Ringare: Thrall of Winter’s Majesty (2021)
Somewhere between the ghostly shadow-music of Lustre, the out and out assault of static that is Paysage d’Hiver, and the excessive meanderings of Midnight Odyssey, lies Pennsylvania’s Ringare. There is also – rather inevitably for contemporary atmospheric black metal – a distinctively Summoning groove to some of the percussion when it is not indulging in tight blast-beat punches. Despite the concoction of familiar nodes within this style, Ringare have packed an impressive amount of *music* into their foggy brew, unlike a considerable chunk of output from their apparent influences. There’s no obscure artistic trick to how Ringare have achieved this beyond rhythmic diversity, a textural contrast between murky strings and sharp guitars, and an earthy wash of sound that is both aggressive and reflective in equal measure.
For that reason, ‘Thrall of Winter’s Majesty’ carries none of the negative connotations usually associated with atmospheric black metal, whereby many of the major players trade on texture alone and forget to actually write any riffs. But Ringare have worked some tight rhythmic punches to go alongside the soaring guitar melodies; the latter of which hints at the medievalism of Obsequiae, with the celestial string harmonies acting as a stand in for the rhythm guitar at times.
The production is fully tilted towards the balance of contrasts. The earthy aggression of traditional black metal is maintained whilst still opening the mix out to the firmament in a way that we have come to expect of this genre. The drums are set low in the mix, but seeing as they are largely alone in the time keeping department – with not much in the way of bass and no choppy rhythm guitar to compete against – they cut through the mix perfectly. This gives the music an element of dynamism and energy that keeps the listener engaged.
As mentioned, guitars serve the dual purpose of ambience and melodic articulation, so the tone is kept sharp enough to articulate these intricate leads without completely washing out the mix in murk. This is just as well as the near constant keyboards fill out the backdrop to this music entirely, and any instrument wishing to find a voice in this setting must cut across the thick brume of atmosphere. Vocals are exactly what you would expect. High pitched, reverb drenched black metal histrionics. They offer a colouring of harshness to this otherwise gentle variant of extreme metal.
The album itself is made up of four weighty tracks. They seem to trade punches of ponderous ambient black metal, with extended passage where the guitars drop out entirely in favour of spacey medievalist ambient. These are then contrasted with tracks such as the title piece, which is an intense, sweeping display of black metal that is bracingly aggressive, yet open, spaced out and epic. These two broad moods – although clearly designed to work as a source of tension that runs through the album – are both defined by the same overall atmosphere and mood that makes up the entirety of ‘Thrall of Winter’s Majesty’.
What makes this album standout is the harnessing of these differing elements at the ambient end of black metal, sometimes articulated through keyboards alone, sometimes through a metallic assault. But the point is that none of these particular elements are used as a crutch to hold up subpar music. Whether it’s the near dungeon synth outro to ‘A Paean for Endless Snow’ or a chaotic black metal assault, there is an underlying thread that stitches these contrasting elements together. And this, ultimately, is what brings colour and life to this music whilst still retaining that dreamlike, fantastic quality that seems to exist just beyond the reach of our all too concrete reality.
Morticula Rex: Autumnal Rites (2021)
The latest album from Italy’s Morticula Rex packs a firesome punch of European Romanticism as far as death metal understands this concept. There are elements of Septic Flesh and early Sentenced in the angular melodicism to many of the riffs. A largely mid-paced slab of death metal that pivots on the slow, deliberate unfolding of melodic templates as opposed to atonal speed thrills. There is plenty of rhythmic showmanship as well as some decidedly brutal segments, but these are contained within the dictates of melodic narratives.
The production is thick and rich. The drums have an early 90s triggered quality to them which – given the focus on dark romanticism over percussive assault – is a choice that really works for this style. The guitars also have that retro vibe to them, exhibiting a powerful and sharp distortion that fills out the mix, but enough focus is retained to give us full visibility of the multifaceted riffcraft on display here. Vocals are an aggressive variant of the mid-range death growl. They more than meet the moment by fully engaging in the high drama of the album.
‘Autumnal Rites’ is refreshing in the sense that Morticula Rex are not following in the wake of the hordes of Incantation devotees or the current wave of technical death metal baked with sci-fi. This is a distinctively European breed of death metal that was sadly co-opted by excessive theatrics by the mid-2000s, which buried the sharp intellectual edge that underpinned its initial inceptions. This is highly melodic music that sticks almost exclusively to the minor key. Everything is built from these epic musical threads that hold each track together. The drums offer a creative and varied underpinning to this, but they largely follow the dictates of the guitars. This is in contrast to typically American variants of death metal that tend to trade on pure chromaticism and the centrality of percussion to inform the structure of each track.
In this sense Morticula Rex are the latest in a long line of death metal that is the most direct descendant of the NWOBHM ancestry in extreme metal, in that – aside from a handful of riffs – it largely bypasses the raw chaos of thrash. It is predominantly crafted from a tonal centre, despite occasional wanderings into chromatic territory. To decorate this architecture, many of the guitar leads that jump out are built from neoclassical influences, and follow a highly structured framework.
If for no other reason than reaffirming an underrated iteration of death metal, ‘Autumnal Rites’ is a welcome breath of fresh air. In many ways this is the most formal style of death metal in that it conforms to the strict rigours of more conventional music theory, but still ends up in a very “metal” place from an artistic point of view; embodying all the chaos and primitivism despite its sophisticated pretentions. Morticula Rex are more than up to the challenge of balancing these unwieldy elements in what can sometimes be an awkward style. They have mastered these dark arts into an imposing, graceful, epic piece of death metal full of colour.
Funeral Storm/Synteleia: The Ancient Calling (2021)
The story of Hellenic black metal is an interesting one. The unique style birthed in parallel to their Northern cousins was gradually evolved into goth metal and various forms of heavy metal or progressive metal by its originators. But they retained a degree of artistic integrity far stronger than most other scenes did by the time they reached middle age.
But recently many Greek artists old and new have been rediscovering their roots, and essentially picking up where they left off in 1996. It may be too early to tell if this will come to anything from an evolutionary perspective, but for now the discerning fan can feast on the many delights emerging from Greece, and what they lack in stone cold originality they more than make up for with refreshing creativity.
The first side of this split from Hells Headbangers is given over to Funeral Storm, featuring Stefan Necroabyssious of Varathron and Katavasia fame. His now iconic deep voice echoes atop music more akin to Rotting Christ circa ‘Non Serviam’. The melodic riffing, the delicate harmonies, the raw energy that draws on ancient mysticism, all gives this is a more profound resonance than domesticated heavy metal. Whilst there is nothing new here for veterans of Greek black metal, the track embodies all of the best elements of this style as it was pre-2000. With modest production and creative compositional work, it reaches beyond its own limitations.
The second side features newer comers Synteleia, who actually sound more like Varathron circa ‘Untrodden Corridors of Hades’. This is again a highly melodic work in the classic heavy metal sense of the word. The track marches along at a slower pace, made of angular riffs that leap from rhythm guitar to high-end lead melodies with little warning. Soft keyboards resonate in the background and compliment the guitars when the tempo picks up at the midpoint.
Two tracks that demonstrate all of the strengths of this much respected arm of black metal, which seems to be one of the few scenes undergoing a second renaissance that is not marked by frustrating stagnation or empty nostalgia for its own sake.