I like the beats and I like the yelling: Beherit, Spiritual Holocaust, Oldmoon

Beherit: Bardo Exist (2020)

2020, a year that will be remembered for its global pandemics and aging black metal artists offering up ambient albums no one asked for. And much like Burzum’s aptly named ‘Thulean Mysteries’, Beherit’s ‘Bardo Exist’ lands with little fanfare or preamble. It is a habit of these mysterious misanthropes from the North to emerge from their bunkers and drop some half-formed ideas into our laps, only to disappear just as quickly before we can even request a nugget of context. But unlike ‘Thulean Mysteries’, ‘Bardo Exist’ seems to have a degree of premeditation to it. It at least tries to look like a whole work that was both written and intended to be treated as such, and not just a collection of scraps and b-sides slapped together, and released under a Theodor Kittelsen piece mocked up in Microsoft Paint.

Working under the assumption that the last twenty plus years never happened, ‘Bardo Exist’ is the follow up to ‘Electric Doom Synthesis’ we never got. And much like that and ‘H418ov21.C’, ‘Bardo Exist’ may prove to be another divisive offering from this most divisive of artists to emerge from the canon of second wave black metal. Polarisation of opinions has been a defining feature of Beherit’s ambient works in particular when compared to similar projects from Burzum, Lord Wind, Ildjarn, or Neptune Towers, perhaps because Beherit’s electronic meanderings are the most experimental.

Part minimalist electronica, part noise art, part backing track to a gig as yet unplayed, it’s never quite clear what the intention is with Beherit in non-metal form, or if there even is one besides fucking around. People find this frustrating for a number of reasons. But the most common seems to be the anticlimactic shrug these albums often provoke. For all intents and purposes this is Beherit’s comeback album, after eight years of silence, and it may leave one underwhelmed if the expectation was ‘Engram’ part two. But even those who are willing to buy into an understated ambient offering seem to display a sense of betrayal or lack of patience with Beherit’s work in this field. Far be it from me to assume people’s individual reasons for this, but that’s exactly what I’m gonna do anyway.

Even an album as empty and minimal as Ildjarn’s ‘Landscapes’ comes across as a completed work. When listening to ‘Bardo Exist’ it feels like half of the music is missing. This could work on the level of a soundtrack, or the stuff of interludes and intros intended to service a fully fleshed out metal release. But as it stands this is a standalone work. And when it fails to stand alone people feel a sense of betrayal. Now I can sit here and declare that such a reading is to completely misunderstand the intent behind this work. We could claim that this is intended as a sounding-board of ideas, a cursory sketch of sonic promises yet to be formed. Or we could say – like any ambient release – that the intent is to evoke a mood, set a tone, flesh out the background hum of your life, rather than provide anything as vulgar as a fully realised melody.

I could claim all this in the face of the naysayers. But the music would still fail to stand on its own in their eyes if it requires these backup documents of lofty rhetoric to justify its existence. But beyond second guessing artistic intent, Beherit is unlike a lot of music in this field, particularly from metal artists. It requires us to read a little deeper than speculations of creative motivation. ‘Bardo Exist’ is both more intense yet more risk averse than either ‘H418ov21.C’ or ‘Electric Doom Synthesis’. It’s certainly a more unified and serious piece of work, one that moves from dark ambient, to dramatic spoken word, to minimalist industrial beats, and even a marked trip-hop influence in places. Sometimes these coalesce into an idea that moves forward with a momentum we would normally demand of music. But these moments are brief flutters in an otherwise placid sea of tantalising hints, hints at something just out of reach.

The reason one may find this frustrating is lack of purpose. An album – especially an ambient album – usually makes the offer of a consistent mood, or at least moods that flow intuitively from one to another. ‘Bardo Exist’ is more like a series of disconnected fever dreams, or – rather aptly – like patrolling through a dungeon and pausing briefly in front of each cell to witness the lamentations of its occupants. A procession of despondency and gloom. Of course, anyone can offer up some disconnected sound pictures and claim some more noble intent. But on Beherit’s previous works, there was a degree of conviction to utter weirdness and experimentation that made this notion all the more compelling. ‘Bardo Exist’ by contrast is almost too unified to claim this interpretation, or else it’s a failed attempt to recapture the magic of these older works. Many fans have no desire for said magic to be recaptured of course, and would rather the project abandoned this uncertain quest in favour of black metal. But for all its flaws, I for one am glad that Beherit are still posing uncomfortable questions, ones that no one else seems to be asking since the days of early Mordor. Projects whose collective output has been as weird and freeform as Beherit over the years are by their very nature hit and miss beasts. ‘Bardo Exist’ isn’t terrible enough to call a miss, but worrying elements of contrivance may be creeping into the otherwise spotless veneer.

