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.
CULTES DES GHOULES - Henbane
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.
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 clichéd.
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.
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.
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.
COSMIC CHURCH - Ylistys
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?
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.
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.
IRKALLIAN ORACLE - Grave Ekstasis
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.