I like the beats and I like the yelling: Boreal, Sad, Askog

Boreal: The Battle of VOSAD (2020)

Here’s a novel fucker, an American atmospheric black metal outfit that doesn’t suck balls. Although founder Ash Fox has apparently been at it since 2003, it was only in 2018 that he was joined by a rhythm section in JR and AW. 2020 sees them throw out a re-recorded version ‘The Battle of VOSAD’, originally a demo released back in 2006, now Boreal’s debut LP.

Compression and reverb seem to be the name of the game in this murky, all-encompassing mix. It’s a style that relies entirely on texture and timbre over any signature melodic philosophy. But if the broth is assembled with the correct quantities in the correct order – as is the case with this iteration of ‘The Battle of VOSAD’ – then even the most rudimentary narrative through lines can suffice. The highly bespoke qualities to the mix create a sonic inertia as the various instruments race to catch up with shifts in key and pitch at slightly different intervals, meaning that even the subtlest alteration can generate pivotal climaxes within these compositions.

There’s a heavy Summoning flare to the ponderous rhythms anchoring this album. They come across as an act of self-restraint, as if held back from a primal audial assault by the liquid treacle of the mix. But comparisons to the legendary Austrian Tolkien enthusiasts go well beyond the rhtym section. The very makeup of these compositions is similar in that the keyboards trade lead and textural duties with the guitars. The latter of which are more frequently relegated to bringers of size and scope than they are directors of musical progression. Although plenty of minimal tremolo picked riffs do soar above the mix for long durations, they often serve the purpose of textural layering than anything else.

Vocals are suppressed, covered in reverb, and almost buried into the instruments by virtue of exhibiting similar distorted qualities. They act merely as another lever at Boreal’s disposal to build up or breakdown the rich soup of atmospheres that is the defining feature of this album. But undercutting this murk, and ultimately providing the listener with a means of navigation, are the ever-purposeful marching drums. They largely stick to the simplest of 4/4 time signatures with throbbing double bass accents, but little more is required to cut through this fog and orientate it forwards.

In this way, Boreal bypass the common shortcomings of the atmospheric black metal genre; namely its preoccupation with atmosphere (no shit). Let’s try that again, it’s preoccupation with pretty atmospheres, at the expense of a reason to exist. A pleasing array of textures are all well and good, but without signposting, or any hint of abrasion, any feeling of motion, they amount to little more than sonic wallpaper. They exist to comfort, not challenge, as ornaments, not art.

‘The Battle of VOSAD’ is a fine example of a marriage between craft and philosophy. Boreal show an adept mastery of how to produce an aesthetically pleasing wash of sound through guitars, keyboards, vocals, drums, and the ultimate artistry of harnessing all these things into a tight and identifiable mix; the latter of which is ultimately where the vast majority of the creative energy is spent where atmospheric black metal is concerned. Of course, underpinning all this are simple but endlessly engaging stories told by the music. They pivot on creating the feeling of a journey, as the various moods and colours to the music guide us through landscapes, some fraught with danger, others laced with beauty, some imposingly vast, others tranquil and calm. All features of black metal at its best, and all a challenge to more lazy outfits operating in this zone of metal that trade solely on atmosphere and texture, forgetting the other half the story. One should not underestimate the potential of rudimentary compositional techniques to carry forth a vision, especially with a form of music so weighted down by its own inertia.

Sad: Misty Breath of Ancient Forests (2020)

As attempts to recreate the bracing magic of ‘Far Away From the Sun’ go, you could do a lot than the latest album from Greece’s Sad. This is made all the more impressive given that Sad is effectively a solo project of one Ungod, who apparently performs all instruments, with bandmate Nadir taking up vocal duties. This is fast, melodic black metal that ranges from galloping tempos to a wash of blast-beats and tremolo riffing, sometimes made up of simple harmonies, sometimes a single guitar track working through ascending chord progressions.

