Ukrainian folkways: Khors and Kroda

It’s interesting to document the geographical chronology of the second wave of black throughout the 1990s. From the earlier offerings to come out Norway, Finland, Greece, and the US, considered to be the bedrock of our understanding of black metal’s different shades to this day. Through to the mid-1990s with France, Austria, and Poland all producing enduring household names with distinctive takes on the format. Then by the late 1990s the Quebecoise scene amalgamated and developed many of the traditions found across Northern Europe. And despite being a much lamented decade for metal in general, the 2000s saw a flurry of activity across Eastern Europe as far as black metal was concerned, chiefly in Russia, Romania, and Ukraine. From the earthy abrasion of Hate Forest to the obscured mysticism of Negura Bunget to the folk threnodies of Temnozor, this part of the world is not short on ideas.

But the enduring appeal of these artists is rooted in the fact that they were able to carry the promise of Scandinavian black metal forward after their Northern forebears succumbed to rampant and undignified excesses. The Ukrainian style is undeniably distinct, with many artists drawing heavily on local folk traditions and melding them onto a uniquely imposing variant of the usual black metal calling cards. But there is an integrity and authenticity to many of these works, born of a genuine desire to communicate uncommodifiable messages through their art. And because of this honesty we let our guard down, safe in the knowledge that we are not being sold a façade or duped into empty novelty. This purity of intent has remained a common background thread running throughout the music of this region since its inception as a black metal hotspot.

By this point Khors have a long and fruitful career behind them, but travel back to 2005 to their debut album ‘The Flame of Eternity’s Decline’, and only hints of the overtly 70s prog/folk direction they would later take are apparent. Instead what greets us is a perfect blend of the imposing grimness of Hate Forest and the symphonic leanings of Nokturnal Mortum.

That being said, this is still a remarkably confident debut, touching on a diverse array of atmospheres and moods throughout its short runtime whilst keeping the overall presentation uncluttered. From galloping, trancelike repetitions enhanced by soaring keyboard harmonies, to slow doom passages of dark tritones and rich strings, to more classically motivated melodic lines.

The production is a real lucky dip. The drums are probably the first thing to jump out at the listener, with a raw and oh-so tinny snare cutting across the mix with distracting hammer blows that reverberate around the head without letup. The rest of the kit, whilst lacking in depth and character, at least stays out of trouble. But a tight and varied performance prevents the boisterous snare from detracting from the rest of the album entirely.

The guitars put the real flesh on the bones as far as the mix is concerned. Although suitably abrasive, there is a depth and clarity to the tone that is almost cinematic. They are also enhanced by the liberal application of keyboards, with spacey string tones and subdued synths filling out the sound into a panorama of sonic textures that one can easily lose themself in. Vocals are a mid-ranged growl that works well for the controlled narrative style that Helg ops for over anything too passionate.

The music itself moves from soaring symphonic black metal in the style of early Emperor to the grim textures of Hate Forest, linking these disparate approaches to the form with an astute yet elegantly simple sense of melodic progression. The tempo is kept relatively slow, sticking to a driving beat that maintains its momentum via the double bass drums rather than excessive blast-beats. This allows the understated symphonics room to breathe and fill out the mix. Guitar leads are used sparingly, with brief solos deployed at moments of sonic transition, ushering in the next chapter of this music’s story.

Creating that sense of journey seems to be the chief aim of ‘The Flame of Eternity’s Decline’. Because despite its overtly atmospheric qualities, Khors put the focus on filling out each moment with a tonal and timbre colouring distinct from the last, presenting a strong sense of narrative progression in the process. For this reason it seems almost incidental to Khors’ chief purpose that this album knits together competing traditions within black metal, given that they are able to blend and meld whichever style or technique will serve the advancement of the journey.

Guitars lead the way in this endeavour, driving through new melodic transitions and modulations with the keyboards then adding harmonic material, building on the character of each new passage. Drums are deployed as a framing device, despite the varied tempos utilized by black metal standards, the performance is kept deliberately minimal so as not to distract from the overall intent behind these subtly beautiful odes to nature.

