Greek black metallers HOR return with another compact selection of orthodox black metal with their difficult second album entitled ‘No Birth nor End’. Their approach to the form is worth paying attention to if for no other reason than to hear a classic style played with conviction. Both the techniques and overall mood on this release will be very familiar to all and sundry within black metal, but HOR approach it with a level of energy and efficiency that leaves many of their peers far behind.
The production holds few surprises for the black metal faithful. It retains the primal rawness required for a gritty yet stirring piece of black metal, with enough polish to do justice to the tight musicianship on display. The kick drums and toms cut through the mix nicely, offering a decent low end foundation for proceedings in the absence of any other conspicuous bass tones. Guitars are rich and layered, patiently building the tremolo picked riffs on top of each other as each track progresses. Vocals are relatively high in the mix, doing justice to the extroverted performance that serves to greatly elevate the drama on display across this album.
Structurally this follows roughly the same pattern as ‘Exitium’, albeit with a couple of extra tangents along the way. Aside from the track ‘Will to Immortality’ the music is kept at breakneck pace, making austerity of composition a necessity so as not to fall into monotony. Vocalist Throne also maintains a passionate wail throughout which stands apart from the more measured approach usually taken with meat ‘n’ taters black metal.
This raises the stakes for the level of intensity HOR need to maintain, but they are able to refresh the riffs and direction of the music enough to sustain this energy for the length of a short LP. And just with ‘Exitium’, as this album progresses an economy of riffs becomes apparent, with their shape and structure slowly decaying into minimalist versions of themselves. This reaches its ultimate conclusion in the closing track ‘Sibylla’, which switches between two chords over constant blast-beating, with only a couple of transitions into a more complex riff over the course of the track’s eight-minute runtime.
This gradual breakdown of complexity, whilst maintaining the same level of energy grants the album greater longevity, as with hindsight we realise that the opening tracks were building to something despite their apparent lack of forward motion. It’s a clever sleight of hand that HOR are proving to be adept at, smuggling complexity and compositional sophistication beneath the veneer of simplicity, when so often in modern metal we find ourselves saying the opposite.
Melding genres is an endlessly divisive act. The loudest voices in the discussion are wont to ditch talk of quality at the outset in favour of a simple closed vs. open minded false dilemma. The broadest possible range of influences is taken to be inherently good, regardless of how competently they are harnessed together. Or else at the other end of the spectrum artists are condemned to sit in their box and denied any deviation from the standard form they laid down for themselves. This – rather predictably – is to get things backwards. The best in genre alchemy will at the very least avoid beating the listener over the head with the breadth of its horizons, a technique which usually functions as a stand-in for creativity.
This makes Hænesy’s latest album ‘Garabontzia’ an interesting listen. The atypical approach taken to a variant of atmospheric black metal is front and centre on this release, but the end result is a masterstroke of overt originality that retains the intuitive joy of its raw musicality. This means that any talk of stylistic antecedents – whilst instructive – could be jettisoned in order to simply get carried away in the unbridled experience of the music itself.
The reason this meeting of styles works so well for this Hungarian outfit is because they spotted the qualitative similarities within certain genres – namely black metal, atmospheric gothic rock, and yes, post metal – and blended them into music that amounts to more than the sum of these parts. The massively divergent aspects of these disparate styles have been downplayed in order to integrate them into a singular, coherent entity, with none of the distracting and needless meandering of many similar endeavours. The more downbeat elements of gothic rock are used to temper black metal’s inherent bombast, yet simultaneously black metal’s unstoppable euphoria and energy is used to elevate the melancholia into a stirring wash of raw sonic adrenaline.
Broadly speaking, ‘Garabontzia’ is a fragile piece of atmospheric black metal with a far greater degree of melodic complexity and harmonic twists and turns than is typical for this style. This is owing to the use of echoey clean guitars borrowed from gothic rock, which offers a tone able to articulate these intricate and ever twisting arpeggios clearly. This guitar tone is also used over the more traditional black metal segments defined by their blast-beats and tremolo picking, but the reverberating swirl it takes on when set to very gently distorted rhythm guitar completely opens out the atmosphere of each piece. Thus it fills the role usually occupied by layered string effects, but in lacking the depth of a sustained keyboard note the quickfire strumming adds interesting rhythmic qualities that bounce and collide over the top of the metallic instrumentation.