To carry off this fast and outdoorsy style requires the typical production values of black metal to dust themselves off a bit. Despite the nuanced melodicism that defines the core of the riffs, they rely on a sense of size and grandeur in delivery to be carried off convincingly. This means working from the drums up; also a challenge given the high speeds and frantic tom fills that are essential to give this music its patented dynamism. Luckily, Sad are not lacking in this regard. There is plenty of depth to this mix, which allows us to hear the double kick work. The snare sound is a little raw, but they have compensated with only a small amount of reverb, allowing the drums to retain their clarity.

The guitar tone is a perfect balance between cold atmospheres and clear definition. This allows the graceful leads that frequently jump out of the fray their moment to shine. Again, the focus is not solely on building up a tapestry of riffs with varying tonal colours. Their function – given the lack of keyboards – is also an atmospheric one. Thanks to the tight relationship between composition and aesthetic – with each heavily informing the ultimate articulation of the other – it’s all the more important to get the guitar tone right. Vocals are relatively high in the mix, and not treated to all that much reverb or enhancement. We are a given surprisingly straightforward narration of standard black metal vocalisations.

Sad do just about enough on ‘Misty Breath of Ancient Forests’ to keep us engaged, no mean feat in a style that can often come over as a homogenous lump with a one-dimensional emotive range. If the shifts between blast-beats and back-beats, ascending and descending chord progressions, and predictable but satisfying key changes becomes tired, Sad will throw in an unexpected lead melody, a more dramatic shift in key or pitch, or some much slower tempos to keep us tuned in.

Whilst pulling us back from the brink of boredom with some off-the-shelf compositional techniques is nothing to be celebrated, Sad are not unqiue here. It has somehow become a hallmark of this cold, melodic style of fast Swedish derived black metal. It’s a very brittle beast. If any component, however small, is off by a fraction – an overly clicky bass drum, ill-defined guitar tone, audible bass – then the whole can come crashing down. But whilst this could easily be construed as a weakness, it is also its greatest strength. If the nuts and bolts of the riffcraft are present, then only the most minor tweaks to key or tempo are enough to extend it’s shelf life; both in terms of relistenability, but also to justify the lengthy compositions that are another hallmark of this style. These are all things that Sad are adept at on ‘Misty Breath of Ancient Forests’. It’s no ‘Far Away From the Sun’, but it’s a more than reasonable 21st century simulation.

Askog: Varg (2020)

The debut single from this Swedish outfit packs a neat little punch of melodic black metal. Tempos stick with a slow march or driving rock beats. This basic but affective and relatively loose rhythmic underpinning grants the guitars space to unfold simple yet epic melodies, rooted in a heavy metal interpretation of black metal riffing.

Production is clear yet organic, creating enough depth for us to appreciate the layering of the guitars, and plenty of visibility of the rhythm section, notably the busy double kick drum work. Vocals are a standard black metal growl, which, along with the guitar tone, gives us the impression that this single was recorded in the mid to late 1990s. This time hopping quality is furthered by a glimmer of the black ‘n’ roll trend that was gaining traction at the turn of the century. This is a mere glimmer however, as the majority of the riffs, although defined by rock tempos and rhythms, lack some of the swing and banality of that unfortunate derivative.

On the whole these two tracks are a pleasing and pretty busy mix of melodic black metal traditions that manage to touch on many facets of this history in a short space of time, without coming across as cluttered. The sophisticated lead guitar work advances and plays off the narrative of each track, whilst the punky, atonal riffs contrast nicely with these more flowery and melodic passages. There are sparse moments of ringing chords granting the music much needed space, along with moments of great musical depth consisting of commonplace but satisfying harmonies.

If black metal has a bread and butter setting, it would probably sound like ‘Varg’ (the new single from Askog, not the ex con fantasy role playing enthusiast). Energetic, cold, riff-laden, and varied, but none of these qualities are played out to the extreme. Askog have played it safe with an already pretty safe style, but taking risks is not always a prerequisite for artistic success. Sometimes executing a familiar style flawlessly is enough to make one take notice.

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