The Nacirema people

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The life of the Nacirema people of North America, a tribe with a surprisingly developed market economy, is characterized by rituals and practices that we would consider alien, barbarous, and even going contrary to the self-preservation instincts. The late anthropologist Horace Miner’s extensive studies of the tribe culminated in the “Body Ritual among the Nacirema” paper*, originally published in 1958. Let’s take a look at a few selected parts, the first of them concerned with the ritual visits of the tribesmen to a member of a sacerdotal order:

In addition to the private mouth–rite, the people [of the Nacirema tribe] seek out a holy–mouth–man once or twice a year. These practitioners have an impressive set of paraphernalia, consisting of a variety of augers, awls, probes, and prods. The use of these objects in the exorcism of the evils of the mouth involves almost unbelievable ritual torture of the client. The holy–mouth–man opens the client’s mouth and, using the above mentioned tools, enlarges any holes which decay may have created in the teeth. Magical materials are put into these holes. If there are no naturally occurring holes in the teeth, large sections of one or more teeth are gouged out so that the supernatural substance can be applied. In the client’s view, the purpose of these ministrations is to arrest decay. The extremely sacred and traditional character of the rite is evident in the fact that the natives return to the holy–mouth–men year after year, despite the fact that their teeth continue to decay.

[…]One has but to watch the gleam in the eye of a holy–mouth–man, as he jabs an awl into an exposed nerve, to suspect that a certain amount of sadism is involved. If this can be established, a very interesting pattern emerges, for most of the population shows definite masochistic tendencies. It was to these that Professor Linton referred in discussing a distinctive part of the daily body ritual which is performed only by men. This part of the rite involves scraping and lacerating the surface of the face with a sharp instrument.”

Upon reading this excerpt for the first time, an image that came into my mind was that of a sacred mountainous retreat (namely the seat of power of the holy men) and a winding, narrow path, upon which the tribesmen traveled each year on their pilgrimage to the holy-mouth-men. Though never mentioned inside the text, a mountain (or at least a hilltop) is a somewhat obvious locale for the temple: in the text it is strongly implied that the people of the tribe consider the holy men keepers of power and somewhat apart and above them; it is also implied that the Nacirema travel to visit the holy-mouth-men in a sort of yearly pilgrimage; “the people seek out a holy–mouth–man once or twice a year” – “seek out” has a tone of the adventurous, of a quest for something that is not readily available, something or someone outside the daily-life plateau. Even the “naturally occurring holes in the teeth” evoke images of caves and rock formations. As for the sadism and masochistic aspects of Nacimera, they are already established via the horrendous practices mentioned above.

The following excerpt concerns ceremonies taking place in specialized temples named latipso:

The latipso ceremonies are so harsh that it is phenomenal that a fair proportion of the really sick natives who enter the temple ever recover. Small children whose indoctrination is still incomplete have been known to resist attempts to take them to the temple because “that is where you go to die.” Despite this fact, sick adults are not only willing but eager to undergo the protracted ritual purification, if they can afford to do so. No matter how ill the supplicant or how grave the emergency, the guardians of many temples will not admit a client if he cannot give a rich gift to the custodian. Even after one has gained admission and survived the ceremonies, the guardians will not permit the neophyte to leave until he makes still another gift.

The supplicant entering the temple is first stripped of all his or her clothes. In everyday life the Nacirema avoids exposure of his body and its natural functions. Bathing and excretory acts are performed only in the secrecy of the household shrine, where they are ritualized as part of the body–rites. Psychological shock results from the fact that body secrecy is suddenly lost upon entry into the latipso . A man, whose own wife has never seen him in an excretory act, suddenly finds himself naked and assisted by a vestal maiden while he performs his natural functions into a sacred vessel. This sort of ceremonial treatment is necessitated by the fact that the excreta are used by a diviner to ascertain the course and nature of the client’s sickness.[…] From time to time the medicine men come to their clients and jab magically treated needles into their flesh. The fact that these temple ceremonies may not cure, and may even kill the neophyte, in no way decreases the people’s faith in the medicine men.

A place closer to the underworld (“that is where you go to die”), an occult temple of a rich religious elite which must be gorged in gifts. Even the removal of the clothes is reminiscent of cthonic mythology (for instance Ishtar’s descent to the Underworld involves the gradual discarding of her clothes and ornaments).

The fact that the Nacirema in everyday life avoid exposure of their bodies and their natural functions (i.e. excretory acts), if taken into account along with their earlier mentioned obsession with the extraction of teeth and the scraping of the face, leads to the image of a tribe that has demonized the body. It considers it shameful and glorifies pain inflicted upon it as purificatory. Note also the largely patriarchal nature of the latipso temple clergy: the vestal maidens assist, while the medicine men are those having a substantial, energetic, leading role in the healing rituals.

The final excerpt refers to the tribe’s reproductive taboos:

Reference has already been made to the fact that excretory functions are ritualized, routinised, and relegated to secrecy. Natural reproductive functions are similarly distorted. Intercourse is taboo as a topic and scheduled as an act. Efforts are made to avoid pregnancy by the use of magical materials or by limiting intercourse to certain phases of the moon. Conception is actually very infrequent. When pregnant, women dress so as to hide their condition. Parturition takes place in secret, without friends or relatives to assist, and the majority of women do not nurse their infants.

