Black metal’s a funny thing at times. Like…it’s literally a funny thing. It makes people laugh. But if you take the humorous theatrics seriously, they can work in your favour. If you take humour with a sense of humour on the other hand, you may end up with farse. If you ignore the humour altogether, you risk gutting black metal of its inherent uniqueness. Comedy emanates from the absurd, the dissonance between what we expect and what actually takes place. It just so happens that serious artistic experiences, far from being the opposite of comedy, are right next to it. Oh and by the way, Sweden’s Leviathan – seemingly taking the long view in terms of release schedules – have just put out their second album ‘Formorkelse’, eighteen years after the debut ‘Far Beyond the Light’ back in 2002.
This album fully embraces the gothic flamboyance that permeated a lot of the second wave before its domestication. This has its roots in Bathory tracks such as ‘Call From the Grave’, and found its reaffirmation in the likes of early Gehenna. Bouncy, purposeful rhythms are mixed in with blast-beats, giving the aura of journeying through the landscapes of gothic literature; the dark woods, the haunted castles, the dank dungeons. It all sounds horribly cheesy. But Leviathan give no quarter in committing to this overt melodrama. There is no nod of whimsy to the audience. The humour is sidestepped by overtly embracing theatricality.
Pulling this off without provoking laughter has been given plenty of thought on this release. The production is somewhat muddy, the guitars have plenty of bottom end to contrast with the higher pitched harmonies that jump out to articulate musical progressions. The drums also have that sloppy quality in both pacing and timbre. It gives an unsettling, shuffling quality to the music’s foundations, again augmenting the paranoia and delirium associated with the aesthetics this album is aping. Vocals fully commit to this ghoulish atmosphere, occasionally hinting at a melodic intonation to compliment the soaring chord progressions that frequently rise above the gloom.
But all this potential silliness is tempered into compositions that tell a story on an epic scale, all via the means of very traditional notions of music as a universal language. Just because ‘Formorkelse’ is the musical equivalent of a classic horror film, does not make it tiresome. Clichés are underrated, in that people often mistake cliché for lack of ideas, when in reality it’s not the clichés themselves people find distasteful, it’s that clichés are often deployed to disguise said lack of ideas. But sometimes they are positioned atop well-crafted art, and any talk of tired cliché melts away before the vibrancy of the art itself. This album is definitely an example of the latter. We buy into this album’s camp sensibilities because they are adorning elegant, flowing compositions of variety and ambition. For that reason it’s refreshing to see an act so confidently embrace features that others may shy away from through fear of vulgarity, unsure of their ability to harness them into a work people will take seriously. Leviathan have no such qualms, and fully dive into black metal’s expressive depths and harness them into tracks of cinematic scope, yet at the same time end up approximating something strangely akin to good clean fun.
DeathEpoch: Abysmal Invocation (2020)
The debut LP from this Polish operation blends ingredients that are no strangers to each other, but the resulting dish is of a notably different hew. Take a raw back metal framework, point it in the direction of the surrealist minimalism of Beherit circa ‘Drawing Down the Moon’, add some war metal seasoning and finish with a side of industrial/dark ambient. Behold, that’s the ‘Abysmal Invocation’ formula. The production plays up to the raw qualities inherent in the styles drawn upon. But it shies away from unabashed brutality at the last minute, with enough depth to the guitar tone to carry some melodies, and enough clarity to the drums to elevate them above a mere metronome. Vocals are clearly aiming for a synthetic aesthetic, with the traditional distorted stylings seeing some subtle effects applied in the mastering.
But Black Funeral knock-off this is not. The minimal noise intro plays up the claustrophobic qualities that will frequently make an appearance throughout the rest of the album, but DeathEpoch are wise enough to contrast this with some pretty expansive atmospheres. In not going hell for the leather into the harsh industrial realms, they have kept enough traditional black metal qualities present to make this a more varied and interesting listen. The black metal riffs themselves are fairly basic, but the key intention here seems to be one of contrasting textures and timbres over a magnum opus of musicality. Deathepoch can get away with rudimentary chord progressions because their function is to open out the music and grant it space to breathe, before the industrial and dark ambient passages come to bury us once again in a dank, sweaty hole. For that reason, overly flashy instrumentation is not missed, and in fact would have been a detriment to this album’s key virtues.
