Haxen – Haxen (Eternal Death records)

haxen haxen

Haxen have apparently been around since 2000, releasing a steady (if a bit sparse) stream of demo releases, yet it took some 16 years in order for their eponymous debut full-length to be finalised. Though hailing from the west coast of the Atlantic, the band seems to be wholeheartedly devoted to European scenes of yore, especially the Norwegian and the French (Les Legions Noires era) one, creating an album which revels in its rawness under the night skies.

Things are quite straightforward, as far as composition is concerned, yet not in a simpleton way. While many bands try to up the complexity of their musical structures, striving to establish their extremity that way, Haxen embrace rawness both sound- and composition-wise. Songs are rather short (most of them under the five minute marker), each permeated by a small number of tight-wrapped riffs, not much caring for progression, but rather holocaust-winding their way through the soundscapes of the release. Crispy guitars, a bass that is not as inaudible as one would expect, and a host of scratchy, harsh vocals make up the material building blocks of this release, while there is a hint (to say the least) of live recording in several tracks, distinct in the sound directness which mortars the whole. Yet melody is never far – listen to the mid-tempo decadent majesty of “Abismo” for instance.

If one is to name bands that seem to have influenced this creation, three groups stand out: Mutiilation (which can be held responsible for the romantic, archaic darkness evident in several tracks – for instance “Sleepwalking”), Carpathian Forest (to which is owed much on the aggressiveness and riff departments, as well as on the origins of thin layer of grooveness that appears sometimes) and Høstmørke-era Isengard (responsible for the slight thrashy edge, as well as the mosquito-buzz-like riffs – remember “Total Death”). One could deduce a triptych: dark and archaic grim melody, furious (sometimes bordering on death metal) riffing that strays on the chaotic, and a pinch of creative insectoid black thrash. In essence, this is distilled European blackness coming from the far side of the Atlantic. Nothing spectacularly original, but an album that is very well-written, and thrives like a parasite on the listener’s cravings for well-executed (mostly) 90s black metal.

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Sun Worship – Pale Dawn (Golden Antenna Records)

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The lone and wandering riff is perhaps the quintessential black metal music-component figure. Dismal yet passionate, adventurous, trying to break the shackles of time and history, a candlelight gliding through perennial corridors. It is ideally without beginning and end, just fading in and out of our perception, yet eternally there. And if the riff is the microcosm of the genre itself, then one can perceive black metal as a being against time, striving to be out-of-time itself, to haunt and wander eternally, like a pure force of nature, free of human concepts. Germany’s Sun Worship, with their sophomore album, “Pale Dawn,” embody this aspect of black metal, creating a monolithic album that resembles a massive monument to eternity. One could say that it captures the image of a frigid, pale dawn, and then it fossilizes it upon a wall that is outside the cosmos.

Elder Giants,” the band’s debut, was an excellent take upon the Scandinavian sound, and how one could distill its iciness and barren glory. It was quite doubtful whether the band could surpass this masterpiece, and their participation in the 4-way split “Into The Vortex” with an ambient track, made me anxious of a musical direction change. Thankfully, from the first notes of “Pale Dawn” it becomes apparent that Sun Worship have retained their trademark sound.

The core materials are well known: Norwegian riffing, of the “Transilvanian Hunger” and “De Mysteriis..” school, filtered through a less dark, more icy prism. Each song is built around a riff (lone and wandering as aforementioned), long-winded, ecstatic as the figure of Zephyrous on the “A Blaze In The Northern Sky” cover. They keep unwinding, like from a never-ending ball of yarn, with laconic fluctuation, imprinting upon the listener the granite of timelessness; due to this backbone each track resembles an icebreaker. Beyond each of the basic riffs however one can discover a few melodic guitar mannerisms, some almost-thrashy moments, mid-tempo deep breaths. Vocals are desperate, coming from beyond, flickering like fog for a while, then returning to uncreation, or just beyond creation. But there is also beauty in here, harsh or otherwise (like in the amazing hymnal vocals of the last track (“Perihelion”) which evoke the ritual majesty and sombreness of the namesake track of “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas”). What ultimately dominates here is a single-minded passion, a mania one could say; but due to the inhuman quality of this artifact it is not so easy for one to get away with such terms, mostly associated with human feelings and states of mind. Better use descriptive imagescapes:

Giant plateaus of pure majestic inhumanity, now and forever reclaimed by the elements; stone figures standing unmoving; the moment of arctic dawn after months of darkness, forever frozen in time. That’s the spirit of “Pale Dawn.” I cannot yet say whether it surpasses its predecessor, but it is definitely close to achieving it. Still, this is not really something that matters. What matters is that this band from Germany has managed to capture the essence of northern black metal, much better than most of recent band hailing from the far North in question. A study in pale frost – and how it immobilizes time.

