Whenever I tee-up a pair of post 2000 black metal releases for this feature, I often end up casting classics of the past as mythical tomes of wisdom, and the rare gems of the more recent past as proud bastions against an endless tide of mediocrity, the last outposts of hope. What is the cause of this bunker mentality? Why so suspicious of modern metal’s evolution, it’s many branches and tangents? The short answer is that most of it demonstrates only a surface level understanding of what made extreme metal unique. Yes, extreme metal (particularly black metal) was always a highly stylised form of music, with a very specific aesthetic, but this should be considered secondary to the underlying mechanics lurking beneath the veneer. It’s why an album like ‘Breeding the Spawn’ with notoriously ill-suited production endures all the same. But in terms of black metal, the elements that are easiest to imitate have come to define a vast chunk of works after the mid-1990s; namely ambience and atmosphere. So today, rather than casting throwaway aspersions in the direction of this morbidly obese body of work, we’ll honestly and fairly dissect a couple of these releases, picked almost at random (by that I mean carefully and deliberately selected for their various merits and flaws), and see what’s under the hood.
Scooping the Canadian scene can always be a good place to start for post 2000 black metal. Sombres Forets offer a good example of a project that sticks to mood and atmosphere over composition, whilst still paying homage to the virtues of structure. This is of course before they devolved into post black snoozegaze on 2013’s ‘La Mort du Soleil’. Their second album, 2008’s ‘Royaume de Glace’ by contrast is probably the best place to dive in for newcomers to this artist, offering a solid mix of slow, plodding black metal that is carried along by a determined rhythm section regardless. This is essentially a more imaginative, melodic redo of early Judas Iscariot, with simple yet richly realised melodies and arpeggios decorating basic but deliberate chord sequences. It’s clearly designed to invoke the feeling of walking…slowly, through frozen landscapes, woodlands and fields, with the characteristically passionate high-end vocals that are common to the Quebecoise scene echoing out of the mix.
Production is fairly standard for ethereal black metal. The focus is on the foundation provided by the simple, meandering guitars, and working up from there. Drums are solid but garage quality. We’re not missing much in terms of detail here, but then again, they do exactly as required for this fairly tempo consistent brand of black metal; slightly more interesting than a metronome, but never detracting from the vibe that relies on fluidity and smooth transitions of mood. Minimal keyboards, acoustic guitars, and simple leads are clearly intended to be the stars of the show; all are emphasised to give the maximum contrast to the relatively rough mix.
Structurally, Sombres Forets do just enough to keep things interesting. Let’s call it a…stimulation sandwich. Although this could be misleading as it seems to imply that ‘Royaume de Glace’ is a feast of stimulation…or a sandwich of stimulation if you will. No, in this context we need to be thinking more along the lines of a compliment sandwich, where in your appraisal your boss gives you a compliment, followed by some criticism, followed by a compliment; all designed to soften the blow in the middle. Sombres Forets do something similar here; to soften the blow of mild boredom found in the mid-section of ‘Royaume de Glace’, they offer some mildly interesting nuggets by way of prologue and epilogue, in the hope that we’ll have forgotten the already forgettable middle clutch of tracks by the end.
The first third or so is characterised by a cold and atmospheric intro, followed by the opening title track, with key changes…riffs not afraid to spread their staccato wings now and then, and even some contrast and tension; before things gradually devolve into a plodding more-of-the-same-but-lazier slog for a few tracks. But then the closer ‘L’œil Nocturne’ picks things up again before a pleasing acoustic piece to close. This isn’t just a case of the album having a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s more that the middle, pleasant enough as it is, is completely static and safe by comparison. And it illustrates a common problem for many contemporary albums: a dearth of ideas that are nevertheless stretched out to LP length in the hope that atmosphere will cover up the lack of activity. Not repetitive enough to come out the other end into pure ambient black metal, nor varied enough to approach excitement. It ultimately means that ‘Royaume de Glace’ is an ‘ok’ album with hints of meaningless slog, which one ends up resenting for daring to be just interesting enough to distract the mind for a bit, as opposed to being something we can completely shut out while we contemplate how to serve a bowl of cereal.
