I like the beats and I like the yelling: Polemicist, Oci Vlka, Asgrauw

Polemicist: Zarathustrian Impressions (2019)

After Satan and Lovecraft, and of course Tolkien, my boy Nietzsche is probably the most influential figure at work in that complex and ill-defined milieu that is the Philosophy of Metal. But as with any theme frequently delved into by the multitude, there is a stark contrast between surface level and nuanced treatments. Satan is more than just a bogeyman used to verify evil credentials. He becomes a metaphor used to smuggle complex and powerful messages of free thought within the simplicity of his recognisable symbology. Just as Tolkien’s mythology is full of rich and layered reverence for the natural world and strife in the face of apparent futility, all beneath the boner-inducing world of dragons and battles and orcs. Thus we come to Nietzsche, perhaps the most complex and misunderstood of these intellectually weighty prophets of metal; metal being that subculture with an eye to the past whilst striving for the long view of the future.

This complexity is inevitable given the dense and metaphor heavy style of Nietzsche’s writing, before we even consider modern scholars and contemporary readings, all vying to discredit one another’s interpretation. Outside of academic circle jerks however, distilling Nietzsche’s multifaceted and contradictory philosophy becomes even more dicey, especially in the abstract setting of music, and even more so in the heady, exhilarating environment of extreme metal. If we take a broad view, and look at the obvious connections between metal and Nietzsche; namely the will to power, the superman, the polemics against intellectual orthodoxy and of course Christianity, then it’s a boot that snugly fits even for those artists that don’t specifically reference Nietzsche at all. We could go even broader and say that the apocalyptic hyperbole of Nietzsche’s style of prose, his passionate writings that treat the death of god as heralding an age of untold upheaval for humanity; these themes are ideally suited to the metal format. The extremity, the drama, the urgency and the sense of purpose so resolute as to seem insane to the pedestrian masses.

The point being that it was not just what Nietzsche said, but how he said it that resonates with a modern movement such as metal. The style, adorned with humour, aggression, self-contradiction, panic and poetry, all is laden with significance as much as the words themselves. This description could just as well apply to metal; namely in this instance an American black metal outfit called Polemicist, and their debut album ‘Zarathustrian Impressions’ (2019). The book ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’ is something of a dark horse in Nietzsche’s own writings as well as 19th Century philosophy as a whole, set out as it is in the form of a story, a series of allegories to distil various aspects of Nietzsche’s thought. So it was with the book, as it is with Polemicist’s debut album which draws directly from this book of obscure language and idiosyncratic thought patterns to craft an album of sophisticated melodic black metal; as opposed to other metal artists thus far who have borrowed one or two superficially cool sounding concepts from Nietzsche’s philosophy (the will to power, Beyond Good and Evil, philosophising with a hammer).

Existing somewhere between the early melodic offerings of Abigor and the esoteric riffing of early Sorcier des Glaces, ‘Zarathustrian Impressions’ bears its architecture for all to see. The guitar tracks are thin and crisp, allowing us to witness the elegant layering of the amoral rhythm guitars alongside the soaring tremolo leads; remaining true to their playfully chromatic nature, never falling too far into the major or minor, and thus sustaining this album’s morally ambiguous essence. Out of chord progressions that are not so much complex as they are hard to predict, emerges tension seldom relieved, only to invoke the promise of new musical terrain upon their eventual resolution. Because this is a manipulation of rhythm as much as key, the drums are tasked with bouncing between an array of different patterns in short sequences. Much like the guitars, they are defined not so much by their complexity but by the relationship between each passage; the artistry emerges in Polemicist’s manipulation of the spaces between the music more than a single riff or segment.

Vocals are a standard mid-pitched black metal style, adding drama and space to this tightly packed music. The lyrics are made up of neatly paced poems based on the album’s subject matter. They are not overly wordy, balancing the competing demands of treating the themes with the intellectual rigour they demand without stuffing each track with overly long epics that would force the vocals into clumsy rhythmic patterns and phrasing. Avoiding this pitfall, they leave the efficiency of the music unobstructed. Despite the frantic nature of ‘Zarathustrian Impressions’, there is a calm found in Polemicist’s approach to narrative. The empty space in the mid-range of the mix allows us a full and clear view of their riffcraft, how each guitar line is weaved together to complement or contrast with those that surround it. Much like Mefitis’ ‘Emberdawn’, one could lift out any one instrument and play it in isolation and be treated to a unique piece of music in its own rite; only to place it back into the final structure and witness its place in – and contribution to – the whole.

