of lo-fi recording; i.e. sounding a bit too much like a bedroom project. The music totally emerges the listener into the well, leaving all suspension of disbelief in the dust. It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what it is about bands that do such a directive style so well, but whatever the X-factor is that Valac are carrying in their DNA, it’s got the magic to lose the listener in dusty attics and forgotten basements with little regard to the as to the actual world around them – escapism in darkness, dust, and genuine settings mixing a cocktail of curiosity, fear, and, mystery.
Cassette to be released soon on Banner Of Blood; vinyl on Banner Of Blood (US) and Black Gangrene Productions (EU).
Ferriterium – Calvaire
Always trying to show my bias whenever possible, it takes a lot to get me interested in the style of modern black metal that has exploded in the wake of the success of Poland’s Mgła. There are certainly plenty of releases that I love, but so much of it falls flat or, more criminally, has a drum sound that would drive Fenriz into a Hello Kitty frenzied madness. But every so often one comes along that really clicks – and not just from the cardboard sound of the drum triggers. Ferriterium, the side project of Raido (Heimsgard, Karne), manages to avoid such pitfalls with an explosive grace with their third offering, Calvaire.
The album starts off with a blaze of energy. No fancy-pants intros or atmosphere building – it just drops the listener right into a pummeling whirlwind of melody. The criss-crossing tremolo guitars lock and interweave as the drums find their groove. Radio’s spiteful bark is aggressive and enraged, perfect for black metal that goes straight for the neck. While the album certainly has that more nihilist, misanthropic feel, the melodic sensibilities can’t hide their country of origin – and bless ’em for it, because they rip. Anyone who’s kept up with the more medieval black metal of the region will find a familiar riffing approach to bands like Véhémence or Darkenhöld, yet these melodic stylings are utilized to an entirely different modern, unruly purpose.
The track order plays in the band’s favor, capitalizing off the explosiveness of the four movements and only proceeding to take the whirlwind of wrist-whipping tremolos to new heights on “La Proie du cloître.” The groove entrenches right from the start – Ferriterium seem to have a similar approach to song transition as they do to introductions. Cut the fat, get to the meat, and sear that beautiful melodic slab of beef to a perfect medium rare. The song only builds its energy. Right when it seems like the music is peaking, the next segment takes the track to new crescendos by moving to a blast section or layering vocals atop one another. The vocals are right on point with the ascension of the music, crying out with an escalating fury just as the song feels it can’t peak anymore. It drops into a weighted breakdown section with those pestilential leads swarming around in a nonstop wave of tremolo virtuosity.
Calvaire never relents. While it firmly stays within its stylistic bounds, it executes its goals with swift and meticulous precision. While the “fury” descriptor could be used ad nauseam to describe the rush of fluidic melody of the work, it’s really the only proper way to encapsulate the mood. Aggressive, fast, and surprisingly dynamic, Ferriterium prove to be unsung heavyweights in a niche that is bogged down with mediocrity. The band unapologetically play to their strengths and more than have the chops to pull off a noteworthy performance that drenches the songs in a dynamic urgency that rises like a fine cream in a barrel of despair.
Fathomage – Psalms Of Reverence And Lamentations
Imagine the absolute cojones it takes to release a Christian-themed album in heavy metal. Sure, there’s a heavily Catholic vibe streaming through Black Sabbath, or the Christian undertones to Trouble, or, more recently, the Pentecostal parables of Wytch Hazel (who, arguably, only flirt with the edges of metal proper). Let alone black metal, where so much of the genre’s earlier incarnations were affixed to strictly anti-Christian philosophy and imagery. Just try to fathom looking at something that so vehemently despises you and saying, “that’s EXACTLY the muse I was looking for.”
While I don’t want to presume as to Fathomage’s intentions, inspirations, or ideology – particularly when it comes to black metal – there is no denying the abundance of Christian subtext to the album’s lyrical content. However, it finds that sweet spot of drawing from Christian mythology without coming off as preachy. Psalms Of Reverence And Lamentations taps directly into all the elements that make the Christian fable so fascinating to fans of epic literature regardless of spiritual or religious affiliation. When the Gregorian chanting works its way across the misty soundscapes of “Before Thy Holy Chalice,” all bets are off. Despite drawing from a source that so many hardcore black metal fans would so foolishly dismiss on principle, Fathomage are crafting some undeniably interesting shit. The songs are defined by simmering, down-tempo builds into worlds of epic grandeur with woodwinds and angelic synths that would appeal to any fan of Summoning, or, more recently, Sojourner.
