The USA is a big place when you think about it. There’s a lot of people there, a not insignificant chunk of which are making metal music. So it’s almost trivial to point out that some of the best and worst in 21st century black metal has travelled to us from across the pond. It’s certainly true that Brooklyn hipsters had a serious dumbing down effect in the early 2000s. But in parallel to this regrettable timeline there were plenty of artists taking up the mantle of minimalist darkness from VON, Profanatica, and Canada’s Blasphemy. Along with some cousins from Finland and scattered across Europe, it pointed to an oppressive, classically evil form of black metal that was both aggressive and atmospheric. Grafting gothic romanticism with primeval blocks of punk, it was a style that ran in parallel to Scandinavia and Southern Europe, but remained underdeveloped when compared to the latter two bodies of work. More recently, a scant few have attempted to address this. Although it thrives on the base thrills of speed, classic horror and occult themes, and evil theatrics, there is much complexity smuggled within these crowd-pleasing affectations.
Profanatica are by now a pillar of American black metal and need little preamble. A brief flash in the pan formed from members of Incantation in the early 90s was kept on life support by drummer and mastermind Paul Ledney and his solo project Havohej. Early material from their ‘Tormenting Holy Flesh’ EP (1992) was rerecording on the ‘Dethrone the Son of God’ album (1993) as Havohej. The project could have been buried entirely after this point. But Ledney decided his creative impetus could not be encapsulated entirely under the Havohej moniker, which was heading in a much more experimental direction by the 2000s. So Profanatica was resurrected in 2001. Output was slow in coming however. ‘Profanatitas de Domonatia’ released in 2007 with original guitarist John Gelso. This was a heavier, brooding, and creepy form of primitive black metal take shape with a truly other-worldly atmosphere. The follow up, 2010’s ‘Disgusting Blasphemies Against God’ was – as the name suggests – a much blunter beast, stripping back the glumness for the sake of single-minded nihilism.
But it’s 2013’s ‘Thy Kingdom Cum’ which interests us here. And we’ll say straight up that this is some of the best works from this artist, and possibly ever from Paul Ledney’s entire output. It seemed to come from nowhere when considered in the light of material from this artist both before and since. ‘Thy Kingdom Cum’ is a chromatic jigsaw of jagged, two or three note riffs, straightforward drum patterns, and sporadic minimal disharmonies. The guitar tone reflects the need to accentuate the clarity and sharpness to the riffs. Gone is the bass heavy tone of previous releases in favour of a crystal-clear distortion. The drums have cut away all reverb. This is a beast of precision and activity, not atmosphere. It could be likened to Deicide’s ‘Legion’ in its manipulation of rudimentary chord progressions that sound more like finger exercises to enhance muscle strength than anything remotely artistic. These simple patterns gradually accumulate through a meticulous blend of repetition and variation, and shifting rhythms. Indeed, the guitars lay down the rhythmic backbone of the music, leaving Ledney’s primitive but unmistakable skin pounding to firm up the core texture rather than keep time.
Sometimes this approach is frankly so outrageous it’s difficult to encapsulate the audacity in words. For instance on the track ‘Definite Atonement’, which opens with a riff that could have been written by placing a cat on a keyboard, and transposing the resulting collection of notes to guitar; before completely tearing apart the tight tempos into a looser, droning beast with abrasive, unstable leads signposting the way through. And that’s the story of the whole album. It harnesses the untamed elements of music that exists beyond tonal centres (and sanity) into something that makes sense to our ears. It does this by forcing them into ruthless rhythmic discipline regiments, and pulling the results together into track structures that feel as if they should be familiar somehow. Intro, bridge, outro, these elements are all present, but they are formed from note clusters that have no business being placed next to one another. It’s a truly fascinating approach to atonal black metal that was sadly not expanded upon on the two follows ups ‘The Curling Flame of Blasphemy’ (2061) and ‘Rotting Incarnation of God’ (2019) which have seen Profanatica play down these techniques for the sake of blunt brutality once more.
Demoncy are the lesser known beast in this pair up, although they are more consistent artist stylistically, and in terms of quality when compared to Profanatica. They seem to throw out albums at random with no concern for timetabled release schedules. This, artistically speaking, is entirely appropriate. The creative process abhors a deadline. Demoncy’s sporadic output reflects this reality. In spite of all this, their approach since 1999’s ‘Joined in Darkness’ has remained pretty stable. It follows in the tradition of ‘Drawing Down the Moon’ by crafting simple, tremolo riffs of minor chord progressions, with vocals that aspire to the ethereal in that they sound whispered, despite boasting the same presence as a full-on scream.
2012’s ‘Enthroned is the Night’ saw them intensify this by extending out the tension in each riff before it reaches a resolution. When underpinned by the mechanical blast-beats that are the dominate rhythmic core it creates a dark sense of the epic within this relentlessly nocturnal setting. Although the scale runs themselves are relatively simple, by extending them beyond the conventional for heavy guitar music Demoncy are able to create pockets of stories within stories as these flowing passages are consistently destroyed and reformed by the atonal commentary. This speed is broken up by minimal dark ambient pieces that segway into each track, that will often begin with droning power chords that are gradually augmented by simple harmonies.
The production is focused on enhancing these simple yet effective contrasts and compliments. As mentioned, the guitar tone has a lot of bottom end in a manner more typical of death metal. But when applied to these tremolo picked riffs in the black metal setting it creates a sense of inertia, as the tone catches up with the actual notes that are being played. As this accumulates, it contributes to the overall suffocating, claustrophobic feel to Demoncy’s music. The mechanical drums provide a constant reminder of urgency and restlessness. Despite the internal logic at the heart of these compositions, it is the music of intoxication, loss of control, of submission to a Bacchanalian suppression of rational will. This is in direct contrast to more typical European styles which aspire to open spaces and the sounds of natural landscapes. Demoncy throws walls up both in a literal sense of the physical wall of sound that greets our ears, but also within the mind, as the rational part of the brain is smothered and eventually succumbs to the inevitable.
These are two shining examples of an approach to black metal that remains unique to the US despite antecedents in Finland and Canada. It is superficially basic, and seems to rely on vibe more than the intricacy of composition. Well, that’s one way of looking at it, but if you pop the hood open you will notice there is far more going on in the mechanics of this music in order to achieve this sound. This makes it a style that is surprisingly difficult to imitate. This hasn’t stopped people from trying, but they invariably miss the tricks to creating these underlying layers, that in turn open up the hidden depths where the real magic of these two albums can be found. Both releases also hint at the true breadth of expressive range still available in black metal, and what could possibly still be achieved in this framework. For that reason, both these artists should be held up as exemplars in their field. But in terms of the pick of the week we are going with ‘Thy Kingdom Cum’, simply because it remains an album unlike any other. This comes with a caveat however. In terms of consistency and volume of quality output, Demoncy are the superior artist. Ledney may be doing interesting things with Havohej, but the last two Profanatica albums – whilst not terrible – have seen a drop in ambition. But none of this changes the fact that ‘Thy Kingdom Cum’ is the pinnacle of his and Gelso’s achievement, and represents some of the best output from an American outfit in this arena in general.