Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Lord of the World and the Modern Dystopia

(Disclaimer: I have tried to avoid any major spoilers in the plot for the uninformed reader's sake, yet there are some... but really, is there anyone in the Western world who does not know how the Apocalypse as imagined by the Christian revelation is ultimately resolved? The import of this book, at any rate, is found more in its meaning than its story.)

'...all the forces of the civilised world were concentrating into two camps - the world and God. Up to the present time the forces of the world had been incoherent and spasmodic, breaking out in various ways - revolutions and wars had been like the movements of a mob, undisciplined, unskilled, and unrestrained. To meet this the Church, too, had acted through her Catholicity - dispersion rather than concentration: franc-tireurs had been opposed to franc-tireurs. But during the last hundred years there had been indications that the method of warfare was to change. Europe, at any rate, had grown weary of internal strife; the unions first of Labour, then of Capital, then of Labour and Capital combined, illustrated this in the economic sphere; the peaceful partition of Africa in the political sphere; the spread of the Humanitarian religion in the spiritual sphere.' Lord of the World, p.90

Lord of the World is an apocalyptic novel written by Englishman and Roman Catholic Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson in 1907, but whose setting is over a hundred years in the future, which makes it roughly our present. This title, therefore, begs two comparisons: (1) with similar modern dystopias of the previous centuries such as Brave New World and 1984, and (2) with the state of our contemporary society.

Firstly, 1984 is concerned with a totalitarian, socialistic government which has complete access to the people of Oceania; the book is principally political by nature, its polemic being aligned against tyranny and censorship and anything that oppresses individual freedom. This dystopia is characterized by brutal, unending warfare which is crucial to its economy, and by its political corruption. Its discourse relates to an abuse of power, which is expressed via this oligarchical government whose motives are driven purely by avarice and conceit; it seems to be at once reflecting on the evils of totalitarian governments of the past and foreshadowing the rise of Communistic regimes in the future. This famous excerpt epitomizes the society's fundamental attitude:

'There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always—do not forget this, Winston—always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.' 1984

Brave New World, on the other hand, is concerned with the emotional and psychical state of modern man, which is presently devolved into purely physical impulses; Huxley's individual has been compartmentalized into man's meanest nature, diagnosed as merely a sentient animal and compelled to live as one. Henry Ford and Sigmund Freud, two of the most influential personalities of the whole of the 20th Century, are seen as gods and certainly archetypes of 'this brave new world'. The standardization of the physical is revealed by Ford's assembly line, his mass conformity of men at work, while the standardization of the psychical is propagated by Freud's reduction of man to a fundamentally erotic being, with his most basic experiences being defined by his sexual ones. This dystopia is characterized by consumerism, sensual pursuits, and the aspiration to abolish all pains in the pursuit of total comfort. Brave New World is therefore successful in depicting the indeterminate hedonism that modern society, in its aim to end the infinite diversity in man, tends to reduce itself to.

'I'm claiming the right to be unhappy. Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat, the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.' Brave New World

The Left Behind series, finally, aside from its clear anti-Catholic bias, is far less motivated to say anything significant about modern society, but is rather concerned with an understanding of Christian eschatology, principally in the literal sense. With all twenty-one Judgments, the drama of the Book of Revelation is acted out during the seven years of the 'Great Tribulation', when the Antichrist ascends to rule the world via an impeccable and irresistible personality; the books' protagonists, the 'Tribulation Force', attempt not only to survive but to proselytize their faith in a post-Rapture civilization. The power of the world is eventually consolidated under the auspices of the former Catholic Church, which becomes the institution for every religion in the world, and the former United Nations, which becomes the 'Global Community', an omnipotent world government with Antichrist as its head. 

Lord of the World precedes all of these attempts chronologically, yet bears within it the best of each of them. It shares with 1984, for example, a deep distrust of political collectivization and the annihilation of the individual conscience; in Lord of the World, the opposition to Marxism in Europe are called 'Individualists'. This does not mean that they are proponents of any kind of 'cult of the individual', where the selfish desires of the person are heralded as the utmost priority; it signifies rather the enemies of the Communist, the program of collectivization at the expense of individual freedoms. The Universities are seen as the worldly equivalent to the Monasteries which were sacked during the Reformation, the last havens of a former way of life that threatened the new Marxist regime, and which are consequently abolished or perverted to their own ends. In doing so, the Individualists are scattered or forced to submit to the new schools.

An important distinction to make between these two, however, is the role that war and peace play in either text. Whereas war is some kind of hazy ploy meant to deceive the citizenry into perpetual economic slavery in 1984, war is universally seen as an evil in LotW; the threat of the 'Eastern Empire' to Europe is a constant theme in the first quarter of the book, a looming disaster that threatened to be worse than any world war (not that Benson had any conception of one, of course). The occurrence of a 'Julian Felsenburgh', a magnanimously powerful politician with an ineffable, inexorable personality, diplomatically solving the Eastern
crisis is heralded with an almost religious fervour, signifying as it does the advent of world peace at last. Felsenburgh is eventually recognized as the President of Europe, and therefore by the reader as Antichrist, as 'lord of the world'. This peace, however, is not so much the abolishment of war as it is the establishment of a virus, a disease now immune to any immanent turmoil, any potential antidote; the false order of the world, from the economic to the political and spiritual spheres, is now totally entrenched. Father Franklin asks the following:

'War, of course, was terrible. And such a war as this would have been too terrible for the imagination to visualise; but to the priest's mind there were other things even worse. What of universal peace - peace, that is to say, established by others than Christ's method?' Lord of the World, p.55

(The following is arguably the most beautiful passage in the entire text, and it would be criminal of us to not include it in this review, even if we insert it here so haphazardly):

'...the reconciling of a soul to God was a greater thing than the reconciling of East to West.' Lord of the World, (p.56)

The society that Huxley visualizes is defined by psycho-physical conditioning, of a consciousness constituted entirely by the demands of bodily needs and wants; the people know nothing but pleasure, and the security from the troubles of natural illness and the discomfort of death. It is a strictly organized society, with Malthusian methods of population control and planned parenthood eugenics. This is echoed somewhat in Lord of the World, where a purely philosophical materialism is a dead-end, a failure to entrance the common man - but there comes psychology to make up for its lack. The futility of a purely material world is compensated for by a psychological argument that accounts for man's spiritual needs, even if it does not properly fulfil them; we are sexual beings, the argument goes, born to live and procreate and then perish back into the 'Spirit of the World', and thereby contribute to its life force even in our death. This is the essence of the 'Humanitarian-Religion' which comes to supplant the Catholic religion. 

'During those weeks in Rome the cloudy deposit had run clear and the channel was once more visible.... Huge principles, once bewildering and even repellent, were again luminously self-evident; he saw, for example, that while Humanity-Religion endeavoured to abolish suffering the Divine Religion embraced it, so that the blind pangs even of beasts were within the Father's Will and Scheme; or that while from one angle one colour only of the web of life was visible - material, or intellectual, or artistic - from another the Supernatural was as eminently obvious. Humanity-Religion could only be true if at least half of man's nature, aspirations and sorrows were ignored. Christianity, on the other hand, at least included and accounted for these, even if it did not explain them. ....There was the Catholic Faith, more certain to him than the existence of himself: it was true and alive. He might be damned, but God reigned.' Lord of the World, p. 99

Where the psycho-physical satisfies the denizen of Huxley's new world, it is rounded out into a 'trinity' in Benson's by this pantheistic humanism, the 'Humanity-Religion'. There is, first of all, a former priest who ultimately leads the English church of the new compulsory religion, a kind of secular-pagan parody of the Catholic tradition; he exclaims that there is no greater need of man than to worship. This is the completion of the liberal ethos: finally there is something tangible to celebrate in their 'secular' domain, which is of course Man himself, the bringer of progress. Man idolizes himself, makes a religion out of himself. What was always implicit in the liberal ethos has become explicit. Secondly, on the metaphysical level, it excluded any kind of supernatural presence, anything which cannot be determined empirically; the transcendence manifested by the Christian religion is therefore held as the greatest foe to this creed, a final bastion of intolerance against the enlightened new order. The following is from a London newspaper, pronouncing the triumph of this new order:

'But what has been done is as follows. The Eastern peril has been for ever dissipated. It is understood now, by fanatic barbarians as well as by civilised nations, that the reign of War is ended. "Not peace but a sword", said CHRIST; and bitterly true have those words proved to be. "Not a sword but peace" is the retort, articulate at last, from those who have renounced CHRIST's claims or have never accepted them. The principle of love and union learned however falteringly in the West during the last century, has been taken up in the East as well. There shall be no more an appeal to arms, but to justice; no longer a crying after a God Who hides Himself, but to Man who has learned His own Divinity. The Supernatural is dead; rather, we know now that it has never been alive. What remains is to work out this new lesson, to bring every action, word and thought to the bar of Love and Justice; and this will be, no doubt, the task of years. Every code must be reversed; every barrier thrown down; party must unite with party, country with country, and continent with continent. There is no longer the fear of fear, the dread of the hereafter, or the paralysis of strife.' Lord of the World, p. 70

In Left Behind, one of the most interesting aspects is its creation of the Antichrist character, a 'Nicolae Carpathia'. In many ways he is the fully fleshed out embodiment of Benson's Felsenburgh; both have an immaculate charm, immense persuasion via otherworldly means over humanity, and intriguing depths of
personality. Both are estimated to be thirty-three years of age, which of course is the estimated age of Christ. While Carpathia is drawn-out and exposed where Felsenburgh's character is only hinted at mysteriously, both are certainly living archetypes of ideal man; each is the expression of man expressed as Man, expressed as the idea of Man. The reality of man, of fallen man, is of course left out in each case; there is only man's principle; there is in him the purity of Adam but not the divinity of Christ. Where Christ came to fulfil man by introducing divinity into his nature, Antichrist comes merely to corrupt man by the enlargement of his ego. He says to modern man as he said to primordial Adam: eat the fruit of wisdom and become wise yourselves, and we gleefully agree, enchanted not only by his pristine beauty but by the power he offers us. He knows our dreams, and allows us to live them. It is said that the Devil is the ape of God, and truly Antichrist is the mockery of Christ.