 

Isolert – No Hope, No Light…Only Death (Ogmios Underground)

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Besides the genre’s name, there are albums of the black metal variety, that are not prone to being transmitters of utter-darkness soundscapes. Even some of the 90s masters’ albums are testimonies of this; for in albums such as “Battles In The North” or “Frost” darkness is a distant second entity being evoked, majestic frigidness being by far more dominant. The cold, unforgiving yet filled with unparalleled majesty side of Nature is an essential part of the black metal multifaceted entity. That is where lie the banners of Greece’s Isolert, a band that firstly appeared roughly a year before, with the “Isolated Soul” demo. Reviewing that short release  I had concluded that “it is a somewhat rushed release, that nevertheless creates promises about the future.” Luckily, it seems that these promises are more or less fulfilled with the band’s debut album, “No Hope, No Light…Only Death,” released earlier in 2016.

What becomes apparent from almost the beginning is that Isolert have a thing for melody, mainly of the icy quality, not unlike that of the mid-/late-90s Swedish scene. But, as it was also the case in “Isolated Soul” the Scandinavian influence is filtered through a Greek prism; what comes to mind is Naer Mataron’s first period – a fine tutor, to say the least. Guitars make long-winded appearances, zealously emphasizing the atmospheric parts of most riffs – passion is a thing to be reckoned in here. A passion, traces of which can also be found in the definitely improved (in comparison to the demo) vocals, which traverse the spectrum demarcated by the growling core hues and the clean, almost epic clamours and narration. Yet, despite all the melody talk, the band also knows how to incorporate some thrashy and hyperblasting inferno in their music. Structure-wise things are not overly complex, yet this simplicity is quite effective from an atmospheric point of view. Speed varies, from mid-tempo clarity to blastbeat exaltation. The production is typical for this kind of sound, grim and clear – nothing spectacular.

Isolert kicks off its formal discography with a very good album, steeped in the genre’s tradition. It may have a few shortcomings – namely lack of innovation (if such things are of concern in black metal) and some variance in the composition quality department – yet it is a much too enjoyable (and even nostalgic) an album to be shadowed by them. The band sports a much more polished and well-structured facade in comparison to their last year demo, bringing into fruition the past promises.

Præternatura – Symmetry Of The Void

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There is, inside the black metal edifice, a certain niche, down there, at the basement or dungeon level, which borders on the space of two particular sub-genres: namely the catacombs of depressive black metal and the etheric thunderbolts of the kind of black/death that was showcased by Bölzer. It is this marginal space that hosts such acts as UK’s Swarþ and the band in question, Præternatura (solo project of Matron Thorn – see Ævangelist, Death Fetishist, etc). Moving beyond such base human feelings as discomfort and despair which are usually associated with depressive/suicidal black metal, yet remaining in the realm of shadows, not reaching up to the Olympian majesty of the Bölzer school, this particular sub-genre retains the ritual side of the dungeon space, as well as the sheer mass of black/death. At the intersection of these two schools lies a ghost wandering through endless corridors, which has long shed its last drops of human nature. A dark, cavernous specimen, with a suffocating density.

Consisting of four long-winded tracks, “Symmetry Of The Void” revels in its own complexity, sporting a multi-layered structure. The guitar work shines, both in technicality and in elegance, spewing forth torturous walls of dissonance (on which the claustrophobic, eerie atmosphere is based) along with threads of eerie, finespun guitar riffs that emerge from the rather more voluptuous aforementioned walls. In other words, the tortuous and thick body of orthodox-like black metal, layered with death metal frosting, is grafted with a slithering and technical riff mobility, precise and evocative as the chime of midnight bells, with subtle hints of melody too. In many points throughout the record, one feels like being circled by swarms of spirits and shrapnel (there are a few hints of almost mechanized – industrialized if you prefer – repetition). Lastly, I could not ignore the allure of a Necromantia- or Cultes Des Ghoules-esque, bass-dominant moment on the last, namesake track.

Tempo-wise, the album twists around both mid-tempo, almost doom-ish speed, and blastbeat moments that reach towards the depths of subterranean lakes. Vocals are guttural, death metal-like growls from the deep, quite thick in the articulation of (the sadly unavailable) lyrics. Graced with a precise yet not clinical production, the compositions shine – if one devotes time in order to penetrate the apparent complexity of them. Be warned, the four tracks are quite diverse throughout their length, and things shift with mercurial frequency. The album, like a grand ritual, demands attention, yet its rewards are ample. “Symmetry Of The Void” could be considered as an aesthetic aspect of the poetics of otherworldliness, massive and eerie at the same time. Præternatura seem to make an excellent discographic debut with this release.

 

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).

 

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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