Take a mainstream summary of black metal, one attempting to introduce unaccustomed ears to the genre. Chances are it will focus on the obvious, namely its extremity (sonically, aesthetically, philosophically etc.). They might then look at some tokenistic contemporary spokespeople; usually artists that haven’t had anything to do with black metal in decades, Enslaved, Ihsahn, and the pop band Ulver. This is championed as an intellectualising project. By releasing b-tier prog rock or synth pop albums with only the loosest black metal aesthetic, they are detoxing the subculture of its cavemen. These artists are generally harmless, but the reason for their inclusion in articles about modern black metal remains elusive. Another kind of article might focus on black metal’s links to avant-garde movements; the corpse paint, the performance art, the abrasive nature of the music. Meanwhile, fruitcakes like myself are cast as self-appointed gatekeepers (which we are), no meaningful engagement with our thought processes on the matter is attempted.
We look at artistic ‘extremity’ in context; as a means to an end. The window it opens for sui generis forms of expression; granted meaning in the light of the other key marker of quality; broadly characterised as narrative composition. This explains why black metal fans are drawn more to folk, classical, and select ambient music over noise, industrial, and avant-garde styles. This is because the features black metal shares with the latter genres are surface level; the shell of the car, not the engine. It also explains my in-built suspicion of projects that borrow heavily from the black metal aesthetically whilst playing down the ‘metal’. This can be read as shorthand for ‘removing the story from the music’. It’s often labelled a traditionalist’s argument, but smashing conventions is only meaningful if it leads somewhere. How we decide the value and purpose of this ‘somewhere’ is a discussion for another day perhaps. For now I will admit that I so often frame this point in the negative – calling out artists I believe to be guilty of covert wanton destruction – that it might be worth redressing this balance. So here are two artists who, to varying degrees, represent a tentative step towards furthering black metal’s genre alchemy into a more disciplined beast.
In keeping with France’s habit of producing black metal at the very limits of music, Murmuure were a brief flash in the pan that caught the attention of a few attentive fans. They released one self-titled album back in 2010. It expands on the convention smashing exploits of Abruptum, Havohej, Beherit, and Black Funeral. Although these artists are connected by only the loosest of common threads, the underlying philosophy is markedly similar. By identifying the pursuits shared between black metal and industrial, ambient, and noise, this album works precisely because it is not identifiably one ‘genre’ with multifarious influences subsequently grafted on. Rather it smashes styles, tones, percussive techniques, and moods together and harnesses the resulting alchemy. This inexactness goes some way to explain the huge divergence in quality across artists with a similar approach. But at its core it functions like a testing ground. Leaving others to observe the results, and cherry pick the viable specimens for use in more pedestrian output.
Murmuure push at the very outer edge of this sonic laboratory as far as metal is concerned. Some elements will be familiar; the harsh, tinny guitar tone, the keyboards rooted in dark ambient, the Paul Ledney style of percussive bombast, the screeching vocals. But these are twisted through sequences of static, obscured samples, and minimal synths, which are the real driving force of this album, with whatever spare parts borrowed from black metal existing merely to service an aesthetic need.
So setting aside an analysis of Murmuure’s unorthodox marriage of sounds, the driving artistic force beneath is one of progressive contrast, of conflict; it’s not a piece of music that boldly takes us on a journey, rather we witness it struggle its way out of a hole. And at the end of this ascension, we are merely greeted with further despondency. When the guitars are first introduced for example, they are structureless chaos, before diverging around a short refrain. Once a determination is reached we are given a period of calm, chiefly characterised by dark ambience. This is where gentle string chord progressions take over from the oppressive drums and static. When this gentle mid-section gives way to guitars once again, they are far more restrained, settling on chords that strike a mournful but hopeful tone in contrast to the preceding oppressive qualities. They work with the synths as opposed to directly contrasting them. And despite the attempts to fudge this internal coherence behind yet more discordant static, a melodic progression is clearly discernible beneath the cacophony. Where initially the guitars were antagonists to the melody, in the second half they are its defenders, and eventually concede ground to the synths once again, as the latter takes over to close the album by picking up the same chord progressions in bastardised form; dissonance and major/minor key conflict are dragged into a sonic uncanny valley of sorts.
Ultimately, the point of all this detail is to demonstrate the internal logic and purpose to this piece of music. The alchemy of components is interesting. But it’s a mere fragment of the story. What’s more interesting about Murmuure (and makes them more worthy of attention than many experimental projects that harvest black metal’s organs), is not so much that it borrows from black metal, or even that it does so whilst retaining an internal structure and logic, but rather how each disparate element informs this structure. The competing tones and styles at work here have their own inherent qualities (a distorted guitar’s virtues are very different to a flute’s for instance), and Murmuure seems not only aware of this, but take advantage of these qualities by using them to define how each will inform the progression of the album.
