Monday, June 9, 2014

Black Metal Masterclass

I don't know what's going on, but in the past few weeks I've seemingly hit the mother load in terms of excellent new black metal. I've already talked about the new Diocletian (which isn't really black metal but certainly draws plenty of water from that pool) and the weirdly exciting Vapor Hiemis black metal/EDM release. Beyond those hybrids, there have been a few really great black metal albums in an assortment of styles that I've recently encountered. I was thinking about reviewing each of these separately, but I've been enjoying the approach of collecting together a group of mini-reviews and it seems fitting when I'm addressing three strong albums in the same sub-genre that I should just put them together. So here we go.

The Great Old Ones - Tekeli-Li
Honestly, when I see something described as "post-" anything, I tend to have a moment of hesitation. The shoegaze sound isn't exactly a favorite of mine, so blending it with other styles rarely constitues an improvement in my eyes. This particular French post-black metal release is a rare and wonderful exception. First of all, Lovecraftian lyrics are always cool, so even if I can't speak the language, just knowing the influence is there makes me happy. More importantly, the record just sounds really, really good. The production is very lush (which is not a word I use often) and gives the music a richness in tone that is rare in black metal. Spoken passages and soft interludes add welcome breaks in the thick wall of sound that the band produces, and the record just has an overall feel of outstanding quality in every respect from musicianship to composition to production. It's not black metal at its most violent, but it's so thoroughly satisfying in all other respects that I don't care. Probably my favorite black metal release of the year so far.

Skogen - I Döden
Fun fact: this Swedish outfit hails from Växjö, which is where I would have spent a year during college if my plans hadn't fallen through. The band plays black metal in the Viking/pagan vein, with a very melodic approach packed full of northern folk flavor and epic atmosphere. The plentiful keyboards (particularly early in the album) may bother some people, but I think they suit the tone of the music really well. There's  honestly nothing especially adventurous or unique here: this is a well-explored area and Skogen stay comfortably within its borders. The execution is very strong, though. Many of you know that I have a pretty big soft spot for the side of black metal that branches off into Viking/folk/pagan territory, but this year has had something of a drought in that department. Skogen's new release isn't the pinnacle of this style, but so far in 2014 it's the only album in this favored niche of mine that has actually grabbed hold of me. One final note: the 13-minute closer, featuring a dreary atmosphere and some almost doom metal riffs, is one of my favorite tracks of the year so far.

Thantifaxath - Sacred White Light
With rare exceptions, I do my own hunting when it comes to new metal. There are, however, about half a dozen reviewers whom I sometimes use as reference points. I often disagree with their opinions, but seeing a glowing review from one of them is still enough to at least put an album on my radar. Well, after encountering great reviews from three of them on the Thantifaxath full-length debut, I felt compelled to check it out for myself. They did not steer me wrong. Thantifaxath are a Canadian band whose moderately progressive take on black metal is a hell of a lot better than their name. They remind me a bit of Deathspell Omega, which in my word is a pretty big compliment. In addition to varied songwriting and powerful performances, the band benefits from good production that hits the sweet spot of clarity without undue polish. I listened to this the most recently of the three, and given how densely-packed the music is I have a feeling I'll need more time to fully digest it. Right now, though, I think it will be strong contender for the year's best black metal album.

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