I like the beats and I like the yelling: Niadh, Nekromantheon, Ifrinn

Niadh: Our Victory is Eternal (2016)

The debut LP from the Colombian black metal outfit known as Niadh is seeing a reissue on Eternal Death records this year. For straight-down-the-barrel black metal this is about as basic as they come. However, I would like to caveat this judgment before we make too much of the shocking lack of innovation on display here.

Words like “generic”, “cliched”, and “unoriginal” are usually regarded negatively. But if we take their literal meaning in isolation, a little more expoisition is required to fully exlpain this. Many descriptors are value ridden only in a tangential sense. ‘Our Victory is Eternal’ is undeniably generic, cliché ridden, and entirely unoriginal, but it still manages to be a thoroughly enjoyable slab of back-to-basics black metal.

The reason for this is simple. Words like “generic” or “unoriginal” are facts. All the elements found within this album have been done to death. But as my boy David Hume pointed out many centuries ago, one cannot draw a value judgement from merely factual descriptions, there is a gap between an “is” and an “ought”. And the reason Niadh succeed despite their completely inoffensive approach to black metal is thanks to another sadly underpriced art: good old fashioned song writing.

The riffs are constructed of simple melodic phrases that connect up with each other seamlessly, we are then given a development section, usually accompanied by a tempo change, before the final recapitulation of the original theme. I am reminded of Russia’s Forest for a similar act that were able to make riffs out of the most basic chunks of melody – usually set towards a mournful or pathos ridden central mood– and turn them into epic narratives that justify their longevity despite their undeniable simplicity.

In this pursuit the guitar dominates all in the mix, functioning as our major rhythmic motivator as much as a vehicle for melody. Drums are more of a presence than a fully realised musical element. We feel the beat beneath the distortion without being able to fully intellectualise their mechanics beyond the most obvious tempos changes. Vocals are again similar to Forest in that they sit at the mid-range for black metal howling, but they maintain a degree of passion that at times borders on the manic.

Each track is lengthy, an indication of the time it takes to unfold each central theme and provide some commentary on it before returning us to home base. This is not dense music, this is not layered music, each moment is much the same as the last, but over the course of each track we feel the shift and evolution in the gut. And this is a true sign of genuinely creative song writing coming to the fore, as it has no need for thick sonic textures or dense moments bursting with musical technique and overly stylised studio trickery. There is simply a straight line from point A to point B, a journey for us to lose ourselves in.

You won’t find anything here you haven’t heard before in quality black metal. But equally it is rare to find such intuitive joy in the craft of simplicity in many modern releases from all side of the extreme metal spectrum.

Nekromantheon: Visions of Trismegistos (2021)

Well, I guess seeing as Hells Headbangers are now involved there was bound to be a penis involved somewhere along the way; and so it is with the beautifully rendered diorama that adorns the front cover of Nekromantheon’s latest album, a phallus just prominent enough to catch the eye, but not central enough to be gratuitous. In any case, these Norwegian thrashers have established a name for themselves as the new poster boys of old school integrity, and ‘Visions of Trismegistos’ is no exception to this.

This album packs a half hour punch of tight, intense, restless thrash metal, as bombastic and unselfconscious as it was when it ruled the metal roost in the late 1980s . Much like Finland’s Foreseen, this music centres around a barrage of percussive punches that dictate the phrasing of each riff, with frantic licks and accents creating the illusion of layers in the spaces between the fray. Despite the many shifts in tempo and rhythm, the intensity pretty much never lets up.

But Nekromantheon get away with this monoculture by placing each riff in the smallest pocket of pitch possible, whilst keeping the variation and intensity up within a very small cluster of notes. This means that when they do shift a riff up or down a few steps it feels all the more intense, lending the music a sense of high drama despite the superficial monotony of the overall presentation.

Keeping the production analogue aids in this single-minded pursuit. Whilst this is prima facie not much above a gimmick to garner old school credentials, the softer production values and subtle depth this adds to the mix actually increases the listener’s stamina for this high intensity thrash barrage. A cold, digital mix would have led to exhaustion because of the sheer sensory overload that would have ultimately switched the mind off to the music. But the violence of the crashing drums, percussive riffs, and aggressive bark of the vocals; all are kept at bay by the vintage sheen covering it all.

Everything trades on the punch of the guitars, the drums offering a crash cymbal on nearly every other beat, as if to hammer home the staccato energy of the riffs. Running between each accent is a small guitar lick or accent to further clutter proceedings, adding to the frantic energy. Because this arrangement is so taught and packed with sonic information, the slightest shift in pitch or rhythmic emphasis acts as a stand in for the lack of dynamic variety, and failing that, a high-end guitar note will whine above the cacophony, as if freeing itself from the percussive totalitarianism of the music and varying the texture for a moment in the process.

Nekromanthoen are another example of a band who are superficially nothing more than pure old school worship. But there are small elements and flashes to their music that demonstrate a greater understanding of what made the heyday of thrash as it was at the inception of death metal so special. And in harnessing some more fundamental compositional tricks and flashes that marked this music out, they begin to display a character and sophistication of their own that easily sets them apart from more banal examples of performative nostalgia.

Ifrinn: Caledonian Black Magick (2021)

The title of Ifrinn’s debut EP reads like a checklist of authenticity signalling for black metallists. Reference to national identity? Check. Includes the word black? Check. Includes reference to the occult? Check. Includes unnecessary K? Check.

Enough jesting however, does the music stack up? We are given three lengthy tracks to sink our teeth into, and all three exhibit the greatest strengths of black metal at its most straightforward. From the most modest of setups, with unpretentious production, and essentially one audible guitar line switching from washed out distortion to fragile clean tones, we are given the architecture of the epic. With riffs that start out being closed and self-contained they develop over the course of seven or eight minutes into open, outward looking narratives constructed out of very simple chord progressions and fairly rudimentary techniques.

But again, this is one of black metal’s greatest strengths, at least in the relatively modest guise we find it in here. This is simple music but not simplistic. Ifrinn are able to get more from less, they are able to stretch out each moment in order for us to understand its true significance. From innovations originally found in Darkthrone and Burzum the most basic of chord patterns extend their shelf life and their artistic meaning through the manipulation of these basic narratives.

It’s also the technique that remains the most imitated but the least understood. So whilst Ifrinn are treading a very familiar path, they are able to stand out by virtue of manipulating these simple phrases and understanding their context in the wider whole of each piece.

The one downside to all this being the generic presentation. Normally I would disregard surface level window dressing (or lack thereof) if the underlying musical architecture is strong enough, but that’s precisely the problem. The underlying architecture feels half finished, a dry run at a yet to be fleshed out idea.

As a result, we can appreciate the elegant simplicity of this on an intellectual level as the well oil machine of traditional black metal that it is. But this not enough in 2021. In order to ensure your music has staying power beyond a few months there needs to be innovation, originality, a curveball thrown our way to make us pay attention and grasp for new vocabulary by which to define what we are listening to.

‘Caledonian Black Magick’, much like the title of the EP itself which rolls off the tongue nicely, is well made but completely safe. It flows like a river, offering no obstacles or challenges to give the flow greater significance. There is no challenge, nothing to overcome. All that being said, there are no actual flaws within the writing and arrangement itself. But sometimes one can do everything perfectly and still come out short, lacking that quality that some call heart, others call magic(k), and yet others call artistry.

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