Bleak and empty: Hate Forest and I Shalt Become

Ok, so the title may be a bit of a cliché, but it actually has a double meaning; one that I am about to explain. See the music of Hate Forest and I Shalt Become bears all the hallmarks of bleak black metal, of empty spaces, but also the era these two albums were released in was not the best of times for metal. Twas a bit bleak….a bit empty (exceptions abound). The wave of grunge, alternative rock, nu-metal, and pop-goth in the likes of NIN had all taken their toll on metal as a major player in mainstream music. Big hitters in thrash, heavy metal, and even death metal, had all retreated to lick their wounds. Black metal fell into self-parody after the true crime that gave it an international name. Grindcore had made it’s point, and its originators morphed into death metal versions of themselves.

Extreme metal became underground again. Gone were the days of Cannibal Corpse cameoing in ‘Ace Ventura’. The turn of the century saw a brief reprieve, before the explosion of web 2.0, the hipster invasions, post 9/11 culture, a scary new millennium of thrilling chaos. But into this calm before the storm some great music was released. The beginnings of something new, or the graceful end of something old.

For anyone well versed in Ukrainian black metal, Hate Forest are something of a household name. And they, along with Drudkh and the Blazebirth Hall scene further east in that Russia, pioneered a minimal but mesmerising take on black metal. There’s no better place to start on this trancelike subgenre than with Hate Forest’s debut LP ‘The Most ancient Ones’ (2001). Hate Forest have picked up some very familiar building blocks, the most obvious being Darkthrone, and even Immortal’s anomalous debut ‘Diabolical Fullmoon Mysticism’ (1992), and crafted an instantly recognisable style nevertheless.

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The production is almost industrial. It is by no means polished, but it is very crisp considering the standards set by Hate Forest’s forbears. I was not surprised to learn that percussion is handled by a drum machine. This means that the blast beats are maintained for much longer and faster than would normally allow, until the music morphs into a wash of cold, ambient noise, that is nevertheless soothing. And when not blasting, the drums are simply beating along at trancelike tempos, underpinned by double bass, allowing the tremolod chords to soar atop this basic yet effective foundation.

Vocals would be more at home on a death metal album, being deep and guttural. It makes for a nice change in this music however. It lends an earthy, almost organic quality to the sound, which offsets the mechanical qualities in the production. Riffs are constructed from simple minor key chord progressions that take their time to unfold and develop. The result is a tapestry of moods that either set up camp or offset each other in a series of pleasing transitions for the listener. This amounts to something between the aforementioned Darkthrone and Immortal; the perfect marriage between the two.

For all the digs at American black metal that I shoehorn into my reviews wherever I can, there is a small yet significant clutch of disparate artists who are more than worth their salt in the land of the free. One much underrated example is the one man ambient black metal project known as I Shalt Become. Put ‘American’, ‘one man’, ‘ambient’, ‘black metal’ together and one could not be blamed for losing interest, especially considering the appalling grammar in the name of this project. But I Shalt Become is an exception that proves a rule in my book.

His debut ‘Wanderings’ released all the way back in 1998 pretends to be America’s answer to Burzum, cover-art and all; and it comes fairly close to succeeding all things considered. This is really slow, lo-fi black metal that pretty much does what it says on the tin. It offers lonely, grey, oppressive riffs, offset by barely present distorted vocals, tinny drums, and some pretty off the wall lyrics. The guitars are actually massive, which was the right choice given that they dominate the sound with slow but creative riffs, deliberately crafted to be played below the 80bpm mark.

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Whether it’s simple arpeggios, lumbering chord progressions, or just out and out droning, S. Holliman’s mastery of this tool to get the exact sound required for this stripe of black metal is a pleasure to listen to. ‘Wanderings’ is a good example of putting everything at the service of mood and atmosphere. Don’t get me wrong, there are some creative riffs worked in here, but at times they get repetitive, even for minimalist black metal. At this point the overbearing guitar tone can become a detriment, as it simply refuses to allow the repetition to wash over you, commanding as it is of one’s attention.

The album ends with a selection of covers from of Judas Iscariot and Burzum, a heavy nod to the already obvious influences. Holliman’s may not be in the same league as these artists when it comes to the nuts and bolts of riffcraft, but he knows when he’s on to a good idea. And he certainly knows how to use the tools of the trade to get as much out of each riff as possible in the service of this bleak, meditative music.

Both strong turnouts this week. But I’m siding with the Hate Forest camp. ‘Wanderings’ I have a personal soft spot for, it being one of the first pieces of none-Norwegian black metal I got my hands on and really got lost in. But there are considerable flaws on the canvas despite its charms. By comparison, ‘The Most Ancient Ones’ is a giant of turn-of-the-century extreme metal, and set the tone for much of the decade to follow. Hate Forest themselves had some hits and misses over the years, eventually reforming as Blood of Kingu before disbanding again, but there’s much to get your teeth into throughout their career. I Shalt Become on the other hand took a real left turn post 2010 with some very unusual experimental metal that to be honest was completely unexpected. I am still unclear how to feel about it, needless to say, explore at your peril.

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