'Felsenburgh was called the Son of Man, because he was so pure-bred a cosmopolitan; the Saviour of the World, because he had slain war and himself survived... even Incarnate God, because he was the perfect representative of divine man.' Lord of the World, p. 91

One thing that is common to all four of these stories is the prevalence of a 'borderless world', of gigantic superstates that have little definition between themselves. In 1984 there are but three major states that continually war with each other but have little genuinely distinctive identities of their own; in Brave New World there is the World State, alien to which are merely savages of the more desolate, underdeveloped regions; in Left Behind, after the demolition of the United States and her allies, there is the Global Community which is exactly that, a one world government which dictates the political and spiritual affairs of the entire planet; and in Lord of the World, where the three major conglomerates (excluding the Catholic hold-outs in Rome and Ireland) all recognize the supreme worldly authority of Julian Felsenburgh. There is in the latter, though, an understated notion of nationalism that would be better stated as a notion of distinction. William Blake said, 'General Forms have their vitality in Particulars', and this is no less true on the political level than any other. Rome, for example, which acts as the antiquated antithesis to the world (even technologically - the streets of Rome are described like the streets of Victorian London),  is organized into four distinct sectors: Anglo-Saxon, Teutonic, Latin, and Eastern, each with their own unique identity, from the wide, efficient streets of the German to the brilliant colours of the Syriacs. This is established as the healthy antidote to the burgeoning 'monoculture' that had consumed the rest of the world, and really
represents a remarkable omen for how our own modern West unveiled itself in the next hundred years.

'...[Papa Angelicus] had divided [Rome] into national quarters, saying that as each nation had its peculiar virtues, each was to let its light shine in its proper place.' Lord of the World, p.87

The three main characters of Lord of the World are each fascinating in their own way. Oliver Brand, for example, a high level orator and bureaucrat for the English state, epitomizes the attitude of the secular world, and acts as the mouthpiece for its predominant philosophy. He is described as a logician par excellence, and indeed we are reminded by his character of the Chesterton quote: 'The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.' This is made more eminently true by the poesy enacted by his anti-type, Father Franklin, but principally in Brand's own words and actions. There is hardly a waver in his judgment, hardly a flinch in his worldview; he is right, he knows he is right, and he is reminded that he is right by the blossoming of his views, his profoundly humanistic hope, in the living world. The euthanasia clinics, the killing of Catholics, the compulsory devotion on the whole of Europe to the Humanitarian-Religion are all seen as logical consequences of Brand's creed, which they really are. This is not a human view; this is the view of Urizen, the pure mind who lacks both conscience and the human passion. His relationship with his wife is, until the very end, one of willful, mental domination rather than of love; their union is almost entirely based off of their philosophical agreements. Any debate in this respect and their union is divided. Oliver Brand's mechanical weltanschauung is perfectly expressed in the prosaic content of his pseudo-religious wondering:

'Pantheism, he understood, was what he held himself; for him "God" was the developing sum of created life, and impersonal Unity was the essence of His being; competition then was the great heresy that set men against one another and delayed all progress; for, to his mind, progress lay in the merging of the individual in the family, of the family in the commonwealth, of the commonwealth in the continent, and of the continent in the world. Finally, the world itself at any moment was no more than the mood of impersonal life. It was, in fact, the Catholic idea with the supernatural left out, a union of earthly fortunes, an abandonment of individualism on the one side, and of supernaturalism on the other. It was treason to appeal from God Immanent to God Transcendent; there was no God Transcendent; God, so far as He could be known, was man.' Lord of the World, p. 15

His wife Mabel, on the other hand, is portrayed more sympathetically, at least for this reader. She is constantly dismissed by her husband Oliver as 'just a woman', as mentally inferior; and she is, too, submitting to him by force of personality whenever a debate between them arises. Her main attraction to the Humanitarian-Religion becomes the personality of Julian Felsenburgh rather than the strength of its argument. She falters from this 'faith', however, when she perceives its injustices; the killing of priests, the annihilation of cities, the legal compulsion to not be a Christian awaken in her a natural, conscientious reaction that swells from her heart. While Mabel always admits that her husband is right, she finally realizes that she has to be wrong, that she cannot be right in the way that Oliver is; his cruel, unyielding, invulnerable logic is repulsive to her, and she becomes the symbol of both youthful innocence, and the moral and intellectual naivety of the good woman. She also represents the confusion of humanity's mass, the well-meaning but poorly guided ordinary person who follows the grooves laid down by her environment. This becomes a significant moment in the story, and reminds the reader once again that the drama of the world is a tragedy, that even when we see through its evil we do not always see all the way to its good. 

The third and most important character is, of course, the priest, Father Percy Franklin. Benson does an excellent job with this character in two ways, firstly in the temptation of hopelessness of the modern Christian, especially as the story draws on. Percy continually refers to how easy it would be to die, to pass from the unlimited struggles of his vocation, and how he envies the elder priests of his order. The fight against the Christian enemy is a futile one, because only the unworldly can defeat the worldly; all he can do is organize the Roman Church to the best of his ability and let prayer do the rest. Another continual theme is the question of why does God do nothing when His servants are so willing to die for Him; how long does the patience of God endure? He is nonetheless encouraged in the outward sense by the material resplendence and organization of Rome, the beauty of her dogma and tradition, and the quiet work ethic of his fellow clergymen in the Vatican; Rome soothes his spirit as England merely agitated it. 

'It seemed to Percy Franklin as he drew near Rome, sliding five hundred feet high through the summer dawn, that he was approaching the very gates of heaven, or, still better, he was as a child coming home. For what he had left behind him ten hours before in London was not a bad specimen, he thought, of the superior mansions of hell. It was a world whence God seemed to have withdrawn Himself, leaving it indeed in a state of profound complacency - a state without hope or faith, but a condition in which, although life continued, there was absent the one essential to well-being.' Lord of the World, p.79

The second thing Benson does well with Father Franklin is also the second thing by which he is encouraged: the career of his inner life, the constant maintenance of his spirit via the saying of mass and earnest, wearying prayer. There is in these passages a legitimacy that acts as a triumphant antidote to the confused visceral feeling of Mabel or worse the chilled clarity of Oliver's reason; Percy's acts of prayer are pure Faith, the perfect consummation of feeling and reason, of heart and mind. This alone is what keeps him sane, connected to the world and to God, and which allow his peers to recognize his importance to their cause. The inner life is sanctified against the turmoil of the world, even as it perpetually wreaks havoc within his mind. Father Franklin, who in the book physically resembles almost exactly Julian Felsenburgh, becomes the antidote to him as well - the Antichrist has no measure against the Vicar of Christ, just as the lord of the world has no measure against the lord of Heaven.

'[Persecution] would no doubt cause apostasies, as it had always done, but these were deplorable only on account of the individual apostates. On the other hand, it would reassure the faithful; and purge out the half-hearted. Once, in the early ages, Satan's attack had been made on the bodily side, with whips and fire and beasts; in the sixteenth century it had been on the intellectual side; in the twentieth century on the springs of moral and spiritual life. Now it seemed as if the assault was on all three planes at once. But what was chiefly to be feared was the positive influence of Humanitarianism: it was coming, like the kingdom of God, with power; it was crushing the imaginative and the romantic, it was assuming rather than asserting its own truth.... It seemed to be forcing its way, almost objectively, into the inner world. Persons who had scarcely heard its name were professing its tenets; priests absorbed it, as they absorbed God in Communion... children drank it in like Christianity itself.... Persecution, cried the priest, was to be welcomed like salvation, prayed for, and grasped; but he feared that the authorities were too shrewd, and knew the antidote and the poison apart.... Finally, he expected, Humanitarianism would presently put on the dress of liturgy and sacrifice, and when that was done, the Church's cause, unless God intervened, would be over.' Lord of the World, pp. 91-2

While we have witnessed and may yet experience more of the horrors that the totalitarian state impinge upon man, while contemporary man is undoubtedly conditioned to a utilitarian regimen of pleasure and comfort via commercialization and other nefarious instruments, it is unquestionable to this reader that neither of these literary perspectives approach the heart of the modern world, at least not so closely as Lord of the World does. The above passage, for example, expresses the natural fear of humanitarianism, the religion of man devoid of God; does this not sound so utterly familiar to us by now? The dogma of tolerance, freedom of religion, complete moral autonomy, the tendency to 'world peace' via a global government, the socialistic usurpation of Christian Charity, the persistent slander against whatever stands for tradition in the Church, the ongoing standardization of society in every sphere until there will conceivably one shapeless mass, removed of any hierarchy or qualitative differentiation whatsoever... all of this is either hinted at or expressed openly in this magnificently precocious book. While all of the other titles (well, maybe not Left Behind, except as a self-indictment against modern evangelicalism) have certainly revealed various factors of our present nature, only the final one has revealed our fundamental nature, which is, namely, the war of the world against that of God. Arguably beginning in the Renaissance, man has progressively elevated himself from something which is inherently fallen, needing supernatural help, to something which is not unlike Milton's Satan, so terribly proud, so beautifully facile.

