Today’s sonic hobbyist is faced with hitherto unprecedented choice. This tends to drive the mind into a state of decision paralysis. With access to limitless content, lifted from any period in human history, any region of the world, our focus is warped and inattentive. There is always something else to move onto, our attention is constantly divided. We are compelled to obsessively categorise and archive our experiences, endlessly cataloguing, never experiencing the now. Seen in this light, artistic meritocracy becomes an illusion. What chance does quality art have in being noticed, much less retained for posterity, in the face of this maelstrom of competing noises?
For that reason, preserving the recent present for the sake of our long-term memory becomes an ever more pressing and noble pursuit. Digging out quality releases from the last few years is a matter of urgent cultural preservation. And that’s precisely what Hessian Firm have done once again with their remastering of ‘Dark Fears Behind the Door’, the second album from little known Filipino outfit Asgardsrei, originally released back in 2013.
At its core this is claustrophobic, ritualistic black metal. There is a good dollop of death metal riffs to augment the suffocating qualities inherent in the low-key mix. But whatever style Asgardrei are referencing on this album, all are put in service of an otherworldly atmosphere which calls to mind Beherit circa ‘Drawing Down the Moon’; it feels like a transmission from space, source unknown.
The guitar tone certainly has more of a death metal flavour to it. The earthy, bass heavy sound fills out the mix, but there is plenty of high-end lead guitar work to offset this, with refrains and short solos ripped straight from Autopsy’s worst nightmares. Drums are subdued and garage quality. The snare and toms are relatively supressed, with most of the emphasis placed on the cymbals cutting across the dirge. Their approach to rhythm has an interesting stop/start quality to it, working in conflict with the fluid guitars with uncertain fills and crashing cymbals. This creates constant tension and unease as one wonders whether the music is building momentum or collapsing in on itself. Vocals are a distant presence, sitting in the mid-range with growls and barks drenched in reverb. Keyboards make frequent appearances, jumping out of the mix with eerie ornamental flourishes, usually played on an organ sound, which gives certain passages a classic 70s horror vibe.
One hesitates to use words like ‘crushing’, consigned as it is to the fodder of overly zealous hyperbolic MA reviewers; but the ‘crushing’ boot fits when it comes to an album like ‘Dark Fears Behind the Door’. There is an insular, clammy, constricting quality to this album, which runs through every aspect of this music beyond the guitar tone itself. The drums – in emphasising the harsh indifference of the crash cymbals and hi-hat – work in layers of discomfort that constantly unsettles the pacing of the music; an interesting use of percussion not often seen in this style. The keyboards – whether performed solo as an interlude, or accenting the guitars – articulate melodies that feel half-formed, almost ghostly, a facsimile of music. The low-end riffs are an ever-present wall of fog, occasionally mutating into lead melodies that are a law unto themselves. Taken together it amounts to a work that is at once alienating and alien. It encases the listener in a restrictive, impenetrable atmosphere of deep discomfort. Yet comes across like a transmission from another planet.
Sicily’s Lich open this split EP with two tracks of frantic yet cavernous extreme metal. Much like Finland’s Lantern, it lifts riffs from pre-second wave black metal and old school death metal, using these rudiments to craft passages of uncontrolled blasting, interrupted by doom breakdowns that invoke those trademark chasmic atmospheres that are all the rage these days. Although the production is not too heavy handed with the reverb – aside from the vocals that feel like someone yelling from the other side of a hill – it still invokes the feeling of being in a large, underground cave system.
This is achieved largely through the riffs themselves, which are at once constrictive yet constantly opening out new spaces. Simple descending chord progressions with quickfire accents give the feeling of sinking beneath the ground, into the bowels of the earth. Uncontrolled vocal ejaculations and layers of guitar feedback offer tantalising hints of size behind the chaos of the music’s shopfront. Drums are a hardworking presence for Lich. Although left relatively flat in the mix, they are a wash of thundering rhythms and chaotic blast-beats which endeavour to constantly challenge the guitars to keep up with their shifts in mood and urgency. Frantic subterranean death metal with hidden layers of drama couched within the fray.
