Ustalost – The Spoor Of Vipers (Sibir Records)

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Stumbling upon this album by chance, I was entranced by the medieval-esque cover art, as well as the band logo which strongly reminded me of something that I could not pinpoint. Upon first play of the intro guitar riff my interest was more than piqued. Still, as the songs kept succeeding each other I was aware of a semblance, which was finally made concrete: Ustalost’s music is of a quite similar vein with Yellow Eyes. It was soon revealed that the only band member is Will Skarstad, the New Yorkers’ guitarist and frontman, while the Ustalost logo proved to be quite similar to an inverted version of one of the cathedral windows that grace “Sick With Bloom’s” cover. All the puzzle pieces satisfactorily placed, I was able to return to the album, which had me quite intrigued after the first spin.

The mind behind Ustalost and Yellow Eyes being the same, there are certain similarities between these two bands’ music that are easily grasped: vocals are obviously of a similar hue, passionate and howling; guitar riff logic is dominated by a turbulent pattern, ripe with angst and fury (though here the former eclipses the latter, much more than in Yellow Eyes –  a thing probably done willfully, since the band’s name means «fatigue» in Russian), yet not with much expansive variety; the guitars remain within certain frames (though I think that they are a bit more complex than the Yellow Eyes ones), as riffs leak from one track to another, creating a cohesive whole, at the expense of individual song character. While the dark majesty of the De Mysteriis-like first riff is not met again in the album, atmosphere is plentiful in here. Guitar turbulence is entwined with tremulous, fragile and starry ambient keyboard melodies, while the bass, being much more evident than in Yellow Eyes, adds a tone of warm volume that builds up the mystique. While the overall album is of a mid-tempo essence, leaning towards the creation of a feeling of futile wandering through seas of despair, there are some blastbeat moments which create small beacons of exodus: whether they lead towards salvation or oblivion is up to the listener.

The spoor of vipers that is referenced in the title could well be linked to the album guitar work: they are the tracks of the quite addictive guitar riffs that, like vipers in their nest, criss-cross the record. And as a nest, the album is best viewed as a whole, and not as independent songs; even the track titles (I to VI) are supportive of the single-entity idea. It may sound repetitive in certain moments, especially to one who has listened to Yellow Eyes, yet it stands well next to the main band albums, as a less edgy, and somewhat more complex version of them. A solid release, especially debut-wise, which will hopefully turn a tad darker on the next step (yes, I am still haunted by the album’s intro guitar riff).

 

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Kaffaljidhma – I & II (The Throat)

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The sound of musical instruments is sometimes mentally linked to the essence of natural phenomena – for instance, some keyboard hues may invoke in one the essence of starry skies, blastbeats can be mentally linked with hard falling snow or rain, guitars with the wind or even with the view of the mountains. It is not so much that the sound resembles the physical manifestation of these phenomena (though it can well happen), but rather it invokes the pure essence of them (depending to what one believes, either their objective true nature or the subjective true image of them, the one that exists inside the listener’s being). Whatever the case, the particular sounds act as symbols which merge the listener with an imaginative being experiencing firsthand the phenomena in question.

Black metal is a music genre that excels in effectively using musical instrument sound in such a way, especially its particular niche sub-genre which is most usually associated with Paysage D’Hiver: Hazy, grainy sound, walls of noise, a storm of almost indistinguishable guitars and keyboards, all striving towards the swelling of atmosphere, leaving structured narration aside. Impression is the key factor here, and the encapsulation of the listener inside a cocoon-like micro-environment a possible effect.

The Dutch Kaffaljidhma’s first two demos (laconically named “I” & “I”) is an prime example of such image-crafting music. Keyboards, the single most expressive instrument in their music, soar above the hail-ridden ground, hovering ethereally, like Aurora Borealis drifting beyond the earth surface weather’s grasp, emitting pure tranquility and otherworldly beauty. The hail-ridden ground itself consists of barriers of mechanically repetitive (there is even a synthpop, Blue Monday-esque rhythm on the drum-machine pattern of the amazingly titled “As Exalted Djinn Embellished the Heavens With Crests of Fire”), mostly furious drumming evoking ferocious winds along with heavy snowfall. Somewhere in between stand the subtle (quite elusive, semi-substantial) guitar layers acting as mortar between sky and the ground.

There are hardly any riffs in the traditional sense of the word in here. This is ambience floating upon the wanderer’s path, a path ravaged by snow and trees. The vocals are also floating howling entities fading in and out of existence with hardly a message to convey – just a notion of the fleeting, a symbol of their own elusiveness. The two compositions are not of traditional structure – it seems that they are not permeated by a linear sense of time. They do have duration, but their content is like a continuous seamless surface, untroubled by time. It’s like gazing upon a landscape, again and again, absorbing it from all angles, wandering in it, but with no purpose and no destination in sight. Meditative is one of the bandcamp’s tags, and I wholeheartedly agree with it. Meditation upon the ancient skies of Babylon I would add, for “Near-Eastern Stellar Folktales” is one of the band’s lyrical themes – unfortunately no lyrics are available, leaving just the flamboyantly excellent titles and the masterfully elegant cover art to act as the band’s lore.