As with the other bodily functions, intercourse is taboo among the Nacirema – it is obvious that these people have a deeply instilled fear and abhorrence of their bodies. All things coming out of the body are shameful, even infants, which are born in secrecy and are not even nursed by their mothers in most cases. See also how intercourse is limited by the lunar phases, a clear indication of its ritualized nature.

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Let’s change the subject: Palindromes are (among other things) words that read the same backwards as forward. Two of the most famous palindromes are the Byzantine “ΝΙΨΟΝ ΑΝΟΜΗΜΑΤΑ ΜΗ ΜΟΝΑΝ ΟΨΙΝ” and the Roman “SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS.” They usually offer a pleasant sense of fulfillment if someone discovers their palindrome nature on his own. (This paragraph contains a hint towards another layer of the Nacirema peoples)

*Body Ritual Among The Nacirema

Torment: Tides of Numenera

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(Here be Spoilers)

Almost two years ago, just after finishing Pillars of Eternity (and its XP-less combat system) for the first time, I remember myself musing over the necessity of combat in cRPGs. For a long time I’ve considered combat to be one of the four main pillars of the genre, along with exploration, story, and character development. Pillars, by removing the XP reward factor (though not the treasure one) from the equation, gave us a glimpse of how one of these four pillars could be diminished without any impact on the whole structure’s stability. Torment: Tides of Numenera (T:TON from now on), the spiritual successor of 1999’s mythic Planescape Torment, takes a grand leap towards this direction, presenting us with a minimal amount of mandatory battles.

Let’s get some things out of the way: The game’s graphics are masterfully designed and materialised, full of wonder and a semi-scifi, semi-exotic-fantasy look. The Mere’s screen paintings are gorgeous. Those into isometric cRPGs will adore T:TON’s visual part, and at the end of the day this is what really matters, for this a game for them(us). The same goes for music amd sound, which nicely and very discreetly frame the environment. Voice acting is scarce, a thing about which I couldn’t care less.

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One of the Mere screens. The Meres are an innovative idea (perhaps implemented somewhat hastily), which are underlined by the question: If you had the power to alter another being’s life course without permission or knowledge, would you do it?

Concerning combat: It is easily avoided in most cases. The inclusion of combat in the super-category of Crisis tones down the former’s importance – it seems that RPGs can do away with it, though their image afterwards may well be different from what we now have in mind as virtual RPGs. Crises are situations which can be resolved by force, but also in one or several other ways. In general they require a bit of thinking, them being organized more as riddles and less as clickfests or optimization/micromanagement challenges (i.e. see the adventuresque Sticha lair). Each one is more or less carefully designed, far away from a random-encounter logic.

A brief look on some things that bothered me:

-There are secret timers on a few quests, which timers are tied to the party rest count (this could be considered an asset for a lot of people, and it does make the game world more realistic – though there is a journal bug for failed quests of this type).

-Its short duration (T:TON took me roughly 31 hours to finish on the first playthrough, without any walkthrough, and completing all the quests I could find. Several of the areas are underdeveloped, especially on the later half of the game – the Maze being one of them).

-Not being able to return to previous areas and deal with any unfinished quests.

-Several minor bugs.

-A game engine thing: when the camera is at a place of an area far from your party (and the PCs do not appear on the camera) and you click so as it starts moving towards this area, the camera forcibly resets back to the party.

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One of the Bloom’s Maws, a definite homage to Sigil’s portals

Moving on to the juiciest aspects of the game, I must stress here that T:TON is not a game for people who do not like reading (in games or otherwise). There are many thousand dialogue lines in here, with the word count reaching a whopping 800.000. If at some point you feel that you cannot read more, then don’t; better save and quit til your mind is clear (speaking from personal experience I wasted several conversations this way – on the bright side, more things to read on the second playthrough). Reading is the single most important player activity in T:TON – if you remove the dialogues from the game you’ll be left with a grotesque monstrosity, an incoherent collection of lovely graphics and slightly underdeveloped mechanics.

Protagonist-wise the story has a definite Gnostic hue. The whole Changing God and Castoffs plot is a catalyst for questions you may already have asked and dilemmas you may have faced if you ever had a brush with the occult idea of humans being the cells or experience accumulators or sensory organs of the Divine. In what ways can one’s individuality and the value of it be compared with that of a greater whole? Can a cell rebel against the organism it is part of? Is the modern human able to change his perception focus from the scale of person to another grander or more diminutive scale? There is much food for thought and contemplation in here, theological-, occult-, and social-wise.

Still, T:TON’s story is less about the protagonist (and this is why I can accept the almost complete absence of character creation cosmetic options – you only select the gender), and more about fragments of other characters’ (NPCs’) stories. The game is a Sensate’s (I could not resist including an obvious reference to my favourite Planescape faction) paradise, with tidbits all around to taste and immerse yourself in. It is like being thrown in the midst of an immensely varied banquet of lives and experiences, which you can sample. One could say that the Protagonist/Player is an Interface; this actually leads to the interesting thought that this may be what a being a god feels like – being an interface for a multitude of lives, fragments of which stay and are lived through you. A few such stories that particularly impressed and will stay with me are those concerning:

-A man who apprentices his young self.

