I like the beats and I like the yelling: Necronautical, Sentiero dei Principi, Etxegiña

Necronautical: Slain in the Spirit
Out 20th August on Candlelight Records

Mancunian symphonic black metallists return with album number four: ‘Slain in the Spirit’; displaying that oft sought but rarely found blend of undeniable continuity with the past and expanded horizons. Symphonic black metal can be a highly dense form of music at times. Ethereal iterations abound certainly, ones that tend to suppress raw musicality in the pursuit of atmosphere in a sound akin to ambient black-metal-light. But the more contemporary picture is one of rich orchestration, dense compositions, technical prowess, and a relentless appetite for dramatics, harvesting literary and historical themes to set against these studied compositions.

The obvious danger in all this is wanton excess. This is particularly true of artists such as Necronautical, who all but established their identity on previous offering ‘Apotheosis’. The confidence and fluidity of that release was the sound of an artist that had well and truly found their voice in the world. Although this is cause for praise, it places additional pressure on the next step. But these musicians have proven themselves equal to the challenge. The most obvious element that jumps out of the speakers is the pronounced death metal influence in many of the riffs. Neconautical deploy dense palm-muting alongside the spacious melodic black metal passages. But they have also made greater use of tempo changes and rhythmic interplay, which are frontloaded on the first few tracks to emphasise this shift in direction.

This obviously calls to mind Emperor circa ‘Anthems…’ and ‘IX Equilibrium’, clearly one of their biggest influences. But the oft excessive proggy impulses that Ihsashn is known for are not found on ‘Slain in the Spirit’, with Necronautical instead throwing in a marked Swedish colouring to the mix. Dissection and even Necrophobic can be heard cutting through these nutritionally dense works.

Keyboards form a pivotal role in crafting the Necronautical sound. Whilst the staccato synth jabs add a degree of immediacy and aggression to the opening number ‘Ritual and Recursion’, these quickly give way to the soaring string accompaniments on the title track, or the punchy melodicism of ‘Hypnagogia’. At the other end of the sound picture we have the full bodied drums bending their way around the complexity of blows traded between the melodic instruments. This can take the form of bass heavy drum patterns defined by deep tom fills and thick double bass, or else smooth and subtly accented blast-beats, facilitating the state of euphoria brought on by these moments of heightened tension.

Vocals, in line with the death metal flavour of the riffs, indulge in guttural death growls to accent the usual calling cards of mid-range black metal stylings and high-end screeches. But of course at this juncture we must mention the guest appearance of Vickie Harley, formerly of symphonic metal outfit Pallas Athena. Choral sections are a common sighting in symphonic black metal, but the presence of an operatically trained singer in place of a synthetic alternative really brings to light the differences. The nuance, emotion, power, and raw creativity behind even the simplest of vocal lines should be obvious even to the totally tone deaf among us. Harley is used sparingly but effectively, bringing the music to life by enhancing rather than overshadowing the performances of the other musicians.

Whether you view this album as a reclamation of the sometimes crass territory that is symphonic black metal, or a welcome course correction for the genre, the real takeaway is the vision of a band who has already come of age, and is now exploring their newfound place in the world with confidence.

Sentiero dei Principi: Lustmord
Out 1st October on Xenoglossy Productions

The enduring appeal of black metal can chiefly be explained by its emotive range. It can draw us to the pit of despair, carry us to dangerous levels of euphoria, and subdue us into tranquil meditation. This is humanity discovering itself anew against the boundlessness of nature, and the warping culture shock this imposes on minds shut in offices, shops, and bars. This romantic idealisation of the human spirit when confronted with unfathomable forces – the imagined horrors of the occult, macro historical events, deep time, outer space, the wilderness – is both black metal’s greatest strength and its Achilles heel. The music we hate is often just adjacent to the music we love, emotive excess can quickly shift from bracing to crass.

This is particularly true when black metal attempts to confront that other unknowable frontier of experience: our own psyche. Italian solo black metal outfit Sentiero dei Principi attempts to confront this head on with their debut LP ‘Lustmord’. An album that seeks to address the intersection of sexual lust, sexual violence, and childhood trauma, all the while still striking a hopeful tone musically, is no mean feat.  

