I like the beats and I like the yelling: Temple of Abraxas, 景湖白, Aethyrick

Temple of Abraxas: MCMXXXI (2021)

My curiosity for just how exactly Sleepwalker was going to follow up 2019’s ‘Temples Forlorn’ has finally been satisfied. That album presented unique challenges for the onward trajectory of the project known as Temple of Abraxas for a number of reasons. The most obvious being the intangible route to originality that ‘Temples Forlorn’ took. Temple of Abraxas work with very familiar forms within black metal, but by applying an intuitive yet mesmerising approach to melodic development, and filtering it through a kaleidoscope of endlessly bracing yet familiar formations, it morphs into a wholly transcendent experience; like discovering a dusty chronicle of an ancient civilisation that offers tantalising hints of a world long since gone. The magic of this formula is hard to pin down in the ontology of ‘Temples Forlorn’, making any path to developing these ideas on the next work hard to imagine.

But these questions find their answer with the release of ‘MCMXXXI’, which in the context of Temple of Abraxas’s previous works (and Sleepwalker’s other project A Transylvanian Funeral) takes a completely horizontal approach to evolution. I would hesitate to call this album a return to roots, simply because it boasts a considerable sophistication and maturity of its own. But it certainly makes no attempt to recapture the erstwhile magic of ‘Temples Forlorn’ by sticking with a much safer black metal aesthetic. Once we make peace with this fact, one can enjoy the fresh paths that ‘MCMXXXI’ carves out free of distraction.

The album itself is themed around the philosophy and history of vampirism. This subject matter – at once decadent yet esoteric, given the vampire’s use as a metaphor for a more highly evolved stage of humanity, indulgent yet burdened with melancholy – requires a more malleable template capable of expressing these competing aesthetic philosophies. For that reason we are given a more standard black metal finish to the overall mix, one suited to both epically sweeping tremolo riffs and blackened thrash styles of the first wave.

Vocals range from ghoulish black metal stylings to distorted spoken word narrations which provide a commentary on the unfolding drama. Reverb drenched verbal samples also adorn almost every track. They are placed within the mix in order to enhance the story of the music and make its meaning almost literal. They function as grand podium declarations, emanating down from on high, heralds of the new dark age, or else actively engaged in the melodrama of the music. Drums are as rhythmically solid as ever, offering a tight foundation of blast-beats and busy fills that use standard patterns and time signatures to frame each riff and melodic transition with precisely timed accents.

‘MCMXXXI’ takes the word “narrative” literally. This is not just a musical narrative in the sonata sense. The concept and various moods unpacked throughout the album function like a grand historical epic of prose. The tone and meaning is more explicit than the ethereal hints and suggestions of ‘Temples Forlorn’, but it is made no less compelling as a result. We have moments where the music fixates on a single refrain allowing us to take stock. Macro trends and conflicts are unpacked and retold before our ears. Epically sweeping tremolo riffs unfold in familiar ways, carried forward by Sleepwalker’s dazzlingly consistent ability to craft flowing and restless melodies together. The narration, either through the distorted spoken word or those aforementioned samples, act as heralds for the passing of an older age and the coming of the new.

Then by contrast we have those moments that unpack a small-scale story in the first person. This is where the older influences of Bathory or early Samael come in. There is a marked increase in atonality, blast-beats take on an aggressive edge or else cut out completely. The overall mood switches from bracing grand-scale brush strokes to repetition and detailed rumination characteristic of gothic horror writing.  

Both these competing facets lend credence to the idea that ‘MCMXXXI’ is the musical equivalent of a short story collection. Individual tracks can be ripped piecemeal from their setting and function as standalone entities. But the collection is gathered together with one very deliberate theme in mind, one that is revisited at key junctures throughout this album’s significant runtime. The simplest, atomised musical element take on grand significance in this setting, making any notion that this album is “stripped back” or “a return to primitivism” an illusion. It’s an ambitious and engaging work that almost entirely ignores the trajectory of previous efforts from this artist, to its benefit as a piece of art in itself, and our benefit as its recipients.

景湖白(Scenery of Pale Lake): 清醒的人格分裂 (Lucid Schizophrenia) (2020)

Before turning our attention to Scenery of Pale Lake’s debut LP ‘Lucid Schizophrenia’, I’d like to discuss post black metal (soz). When any genre becomes prefixed with the word “post” it usually signifies an important moment in its lifecycle. The divergent styles and creative wanderings of its key artists have become so diffuse as to render capturing their commonality under one neat slogan an impossibility. At this point, critics tacitly accept defeat and begin throwing the word “post” around. At this point the term – defined by the very absence of even a loosely agreed upon definition – is then seized upon as a grand modernising project for genres flagging under their own tired traditionalism. Of course, the ensuing free for all could more fittingly be described as a postmodern project, owing to this lack of any attempt at rigorous quality control or aesthetic metrics beyond “breaking boundaries” and provocative genre alchemy.    