-A special kind of adoption, in which the foster parents adopt children born centuries ago, reaching the current era through time portals.

-A vehicle that crashed years ago, the guilt-ridden AI of which keeps alive the memory of the passengers that died in the crash by projecting holograms of them.

-Rhin.

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Sagus Cliffs, a city that will probably stay with me in almost the same way Sigil did

As in the original Torment, Numenera is characterized by the absence of an area with the essence of “home-base” throughout the game. Sagus cliffs serve as a sort of home town (or rather as the Only town, as Sigil was in PT’s first chapters, since the whole of the first part takes place in it (starting area aside)) but after leaving it there is no going back. This is true for almost all areas (apart from the Maze) – they are like beads on a string: once you pass one you cannot return. The Maze is a kind of home, you can visit it somewhat voluntarily, but it is not a place you can share with your companions (thus camaraderie is lost), and it also is never completely safe in the sense of the explored, mapped, and devoid of menace. This linear approach, akin to that of a strict narrative, deprives you of experiencing a place a-temporally, of having a city as home – for home is strongly characterized by its always being there, of being able to return to it, of never abandoning you, despite what you do. It would be nice to be able to see the consequences of your actions shaping a place, and not just see some old faces appear in new spaces.

In the end T:TON is a sprawling modular interactive narrative, a rough glimpse towards a possibility of what a combat-less cRPG could look like. I say rough because non-combat challenges could definitely be more challenging and not just depended on trivialized character skill checks; more challenge for the player (and not the characters) would be welcome. Where T:TON really shines is not in the framework but in the content department. This is a game to make you dream about its world and denizens, an artistic creation whose stories you may revisit in reveries, an entity that sows delicious seeds. A journey which may bring tears in your eyes and goosebumps on your skin, just as Planescape Torment did. From this point of view, Numenera is a worthy successor to what is one the most acclaimed RPGs of all times – though it would be best to let it carve a place of its own.

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Dragon Magazine rants 2 – Language

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The second article of Dragon’s first issue, Languages, deals with in-game linguistics, with a slight emphasis on percentage statistics (mainly concerning the possibility of a random monster/being knowing a given language – I imagine that back in the day randomness was a big thing for DMs), and raises some pretty interesting issues and questions, both rule-wise and from in-game points of view.

Let’s take a look at language’s hard association with Intelligence. In the first edition of D&D (as well as in all other onwards, up to 3.5 – as for the fourth, I cannot comment, since I have no familiarity with it), the language ability is depended on the Intelligence attribute. In the article it is said that a human with an Intelligence score of 3 will only be able to speak one language (Common in this instance, since this is considered the default human language), and with a pretty limited vocabulary at this. This view perceives language as a purely mental activity, which could be conquered and enhanced via intellectual bravado alone – if one can memorize all the dictionary’s pages, one will be a master of that language.

The thing is, language is never detached from in-life experience and interaction with other users (persons) and carriers (texts and other written language forms or symbols) of it – something that they finally got right on the fifth edition, in which language at character creation is solely based on race and background (socio-cultural factors), and then on training, namely learning it via a tutor, spending time in order to interact with speakers and/or texts, etc – Intelligence is not central to it. Thus, instead of setting language upon a pedestal, as a prize protected by a riddle-ridden gauntlet, which is to be gained after a purely mental quest, it is best seen as a matter of entering into a network of interaction with entities that use it or carry it. A quote from Tim Ingold’s “The Perception of the Environment” is quite close to what I describe:

Language cannot properly be said to be handed down – it endures, but it endures as a continuous process of becoming. Individuals do not receive a ready-made language at all, rather, they enter upon the stream of verbal communication.”

To wrap this up, if languages had to be depended on an attribute, I propose that due to language learning’s deeply social nature Charisma (or even Wisdom, due to its more intuitive nature) would be a slightly more fitting candidate than Intelligence. Still, I think that fifth edition’s attribute-less, socio-cultural take on language is much more representative of language’s nature.

Onwards now to spells as speak with animals, plants, etc, with a quote from the article that I found somewhat hilarious: “I have encountered one character who took “Wall” as a language and attempted to interrogate dungeon walls as to what lay behind them. In my dungeon, the walls drunkenly replied, “I don’t know; I’m plastered.”” Apparently, there wasn’t a Stone Tell spell at the time, so the player’s choice to take “Wall” as bonus language was both amusing and innovative.

Now, casting a spell which bestows the “gift” of (our) speech on a creature not normally being able to speak it, seems straightforward enough: we seem to suppose that all beings are memory and experience containers, and thus, by bestowing upon them the gift of speech, we are able to tap into their informational reservoir; it would not be so amiss if I said that we see them as a multi-sensational sensors, which wait for an interface to appear, through which to communicate to us their experience – especially considering the spell description that the animal or the plant WILL provide the information (if existent), no ifs and buts. This approach however, takes for granted certain things, two of which are: the organisms’ willingness to cooperate with the caster (implying a charm of sorts) – all in all, a pretty anthropocentric view; the organisms’ ability to store their past (namely, their before-the-spell’s-casting) experience.

