- How it sounds: through a Kampfar lens, traces of thrashing inferno and De Mysteriis riffage, ridge-like lines riffs, hints of dissonance, slightly flirting with ritual atmosphere, rehearsal atmosphere, gnarly vocals
- How it feels: assimilated are the pillars of Norsk Svart Metall, a drakkar moving steadily through ice covered seas, furious, turbulent, great tape cover and logo
- Sounds like: Kampfar, Ondskapt, Tsjuder, Norsk Svart Metall
- Shortcomings: oscillating songwriting quality, not reaching their full potential
- Verdict: Kind of a tour-de-force of the ideal late ’90s Norse sound, somewhat like Tsjuder had done in Desert Northern Hell. The 2 tracks that appeared first (Desecration of the Light and Queen of Flesh) remain the best of the bunch. Good potential, it being their first demo and all.
The order is alphabetic.
Blooming Carrions – Sparkling Rotten Dreams (Demo)
Finnish death metal from beyond the grave, thick and sepulchral, with almost subsonic growling vocals and a hazy atmosphere. The subterranean guitar sound is an absolute win. Grotesque, pulsating music for Lovecraftian rituals, with a very matching cover art.
Chevalier – A Call to Arms (EP)
Epic speed metal holocaust steeped in the ‘80s. The guitars are just unable to stop their quicksilvery cascades, the choruses are akin to frenetic marches, and some Mercyful Fate occult vibes cross wands with pure Maiden galloping. One of the best classic metal releases of the year.
Cult Of Fire – Untitled (EP)
Apparently these Czechs are not in a hurry of releasing another full-length – they seem to have found their momentum in short EP releases. “Untitled” is their third one in 4 years and it continues an amazing streak of quality. Tightly packed black metal with beautiful leads and atmosphere that would not seem amiss in a mid ‘90s Norwegian album. Ten minutes of pure black satisfaction. Download for free from the band’s site here.
Daeva – Pulsing Dark Absorptions (EP)
For all those craving Aura Noir-ish black/thrash with a hint of debut-era Impaled Nazarene. The exceptional frontman follows up the Masters’ commands (even down to emphatic rasping and incessant repeating of syllables), the drumming is pure tight chaos, and the guitars snake through with coiled poison. The envy of losers they piss on.
Expulsion – Nightmare Future (EP)
All-star project done right. This gathering of death metal/grind exemplars manage to showcase in seven tracks spanning something less than 14 minutes how Repulsion-style extreme metal is done right. Special attention to the leads and the maniacal song structures.
False – Hunger (EP)
2015’s “Untitled” debut was a stellar release of dark and cryptic US black metal. Two years later False return with a short (8 minutes long) EP of stormy BM on the same wavelength. Early Dimmu Borgir with a higher density comes into mind, as well as a more serpentine version of debut-era Borknagar.
Gnipahålan – I Blodets Kamp (EP)
Ancient Records could not be absent from this list. Gnipahålan’s EP is (unsurprisingly) a homage to the snow-covered mystical forests of the ‘90s. 12 minutes of nostalgic, atmospheric black metal excellently executed. In here lies and burns bright the core of what drew me to black metal many years ago – nature worship, mythology and the not-human.
Katakomb – Chained To A Wolf (Demo)
That was probably the biggest surprise of this list. Weird, drape-covered black metal from Sweden, with an almost collage articulation logic, combining noise and atmospheric passages, as well as traditional riffs and folk moments. The highly intriguing growling vocals are oscillating beneath the surface, while the guitars build up ritual madness. The cover art (a painting by the Belgian symbolist Auguste Levêque) is amazing and fits nicely with the tape concept of the lay-out. My personal list favourite.
Skaphe – Untitled (EP)
The follow up to the excellent “Skáphe²” is a 22-minute EP which keeps treading on the desolate path opened by its predecessor. More cavernous wanderings from the American-come-Iceland group, which seems to be one of the few dissonant artists worth following nowadays. The cover-art is just the crown on top of this very delicious release.
Ungesehen – Unaussprechliches Entsetzen (Demo)
Instrumental records is not something usually associated with black metal. Yet these Germans’ first demo is a 45-minute vocal-less exploration of atmosphere. A rather courageous decision, which ends up emphasizing the natural aspect of the hauntingly beautiful soundscapes. Silent wanderings in cold inexpressible horror.
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.
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‘s” 40 minutes are an oasis of nocturnal snowy atmosphere, graced with a sound that is as thin as a ghost’s density.
Gazing upon the lovely, primitively impressionist-like cover of Chile’s Funestus first demo, Descent with capital D comes into mind. A wintry barren wood, the crescent moon just above the center, like an eye distorted looking down, where an overflow of light seems to imply an abyss ready to receive the invisible wanderer treading upon the landscape’s path; even the clouds themselves seem to ripple downwards. A descent which, sound-wise, is materialised via an amalgamation of Judas Iscariot-esque majestic ferocity and Xasthur’s dungeon wanderings, all wrapped in a raw, somehow thin production that is however far from being bothersome or unlistenable.
The idea is quite simple, true to the teachings of Darkthrone: repetition of long-winded yet simple (structurally) riffs, crispy guitar sound which sometimes verges on the mechanical due to a weird distortion, drums that are especially fond of their metal components. Harsh screams are sporadically flickering, sometimes approaching Akhenaten’s lordly hue and articulation (like in “Nightside Of The Storm”), yet never quite grasping it – there is obviously the issue of Hiem Egregor’s (the band’s one and only member) not being a native English speaker. Of tempo variances there are fluctuations between slow and hyperblasting moments, contrasting otherworldly wanderings with wintry charges. Biting frost and relentless battle are the main ingredients of this release’s atmosphere; a sense of subterranean melancholy is embedded in most of the riffs, more prominent during the slower parts, as well as in the acoustic interludes. There are some executional mistakes, especially on drums and tempo changes, but as far as first demo releases go, this one is surprisingly elaborate.
All in all, the thing that Funestus succeed in almost flawlessly with their first demo is that the release grasps and retains this ravishing grimness that is the core essence of golden-era Darkthrone, as well as the raw splendour that was the trademark of Akhenaten’s discography. A demo that creates high expectations about this project, highly recommended for fans of traditional, grim yet atmospheric 90s black metal.
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.
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.