Ancient Gate: Empire Beyond Dusk (2020)
In marrying the sparse minimalism of early symphonic black metal with a Greek sense of melody, Argentina’s Ancient Gate have crafted a sorrowful yet hopeful epic in the form of their latest release: ‘Empire Beyond Dusk’. The mix is fairly standard for the mid-90s black metal that this album is heavily referential of, with enough clarity to bring forth the subtlety of the interchanging guitar lines, and the occasional synths that bolster up the chord progressions throughout. Drums are raw and organic both in sound and execution. They have an energy that is focused on celebrating the guitars in the latter’s flowing narratives and soaring tremolo chord sequences; this is done either through mid-paced blast-beats or subtle double bass that works in unison with the music, as opposed to the conflict commonly found in other forms of extreme metal. Vocals are a harsh yet distant presence in the mix, guiding us through the graceful, nourishing atmospheres created by the interplay of guitars and keyboards.
And seeing as we’ve mentioned atmosphere, we may as well talk of this first in the context of ‘Empire Beyond Dusk’, before we address its other key attribute, namely a refined and longform sense of melodic progression. The key thing to note here is that while this is a deeply atmospheric work, this is intentionally kept to broad brushstrokes, without adopting an overtly specific aesthetic framework. Keeping the canvas relatively plain in this regard affords Ancient Gate more scope for thematic and emotional expression. Atop this tabula rasa is stamped a diverse exploration of the melodic end of metal riff traditions, of stories both broad and unified in their intent. The music is not shackled by any obvious commitment to a one-dimensional aesthetic or overly specific tradition within black metal beyond a broadly melodic, mournful approach to the sonic textures.
Let’s move on to the musical architecture that is stamped onto this fertile soil: the longform melodic progression itself. This is achieved by stretching out the elegantly layered melodies in a distinctively European tradition by contrasting them with Burzum style minimalism. In offsetting this parsimony with lavish Hellenic sensibilities, ‘Empire Beyond Dusk’ displaces our sense of the passage of time, as we found ourselves sucked into the epic, heroic world this album inhabits. Simple, fragile chord sequences often form the core of each track, onto which are stamped harmonies moving in contrasting cyclical loops to the rhythm guitars. This leaves the keyboards free to accent different harmonic features of each piece depending on the overall mood required. These will then give way to contrasting passages of speed or urgency, before a more unified finale coalesces together with a view to conclusion. Although there is much diversity in the approach to each riff and its contribution to the development of each track, the work is compellingly unified because every element is broadly subtle, fragile, and undeniably melancholy.
This is graceful and subtle black metal that taps into the otherworldly sense of the epic that seems to exist outside of our pedestrian understanding of time and place. For that reason it exhibits qualities common to many albums that have stood the test of time in its ability to offer new corridors of artistic intrigue on repeated listens. There are many meanderings and undiscovered pathways on the journey that ‘Empire Beyond Dusk’ takes us on. Owing to many of the features of the techniques deployed by Ancient Gate outlined above, the journey is one of meditation and self-reflection as opposed to euphoria or revelry. A triumph of restraint as much as creative will.
Prosanctus Inferi : Hypnotic Blood Art (2020)
The latest LP from Prosanctus Inferi, ‘Hypnotic Blood Art’, taps into what is perhaps the purest form of American black metal: broadly atonal, with a pronounced reliance on tritones. This is also deeply rooted in the aggressive yet euphoric energy of early hardcore punk, understood via the status quo set by thrash metal in the 1980s that came to dominate metal’s translations of punk. However, ‘Hypnotic Blood Art’ shuns much of the rhythmic playfulness of percussive death metal in favour of more streamlined drum patterns, defined by pronounced tempo changes and fills that rigidly stick to the framework set by the guitars. This, combined with the ‘evil punk’ riffs, grant this music new levels of sophistication once it is combined with metal’s penchant for dark romanticism. This puts it in line with Demoncy amongst others.