Α look is on the order, at how deep is the effect of this humble first-level divination spell called Speak With Animals (same goes for Speak With Plants, and Stone Tell): The spell seems to attribute a symbolic mode of thought and communication to non-human entities, for that is exactly what language is. We are talking heavy magic here, changing the whole mode of thought, perception, and experience of a being, even for only its duration. It implements within their thought process:

a. the idea (and the acceptance of this idea) that particulars sounds correspond to particular meaning,

b. an understanding of time as perceived by us – so as to be able to communicate even basic concepts as “now,” “before,” and “after”

c. the sensoral ability to receive, process and emit linguistic information to and from another creature (be it telepathically, through vocal and auditory systems, etc).

I realize that now I am entering under the spell’s hood, something that I try to avoid as far as magic is concerned, but the ramifications and the scale of what a simple first level spell can do were far too inviting.

(Let’s also note here that with Speak To Plants or Animals, we imposes our mode of thought upon the entities affected by the spell, an action that could be even scrutinized from an ethical point of view.)

In the article there is also a mention of animal languages, focusing on the existence of common languages for wide taxonomic categories: is there an Equine language spoken by all Horses, Mules, Donkeys, Unicorns, etc? Once again we have a projection of our way of thinking to non-human entities. We tend to see species (another human invention) as “neighboring” by virtue of similarities that We find among them, as well as theorizing that since all humanoids in a fantasy world have a way of inter-species communication (the Common tongue), so it will probably be with all other similar species – never mind that this is a pure anthropocentric view of other beings. We obviously talk about an imaginary world, and since it is humans that play it, there is bound to be anthropocentrism, but it is interesting, I think, to see how this view is embedded inside the game world, for it could bring light to real-world human view of non-human entities.

Finally, the article also touches upon the subject of the language in which persons think, mainly in order to examine if it is possible to read the thoughts of a person whose language you do not speak – ending up in situations where one could take advantage of the obscurity of his native language in order to guard his thought from magic intrusions. Still, I think that reducing the thought process in pure language is something of a radical simplification. For it is not too usual to think without images, sensations, mental nudges, thought noise, and other things thrown around some words. It is unusual to think in pure language, even in cases where we need to put our thought into writing or speech.

Dragon Magazine rants 1 – Magic & Science

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(For this (hopefully weekly) column I’ll be reading issues of the Dragon Magazine, starting from the first one, trying to find one or more articles in each worth of commentary/ranting. I kick off with Issue 1, and the first of the two articles which I found interesting in it.)

The first issue of the Dragon magazine, released on June 1976, is (not unexpectedly) somewhat underwhelming considering the magazine we knew during the ’90s and ’00s. Just 32 pages long, it still managed to cram inside: the first parts of 2 fiction stories, several small articles (dealing with both role-playing and strategy wargaming), many advertisements, and even a small piece of writing from Fritz Leiber (a very small gazetteer of Newhon).

Two articles are of particular interest to me here:

Magic & Science (Are they compatible in D&D) by James M. Ward

Languages (or, Could you repeat that in Auld Wormish?) by Lee Gold

The first one, Magic & Science, is trying to tackle a subject which apparently had already surfaced even back in the first days of role-playing, namely the role and (acceptable) level of science in a magical fantasy setting. The writer proposes a somewhat weird scenario, in which a particular culture has three types of “scientific” items: a hand-catapult discharging some spheres, categorized by colour, each colour having a spell-like effect; some other blue spheres that are somewhat autonomous, movement-wise, and can emit rays and force fields that emulate spells; and the anologic computers which can counter magic, analyze enemies, and emit an attack ray.

Firstly, there is no mention of how these items work; essentially they are stored, “delayed,” spells, camouflaged only on a surface levels as technological items. They could be paralleled to wand charges, since they are expendable. The fact that the “how” is nonexistent, makes the whole science point going astray. Since science is chiefly concerned with the “how” of things and events, the author here pulls a very thin camouflage-rug above what is considered magic in the game. But what is D&D’s magic really?

I consider science something that gives reliable and identical or similar results under repeatable occasions. In this light, D&D’s magic is a kind of science, due to its reliability. Being a wizard, if you know a spell, its gestures, vocalising, and have any necessary material ingredients, along with a suitable spell slot, then you can reliably cast the spell. Thus magic appears as something that can be rationally studied, analysed, and assimilated – something that more or less follows a scientific method. Sure, its effects can be beyond the reach of that cultural era’s science and technology, even beyond ours, but the method followed is deeply rational.

Let’s take a look on a short elaboration on real-world occultism, from “The Varieties of Magical Experience”: “Important in the practice of magic, we have found, are intuition, imagination, and the emotions; rationality plays little part in magic because magic occurs when one lets go of rational thoughts. When the imagination is permitted full play there is room for a shift in the perception of reality. There can be a change in consciousness, so much so that physical boundaries and distinctions between real and unreal often dissolve. Such experiences are not able to be measured scientifically. Rather, the person might have a noticeable experience of deep inner change, or a knowing, or a sense that something significant has happened.” (my emphasis)

One more passage, this time from an article from the fantasy author N. K. Jemisin, on which I stumbled while writing this post, and which, though mostly concerned with magic in fantasy literature, has many points that I believe are relevant to the D&D case also (D&D is explicitly mentioned, and not in a good way): “Because this is magic we’re talking about. It’s supposed to go places science can’t, defy logic, wink at technology, fill us all with the sensawunda that comes of gazing upon a fictional world and seeing something truly different from our own. In most cultures of the world, magic is intimately connected with beliefs regarding life and death — things no one understands, and few expect to.

