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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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.

 

Two From This Year’s Vault – part 2

Humanitas Error Est – Human Pathomorphism (Satanath Records)

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In their debut these Germans make a decent attempt at mixing the guitar-sound aesthetics of clinical, “intelligent” black metal (the kind of late 90s Satyricon, album-era Thorns, etc – this legacy is also evident in the best riffs of this album) with some generic but beautiful-in-moments Swedish black metal extremity (Dark Funeral, Marduk, etc) as far as most of the riff content is concerned. Song structures are somewhat complex, befitting the futuristic edge. Vocal-wise there is a multitude of generic black metal growling, but the Dani Filth-esque passionate growls (of the kind that seems to keep echoing in the throat while being uttered) are clearly standing out above the rest. Some samples thrown in add to the industrial/futuristic atmosphere. The release does try to sound extreme, a bit too much occasionally, and the riffs are not highly original, but all in all this is an album that certainly has its moments, especially for the kind of listener that feels nostalgic about the “intelligent” Norwegian wave. Still, Plutonium’s debut (“One Size Fits All”) probably remains the best retro-intelligent release of the last ten years.

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Morar – Wahlheim (Nebular Winter Records)

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Since 2013’s really nice “Chants Of Ossian” demo, this act dabbles in obscurity, stating no member names and (until very recently) no country of origin (last time I checked their entry in Enyclopaedia Metallum the country was Greenland). Their debut full-length (which was one of the things that I keenly anticipated) was scheduled to be released last year, but apparently it had to be delayed a bit, hitting their bandcamp in mid-January.

What one can find inside this album with the evocative cover photography is highly melodic atmospheric black metal with a knack for NWOSDM-style leads and (by extension) the occasional heavy metal riffing. Old Emperor’s starry haze is here, in the album’s two best tracks, “Afflications” and “Thee To Scorn,” while the hauntingly melodic, almost lullaby-like, “’Tis Night” is following just behind in quality terms. In general, the band has traded some of the demo’s darkness (and rawer production) for a more folky (some excellent riffs draw upon pure folkish melodies) and flowing side. The thing is, where their character truly shine is in the less formalised (chaotic if you want) side of their music, the most purely black metal (aesthetically) one, rather than in the melodic leads which evoke heavy metal clarity. Nevertheless, this is a good album of melodic nature-worship black metal, with three excellent tracks, reminiscent of past days of glory.

Cult Of Erinyes – Transcendence (Caverna Abismal Records)

Cult Of Erinyes – Transcendence (Caverna Abismal Records)

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After a 3 year silence, Belgium’s Cult Of Erinyes, responsible for the rather spectacular “Blessed Extinction,” return with the “Transcendence” EP, a 3 piece release, containing two original tracks, and one cover of Mayhem’s “Pagan Fears,” clocking something less than 20 minutes. Graced with an amazing cover art, and cassette being its only physical format (just 100 copies), “Transcendence” conveys something of the underground black metal’s obscurity, even package-wise. On to the audio department, the band’s new tracks showcase a return to more traditional, archaic black metal forms, the first (“Degrees Of Solitude”) being a serpentine corpus of nefarious mid-tempo and occult hyper-speed riffing, somehow reminiscent of the early ’00s Swedish scene (Ondscapt, Watain, etc). The second one, “Transcendence,” is more on the mid-tempo side, somehow “trekking” in its rhythm, a gaze through bars as you are lowered towards the oblivion of the Abyss (“remember my name” echoes time and again). Top-notch vocals and atmosphere, while guitar riffs may not be hugely innovative, but work well enough as far as the creation of an occult transcendental haze is concerned. “Pagan Fears’” rendition is close to the original, with no surprises, but quite welcome, with just a hint of extra vehemence. All in all an enjoyable but unfortunately short release, which intensifies the wait for the next full-length.

Naðra – Allir vegir til glötunar review

Naðra - Allir vegir til glötunar

The contemporary Icelandic black metal scene is more or less a mosaic of different aspects of what is known as the ’00s orthodox sound per se, as it was showcased by Deathspell Omega in their “Fas” album, namely disharmonic, dissonant if you prefer, black metal with lots of death metal thrown in, as well as Ved Buens Ende influences. It is a sound that has almost stigmatised the whole scene, even though each band is able to mark its own aspect with a personal character. The fact is, however, that this was not always the case with this island of Scandinavia. During the ’90s, Icelandic black metal was more or less identified with Sólstafir, namely a melodic, pagan black metal style, obviously influenced by the Norwegians, yet with an even more primal edge. After that, and apart from Sólstafir (which took on a completely new musical direction), there was pretty much a sense of vacuum coming from that northern niche.

