Tales of stone and bark: Evilfeast and Ygg

How fitting that Eastern Europe proved to be one of the few holdouts for quality black metal just as the more world-renowned scenes began to decline at the turn of the century. In the last twenty plus years artists from Poland, Ukraine, Romania, and of course Russia were all releasing work that challenged the maturity of their Scandinavian and Greek elders. There’s a special sense of mysticism that characterizes this style, cold and vast music, imposing yet not in the abrasive manner of the French or the unabashed rawness of the Norwegian. The fact that there has been little in the way of revivalist material of late that attempts to ape these traits is perhaps testament to its uniqueness in time and place.

Poland’s Evilfeast are in many respects a quintessential solo black metal act. Prolific, minimal, atmospheric, all hallmarks associated with the fabled solo ambient black metal acts that sprung up in the US around the turn of the century. But Evilfeast are not a purely ambient outing, although his works offer plenty of atmosphere to spare. Their fourth outing, 2011’s ‘Wintermoon Enchantment’ follows on from previous works in that it is a lengthy installment of the part ethereal/part grim colourings of black metal, expanding on some areas from previous material whilst diminishing others.

I’m usually pretty unforgiving of albums that ask for more than an hour of my time. It’s either an indication of lax quality control or unwarranted hubris. Rare is the artistic mind that can pull it off, far rarer than the current number of releases reaching these lengths in any case. But there’s something about ‘Wintermoon Enchantment’ that almost gives it a free pass. Evilfeast are not trying to structure a bold and complex or indeed overbaked conceptual vision. This is instead a rather smooth blend of abrasive and atmospheric variants of black metal specifically crafted for the listener to get lost in. The pieces themselves, whilst not lacking in naked musical talking points, are cloaked behind a veil of atmosphere and mood that makes any actual melodic progression almost incidental to the whole.

Aesthetically this comes across as a more streamlined ‘Dark Medieval Times’, with elements of Sombres Forets and even early Midnight Odyssey in places. But Evilfeast keep the momentum marching forwards even if it’s not done in the most obvious way. A harsh guitar tone working through riffs that are equal parts menacing and spiritually cathartic are accompanied by swirling synth lines that seem to emanate from the heavens themselves. They work in unison to create an immersive fog of noise that is both soothing in its fantastical qualities yet fraught with all the unknown terrors of the natural world.

Drums, rather fittingly, keep things minimal. They swirl between blast-beats and basic punk rhythms, following the rhythmic dictates of each piece rather than leading them. Their sound is muffled somewhat, allowing them to fulfil their role as a framing diverse, important but tangential to the overall feel of this music. The same could be said of the vocals which follow a fairly standard black metal style, humanising the cacophonous walls of euphoric static that greet the ear, giving us a welcome narration despite their inherently aggressive undertones. This album represents a culmination of very specific impetuses within black metal, for that reason it would be a mistake to write it off as pure derivation, it is rather the reaffirmation of one classically contained notion of what black metal is or should be.

Ukraine’s Ygg follow in the footsteps of the Burzum school defined by the likes of Drudkh, Hate Forest, and Walknut. Formed of members from Nokturnal Mortum and Khors – two artists sat more on the folky side of the coin to these bleak soundscapes – their debut self-titled album released in 2011 is mammoth work of trancelike, repetitive black metal euphoria that exists for no other purpose than the reverence of the natural landscapes and all the rich history and culture contained within them.

The setup is relatively simple. The production is not distractingly lo-fi or obnoxiously orchestrated, but delivered with a degree of cinematic polish as to give it motion and life in spite of the relative simplicity of these compositions. Because the tempo is kept slow by black metal standards – somewhere in the region of 150bpm – the drums play a key role in driving the music forward and giving it momentum. Crafted from near constant double bass and galloping rhythms, with blast-beats kept to a minimum, fills cascade out of the mix, crashing down on the listeners or threatening to dissolve in off-kilter shuffles before pulling the tight rhythms back from the brink. With all that in mind, only modest reverb is required, particularly on the toms, to give those lengthy fills a sense of size and power, like distant thunder claps over the horizon.

Guitars are a wash of layered tremolo riffs crafted from the simplest of ascending and descending chord progressions. Although cyclical in nature, there is a lag on the resolution of each passage which – when compounded on one another atop the repetitive drum patterns – gives each piece a sense of existing outside of time. It warps the listener’s perception of the temporal, the music feels as if it was always there, even before hitting play, and will endure long after we’ve turned the stereo off. The bass is audible beneath this wash of cold melodic noise, grounding the celestial nature of the guitars with a pulsing tension that is felt more than heard.

Modest keyboards are deployed as additional harmonic material for riffs at key junctures. These are kept subtle so as to be fully integrated into the rich aesthetics already present on these arrangements, enhancing, not distracting. There are also small hints of folk music contained within this hours’ worth of material. A mouth-harp here, a jaunty rhythmic flourish there. It’s as if the pieces themselves, despite being dedicated to the landscapes of Ukraine, are also paying small homage to the people and cultures that have lived within them over millennia. All this culminates in a work of unmistakably Eastern European black metal, at once minimal and oddly limiting if one analyses the musical qualities alone, but in the delivery and aesthetic applied it becomes addictively compelling.

In a sense these albums are two sides of the same coin. ‘Ygg’ bounds through the wilderness, acknowledging the fragility and swiftness of life, yet approaching the world with a sense of the heroic regardless. ‘Wintermoon Enchantment’ by contrast opts for a more reflective approach. The presentation may be more classically “evil” in all the obvious ways, but its approach to invoking the terrors of the outdoors takes on a more spiritual and mystical quality, reverence soaked in mystery. And although Evilfeast are adept at crafting this balance of danger and comfort on this and all their releases, one has to give this week to Ygg. It is a strong example of a very distinctive style of black metal from a specific corner of the globe. One that is little imitated (at least not well), and manages to surpass its own undeniable simplicity, transcending the bounds of genre in the process, crafting meaning that echoes through the eons.

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