It is my opinion that magic, as loosely defined in the above passages, is what is somewhat missing from the game (or rather from its rules), not science, as the writer was complaining. Despite its enchanted cloak, if one gets down to the nuts and bolts of the magic system of almost any RPG, you have blueprints that are bound to work, like a very rationally designed mechanism.

If one takes a look at the wizard class, starting with a stat view, where Intelligence is the single most important stat, the class seems like a fantasy version of the modern scientist. Intelligence, or rather raw mental strength is what makes spells more effective. In the 5th editition’s Player’s Handbook it is written that “lntelligence measures mental acuity, accuracy of recall, and the ability to reason.” A description permeated aesthetically throughout with cold logic, with an aura of clinical precision.

Concerning D&D spells, most of them affect the physical world, which from a game-rules point of view is comprehensible. But most of the effects are things that could be replicated by a sort of advanced science. There is little of the esoteric, since it is obviously difficult to incorporate this in a game. The spells are certain to satisfy the players’ craving for powers beyond the norm, for their having abilities that are beyond the vast majority, their will for omnipotence, their lust for wonder. But it seems that D&D magic also reinforces a clinical, rational way of thinking, and presents a rather standarized image of magic, not much full of wonder.

Concluding, I again stress that it is quite understandable for a rules-driven game to structure its magic on a rational and not-so-enchanting way. This goes hand to hand with D&D’s focus on linear character progression and advancement (for more on this, see here). But the quest for a more magical magic system (or rather the complete absence of a system) is a worthy undertaking for an adventuring party or three.

Nefarious Spirit – Nefarious Spirit demo (Underground Soundscapes, 2016)

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Can a band’s country (or a wider geographic area) of origin be surmised by its sound? During the early days of the second wave black metal I do think that this was a case – though not a simple one, and definitely not without exceptions. There was a characteristic Greek black metal sound (which if expanded a bit could be characterized as Mediterranean), and a Scandinavian one (mostly Norwegian and Swedish to be honest), as well as some smaller and not so easily defined other scenes’ sonic flavours. By the end of ’90s, however, the diffusion between the scenes was on a level that enabled bands from one country to sound like originating in another; the only thing left was useful (if a bit hazy) encyclopedic categories, like “the ’90s Norwegian sound.” Still, just before listening to a new band, I try by looking to their place of origin, to take a guess as to its style, or vice versa.

Onwards to the Nefarious Spirit demo, clocking just under 15 minutes, which was released by the Greek label Underground Soundscapes. This label is focused on distributing releases coming from the other side of the Atlantic, with a very strong emphasis on US (which stands for USA here, not Underground Soundscapes, just to be clear) bands. The same is true for the bands that it has released, almost all of which come from the US. Another thing that lured me towards America was the band’s name, since aesthetically Nefarious Spirit is something that could belong to the host of black metal groups that seethe deeply in the US underground soil – and a great name it is. Finally, the demo’s sound, though not easily geographically located, could come either from the vast US expanse, or some Scandinavian village that was isolated by the world since Aeternus “..And So The Night Became” was released.

Well, my surprise was not small when I saw that Nefarious Spirit were Greek. This is definitely not your typical Greek sound of old, but it’s also far from the occult black metal that seems to have gained much ground here during the past decade. Nefarious Spirit play instead a serpentine, cavernous (abyssal may be a better word) black metal, with growling, commanding vocals, and a deep and thick production, which easily combines underground spirit with listenability. The demo’s soundscape is like a seething subterranean sea, boiling with archaic riffs – which when floating above the surface, like in the middle of the opening track (“Thrones”) they graze this watery surface with impressive eloquence. Things are not complex here: well-played furious black metal, with a stubborn cantor during the blast-beat moments, which easily motivates you towards mania. When it decides to drop the speed a few notches, a nostalgic majesty comes into the front, and that is when the (old) Aeternus name clicks into place – the weight of eons and elder battles is evoked.

Coming out of nowhere, Nefarious Spirit were almost an apocalypse – their place of origin playing its part. This is high-caliber black metal, a demo that speaks tones of the band’s devotion to the black metal past. Their next release will be crucial, but I have pretty high hopes for this act.

2016 – Top 20 Albums

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For the top 20 demos and EPs check here


20. Bölzer – Hero

Probably this year’s most controversial and loved-to-be-hated release, “Hero” is a masterpiece that grows with each listen, almost justifies the whole hype around the Swiss’ name. Yes, the vocals need some time to be digested, especially if someone has no contact with the deathrock scene, but the songwriting is excellent, as is the concept, and though not as outwardly impressive as “Aura” was, “Hero” is a multi-layered monstrosity, much deeper than the excellent and much-revered EP.