'The two Cities of Augustine lay for him to choose. The one was that of a world self-originated, self-organised, and self-sufficient, interpreted by such men as Marx and Herve, socialists, materialists, and, in the end, hedonists, summed up at last in Felsenburgh. The other lay displayed in the sight before him, telling of a Creator and of a creation, of a Divine purpose, a redemption, and a world transcendent and eternal from which all sprang and to which all moved. One of the two, John and Julian, was the Vicar, and the other the Ape, of God....' Lord of the World, p.96

Robert Hugh Benson saw that the world in his day was under siege by various ideologies - Marxism, Humanism, Communism, Globalism, all propagated by Freemasons and the like. This has not changed, except that all of these are more entrenched than ever in the Western consciousness, only more slyly, more inconspicuously, because we have become used to their presence. It is a frightening fact that our world is looking more and more like a dystopia in itself; that our reality in the current century is increasingly similar to the fictions of the previous century.

While Benson saw that the Church retreated more and more from the world into something as fixedly supernatural as it ever was, it is unfortunate in reality that the Church has submitted somewhat, that it has if anything retreated into the world; from the mildness of the new liturgies to the feminization of the new priest, the secular standardization has breached the frontier of the sacred. In any case, however, Benson's final portent of Christ's victory over the world, the unflagging determination of some few Christians despite the momentous setbacks they repeatedly suffered should give us all hope - hope that no matter the violence done to us in the world it is only the world, that the lord of this world has no dominion anywhere else, and hope that, in His own good time, Christ will inevitably return.

'And I saw a new heaven and a new earth. For the first heaven and the first earth was gone, and the sea is now no more.
And I John saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
And I heard a great voice from the throne, saying: Behold the tabernacle of God with men, and he will dwell with them. And they shall be his people; and God himself with them shall be their God.
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away.
And he that sat on the throne, said: Behold, I make all things new. And he said to me: Write, for these words are most faithful and true.
And he said to me: It is done. I am Alpha and Omega; the beginning and the end. To him that thirsteth, I will give of the fountain of the water of life, freely.
He that shall overcome shall possess these things, and I will be his God; and he shall be my son.' St. John, Book of Revelation (21:1-7)


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

2013 Review

The only kind of order that these mini-reviews follow is the order in which I wrote them... the best ten albums are thus:

1. SUMMONING - Old Morning's Dawn
2. NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS - Push the Sky Away
3. PESTE NOIRE - Peste Noire
4. ATLANTEAN KODEX - The White Goddess
5. AOSOTH - IV: Arrow in Heart
6. COSMIC CHURCH - Ylistys
7. CALADAN BROOD - Echoes of Battle
8. MAGIC CIRCLE - Magic Circle
9. SPIRITUAL FRONT - Black Hearts in Black Suits
10. DIS PATER - Converge, Rivers of Hell

Terrific year for black metal! The reader can find extensive reviews of the NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS and a three-way juxtaposition of SUMMONING, CALADAN BROOD, and ATLANTEAN KODEX here and here.

GRAVELAND - Thunderbolts of the Gods

GRAVELAND have settled into a groove of consistency in the past six years, releasing a string of high-quality albums that do not really advance the 'Graveland idea' in any remarkably inventive way, but help to solidify it nonetheless. Thunderbolts of the Gods is the latest of these, an album that shows an improvement in its percussion if nothing else; the drums are engaged in the same ritualistic pummeling as ever, but are often sped up, creating a driven rhythm that effects a greater intensity in any which song's narrative. Wolves, northern barbarism, simplistic riffing, and occasional background chants mean that the rest is more or less the same as any GRAVELAND album in the last couple of decades.

DIS PATER - Converge, Rivers of Hell

This is an album that truly deserves both plenty more time before reviewing it at all, and a full review of its own instead of haphazardly slotting it into a largely arbitrary list in an egregious act of injustice. In short, Converge is the elephantine collaboration between TEMPESTUOUS FALL, THE CREVICES BELOW, and MOONLIGHT ODYSSEY, which is the say it is the collaboration of a single person, Dis Pater, the musical polymath behind every one of these solo artists. It is obvious that each of these acts are a different means of communication for a singular vision, each perfectly suited for their own respective avenues of expression.

THE CREVICES BELOW, for example, is the busiest, fastest project, a powerful current shooting down the River Charon in a style composed of grim percussion and a foreboding atmosphere; the music is a welcome show of diversity and variability compared to the monotony (not in this case a pejorative) which is particularly exemplified in the subsequent act. TEMPESTUOUS FALL is naturally burdened with the responsibility of approaching the River Cocytus, which is called the 'river of wailing', and which is in Dante's Inferno the lake of the ninth and deepest circle of Hell, where the most vile and treacherous souls abide in agony.

The music is a painfully stagnant lamentation, a miserably drawn-out narrative composed of highly elongated synth lines, a dreadfully slow, almost non-existent rhythm, and dismal riffs that echo the unending persistence of time in the abyss. Likewise is it natural for MOONLIGHT ODYSSEY to remember the River Lethe, the place where, according to ancients like Plato and Virgil, the dead forget their past existence in order to be reincarnated once again. The music of MIDNIGHT ODYSSEY is the most reflective of all, an enterprise in conscious contemplation of the world and how we lived in it; the music ranges from the distant strumming of an acoustic guitar to the harder rise in tempo that picks up in the final track about the River Styx. Despite the coherence and contributions of  the other two bands, MIDNIGHT ODYSSEY is clearly where Dis Pater feels most comfortable; the songs are cleaner, seamless, swaying with a healthy continuity that conveys when needed a calm, thoughtful sense of melody or a moment of persuasive power.

All of these are, however, merely three units of a greater whole. Converge, Rivers of Hell is an ambitious, multi-layered, and beautifully produced concept album that works not because of the diversity of its collaborators, but because of their unity. This is not merely one band that says the same thing three times; this is an artist that says something different three times in order to say something once. The several rivers of hell comprise the nature and function of hell, each performing their own equally necessary duties upon their inhabitants. The three artists of Converge likewise reveal various sides of their creator in order to fully express the entirety of his vision, his vision of hell.

DEUS MORTEM - Emanations of the Black Light

With the emergence of several intriguing bands such as MGLA, CULTES DES GHOULES, PLAGA, and BLAZE OF PERDITION, the Polish black metal movement is amongst the healthiest in the past five years. The style musically varies from intense, morbid blasting to a more melodic focus, but aesthetically it tends to fall under a highly visual 'cosmic symbolism', uniting an artistic satanism with misanthropic philosophy. DEUS MORTEM join this growing legion by releasing their debut, the maturity of which is unsurprising considering the veteran musicians involved in its creation (namely Necrosodom of ANIMA DAMNATA and Inferno of BEHEMOTH and AZARATH).

Lyrically and visually Emanations of the Black Light is typically 'anti-cosmic' - it is the story of chaos and abyssal power at war with the echelons of order; it is the story of man becoming 'unman', or 'anti-man'. MGLA did this with greater originality and more persuasiveness in their latest record, With Hearts Toward None, but in DEUS MORTEM's case the aesthetic satisfies the limited demands of their first album. This is because the music is likewise safe, conventional, modest, but it is performed truly and honestly, with an emphasis on a defined structure and transparent melodies that keep the narrative interesting. There are several really high-calibre riffs that particularly ameliorate the rhythm, lending a jubilant vitality to an otherwise ordinary phrasing; Necrosodom is hardly a slouch on the guitar.

If the choice is merely between (1) writing music that is novel for the sake of novelty and (2) writing music that adheres to traditionally successful parameters, DEUS MORTEM show that the latter is patently the more viable option.

