Holding a dark to the light: Antaeus and Averse Sefira

At this point it wouldn’t be inappropriate to offer a personal reckoning of the early to mid-2000s. It’s not an era best known for a quality crop of black metal. The artists responsible for its initial explosion had largely dried up or given in by this point. The new generation of extreme metal were yet to formulate a meaningful response to the brave new century that greeted them. There were clues however, for those who looked hard enough. Or for those guided by the ANUS in the room. The trends and motives that now move like tides at the mercy of the celestial body of Web 2.0 were still in their infancy in the early 2000s. In an age dictated by a limitless demand for acceleration, it’s easy to forget how static things appeared back then; trapped between honouring the daunting legacy of the past, and making the best of modern tools defined by process rather than result, it was all too easy to succumb to the desire to hibernate, and hope for better times to come. In this culturally scorched earth, there were artists that were taking steps into the future. By stripping black metal of all but its rawest rudiments, and building up a new, nihilistic aesthetic core tempered by an esoteric conceptual framework, a novel form of exhilarating and ambitious extreme metal was hinted at; one that turned away from regional pride and reverence for nature, and pursued more abstract ideals.

Some may scoff at applying such lofty goals to a project such as France’s Antaeus, seeing as their debut ‘Cut Your Flesh and Worship Satan’ divided opinions on its release back in 2000. But like it or not, their ability to marshal the chaos of war metal into formal, sophisticated structures, and render all that aggression into a uniquely oppressive atmosphere was something not heard before. For all the talk of this act’s portrayal of chaos in sonic form, Antaues are masters of composition. The follow-up, 2002’s ‘De Principii Evangelikum’ strengthened the percussive qualities as a necessary component of their sound, and applied production more fitting of death metal. But it was 2006’s ‘Blood Libels’, arguably their magnum opus, that solidified their reputation as a pillar of modern extreme metal.

Those who court chaos are in danger of finding themselves subservient to events beyond their control. As it is with reality, so it is with art. Chaos as a musical quality is not as simple as many are led to believe. The lines between trivialising it to the point of banality, or destroying any artistic value for the sake of a chaotic aesthetic are all too easy to cross. Antaeus proved themselves adept at tempering their bursts of almost unbearable, blasting chaos by colliding it with tight percussive breakdowns, and never losing site of the route that the riffs were navigating over the course of each track. Of course, the not so dirty secret is that for the most part the riffs operate on an almost Ildjarn level of simplicity, but the tempos are that much faster, and minor variants thrown in that much more frequently, that a daunting maze unfolds for our ears to traverse.

The production is actually the least noteworthy thing about ‘Blood Libels’. The drums have been given a relatively conventional treatment; the synthetic qualities are stripped out in favour of a more organic sound. The same is true of the guitars. The result is an album that relegates the atmospheric qualities to the minimal industrial interludes. These interludes work as a commentary on the metal segments. Make no mistake however, saying ‘Blood Libels’ has a more organic quality is an assessment relative to the albums that proceeded it; this is by all other metrics are an overwhelmingly extreme album. There are shifts in tempo, acting as signposts of drama and finality as we progress through these soundscapes, but for the most part those barren, minimalist tremolo riffs are the only guiding light offered to the listener. MkM’s vocals have also taken on a rich, earthy quality. Although he is a vocalist that is well attuned to rhythm and its importance in distorted vocal performances, here he acts more like a dramatic spoken word narrator, only loosely guided by the currents of music. This intention is at its most overt at the close of ‘Words as Weapons’ and the infamous title track.

The resulting declaration of war is part call to arms, part incantation, and part shot of pure adrenaline, straight to the heart. By tempering chaos with order they give context to the lawless aspects of this music, and have thus produced a work more extreme than art that delves into the structureless netherworld of the avant-garde, but more importantly one with a spirit that resonates to this day beyond its own nihilism. In this album’s fluid, homogenous qualities we find life’s denial. But it disciplines this entropy into the means to overcome this nihilism, and we here we find life’s affirmation; a quality common to all great art.

