The clunky conglomerate of ideologies collected together under the Norwegian scene was always something a pick and mix free-for-all. Compelling as it was, extracting a coherent narrative thread from the loose ends of interviews and retrospects is a fool’s errand. Later abandoned by most of the originators in favour of the dollar, it left Varg as the lonely scholar of nationalism, heathenism, and the correct way to prepare a bowl of cereal. By contrast, the Polish scene took its ideology seriously from the off, as an essential component of the music. Graveland wove nationalism and Wotanism into their musical tapestry, sealing their fate as a controversial mainstay of black metal collections. But Darken’s unapologetic mix of raw musical abrasion with epic soundscapes is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Polish black metal. So let’s delve a little deeper into a scene that offered a degree of purity not afforded by other scenes placed under greater scrutiny.
Cultes des Ghoules are a child of the third wave, but one could be forgiven for thinking that their debut LP, 2008’s ‘Häxan, …or Medieval Witchcraft and Infanticide…’ was released ten years earlier. The mix trades on that classic paradox of the romantically minded black metal artist. The atmosphere is dark and rich, the vocals are drenched in reverb and revel in ghoulish outbursts and esoteric melodrama. Yet the nuts and bolts of this is achieved via ultra-primitive, demo tape quality production values, consisting predominantly of one guitar track, energetic but under-serviced drums, and a distorted bass tone that gives almost no view of the instrument’s mechanics; at least during the faster passages.
But any comment one may wish to pass on the flimsy production is by the by, because it’s directed entirely towards creating a uniquely eldritch atmosphere. The clunky mismanagement of the levels works in Cultes des Ghoules’ favour, especially given their unpredictability as they siphoned through frantic blasts and slow morbidity in equal measure. The experience is akin to spending the night in a remote forest in darkness, with noises of unknown animals and elements echoing both in the distance and the immediate vicinity. These haunting qualities find their fruition on the lengthy numbers like ‘Baptised by the Baron’, which is replete with indeterminate extra-musical noises, including what sounds like a distraught crying baby at one point. This latter noise, when juxtaposed with Marek (Mark of the Devil) Górecki’s vocalisations, Attila like in their eccentricity, really sets the scene for this unholy ceremony.
In terms of the riffs themselves, everything seems bent towards creating this immersive, occult atmosphere. Slower passages are defined by high end tritone play, made all the more grating by the thin guitar tone, as if imitating cries of anguish. The lower end switches from mimicking these tritones, to atonal blackened thrash riffs not dissimilar to early Beherit. This dichotomy, which is usually articulated over fairly longform compositions, adds to the disorientating atmospheres found on ‘Häxan’. One wonders if this had been released fifteen years earlier, would it be considered a classic by a wider audience? As things stand, this could not stick out more when compared to most of big budget black metal churned out in 2008.
Operating at the other end of the aesthetic spectrum is Gontyna Kry. With a release that very much belongs in the lexicon of 2008 , ‘Arystokracja ducha’ (and Gontyna Kry at large) embodies the best and worst aspects of Eastern European black metal. The National Socialist ideology that has permeated and haunted the output of artists in this corner of the globe sadly finds its articulation in this outfit. But accompanying these extreme ideals is highly accessible, folk influenced black metal, with a touch of progressive death metal influence in many of the guitar leads (as an aside, it often surprises those new to the phenomenon of NSBM that a lot of the music is pretty accessible by black metal standards; either pop punk covers of Nazi anthems or borderline Disney music with distorted vocals). The polished production values, and highly melodic nature of this music could not be further removed from Gontyna Kry’s fellow countrymen Veles, Graveland, or Cultes des Ghoules.
Bouncy and rhythmically diverse tracks that call to mind early Nokturnal Mortum in their reference to pre-Christian folk traditions that paradoxically find their articulation through highly synthetic instrumentation. The drums are programmed, the keyboards have that highly synthetic quality to them, with absolutely no pretence of aspiring to the instrument they are allegedly imitating. But as with Nokturnal Mortum, if the music itself is colourful enough it will transcend such trivial limitations. And ‘Arystokracja ducha’ certainly does that. The compositions are rich with musical history, the emotional range reaches to the epic, the triumphant, to the dark, aggressive, and mournful.
This is achieved largely through Gontyna Kry‘s disciplined marshalling of a broad range of traditions and influences, both old and new. The sincerity of the folk melodies, and the bouncy rhythms that accompany them shine through regardless of the highly artificial production values. In this regard they are not unlike Summoning in terms of sonic philosophy. But as mentioned there are plenty of progressive influences in the mix as well, which especially inform the lead guitar work, and the rich synths that accompany them on tracks like the interlude ‘Biel i czerwień’. This also informs many of the riffs, which shun the sweeping tremolo picking of Northern European black metal in favour of tight, angular, convoluted chord structures. The guitars are catered towards this end, being a crisp, clear tone with absolutely no lag.
Here we have two offerings at very different ends of the scale as far as Polish black metal is concerned. One takes us on a nocturnal journey through occult rituals, haunting woods, and nightmarish soundscapes, all via the medium of very lo-fi, rudimentary black metal. The other aspires to the melding of black metal and progressive metal, with folk and Celtic influences along the way, similar to what Nokturnal Mortum achieved with ‘The Voice of Steel’. The paradox of the latter being the highly artificial environment that the music is actually shaped in as far Gontyna Kry are concerned. The power of the music managers to outshine said environment however, and takes on a life of its own through its boundless energy and creativity. But this is not enough to carry it towards being this week’s pick, which is going to Cultes des Ghoules. Both get a strong recommendation, but when the call is this close one must resort to inexact and subjective measures of preference. I hold music in the style of ‘Arystokracja ducha’ to a very high ‘The Voice of Steel’ shaped standard. The reason for this is the simple fact that it can be become samey and overwhelming in the wrong hands. Gontyna Kry do enough to avoid this on ‘Arystokracja ducha’, but despite the breadth of musicality on display, it still takes a concerted effort to remain engaged to its many twists and turns, lest one switch off and let the experience wash unconsciously by. ‘Häxan, …or Medieval Witchcraft and Infanticide…’ by contrast is an instantly immersive sound, drawing one into its world whether willing participant or kicking and screaming bystander….like I said, we would normally avoid such subjective metrics if possible, but sometimes a self-indulgent tangent is the only means of decision making at one’s disposal.