Thursday, August 28, 2008

Black Metal Roundup

I've been buying so much music recently that it's been hard to find time to listen to it all but it just so happened that this week four black metal albums fell into my hands at about the same time, providing a convenient theme for a post.

First up we have Odinist: The Destruction Of Reason By Illumination by French act Blut Aus Nord. This album nicely achieves a balance between black metal's love of dirty production and the need to actually hear what's going on. The production is surprisingly crisp, especially on the drums, but has a good messy wash to the guitars and vocals that gives it some grit but not so much that the melody is obscured. The sound of the album is very reminiscent of Mayhem's most recent record Ordo Ad Chao, which preceded Odinist's release by about six months. The riffs share a similar spiralling, unsettling, atonal style and the drumming reminds me a little of Hellhammer (Mayhem's drummer), alternating between straight up blast beats and pleasingly syncopated stuttering, both driven by a kick drum that sounds crisp but not so much so that it turns into the dreaded typewriter trigger. The vocals are kind of relegated to the background but are pretty good and I must once again make the comparison with Ordo Ad Chao as they are quite similar to those of Attila Csihar on the latest Mayhem release (but not to his comical gibbering on De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas).

Odinist is a pretty good listen despite the fact that every song is in an identical style; so much so that while I'd be able to recognise a song off this album quite easily I'd never be able to tell you what the title or even the track number is. Fortunately the song they repeat is a good one and doesn't wear out it's welcome over the album's brief forty minute running time.

Obligatory Black Metal Gimmickry: Blut Aus Nord's take on the black metal philosophy appears to be informed largely by mysticism (and particularly Crowley, who's writing provides the album's subtitle). In other words, the same old same old.

Agalloch's The Mantle isn't exactly black metal, but it is folk metal of a kind that has a history often interwoven with that of black metal so I'll call it close enough to include in this post. Despite the presence of distorted electrics in the background Agalloch's songs are primarily driven by clean acoustic guitars, although on the other hand the vocals give the music its tentative black metal connection, alternating between clean singing and a gurgle/whisper that's 100% black metal derived. The overall effect is actually quite cool and original. Acoustic guitar strumming accompanied by subdued distorted electric rhythm guitar, straight up rock drumming, black metal vocals and flamenco lead guitar is something I certainly admit I've never heard any other band try. The result is a melancholy and dreamy vibe that still has the energy and epic sense of metal. I must admit though that I'm not as keen on this album as I am on Odinist, as even though The Mantle has far more variety over the course of a full hour I always tire of it before the end. Nevertheless it's still well worth a listen.

Obligatory Black Metal Gimmickry: I have to admit that I haven't checked the lyrics but Agalloch seem to be invoking extreme environmentalism, with lyrics and a mood that evokes the natural world and song titles like 'A Celebration For The Death Of Man...'. This is a nice twist on the usual black metal bullshit, and one that a few bands seem to have adopted in recent times.

Which leads us to Wolves In The Throne Room's first album Diadem Of Twelve Stars. Last year saw the release of Two Hunters, an absolute masterpiece which took the evil sounding trappings of black metal, added the occasional soaring female vocal and rendered it into something positive and uplifting. Transcendent, to use the band's own term. It took just one listen of Two Hunters to make Wolves by far my favourite black metal band but I still kept my expectations for their first album modest, and sure enough it doesn't quite live up to the standard of it's successor. All the elements that made Two Hunters so great are already present, dual guitars in a wash of distortion creating more of a texture than a melody and heaviness blended seamlessly with melancholy and their trademark transcendent, uplifting mood. Unfortunately it's held back from greatness by a vestigial concern with riffage (not their strong point) and other conventional metal trappings, as well as songs with excessive lengths outstripping the quality of the ideas therein contained. Listen to Two Hunters and give Diadem Of Twelve Stars a go too only if you're really into it.

Obligatory Black Metal Gimmickry:
These guys are another bunch of extreme environmentalists, playing gigs out in the forests over there in California and living in a country lodge 'off the grid'. It doesn't factor too much into their music however, beyond the fact that they focus on the wonder of the natural world to the exclusion of other traditional black metal topics.

The story with Shining's IV: The Eerie Cold is quite similar to that of Diadem. Last year Shining released V: Halmstad, a fucking brilliant blend of prog and black metal, but as with Wolves' first album I found this predecessor lacking. Mind you in all other ways Shining may well be the absolute antithesis of Wolves In The Throne Room. For a start they come from the other side of the world (Sweden). Secondly their take on black metal is totally evil (more on this when we get to their gimmickry section) where Wolves are about as positive as black metal ever can be. Thirdly as opposed to Wolves' skill at mood and texture, Shining excel in the area of straight up metal riffing. Not a track goes by without at least one passage with a groove so fucking powerful that you can't help but nod your head and stamp your foot, which is a little peculiar considering that it comes from a band who's main lyrical focus is desolation, depression and suicide. More in line with expectations for a band with such an image are the ghastly vocals and the maudlin piano and cello interludes, which are also very good. Shining's style and riffs may be derived from typical black metal tremello picking and gurgled vocals but they have very much evolved into their own unique kind of music, incorporating a straight up rock energy and creating something that may be very dark and dismal but is incredibly catchy at the same time.

As with Wolves though, The Eerie Cold is but an inferior copy of its successor. For every head bangingly awesome riff on this album, it is still just an imperfect precursor to an even awesomer one on Halmstad. Nevertheless whereas Diadem Of Twelve Stars is a little tedious to listen to The Eerie Cold is still a solid album, even if it does always make me want to put on Halmstd immediately afterwards.

Obligatory Black Metal Gimmickry:
Suicide (amongst other things of a similarly offensive nature). These guys claim to be proud of a number of suicides in their native Sweden that may or may not have been caused by their music. Having watched a few interviews with Shining's obnoxious frontman Kvaroth (and listened to the annoying monologue at the start of The Eerie Cold a couple of times) it must be noted that this band's conceits deserve to be labelled gimmickry more than most. When pretty much everything they do or say seems calculated for maximum offensiveness and obnoxiousness with no consistent philosophy behind it I think it's safe to say that they don't really mean it. (Even if it was pretty funny when Kvaroth called that interviewer a troglodyte.) It's just like that Calvin and Hobbes cartoon: “The fact that these bands haven't killed themselves in ritual self suicide already proves that they're in it for the money just like everyone else.”

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