For their half, Ossario offer up another iteration of precision blackened thrash, as a continuation of their debut self-titled EP released back in June. Take the depressive drone of early Hellhammer, speed up the tempos, tighten up the rhythm section, and you have an approximation of the Ossario philosophy. Production is pleasingly clear, giving us full view of the mechanics of the drums. The guitar retains enough bite to keep us in dirty blackened thrash territory. Vocals are of a high-end death metal variety, operating on that Martin van Drunen metric of strained aggression, but retaining enough control to allow for rhythmic precision and effective phrasing.
This punch-and-run style lends itself to the short-form setting of the split EP, and provides a welcome survey of the rudiments of narrative composition. The opening riff is driven through a couple of subtle variations, a midpoint breakdown whereby the tempo drops completely, and doom laden chords are granted breathing space to build the tension back up, before the original riff is revisited under the new context granted by the preceding passages, and a finale riff to bring things to a climatic conclusion. Both tracks follow this basic pattern, although the bridge riffs of ‘A Grave Within the Mind’ are defined by the introduction of lead guitars in the form of frantic fretboard murder over shifts in tempo. Ossario’s contribution to this EP makes for a dense, efficient rendering of frantic blackened thrash that retains a sense of evil romanticism inherent in the spirit of early underground extreme metal at its most exhilarating.
This is the second LP of 2020 from October Falls, the Finnish outfit standing guard at the metal’s border with neofolk. For any folk orientated metal artist struggling to decide which direction to lean into for the new album, why not just write two? ‘Syys’ is rather appropriately the autumnal offering, which sees October Falls offer an album consisting almost entirely of minimal acoustic guitar orientated numbers. There is a finality to this style. The sparseness of the presentation is not so much harking back to a simpler time as it is invoking a post-human future. An argument could also be made for this being the logical conclusion to the creative direction of the atmospheric/folk black metal style. As if this is the terminus for any artist wishing to gracefully disembark the metal train whilst retaining the metallic spirit and ethos of their original creative intent.
But October Falls go one step beyond their metal or metal adjacent contemporaries Empyrium and Tenhi by stripping back all vocals and percussion entirely. These pieces are constructed primarily from an acoustic guitar ensemble. Rhythm is articulated via delicate arpeggios, or the cyclical growth and withering of singular, strummed chords. This creates regular gaps of silence, a lacklustre binary between intermittent periods of stasis and rebirth. Bare bones lead melodies are then left to flesh out the emptiness left by this ghostly foundation. The latter of which are kept deliberately simple, beholden to the tentative flow of the rhythm section rather than initiating or signalling shifts in intensity and key. They act as a stand in where a vocal melody would normally be found, allowing the listener to fill in the blanks of these pale textures lest they fade out of existence entirely.
There are other instruments at work on ‘Syys’ however. One can hear a flute, a piano, and what sounds like a string section. But these are so supressed, restricted to only the most basic of note clusters, that any melodic qualities are all but absent. They exist to offset the raw timbre of the guitars, fill out the empty spaces, accent the rhythm. On that note it’s also worth mentioning the non-musical aspects present on this album, namely the subtle sound effects of rustling trees in the wind, distant thunder, and…an owl. The latter of which sounds off at frequent intervals throughout the entire album. Now, any dedicated fan of black metal is well versed in the virtues of such samples. They are pretty much a fixture in any black metallers arsenal when looking to enhance the music. But on an album such as ‘Syys’ – which trades in the purity of its statement, its tranquillity, a form of stasis almost – the near constant presence of these sounds detracts a little from the solitude of the guitars. And the owl really did outstay its welcome (there’s a sentence I didn’t think I’d write today). I’ve got nothing against an owl every now and then, but it needed to take a bow, at least after the first handful of tracks.
Minor blots aside, it’s hard to argue with an album like this. October Falls thread that needle between dedication to pure minimalism offset by just enough life and colour in the musical components to imbue it with sonic motion. By the end of ‘Syys’, we are left tranquil, detoxified, and ultimately alone. Of all the ways metal artists have attempted to escape metal music over the years, neofolk has perhaps offered the most artistic success and dignity. Largely because neofolk’s music theory is laced throughout a certain stripe of black metal anyway, so the leap is not all that dramatic. But there is also a sense that black metal at its purest is a kindred spirit to albums like this. The solitary acoustic guitar, throwing out mournful yet soothing passages, warping our sense of time, slowing the passing of events to a meditative crawl.