Turning Of The Tides... Black Metal For A New Decade
As we embark upon a new decade, the world seems to be in a frustratingly continuous state of decline. Mounting pressures and new proponents of stress and disgust arise from the capitalist thirst of our society. The effects of these pressures, be they financial, emotional, or logistical, are felt over the years with a degree of fluidity. There are ebbs and flows that can be found reflected in the counterculture of the time.
Looking back, you can see the hippie movement of the '60s forming as a reaction to the Vietnam War, the punk of the '70s expressing disdain for the newly founded Thatcher era, or even the new romantic synth-pop of the '80s, which flamboyantly defied the mundanity of the resultant working class obligations. There has always existed a kind of social commentary linked to the rebellious lexicon of an era. This pattern can be seen even within the subgenres of any counterculture movement -in this case, black metal.
The twilight years of the previous decade saw a creeping returning to the mid-'90s era of the 2nd- and 3rd-wave sound and aesthetic of black metal, possibly as a reaction to the trend of atmospheric "post-black" metal bands that have been prominent throughout the last decade and a half - bands that favoured atmospherics over the riff. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a lot of that stuff too; it is another deeply valid and important chapter in the story of black metal.
However, I can't say that I'm resistant to this return to the faster, tremolo riffing, raw, "nekro" production, imaginative concepts, and even some corpse paint to boot!
Of course these efforts have always been a constant in black metal, but it was towards the end of the last decade where things really started to bubble up to the surface, with 2019 in particular having given us some outstanding material in regards to this fresh, new "old-school" wave of black metal harking back to the sounds and styles of the '90s, yet with a fresh and invigorated spirit that stands in stark contrast to the so-called "hipster" black metal of recent times. This new crop of icy black metal isn't simply a rehash of what has come before - yes, it does have that familiar smell and taste, but the feeling conveyed in the music is very much a feeling of today.
Last year, many bands from across the globe produced some compelling work that has prompted me to wonder whether perhaps we are now entering a new phase in the development of black metal as a genre. While the number of bands is great, with some of my personal favourites not featured in this article, these are just some of the bands that have come to my attention through their preferences for this old style, awash with new blood.
Before I continue, though I am highlighting particular releases that caught my attention last year, this is not so much a "best of 2019" list or feature, but rather an observation of certain expressive tendencies and characteristics that appear to be returning to "popularity" (the term "popularity" being used loosely given the underground nature of this particular art form) within black metal. There will, of course, be many others that should be included here (and feel free to make recommendations in the comments), but within this feature you may find a few bands that are worth your time, particularly if you are someone who has lost touch with black metal in the years gone by.
So as the tides turn, we set sail from the North once again.
Feeling it fitting to begin in the homeland of 2nd-wave black metal, I shall begin with Flukt from Norway. Formed in 2014, Flukt have previously released two EPs and three singles, but it was their 2019 full-length debut, Darkness Devour, that landed the band on my radar. With its ominous nature, it showcases sinister, raw black metal with just enough dynamics in between the scathing outbursts and chilling leads. Satanically aggressive and unapologetic in its execution, Darkness Devour creates the most horrifying images of hell.
I spoke with Flukt to learn of their vision and intentions with Darkness Devour:
"First and foremost this is an album we have made for ourselves. We perform the music we like to hear and by doing so we bring the listeners back in time. To a time where the music was more raw and more primitive than now."
When asked how they view the state of black metal today, this is what they had to say:
"There are a lot of great bands out there doing good black metal but there are certain trends going on that we are not fans of. A lot of bands tend to focus too much on their stage outfits and looks rather than the music. Or the music is too overproduced so all the magic is lost. This is something we do not appreciate."
Flukt are a black metal band that you will surely be hearing more from in the future.
Darkness Devour is out now via Dusktone Records.
Keeping within the Nordic region for now, Finland's Marras released the mind-bendingly misanthropic Where Light Comes To Die last year through Spread Evil Productions. Featuring former members of Vargrav, Förgjord and Mimorium, Marras create a unique atmosphere with memorable riffs interlocking with sorcerous and majestic melodies that flow throughout. Eerie interludes and textures are cast within the bleak blanket of sound.
