By Craig Haze
Black metal, blackened death metal, blackened thrash, blackened crust or blackened prog. If it’s got a galloping tempo, plenty of tremolo liveliness, buzz-saw guitars, crabby vocals and blast beats galore, then I’m in. Even better if it sounds like it was recorded at 3 am from the inside of a rusty tin can located in a blood-splattered ramshackle cabin in some eerie woodland grove. Or a studio, with all the bells and whistles (maybe not whistles). I’m not fussy. Whether it’s churning out paeans that spit in the face of celestial beings, or focused on more terrestrial wonderments, if it’s even marginally flecked with diabolism and/or antipathy I want to hear it. Which is a real problem.
As a neurotic and obsessive metal fan I struggle to cope with the number of magnificently malevolent black metal releases I’m missing out on. It’s a depressing thought—which I suppose is quite apt really. Such is the enigmatic nature of the underground scene, coupled with the fact that I am essentially a troglodyte, for every excellent black metal release I get to hear, five other worthy contenders pass me by. (That’s your cue to leave your picks of great underground black metal albums from 2012 in the comments section.) However, there are a few releases of late that I have been fortunate enough to hear and think deserve some praise-heavy wordage. Continuing my never-ending multi-album review series, this time I’m focusing on a few rough-edged gems (and one notably polished one) from black metal’s inhospitable climes.
Vattnet Viskar: S/T
(Broken Limbs Recordings)
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the buzz around Vattnet Viskar is slightly out of proportion, given that their recorded output thus far only consists of a two-song demo, and this three song self-titled EP. But such is the complexity, maturity and absolute out-right majesty of the band’s debut EP all that excited chatter is absolutely justified.
The work of this New Hampshire four-piece falls roughly under the banner of raw Cascadian black metal—sharing the atavistic and atmospheric vibrancy of acts such as Ash Borer, Falls of Rauros, Skagos, and Fell Voices. But there are also flecks of pitch-black sludge, doom and a hazy minimalist and hypnotic thread to be enjoyed as well.
The EP opens with “Weakness”, where susurrus vocals and church bell chimes are shunted aside by wintry, orthodox tremolo riffs. Harsh, guttural vocals, a captivating melodic cadence and a graceful acoustic passage lurk within. “Intervention/Oblivion”, which follows on, is all blackened-gaze, escalating riffs and engrossing dissonance. Its scattered crescendos reveal a delicate balance between havoc and harmony, maelstrom and melody—something the band does exceptionally well, and that’s flawlessly exhibited on the final track.
With an acoustic, pastoral intro, “Barren Earth” churns through its 13-plus minutes with stirring, shifting dynamics and some feverishly intense percussion. Like all great black metal epics the song is withering in overall brute strength, but halfway through, when the band reveal the riff they repetitively mine till the end, it becomes something altogether more bewitching and picturesque.
Each of the songs on the EP retains a sense of distinctiveness, yet each shares two crucial elements: a sense of due reverence to black metal’s forbears (something to be found in the EP’s often Burzum-like cyclical nature) and a strong sense of compositional self-assurance, easily recognizable in the often progressive thrust of the tracks.
Vattnet Viskar should be justly proud of their debut. Their work has a palpable, resonate core, and those massive swells of mesmeric Stygian noise give rise to an intimate heartfelt response. Skillfully produced, this may be the band’s first ‘proper’ release, but it is a wholly confident work of art. Highly recommended. Keep an ear out for their debut full-length.
Much like Vattnet Viskar, San Francisco’s frostbitten and unrelentingly grim black metallers Obolus find themselves receiving endless praise after just a single demo and EP. Again, like Vattnet Viskar, all that praise is completely warranted, but here the similarities end. Because where Vattnet Viskar composes misty transcendent suites, Obolus craft wonderfully bitter odes, with an eye set firmly on the exquisite agony one can enjoy immersed in bleakness and despair.
Raw, morbid and unquestionably misanthropic, Lament is filled with the kind of life-extinguishing black metal that slowly and ever so calculatingly siphons the sentience right out of you. Even the EP’s two delicate instrumental tracks, “Reflection” and “Lament”, evoke a woebegone disposition. At their most serene Obolus remain pitiless.
“Hatred”, “Desolation” and ” Grievance”, Lament’s three relentlessly cruel tracks, are cavernous, grating blasts of fiendish metal. Incensed blast beats, subterranean howls, and serrated, strident riffs ensure each tune is more desperately uninviting than the last. That, of course, would be enough to ensure Lament was a great debut. But what takes the EP to the next Hadean level is the fact that Obolus maintains such an abhorrent ambience throughout. And when those gentler, more reflective passages do arrive, they serve not as a reprieve, but as a caution—mirroring the seconds before the noose tightens, or the guillotine drops.
Shroud of Despondency: Pine
Pine is the third LP in 12 months from Wisconsin’s Shroud of Despondency. Again, a Cascadian temperament is evident, but there’s something more primal at work here too. The band definitely craft woodland odes—opener “Wanderlust (Winged Seed in the Breeze)” is all falling rain and beautiful acoustic rattles—but the grand majesty of mother-earth isn’t the sole focus.
The decaying battlefields of nature also feature—captured by the raw passages of malicious savagery on “Overshadow”, “New Trees” and the epic “Half Open Gates”. While Shroud of Despondency’s hymns aren’t exactly groundbreaking, they set a resoundingly disheartening mood, with whirlwind blasts that ensnare a bit of death metal here and a few Scandinavian melodic leads there.
Shroud of Despondency does merciless metal very well, but Pine’s more temperate passages feature the most interesting work. The four tracks prefixed with “Wanderlust…” are fantastic ambient explorations of wretchedness, halting the album’s frenzied attack, albeit briefly, before the cascades of viciousness begin again. Pine’s final track, the entirely acoustic and cleanly sung “The Unchaining of an Animal” is the standout. Rich with emotion, it highlights the fact that, should Shroud of Despondency ever choose to completely indulge their blackened folk side, there’s bound to be a spectacular LP just waiting to be born.
Shroud of Despondency craft thoroughly fierce black metal, but the band’s real strength lies in its ability to thread fragile harmonies into their songs. For all the band’s ferociousness, their gentler refrains truly define their character.
Lunar Aurora: Hoagascht
By relying on the heavy use of synthesizer and effects to set the tone, Lunar Aurora’s ninth album, Hoagascht, sees a distinct shift in tack for the German band. Guitars are of course ever-present—though their dominance is buffeted by ubiquitous electronic flourishes—but Lunar Aurora is rugged enough to travel a few leagues in a different direction and still remain thoroughly abrasive.
The band’s use of the Bavarian language, pared back percussion, amplified samples and a glaze-like veneer gives the album a blackened industrial disposition. Tracks like “Sterna” and “Beagliachda” reveal a novel, more mechanical side to the band. The overt distortion and hostility are noticeably reduced. But where the steely guitar lines and tribal percussiveness cut through the synth miasma on “Wedaleichtn”, the weight of the band’s frosty legacy is still keenly felt.
Keyboard passages make up the bulk of many of the songs’ structures, but it doesn’t come at the expense of the album’s (or the band’s) adamantine strength. Hoagascht benefits enormously from Lunar Aurora’s decision to infuse the album with more melody, with “Reng” representing the perfect calibration of experimentalism and more orthodox balefulness. The band’s new direction might seem surprising, but it definitely allows for a more vivid appreciation of their songwriting prowess.