Equally as prolific are Kroda, who boast an extensive discography of folky infused black metal, nurturing a style that is now generally accepted to be pagan black metal. This specific but popular subgenre tends to distinguish itself by embracing the pageantry and joy of paganism as well its malevolent aspects. Despite operating in a firmly black metal framework, the folk instrumentation, melodic inflections, and rhythmic traditions will frequently switch to celebratory and joyful moods, embracing the full richness of pre-Christian spiritualism and worldviews.

When done well this gives the music a broad expressive range, one that is both stirring in its emotive immediacy whilst also reaching beyond the individual’s perception of their place within the world. It reaches for the firmament as much as it burrows into our internal preoccupations. The fact that the clownish tendency within metal so often co-opts these sincere motivations should not detract from the reputation of the subgenre as a whole.

Reaching back to 2005 sees Kroda on their second album, ‘До небокраю життя…’ (‘Towards the Firmaments Verge Of Life…’). Along with Noktrunal Mortum, the work of Kroda offers some of the best examples of Ukrainian pagan black metal. This is an ambitious work that seeks to marry understated symphonic black metal with folk instrumentation and melodic traditions that inform many of the riffs and drum patterns scattered across these tracks.

What makes albums like this worthy of their own subgenre is the fact that the folk traditions inform the actual shape and structure of the music itself. This is not just black metal with some flutes and jaw harps, this is the application of black metal textures to ambitious and epic folk pieces that bounce from cinematic metal to bouncy folk rhythms with ease, with both western rock and Ukrainian music history converging to enhance each other.

The production of this album reflects this intent. The guitar tone is kept meaty but unintrusive. They are just as happy articulating epic chord progressions of a broadly black metal tradition as they are picking out delicate yet cheerful refrains, there are also plenty of catchy heavy metal riffs thrown in for good measure. Although the guitars remain the central narrator to these pieces, the chief qualities that concern us are as much textural as they are melodic. Drums are equally as diverse, jumping from fast paced folk beats to blast-beats, but largely sticking with solid mid-paced rock rhythms with no shortage of fills and cymbal-enhanced crescendos. They act as the bridge between the competing ancient and modern impetuses on this album. The drums, being as old as music itself yet here rendered on a modern rock drumkit, are well suited to integrate this eon jumping album.

Vocals stick with a solid, distorted narration that is both measured yet not afraid to indulge the strong emotive threads that run through the entire album. They are also frequently prone to jump into cleanly sung passages, again humanising the more mystical qualities inherent in ‘До небокраю життя…’. Soft synths sit in the background, acting as the sonic equivalent of distant hills and fog drenched mountains on the edge of vision, framing the borders of our tale.

At every angle this album presents itself as an utter triumph. From a purely academic standpoint the talking points are endless. From the number and range of techniques deployed across all the instrumentation, to their measured and patient arrangement into a unified and solid work of singular intent. But the soul of this album is also undeniable, the passion behind the pieces themselves, and the wish to express humanity’s relationship to the deeper threads of our history in a more immediate and human sense than the oftentimes abstract and alienating routes that black metal takes to get to this point. Juxtapositions abound, from the pageantry of the pagan aspects of this album, the overtly joyful direction the music takes without ever falling into empty sentiment, but equally the latent aggression and darkness that continues to raise its head and remind us of the jeopardy and fragility of life. An accomplishment broader in scope than much black metal, yet just as deep are its dives into the human condition as it could be in a world beyond modern Western hegemony.

Two strong offerings from a heartland of European black metal this week. Although superficially similar in many ways, it’s obvious on closer inspection that Khors’ ‘The Flame of Eternity’s Decline’ is the straight edge entry of the pairing. There are hints at the proggy direction that this act would take on this debut, and the symphonic backbone to their compositional approach is already undeniable, but the raw materials are mined from quarries that were well established by 2005. ‘До небокраю життя…’ by contrast sees Kroda pushing at the boundaries of black metal itself, as it meshes with other styles well outside of metal, yet unlike many artists with a similar aspiration they retain a dignity and sincerity that avoids the empty novelty or hollow comedy that so often came to define pagan metal at large. For that reason it is the pick this week. But ‘The Flame of Eternity’s Decline’ deserves a prominent spot in your rotations regardless.

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