This contrast between the frantic and the contemplative, the temporary and the eternal, the intellectual and the hysterical; all illustrate Polemicist’s ability to communicate their message through a finely crafted balance of intellect and will, of Apollo and Dionysus. But more importantly, they do this by showing not telling. Music may be the most intangible and abstract art-form, but the themes and ideas on this album emerge regardless. They have not attempted to convey an overly complex and academic philosophical message through a medium that is ill-suited to the task, nor have they diluted this muscular and weighty melodic metal with lengthy spoken word passages and grandiose interludes. There is only the transcendent beauty found within the architecture and interaction of the riffs, and the undeniable artistry found therein.

Oci Vlka: Demo (2020)

The debut release from this spanking new Czech outfit behaves like a product of the Icelandic school without the excessive dissonance. Combining elements of mid-paced death metal with melodic black metal lends it a doomy quality within a broadly black metal framework similar to Beithioch. By working techniques typical to black metal through meaty guitar tones, death metal vocal styles, and chasmic atmospheres they are able to straddle these genres without detracting from an otherwise unified work.

The mix however, may not be entirely up the task of capturing the cavernous atmospheres that Oci Vlka are clearly attempting to invoke. The drums are strong both in terms of the performance and sound quality, but they are somewhat buried beneath the guitars. The cymbals are lost in the fray of distortion, as we are battered from all sides by the wall of riffs that make up the bulk of this demo. Whilst not a complete detriment – the guitars after all are where the action is – it means this release lacks some of the variation and tension of the more atmospheric entries in this style.

With that in mind, this is a full-on half an hour of overbearing riffs, pounding double bass, and harsh death/doom stylings. There is enough clarity to follow the through-line of the riffs as they pound away at their craft, but the underlying static to the mix means that the slower brooding passages lose some of their flare. But ultimately, this is a minor niggle when one considers the fact that this is primarily riff-driven metal. Any atmospheres that supervene on this framework are an incidental bonus.

Oci Vlka do a good job of contrasting chaos with permanence, of drawing together the harsh death metal elements of their sound into something more meditative and repetitive by the end of the demo. That being said it’s not wildly outside the bounds of anything we have not heard from Carpe Noctem, Beithioch, or Svartidaudi. Oci Vlka go more for the fatter end of this style, emphasising the atmospheric death/doom elements to their sound with an underlying black metal philosophy no doubt. But as things stand they are yet to define their own character and contribution to a style that has been gaining a lot of traction in recent years.

Asgrauw: IJsval (2020)

The fourth full length offering from these Dutch black metallers is a tight and efficient work of black metal. One that marries the militaristic and sentimental tendencies within an otherwise straightforward skeleton of traditional techniques for the genre. For the most part, Asgrauw stick to fast blast-beats and tremolo picking, letting the phrasing and melodic variation of the riffs do the heavy lifting in unfolding this album’s tale. The riffs range from aggressive power chord progressions and tritone play to more conventional major/minor dichotomies that lend this music a more contemplative, studious edge over an undiluted ear bashing.

This is reflected in the vocals, which range from standard black metal stylings, to passionate screaming, to more aggressive shouting with an undeniably human touch to them. Asgrauw have proved themselves masters of hiding the miniscule units of time they require to transition from these competing moods, giving this album the illusion of scope and duration; an interesting slight of hand born of their attention to detail when it comes to stitching these tracks together. Drums offer a clear and crisp foundation, rarely deviating from blast-beats that are riddled with mini-fills and accents all the same. They do a good job of riding the wave between each phrase and riff, sometimes bringing out the music’s chaotic tendencies, at other times supressing their more free-flowing tendencies so as not to detract from the frequent delicate melodies that crop up throughout ‘IJsval’.

This puts Asgrauw in the position of being something of a bridge between the Netherlands and Sweden. There are elements of Marduk, or even Dissection and Sacramentum within this album that are largely veiled beneath Asgrauw’s overwhelming black metal aesthetic. These fragments are in constant tension and conflict with the undeniably Dutch aspects to their sound, with antecedents in Sammath, Cirith Gorgor, and Unlord. This makes for an intriguing listen that has many curiosities to reveal, but at times they fly by so quickly as the quantity of riffs and ideas flow past at such a pace that one risks missing its hidden complexities if the mind strays for even a moment. That being said ‘IJsval’ does stop to dwell on ideas at key junctures long enough for us to catch our breath.

Despite all this, ‘IJsval’ is a work that exemplifies technique, both in terms of musicianship and composition, to the detriment of a unique or profound statement. It’s like donning your favourite leather jacket. Reliable, durable, one that has seen much of the world and has many yarns to spin, but ultimately a background feature that we end up taking for granted before too long. ‘IJsval’ is a masterwork of technique, the execution of an idea with just enough colour and life to stand above the majority. But it is lacking that indefinable spark that some refer to as spontaneity, inspiration, or vaguely as ‘magic’. Whatever imprecise language we use to fill this void, the tangible result is an album that is overly processed, failing to enrich the soul beyond the pleasure one can gain from watching master craftsmen practice their work.

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