From crawling out of a hole to a slow but inevitable descent into one now, with Iceland’s Svautidaudi. One of the pioneers of a key aesthetic pillar of black metal throughout the 2010s. Their debut LP ‘Flesh Cathedral’ released in 2012 brings feelings of joy and disappointment in unison. Joy cos it’s pretty much a good album. Disappointment because many who have followed in its footsteps have largely (and predictably) missed the point. It consolidates industrial aesthetics – that were already being toyed with by various black metal artists before this point – into a work informed chiefly by dissonance, chasmic production, and a generally joyless nihilism. But where Svautidaudi used dissonance to accent conventional chord progressions, others chose to adopt only the most surface level reading of Svautidaudi’s idiosyncratic moods and apply it to the Deathspell Omega template of pure negation; as if this somehow has value in itself.
As these dissonant chords soar across the mix like air raid sirens, they accent the murky lower end guitars as they work away at the conventional minor chord shapes in simple, repeated refrains. And repetition is key here. Svautidaudi are masters of it. They will string out these chord sequences until every ounce of creative potential is squeezed out of them. These are sometimes made up of little more than two chords, but thanks to only the slightest variation in inversion, pitch, rhythm, or the aforementioned wailing accents of dissonance, they communicate an unusual concoction of epic foreboding. By dwelling on a small handful of ideas until their natural conclusion – underpinned by drums defined more by swirling tom-centred fills than a back-beat – Svautidaudi mess with our perception of time. ‘Flesh Cathedral’ is akin to watching the continents shift, it operates on a more fundamental metric than the fleeting ebbs and flows of humanity. By showing restraint in the application of atypical chord shapes they are able to extend the expressive range of their music. For instance, many of the guitar leads feel very familiar, operating as they do on pretty common arpeggios and melodic progressions; allowing us to contrast this with the harsh dissonance that crops up frequently, but it does not dictate the entire aesthetic of the music.
That being said, this form of swirling, dissonant black metal, characterised by cavernous production values, rhythmic philosophies borrowed from post punk, and harsh aesthetics, came to define a big old chunk of extreme metal in the past decade. Much like the legacy of Suffocation, the dissonant black metal that rained down from Iceland in the early 2010s was an example of quality output that perfected a style that was superficially easy to imitate, but through this surface level understanding spawned a whole lot of dull music. It’s a story of excess. Svautidaudi and a handful of others borrowed from epic death metal in the likes of The Chasm, the out and out abrasion of Gorguts, and grafted some interesting techniques onto an industrially focused form of black metal.
But these techniques informed their approach to composition, they did not dictate them. And it seems all the more remarkable given how simple the point is, but you just can’t make a career out of technique alone. Well actually you can because Deathspell Omega exist. But that aside, the shifting tectonic plates at work beneath ‘Flesh Cathedral’ are where the real story of this album’s success is. Pausing for thought, dwelling on an idea to grant it context, contrasting dissonance with consonance, hell contrasting major and minor keys, this is music writing 101. Smashing through these conventions is all well and good, but what will you build in its place? Making a statement is meaningless without contextualisation.
So normally I wouldn’t compare two albums that are quite so divergent as this. Murmuure operates at the very edge of what we would call ‘metal’, but in mashing together metal influences into this mutating cocktail, it is part of metal’s story in virtue of this fusion with other peripheral styles. Svautidaudi are obviously a metal band. But they have been positioned at this point in the tale as representatives of an important juncture. Because fans of albums like ‘Murmuure’ will praise it for the ingredients in the cocktail alone, and hold it up as ‘music without boundaries’, without realising that its precisely Murmuure’s boundaries that make it an interesting release. To extend the cocktail analogy further, anyone can slap together an unconventional set of ingredients, but it requires a degree of skill and knowledge to give them meaning, to monitor the quantities and processes applied to the ingredients before they are called upon to play their part in forming a greater whole. ‘Music without boundaries’ is a pretty meaningless mantra. What boundaries? Why those boundaries and not others? Set by whom? In what manner are we breaking them? To what extent? To what end? What gives this act meaning? Gatekeepers like myself – who claim that music should have an administrative border – are deeply unsexy. But when you know what that border is, and why you’re crossing it, proper papers in place and all, you end up with an album like ‘Flesh Cathedral’, a paragon in its field.