Yet this apparent non-existence of other Icelandic BM bands was crucial to my forming the imaginative axiom that all (future) bands from there would definitely play a sort of melodic Enslaved/Kampfar thing. Obviously, bands like Wormlust, Misþyrming, and Svartidauði proved me wrong, and forcefully managed to dispel this notion of mine, shifting the focus from pagan to orthodox darkness. The thing is, the mental connection of Iceland with melodic pagan BM never entirely dissipated, and Naðra, with their “Eitur” demo (2014) and especially with this year’s “Allir vegir til glötunar,” which is a natural expansion of the first release, managed to remind me of this more naive conviction of mine. The band consists of five members, all of which participate in other bands of the scene, Misþyrming being the one most densely frequented (4 out of 5 members).

First things first: just like the demo, Naðra’s debut sports Skaðvaldur’s amazing hand-made artwork, totally in the spirit of ’90s black metal, yet graced with a white background, foreshadowing the choice of Frost over Darkness. Two out of the five album tracks come straight from the “Eitur” demo, obviously with much better sound this time, and the other three songs build upon the same basic motifs: flowing guitar riffs, with almost punky outbursts in certain moments (take for instance the opening of “Fjallið”), deeply rooted in the romantic, nature-worshipping soundscapes of times past. Here can be found branches of what Taake and Kampfar had once sown. A string motion that oscillates between atmosphere and flexibility, never letting dreaming fall into monotonous sloth, writhing with melody throughout. There are moments that the rhythm section takes on a hypnotic path, almost diverging into the land of ritual, yet always retaining this northern grace that is a major characteristic of the Scandinavian scene per se. What was amiss from the latest wave bands from Iceland was ice itself, choosing darkness over it. Naðra, as I aforementioned concerning the cover art, return to this icy vastness, so iconic of Iceland itself, creating pure frosty majesty of great quality, something that is not frequently chanced upon nowadays.

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). An early yet strong contestant for this year’s end list.

 

Skáphe – Skáphe² review

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The thing about chaotic and dissonant music with highly fluid nature and unconventional song structure is that it is quite difficult to memorize as a listener, and therefore to re-visit it in its absence. Whereas more conventional music forms can be easily examined in retrospection, the category in which Skáphe’s second album belongs almost requires it (the category specimen) being present in order for the examiner to draw any kind of conclusions more profound than “this band plays chaotic dissonant black metal”. More than the elusive riffing, it is the entanglement of the different parts that ultimately forces the listener to just experience the music, rather than pack it in his mind for a later occasion. It’s like trying to force concrete meaning upon pieces of wood drifting on a stormy sea, or rather, like trying to gather all those pieces in order to build a raft but end up drowning in the hopeless process, while you could be saved (or drown without so much wasted effort) by grasping on whichever piece was most accessible at the time.

Moving onwards, Skáphe’s sophomore album, “Skáphe²,” is a fine example of music created first and foremost to be impressed by the audience. It is a hazy, feverish entity, resembling a journey through paradoxically articulated catacombs and dream-forms, like a host of feathered serpents crawling upon the dried riverbeds of infernal streams. Just take a look to the excellent cover art to see what I mean. Elusive guitar riffs fade in and out with spectral eloquence, nevertheless not forgetting the black metal imposing majesty when things call for all-out assault. The album is mostly wandering in its character, guiding the listener through otherworldly vistas, but guide gives quickly way to adversary when menace is transmuted to concrete evil. The vocals of D.G. (Misþyrming, Naðra) are crushing with high-quality growls, peaking when they turn to ghostly howling (as in the almost psychedelic middle part of “VI”). The voice in many a part tends to transmute in shriek riffing, and vice versa, creating an organic fluidity between the two instruments. Rhythm section leans towards creation of framing volume, rather than taking the lead. The sad thing is that as with the Skáphe debut, none of the lyrics are available, and this time, we cannot even meditate on descriptive song titles, tracks being named just arithmetically (“I”, “II”, etc).

“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.