Paysage d’Hiver: Im Wald (2020)
After a lengthy silence, bar a couple of split EPs, pillars of raw European black metal Paysage d’Hiver return with ‘Im Wald’, which sees this artist graduate beyond the realms of obscure, half-finished demos into the world of full-length albums, with all the production values that entails. Emphasis on ‘length’ here however, as this piece is a weighty two hours long. That being said, the length – as with so many aspects of ‘Im Wald’ – is par for the course when it comes to this notorious Swiss outfit. The only real break with the past that’s worth taking note of is one of presentation and scope rather than philosophy.
What was always noteworthy about Paysage d’Hiver was the fact that it took the definition of the word ‘ambient’ to heart when applied to black metal. Their recorded works were ambient in philosophy as well as the lavishly cold atmospheres and minimalism. The fidelity to pure black metal came to typify their obscure sound. But more importantly, it was the way this ungainly, sodden guitar tone was utilised to unfold elongated chord sequences, the progression of which was always challenging to precisely follow beneath the murk. The same could be said of the drums, which were more of a presence than even the merest suggestion of percussion. Vocals and minimal keyboards were vehicles functioning on a binary metric of adding and removing texture. Upon this foundation, sharply defined and constricted by its own aesthetic limitations, the music would progress in simple, logical steps. There may have only been a couple of tricks at Paysage d’Hiver’s disposal, with little development from the initial idea over the course of each demo, but each one is a finely crafted artefact in itself, always rewarding upon a revisit.
And so we come to ‘Im Wald’, which deviates little from this tried and tested formula. The production may have been cleaned up a little, the instrumentation is sharper and proves of little detriment to the overall work. This still oozes atmosphere from every crack. Wintherr is still able to drag his simple chord sequences out beyond the dictates of good taste with mileage to spare, the drums have been promoted from simple makers of noise to an actual metronome. The distinction between the keyboards and the guitars is easier to discern. The structure is also a little better defined; with clear transitions from one segment to the next, signalled by interludes of melody and the all-important wind samples. There’s even some trademark calming violin sounds to add a layer of harmonic complexity here and there. Each movement transitions logically from the next, offering the right balances of contrast and continuity through expert manipulation of tempo and key.
So far, so typical, not so much a radical new look as it is an attempt to repair any shortcomings of the past. But of course, some would say these very shortcomings were anything but, and were integral to our understanding of this sound as a statement of aesthetics defining the structure. A project that used these rigid musical limitations to define the direction and breadth of the music itself. An approach arguably just as legitimate as composing first, applying effects and adornments second. And yet…and yet, like Disney’s Star Wars, we are still left wondering why it exists. There is the temptation to call this fan service. It’s all those things you love, but more competently put together, but (in this case at least) in that very competence is the death of the artistry. The view we are afforded by the slicker production into the layers of instrumentation and composition at each stage remove some of the mystery behind the fog of previous releases. The overall result may be technically more competent, but whatever uniqueness we could attribute to this artist begins to fade as a consequence.
There’s no doubting this is a fine album of atmospheric black metal, and a cut above so many additions at this end of the genre for sure. But there is nothing here one cannot find on their back catalogue which fundamentally offers a more unique and enchanting environment.
‘Postnihilera’ – the latest LP from the free-spirited Slovakian black metal outfit known as Porenut – is an interesting mix of humour, misdirection, traditional black metal, and jaunty folk music. The end result however, is not nearly as clusterfucky as that description implies. The main body of this work is energetic and traditional black metal driven more by riffs than overwhelming atmospheres, something along the lines of Ungod amongst others. The production is raw but crisp, like stepping out into a cold frosty morning. This relatively straightforward approach is elevated by Porenut’s imaginative approach to melody; even the more generic black metal tracks find themselves progressing toward a goal of sorts, with some unexpected finale or progression, usually defined by what can only be described as ‘whimsical riffing’.