Speaking of meaningless slogs, has anyone in the audience ever sat through an entire Midnight Odyssey album? The brave few that have are treated to a double disc…odyssey that rivals the extended version of ‘The Return of the King’ in length, and as a result murders any redeeming qualities that were gestating; because the runtimes are – frankly – taking the piss. But here we’re gonna focus on Midnight Odyssey’s de facto debut, 2009’s ‘Firmament’ (I’m aware that it’s meant to be demo, but it’s not, wake up and smell the seventy minutes of your life you just spent listening to this ‘demo’). We’re picking this for two reasons. The first is that it simply falls closer to the Sombres Forets album discussed above. And the second is that it encapsulates Tony Parker’s early vision of marrying the hyper-reality of dreamscapes that is early Burzum with graceful and epic symphonics, creating a sonic environment that’s both thrilling and meditative, familiar yet fantastical. This is of course before the project expanded on these ideas…by expanding the exact same ideas out beyond reason, leaving what nuggets of treasure that were left marooned in a desert of one note ambience.
Back to ‘Firmament’. The mix here sets up the aims of this project pretty well. Everything is filtered through some fairly aggressive compression, because dynamics don’t really factor into the Midnight Odyssey ethos. Drums are played up to sound synthetic, offering consistent tempos that frequently settle on a trancelike gallop to enhance the feeling that this music is taking you on a journey. We are guided on this quest by thin, layered guitars, working through simple, repetitive harmonies which, when bolstered by a near constant undercurrent of spacious synths create a rich and oddly warm coating of noise. Vocals are a distant, echoing wail of passion which vary little. In the spirit of Summoning, the focus is on patiently building up layers of looped sequences, only to deconstruct them, before driving this simple interplay through various iterations, and then usually working in a well placed key change to bring the piece to a climatic finale. It’s a tried and tested formula, but if you get the mix of tones and moods just right, backed up by creative but repetitive drum patterns, it’s a formula with legs.
What’s interesting about ‘Firmament’ is Midnight Odyssey’s willingness to keep things so clean and crisp. Tonally, this has more in common with the epic end of gothic rock than it does Xasthur. Add to that a desire to keep things moving over the bloaty runtime of this album and it makes for an epic listen. Here at least, Midnight Odyssey throw enough contrast and variation between themes, keys, and tempos that it is both broad in ambition but also constantly refreshing itself, ready for the next soundscape opening up for the listener to explore. The enduring impression left in its wake is tranquil. This is not overly bombastic; it’s a work that seeks to be at peace with the universe. But such euphoria is not overly sentimental, the triumphant finales that crop up to bookmark the album are earned, the pieces are built up and fully articulated before we are given the satisfaction of a conclusion. A fine demonstration of the marriage of an idea with the ability to not only compose pieces to articulate said idea, but also the tech smarts to find a mix that elevates every tiny scrap of music to its full potential.
So what have we learned? Well, have you ever fucked around on a keyboard and found an awesome synth patch, one so cool you can just alternate between a couple of notes for hours? Therein lies the jeopardy of a highly stylised form of music like ambient black metal. The simplest collection of harmonies can be extended well beyond their usual shelf life because the focus has shifted onto creating the perfect guitar tone, or that perfect string/choir combo. But one must not mistake the allure of such things for their application to a substantive musical philosophy. Sombres Forets, although sitting at the more domesticated end of atmospheric black metal, probably overplay their hand when it comes to atmosphere, being overly reliant on the mood of the music when the mood really ain’t all that. Some serviceable ideas crop up here and there, but one gets the feeling that we’re supposed to be immersed in this work when it’s really not all that immersive in terms of texture. It’s an album that needs to pick a lane; either strengthen up those riffs into decent, low key black metal, or strip that back and work on adding more depth to the sound. Midnight Odyssey by contrast – I’ll say it again, on ‘Firmament’ at least – backed both horses and came out on top. A richly textured album of varied moods, tension, relief, contemplation, euphoria, and pathos unfolds before our ears, one with many rewards along the way for the patient listener.