Black metal’s paths less taken: Yamatu and Xibalba

Black metal, the music of colder climbs, soundtrack to clandestine rituals, the reverence for nature in sonic form. But if we look past the much-debated aesthetics, the core of black metal is a certain approach to metal that lends itself to otherworldly themes. This goes beyond a mere reverence for snowy mountains and old trees. Although it’s a modern art form born of modern technology, the primitivist core of black metal is a callback to pre-civilised humanity. However fictionalised it may be, it’s a yearning for, and speculation of, the experiences and priorities of ancestors who understood the world around them through their mythologies. The psychology of humanity in nature, their understanding of the causes and effects of the environment that shaped them, all were channelled through the religions and gods they created. So here are two artists that burrowed deeply into these potentialities within black metal outside of the usual Northern European tradition.

Yamatu are an American one-man-black metal project…yeah, another one. But no, 2000’s compilation of early demos known as ‘Shurpu Asaru’ is a wildly different experience to the tedium of a Leviathan or Xasthur. This is closer to Black Funeral, both in the heavily dungeon synth informed metal, but also in the high concept lyrical themes. Did you ever watch a b-movie and chuckle at how far the director’s imagination outstripped their budget? That’s the experience of listening to ‘Shurpu Asaru’ in a nutshell.

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We are furnished with percussion courtesy of a tinny little programmed drum truck that works it’s way through simple bass/snare rhythms and the occasional blast-beat that overpowers everything. Guitars are a thin little drone of distortion. The vocals are a raspy whisper sometimes akin to Nuclear Holocausto’s trademark style, supplemented with plenty of out of tune chanting. There are also lengthy passages where the vocals have been treated to liberal doses of delay, no doubt designed to lend the music a demonic quality, but instead prolonging the agony of their existence. And there are ample keyboards that, in the context of such lo-fi black metal, sound almost comical, not even reaching the lofty production values of video game music at the time most of this material was released.

However, as I mentioned, Mike Riddick’s imagination stretched far beyond his means, and it’s certainly true that there are plenty of neat ideas here, lent extra charm in my eyes because of their hammy presentation. As this is a compilation of separate releases it doesn’t really work to review it as album. Suffice to say there are plenty of melodic riffs worked within here that sound truly unique. The keyboards are surprisingly elaborate at times, often taking the reins from the guitars as lead instrument. There is also a great deal of variation within these works. At times it is primitive, occultist black metal along the lines of the aforementioned Black Funeral, other times it is mournful, flowery, and melodic, adorned with rich piano work, and at yet other times it’s richly realised dungeon synth.

I am honestly at a loss as to how much fruit has grown out of the compost that is the tech behind this release. Don’t get me wrong, the shortcomings are sometimes hard to ignore, and are frankly comical at times. But for the occultist black metal veteran who is used to such flaws from the heady and ambitious times that were the mid-1990s, it’s a real treasure trove of delights.

Mexico’s Xibalba (now known as Xibalba Itzaes) are a curious little beast. Their debut LP ‘Ah Dzam Poop Ek’ (1994) is similar in spirit to Graveland and Ungod of the same era. It’s a fun romp through energetic, bouncy black metal that offers little in the way of obvious thrills, but beneath the surface is a cornucopia of delights for the faithful. The production is pretty flat, with almost no treatment offered to the tinny drums, the guitar tone is crystal clear but unremarkable, and bass has been given permission to exist (I think). But it’s the energy and enthusiasm of the music that carries it along.

Some of the riffs sound almost triumphant. Maybe it’s the tuning on the guitars, maybe it’s the indulgence of major chords not often seen within black metal, maybe it’s a bit of both, but there is almost an euphoric quality to this elegantly ritualistic black metal. The components are so basic, right down to the off-the-shelf shrieking of Marco Ek Balam’s vocals, but the end result is more than the sum of its parts. It has an almost otherworldly quality to it. This is aided by the subtle use of samples very obviously aimed at making the music sound like it is coming from a forest in the dead of night.

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There is a pronounced folk influence that shapes of some of the riffs, which again calls to mind early Graveland. When worked into the faster tracks this lends it an urgency and life that is at times hard to keep up with. But Xibalba are not afraid to slow things down or indeed utilise the virtues of repetition, as on instrumental number Bolontiku Vahom; which is an eight minute-plus epic of repeated refrains under a driving tribal drumbeat that is clearly designed to invoke an almost trancelike harmony in the mind of the listener. In fact this album boasts an array of emotions and moods. At times the music is fast and aggressive, at others melancholy, and at yet other moments filled with an almost violent revelry and joy. A true masterclass in the art of understated novelty.

So we have two releases that prima facie sound fairly typical of mid-1990s black metal, but scratch below the surface and they are anything but. When we delve too far into obscure mythologies of ancient days, when our focus on high concept lyrics morphs into obsession, the music you envisage in your mind, and what actually gets committed to record, can sometimes be wildly different beasts. Especially if you are working within the technical and talent limitations of Yamatu.

The genuinely good ideas within the music are lost beneath the unintentional comedy of him trying to invoke a very specific atmosphere and mood that just does not translate in the finished product. Xibalba on the other hand worked with those same limited means but chose not to adorn them at all, instead making some very intelligent decisions at a compositional level. Simple shifts in rhythm, tempo, key, all coalesce into something more than the sum of their parts. So although both are lost treasures outside of the typical mores of black metal, ‘Shurpu Asura’ is just too hammy to be anything other than a charming curiosity for the dedicated when compared to ‘Ah Dzam Poop Ek’.

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