When I compare the canonized albums of metal gone by with those of the last ten years or so, I sometimes wonder if we learnt all the wrong lessons. We get bogged down in vague and subjective details, the feel of the music rather than the logic. As music evolves, specific aspects of a sound are put under the magnifying glass and expanded into whole new genres. Or else disparate elements are spliced together to create hybrid styles; only for those responsible to realise the crippling limitations of such an approach,so they go on to liberate themselves from this by apparently eschewing genre definitions. Entropy abounds.
The point is…when we look at an album like ‘In the Nightside Eclipse’ for example, it wasn’t the atmosphere, the symphonics, or the melodrama that made it such a unique album (important as those things were), it was the scope and ambition of the compositions themselves. In studying the music itself, by breaking down each component, it may not be the most complex metal release of all time, but there was an elegance and logic to the construction of the music. The compositions were pieced together with a soaring attention span unusual for such young minds.
Like a cathedral, we are not just admiring the intricate stonework and the symbology behind it, we are also admiring a vast structure that seems to defy gravity itself. In order for it to achieve this it must submit to certain principles of architecture. And we, in turn, are admiring the mastery of those principles made flesh. So let’s look at two more recent albums that – despite utilising many of the usual trappings of extreme metal – nevertheless spent their money on ambitious music above all else. Did they succeed or not! Let’s find out!
2017 was a good year for metal it seems. As well as a strong set of releases from some well-established acts, the mask had finally slipped from certain ‘post’ variants of extreme metal, and many were ready to take music seriously again. ‘Exuvia’ was one such ambitious work, and serves as a reminder of the power of composing music, as opposed to shoving disparate styles together and calling it innovation, and then playing the contrarian when all the traditionalists get angry about it, and then claiming you’re just subverting what it means to be metal and you’re not interested in the rantings of elitists, something something something, Thurston Moore Justin Broadrick.
Ahem, aaaanyway, ‘Exuvia’. What makes it such a special album? Well, anyone familiar with the career of The Ruins of Beverast to date will have charted his development from an idiosyncratic atmospheric black metal format into a sort of doom metal version of the same. The interesting thing about ‘Exuvia’ is the parsimony of riffs when contrasted with the overall variety and fullness of the album from moment to moment. How is this achieved? Well, the whole thing works like a trance or meditation. But unlike my man Ildjarn, TROB make full use of drums and their ability to add texture and depth (especially in doom metal), and to change the very nature of how a riff is received. The production enhances this with the toms and bass drum coming through full and thick.
The other more obvious technique to stretch out these simple yet well crafted riffs is the tasteful layering of other influences atop this. One can hear elements of Dead Can Dance, of pagan influences a-la Wardruna or Heilung, and of course some classic prog rock leanings as well. Of course, frugality is key to maintaining the impact of these elements throughout the album’s hour plus runtime. This brings us to the real key to this album’s success, the structure itself. It may be basic, built on a simple journey with a beginning, middle and an end, with tension and release worked throughout the middle, but sometimes the plainest of canvasses can give rise to the most powerful of artistic statements.
When mastery of the technical craft is in place, and allows these musicians to skilfully layer so much instrumentation atop one another, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to the complexity of the compositions themselves. A simple build and release, or the gradual building of atmospheres atop a simple refrain will be all that is required to achieve the desired impact. There is a fluidity to the music, it ebbs and flows with varying degrees of intensity such that the direction of travel is allowed to unfold slowly, gradually, without the need for the most intricate of compositions.
Wagner of Nargaroth started life for all intents and purposes as a professional troll, with a series of releases that pertained to get by on enthusiasm alone; and failed. But over time he seemed to forget how to make bad music. The tribute of sorts to the four seasons that was ‘Jahreszeiten’ (2009) – although a little cut-and-paste in places – was nonetheless an ambitious piece, and makes for an interesting listen. And 2017’s ‘Era of Threnody’, although being met with a mixed response, further demonstrated what Wagner is capable of when he actually applies himself. But this ain’t no school report card, so how does this stack up to the black metal milieu of today?
‘Threnody’ means lament, and ‘era’ means a period in history. Both things that make this album all the more interesting. Because, in terms of black metal, Wagner is operating on some pretty shaky territory at times; there’s plenty of black ‘n’ roll segments thrown in, plenty of rock tempos and rhythms, and plenty of nods to classic heavy metal guitar leads over what is essentially off-the-shelf black metal. But with the subtle use of some sustained and augmented chords he manages to put these risky influences to the service of an incredibly unified work.
Lamentation and finality is written throughout the album. Repeated yet tasteful use of Spanish guitars further build on this passionate yet melancholic work. So delicate is this balance that I cannot help but wonder if Wagner knows exactly what he’s doing all the time. ‘Era of Threnody’ sounds like the result of commissioning a classic rock band to make a black metal album that explores themes of loss and sorrow. Aside from the occasional blast-beat and tremolo picking the building blocks are that of rock music. But they are tied together by an incredibly well-disciplined concept that runs though the entire structure, down to the very chord progressions themselves.
Add to that a competent mastery of crescendo and dynamics that doesn’t get boring throughout the hour plus runtime, and you have the makings of a real curiosity: an album that does everything wrong concerning the conventions of good taste, but nevertheless succeeds as an ambitious piece of accessible metal. This album demonstrates that rule breaking is not as simple as chucking black metal together with samba and calling it experimental, or just giving up on intellect all together to make drone music. Or (going back to my cathedral analogy) making a pile of rubble to ‘subvert’ the rules of architecture. No, in order to break the rules one must first have mastered them.
In terms of my actual pick for the week, I have to side with ‘Exuvia’, for the simple and subjective fact that I am never bored when listening to it, unlike ‘Era of Threnody’, which overplays the black ‘n’ roll card in places, and could have done with some modest trimming in length. ‘Exuvia’ is a masterclass in executing an idea. It is stylised and ambitious, and every one of the many elements put to work are dropped into the mix perfectly. ‘Era of Threnody’ may not be quite such a big budget crowd pleaser, but it is nevertheless a polished release with much intrigue to offer. I would hardly say that either of these albums are the best of the decade, or even the latter half of the decade, but they are both masterclasses in executing an idea that incorporates some genuinely novel elements without shoving them down the listeners throat. To those tempted by the Deafheavens or the Sunn 0)))s of the world, this is what real modern metal could actually be if we aimed to build sonic cathedrals that will last, and not a sloppy mess of high concept rubble.