I like the beats and I like the yelling: Sombre Heritage, Gutvoid, Voodus

Sombre Heritage: Alpha Ursae Minoris (2020)

Sombre Heritage’s debut LP ‘Alpha Usae Minoris’ ain’t fucking around. It’s a refreshing punch of diverse, energetic black metal that packs a lot into its relatively short runtime. The mix is not unlike post ‘Blizzard Beasts’ Immortal; thick strong drums, a meaty guitar tone, plenty of echo on the vocals, but all with enough harshness to give it that all important northern chill. And this works perfectly for the colour of black metal that Sombre Heritage are offering up here. Melodic and riff heavy, but not overly frantic in the vein of Cirith Gorgor or Abigor. The emphasis is still on mood and mystical reverence as opposed to out and out aggression and militancy.

This also reminds of me A Transylvanian Funeral’s ‘The Outsider’ for black metal that oozes atmosphere, but primarily gets its kicks out of dark, fast, highly melodic riffs strung together at an exhilarating pace (excuse the terribly British wording), but not so fast as to become overwhelming; as is often the case with riff heavy laden takes on the form. When Sombre Heritage do slow the pace they are self-aware enough to layer up the guitars and build in plenty of key changes to keep up the sense of drama, losing no momentum in the process. No moment is wasted, and the listener is never given the chance to disengage.

Vocals are fairly standard for black metal, but what they lack in character they make up for in the self-assured delivery, the drama, the commitment to the moment. This is further complimented by minimal use of keyboards that follow the backbone of the guitars, adding simple string harmonies in places, bolstering up the texture and adding to the overall size and scope of the album. Drums are again similar to Immortal circa ‘At the Heart of Winter’ in that they offer a tight, aggressive wash of blast-beats and frantic fills to truly unlock the chaotic tendencies within the music; but they are also a work of restraint, in that they are still playing a very much supportive role, still an essential one mind, a role that makes up the essence of the music, but they never overstep their mark and detract from the grander, epic story being told on ‘Alpha Urae Minoris’.

Beyond that, this is an efficient work of unity and contrast. A clear vision of epic, atmospheric black metal primarily told through complex riffcraft, fully utilising the percussive qualities within black metal, as much as the melodic and aesthetic, to achieve this aim. The unity comes at both the atomic level of one riff leading into the next, and at the level of tracks perfectly complimenting each other in there playing order. The contrast comes from a grasp of melodic progression, and an ability to work in a thematic unity to the album that is carried forth from start to finish. ‘Alpha Urae Minoris’ manages to breath new life into trends prevalent within black metal some twenty years ago, but lacked the shelf-life back then when compared to other styles, largely due to its walking that middle ground. Black metal as a riff-based form of music was quickly absorbed into more militant forms, or an endless stream of blackened thrash. The atmospheric leanings of this style were re-integrated into more generic traditions. Sombre Heritage find that fine balance between the two, and manage to offset both requirements against each other, resulting in a finished work that transcends the merits of its influences. An accomplished album and an impressive debut.

Gutvoid: Astral Bestiary (2019)

Despite the off-putting groove metal opening gambit of Gutvoids debut EP, ‘Astral Bestiary’ quickly redeems itself as a Demilichian tentacled horror gradually unfolds before our ears. Despite hailing from Toronto, these boys definitely follow in the Finnish traditions of Demigod, Adramelech, and of Demilich. It oozes the oppressive atmospheres of the darker takes on modern death metal a-la caverncore, but these are disciplined into a mature and patient layering of atypical riffs, contrasted with some references to post hardcore in the laboured builds via repeated refrains.

Vocals are guttural and distant and covered in reverb in the style of Grave Miasma and Blood Incantation amongst others. I remain ambivalent to this trend as I’m not sure if it really adds anything of value. Of course a little reverb can go a long way, but using it to create space and depth is too often used to compensate for lack of these things in the music itself. However, Gutvoid suffer from no such shortcomings as their multifaceted death metal patiently reveals its secrets on ‘Astral Bestiary’.

At times there is a marked flirtation with keys not often seen in death metal of this style, and this fits well with the Lovecraftian ambitions of this music. The blending of subtle major inflections here and there with the usual dissonance or atonality at play, places this music more in line with modern horror film scores. Messing around with key in this way is the sonic equivalent of horror films blending imagery of innocence and safety with that of monstrosity, and allowing the juxtaposition of the two to perform the psychological labour of disturbing our fragile minds. Gutvoid are not unique in this sense, but here we see it exemplified, especially on the track ‘Entranced by the Frozen Dawn’. Drums do a good job of framing the music with technical flare that will occasionally make its presence known to the listener, but otherwise following the guitars to build a fluid and organic quality to these flowing tracks.

It may be typifying a very popular style of chasmic, atmospheric death metal that trades in more contemporary sci-fi and horror themes, but there is more going on in Gutvoid’s approach to this style than many. There’s no doubt they spent a lot of time crafting the desired atmosphere, but they have avoided the now common mistake in this style of using this to compensate for a lack of message or purpose.

Voodus: Open the Otherness (2020)

The latest EP from Sweden’s Voodus – entitled ‘Open the Otherness’ – is a pleasingly unpretentious wash of melodic black metal. It’s made up of two lengthy tracks that function as short stories made up of chapters, with each one following logically from the last, but unpacking a contrasting mood or theme from that which came before. Whilst this is broadly black metal in style and intent, they borrow heavily from doom metal, with no small nod towards gothic melodicism to break up the faster, more intense passages.

This is also found in their approach to guitar leads, which trade more in the elegant, soaring harmonies that make up the melodic traditions of metal as opposed to the frantic fretboard assaults of extreme metal. There is a central thematic core to each track that is unpacked over several different iterations and styles, usually linked together by connecting riffs and refrains that ease us through each transition. It’s refreshing to see these longer tracks actually justifying their length with some musical architecture at work in the background.

Having said all that, Voodus come across as too eager to please on ‘Open the Otherness’. By that I mean that whilst the overall sound is open, unassuming, easy to engage with, for that reason it takes few risks, offers few surprises, and too often indulges in a thoroughly pedestrian approach to cadence. To put it another way, the construction of this album is impeccable, but the raw materials they are constructing with – while note entirely terrible – are bland and uncontroversial. It is pleasing and easy to listen to precisely because it offers few surprises. From the guitar solos that fall into classic rock clichés, to the flat post rock clean sections, to the generic epic doom metal flourishes, the brain rewards each and every prediction it makes as to when the next resolution will fall. All of which makes for an album that’s the sonic equivalent of ice cream, we think we want it and it tastes good, but it’s unhealthy, comforting, predictable, it doesn’t challenge the pallet.

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