From the polymath known as Omega (Acherontas, Blut Aus Nord…every other band in Europe) comes a new project by the name of Nubivagant. Apparently not one to stand on ceremony, debut LP ‘Roaring Eye’ has dropped suddenly into out lives and demands we have a butchers. Musically, we’re on very familiar ground for minimalist, soaring, melodic black metal. Very simple riffs made up of a handful of chords are organised into pleasingly ordinary transitions. These are further imbued with a sense of mourning, pathos, and catharsis in the setting of tremolo picking and thin guitar tones. Drums stick to mid-paced blast-beats with the occasional shuffling fill to give the riffs the illusion of more depth, when in reality they are simply shifting between two chords longer than good taste dictates.
But this is black metal, and these things are not only acceptable but praised; ordinary even. That is of course, if they are placed in the right context. What is the ‘right’ context? Well, rather than list the many and varied ways an artist can go about smuggling complexity beneath the veneer of minimalism or vice versa, it would be remiss of me to not discuss the main talking point of ‘Roaring Eye’, which is the fact that the vocals are overwhelmingly clean.
Of course, clean vocals in black metal are nothing new. They have cropped in many guises and forms over the years. There are also many artists that play in styles closely linked to black metal that utilise this as the predominant form of vocal delivery; usually to be found in folk and pagan variants. But ‘Roaring Eye’ is pretty straightforward, on the nose black metal. The vocal style itself is a slightly off-tune (not out of tune) wailing not dissimilar to Tony Parker of Midnight Odyssey, with a sprinkling of more passionate sky cursing here and there. The vocal melodies are relatively simple. They sit where a more conventional band would have used keyboard harmonies, layering up and complimenting the guitars, as opposed to providing a fully formed melodic thread that works independently of the main currents of the guitars and rhythm beneath.
What’s interesting is the effect this has on the rest of the music. Vocals are perhaps the most subjective and divisive aspect of modern music. One can still find a competent singer’s voice grating (I can’t stand Freddie Mercury for instance), but this has always been less of problem in genres where vocal melody is not required. Notable exceptions aside, the majority of artists in extreme metal can get by with a fairly unremarkable distorted vocalist, with stamina and consistency setting the benchmark. Additional creativity that makes a noteworthy performance comes through rhythm, intensity, theatrics. But with a clean voice in this straight-faced black metal setting Nubivagant have given themselves a new melodic element to manipulate and play off the other instruments, which – by the nature of vocals and their ability to dictate our reaction to entire pieces – completely changes the context of the rest of the music.
In this regard, ‘Roaring Eye’ sounds like a bold step in a new direction, one that black metal has been resisting and toying with for years in equal measure. But in reality, this album is a canvas of pale colours, upon which are spattered the barest hint of something bolder. Omega’s voice is shaky, but the slightly off pitch tone works in the context of reverberating, open string guitars. It elevates the insanely generic music not by virtue of offering a new element of harmony to mess around with, but by virtue of how vocals themselves tend to change the entire delivery and impact of the music they are set to. In this regard we cannot help but wonder if the bland canvas of instrumentals we are given here was entirely deliberate so as not to distract from this fragile, tentative attempt to take this particular form of black metal in a direction it is yet to fully embrace.
Whatever the answer, ‘Roaring Eye’ is an interesting nugget from an academic perspective. From an artistic perspective it is certainly a pleasing listen. But one cannot help but think that these tracks were released prematurely, given how underdeveloped the music is. And we are given but one hook and tone – the voice – to relieve from riffs that are, and I cannot stress this enough, generic as fuck.
The latest demo from Italy’s Fate is a fundamental reassertion of first principles in heavy metal. The vocals make this feel more like a black metal release in the Greek tradition, but outside of this and a couple of riffs, Fate are painstakingly updating the tired traditions of heavy metal into something more fitting for 2020. The production is good demo quality. Any weakness to the drum sound is compensated by some wise application of reverb. The guitar tone is earthy yet tight, giving us that authentic old school feel whilst still carrying the melodic nuances present in the riffs.
This demo comes across like a stilted, repetitive, conversation where the subject is slow to develop. It would be frustrating for how clunkily it moves from one idea to the next were it not for the fact that Fate always make each transition feel intuitive with hindsight. Each of the three tracks on here is faster than the last, as if our conversation were becoming more urgent and focused as it progresses. Solos are frequently used to break up the vocal passages, or else completely destroy the flow of the riffs as they shakily but satisfyingly build their story before our ears.
This is a work of pure heavy metal not just in terms of the obvious influences one can hear crop up regularly, but also in their mastery of speed and thrash traditions laced throughout. Hints at influences of post 1990 metal can be heard, along with some eery synths to play us out. But as with the demo as whole, they remain hints.
The conversation is a short one. It promises exciting new terrain for further discussion, but this remains a tantalising glimpse of something truly epic and ambitious in the offing. As things stand, we have an interesting display of heavy metal class played out in micro form, with none of the tired clichés that plagued the influences that Fate call upon to knit these tracks together.
Joining the growing ranks of black metal travelling westward out of China comes Dark Fount, with a new EP released some thirteen years after their debut album ‘A Sapless Leave Withering in the Night Fog’. ‘幽浮林澗之霧’ is an asymmetrical beast, made up of one metal track and one minimalist acoustic piece.
All the usual requirements for fairly standard glum black metal are in place. The distorted open strings hum off each before tightening up into a swelling tremolo scale run, backed up by ringing chords that keep the whole thing at a relatively slow tempo. This calls to mind many moments on Burzum’s ‘Belus’, but Dark Fount are wise enough to pick up the pace as the track picks up. It works as an interesting prelude of sorts. This simple refrain is used to patiently build the mood before the drums give way to slower blast-beats which guide us back to the beginning. The narrative technique played out in short form.
The second track – again in the tradition of Burzum – completely slams on the breaks and offers us a chance to unwind. As the single, ringing notes gradually coalesce around simple harmonies, they take us on a short journey before the piece eventually fades out.
Epoch breaking originality may be lacking, but this EP is certainly a masterclass in structure, pacing, contrast, and efficacy of ideas. Not all of these things are common to descriptions of music as artistry. But this release works like an instructional pocketbook on the art of focused black metal that cuts away extraneous frivolities, and in doing so clears the path for the true artistic potentials within established techniques.