Back in that mid 1990s sweet spot – after the international explosion of black metal, but before liberal arts students had clocked its uniqueness – there is a wealth of solid albums for the traveller to discover. This is black metal that stayed true to the form first and foremost, but expanded on it in subtle yet important ways, and most importantly, remained faithful to the original ethos. It is creative and original in ways that do not immediately jump out at the listener, you have to pay attention for your rewards, and notice which elements of their predecessors they have expanded upon and developed. This is all just a fancy way for me to say that the hipsters will never find us here. Not least because the two artists I’m looking at this week are a bit far right for most people’s tastes. Their loss.
Russia’s Forest, fabled stalwarts of the Blazebirth Hall group of bands out East, had a good run of consistent LPs through the late 1990s. The second of which, 1997’s ‘Like a Blaze Above the Ashes’ is for my money the most interesting of these. The reason for this is that subtle blend of variety and conceptual unity. Structurally this is similar to that benchmark of maturity in black metal: Burzum’s ‘Hvis Lyset Tar Oss’. Four tracks of building moods and intensity, that all feed into one another resulting in one standalone piece of music throughout the album’s runtime.
We open with a tremolo riff that makes good use of major keys to convey triumphalism, aided by a very subtle choral accompaniments. The distorted vocals are in the mid-range for black metal, but they are kept distant and muddied with reverb, giving the music space to breath. Indeed, everything about the production points to creating the feeling of being outdoors, on a windswept hill, but this is achieved in more subtle ways than more wind samples. Drums almost never vary from a mid-paced blast beat, serving only to add a sense of urgency that hits the listener at the subconscious level. In minimal black metal such as this, their role in creating subtle urgency is understated yet important.
Track two then builds on the themes of track one and consolidates them. The mood and direction of travel for the music has been established before things deconstruct in track three. The pace slows, as do the guitars. We get simple yet effective stop/start riffs that invoke a sense of finality. The drums finally drop to a marching pace further adding to this almost funereal sequence. Then everything collapses into…obscurity on track four; ‘Obscurity’. Desperately simple harmonies are accompanied by clean chanting put through that same distant reverb. The effect is haunting to the point of overbearing considering how bare and minimal the actual musical components are. It is cold, lonely, open music that excels at invoking these feelings within the listener without any flashy adornments; just intelligent writing and production choices.
Judas Iscariot were something of a precursor to North America’s addiction to one-man black metal projects in the early 2000s. The brainchild of one Akhenaten, he released a slurry of LPs in the latter part of the 90s. He performed every instrument on these recordings, many of which were done in one take, and boy does it show at times. Some of these drum takes make Lars Ulrich look adept. But I appreciate the sentiment. There is something to the spontaneity of black metal, the ritualistic nature, that lends itself to capturing a moment that cannot be repeated. That’s the whole point of these unique production choices after all.
However, Akhenaten should really have applied his anti-democratic sentiments to his music. Not all riffs are created equal, not all the music you write should be released. His second offering ‘Of Great Eternity’ (1997) is a classic example of this. This is very straight forward black metal, both aesthetically and stylistically. The production is bad, but not that bad, clear but stripped down to basics. The vocals are raspy but lyrics are audible, understated and not overly emotive. The guitars are distorted enough to carry the tremolod riffs, but still clear…almost bland. And that’s really the problem with this album. The lack of surface level adornments need not be a problem, as long as weighty compositions are there to bolster the finished product up. But in this case few ground breaking ideas are present.
The result is…sort of Coldplay does black metal. Darkthrone is the key touchstone here, switching between slower blast beats to simpler marching paces, riffs that are fine but not particularly interesting. However, there are at least three or four stand out moments spread across the album for us to warrant demanding more of Judas Iscariot. The most obvious on this release is track two: ‘I Filled With Woes the Passing Wind’, which from beginning to end is a mesmerising piece of layered guitar ambience, sans drums, which I simply cannot fault. A repeated refrain is revisited over the course of the track, with layered droning chords informing the riff upon each new visit. It works as a seamless crescendo that screams out at the listener when contrasted with the two tracks that sandwich it. I don’t normally like to single out tracks like this, preferring to stick to a broader view of the album as a whole, but this is so far ahead of the rest of the material that it merits highlighting.
And from there a few other riffs scattered across the album stand out.
And that is really the case for the entire clutch of albums that ‘Of Great Eternity’ was released with. At a guess I would say there is enough material to make up at least two LPs, but not the five that we must sit through to get to them. There is something compelling about listening to this bland black metal presented with such sloppy takes; because despite how generic much of it is, you can always tell it’s Judas Iscariot; having somehow carved out his own signature style out of the most generic building blocks. And the really sublime moments jump out all the more as a result.
Unsurprisingly Forest is my pick of the week. Both these artists worked with relatively straightforward components and production choices. Forest used techniques universal to black metal: reverb, lo-fi production, tremolo riffs, blast beats, and created something that transcends the sum of these parts into something beautiful. Because all these components are window dressing to the weighty compositional ideas at work behind them. Judas Iscariot took many of the same techniques but failed to carry them to the same grim heights. However, each of Akhenaten’s albums is worth a visit if you’ve delved this far into black metal. They remain interesting artefacts of a very different time for black metal, a much simpler time.