19. Skáphe – Skáphe²

Skáphe²” is a beautiful beast of an album. It stands way beyond and above the snoring boredom that characterizes most of the albums of this chaotic type, blazing as dark incense inside the listener’s mind during its 35 minutes of duration, guiding the audience in a grotesque journey through occult lands of non-Euclidean geometry. It is the audio equivalent of fever mentality, and thus it certainly is not an easy album to tackle, yet it rewards with an experience that keeps calling the listener back to it, more so because this experience is inaccessible outside the record per se. An excellent specimen of contemporary black metal. Full review here.


18. Panphage – Drengskapr

Not much to say about this Swede, those who followed the blog last year may remember my love for his works. Continuing on the relentless path of folk-influenced frigid black metal riffs, a la early Taake and other mid/late ’90s artists, with vocals that are immensely satisfying, and excellent song-writing skills, Panphage has been established as one of the best thing to come out of Scandinavia during the past years. Nordic black metal of the highest quality.


17. Antaeus – Condemnation

“Condemnation” is the comeback that we would have expected if we had anticipated a reanimation of Antaeus. It maybe too close to what we expected, the French may well have pulled it off quite safely, they were perhaps never interested in diversity. The thing is, that listening to this album, one thinks that the band had pressed “Pause” for ten years, and as soon as “Continue” was triggered they kept playing like no time passed – with just a slightly more robust production. The album is not innovative, the tracks may have similarities, yet “Condemnation” forces you to furiously reach for invisible oranges throughout its duration – thus fulfilling excellently its unholy role. Full review here.


16. Battle Dagorath – I – Dark Dragons Of The Cosmos

The cosmic black metal release of the year unites the ungodly dark spaces of Darkspace with the nocturnal atmosphere of early Emperor, not denying itself a plunge in some well structured melody (usually in the form of guitar leads). Cold, majestic, and just as extravagant as is necessary, Battle Dagorath’s fourth album is what traditional black metal is all about – an extraordinary work.


15. Arizmenda – Beneath This Reality Of Flesh

Crepusculo Negro’s production was quite scarce this year, with only two full-lengths coming out, the Shataan one and Arizmenda’s “Beneath This Reality Of Flesh” (edit: apparently there is another Arizmenda full-length, “Despairs Depths Descended,” out on December 18th via Androgony Whore records) being the only new things released. Arizmenda continue to trot upon a path of maniacal, thin guitared black metal, with unconventional compositional structure and surpringly catchy leads. An overdose of aggressive and weird guitar-work, Arizmenda remain the most extreme among Crepusculo’s roster.


14. Aenaon – Hypnosophy

Aenaon, as Hail Spirit Noir, succeed in presenting three out of three great albums, seemingly effortlessly, a thing to be admired, but also leading to puzzlement as far as what kind of improvement can we expect in the future. “Hypnosophy” is a kaleidoscope wandering through a never-ending celebration, which, despite the use of instruments unorthodox as far as black metal is concerned (apart from the saxophone there are also string ones like bouzouki and shitar – building up to a kind of ethnic essence in parts), has not severed its ties with the mothership genre – the album’s beginning and ending clearly state so. Full review here.


13. Tardigrada – Emotionale Odnis

Expansive, passionate, archaic, like a wraith gliding over castle ruins, Tardigrada’s debut was among the things that I highly anticipated since their 2012 demo (review here), and thankfully it did not disappoint me at the least. This is a case study on how black metal can be romantic – drawing upon the artistic and philosophic movement meaning of the word obviously, not its contemporary and vernacular one. Soaring guitars, a grandly thin production, this is how nostalgic atmospheric black metal is done.


12. Naðra – Allir Vegir til Glotunar

Passionate, utterly frigid, melodic and imbued with the pagan spirit of a decade gone by, “ Allir vegir til glötunar” is an ode to the early Icelandic black metal scene, boasting some of the best riffing that can be traced back to contemporary Iceland (and not only). I had written in the review that it was an early yet strong contestant for this year’s end list, and I have not changed my mind since then. Better than the 95% of the black metal torrent that is coming from this particular land during recent years. Full review here.


11. A Diadem of Dead Stars – Kingdoms Bathed In Golden Light

Who would expect that what Wolves In The Throne Room sowed would find nurturing land near the Pagasetic Gulf of Greece? However, it seems that the Volos-based Pilgrim manages to shine with his sophomore album in a sub-scene that seems to be plagued by lukewarm clones of 2-3 archetypal bands. Sporting a genuine knack for composition excellence and an atmosphere that is more reminiscent of Northern vastness rather than Greek countryside, the album’s five tracks are the best species of Cascadian black metal for 2016.


10. Virus – Memento Collider

The album is a mesmerizing, flowing-yet-solid whole, which unfolds into labyrinthine tracks of jazz attitude, tracks that dissolve and restructure themselves with a protean ease and grace. This fluctuating character does not make the album tiresome, as would be the case in lesser bands, but on the contrary captivates its listener with an almost summery felicity – quite a paradox if you think of its density and diversity. The keys to the album’s brilliance seem to be the absence of solemnity (pretentious or otherwise), Czral’s compositional genius, and the amazing chemistry between the band’s members. The result is something oscillating between the liquid and solid states of being, a physical paradox brought to life before the listener. Time will show if this is the band’s greatest moment. Until then, Memento Collider is certainly Virus’s most ample and feel-good creation. Full review here.