PESTE NOIRE - Peste Noire 

[The following is an excerpt from a full essay on PESTE NOIRE as a whole, which will be released whenever that slacker from Black Ivory Tower ever decides to get off his squat and print it]

Much like L'Ordure a l'etat pur, Peste Noire is primarily invested in the unique objective of extracting beauty by swimming through overwhelming ugliness; the idea is that only by confronting the opposite of something can we truly understand and appreciate it. William Blake knew this when he married Heaven and Hell; Friedrich Nietzsche knew this when he cursed the West as Apollonian and consequently hailed Dionysus as his master; and now PESTE NOIRE know this by resurrecting an original black metal principle, the principle that is stated most clearly in 'Dunkelheit', where 'life has new meaning' when the world is cloaked 'in impenetrable darkness'. The vocals are disturbing and yet strangely comprehensible, loudly boasting a rude chauvinism and willfully 'non-PC' sentiments;  the song structures are largely unorthodox, rising and falling abnormally but with an undeniable fluency; and, when they are not in the employ of the recurring melodic impetus, the guitar lines are bizarre and unsettling. The music is altogether a frightening spectre. It is non-traditional, even by the broad, amorphous standards of black metal. But what emerges from this boiling, hideous swamp is familiar to every traditional black metal band - it is that 'new meaning', the elusive Weltanschauung that enlightens the initiate like the pale moon finally appearing in the sky on a cloudy night.

Peste Noire could also be conceived of as some kind of filthy drama, at once comedic and tragic. The plot is a rich, colossal mixture of discordant rhythm croaking along beneath a violent demagogue shaking his fists and shouting to be heard above the din; it is a throne-room of chaos swarming with militant partisans and broken hearts; it is a gigantic knot of bitter, scaly cords. Then the hero, or should we say the antihero, arrives like Achilles in a state of self-aware superiority - then like Alexander he cuts through that knot in a Promethean moment of abject defiance to the gods and the laws of men. The world no longer matters because he has conquered it; he is a law unto himself, the Heracles who has vaulted over the circumstances of Maya to join with the self-serving denizens of Olympus.

The dramatic landscape of any song, teeming with cunning rodents and black-hearted jesters, as it were, is established via the sordid implementation of caustic rasps, sporadic belches, primitive, impetuous percussion, even that scratching, slightly off guitar tone - but the 'hero' is unfailingly present by the end of it. His activity is typically revealed by a spontaneous, dynamic melody which repeatedly offers resolution, the light by which the protagonist's path is shown. The melodic impact is hard and effective, particularly because of the tyrannical tempest that it arrives into and illuminates; the music is blistered, shamelessly Dionysiac, and crude, but the persistence of a cold, Northern melody inevitably brings it all together, makes it beautiful. Again like the old nationalists, who often symbolized their country in the shape of a young, delightful woman, this visceral, lingering melodic strand epitomizes the beauty of a girl in the full bloom of youth. This is even made conscious both in the increased utilization of female vocals, which are arguably more proficiently used on Peste Noire than on L'Ordure, and of course in 'La Blonde', wherein a lascivious Famine drunkenly serenades all the lovely maidens within his culture, and by 'lovely maidens' we do of course mean cans of France's finest beer.

The first importance of PESTE NOIRE consists in their being a part of a French reaction to the prevailing powers who govern her affairs; we can listen to their music and derive an added joy from their motivating ethos, the raw, natural engine which provides the music with a supreme honesty and a gratifying sincerity. We are moreover spared the necessary eye-rolling inspired by many 'similar' bands who evangelize for Thor and the 'true gods of the European race' and consequently assault the Christian Church, the actual founder of Europe as a unified body. PESTE NOIRE therefore represent a part of nationalism that rejects the liberal Revolution as well as many of the unhealthy components of their political and musical peers.

The second and greater importance of PESTE NOIRE consists simply in their being the makers of excellent music, which is evidently enhanced by being driven by an intelligent, masculine, and altogether healthy worldview, but is nevertheless distinct from it; there are plenty of artists who have created art for the right reasons yet failed miserably in doing so, and vice versa.  Art has become a kind of surrogate for religion, a medium through which truth and goodness and beauty may be conveyed; in more normal circumstances art was relegated to a subordinate position, but today it is of paramount importance precisely because of the decay of the sacred. This being true, it is even more essential for a band with something to say to say it with artistic sublimity - to say something that is real via something that is real, namely music that is truly good. While a hundred other bands are comfortable making tired, derivative, boring music with the same general form of black metal, PESTE NOIRE are emphatically uncomfortable with this - they are infact hopelessly discontent until they have achieved a collection of music that is both faithful to the original, virile spirit of black metal and to the inner convictions of their own artistic vision. This above anything else is why they are amongst the most important bands in the 21st Century.

PLAGA - Magia gwiezdnej entropii

While there are three other very solid albums from the country of cheap vodka and cheaper perogies on this list, PLAGA's is absolutely the most Polish of them all. While the predominant use of their native language obviously goes a long way towards this identification, there is additionally a certain 'folkish' element imbued in the music, in the minute contours of the melodies, in the typically 'anti-cosmic' lyrics that are seemingly common to every recent Polish black metal band. This element is authentically reminiscent of Poland, and it subconsciously informs the listener of a place where he likely has never been.

There is, moreover, an apparent organic quality to this album. Unlike the typical song on the DEUS MORTEM and CULTES DES GHOULES efforts, which is largely centred around one or two major riffs, Magia is a more fluent affair; rather than being arbitrarily superimposed upon it, the effervescent melodicism is neatly interwoven into the sinews of the music, pushing it along with a sublimely natural and easy sense of movement. There is also more genuine feeling in Magia than in GRAVELAND's contribution, for example. Whereas Thunderbolts of the Gods intones a successfully inhumane rasp, like a shaman chanting at the West winds, PLAGA, through both their vocals and the affected dynamism of their guitar work, are able to invoke a certain visceral quality into their music. While this perhaps means in the conventional understanding a failure to properly replicate the black metal, anti-human idea in their music, it is in our own understanding a commanding success in reflecting an idea of Poland and her black metal, even if it is expressed via the familiar tropes of misanthropic black metal.


The beauty of this album lies in its simplicity. Musically this simplicity is comprised of a couple dominant riffs per song that are uniquely catchy and distinctly tainted by a kind of sorcerous patina that lends credibility to the important aesthetic of the band; the requisite blasting verses and the spooky samples are likewise injected to further the atmosphere of howling magicians, of a 'cult of ghouls', of a primitive horror movie made on the budget of a bunch of wage slaves. The vocals are a particularly effective instrument to this end: curving, drawling, and weird vocals that reinforce the impressions of ghouls and imps practising black magic.

The simplicity of this album extends also to the aforementioned aesthetic, which is surprisingly refreshing in its directness, its originality. The listener is inevitably intrigued by the apparent fact that this is a black metal band that does not take themselves (and their ideology) too seriously; lacking the morbid sobriety of the vast majority of their peers, but without descending into a bad gimmick or a parody band, CULTES DES GHOULES achieve a rare honesty that is reflected in their music. In a genre that is famous and often lampooned for its abundant egoism and pretense, Henbane is an album that accords to the simple principles of creating good music, without any evident ulterior motives whatsoever. It can therefore be counted as a legitimate representative of the genre, perhaps in the same way that, even if it doesn't have the seriousness of a Nosferatu or a Psycho, Evil Dead II is a legitimate representative of a horror movie.

NEIGE ETERNELLE - Neige Eternelle

SOMBRES FORETS and GRIS, two other bands from Quebec  releasing albums in 2013, received very high praise for their more intellectual, more elaborate, and far less aggressive approach to black metal; there are many who broadly call that style 'post-black metal', which is the lazy journalist's way of terming something that derives from something else, but which in reality is almost entirely different. It would be as though, instead of rightly calling it 'power metal', we would have named the new subgenre coming out of the 80's something like 'post-traditional metal'. We have no such worries with NEIGE ETERNELLE, who play as direct and old-school black metal as it gets, from the music to their aesthetic. Their name, for example, is as blunt and unimaginative as you might expect, which goes along perfectly with the album cover, a faded, imperial sheet of snow ruthlessly covering the forest, the plains, the sky, even the band logo.

Not that NEIGE ETERNELLE really need to be original, of course, not when their music is so demonstrative of the original black metal thesis. It is savage and cold from the start, waking an awesome blizzard by a furious, loud, dynamic percussion in conspiracy with a youthful, impetuous riff assault that shrieks fresh life into the movement. Direct, relentless, clearly defined, the music is yet intelligent for all of that; the song structure is smartly simple, not wandering off aimlessly into unknown territory, but not becoming formulaic or single-minded either. It is diverse, but not so diverse as to lack unity or a coherent plan forward.

There is also, beyond the necessary desolation of the North Quebec landscape, a very slight touch of warmth that perhaps may be metaphorically likened to a campfire in the middle of the night, the middle of the woods. This is revealed particularly in the second half of the release, where the band show us in full the strong melody that they hint at throughout the album. This sort of melodic awareness, a kind of visceral insight into the harshness of the world and the condition of man, makes us wonder if the aforementioned bands like GRIS are not actually a redundancy, a needless tautology that follows from a genre that already has that quality, only in a harder, purer state. They are certainly so in black metal, which is why, if they are to retain any worth at all, we must look at them from a completely different perspective, and finally drop the 'post-black metal' tag once and for all.

NEIGE ETERNELLE are in any case proof enough that black metal can still be imitated in its proper form without devolving into reckless innovations; that black metal can be created simply and effectively so long as its creators maintain an honest, unequivocal mentality. Eternal snow, eternal black metal.