But that is precisely what Sentiero die Principi set out to achieve with this debut offering. This is mournful, cold black metal with an underlying thread of pathos, but many of the tracks strike an oddly optimistic tone throughout. The production is raw, with thick, heavy drums battering away and overshadowing the mix with an undeniable energy. This seems to work in defiance of the guitars’ philosophical leanings. The tone is raw certainly, but each track is laced with distinct and well-defined melodic threads that work between expressions of trauma and healing. Vocals gargle forth a conveyor belt of high-pitched histrionics, which are something of a standard for this form of black metal. Keyboards in the form of flowery stings and distant synth tones decorate the more primal leanings of this timbre selection, as spirits dispassionately narrating the all too human drama played out at ground level on ‘Lustmord’.

The contrast of the overall tone of this album with an undeniable rhythmic energy lends it a degree of naivety. A child attempting to make sense of their own trauma, yet lacking the maturity or support to do so. These psychological wounds of youth reach grim fruition in adulthood, finding their expression in the stilted, uneven rhythmic shifts which constantly interrupt the flow of the soaring guitar melodies. It’s as if the music is trying to find a purposeful forward momentum yet finds itself lacking the knowledge to carry this through, to surpass its own limitations and attention span. That being said, the narratives weaved by the melodic threads of the guitar lines – and sometimes complemented by the keyboards – do compound on each other throughout each track. This is no random hodgepodge, but an exercise in literal expressions through musical arrangements.

In different hands this album could have come across as clumsy, maybe even crass, as is often the case when black metal attempts to move outside its comfort zone of snow and Satan. But Sentiero dei Prinicipi have proven that with the right balance of solid conceptual material and a knowledge and appreciation of the raw musical materials applied to express said concept, even the most entrenched genres can be advanced into new expressive territory that will resonate well beyond the bounds of dedicated fans of the genre.

Etxegiña: Herederos del Silencio
Out on 28th September, self-released

Featuring members of French dissonant black metallers Acedi Mundi, Etxegiña are a melodic/epic black metal outfit not short on mid-paced heavy metal foot stompers and catchy riffs. Their debut EP Herederos del Silencio deals with the Spanish Civil War, another period going through a much needed contemporary re-appraisal. Fittingly for black metal that deals in military history, these tracks are defined by a strong martial aesthetic, with marching tempos, stirring riffs, and vocals that veer between distorted chanting and elongated syllables.

The production is direct and immediate, with no obvious flourishes of studio trickery at all. The mix is clear and crisp, with guitars light on distortion, opting to let the melodic threads of the riffs stand on their own. Drums are clean and fully audible, with no lag or reverb placed upon them. Etxegiña have also opted to eschew keyboards entirely, further emphasising their back to basics approach. The fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War was urgent, immediate, and transparent, read in this way these stylistic choices make perfect sense.

This being riff based, melodic black metal, attempting to carve out clearly defined narratives via riff commentary as opposed to anything remotely atmospheric, the obvious comparison becomes Hellenic black metal. But even early Varathron or Zemial were still shooting for a clear and distinct vibe and did not shy away from using keyboards to achieve this. Etxegiña, whilst sharing commonalities in terms of the melodic style of the riffs and the marked heavy metal influence, are going for an even more direct sound.

There are moments of a less heroic and more reflective tone, such as the gentle arpeggio intro to ‘La Montana’ and the slower, dramatic build that runs throughout the entire track. But this remains an exception in an otherwise totally undiluted metallic experience. It should also be noted that the bass plays an important role in maintaining the momentum of each piece. The riffs are taught and often trade on a single guitar line, although some harmonic lead guitars do make an appearance here and there. This makes the busy, staccato notes that the bass picks out perfectly audible, adding a layer of complexity and purpose to each piece by adding another dimension to this otherwise minimal experience.

All these disparate elements seem to compound on one another by the finale to the closing number ‘Los Cadáveres Insepultos de Albatera’, as the music finally layers up and multiple guitar tracks work in unison beneath crash cymbals and delicately picked bass. An appropriate way to contrast with the direct and modest presentation of the preceding EP as a whole. But ultimately, when the music is presented in such a naked format, with no overt aesthetic and no studio trickery (whcih is all too often deployed to hold up substandard riffing) Etxegiña have forced themselves into creative riffcraft through these self-imposed limitations, and come out on top in presenting these tight, engaging, and surprisingly catchy tracks on their debut EP.

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