9. Oranssi Pazuzu – Värähtelijä

Steeped in kraut rock and psychedelia, yet never straying from the extreme metal path, “Värähtelijä” functions as a thick hallucinatory fog, with high points its ominous rhythms, the obsessive jazz passes and the keyboard “infinite space” glamour. Each listening session is like wandering in an astral museum of curiosities, with distorting mirrors in each corridor. With their latest and maybe best album to date, Oranssi Pazuzu may well be truly expanding extreme metal boundaries. Full review (in Greek) here.


8. Book Of Sand – Occult Anarchist Propaganda

Though unequivocally anarchistic, Book of Sand retains in its latest opus that spark that is missing from most of the artists of the RABM sub-genre: ominousness; the “occult” in the album title is not just décor left over from the genre conventions. Herein lies atmosphere that many, so-called occult bands would love to permeate their works. This is an album that one can listen to and feel the blood falling upon the grains of sand as the ritual is performed. This is black metal done right, dark, slithering, raw, menacing, otherworldly. Full review here.


7. Hail Spirit Noir – Mayhem In Blue

Three out of three for Thessaloniki’s avant-garde black metallers, which remain at the forefront of the Greek (and why not, international) extreme/bizarre scene. Despite the increase of the keyboard role and the long dives in the ’70s landscape, “Mayhem In Blue’s” heart remains dark; here lies a shade so deep that not even the hand of God can extirpate. Oh, and “Lost In Satan’s Charms” is easily among the top ten tracks of 2016. Full review (in Greek) here.


6. Agatus – The Eternalist

As with Zemial, Agatus continue to disregard any solid boundaries between musical genres, focusing on converging all their music influences on a diamond of untarnished epic/lyrical metal, straight out of the ’80s forge, with a pinch of winks towards their extreme past. This is what “complete, whole metal album” means. This is heavy metal at its finest.


5. Cultes des Ghoules – Coven, or Evil Ways Instead of Love

The Polish had ravaged the whole scene with 2013’s Henbane, the epitome of dark medieval folk witchcraft. Last year’s “The Rise Of Lucifer” EP was somewhat underwhelming, but enter this autumn’s “Coven,” a magnificently ambitious double record, drawing upon the spirit of Master’s Hammer “The Jilemnice Occultist,” yet retaining the band’s characteristic crunchy medieval sound. As for the concept, it is a grand occult play, with a medieval setting, centering on witchcraft obviously. The sort of witchcraft that is inscribed with dark blood upon yellowed pages and human skin. This band may well be the single more graphically black metal entity in the world right now.


4. ΟΔΟΣ 55 – ΟΔΟΣ 55

In their sophomore full-length, Athens’ ΟΔΟΣ 55 build upon the synthwave motif of their past releases, spreading through seven solid rays/tracks a bionic view towards contemporary society. Hypnotic, ravenous, revolutionary music to dance to, their material easily dissolves any thoughts about the staleness of the resurrected ’80s post-punk/new wave Greek scene, and gazes at the present with confidence, a true child of recent times and social conditions. Full review (in Greek) here.


3. Candelabrum – Necrotelepathy

There is black fire burning in the subterranean places of Portugal during the past years. Last year it was Black Cilice (which most probably shares members with Candelabrum), this year’s Iberian peninsula revelation is Candelabrum’s debut, “Necrotelepathy,” which seethes with spectral ritualistic high-pitched black metal of the highest hypnotic atmosphere. This is how I envision the kind of black metal that is to be heard while strolling among bones and sunless underground places, while ghosts wail all around, and deathless occultists stir in their dusty graves.


2. Eternal Champion – The Armor Of Ire

The extraordinary thing with “The Armor Of Ire” is its resistance towards characterizing it as outdated, despite its deep roots towards the past, despite its non-originality. Eternal Champion presented us with an album of timeless epic heavy metal, which continues on the excellent tradition of recent years. Lyrical, combative, rough, magical, the Americans’ debut radiates with an effortless sincerity and momentum, and contains several tracks that are already lying side by side with genre hymns upon the epic pantheon. Full review (in Greek) here.


1.Ψ.Χ – Το Φως Το Αληθινό

It was several years before the spectres behind Ψ.Χ. decided to gather the tracks haunting the internet since 2008, to add a bunch of new ones, and “release” the whole in a quite unconventional way (namely they sent a CD-r copy of it to the Greek METAL HAMMER magazine, addressed to a particular editor, urging him to spread it in whatever way he chooses – you can find the album here, along with the booklet). The result is an unbelievably black creation, its spirit closer to the menacing spectrum of black metal than any other release in quite a long time. Full of ravishing grimness (and with a twist before the end), its breath is seemingly coming from a demented interpretation of a tuberculous “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas.” Welcome (back) Menace to Black Metal (once more), gliding on nightwings to snuff out the candles, to be immersed in Tradition, making the hearths cough like sickness incarnate. Full review (in Greek) here.