Drums are mixed to sound raw and organic but not abrasively so. A clatter of cymbals and lackadaisical fills connect up the tight passages defined by pounding double-bass and blast-beats with the loose plafulness at the heart of this album’s rhythmic core. But all percussion sits comfortably beneath the roaring catharsis unfolding in the outer firmament of the mix. The voice is perhaps the most traditional element of the music, sticking with a garden variety black metal vocalisation, set low and distant enough in the mix to bleed into the throbbing cacophony of guitars without distracting us from the moment.
The dynamic interplay of delicate melodies, galloping rhythms, and soaring euphoria is kept in check by moments of calm where the music pauses for breath. As with the slow march of ‘Letrontas’ which plods along sans distorted guitar, functioning on a simple, clean arpeggio, gradually building strings and quickfire spoken word as the track progresses. Such moments are of course necessary, if for no other reason than to make use of contrast, with all its inherent artistic qualities. But more importantly they speak of the broader emotional and artistic range that Hænesy are able to encompass.
One could map out all the diverse influences and touchstones that ‘Garabontzia’ makes reference to. But the music itself exists on its terms, its qualities and virtues are apparent without the need for reams of curator notes. It’s a playful, melancholy dance that touches on euphoria, mourning and even moments of aggression (as on the track ‘Drowning of the Final Intellect’) that takes on a character and life of its own as each piece unfolds its story. It’s so often the case that those who carve their own path do so with quiet determination, with a character and identity that has little need of explicit justification from champions of “diversity”. ‘Garabontzia’ is one such album that sets sail from familiar shores, and from their takes us on an utterly unique journey of its own making.
“What’s new in neofolk?” I hear you ask. Far from being a comedic tautology, the question warrants some examination. Despite the tag being used to demarcate a very loose coalition of disparate artistic intentions, the Tenhi strain of soft acoustic guitars and gentle yet static melodic ideas seems to have settled on this basic approach with little forward momentum. One could object that this is asking too much of a style whose main intent is to grant the listener space to pause for reflection, to draw us out of modernity for a time and allow us to sit on a hill and contemplate our lives beyond this artificial miasma.
And that’s precisely what French outfit Wÿntër Àrvń set out to do on their latest album ‘Abysses’. The usual backbone of acoustic guitar duets constructed from simple arpeggios or strummed chords and delicate melodies, minimal percussion, and whispered or spoken vocals sets out the stall for this album nicely. But to be fair to Wÿntër Àrvń there is a much clearer forward motion on these tracks that takes us beyond this garden variety foundation. They are joined by clarinet player Vittorio Sabelli of Dawn of A Dark Age fame who adds some much needed variation to the format. To this ensemble is added bagpipes, piano, strings, and a host of other acoustic instrumentation deployed to flesh out the sound.
Sabelli’s clarinet is perhaps the most welcome addition. On his black metal protect Dawn of a Dark Age he attempted to shoehorn the instrument into the metallic context as a stand in for lead guitars, which ultimately fell flat as the inherent qualities of this instrument are entirely different to the power and sustain of an overdriven guitar. But in this sparse setting, the playful melodies are able to unfurl their wings free of restriction, and we can enjoy the characterful interplay of instrumentation without the distraction of electronic amplification. Sometimes pushing an instrument out of its comfort zone works, but sometimes you have to just let the thing blossom on its own territory.
The clarinet in turn raises the game for the guitar playing on here. Many neofolk albums in a similar vein recently have presented a largely static terrain. Whilst this is entirely intentional on the part of the artists, it does place a tight boundary on creative scope. But Wÿntër Àrvń show a willingness to move the music forward, they apply a more percussive bounce to the guitar playing, and many of the ideas are forced to develop beyond a singular atmosphere and mood into the beginnings of storytelling through music.
By the end of the album things are positively energetic, with the black metal roots of these musicians shining through via some of the vocalisations. Make no mistake however, this is still certainly in the terrain of music to switch off to, ill-fitting for anything but those specific moods and moments when mental stasis is required. The additional musicality that Wÿntër Àrvń attempt to work in is both welcome yet still perfectly integrated into the sparse and solitary mood that this music lends itself to.