I like the beats and I like the yelling: Nattsvargr, Hexagon, Nocturnal Abyss

Nattsvargr: Night of the Crimson Thirst

The latest release from Nattsvargr – ‘Night of the Crimson Thirst’ (2018) – sees them continue in the tradition of minimal, raw black metal straight from the Darkthrone school. In fact the opening riff to ‘At One With Evil’ is so similar to ‘Transylvanian Hunger’ I almost wondered if it’s an homage (ok, I’ll say it, the tempo is a little faster). Simple riffs constructed of minor chords, open strumming, unresolved tritones, it’s all there, soaring over mid-paced blast beats, occasionally falling back to simple punk rhythms which break up the wash of blasting riffs.

It’s formulaic. But it’s a formula that has endured for the simple reason that it works so well. It’s amazing what you can get out of two notes if you play them with enough conviction. The production, although raw, lends more weight to the low end of the guitars than is normal for this style of black metal. Drums are set back in the mix, and when playing blast-beats are really only acting as background static. One can certainly hear the switches from hi-hat to ride, and just about make out the double bass if you concentrate, but their function is primarily adding texture than offering rhythmic intrigue for the listener; which, for this stripe of black metal, is entirely appropriate.

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Vocals are maniacal. Noctir has really gone for a passionate, tortured take on the black metal rasp. They immediately call the attention of the listener, but when absent it really is all up to the guitars to carry the music forward. Whilst this is minimal black metal, with two, maybe three riffs on a track, they are engaging enough that one could listen to them played at these high tempos over and over and not get bored. The key here is beauty through repetition. This makes any transition – when it eventually arrives – all the more satisfying. And it need not be complicated. A simple ascending minor scale, or two repeated chords played over drums switching to ride and crash symbols really does the trick. No other adornments are required.

Nattsvargr aren’t exactly re-inventing the wheel here. But they are presenting a master class in meat-and-two-veg black metal done well. For those of us that simply can’t get enough of this style I would recommend it. It’s a treat of back to basics black metal riffcraft with a couple of interesting choices in the aesthetics and production that lend it a little more depth than many other contemporaries I have heard in the same style recently. There is also more conviction and passion behind this music than many pretending to play in a more original style but ultimately end up failing.

Hexagon: I

Sweden’s Hexagon put out their first demo in 2017 on Living Temple Records, the aptly titled ‘I’. It’s a promisingly primitive slab of old school death metal. It calls to mind that sweet spot between death metal and grindcore around 1990. Think Napalm Death ‘Harmony Corruption’ era or Terrorizer’s ‘World Downfall’. These are classic thrash riffs put through the morbid blender of a black metal aesthetic aided by additional tremolo strummed riffs.

The production is fairly decent demo quality; drums are muffled but clear enough to do justice to the mastery of chaos colliding with order that is death metal. Vocalist The Unholy Priest Not to Be Described (ahem) is slightly muffled in this final cut, but there is enough clarity to decipher that he is going for a classic death metal distortion in the mid-range, whilst retaining enough clarity for at least some of the lyrics to be discernible over the din.

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Although there is only so much one can glean from a four-track demo, there is much potential in this music. We won’t be blown away by many new or novel ideas, but there is a playfulness to this music that is at times lacking in artists that are too focused on creating the next ‘new’ thing. There is nothing wrong with going back to the roots and rediscovering the sheer joy in this music. The diversity of the riffs, the engaging rhythms, the contrast of atonal chugging and minor harmonies, tritones, etc.

Morbid death metal can and should be fun. Of course there needs to be competent musicianship to back this up. But Hexagon have plenty of that to go around. A promising start for a modern take on the old school. Let’s hope a full length in the future builds on this with more of their own voice thrown into the mix for good measure.

Nocturnal Abyss: Among the Cold Graves

‘Among the Cold Graves’ (2018) is the second LP from this black metal outfit. Although forming back in 1999 output has been slow to raise its ugly head.  2013’s ‘From the Depths of Morkvod’ ticked all the boxes for harsh and primal black metal. But what to make of ‘Among the Cold Graves’?

I think the closest comparison that comes to mind is Mutiilation’s ‘Remains of a Ruined, Dead, Cursed Soul’. This is true both stylistically and aesthetically. The production is only mildly better (depending on your metric), with guitars walking that line between highly distorted but also vaguely jangly in places,; surf rock from the void. See Graveland’s ‘Following the Voice of Blood’ for another analogue. Vocals are a high pitched screech, again calling to mind the terrifying revelries of Meyhna’ch, underpinned by highly depressive and repetitive minor arpeggios.

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And that is really the root of this music. It aims at the depressive end of black metal as opposed to an aggressive or triumphant style. But unlike much depressive black metal which I tend to find thoroughly boring, there is an energy and diversity to this music that keeps me interested. There are some deeply slow passages, with very simple drums acting as metronome more than anything, but they are never dwelt on to the point of tedium. The pace always picks up, or the riffs always shift, and one is kept engaged.

Open strummed minor chords are underpinned by solid drums that – although thin – are complex enough to draw the ear in with double-bass work and fills. Normally this would not be noteworthy, but talk of drumming in this particularly grim style of black metal is usually limited to ‘it’s there’. One thing I do love about this style is those unexpected transitions achieved with very minimal musical tricks. For instance, the shift from a highly repetitive two chord riff to a slightly different two chord riff, maybe even with a major chord thrown in for good measure, without any change in tempo or rhythm, is often more unexpected than a dramatic climax or breakdown of any kind. It’s a reminder that when the guitars are the dominant instrument, if they are played competently, one can make a great deal from the most minor adjustments to achieve drama and intrigue.

The Nocturnal Abyss have mastered their craft of balancing depressive black metal with hints and nods to other styles within the field to create a solid and engaging release in ‘Among the Cold Graves’. There are plenty of original ideas to unpack within the chasm of noise, knitted together by some clever structural compositions. A treasure trove of minimal black metal done well.

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