Exceptions and outliers aside, this is one form of USBM that has proved consistently fruitful and also largely unique to the USA. In combining the amorality of primitive thrash and punk with simple minor scale runs, informed by horror film scores, it creates dark and intense atmospheres, rooted more in occultism and ritual than a sense of the epic or reverence for nature. The vocals are ghoulish and covered in reverb, designed to be more malevolent than aggressive or passionate. Humanity succumbs to the animalistic in emphasising the primal, not anti-rational but pre-rational. We commune with a fundamental way of being lurking beneath the intellect, not pre-occupied with meaningless binaries of aggression or meekness. The repetitive, intellect-supressing nature of this style has led some to call it ‘ritual black metal’, which finds its European mirror image in the likes of Beherit. However, Prosantus Inferi offer a superficially more complex framework to hang their cyclical black metal on. In taking longer to resolve each segment, usually made up of a collection of simpler riffs, they gradually build into meta-repetitions defined more by the interplay between segments than a literal, repeated riff.
This tendency is further enhanced by the singular nature of the guitar. With bass all but inaudible, and any lead guitars only occasionally jumping out to offer structureless lead work, the main through line of this album is a focused, determined guitar line allied with busy yet equally focused drums. This gives the album a sense of single-minded purpose that – while not literally rooted in the philosophy of repetition – puts it in the same school as others that trade on a similar, aggressively meditative quality. What they lose in atmosphere they make up for in complexity of riffing when compared to others in this field. The architecture of the riffs may pull us out of the more ethereal realm that the likes of Demoncy operate on, but Prosanctus Inferi’s willingness and ability to suggest new directions for this distinctively American style of black metal is commendable regardless.
Siege Column: Darkside Legions (2020)
First a caveat: for all its overt primitivism, the latest LP from New Jersey’s Siege Column is a surprisingly diverse beast…but one that apparently doesn’t want to be. ‘Darkside Legions’ is an album that goes hard on the old school blackened thrash aesthetic. The production is lo-fi even by the standards of this crowded revival. As the tracks unfold there appears to be a conflict at the core of the album, at the level of delivery. The mix and the performances are clearly crafted to tick those down and dirty old school boxes, but Siege Column cannot resist working some additional sophistication and nuanced musicality into the mix. The problem being that the overwhelming intentionality behind the aesthetics supresses these more interesting elements. The result is an album with potential and substance that seems to actively work against these merits in shooting for a stylised product designed to fit in with what is by now a very tired trend.
With that out of the way we can get to praising this album. As mentioned, this is not your average deliberately sloppy old school revival. It’s somewhere between NME and early Greek black metal in its marriage of primal noise and melodic progression. The mix is barely demo quality. During the faster passages it can be a challenge keeping up with the chord progressions. Vocals are guttural death metal noise; whose sole purpose is to accent this album’s filthier qualities. But for all the thrashing cacophonies on offer here, Siege Column seem intent on disciplining these into a much more refined beast than the presentation would have you believe. The first clues can be found in their ability to work the atonal punk segments into more sophisticated death metal, that fully utilises a dual guitar attack, not just in terms of solos but also the very construction of the slower riffs.
There are elements of ‘Realm of Chaos’ era Bolt Thrower in the screaming guitars atop ultra-primitive tremolo riffs, commented on by stretches of simple d-beat punk. Amoral and chaotic to a turn. But as the album progresses, so too does their sense of melody, with minor arpeggios and relatively longform narratives occupying more of the airtime. Such things wouldn’t normally be all that remarkable were it not for the fact that the album seems to be almost ashamed of these more sophisticated elements. ‘Darkside Legions’ comes across as attempting a form of minimalism in brutality and simplicity of execution. But by the time the penultimate track ‘Omen Winds’ comes around we have old school death metal with a refined sense of the epic in the form of Bolt Thrower as mentioned, or even Massacra in places. It seems that Siege Column – to their credit – got bored with the pursuit of an overt aesthetic and instead opted for a sophisticated and broad tour of old school death metal riffage buried beneath a raw, primitive blackened thrash aesthetic. This makes for an undeniably fun album for fans of the spirit of the old school beyond the surface level aesthetics. For this reason, ‘Darkside Legions’ is surprisingly re-listenable.