Hate Meditations’ quest to document the lesser trodden corridors of extreme metal’s history enters its fifth year. Since 2017 we have been selecting two albums to run over to the lab each week for further analysis. Pairings are based on similarity of style and/or era; once the findings are rigorously peer reviewed they are published. At this point we’ve covered all the usual touchstones, and lifted the rocks covering some lost treasures. But, seeing as this is a living document of an artistic history, no offer of cathartic finality can be made. Not only because history is forever being written. But also because this age of instant access has led to an unprecedented unearthing of long forgotten bands and releases from around the globe. Whether rightfully consigned to the dustbin of history or dusted off for a new generation to discover and preserve, we’ll continue to apply the same rigour to the listening, and draw what lessons we can.
So to kick of 2021, here’s two unrelated but largely buried pieces of European black metal from the maligned late 2000s. These have been selected for no other reason than the fact that they exist. For all the talk of the bad outweighing the good, it should be remembered that music is an industry defined by its over production, relying on one or two in a hundred to take off and hit it big. The same goes for quality. But in an age of content saturation, of scenes bursting with bands and releases no one individual could possibly be expected to keep up with, the malaise of amnesia will claim the good and bad alike. Seen in this light, re-treading the recent past becomes an act of cultural preservation.
Finland’s Raate were a two-hit wonder of the late 2000s. The first of these hits being 2007’s ‘Sielu, Linna’. Amongst the vast void of artists that make up the Burzum school, this album sits on that ill-defined line between laid back, melancholy black metal that nevertheless retains a percussive philosophy not found in ambient black metal. The drums constitute a guiding element of this music. Sometimes this amounts to little more than a retention of the music’s rhythmic momentum, as simple fills and shifts give rise to extended periods of repetition. But said passages are still underpinned by drum patterns with character and life, and not mere metronomic monotony. We find this delicate balance between ponderous yearning with a sense of purpose if we look to the guitars themselves as well. Although the guitar tone is heavily distorted with most of the emphasis on the high-end (as one would expect of traditional black metal), there is enough clarity and sharpness to allow the riffs to retain a degree of complexity. This supervenes on the contrast between the staccato riffs with the drab, ringing chords as much as it does any harmonic complexity.
Atop this plain but satisfying canvas is painted some neat flourishes that make Raate immediately stand out as something more imaginative than countless others in the field. The first is the folk influence. This word has become something of a bugbear of late given metal’s patchy relationship and treatment of folk at large. But in the easy going – nay timeless – environment of ‘Sielu, Linna’ these influences are kept to subtle adornments and interludes that play into and develop the ideas found in the metal sections proper. But in highlighting these minor non-metal influences I wish to draw attention to the real flashpoint that makes this superficially drab album something a little more exciting. Many of the riffs trade on highly traditional black metal chord progressions, augmented by minor harmonies. These are then supplemented with more modern techniques, such as dissonance, and a pronounced commitment to minimalism. But it is in this tension between the old and new – stylistically the 20th vs. 21st Century if you insist – that some of these riffs garner their charm.
There is a fluidity to the composition and performance – complimented by the modest yet creative drumming – that gives this music a sense of journey and drama so lacking in more static offerings of this era. In this we find an imperfect but compelling reimagining of traditional black metal, within the very rigid aesthetic framework that the term implies, one that nevertheless breaks through some of the seemingly intractable walls of stagnation that so many others have run up against. The clarity, the minimalism, the simplicity of these pieces that somehow still manage to touch on many moods and styles, grants us a rare look into the mechanics of how this progression that is still rooted in the past can be achieved.
For an entirely different take on advancing black metal with the tools of the past, Germany may not be the first place that comes to mind. Despite the notorious blend of punk and folk found in Absurd, the part troll part genius of Nargaroth, or the back to basics approach of Ungod, Germany never developed a distinctive national identity comparable to their Southern and Northern European counterparts. That’s until we come to The Ruins of Beverast via Nagelfar of course, which started to work in pronounced Germanic traits to a recognisable black metal framework. Descriptive precision may be hard to come by, but the melding of theological influences alongside the blackened doom metal of Bethlehem, and non-Nordic black metal in Samael comes close to an approximation. This finds its apex in acts like Verdunkeln, whose second album ‘Einblick in den Qualenfall’ (2007) collects together these loose ends into a work of breadth and ambition that is also distinctively Germanic.
This is blackened doom metal that is granted weight and gravity not just via the slower tempos, but also in its gradual, patient unfolding of each idea. The guitar is suitably beefed up to cope with the demands of riffs defined by the lackadaisical development of melody, the ringing chords, the layering of tones. A clean, reverb drenched guitar tone functions as the deliverer of lead melody, but it is set low enough in the mix to fade into the general atmosphere and mood of each piece as opposed to becoming a distraction. Vocals largely stick to traditional black metal stylings with melodramatic and goblinoid aural ejaculations. This dangerously close to comical style is supplemented by plenty of clean Gregorian chanting which not only adds another harmonic voice into the mix but also opens out the chasmic spaces at the heart of this music.
Each piece will make use all of these basic elements to unfold slow, meandering blackened doom metal that – although developing ideas and melodic progressions – is primarily focused on setting the mood of each piece. Then as the intensity begins to coalesce into a more solid framework, the drums will pick up the pace with some double bass, dragging the inertia of the throbbing guitars along with them. Accenting each build and fall, a distorted guitar lead may jump out to supplement the clean tones. If the latter represents a sense of spiritual rest, maybe not tranquillity then at least meditation, the former, with the additional abrasion and higher pitches afforded by the overdriven guitar tone adds urgency, conflict, and momentum to the overall arrangement, and this can be expressed without the need to increase the bpm.
This is one of those albums that has such a distinctive, specialised character and atmosphere, that even the black ‘n’ roll number ‘Der Quell’, with its punky drumbeat, positively excited riffs, and jovial clean vocals is entirely supressed in the chasmic murk that drenches this entire album. ‘Einblick in den Qualenfall’ is one of those rare marriages of matter and form, of technique and execution, that leads to new corridors of sonic possibility via methods well established in the past.
So as hinted in the preamble, these two albums offer entirely different approaches to a broadly black metal framework. They are connected by only the loosest similarities in timbre, atmosphere, well almost every aspect. But this only goes to illustrate the enormous diversity to be found in this sonic realm. They are, however, connected by one distinct philosophy that went largely overlooked in the carnival that was 2000s black metal. That is subtle yet fully formed leaps forward, yet remaining rooted in the techniques and overall ethos of their forebears. And this fact means that these albums have a tendency to get under your skin. They don’t dance in front of you shouting about how out-there and boundaryless they are. There’s no fanfare and no preamble required. They simply offer something new, in a recognisable style, that amounts to artistic statements that speak for themselves, and work their way into the psyche in a way that stands the test of time. For that reason they are both my pick for this week. But if we have to land on one side (and we do have to) then we’ll go with Verdunkeln for the simple fact that it gets more spins various rotations.