I spoke to Valgrinder of Marras to ask about the philosophy behind the band.
"Marras is all about going back to the point where black metal was more than just 'good production' or 'tight playing' or even 'grim sounding as possible'. It's all about vision of its core, where 'black' means more than 'metal'.
Taking us to the times where the pioneers didn't know what they were doing. They only followed their own vision or inner flame. They didn't have any path to follow, so they created their own. So even if Marras sounds like a trip back to the glory days of the '90s, it ain't meant to be copying them. We just happen to be in the same phase, where vision was clear but ways to achieve it were not.
I don't want black metal to rise or get more respect, quite the opposite. I want it to go underground and be dangerous again."
The danger is very much evident within the music of Marras.
Where Light Comes To Die is out now via Spread Evil Productions.
Hailing from Ukraine is Këkht Aräkh, a one-man project that released the cold and melancholic Night And Love album last year. Beneath the frosty production lie beautiful melodies, dreamy synths, haunting riffs, and excellently constructed songs. The man behind Këkht Aräkh, known only as Crying Orc, has evolved his sound from the more "depressive suicidal" style of his first effort, 2018's Through The Branches To Eternity, and has distilled his sound, refining the depressive tones, atmospherics, and anguished screams. Night And Love is a mystical and ethereal journey through a majestically sombre landscape. There are occasional thrashes of Transilvanian Hunger-era Darkthrone that emerge from the mist, but they are usually part of a broader soundscape, one dripping with more melancholy and despair.
The album is also graced with some wonderful acoustic and dungeon synth passages throughout, often setting the scene perfectly as moments of calm before the caustic storm returns. Some of the album's final acoustic moments veer into Alcest territory, yet with a stronger sense of honesty and vulnerability that grounds the music to the core of black metal, serving as a fitting farewell to the listener as they end their journey of Night and Love.
Speaking to Crying Orc, I gained some insight into his escapist vision.
"The concept of the album is simple: 'Night' represents death/end of life and "Love" is the eternal bliss and tranquillity that comes after the end of the life. There is no earthly attachment to love. Each song on the record narrates the transition from 'Night' to 'Love' with different, abstract stories. I do not want to hurt you, bring my rage down upon you or push you for suicide, but rather give you a shelter, to let you get away from the cruelty of the world we live in. Like a fantasy book which brings you to another world. Musically and visually, Këkht Aräkh will always be faithful to the early-'90s black metal traditions, because it is the only shape in which such music can exist."
Given the merit of this record, it will be interesting to see how Këkht Aräkh's sound further develops with time. Definitely one to watch.
Night And Love is available now via Livor Mortis.
Moving over to the west and across the Atlantic sea, split between New York City and Montreal, we find Departure Chandelier, a compelling band that features members of Ash Pool and Akitsa. Prior to last year's majestic Antichrist Rise To Power, released through Nuclear War Now! Productions, the three-piece released a 2011 demo, The Black Crest Of Death, The Gold Wreath Of War, and a 2017 split with Blood Tyrant. 2019's Antichrist Rise To Power, interestingly, was recorded almost a decade ago, predating the writing of their previous two releases.
With a notable French essence embedded in their concepts and lyrical themes, the band creates a vivid, twisted image of 18th-century horror. Departure Chandelier are the sonic equivalent of a Napoleonic-era painting, one that depicts a gruesome, bloodied battle scene, yet has become worn and ravaged by the passing of time. Beneath the chipped layers and faded detail lies something intricately beautiful and fascinatingly morbid.
Antichrist Rise To Power is out now via Nuclear War Now! Productions.
Sailing back across the Atlantic and east to Bulgaria, we find another compelling one-man project in the form of Hajduk. Hajduk is the creation of one Belgun, formerly of the German black metal trio Festung. In the space of three consecutive months from September 2019, Hajduk self-released three EPs, an impressive feat intended to be a series focusing on Bulgarian culture and history. This subject matter holds a special place in the heart of Hajduk's spirit for now. Speaking to Belgun, he opened up about his inspiration.