Slutet – Slutet (Teratology Sound & Vision/Psychedelic Lotus Order Records)

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Experimental black metal. That is how the band’s music is described in Encyclopaedia Metallum. Experimental black metal is an almost hilarious umbrella term, under whose cover can be found things as diverse as Jute Gyte’s microtonal exercises, Nachtmystium’s melodic/psychedelic popular tunes and The Axis Of Perdition’s hellish industrial landscapes. It is a box to stuff all things that do not fit to one’s imaginative model of traditional black metal structure, or just a shelf in which to put things that are a bit hard to compartmentalize under other subgenres. Anyway, it means almost nothing, apart from it being a tool for hazy communication. The band itself just claims that “we sound like molotov cocktails. Your cliff’s edge is nearing, and we stand on the other side of the gorge, playing our music” on its Soundcloud, and I find its words resounding far closer to the point. (You can also check this blog, run by the band’s members ).

This compilation includes parts of the band’s ultra-limited previous three demos (which apparently were available only to persons that sent personal libations to the band – blood, hair, etc), while being itself quite limited (33 copies on Teratology Sound & Vision and 100 on Psychedelic Lotus Order Records), and is graced with a cover art that would not seem amiss in an early Aksumite demo.
What lies in the album’s 53 minutes is varied in content, but definitely characterized by a rehearsal-like quality, compositionally-wise (the sound is pretty good). After the introductory news clip (from the 9/11 attacks) two things keep resurfacing throughout the album: a semi-punk attitude that was recognizable in Lifelover, and also hints of post punk, especially in vocals, which, apart from the last track, keep reminding of a more edgy Rozz Williams, while being also quite out of tune, yet quite congenial to the music. Simple riffs are repeated throughout by a single guitar crafting a crude yet obsessive atmosphere, like a shamanistic trance. The guitar sound, along with some of the most desperate howls, are somewhat related to Denmark’s Slaegt, and by extension Burzum’s debut. Moreover, there are species of melody dwelling in here, them also being crude and beautiful on the same time. Structure-wise things are in flux; themes change abruptly inside the long-winded songs, like each one is a mega structure consisting of two or more separate entities.

The album’s peak is most probably the 22-minute long, improvisational last track “O Ziemia! A Vision In Two Parts,” which, though sporting several disjunct parts, builds up as a dream-like monument to the cover’s winged entity. Vocals in here are reminiscent of a magic ritual, both as commands and pleas to entities, as well as a distressing narrative. Distorted guitar parts, almost inaudible, partner up with a sax-like haze and a prominent bass. The improvisation runs down even to the song’s lyrics, which, allegedly were improvised upon recording.

A seemingly non-cohesive splatter of ideas all wrapped up in a skin of paranoid crudeness, this compilation reveals a band that very simplistically creates music aphorisms of the irrational. Aphorisms that maybe are lacking in grandeur but more than make up for it in the way that it manages to absorb the listener, ritually-like. And more than that, this album escalates in degrees of addiction pretty fast, perhaps due to the fact that this simplicity keeps revealing small new aspects in every listen.

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Book Of Sand – Occult Anarchist Propaganda (Mouthbreather Records)

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I am somewhat torn over anarchistic black metal. Though I find much common ground between the political ideas of most such groups and my own, I consider the overall musical essence of this particular subgenre scene usually underwhelming. I think that the problem lies both with the music per se (despite the fact that there are some semi-exceptions, as certain Panopticon and Iskra songs, I can not bring my self to whole-heartedly recommend the totality of an album, even from one of the two aforementioned bands) and with the “grounding” of these bands’ art to the contemporary, the vernacular, the everyday, through the use of blatant political themes in song lyrics and/or titles. Black metal for me is first and foremost associated with other-worldliness; an aura of obscure, intangible mystique, eldritch past and secrets unnameable is at its aesthetic core. Thus, replacing arcane obscurity or imaginative past reminiscence with down-to-earth contemporary issues results in a grounded, and not so phantasmagorical art form, hovering above and beyond the mundane. That’s why I was pretty surprised when I discovered Book Of Sand, a US black metal act from Minneapolis, which, though unequivocally anarchistic, retains in its latest opus that spark that is missing from most of the artists of this particular sub-genre: ominousness; the “occult” in the album title is not just décor left over from the genre conventions.

Agile guitar movement, circular, with just-the-right-echo riffs, which are steeped both in the second wave majesty, as well as the heavy tradition, as it was perfectly distilled by Negative Plane. The band is not afraid of romanticism melodies, and in moments (like in a large part of “Crumbling Palaces”) it is almost reminiscent of metal noir quebecois, as far as decadent past epicness is concerned. Throughout the album the guitar is by far the dominant entity (though listen to the bass pulses on “A Prayer Of Darkness”), elegantly charting the elaborate waters of composition through strokes of well-versed-in-the-masters genius. This elegance, when coupled with riff content dark as an-attic-by-midnight, creates the core black metal atmosphere – that of ominous, occult, pavilions.

There are certain shortcomings. The riffs, though highly inspired, are perchance repeated a bit too much, struggling variation-wise; some songs could even be considered as improvisation exercises upon a certain theme; vocals are of a run-of-the-mill quality, though certainly not annoying. Yet they all tend to be minor flaws, easily cast aside by the album’s sheer nefarious mane. 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.