Tempestarii: Chaos at Feast (2020)
Black metal as sentimentality; it’s probably one of the pivotal shifts in philosophy from the ‘old’ to the ‘new’ school that has determined the creative decisions of each ethos. But of the old school, the techniques and traditions that set it apart from other forms of metal always did lend themselves to a certain immersive, cathartic release not available to other, more grounded styles. Whilst these were originally directed towards eternalist musical philosophies, there was always an undercurrent of personal (and therefore temporary) yearning to be found at the heart of black metal. The fact that this sentimentality, or rather pathos, has been reinterpreted into flat, unimaginative facsimiles of black metal’s original spirit has been well documented. But in emphasising this lamentable phenomena, it can be easy to forget the nobility of the original intent.
Yes, drawing attention to the heady emotivism of black metal carries with it many risks, but that does not make the initial spark of motivation and inspiration a pure one. Enter Idaho’s Tempestarii, a solo black metal outfit who have just offered up their second LP ‘Chaos at Feast’, now out on French black metal label Transcendance. It’s a work that is at once bold in its mastery of powerful emotional forces that run through the entire album – sorrow, loss, despair, hope – yet also restrained in its ability to harness said forces into a disciplined compositional framework. One that speaks of something deeper than an unfocused outpouring of the human condition.
The production is highly bespoke, much like the Swedish masters Dawn, Vinterland, or Sacramentum, it is tailored towards creating one particular atmosphere, but doing it so competently that one can’t help but get sucked in. Drums offer a tight but varied foundation, switching from blast-beats to slower fills defined by rumbling toms and the wash of cold atmospheres that only relentless crash cymbals laced in reverb can provide. Although the drums are clear enough for one to appreciate on a technical level, their supressed position in the mix is indicative of their secondary, supportive role in this symphony. The guitar tone is typical of fast, atmospheric black metal: thin, covered in reverb, accenting the high end and taking full advantage of the inertia that supervenes on each chord progression when tremolo picked with open strings. Bass is audible, aiding the drums in anchoring this wash of cold, sparse soundscapes. Vocals follow in the same footsteps, with high end screeches and the occasional echoey cleanly sung passage to accent the melodrama.
‘Chaos at Feast’ calls to mind a more ethereal ‘De Mysteriis Dom. Sathanas’. It walks that line between meticulous riffcraft and immersive atmosphere. The former is stripped down, simplified, or rather, the development of each passage and the links between them are elongated for the sake of allowing the music room to breathe. This is a story of texture more than it is a puzzle of complex chord progressions. The musicality, although flawlessly executed, is put in service of these overarching themes. This album is a testament to the fact that one can still create highly emotive statements within black metal whilst creating soundscapes that transcend the individual’s place in the world. Despite this album’s undeniable sentimentality, the music is stirring, life affirming, powerful, and ultimately celebrates the world beyond the individual perspective.
Sainte Marie des Loups: Funérailles de feu (2020)
Channelling the spirit of ‘Under a Funeral Moon’, French outfit Sainte Marie des Loups dropped their second LP on the world in 2020: ‘Funérailles de feu’. This is a modest but richly compact work of raw black metal. Although everything about the general presentation screams old school, this album betrays its modern setting with some conventional, almost heroic sounding chord structures knitted into the usual grating minor chord progressions and tritones.
The production is everything you would expect from a child of early Darkthrone. A thin, minimal guitar track is accompanied by tinny drums, bass that is noticeable if one happens to be thinking about it, and fairly off-the-shelf vocal stylings. The frantic yet triumphant tone to a lot of these tracks also calls to mind Ulver’s ‘Nattens Madrigal – Aatte Hymne til Ulven i Manden’. Repetitive micro-refrains offset what would otherwise be a wash of tremolo picking with some simple yet compelling half-formed melodic inflections. This also provides some much needed variation to the pitch of the guitars.
All make for a competent but entirely unremarkable piece of raw black metal, one that prides itself on cutting away the bullshit that saturates a lot of modern offerings. An attempt to reengage with the ethos of the second wave over and above pale imitation. The rudiments may appear simple at first glance, but there is care taken to layer up these riffs into engaging narratives that strive to create their own world through phrasing and layering of rhythm and lead.
