I like the beats and I like the yelling: Black Funeral, Convocation, Blood Stronghold

Black Funeral: Scourge of Lamashtu (2020)

Black Funeral continue their quest to shed their idiosyncratic, atmospheric tendencies for the sake of furthering melodicism within raw black metal with the release of their latest album ‘Scourge of Lamashtu’. There is an undeniable surrealist quality at the heart of this album, which finds expression through the keyboards that shadow the through-line of the guitars, only to engulf the music entirely during the many interludes that crop up between tracks. But the real story of this album is one of Black Funeral losing their identity for the sake of a competent but unoriginal offering of lo-fi black metal.

The production is fairly standard for raw black metal. Enough clarity to the guitars to bring out the dual tracks; one playing simple, cyclical lead melodies and the other mirroring the bass in simple ascending root notes. Drums have that murky, underwater quality to them, with bass and toms becoming buried in the mix entirely for the sake of the more pertinent rhythmic underpinning afforded by the snare and cymbals in this mid-paced blast-beat driven environment. Vocals are surprisingly coherent if unremarkable. Some lyrics are audible above the deluge, and for the most part stick to a standard black metal framework.

But the real takeway from ‘Scourge of Lamashtu’ is the paradox of an artist apparently gaining competence in musicianship, composition, melodic sensibility, and an accessible aesthetic appeal, all whilst shedding any trace of uniqueness. The question marks this artist once posed for a genre struggling to find its way forward have all but disappeared without answer. Taken on its own it’s a pleasing if unoriginal rendering of obscure yet colourful melodic black metal with some interesting quirks more prevalent between the metal tracks themselves rather than anything particularly notable in the riffs. But looked at in the context of Black Funeral’s career, if 2016’s ‘Ankou and the Death Fire’ hinted at a break with the unique past of this artist, then ‘Scourge of Lamashtu’ solidifies this break entirely. The centrepiece of the second half of the album, ‘Gidim Hul (Bloodthirst of the Demonic Dead)’ illustrates why this is a loss and not a gain. What at first glance looks like pathos, a sincere if ham-fisted attempt at sentiment quickly devolves into repetition and tedium as Black Funeral appear unsure of where to take the track beyond repeating the same flat chord sequence and organ harmonies to the point of absurdity.

It’s not the fact that Black Funeral have attempted to imbue their music with more conventional trappings that makes this album fail, it’s the fact that they’re just not very good at it. Whether it’s the addition of new clientele to this project or the fact that it’s simply run out of road (or a bit of both), where it once stood apart as a challenging if incomplete evolution of the black metal form, now it has sunk back into a mediocre melodic rendering of obscure black metal with only the subtlest hint at unique intrigue. Therefore, on balance we have to count this album as an indicator of loss of quality over anything new or interesting that could have been brought to the table.

Convocation: Ashes to Coalesce (2020)

Convocation’s second LP ‘Ashes to Coalesce’ sees them unpack the architecture of death metal riffcraft by slowing it way down, giving us time analyse the layers within each segment and the transitions from one passage to the next. In once sense this is beneficial as we are not always afforded this opportunity in the fast-paced world of death metal. But in another sense it calls into question the durability of an album like ‘Ashes to Coalesce’, as the lack of any depth to the music beyond a slow slog becomes the order of the day by the time the first two track are out of the way. Serviceable layered guitar work is present, along with some soaring keyboard lines and satisfying key changes, but pleasing as these are, they are rendered somewhat hollow by the lack of anything of substance to inform them. For that reason they are largely forgettable, present one moment and gone the next, leaving no lasting impression on the listening beyond a vague sense that they were enjoying the sound.

This is a unique feature and challenge of doom metal. Lack of variation on ‘Ashes to Coalesce’ at the level of tempo, dynamics, timbre, or mood is felt all the more owing to the slower tempos, and the boring as fuck drumming does nothing to improve the situation. Musically, Convocation have far more going for them than others operating in a similar field who actually do deploy more compositional tricks to keep things fresh (Ahab comes to mind). But despite some of the soaring crescendos, the well-constructed key changes, and the highly polished mix that does a fine job of giving the illusion of size, we are still left feeling that this album is somewhat short on ideas.