CULT OF FIRE - Ascetic Meditation of Death

In a genre that has exhausted the supply of Satanic imagery to the point where much of black metal comes across as gimmicky, as cheesy as anything in power metal, CULT OF FIRE's focus on the terrifying depths of the Hindoo cosmology is a welcome, refreshing entrance into a new world. This world is not totally new, however, as the title of the present album indicates - the same fixation on death, which is indeed virtually a necessity for the style, is nevertheless apparent; indeed, it is hard to find many more striking images of death than that which defaces the album cover, a richly symbolic vision of the dark goddess Kali wielding snakes, a scimitar, a starry trident, and a necklace of skulls across her body.

Also unlike satanically-transfixed bands such as WATAIN and DEATHSPELL OMEGA, who would not know what to do with a melody if Jon Nodtveidt himself wrote it for them, CULT OF FIRE are perfectly aware of how to use the intensely melodic chords that bear this album, that make it something special. The atmosphere, for example, is grand, ostentatious, a product of consistent, supporting percussion combined with overarching, sweeping melodies; there are a multitude of moments where the album leaps forward with a massive, transcendent crescendo of spontaneous genius intersecting with the patience of a durable song structure. It is in these moments that the listener is truly captivated. Moreover, rather than the use of the sitar, organ, etc., it is in the manipulation of a crucial melody that allows the music to reflect the album's aesthetic; the passions and terrors of Vedic religious life come alive via this melodic exploration of visually potent music.

Beguiling us with dark, malevolent imagery and the conventional implementation of black metal dissonance, CULT OF FIRE are not nearly so dangerous; on the contrary, the establishment of touching, poetic hymns signifies a hidden magnanimity that belies its entombment. Like stripping away the ego of the self and finding the Self, the simultaneously human and inhuman Atman, Ascetic Meditation of Death leads us from the familiar fear of death, to the impassive contemplation of death, to the ultimate transcendence of death altogether.

This album is reminiscent of a golden temple shining heavenly in the distance; but, as we approach it, we realize that it is illusory, a mirage of the senses that confuses us. The temple of life is really the temple of death; the rope is really the snake. Death is the imminent reality, but CULT OF FIRE show us how pleasant the illusion of life can be as well, and make us wonder in the end if such beauty, shown in the light of the fact that all things die, is truly illusory at all.

SACRIPHYX - The Western Front

In a year that flourished with black metal, SACRIPHYX stand out as one of the very few death metal bands who actually managed to produce something beyond cookie-cutter, shapeless death/black hybrids aspiring to the heights of DEAD CONGREGATION or retrograde bands mindlessly aping the traditional 'Swedeath' sound. There is something classic in the SACRIPHYX sound, something which escapes us merely plugging it into whatever extra category or definition we might conjure up; there are slight elements from black and traditional metal here and there, but overall The Western Front is simply death metal.

An unwavering simplicity also defines the music itself, which plods along without extraordinary pace or technical diction - there is a basic dependency on a low, deep-throated (huehue) voice that scathingly reaches forward into the grueling misery of WWI, drawing it out. The production is likewise unexceptional, performing the task of conveying the disenchantment of modern warfare admirably enough; the atmosphere is therefore thick, muddy, altogether as dissatisfying as the conditions of trench life. The riffs are manufactured with that seemingly natural Australian proficiency that keeps many other bands interesting, and that accelerate the SACRIPHYX genius into something even better.

A genuinely synthetic relationship exists between the organic and the mechanical on The Western Front. While the dark, brutally efficient, inhumane, 'satanic' instruments of war are illustrated through an unimaginative production, a limited range, and a generally dismal atmosphere, this is tied together by the 'naturalness' of the medium; the mechanical is parodied through its own parts, but is united through an organic, seamless sense of songwriting. There is an explicit honesty here that is similar to protest songs in the angle of its content and its abrasiveness, but which is dissimilar to them in its personality and its authenticity. There is the unmistakable impression that this is music spoken through the voice of a veteran rather than the angry 'causes' of another hippy dissident. This is an album which laments and assaults the practice of modern 'total war' because of its lack of humanity, which completely betrays an original death metal tenet, but which wins because of its ability to say something original through something clich├ęd.

AOSOTH - IV: An Arrow in Heart

France is perhaps Poland's only rival in regards to a consistent output of very good black metal bands in the new millennium,  with albums like ANTAEUS's Cut Your Flesh and Worship Satan, S.V.E.S.T.'s Urfaust, and of course PESTE NOIRE's L'Ordure a l'etat Pur leading the way. AOSOTH have never created anything quite so groundbreaking as any of these modern classics, but they have certainly blazed their own path, with a distinct sound and a solid discography to this point. 

Sharing that same aesthetical predisposition towards religion that French black metal is known for, AOSOTH cannot help but be compared to DEATHSPELL OMEGA, the terrible touchstone for satanically theistic bands with an eye for ornate symbolism; fortunately, however, AOSOTH also cannot help but be compared to ANTAEUS, an actually good band with whom they share key members. Whereas DEATHSPELL come across as nauseatingly pretentious and needlessly intricate both musically and aesthetically, with a top-heavy concept that makes impossible demands on the music, AOSOTH speak their vision through their music first. This results in a more natural relationship, allowing the aesthetic to seem like the necessary consequence of the music, which is nefariously sacramental to begin with.

The inclusion of the two-part 'Broken Dialogue', for example, with the seemingly benign samples, which are yet haunting in relation to the accompanying music, and the traditionally symbolic use of the number '3' in the duration of either song (each being 3:09 in length), injects a genuinely consecrated aura into the album - a consecration to the devil, like a subtle inversion of values that adopt the superstructural beauty of the Catholic religion without its Christ, its substance. The 'broken dialogue' possibly refers to a Nietzschean polemic against the dualistic nature of Christianity, that the alleged platonic opposition between Heaven and Earth is a lie, because there is only one reality; we cannot communicate with God on a transcendent dimension because He (or Satan, if you will) already exists in the imminent sense. The concluding track, too, 'Ritual Marks of Penitence', is a mesmerizing testament to the intelligence that went into this album; the serious consideration of its overarching aesthetic evolves into an authentically epic song that not only exemplifies the dominant theme of the album, but completes it. This darkly spiritual understanding of black metal, imbued with a thoughtfully religious ornamentation, provides an enormous depth to the music that does not merely rivet the listener into a savage headbang, but enthralls him in a spectral embrace and inspires existential contemplation.

With that said, however, there is infact a heavy groove to this album which is emphasized by a deep, cloudy, submersed production antithetical to the typical black metal affair. The riffs are conjoined with the rhythm section in patterns of low, symmetrical furrows that keep the narrative active and absorbing; this also means that, again atypical of black metal, the bass is a major player, supplying a constant platform for the rhythm, and increasing the depth and density of the atmosphere. MkM's vocals are perfectly appropriate for the task, excelling in the mid- to low-range, endorsing an additional morbidity for the music. The guitar work is moreover frequently cyclical, and unique in its ability to create at first an unsettling, mystical insight before launching another powerful, rhythmically engaging diatribe that commands the listener's attention.

This is the kind of approach that contemporary metal music should be aiming for: an intelligent, symbolically or religiously or in some way spiritually interesting aesthetic that is matched musically by a comprehensive vision that reflects the art as a whole.  AOSOTH manifestly meet these demands, as well as the additional one of not winding themselves into abstractive oblivion a la DEATHSPELL OMEGA; they rather ride the range between over-intellectualization and myopic, blasphemous anti-Christianity, instead fusing a beautiful, imaginative aesthetic into a bold, concrete, and tangible musical style. The days of 'raping the corpse of Jesus' (or whatever other lines of profound poetry black metal has been responsible for) are numbered. The tragic, calamitous demise of Christianity has been established, the assault upon it has become redundant; it is time to start thinking about what might be built upon it, and AOSOTH are clearly in the vanguard to this end. 

SATAN - Life Sentence

With a thousand and one bands trying to recreate the 'golden age' of the eighties, and managing only to look like washed-out hosers twenty years before their time to be washed-out hosers, it has often fallen to the original masters to step in and command the pack once more. ANGEL WITCH did it last year for the aging dignity of the NWOBHM, and now SATAN have stepped in with Life Sentence, their own 'comeback' opus that has likewise garnered almost universal appreciation from all corners of the metalverse.

The problem with nearly all of those 'retro' bands is that they tend to be inspired by the scene rather than the music; obviously they love the work of DESTRUCTION, CANDLEMASS, IRON MAIDEN and the rest, but their aim when they make their derivative albums is not so much to simply create good music as it is really to 'sound like those guys'. The fact that the retro-thrash types are the most guilty of this unfortunate trend says that it is likely a lifestyle thing as well, that the TANKARD lifestyle of hard music and hard drinking is an 'honest, blue-collar' way of life that 'stays true to metal'. The objective becomes 'staying true to metal' rather than making good music, and you can see this in the manner that these bands model their aesthetic, which is virtually identical to that of the typical thrash band in the eighties - only now it comes across as faded and disingenuous. So it is a sort of paradox that many of those who wish to 'stay true to metal' actually betray one of its core principles, which is simply making good music, regardless of the 'lifestyle' one identifies with the genre as a whole.