But now we come to the more obvious quirks of ‘Postnihilera’, the Slavic folk influences. Porenut have shunned an epic, Nokturnal Mortum approach to integrating folk music into black metal and instead opted for what sounds like Gypsy influences. This adds an element of swing and humour to the music that surprisingly works alongside the raw black metal. The reason for this is the fact that the black metal elements are modest yet competent; they are not stuffed with an overabundance of ideas or aspiring to be epic battle hymns. This is bouncy but not obnoxious black metal that one could imagine playing during a night of heavy outdoor drinking in the summer, with all the revelry, dance, and argument that that entails.
Even during the black metal sections this bouncy attitude is retained; via the bass for instance, that works through playful loops under the tremolo picked guitar, or occasionally when the riffs completely devolve into folk jams backed up by pounding, jaunty drums. The vocals too, whilst typical of black metal will often devolve into passionate crooning, following the same melodies as the instrumentation. The difference here of course is how well all the elements are integrated together. The genre hopping can at times be a little disorientating, but for the most part Porenut do a good job of remaining focused on their craft, and never wander too far between one style and the next that would ultimately destroy the flow of the album.
That being said, these intriguing twists not often seen in such an otherwise straight-edged black metal album tend to impact the sound in unusual and unexpected ways. Almost to the point where we suddenly realise we are not listening to black metal anymore, but Slavic folk music played on raw, distorted guitars and punky drums. Whilst this is not a detriment in itself, it will really depend on the listener’s attitude towards this music whether they would find it appealing or not. Structurally it remains broadly speaking a metal album, but stylistically we are well outside our usual remit here.
Scolopendra: Those of the Catacombs (2020)
Injecting some sloppy primitivism back into death metal, Scolopendra seem to draw their character from an effort of sheer will as opposed to any notable technical talent. Far more sophisticated musical minds than this have created albums vapid and hollow compared to ‘Those of the Catacombs’. Aesthetically they are a spaghetti junction of clichés, but as if determined to prove that enthusiasm can in fact be an effective substitute for lack of talent, these tracks perfectly invoke the haphazard, dirty, DIY world they draw inspiration from. For the most part this is old school worship with an overtly evil aesthetic, drawing obvious inspiration from horror films and the like, with vocals more ghoulish than they are aggressive; thrash riffs blended through tritones and no small amount of breakdowns verging on Autopsy style doom. Drums are a simple yet creative metronome, defined more by simple, repeated sequences than any flashy fills or overly complex rhythmic play. But they serve their purpose of propping up the ultra-primitive ‘evil’ thrash metal core to this album, providing it with a near relentless swagger.
That being said, this album was serviced by two drummers, one for the first half and another for the final four tracks, and there is a noticeable adrenaline boost after the changing of the guard, as the rhythms become more sure of themselves, the kick-drums gain more presence, and the guitars, apparently egged on by this more sturdy footing become meatier and more dynamic as a result. We’re still a long way off Mike Smith levels rhythmic acrobatics, but the album is noticeably jacked by the second half.
Eerie keyboards crop up frequently, furthering the cheesy (but not overtly so) ‘house of horrors’ vibe to the whole affair. The guitar tone is suitably filthy, and lends itself to these highly basic but well crafted riffs, which are so minimal and persistent it almost feels like a Profanatica album. And indeed, this album could be said to have more in common with early black metal along the lines of Root, Master’s Hammer, and Beherit than typical death metal. The reason for this is because although by nature it is a highly primitive death metal album, the overbearing atmosphere and single-mindedness of ‘Those of the Catacombs’ embodies the streamlined philosophy of black metal more than it does the frantic and schizophrenic nature of death metal riffcraft.
For this reason, ‘Those of the Catacombs’ has more going for it than more polished but characterless death metal releases for the passion that has gone into their craft. As if aware of their limitations as musicians, Scolopendra have adopted the black metal philosophy of honing a specific mood and theme over the course of an album, and used what means they have at their disposal to communicate this. By that metric this album is a resounding success, and despite the hammy aesthetic and themes any seasoned death metal fan would roll their eyes at, there are little unique flourishes and pockets of unexpected joy for any fan of the dirgey, dirtier end of the scale.