2016 – Top demos & EP’s

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12. Whoredom Rife – The Worship of Idols Instead of God; Idolatry [EP]

Norway has been less than stellar during the past years, as far as black metal is concerned, and 2016 was no exception. Thankfully there are a few dark twinkles in this sea of mediocrity, as is this EP from Trondheim, which mixes furious majesty with triumphant darkness. Here be hints of early Enslaved mixed with a more down-to-earth approach reminiscent of the turn of the millennium (Tsjuder for instance). 


11. True Love – To Pray For Perpetual Violence [demo]

The raw black metal demo of the year could well ride into this list on grace of its amazingly malicious cover alone. The fact that it is also well-versed in the black arts of insectoid-like articulated guitars riffs as well as in that of double-echo vocals and thrashy pauses is only adding points to it, as do both the group name and the release’s title. LunaticsaguinemSatanworship.


10. Draug – In Glorification Of Dark Legions [demo]

Ancient Record circles’ Sir N’s new project will not surprise those familiar with his other bands (which are not few). Maybe slightly more angular and warm, with an essence of interior spaces. As always, Sir N. knows how to build up traditional ’90s black metal atmosphere. One more worthy addition to Sweden’s amazing contemporary underground scene.


9. Kaffaljidhma – Ι & ΙΙ [demos]

The Dutch Kaffaljidhma’s first two demos (laconically named “I” & “I”) is an prime example of naturalistic image-crafting music. With hardly any riffs in the traditional sense of the word, they are ambiance floating upon the wanderer’s path, a path ravaged by snow and trees. They are a-temporal exercises in meditation, pure atmosphere distilled in two expressively named songs, one in each demo. Full review here.


8. Duch Czerni – Reality of Black Spirits [demo]

Subterranean, slithering ritualistic black metal from Poland, which crawls elegantly discharging spasms of incense on its chaotic path. Here lie parts of the spirit of Mortuary Drape and Necromantia (more like detached spectres gliding above the music, rather than being incorporated in the songwriting). An excellent specimen of how the Occult can be sculptured in a black metal release.


7. Light of the Morning Star – Cemetery Glow [EP]

One cannot go wrong with a De Mysteriis-esque black/purple cover depicting a cemetery. This one-man band from UK is dominated by ominous gothic riffing (with slightly black metal hues) which is highly effective in the creation of a gloomy menacing atmosphere. Throw in the mix a vocal performance which draws upon the -wave monotony, and you have an unexpected dark gem – with a guitar blink at The Cure’s “Pornography” just before ending.


6. Surtr – Nocturnal Mysticism [demo]

This US band appeared out of nowhere in late September, unleashing 3 demos in less than two weeks’ time, all three releases capturing excellently the forest-walking spirit of early Satyricon, and generally of the mid-’90s “traditional” Norwegian scene. All 3 demos are almost interchangeable as far as a place in this list is concerned, “Nocturnal Mysticism” just won me a bit more due to the unconventional beginning of its first track.


5. Unbegotten – Proem of the Unborn [demo]

The veil of Archaic majesty – manifested through a sound that worships Les Legions Noires – covers this tape masterpiece coming from the Iberian Peninsula. Steeped in occult atmosphere, with surprisingly interesting vocals and grainy guitars that wander through catacombs, with amazing cover art, and a name that revels in its extravagance, this entity seems to have a highly promising future.


4. Necromantic Worship – The Calling… [EP]

Despite its quality, the Dutch masters’ second demo proved unfortunately to be their last one. Continuing on the Necromantia worship path that they set upon with 2015’s monumental “Spirit Of The Entrance Unto Death,” Necromantic Worship created with “The Calling…” another stellar rendering of the dungeon-ish ritualistic Evil sound of early Necromantia. Of cracking tombs and floating spheres.


3. Cult of Fire – Life, Sex and Death [EP]

The Czech trio returned with another killer EP, following on the tradition of the amazing “Čtvrtá symfonie ohně.“ With a deep sense of folk melody integrated throughout the riff structure of the four tracks, this release showcases the ascending progress of the band since its 2013 breakthrough (not forgetting last year’s Death Karma as well). Melodic, without compromise in its furious moments, and with a level of songwriting that is to be envied, “Life, Sex and Death” is a species of uttermost interest.


2. Mystik – Af Herrens Mystik… (Kapitel I) & Dunkla klangor… (Kapitel II) [demos]

If Bekëth Nexëhmü is a name with which most are well-acquainted, Mystik is an entity that sprouted this year seemingly out of nowhere with two amazing compilations of unreleased demo recordings spanning six years (2009-2014). Their style is as ’90s as the label’s aura invokes, reminiscent of a more tense and densely articulated Bekëth Nexëhmü. Drawing upon the Scandinavian atmospheric legacy of such names as Ulver, Isvind, Kampfar and Setherial, among many others, the two Kapitels are artifacts of an underground scene that seems to be without equal.


1. Bekëth Nexëhmü – De Dunklas Återkomst [demo]

The obscure Swede masters of ’90s-esque atmospheric black metal unleashed two full-length-duration demos this year, remaining one of the best things (if not the single best) to come out of the Ancient Records’ womb. Steeped in the lo-fi nighttime elegance of a spectre wandering in a haunted forest, “De Dunklas Återkomst‘s40 minutes are an oasis of nocturnal snowy atmosphere, graced with a sound that is as thin as a ghost’s density.