While the majority of the album relies on atmosphere to reach its peaks, there are breakout moments of riffing that will catch the ears of any purist. The tremolo foray at the beginning of “Wooden Chapel Among The Evergreens” or the ominous chug in the following track, “Metanoia” (and particularly the solo that so triumphantly whips its head ’round the climax) shows an attention to guitar work that comes as a breath of fresh air in arena of more fantasy-minded black metal. The more the whistles, flutes, chimes, and chants reach for the heavens, the more the guitar expands its roots into the earth, making Psalms Of Reverence And Lamentations a well-rounded attack on all fronts and painting a worldscape of potential infinitely more vast than it had relied on one aspect or the other.
Whipping out of the classical guitar interlude of “Autumn’s Eve In Valaam,” “Enslavement Unto The Passions” certainly lives by its namesake. Flurrying out of the midpoint passage of the transition, the winds of the song grow to gusts into a steady, triumphant 1-2 march betwixt the kick and snare as the hi-hats lazily shuffle their way across the tempo, as though burdened with the crackling of frozen chains. An outright blizzard strikes as the blast section arises, ripping through there rosy cheeks of flesh that would so defy the very will of God.
I hate to harp (pun intended, as always) on this, but so many black metal purists will turn away from this on principle. Yet it’s not preachy, the album merely channels the world building of the Bible. When viewed through a clearly secular lens, the music is undeniably inspired and executed at an impressive level. Interesting that so many who claim to be infatuated with darkness be so scared of even humoring the thought of a separate perspective.
Grima – Rotten Garden
In all honesty, Travel’rs, I must again admit another bias. When it comes to pagan black metal I want Big Riffs™, and when it comes to atmospheric black metal I generally lean toward the more minimalistic direction. Rare to the twain meet in such a way as the sophomoric effort from Russia’s Grima. And again, as to never deceive you, Faire Reader, an honest confession: It took a few spins for this to open up. There was something about it that hooked me, but it really took an active listen for the subtitles to reveal their secrets.
When at first “Cedar And Owls” seemed like very Winterfylleth styled atmospheric pagan black metal (yadda yadda subgenere bullshit), upon a closer listen revealed a rich undertone of not only synth work, but a distinctly Eurasian pagan sound. There’s a psychedelia to the keys and swirling guitars that feels like a symbiotic mushroom trip that binds the soul to nature. Yet the cap is still moldy and decaying: The melancholy of death works its way through the ambient breakdown (accompanied by, of course, owls), birthing an organ section from its ethereal soils that blossoms to an emotive guitar solo.
While this seems to be a bit of a loose theme for this edition of Black, Raw, and Bleeding, there is no denying the melodic core of the band’s approach. All the differentiating instrumentation serves a higher purpose, such as on the choir / blast / explosive-drum-fill-to-vocal-introduction onslaught at the beginning of “Mourning Comes At Sunset.” The layers only intensify, punctuated with the thundering reverb of the toms when they dare break ranks of the galloping pace. More surprises arrive with the accordion on “At The Foot Of The Red Mountains” – while it’s been done plenty before, it’s hard to imagine when its been used with such a natural integration.
I could go on and on, but Grima are so full of surprises that I could bore you, dear Reader, with a thousand words on the intricate details of this album. Trust me, this is one to dive into and experience time and again, with fresh doors to be opened with every spin.
Klanen – Coerced Into Desolate Eternity
Sometimes you just gotta go down to Momma’s basement, light a few candles, and dust off the ol’ four-track before letting loose on some buttery blast beats and just hollerin’ into a microphone about desolation and oblivion and all that like the good Dark Lord intended.
Anguis Dei – Angeist
Symphonic black metal often gets a bad rap. On the surface, it is so often quickly associated with the cheese of Dimmu Borgir or whatever the fuck it is that Cradle Of Filth does these days. Sure, there’s merit to be found within both catalogues, but to paint the entirety of symphonic black metal with such a broads strokes is to do the style an unforgivable disservice. Even in the 90s when such bands took an approach that launched them well out of the murkier regions of the underground, bands like Odium and Limbonic Art clung firmly the aggressive edge – instead of dulling the razor’s edge to highlight the brilliant sheen of the symphonics, such acts doubled down and just turned everything up to eleven. More grandiosity, more bite, and, above all, more madness.
Flash forward two decades, and enter Japan’s Anguis Dei. A part of the AAAA circle including Arkha Sva, Ahpdegma, and Avsolutized (we’re working with a theme here), Anguis Dei emerged in 2016, following up that year’s demo with the excellent Ad Portas Serpentum: A ripping twenty-minute EP of dark tower-toppling madness. Of particular note were the theatrical synth work, aggressive and creative riff work, interesting song structures, and especially the vocal performance of Adeptus U.:È.:Œ.: (pretty sure I spelled that right).