The old quote, 'seek not what the ancients had; seek what they sought', is perfectly relevant to this phenomenon. Well, SATAN have risen from not-quite-ancient history to show us again what they sought, which is basically a higher standard of heavy metal. This album is more straightforward than their countrymen's deeper As Above, So Below,  and is therefore more immediately engaging, making their intent visible from the first with the ballistic opener, 'Time to Die'. Though rarely straying from a mid-pace stride, the riffs are an obvious highlight of Life Sentence; this is an album where leads truly lead the way, venturing forward boldly as the rhythm follows behind. The verse-chorus-verse formula suffers a lot of flak from music critics, but there is nothing inherently wrong with it, even if it is over-used; there is a reason why it is so popular, which is namely that it is a really successful formula that allows a lot of compositional freedom while retaining a clearly defined organization. SATAN do just that, showing just how successful this pattern can be even at this relatively late stage in rock music. They show some structural creativity of their own, however, in the finale, 'Another Universe', where the band simply let loose with several motifs circling around one massive riff that builds and builds right into the end of the album.

This is indeed 'a higher standard of heavy metal'. Beyond all the nonsense gimmicks, the party lifestyles, the derivative, retrograde bands, and the commercial sell-outs, it is encouraging to know that there are bands capable of emerging from a twenty-five year slumber and producing music that is qualitatively identical to their original, genre-defining achievements. Perhaps the resurgence of ANGEL WITCH and SATAN can inspire a new generation of traditional metal that is driven by a genuine creativity and belief in the native potential in this style - and finally ostracize those who exploit the 'old-school' status of legendary bands for their own superficial purposes.

MAGIC CIRCLE - Magic Circle

While the bulk of the heavy metal community had their collective attention fixed on the massive occasion of BLACK SABBATH's 'reunion album', 13, MAGIC CIRCLE quietly released their own attempt at traditional doom metal... and absolutely obliterated the old gods. True, 13 is not a bad album by any means; it is a steady, measured, and of course very mature affair that reacquaints us with many of our old favourite Sabbath characteristics (particularly in the lyrical department). But MAGIC CIRCLE do not merely 'reacquaint' us with BLACK SABBATH; they actively compel their persuasive, heavy, and openly aggressive brand of classic doom right into our consciousness, a devastating re-introduction to that force which opened the gates to heavy metal and all its domains.

A lot of doom metal has become deeply obsessed with the creation of 'atmosphere', with rolling out tremendously extended phrases with long, echoing drum patterns and riffs that take a full planetary cycle to come full circle; and a lot of it is very good, of course, especially when done in the mould of a SKEPTICISM or an ESOTERIC or even a DISEMBOWELMENT. But more of it is actually very bad, unfortunately, and frequently causes us to despair of a doom metal that has become tedious, boring, and redundant, and to again long for the kind of directness that originally typified the genre.

With a focus on rhythm and continual activity, MAGIC CIRCLE are certainly the answer to that demand, and they do it without sacrificing their own unique atmosphere. There are actual riffs, for example, riffs that passionately storm their way through the song, a condensed locomotive pummeling a path towards its objective. Songs are carved out intelligently in fluidly integrated structures that speak to a profound sense of songwriting and knowledge of the genre - a familiarity that is actually somewhat surprising considering the hardcore and death metal roots of this band's membership. The fact that the vocalist, a Brendan Radigan, sounds uncannily like Ozzy contributes significantly to the music, reminding us of Sabbath's original power without warning us that this is a mere 'tribute band'; it also, however, makes us wonder whether the very formation of this band was not simply to utilize this vocalist's Ozzy-esque abilities!

Sometimes, as in SATAN, the masters must return to show their pupils the proper techniques, to set them on the right trail; but other times the pupils outpace their masters, and succeed in maintaining the tradition in a more qualified way. MAGIC CIRCLE are certainly in this latter category, showing the 'founders' of traditional doom metal that they are here to pick up the torch, and yet doing it in the most respectful fashion, filling their music with tributary nods to their primary inspiration. But, as their debut transparently shows, MAGIC CIRCLE are nevertheless their own band with their own identity, and we eagerly look forward to seeing how they build upon it in the coming years.


Finland is generally known for either their high-paced, cacophonous, sonically intense black metal a la HORNA, SATANIC WARMASTER, and especially IMPALED NAZARENE, or for their guttural, morbid, fanatically evil black metal a la BEHERIT, BARATHRUM, and ARCHGOAT. This is why COSMIC CHURCH, with their clear emphasis on formulating a grand, elaborate atmosphere brimming with melodic counterpoint, are a refreshing exception that has attracted an appreciable amount of interest with Ylistys, their latest and best effort to date.

Something which is equally refreshing, we find with Ylistys a significant divergence from the familiar themes of Satan as an entity of hate, a bringer of blasphemy against the Christian creed. Satan is still held to be the master, of course, the dark muse by which COSMIC CHURCH are inspired, but he is more of an ambiguous, guiding figure than a warlord, more of a hound leading the way than a biting, cursing jackal screaming for vengeance. This is mainly because COSMIC CHURCH take the interesting approach of conceptually adopting the 'Right Hand Path', which is associated with orthodoxy and collective worship. This is interesting precisely because all of black metal is geared towards an exposition of the 'Left Hand Path', which is associated with the occult and the individual, whether he worship himself or something else. This approach is apparent when we consider the lyrics of Ylistys, which concern namely the oneness of nature, the presence of a powerful, life-affirming light against the darkness, as well as various symbols of tradition such as temples and sacrifice and clear supplications which beautify 'the Lord' in strains of poetry that would sound perfectly normal in any Christian ceremony; the cosmos is pantheistic, but COSMIC CHURCH have found the need to worship anyway. This Satan whom they worship, who presently takes on the role that his epithet 'Light-bringer' denotes, could indeed be easily confused with the God with whom he is alleged to be opposed!

Fortunately, this significant vision reveals itself in the music, firstly through an organized, cyclic song structure that represents a steady, becalming influence on the music and consequently the listener. There is no frantic pace here, no terrible belligerence snapping at the jaws to devour an enemy; there is simply calm, order, a peaceful sort of grace that is conducive to the visuals of meditation and worship. Any kind of bleak howling by the vocals or savage blast beats are either swallowed by the ethereal gentleness of the atmosphere (which is bolstered by some supremely delicate synth lines) or are fitted into a certain context, pacified by being made an important part of the stoic whole. The wonderfully melodious nature of the music is also conducive to the worship; the easy, artfully worked melodic phrasing comes across like some kind of 'love poetry', like the beautiful words of St. Francis which proclaim the majesty of God and His powerful servants through whom He works His will. The Finnish baritone singing in Lupaus and the finale further this impression, reminding us of a congregation of men by a fire on the mountainside, singing their praises of a holy, sacred reality.

COSMIC CHURCH are exactly what their name implies: a principally religious force that worships the cosmos; COSMIC CHURCH are a cosmic church. This unique vision, substantiated by an ideal that perceives Satan as a master of enlightenment and illumination, who brings light to those still beleaguered by darkness, is one that not only shows what black metal in all of its versatility is capable of, but capitalizes on it, moves it forward in a highly significant way. The dark, frustrated, hateful, dionysiac resources of black metal have been stretched thin, over-saturated by a host of uninspired counterfeits of the original greats who used them properly. It is now evident that black metal, in order to continue its evolution, must broaden its horizons, inventively utilize the mythological cosmologies that still subsist, to use Satan and other familiar entities in new symbolic ways, and to most importantly thrust their new, coherent vision into a willing music that openly welcomes this new direction and demonstrates it joyously. Joining their peers in PESTE NOIRE, CULT OF FIRE, and AOSOTH this year, that is precisely what COSMIC CHURCH have done; they have wondered at the world, found it wanting of original poetry, stepped in to help fill that lack with a beautiful voice overflowing with love and honesty, and worshiped the world thereby.

'The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.' ~ William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven & Hell

LUST FOR YOUTH - Perfect View

Crawling out from the post-modern, post-patriarchal, proudly progressive landscapes of Scandinavia, LUST FOR YOUTH exhibit all of the existential bleakness that frequently characterizes the Nordic domains. There is, for example, a heavy, sinking atmosphere that exudes a distinct melancholy, a distant sadness that impresses the listener with prolonged disenchantment and empathetic restraint; it is a serene coldness that shows us the blankness and the intolerance of modern life. There is also, however, lingering just beneath the pressing, dreary atmosphere, a juxtapositional warmth that suggests the persistence of a vague romantic love and a brave, idealistic hope for the future.

Reaching back a few decades to the black & white visuals of the eighties, the portentous minimalism of electronic music in its infancy, Perfect View is replete with ordinary, repetitive phrasing, rigid song structures, and contrapuntal synth lines that dance against each other in a swinging, antagonistic symphony. The electronic instrumentation, including the quarter-note pulsing of the drum beat familiar to the style, speak to a futuristic motif that is inspired by this digital age to make the absolute most out of it in a compositional way; the music is sleek, efficient, barbarically modern, but only to convey the insipid loneliness that prevails at the inner core of the archetypal individual of the 21st Century.

