Some call it war metal, but it’s really just a particularly aggressive strain of black metal that looks to speed and intensity before atmosphere. I guess its origins lie in the likes of Blasphemy, who fused the back-to-basics punk of early black metal with grindcore. But a particularly militaristic strain evolved with the likes of Marduk, Zyklon-B, and I guess you could lump Impaled Nazarene in there as well. It gets a bad rep for two main reasons.
One is the limitations of the style, relying as it does on sheer, one dimensional intensity with no let up, creatively it ran barren pretty much right away. Secondly, because the chaos and mechanistic nature of the music draws artists towards subjects of modern warfare in the lyrics, the charge of Nazism is often levelled at many of the musicians. This means that artists who choose to tackle the events of World War II in their subject matter often appropriate a questionable aesthetic which – either knowingly or in ignorance – courts controversy. Or else people exploit this as the ultimate ‘gotcha’ moment for those wishing to discredit black metal. Beyond the noise however, let’s take a look at the actual noise, and take two artists that did manage to move this music forward, and because they both released new albums this year, I thought this would be a good place to start.
Cirith Gorgor, although lyrically more philosophical than straight up war metal, have never tired of their own brand of energetic, restless black metal. 2019’s ‘Sovereign’ sees them adopt more of a heroic and defiant sound through their riffs than the rather dissonant ‘Visions of Exalted Lucifer’ released in 2016. Of course there’s the obligatory ‘evil’ aesthetic running through the backbone of ‘Sovereign’, but it is worked into a sense of triumphalism that augments what would otherwise by a rather intense and monotonous shower of blastbeats.
So, before we move on to what on earth I mean by ‘triumphalism’, a couple of words on production. I would say this is the most filled out sound achieved by Cirith Gorgor to date. The drums are crystal clear, with the bass perfectly audible but not overbearing, which is impressive given the fact that they rarely let up from blast beats or intensely busy fills. Guitars again are pretty much industry standard for this particularly modern incarnation of black metal; polished and crisp, but heavy enough to leave a mark. They predominantly work their way through minor keys underpinned by plenty of tremolo’d barrages of noise.
The result – to some extent – is the post 2000 Gorgoroth that could have been. In essence there was nothing wrong with the gradual shifts in sound that they took to end up with ‘Twilight of Idols’, although it was a damn shame to lose the esoteric chaos that was an Infernus led jam of insanity a-la ‘Maneskyggens Slave’. No, it was the sheer lack of energy and imagination baked within music that purported to get by on aggression and ‘evil’ alone, with some over the top Satanic imagery worked throughout. Cirith Gorgor, newly modernised on ‘Sovereign’, demonstrate the true potential of this style.
The triumphalism is a subtle undercurrent worked throughout certain chord progressions, from major to minor, dissonance to atonal. They revel in the power of the music, and rather than crushing the listener, they wish you to revel in it too. This is furthered by the vocals which – when not a standard rasp – devolve into a clean shout, reminiscent of the noise of battle. This creates much needed space between the barrage of blast beats and riffs to allow the music space to breathe, and grants us a moment to digest the content, before moving on.
Sammath should be a pinnacle of European black metal, and to some extent they are, but not enough people know about them in my opinion. Their debut LP ‘Strijd’ 1999 was a curious take on straightforward, fast paced black metal that had a intriguing sense of melody worked throughout the wash of tremolo picking. Gradually with each release they have adopted a more modern aesthetic, accentuating the aggression, the speed, the intensity, over a sense of melody. I think the watershed moment in this trajectory was 2014’s ‘Godless Arrogance’ which both in cover art and the sound fully married itself to the adrenaline and horror of war.
Which brings us to 2019’s ‘Across the Rhine is Only Death’. Now, I don’t want to be the one to say they have overplayed their hand, but they have overplayed their hand. ATRIOD is both a masterclass in the mechanics of applying grindcore and punk to the more sophisticated narrative structures of black metal, and also a case study in why this music is in essence so limiting. Sammath have throne the kitchen sink at this album. It never lets up in intensity, but the rhythmic diversity and the dynamism of the riffs are something to behold, reaching levels of fluidity and unity that Marduk could only dream of.
But the finished product washes over me in a sea of indifference. This has nothing to do with monotony. There are many albums I enjoy that keep up a level of intensity throughout that I consider masterpieces. The answer is not as simple as saying ‘they need to do some quiet bits, some slow bits’. No, that’s both lazy and untrue. The problem is found within the mechanics of the riffs themselves, down to the very chords even. I can hear each riff as it blasts past, and I can hear the intricacy of the drums as they fill out the spaces between, and much of this interplay actually makes for a very impressive listen. As the drama builds and folds between industrial paced barrages – further accented by the somewhat synthetic production – and the full on black metal-cum-grindcore.
But it takes an unusual amount of concentration to remain engaged. I don’t think this has anything to do with density or complexity in the same way that would apply to an ‘Obscura’ say. No, I think this is to do with lack of variation in tone and key. It feels like particularly hard industrial music because for all intents and purposes it is. The appeal comes from a similar place, interplay of rhythm, overly distorted vocals, a wash of static. Although on ATRIOD it’s not static, but an endless barrage of complex riffs played more or less in the vein.
To some extent this analysis may be unfair. I am holding Sammath to a higher standard. From lesser minds this album would be a triumph of a very specific and very bespoke form of extreme black metal. And taken on its own merits this is a success. But I think I’ve heard this album just one too many times over the years from Antaeus to Marduk to Diocletian. I appreciate the gesture and the music pleases me. But I feel that Sammath at this stage in their career need to be doing more with it. Unless of course we just throw in the towel and paint a Motorohead shaped cross on their door. Here be predictability or reliability depending on your constitution.
So, for sheer, unadulterated enjoyment I am siding with Cirith Gorgor this week. There is simply more for one to sink their teeth into when it comes to narrative through riffcraft, but also at a basic level of entertainment. I don’t rate this style of black metal as much as others, precisely because of these self-imposed limitations. But I remain impressed by anyone that can find ways to innovate within these limited spaces dotted around the world of modern music. And whilst Sammath may be a prime example of this, they have not pulled it off this time around, preferring to play it safe. Cirith Gorgor may have diluted this warlike style resulting in something more entry level, but accessibility is not a kiss of death in its own right. It’s a well-made slab of fast and hard melodic black metal for all the family.