The reason we bring this up is to rather presumptively repurpose this word. To boldly reclaim it from this rampant pseudo intellectualism. Why? Because ‘Lucid Schizophrenia’ is literally a post black metal album. Listening to this LP is a deeply unique experience, but it also feels like witnessing the slow disintegration of past musical forms. Sure there are chords, there are rhythms, there are black metal shrieks and soaring keyboard lines. But all these things are applied in such a discordant way, such a rhythmically disjointed manner, that the music feels like it is literally falling apart before our ears. To borrow a vulgar metaphor from the flicks, it’s akin to watching the T1000 frozen in liquid nitrogen take its last shattering steps before finally splintering into disconnected, atomised fragments.  

I wanted to compare the guitar tone to Mutiilation, with its dissonant, out of tune articulation of each riff and abrasively tinny distortion even by black metal standards. I wanted to compare Scenery of Pale Lake’s approach to ambiguous arpeggios and slowly clattering, collapsing drums to Dewsbury’s Of Wounds., who in turn call to mind the desert jazz of Yawning Man. I wanted to compare the high pitched, distant, inhuman vocals again to either A Forest of Stars or the histrionics of Les Legions Noise. I wanted to compare the keyboards, which really are a law unto themselves, to a cross between a carnival bizarre and sombre folk music.

I wanted to say all that to furnish the music some of the usual verbal approximation. But however valuable shoving all these elements under the microscope is, one cannot escape the fact that the resulting album is a jarring exercise in literalism and metaphor. It’s a slow, sombre rumination on surrealism and the absurdity at existence’s core. As a metaphor for the literal disintegration of black metal’s musical armoury it’s a little too on the nose; the aforementioned “post” moniker made almost flesh as the music undergoes a process of disintegration.

But taking the album on its own terms and it still comes across as barely holding it together, with each drum beat stumbling to the point of collapse, the keyboards playing in a key that the guitars departed a few bars prior, and the manic, frantic, urgent vocals desperately willing their sonic accompaniments into some semblance of solidity. Catharsis is reached at the end, with a highly melodic and surprisingly conventional folk piece on piano and violins, as if to offer some sense of release from the relentless tension that preceded it. I – who’s ears are more hardened than most – could hardly call this an enjoyable listen; compelling, abrasive, thought provoking maybe. But I can guarantee that it is an experience I will be returning far more often than any pretenders to the thrown of mainstream post black metal.

Aethyrick: Apotheosis (2021)

The LP from Finland’s Aethyrick sees another expertly rendered wash of understated black metal with a pronounced sentimentality. Operating on a similar metric to Winterfylleth in their ability to craft lengthy narratives from simple single celled riffs and melodic chunks that are worked through variations in tempo, layering of harmonies and arpeggios to really stretch out the mileage of each fragmentary idea. It’s a simple and old formula that has frankly been done to death, but in the right hands it can offer all the familiarity and comfort of home. Tension reaches us only as a mere suggestion, no demands are made of the listener to reset their brain or otherwise challenge our preconceptions, we are simply invited to sit back and let the warmth flow through us.

The core of this album is as you would expect for generic modern black metal. Clear, crisp drums are tasked with providing extended periods of mid-paced blast-beats, alongside a near constant open hi hat or crash cymbal. But in this setting such things are far from abrasive, they are put in place solely to open out the atmosphere of each piece, to create the illusion of profundity. Guitars are warm yet carry black metal’s emphasis on the high end, with enough sharpness to articulate any riffs constructed of fiddlier note shifts on the rare occasion they do crop up. The gentle souls of acoustic guitars and celestial synth tones are called in to temper the aggressive tendencies inherent in the metallic instrumentation; the aim is to soothe rather than batter. In this latter regard the vocals are perhaps the one dissenting voice, in that they are surprisingly aggressive given the pathos and mournful tone of the music they are set to.

Beyond that, there are plenty of pleasing melodic flourishes to pick out, or else the simple joys of repetition supplemented by only the smallest of tweaks required to develop each segment. Aethyrick appear intent on delivering a spiritual catharsis, so any elements not directed towards this end must be sublimated to the taming will of either a perfect cadence or accompanied by the clean instrumentation, with their offer of sanctuary and space for contemplation.

The result is not entirely terrible. It’s simply one we’ve heard many times before; usually from UK acts such as Winterfylleth or Wodensthrone. But Aethyrick are up there with these masters of sentiment in their ability to string these fragments into a unified whole; a jeopardy free listening experience. If you execute it with enough character and care, sometimes reaffirming old ground is enough.

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