LUST FOR YOUTH are categorically driven to create a miserable, frightening, and disinterested ambiance; the deep fragmentation of social order in the spiritual chaos of our time is coolly invoked via the remote, dragging atmosphere and the technologically motivated instrumentation. In a word, the ambiance is as remote as the Faroes, and as mechanical as the urban nervous system. But there is yet a subtle, amorous heat that burns below the darkness, flickering melodic embers that seethe a silent life; there is yet some passion beneath a dispassionate surface. This is either the hope of a new dawn, of a sudden awakening that inspires that dormant visceral fire to emerge into the full brightness of consciousness; or it is simply the reminder that there is always, even in the midst of a godless, sunless Scandinavian Winter, the potential for human love to flower forth in the radiant beauty possessed by man overcoming the world.

Incapacitated by illusions, made impotent by age, we are the inheritors of a grey, senile civilization; but our lust for youth glows as fiery as ever, and music is invariably a willing expression for its molten embrace. LUST FOR YOUTH are at the vanguard of an artistic movement that bears the ideals of the futuristic, Fascistic twenties, the aesthetic of the seminal eighties, but whose inner idea, that of love's existence in a loveless place, is entirely timeless.

HURTS - Exile

HURTS play a style of refined, streamlined, highly polished synthpop that dwells particularly on the 'poppy' aspect; it is indeed 'radio-friendly' music, with catchy choruses and the simplest of song structures that define the entire album. The lyrical content is predominantly romantic; on the surface it is even sentimental, largely concerned with the aftermath of a broken relationship or a hopeless pining for an absent lover, which is, again, more popular than powerful, more emotionally insipid than pathetically incisive. So, what on God's green earth does it have to actually merit a place on this most prestigious of reviews?

In a word, honesty. The principal charm that is so endearing about HURTS is that they manage to broadcast a very straightforward message within a very direct medium; if that message were conveyed in something more complex and altogether more dramatic it would be merely bathetic, and if it were conveyed with the fashionable thuggery of hip-hop it would be merely Top40 material, with a Black rapper's voice in auto-tune thrown in for good measure. The truth is that it is only a superficial understanding of the lyrics and the music that writes both off as mere 'sentiment'. From the perspective of the music, its structure is indeed nearly as simple as you can possibly make it, but its form clearly expresses the content; the open, unequivocal sincerity of the synth lines along with the warm, emotional vocals reinforce the unadorned beauty of the narrative. The mood of the album changes easily and comprehensibly according to each song, from the 'us against the world' defiance of the title track to the mourning expressed by the speaker over the death of his beloved in 'The Road'; the music dynamically accommodates the message by altering its form respectively.

What most impresses us about this album is how wholesome it is in its entirety. This is true from a musical standpoint, of course, with a dominant melodic impetus that carries the momentum with a beautiful sense of clarity and fluidity, but it is even truer from a lyrical standpoint, which is especially important for a band like this. In a song like the title track, for example, we discern the peace in a pair of lovers in the midst of a burning world, which they have abandoned; in 'The Rope' we detect a strong note of encouragement to keep on going whatever the obstacles; in the purity and immortality of a naive but real first love found in 'Only You'; and most of all in the sacrificial devotion of 'Somebody to Die For', of the urgent desire, the pressing need to love someone to the point of making that love one's central motivation.

Exile's faults are also its strengths. That great, unswerving romanticism at times comes across as terribly 'high school', as something woefully sentimental and weak; at other times it is the stuff of childhood, the presence of an immaculate substance that possibly reminds us of a purer, nobler, simpler time in our lives. The music is imperturbably coherent, however, and pristinely published in a transparent, august production; it bears with it all of the honesty and warmth that the open-hearted lyrics unveil before us. An unrepentant, grossly emotional album, Exile is a welcome antithesis to a wealth of pretense and sophistry found in metal and modern music in general; being in the selfsame style of a lot of what rides the radio waves these days, we would also eagerly welcome the advent of HURTS supplanting Beyonce and Kanye West as masters of contemporary pop music.

SPIRITUAL FRONT  ~ Black Hearts in Black Suits

A kind of 'classical darkwave' concept album that marries and 'redeems' various themes of SPIRITUAL FRONT's history, Black Hearts in Black Suits is the result of an all-Italian collaboration between composer Stefano Puri and vocalist / lyricist / sex-fiend Simone Salvatori. In early 2013, SPIRITUAL FRONT had already released one different type of album in Open Wounds, a collection of their old neo-folk songs reworked into a poppier, more elastic and updated format. As good as that one turned out, however, SPIRITUAL FRONT really surpassed it with Black Hearts, an album that returns to the original dark minimalism of the band, but directs it into an entirely new expression, one that promises to be more durable and mature than their first.

Earlier works in the SPIRITUAL FRONT discography, namely Rotten Roma Casino and Armageddon Gigolo, manifest a muscular sensuality passionately loaded with explicit imagery and innuendo; they unashamedly profess a robustly sexual love that careers through a catchy, erotically entrancing style of music that would put contemporary pop music to shame both in its quality and in its defiant immorality. Everything changes with Black Hearts in Black Suits.

With a vivid imagination that reveals itself via the singular charisma of his vocals and the wild feeling of his poetry, Simone's talents are able to be expressed in a way unlike anything previous; the music's minimalism, its nakedness allows the vocal aspect to authoritatively absorb all of the attention to itself. The pristine atmosphere opens up a massive spaciousness into which Simone's voice is poured, silky and compelling as he narrates a convincingly tragic love story of personal weakness and an interpersonal disconnect. Meanwhile, the supporting structure is moved along with an expert grace that is as majestic as it is ecclesiastic; the piano in particular is wonderfully worked, a tender operation that ubiquitously carries the song, placing dramatic emphasis wherever needed, guiding the song through climax and falling action.

There is, moreover, the distinct impression that this album is a kind of 'dark mass'; the occasional chorals, the classical instrumentation, and the liturgical names given to several interludes all suggest an association with the Roman Rite, albeit in an artistic act of worship extended not so much to a love of God as to Love itself. The stripped-down nature of the music is indicative of its inherent darkness, however, with heavy piano chords underscoring dynamic but plainly miserable vocal strains. The string quartet comply with this idea, offering a plaintive melodic voice that quietly, meaningfully speaks to the overarching sadness. The narrative is beautifully wrought, characterized by an incessant woe that precludes the notion of this being a Mass in any happy sense, as something joyous and celebratory, but one in a mournful, funerary sense; this is the liturgy of love, of a desperate longing for completion that fails to materialize. This is the stuff of Dante and La Vita Nuova - a private poetry that powerfully wills itself to become public art.

So, of the two general periods of the SPIRITUAL FRONT story, the rough minimalism of the first and the puissant sensuality of the second, Black Hearts in Black Suits remember each in turns; there are clear nods to either period. The factor which makes this album an important point in their evolution, however, is that they are both remembered and redeemed in this altogether different vision. The dark minimalism of Nihilist Cocktails is converted into the classical sublimity that is at times reminiscent of a Schubert string quartet; the deep sexuality of Rotten Roma Casino is baptized in the platonic purity of loss, in the symbiotic relationship that exists between love and death. For there is an honest ambition for re-integration, for a spiritual completion that goes beyond the vulgar fires of lust and controversy; this is necessarily portrayed not with the riotous 'suicide pop' music of previous efforts, but with the infinitely more suitable simplicity associated with the earliest efforts, only purified through the musical lens of the classical tradition and the compositional wisdom that often comes with age. The band started with a wrathful bitterness that lodged itself in a crimson, malicious music, but swiftly evolved into a victorious pyre of lively sensual indulgence; what we see in this altogether more sober attempt is imaginatively the reflection and the death of this path, and arguably the foundation for a rejuvenated, indeed a redeemed SPIRITUAL FRONT. At the very least it is a powerful, acidic love story with thrilling consequences for the individual.

The significance of the Oscar Wilde poem at the end of the album conceivably lies in Wilde's own story: a life of profound worldliness and deviancy followed by terrifying stretches of introspection and solitude, which finally led to the peace of the soul in the Roman Catholic Church might metaphorically hint at some of the truths in the SPIRITUAL FRONT story so far. At any rate, brimming with symphonic confidence and a classical repose, Black Hearts in Black Suits is the most poignant, refined, and intelligent SPIRITUAL FRONT album to date, and successfully represents an alternate perspective to their continual themes of the individual and the love for which he suffers.

'For each man kills the thing he loves,
Yet each man does not die.' ~ Oscar Wilde

IMPRECATION - Satanae Tenebris Infinita

While recent years have been especially kind to fans of quality death metal, 2013 has generally witnessed only poor imitations of the legendary 'Swedeath' sound and classic bands releasing decidedly un-classic material; this is not to mention virtually limitless hosts of weird black / death fusions that are neither one or the other, losing whatever merits they might have enjoyed by concentrating exclusively on creating an impossibly dense and malevolent atmosphere. The success of DEAD CONGREGATION is in no way replicated by most of their successors. Whereas bands like VORUM and LANTERN have come close to achieving something special with their respective debuts, the veterans IMPRECATION have stepped in to lead the way, to show how old-school death metal is done, and most of all to exude a sense of 'evilness' without resorting to an 'extreme atmosphere'.