All this would be true, and also the last word one could offer on ‘Funérailles de feu’, were it not for some quirky little choices scattered throughout that catch us off guard (they are French after all). One is the aforementioned triumphalist direction that some of the riffs take. Shedding the conventional music theory of the genre, they opt for galloping melodies that sound like an evil Iron Maiden more than anything that came out of Norway in the 90s. On the rack ‘Meurtrieres’ some very retro sounding synths are utilised as an accompaniment throughout the track, before taking over lead duties by the end; a tactic that is made use of more than once on ‘Funérailles de feu’. Again, not out of this world in terms of creative choices, but nevertheless idiosyncratic in this particular field of black metal. The album is riddled with needlessly complex basslines given how underserviced the instrument is in the mix. It is also adorned with odd samples, sound effects, unexpected licks and inflections of key. All create the illusion of size, a hint of a larger world behind the superficial veil of this album
None of this disrupts the overall flow of the album to the point of being disjointed however. It’s an intense, relentless pounding of raw, simple-but-not-simplistic black metal, with just enough well-placed quirks and interesting creative decisions to stand out in a sea of bland.
Cryptic Shift/Replicant/Inoculation/Astral Tomb: Chasm of Aeons (2020)
This split sees Blood Harvest gather together some prime nuggets of sci-fi themed technical death metal. These are selected from some of the smaller names in the recent renaissance of the genre following the success of Vektor and Blood Incantation.
This four-way split opens with ‘Cosmic Dreams’, a single from Leeds’ own Cryptic Shift, originally released back in 2017. Still riding the waves of their triumphant debut LP ‘Visitations from Enceladus’ released this year, this single tracks their progression from the technical thrash outfit found on the ‘Beyond the Celestial Realms’ EP (2016), into the new darlings of progressive death metal they are today. It’s a dense choppy number that leaps from meaty staccato riffs that would almost be at home on a brutal death metal album to spacey free jazz, and back to a rich interplay of guitar leads, showcasing the virtuosity of the players. Link riffs, and the Steve Tucker-esque vocal narration of guitarist Xander Bradley, guide us through the transitions that stitch this thick but varied gut punch of a track together. But pay attention, every moment is nutrition dense and laden with three-dimensional musical chess; blink and you’ll miss it.
Next up is New Jersey’s Replicant with the track ‘Unbeing’. This immediately makes its divergent intentions known when compared to the playful meanderings of Cryptic Shift. Conventional rhythms played at tempos we can actually ingest in one sitting form the foundation for a run of the mill journey down semi-technical dissonance. The drums offer up plenty of interesting patterns to unsettle the loose guitars, but they stick to each pattern long enough for the listener to take in. We also note some post rock leanings in the use of droning chords to contrast with the thicker front half of the track. This eventually decays into a brutal slam breakdown of sorts as the ideas eventually dry up completely.
Cleveland’s Inoculation then bound in with the track ‘Xerthaneus’. This is a more straight down the middle reading of technical death metal. The time signatures are more conventional, the tempo changes are fewer, but everything is embroiled in a frantic energy born of the unstoppable momentum of the guitars. They rebound from one choppy riff to the next, backed by a tight, consistent rhythmic pummelling from the drums. Vocals are also more in line with the old school guttural style. What’s also notable is that despite the multiple tracking of the guitars throughout, there is a break for the solo where the rhythm drops out entirely. Whether a choice born of necessity or creativity, it ekes out an interesting arena of space couched within this short track, further emphasised by the doom breakdown towards the end.
Finally, to close this EP we have the new kids on the block Astral Tomb. This is the most demo quality recording of the bunch, but still points to some interesting interpretations of the astral death metal craze, even if the track title – ‘Transcending from the Mortal Plane Guided by a Familiar Phantasm’ – doesn’t speak of an artist afraid of underselling itself. Despite the lo-fi production, one can see a band with an ear for atmosphere as much as creating dense, riff heavy death metal. There are plenty of slower breakdowns that give the lead guitars a chance to shine as an augmenter of the oppressive qualities inherent within the rhythm guitars, and not just a vacuous showcase of virtuosity. Combining these glum atmospheres with some upbeat passages of more down the middle death metal actually calls to mind Northern European traditions more than it does mid-90s prog.