There is perhaps a problem with the flow of ‘Abysmal Invocation’. Although the contrasting moods keeps one engaged throughout, the transitions are sometimes jarring, to the point of being non-existent. Whilst a mere blot on an otherwise pleasing canvas, this can lead to the album coming across as disjointed and unfocused at times. Drawing attention to contrast does not necessarily imply completely ignoring the purpose of a decent segway or pallet cleanser before shifting the overall tone of the music. At other times the dark ambient can serve as a neat transition into a new phase of the album, in a manner that tempts comparisons to Blut Aus Nord or The Ruins of Beverast.
A cover Sodom’s ‘Bombenhagel’ crops up unexpectedly in the latter half of ‘Abysmal Invocation’. What on paper looks like an oddly archaic choice for an album that wears its aspirations to futurism on its sleeve, actually fits neatly with this aesthetic. DeathEpoch accent the simple, descending riff at the centre of the Sodom track and make this the focus and linchpin of the whole affair, as opposed to the soaring guitar leads that are the original’s calling card. In doing so they give the track a dark, minimalist nihilism that is perfectly in keeping with the overall tone at this album’s core.
Ultimately, this album is a flawed triumph of an aesthetic so often fraught with tired clichés and lazy musicianship. The main detriment being its occasional lack of focus; greater care as to the fluidity and pacing was perhaps needed. But there are many compelling ideas to unpack within this release all the same.
Sitting somewhere between Midnight Odyssey and Desecresy (a thesis that will be expanded upon momentarily), France’s Dysylumn offer up an album that – whilst not earth shattering – is certainly a beast all of its own. Although the chief intention seems to be an outdoorsy atmosphere, there is more going on at the nuts and bolts level than is typical for such hazy black metal. The guitar tone definitely fits with the intention of creating massive open spaces with this music, but not in the sense of harsh, unrelenting natural forces, but leaning more towards cosmic joy and wonderment at the expanses of the night sky. Hence the Midnight Odyssey comparison. But whilst the latter artist is prone to absurdly self-indulgent meanderings, Dysylumn reign this in somewhat with some….riffs? They still sadly come up short on a justification for the bulky runtime and lack of variation in intensity however.
The riffs themselves are predominately formed of lead and rhythm segments, with the guitar tracks operating primarily with harmonies and counterpoint. A large chunk of this is articulated through high-end leads of simple tremolo strummed note patterns, which in their near constant presence does indeed call to mind Desecresy in technique if not in the final impact. But much like the industrial minded Finnish death metallers, constructing an album of soaring leads over lower end chord progressions works in theory, but requires more variety in key and tone before being brought to bear on a long play album. And this is a very loooong play album indeed, at over an hour and twenty minutes in length, there is just not enough going on to warrant this self-indulgence, which again provokes Midnight Odyssey comparisons.
Dysylumn do their best to give this music the illusion of motion. The rhythm section is hard working, ensuring that there are regular shifts in tempo, the fills make sense around the builds and falls of the riffs, and blast away if the moment demands it. But the real problem is one of timbre and dynamics. Aside from an ambient interlude, into and outro, this is a near constant pounding of heavily compressed, reverb drenched guitar, working its way through intriguing but hardly compelling riffs. And the fact that there is a relentless layer of lead guitars working in unison with this most average of foundations does not save this album from becoming a complete slog.
Vocals do their bit to vary the tones that meet our ears, exploring the lower to mid-range of the distorted pallet. But the compression pretty much supresses their impact in favour of the all dominant guitars, that wash out any nuance or complexity to both the vocals and the melodies of they are actually playing. These choices in tone can work in the right context. But if we are to be invited to listen to it for this length of time then the compositions need a lot more going on, or else they need to be broken up by some variation in mood.
I’m coming down hard on ‘Cosmogonie’ because of its length for the reasons stated above, but also because of the sheer hubris required to put out such weighty material. Dysylumn are sadly not unique in this regard. Now that digital recordings are so easy to lay down and release into the aether from the comfort of home, temporal size has seen an ever upward trend. But it baffles me that quality control and creative filter discipline are such underrated commodities in modern metal. Partly for the simple reason that it strikes one as common sense. But also the presumption that the music was worth the time over other, more efficient works. Not only does it kill the impact of what quality material is actually present on the album, but it smacks of unwarranted self-assurance. For an album to reach into the region of an hour takes some pretty special material. And ‘Cosmogonie’, despite offering some hints of uniqueness, just ain’t it.