Satanae Tenebris Infinita is a traditional death metal album from front to back. This is true first of all in its compositional simplicity, in its stark, unadorned, and monotonous song structures, preferring a steady stream of blunt phrases to any kind of sweeping or intricate variability. The song is constantly on the attack, and strikes plainly, guilelessly. This is true secondly in the instrumentation, which is constructed around a series of very basic, profoundly rhythmic riffs that hit with all the grace of a sledgehammer; other, secondary riffs stretch out like a serpent to help invoke a sinister, but uninvolved, atmosphere. The percussion follows faithfully, establishing a base to support to crushing momentum of the assault. This is thirdly true in the album's thematic element, which is so generic that it is almost laughable, almost as though it were a self-parody. It is sincere, however, and that works perfectly for the music, as it allows the work to express its malignance through the pure, undistracted aesthetic that has traditionally defined this kind of music.

Satanae Tenebris Infinita is nothing new, but somehow carries with it all the energy of something that is new. Theoretically speaking, there is something of a fine line between aping a style that has already been completed, and maintaining that style without adding anything to it; but that line somehow becomes a lot broader, a lot clearer in practise when we observe one band doing the former and another doing the latter. This is likely because of a difference in objectives. The 'retro' band, for example, digs us a successful style and copies it to the letter, imitating every stylistic thing about it; conversely, the 'traditional' band simply play their own music, which incidentally accords to the style in which the music is played, but primarily is something of their own creation, their own genius, which at once gives it greater vitality and an altogether superior sense of belonging to that particular style. The copycats can never achieve this proximity to the original model because they mirror its superficial exterior, and fail to locate the inner energy which gave that model life. IMPRECATION, for all of their directness, their single-minded simplicity, more acutely resurrect the death metal ethos insofar as they invoke the most important parts of it, and leave the intensely atmospheric and intensely terrible methods to their more retroactive peers.

CROMLECH - Ave Mortis

It is for my own well-being that I must rank this album among the year's elite - because I would have a bunch of potato-niggers throwing bottles of vodka at me if I didn't. So I am compelled to describe this sad, revisionistic, and outdated collection of heavy metal songs about such lame and nerdy subjects as Conan the Barbarian and The Lord of the Rings as though they were the work of Maximilian Steinberg and this were the Soviet Union of the 1930's.

Just kidding, this album actually rocks, and offers something very different to the Canadian metal landscape, namely a style of traditional metal that strives for substance rather than the gimmick of 'bringing back the 80's'. CROMLECH rather take the likes of OMEN and CIRITH UNGOL and the USPM movement of that era for their inspiration, building a callous, toughened aura that helps legitimize the connection to their roots; what this means is that there is no pretense, no exaggerated, sophistic claims of superiority or uniqueness, just an honest approach with a refreshingly juvenile motto of 'hail death!' Contemporaneously, we would hazard that CROMLECH are the bastard Canadian spawn of BATTLEROAR and TWISTED TOWER DIRE, inheriting the dark, doom-laden atmosphere and rhythmic strides of the former and the will to move, the kinetic dynamism that characterizes the latter outfit.

It is this dynamism that constitutes a core strength of Ave Mortis. Instrumentally speaking, there really is no clear weakness to attack; from the 'good cop / bad cop' vocal pairing that marries a gritty, yelling snarl with the necessary power metal singing sweetness to the relentless riffing that, allied with a highly learned grasp of percussion, drives the music forward, this album is wholly well-rounded. The inclusion of several secondary elements, such as a multitude of virile guitar solos and the ominous intros that add to the build-up, only contribute to this impression of good balance.

The chief complaint to make, however, is unsurprisingly on the compositional front, where CROMLECH show some naivete. This derives from their inexperience, naturally, but also from their audacity, their ambition to make something epic. This is hardly a criticism in itself, of course, but the idea is that it seems as though they aspired to make something 'epic' before anything else, before the music could express itself organically; this results in the song feeling contrived, like it is something other than perhaps what it could have been, what it was meant to be. There is little actual rising action, just a meandering narrative, which means there is no legitimate climax in which the true epic completes itself. This is naturally manifest in the longest two songs, which fail to keep the listener interested throughout their eleven minutes-plus duration; the instrumentals, moreover, are intriguing the first few listens, but become more patently aimless with increased exposure. Where CROMLECH do show compositional quality is in shorter songs like 'Lend Me Your Steel', in which their aural barbarism can openly express itself; in 'For a Red Dawn', whose clear rhythmic narrative creates a coherent framework to bring the song together as a whole; and in 'Shadow and Flame', which reveals an unprecedented subtlety via a strong semi-linear structure, the use of recurrent motifs, and the most positive melodies of the album. Until they conquer the art of 'macro' songwriting, CROMLECH would do well to create more songs in the verse-chorus formula. These complaints are softened when we recall that this is merely their debut, and by the promise shown in its better moments.

Ave Mortis represents a powerful, disingenuous tribute not only to their musical forebears, but to the imaginative realm as a whole, to the mythological splendour of Tolkien and the primitive prowess of Robert E. Howard. This is perfectly consistent with the style of music that they employ, and CROMLECH greatly benefit therefrom. They might not have mastered the epic, but they have mastered the lyrical; they might not have made anything like 'The Dreams of Eschaton', but CROMLECH have certainly made a few song of their own, songs which many of the OG bands would be proud of. With a jagged, blunt atmosphere that is reminiscent of the band's name, a vibrant rhythm section, and a supremely sexy vocalist who sounds like the gods upon Olympus, CROMLECH are well-placed to build a devastating dynasty, towering over the gay flower metalists of Sweden, the hipster post-bands of America, and all the fedora-wielding wimps of the world.


We mention elsewhere how much of contemporary death metal is fixated upon the crucial importance of atmosphere; of creating thick, fearsome 'walls of sound' not so much by blast beats and high-paced guitar work, but by an overwhelming distortion, nondescript riffing, slower, more persuasively indecipherable vocal chuffing, and by long, drawn-out song structures. The result, however, for all of its surface similarities, is emphatically nothing like the INCANTATION or DEAD CONGREGATION model that they eagerly imitate, but rather something like a funeral doom band trying to sound more like death metal - and failing miserably. These albums are almost never poor; they are infact well-produced, well-executed, highly professional, and full of energy. The problem is that there is often a distinct lack of identity. By incorporating death, doom, and black metal into their sound, the typical band of which we speak sacrifices the 'personality', the history, and the organization that identifying with any one of those genres offers to the band; instead they are left with conflicting styles and antithetical ideas that are fragmented, lost without any central power to bind them together.

But then there is IRKALLIAN ORACLE. While the dense, imposing atmosphere, leaning into the listener with a wolven menace, is indeed a core part of their identity, it is not the absolute objective; it is a means to an end. The atmosphere is subordinated to the creation of an artwork that has something more to express than a deliberately confused, manifestly tedious 'wall of sound' that strives for nothing else than a darker patina, a more frightening visage. Grave Ekstasis uses its deliberately comprehensible, manifestly ritualistic atmosphere to show a deeper reality, one which was hinted at by Poe, exposed by Lovecraft, and dissected by Jung; a reality at once more real than the one in which we breathe and speak and consume; a reality that is altogether surreal, darkly mythological, and yet is an integral part of the human experience, the human unconscious.

Through a terrifying aura of unrelenting chaos unleashed by an efficient, orderly percussion pushing the narrative into successive stages of impenetrable wilderness and abysmally vacuous space, IRKALLIAN ORACLE introduce us to this sub-real state of consciousness. An endless series of single phrases assault the mid like the everlasting passage of great, undulating waves hitting the Stygian shore. The music is tortuously patient, immaculately precise, offering an arsenal of incisive riffs that scream out of the song structure, enlivening it, allowing it to bristle with a frenetic, awesome electricity. Spectral species leap amidst the shadows, cursing the vagueness, the needlessness of their half-existence, as they are neither living nor dead. The whole narrative is interminable rhythm, a bleak, anti-cosmic rhythm that wails against the percussive rituals that keep it chained to the service of men.

Grave Ekstasis is frightfully authentic, a living expression of a vibrant vision - this is what makes it superior to its 'black / death' peers. Whereas a band like PORTAL express atmosphere for the sake of atmosphere; IRKALLIAN ORACLE express atmosphere for the sake of their artistic idea, the greater objective that provides every incidental part a necessary role. This is why the former are a novelty, an eccentric curiosity, and why the latter are permanently interesting.

That 'artistic idea', this mysterious world, the realm of the unconscious which acts as the home for so many subversive and suppressed forces, is wonderfully conceived and revealed via a subtle mastery of its own chaotic entities; the mythical wealth that subsists in this world is invoked into a deathly malevolence that itself gives life to the music, endowing it with an actual sense of evil. Thus we have come full circle. Instead of sinking every creative instinct into the development of a massive but ultimately turgid atmosphere, Grave Ekstasis exploits its natively powerful atmosphere to further the influence of its artistic idea (the mythic potential and 'infernal ecstasy' of the human psyche's underworld), which responds by increasing the effect of the atmosphere; this self-contained trinity is a convincing relationship between three parties, each helping the other two maximize its impact. The result is an articulate album that emanates a natural darkness, an album that, for all of the assistance it receives from other metal traditions, is entirely adherent to the death metal ethos in both principle and practise.