Flagg: Nothing but Death (2020)
Finnish black metal newcomers Flagg released their debut LP this year. ‘Nothing but Death’ sees them try to revitalise the much maligned DSBM school with lightning bolts of energy borrowed from blackened grind and old school thrash. The end result is a shaky and unoriginal debut that yields nuggets of promise regardless. The production is noteworthy for how unnoteworthy it is. It’s raw certainly, but all instruments – including distorted bass guitar which is given an atypical prominence for this genre – are clearly audible. Vocals are generic black metal histrionics which, despite the attempts at displaying a depth and range of emotion, feel like a stand-in for lack of any better ideas on the part of the musicians.
The mocked-up despair of the vocals is then set to riffs that follow the DSBM framework; downbeat, occasionally dissonant, directionless and meandering. The meta-narrative of course being to draw attention to the futilities of existence. The direction of the riffs is futile, just like your life, maybe the real futility is the friends we made along the way. We get it. But to Flagg’s credit, there is more of a through line binding these tracks together than much of the music it warrants comparison to. Thanks in no small part to the balanced understanding Flagg demonstrate towards their influences. The micro-melodies that play out in the atomised chunks of each track, at the level of individual bars, is deliberately circular and ultimately pointless. But they are underpinned by a nuanced understanding of old school black metal in the thrash vein, and this allows for a longform approach to composition at a more fundamental level. The individual leads and melodies that catch the ear from moment to moment are disciplined into something more profound thanks to the rhythmic underpinning that is played out through the drums, but also the chord sequences of the rhythm guitars.
At times this becomes overwhelmingly percussive in nature, to the point where Flagg sound like a neutered Profanatica, one bent on indulging in nihilism over absurdist humour. At a more superficial level, the unbridled energy to the drums, the divergent rhythms and hard-working riffs make for a more entertaining listen than would otherwise have been. Equally, the dissonant, Deathspell Omegary tendencies that are hinted at throughout are tempered somewhat by the order and logic dictated by the thrash undertones of this album. Elements push and pull until a balance of sorts is reached, not a very interesting balance, but not a disastrous one by any measure.
Do you ever listen to a poor to mediocre album and think that you can hear what could have been beneath what you’re actually hearing? The frustration of squandered potential beneath the waste. You can hear each missed opportunity, and feel that with the most minor of tweaking a good to great album could have emerged. ‘Nothing but Death’ is the exact opposite of that. An incredibly tedious album lies just beneath the surface, but enough good choices were made when piecing this music together that a mediocre, just about passable album has emerged from the gloom.
Ossario’s self-titled debut EP is a rudimentary but rewarding march through blackened thrash metal in every sense of the word. The genre has become so saturated in recent years it may be necessary to once again clarify just exactly what this style is. It’s not just a variant of basic thrash metal with a tinny guitar tone with no bottom end. Ossario’s guitar tone on this EP is full bodied and rich for instance. The ‘blackened’ aspect comes at a more fundamental level. Chord progressions and melodies are more in line with the minor key and tritone traditions of black metal, but the rhythms and delivery is that of thrash; staccato strumming, d-beats etc. This imbues the music with a sense of the epic whilst maintaining a degree of aggression and dynamic energy that would not be afforded from pure black metal of a similar vein.
Drums are of course essential in this pursuit, with the production being clear and crisp, giving us full view of their mechanics, as the double bass interacts with colliding fills and solid rhythms that underpin the more elementary thrash riffs that are present. Beyond that is a no thrills mix that brooks no distractions when it comes to layers of atmosphere, laboured keyboards, or peddle board experimentation. The focus is on delivering a broad but competent tour of early black metal at the time of its separation with its thrash and primitive death metal roots. The atmosphere supervenes on this raw foundation through the interaction of atonal thrash riffs and minor chord progressions which are tremolo picked atop mid-paced blast-beats. Energy and violence are contrasted with the more contemplative character of certain passages.
Away from the swaggering exhibitionism of Destroyer 666 or Bonehunter who currently occupy the blackened thrash airwaves, sit bands like Slaughtbbath and now Ossario, as a more considered and well thought out demonstration of this style. There’s no doubt that the ultimate aim is to unleash chaos, but this goal is given more meaning when tempered by the structured and formal tendencies worked into these riffs, allowing for greater impact when they do eventually let loose. This EP may only be a hint of future greatness, remaining as it is a very broad survey of the scene as it stands. Nevertheless, it’s well worth picking up for fans of the style if for no other reason than to hear it executed competently for a change.
Valdrin: Effigy of Nightmares (2020)
Sitting somewhere between the symphonic and atmospheric schools of black metal, Valdrin’s latest LP ‘Effigy of Nightmares’ is a gloomy rainy-day album, infused with no small smattering of melodic goth into the mix. Tempo remains relatively consistent for this style. As a result we are presented with a fairly rigid, trance-like foundation, onto which flowing chord progressions and key changes are the central guide through each track. Lavish keyboards bolster up the sound in places, but guitars remain at the melodic core of ‘Effigy of Nightmares’. The result is a more dynamic and ultimately more interesting version of early Gehenna. The riffs are not afraid to engage in dissonance which only adds another layer of jeopardy to the experience.
Vocals are melodramatic if a little low in the mix, sitting somewhere between harsh spoken word and more typical black metal leanings, not unlike Shagrath before Dimmu Borgir were bought out by Disney. Although there can be no denying that they display more character than the vast majority of music in a similar vein, the real star of this show is the moody yet delicate melodies that drive this album forward through corridors of gloomy – if a little generic – atmospheres. Dynamics are hard to come by save for some interludes and intros here and there, most notably on ‘Serpentine Bloodhalls’ which even features an acoustic guitar. The whole thing is laced in excessive amounts of reverb that would please even the most diehard Midnight Odyssey fan. But ultimately this suppresses the more aggressive tendencies within, and lends a creepy, conceptual unity to the whole thing. The oppressive nature of the music feels distant, cavernous, but not excessively so to the point where it could become a distraction.
As alluded to above, there are many tips of the hat to symphonic black metal of the mid-1990s. But the worst excesses this subgenre would go on to indulge in by the early 2000s are harnessed into a more serious, and ultimately more enduring affair on ‘Effigy of Nightmares’. Beyond the immersive world that this album invites the listener into, the real aspect that warrants mention is how they have tempered what is arguably the most despised offshoot of black metal into something more serious and engaging. There’s nothing amazingly original or innovative to the central compositions that make up this release. Rather, it’s their mastery of a plurality of divergent and often contrasting influences into a subtle and coherent whole that must ultimately be praised. As an aside it’s also worth pointing out how working with the same raw musical material can yield such starkly different results. Shift the elements of this music around in the mixing process slightly, change the phrasing and the odd keyboard tone; and you could end up with an unbearable cheese wagon. It’s one reason why I hold that the symphonic variety remains one of the great tragedies of post 1995 black metal. It arguably had the greatest potential for musical development and evolution, but was side-lined by novelty acts on one side, and supressed by the so called ‘progressive’ interests of many of its originators on the other.