Spiritual Holocaust: Echoes of the Apocalypse (2020)

Spiritual Holocaust land their second LP ‘Echoes of the Apocalypse’ on More Hate Productions. It follows in the wake of fellow Finns Desecresy in its manipulation of Swedish guitar tones, simple, determined lead guitar riffs, and an almost industrial-esque dedication to rhythmic fidelity. ‘Industrial’ isn’t exactly the first word that comes to mind when listening to this album however. It’s true that it embodies many of the harsh, minimalistic trappings of Desecresy, with a modern sheen of the synthetic rolled in as well; but Spiritual Holocaust are squarely fighting in death metal’s corner.

That being said, despite the many nods to the traditions of the Swedish style scattered throughout this LP, ‘Echoes of the Apocalypse’ is far from being yet another empty homage to the old school. As mentioned, the guitar leads – although frequently bursting into classic fretboard-murder style solos – operate more as a sequencer would, with simple repeated guitar leads that jump out as each track gains momentum. This works more as an additional layer of texture as opposed to a fully fleshed out melodic component. This leaves the rhythm guitar to navigate us through the narrative framework of each track. They offer up an array of riffs with a minimal death metal and death/doom flavour to them. The full variety of which is exemplified on tracks like ‘Memories from Mass Graves’ which has some Asphyx flavour to it, or ‘Serpents for Saints’ which has similar oppressive, unsettling qualities that call to mind Demigod or Adramelech.

Vocals stick to a relatively clear death growl, at once menacing and aggressive but knitted neatly into the discomforting sonic veil of the music. Although this would broadly be considered mid-paced death metal, Spiritual Holocaust pick up the pace at times, covering everything from doom metal to d-beats to blast-beats throughout the course of this LP. Despite this however, the whole has a unified, doom laden atmosphere that only single-minded minimalism and overpowering guitar tones can achieve. This album exemplifies some of the best qualities of death metal at the height of its power back in the early 1990s, but is far removed from the standard old school box-tickers we are used to hearing by now. One can pinpoint the mechanics behind Spiritual Holocaust’s influences, but the end result is very much its own beast of lumbering, mid-paced death metal with a subtle industrial aesthetic to it.

Oldmoon: The Osteomantic Incantation (2020)

The second LP from the Colombian outfit known as Oldmoon takes us right back to pre ‘His Majesty at the Swamp’ era Varathron. ‘The Osteamantic Incantation’ is a lo-fi journey through arcane Southern European style black metal, with a good measure of death metal influence spread throughout.

The production is demo quality, which is no detriment as far as the guitars are concerned. Highly melodic solos and clean interludes of delicate melodies are contrasted with a dirty, half-formed tone that makes up the bulk of the actual riffs performed here. Primitive old school death metal is thrown against Hellenic traditions that seek to meld early extreme metal with the refined melodic elements of heavy metal. Vocals stick to a low death growl with plenty of reverb. This allows them plenty of presence, but also ends up filling out the mix in the absence of a strong bass tone besides an ever-present throb. The drums offer a sloppy but consistent rhythmic framework to hang the whole thing on. Being somewhat limited on both a technical and a production level relegates their significance on this release to sophisticated metronome.

But all these shortcomings of production, levels, mixing, and ability are bypassed thanks to the central commanding narrative that the guitars play. One can easily get over the haze of the lo-fi mix as the music itself jumps out of these limitations and allows us to hear the scope of the compositions beneath. Ultra-primitive death metal riffs are directly contrasted with epic sweeping leads that transcend this claustrophobic setting and grant the music size and breadth. Regular clean guitar interludes breakup the static and further offset the abrasion of this album’s more visceral qualities.

The overall impact is one of a dreamlike atmosphere that seems to emanate from beyond another veil of reality. Oldmoon, despite the obvious limitations in recording techniques, seem fully aware of how to manipulate these limitations to reach for something more than the sum of its parts. Even at its dirtiest, ‘The Osteomantic Incantation’ has an immersive, spiritual quality to it that calls back to early Hellenic black metal. This is both a result of the compositional techniques deployed across the album, but also clever mastery of technical limitations that in the right hands become an advantage. 

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