Vocals for the most part stick to a guttural death growl, but as the album progresses clean vocals become ever more visible. The assessment of clean vocals tends to be a relatively subjective affair; even the most technically precise singer could still have a voice that some find unbearably grating. In this context I am left to conclude that they simply don’t fit. As this album’s melodic sensibilities gradually unfold in the second half of the album, and we are brought past the – at times cliched but nevertheless competent – chasmic despair of the opening two tracks, clean vocals feel entirely appropriate to augment this contrast. However, Marko Neuman’s clean voice is frankly well out of its depth in this highly stylised variant of epic death/doom. If we were enjoying the moment, we are ripped right out of it when he sings, despite the fact that the dude can no doubt hit a note. More layering and reverb is required to make this work as they do at the finale of ‘The Absence of Grief’.

For all this album’s shortcomings, it is nevertheless a cut above some offerings within doom metal that trades on achieving an imposing size and an all-encompassing despair. But when all is said and done it does little to leave a lasting impression that we have not heard many times before from many places. And this point is sadly rendered all the more pertinent owing to the fact that it’s so slow. To some extent I am reminded of Esoteric’s resent offerings, which polished up their production and delivery, and in doing so lost the essence of their highly idiosyncratic doom metal for the sake of a monotonous slog with a new lick of paint slapped on. We don’t feel a mood or atmospheres as good doom metal of this nature should engender in us, instead we just feel the slog.

Blood Stronghold: Spectres of Bloodshed (2020)

Offering a reimaging of the early Graveland format, Blood Stronghold’s latest release ‘Spectres of Bloodshed’ is a mid-paced, bouncy jaunt into black metal that borrows rhythmic cues from Eastern European folk traditions as much as it does the melodic. Combining off-the-shelf black metal riffing with the bounce of Northern European folk music gives this album a sense of the epic that is tempered into accessibility owing to how humble it sounds. The personal finds its calling in something more permanent, the heroic finds its expression through this melding of styles.

Much like early Graveland, the drums sound awful. But they are also the focus of much attention due to a style not often seen within black metal that never ceases to amaze, owing to the fact that it’s highly accessible from a technical standpoint but endlessly intriguing to listen to all the same. Here, the flat drum sound feels conspicuous because it simply does not fit with the rest of the mix – which, for the most part is competently atmospheric – but, far from being a detriment, one cannot help but be carried along by the joyful creativity, opening up the music to the potential of playfulness and revelry in a more genuine and sincere fashion than the depressing carnival that a lot of folk metal turned out to be.

This same celebratory vibe can be found in the guitar work as well. Bouncy folk melodies are broken up by simple black metal passages that may be a little generic at times, but do the job of extending out the narrative of this music, and lending them a sense of complexity and depth beyond mere music to swig ale to. Early Graveland was more focused on malevolence and foreboding, and Darken’s style gradually evolved into epic battle operas of war and glory, with a few detours along the way. However, his sound eventually stagnated after ‘Creed of Iron’ (2000) and rested on the laurels of perfecting that sound. ‘Spectres of Blood’ combine elements of older and newer Graveland to create a work more diverse and alive than a lot of the post 2000 Graveland catalogue, but still managing to channel that sense of epic folk metal, one that is still a little rough around the edges, battle hardened yet sophisticated.

This is not a polished work of casual novelty with pristine production. Nor is it overtly technical, or even that imaginative speaking at the level of presentation. But through a careful layering of simple yet intuitive rhythm guitars, that make good use of the percussive qualities within this instrument, which are in turn used to bolster up rich and fragile melodies that speak to our sense of continuity with history. It also goes to show that with enough imagination, such impressions can shine above what is a relatively flat mix, into music that overcomes its own shortcomings to become something more than the sum of its parts.

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