Averse Sefira were long held up as a rare gem of North American black metal until their sudden disbanding in 2012. Familiar to any graduate of anus.com, they should also be familiar to you. Much like Antaeus they approached the black metal framework with an eye for minimalism. But for Averse Sefira, this reductive method only served as a means to an end. Each individual riff, despite their speed and precision, is dirt simple chromaticism, but through their sheer quantity and scant repetition a highly complex picture begins to take shape. Although all of their albums boast a unique character, there is a marked signature that runs through all of them that is defined by this pure commitment to dissonance and the aforementioned chromaticism. Their debut, 1999’s ‘Homecomings March’ was a boisterous statement of black metal as a source of triumph and joy, with an interestingly mechanistic quality to it, not least owing to the use of a drum machine. But through ‘Battle’s Clarion’ (2002) and the album we’ll be looking at here, ‘Tetragrammatical Astygmata’ released in 2005, the Averse Sefira mark was left, and found it’s culmination in their swansong, 2008’s ‘Advent Parallax’.

But on ‘Tetragrammatical Astygmata’, we find these Texans at their most expansive yet also their purest. Grand, sweeping epics of intimidating complexity which are nevertheless built from almost comically basic sonic bricks unfold in swaying, fluid rhythmic patterns that demonstrate an incredibly tight relationship between the guitars narrative centre and the drums. Something not often seen in black metal. The antecedents for what Averse Sefira are doing here could roughly be described as marrying the three-dimensional death metal of prime-time Immolation with Norwegian black metal, and a heavy dollop of Voivod’s patented abrasive whimsy. These tracks find their anchor in an almost humorous approach to riff construction, with ascending and descending chord sequences that seem absurd ripped from context, but taken together give rise to this music’s esoteric qualities. The drums follow every peak and trough of the guitars loyally, in a performance that is a wonder to behold both as a piece of collaboration but also a fine demonstration of an alternative approach to drumming in black metal when contrasted with the out and out minimalism of Fenriz in Darkthrone’s heyday.

Despite the intellectual purity to be found in admiring this group’s ability to carve out these intricate sculptures, that seem to emanate from another dimension, this album stands out in Averse Sefira’s discography for being their most expansive and atmospheric. Minimal dark ambient has been a common feature of their work, used to occasionally break up the near relentless energy of the metal tracks, but on ‘Tetragrammatical Astygmata’ this vibe extends into the rest of the mix. Spoor’s vocals stick with a traditional aggressive black metal style, here laced with huge amounts of reverb whilst still allowing enough articulation for us to appreciate the rhythmic twists and curves his voice takes. Each note extends out into the music, giving it size and scope. The guitars as well – although clear enough to allow us to appreciate the riffcraft – are more in line with a traditional black metal tone, with all the atmospheric trappings that that entails. Drums are also raw but in a mechanical sense, this is in part thanks to the machine-like precision of the performance, but also it allows a clarity and authenticity to the technically accomplished playing of…The Carcass.

We all have an anecdote about the first time we heard some real black metal, and how abrasive it was, and how we thought we were listening to a mistake, or a piece of ambience before the music kicks in. I had that exact experience on first listening to Emperor’s ‘Wrath of the Tyrant’, “this can’t be it?!” But as we all know, over time we become accustomed to it, and even grow to spot the various techniques and traditions that a piece is referencing; our tastes refine. Averse Sefira is one of those artists that gets bigged up as raising the game for black metal in the 2000s. But even for experienced or veteran fans it can take time to wrap one’s head around what exactly it is they’re doing. It certainly takes a few listens, as the mechanical, manic noise emanates from the speakers and we struggle to decipher any internal logic to the threads of music. But much like our first love affairs with black metal itself, we all in turn have anecdotes of when things clicked into place, and we got it. At the risk of hyperbole, refining one’s taste in this way feels like gaining a new means of perception. Rewards await the persistent, but they are not given willingly.

To get personal again, unlike many retrospects I cover on here, I remember well when both these albums were released, the anticipation, and the impact they had. It was a thrill to see such quality material cut through the nonsense at a time of seemingly endless naval gazing. It’s also a pleasure to look back on them now and realise how well they have endured over time. As is by now apparent I hold both these releases in very high regard as being some of the best of the post 2000 canon we have covered so far. But in terms of quality picks, and to the horror of ANUS boys, my pick of the week is ‘Blood Libels’, for the simple fact that it changed the way I viewed a lot of metal for the years to come. Beyond that, there’s really nothing more to add.

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