"With the last releases, I wanted to convey a piece of Bulgarian history and the ideology of the state-founders, as well as impressions of nature. Bulgaria is such a small, dying, overlooked country, but has some of the most wonderful spots in the world for me. Although that doesn't mean that Hajduk can't change thematically. I don't think I'll use the same themes forever."
When asked about the potential future path for black metal, Belgun ponders,
"All in all, times have changed a lot. A lot of stuff happens on or through social media, something which I still try to avoid. For me, the true way forward for black metal has to be connected to its origins."
All of Hajduk's releases are available now through their Bandcamp page.
Again, far to the west, Olympia, Washington's Lamp Of Murmuur match Hajduk's number of releases with three during the year 2019. Thunder Vigil And Ecstasy, Melancholy Howls In Ceremonial Penitence, and Chasing The Path Of The Hidden Master were released through Death Kult Productions and are absolutely worth your time. Here is what mastermind Maerk has to say.
"Lamp Of Murmuur's aural manifestations serve a single purpose, which is to transport it's adepts to dimensions of pure mystery, dread and perverse romanticism. It means the constant deciphering of the most turbulent, dark and obscure regions of the unconscious. Most (if not all) of the manifestations present the 3 releases consist of unconscious exercises , and this means that both melodies and lyrics are in the most part immediate, unplanned and improvised in nature. For that reason if one fully submits to the listening experience , one can perceive how the invocations are drown in the fog of a dark unknown energy, one that resides in the most perverse and twisted region of the mind."
Lamp Of Murmuur's thoughts on this current era of black metal:
"The art of black metal is at a grandiose state in this age. The year that recently came to and end was a constant deliverer of outstanding debuting artists, as well as formidable offerings by older practitioners. New hordes are constantly rising all over the globe with phenomenal works, filled with a sincere obscure energy and fully committed to the ways of old. Black metal will forever reign!"
Lamp Of Murmuur's releases are available now through Death Kult Productions.
Making the jump across the Atlantic for one last time, we end our journey in Ireland, where Gealach have conjured up their old-school black metal spirit with their self-released demo of 2019. On the winter solstice of 2019, Gealach also released an outstanding limited live cassette entitled The Longest Night. Speaking with the trio (Geimhreadh, Draighean, and Nathair), I got some insight into Gealach's intention, their meaning, and how they see the future of black metal...
Geimhreadh: "We're conveying a primitive energy that's within us all but dormant in most. While rooted in a sense of vitality, the energy is both creative and survivalist. When coupled with our natural surroundings and climate in Ireland, it becomes more about channeling what's within us and how that is intrinsically linked to our environment."
Draighean: "The name 'Gealach', meaning the moon, refers to an eternal night, and therefore darkness. An inverted sun, not literally, where there is no life or light. The moon is a symbol of inversion and darkness, which is a good device for our lyrical themes and visuals."
Nathair: "I'm convinced the future is bright for black metal. There is no shortage of inspiring entertainment with some live acts verging on the transcendent. I think the risk of being seen as novelty always threatens though as the scene is quite fringe, but it is everywhere and the versatility of the genre ensures artists of all backgrounds can breathe continuing life to this ever burning flame."
The Longest Night and Gealach's self-titled demo are available now through their Bandcamp page.
It's exciting to think that a genre can convey a different story, even when the chapter has been revisited. At one stage, the genre of black metal may have appeared to stand as a somewhat limited genre. Yet as we look back on what black metal (and its subsequently spawned subgenres) has produced over the last four decades, it has definitely proven itself to be its own counterculture, with rich and diverse contributions to many areas of the arts. It has had its fair share of time in the view of the public eye, for better or for worse, and is perpetually alive within the deepest crevices of the underground.
However, at this very moment, on the cusp of a new decade, black metal is providing a real and relevant expression for misanthropic commentary on a self-destructive society, one that seems too directionless to help itself and its environment. So as the world continues to make less sense and World War III is threatening to crash this already confusing party, grab your corpse paint, hit that stereo, and retreat to the forested mountains, because all the black metal blasphemy in the universe couldn't match the horrors taking place in the world today!
Even so, no matter what happens, no matter what terrors await us in the unfolding decade ahead, no matter how bad things could possibly get... at least we still have music.
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