‘Consistency’ is a descriptive word. But when used to discuss discographies, beneath consistency’s benign exterior lurks the spectre of value judgement, a positive subtext. A consistent artist is one that can be relied upon to achieve a baseline level of quality. Both these artists are consistent. But this commonplace reading of the word carries with it no glowing affirmation in this context. There is undoubtably a baseline level of quality that can be measured across their output. But a consistent and – at least in Dudkh’s case – overwhelming volume of output gives little cause for celebration. As far as modern black metal is concerned, for all my slating of American black metal, there are at least corners of excitement, of risk, of danger. Consistency may be hard to come by across the pond, but this makes the hits all the more thrilling, and the misses all the more instructive. Europe by comparison, despite its wealth of celebrated releases over the years, is not without its also-rans. The formulaic and the uninspired.
Belgium’s Wiegedood boast a neat little discography of three full length albums, making up a trilogy of down the middle black metal. Whether intentional or no, their sound seems designed to be as inoffensive as possible to both traditionalists as well as vital young minds looking for cheap novelty. They meld a frantic, lightning fast form of black metal that entirely favours riffs over dirgey atmopsheres, with some subtle colourings of post hardcore and sludge. But these latter influences are mere hints when compared to some of the attempted genre meldings of Wiegedood’s contemporaries.
Their third album, ‘De doden hebben het goed III’, is a tight, efficient rendering of this style. The production is clear, crisp, and cold. It has a genuine, garage band quality to it, althought it’s clearly the child of a recording studio. This is largely down to the no thrills approach towards black metal this band have opted for. Atmosphere is the remit solely of the guitars, and their simple yet elegant layering of chord sequences. Almost no reverb has been applied to the drums or the high-pitched vocals, which have a very authentic feel to them. The drums themselves are happy cutting across the guitars with choppy rhythms, or else working in unison with the tremolo picking, offering a solid foundation of tight blast-beats or trancelike double-kick work.
They display a fairly impressive economy of ideas. Spinning out two or three central refrains for the first half of the track, underpinned by a rhythm section wired into the shifts in motif and helping to signal the transitions. These are then brought to a climax mid-track, either by a key change or a change in timbre, whereby the rhythm section drops out, leaving clean guitars to walk us through the transition. In dragging out these sparse riffs to their absolute limit, offering only the most basic of commentary or rhythmic underpinning to relieve from the repetition, there is a purity to this sound reminiscent of early Burzum. The music has nowhere to hide, and no cheap thrills are offered in this place of solitude. Wiegedood prove to be a little less patient than my boy Varg when it comes to longform compositions however, as they insist on killing the momentum with clean guitar breakdowns or key changes that don’t work once the initial motif has been established. This is a minor detriment to what is otherwise a surprisingly restrained and honest work of pure black metal.
The most interesting thing about Ukrainian black metal institution Drudkh is how uninteresting they are when compared to the various side projects its members have been involved with. Yet their popularity persists. They’ve honed blandness into an artform. And their far-reaching influence on post 2000 black metal in this regard cannot be overstated. Maybe it’s because I’ve been rereading Hegel lately, or maybe in this instance the dialectic boot fits that snuggly, but I believe the reason the Drudkh formula works so well for a lot of people is because it’s a synthesis. A synthesis of the second wave of Norwegian black metal thesis, and the indie music that passed for black metal in Brooklyn that was its antithesis. Drudkh take the sweeping, open string tremolo picking of Northern European styles, neuter it of all danger and excitement, and churn out an endless conveyor belt of inoffensive pinpoint average black metal.
2018’s ‘They Often See Dreams About the Spring’ is no exception to this. In taking the banal rock cadences common to acoustic neofolk and recasting them into the black metal framework of distorted, layered guitars and open string tremolo strumming, they have somehow created a sound that is the worst of both worlds. The fragile and endlessly compelling solitude found in neofolk is lost in the confused array of distorted guitar tracks, a ‘too many melodies spoil the broth’ approach. Yet the black metal traits are completely toothless, devoid of jeopardy, theatre, or excitement. Any compelling moments that are actually present are all but lost to the competing array of guitar leads, completely ill-suited to their setting. The melodies would be better served in a sparse open space, with room to breathe, and the nurturing hand of dynamic range to act as a midwife to their emotive qualities. Instead we have a garish concoction of clashing melodies, all dripping with ill thought out sentiment.
Thurios’ vocals stick stubbornly to a clunky black metal rasp despite the presumptive grace of their musical setting. The juxtaposition of aesthetics between the music and vocals is hardly a criticism unique to Drudkh, but they have so doggedly stuck to this formula over the course of ten plus albums that it’s not clear whether we should admire their unwillingness to develop themselves. But on that point, we must address this album’s context as the latest in a long line of similar releases. It feels like these stock observations could be levelled at any of Drudkh’s albums, so little has their music diversified over the years. Normally I celebrate an artist’s determination to hone their craft in only the most indiscernible ways, given the alternative seems to be Enslaved’s career. That being said, it’s not clear why Drudkh are sticking so doggedly to this bland, inoffensive form of music, so ill-suited to the black metal aesthetic. It’s also not clear why it exists at all, let alone in such abundance. Nothing is ventured, nothing is gained, we go away learning nothing. As we listen, we are suspended in stasis for forty odd minutes, coming out the other side neither intellectually, emotionally, or aesthetically more developed beings than we were before. It’s not the most unpleasant experience going, it’s just bland. Which as we all know is a far greater crime against art than producing a work that is deeply unpleasant. At least revulsion is a powerful emotive response to invoke in someone, not to be underestimated when compared to mild indifference.
Wiegedood seem to take a generic modern metal template of indie influences and use it to supress what could have been a great black metal album into something that is merely good. Drudkh by contrast wrote an album (and let’s face it, many albums) more suitable for a neofolk or even a post rock setting. They then forced this square peg into the round hole that is black metal, and created something at once confused and messy yet entirely banal. This complex is not endemic to the members of Dudkh. Their other projects have all displayed a far tighter grasp on the black metal form over the years. But this is the project that gained notoriety through word of mouth and a spread of influences guaranteed to appeal to self-conscious ‘serious’ music fans outside of metal circles. Wiegedood by contrast have the opposite problem it seems, in that they display an adept mastery of the black metal form, but are lacking somewhat on the compositional front to really bring their vision to the fore. Despite their shortcomings however, it’s a project that is well worth delving into, and is thus our pick for this week.