After a four year wait, Anguis Dei have at long last released a debut full-length effort, Angeist. In the continuted spirit of turning everything the fuck up, Agneist is an even more bizarre foray into majestic grave of madness that beats like a Tell-Tale heart at the center of the project. One of the first things to jump out is just how much Adeptus U.:È.:Œ.:’s (sp.? editor please?) vocals have just exploded into operatic realms – this guy is going for the King Diamond of grunting, screeching, hollerin’, and wailing. The vocals simply swirl around the madness of the guitar and keyboards going at ludicrous levels of furiosity, depicting images of a madman drunk on the ethereal nectar of a fine absinthe. Conjurations of pipe organs hammered away in the depths of an undersea laboratory come to mind as Adeptus wails away over the sheer insanity of the music.
Another thing that sets Anguis Dei firmly apart from the stereotypical, surface-level values of symphonic black metal are the goddamn riffs (you may be aware, we at Last Rites are generally impressed with these). Never being content to simply chug away at a root note for all eternity, “Through The Aperture Of Time” is a Big Riff Salad, shifting from abrasive tremolo fury through abrupt shifts in tempo, never content to lay still for more than a few bars. With all the vocal flavor and brouhaha, it makes any bit of repetition in the melody obsolete: Every moment of the song feel artifically fresh and new and unrepeated, despite the cloaked use of logical structure. The keys build a tortured, haunting atmosphere that never detract from the aggressive nature of the music. The guitar solo at the peak of the performance squiggles like leech pulled from its host in an instinctual thirst for blood.
While the track proceeding it, “Angela Krudeliis Ambitiosa Nokturniis,” is a re-recording of a composure from the previous EP, it’s an excusable offense for a myriad of reasons. Firstly, it’s a perfect demonstration of the band’s sound: frantic, shifting riffs that alternate between sweeping tremolos with tension-wielding symphonic and drastic, turn-on-a-dime shifts in mood. Secondly, the veracity with which Adeptus re-interprets the song breathes fresh vigor in the already over-the-top vocal department. Thirdly, it fits within the pacing and vision of the album, with the tracks around it spawning like a grotesque sprout from a rotten seed of decay and misery. If the vocals sounded sick here, just wait for the opening vomit on the title track. “Angeist” breaks open with a chugging stride and some colored, inspired synth work that fills the gaps between the mid-paced charge. From the layered wails in the opening salvo, those ever-evolving vocals reveal their true operatic flavor as the music simmers down before the blasts break the song wide open. By the time the final third of the song arrives, the melodies are ablaze with a decrepit orchestra from hell. All of the pieces come together for a dramatic and sweeping conclusion – and we’re only halfway through the album at this point.
Of particular note is Angeist‘s seventh movement, “Separation of Æthyr.” While the flow from introduction to verse takes a page out of the aforementioned title track – simmering in a slow, chugging guitar style that’s not entirely removed from riffage often found in the more industrial hybrid interpretations of metal. However, the lead work is pure, unvarnished black steel, skewering the crimson skies with vicious phrygian lacerations. As the music fades down, the distant murmurs of a hammered dulcimer begin marching over the horizon like a distant call to battle, and the adrenaline of war beings to seep into the bloodstream. As the guitar joins, the anticipation on grows, and the payoff strikes swiftly in the payout of the song and one of the most riveting highlights of the album. Unmerciful thrash riffing hits like a barbaric sledge across the gentle tapped hammers of the dulcimer. And when that breakout riff hits out of the blasts and the lead unapologetically rips for the solo, it’s heavy fuckin’ euphoria. The King Diamond-esque falsetto at the end adds a perfect exclamation point to conclude the song, wrapping up tight as though the dramatic arms of Beleth itself were conducting the orchestra to a swift and tidy ending. The final track feels almost like a epilogue after the orgasmic conclusion to “Separation of Æthyr,” but it serves its purpose well. All the orchestration, guitar work, and drumming frenzy gets abundant play, with a more prounced melancholic madness reminding the listener of the true strengths of the band.
Symphonic black metal rips, but only when it has the balls to be done right. Anguis Dei have demonic, throbbing balls on the edge of primal climax; and Angeist serves as the full realization of said balls that were but only hinted on Ad Portas Serpentum. Leave it to Japan to have the 睾丸 to go all out.
Until next time, Trav’lers.