Dead Space Chamber Music: The Black Hours
Out 3rd December, self-released
‘The Black Hours’ is the second LP from the Bristol based neoclassical group known as Dead Space Chamber Music. We’ll call it neoclassical for now, but this word must stretch ambiguously across the many moving parts of this album that require unpacking. Everything from ritual ambient, neofolk, and medieval hymns are touched on to name a few. There’s something about their melding of the old and the new that resonates so much more profoundly with our anomic modern sensibility than the bombast of Nordic folk or the static acoustic guitar minimalism of modern neofolk.
I’m not one for albums with heavy handed concepts and reams of paperwork to sift through as an accompaniment to the listening experience. But the shards of music history that have been collected together on ‘The Black Hours’ warrants generous curation. The juxtaposition of contemporary and archaic forms is both uncanny and haunting. Minimal noise and martial ambient sit alongside fragile lullabies and mournful cello and guitar, all of which benefits from the ample liner notes that come with this album. Dead Space Chamber Music are moving into sound art territory here, but in a way that actually delivers on its lofty rhetoric with a truly unique musical experience.
‘The Black Hours’ is named after a medieval illuminated manuscript, which was a book of prayers to mark the hours of each day, sanctifying them with prayer. This solemn method of measuring the passage of time holds a deeper resonance for the people of Covid World, who have been forced to dispense with the relentless march of deadlines that define post-industrial economies and adopt new understandings of temporal perception. It seems fitting therefore that the clash of old and new is so stark on this album. Although even the layman can hear the influence of medieval spiritual music scattered throughout ‘The Black Hours’, Dead Space Chamber Music sound very much like a product of the 2020s.
The album is structured like a house with many rooms, behind each door sits a new experience, totally distinct yet loosely connected by common threads. Collections of musical traditions collide and integrate to create uncanny meetings of different sound worlds. Between each track are ethereal experimental segments of minimal noise, articulated by guitar feedback, sparse percussion, and vocalist Ellen Southern’s improvisations that veer toward Diamanda Galas in their unhinged sense of freedom. Southern is equally capable of articulating a simple and haunting folk lullaby as much as the almost punk like aggression of ‘Mari Lwyd / Morfa’r Frenhines (Grey Mare / Queen’s Marsh)’, which works in elements of post rock and doom alongside a simple funereal melodic refrain.
These disparate fragments of sound coalesce into what could roughly be described as “songs”. But they could also be interpreted as a series of demonstrations of different instruments, their qualities and virtues set alongside one another as each takes their turn in occupying a lead role. The album begins on a relatively intimate note, with a minimal industrial beat sitting comfortably beneath a cello melody on ‘Liement me Deport’, only to give way to ‘Bryd one Brere (Bird on a Briar)’, a tranquil piece of medieval spiritual music, with cello, psaltery, and Southern’s gentle vocals all playing elegantly off one another.
But any hint of formalism gradually falls apart as the album progresses. Noise and experimental elements creep through the cracks only to finally dominate proceedings on ‘The Pit / Dissolved in Ashes’, as dark ambience and layered textures take hold. Out of this fog emerges more modern musical traditions, as an almost metallic guitar riff appears alongside repetitive, marching drums. It’s as if the archaic instrumentation and musical expressions of our past are finally giving way to cold modernism, our link with history is severed, and all sense of societal continuity is lost. It seems fitting therefore, that the piece should conclude with a rendition of the ‘Dies irae’ sequence.
There are many adjectives one could append to ‘The Black Hours’; haunting, original, imaginative, thoughtful, compelling. But ultimately it’s their use of sound to manipulate our sense of time and place that makes Dead Space Chamber Music such an interesting entity. They tap into a sense of the English weird, an England buried long ago under Empire and free market economics, but an England that has always sat on the peripheries, making its presence known in ways both subtle and dramatic. Older forms of Christian music and even older pagan and folk mores find their kindred spirits through the hints of modern punk, metal, and neofolk.
In melding these elements of an older England with very modern iterations of the avant-garde, Dead Space Chamber Music have created a work that seems to collect this loosely defined sense of displacement at the heart of the English imagination. They then harness these into a work that is at once deeply creative in its own right, yet also gives voice to the very English disposition of identities lost at the hands of neoliberalism, forms of expression – the existence of which – we are never fully conscious of. For this reason ‘The Black Hours’ could be read as therapy for the English soul as much as it is a highly immersive musical experience.
Boarhammer: I: Cutting Wood for Magickal Purposes
Out 3rd December, self-released
Somewhere between the idiosyncrasies of early Sigh, the vocal eccentricities of Root, and the dirty, ghoulish energy or Mortuary Drape or Cultes des Ghoules sits ‘I: Cutting Wood for Magikal Purposes’, the debut demo from the German duo known as Boarhammer. Tapping into aspects of black metal that are often overlooked – such as groove, well-placed humour, and the oddly human intimacy associated with aspects of ritualism and the occult – this music proves to be surprisingly diverse. Earthy and dark atmosphere sits happily alongside filthy riffs, a half clean/half distorted vocal style and tight grooves; that word again, so out of keeping with the garden variety idea of black metal as a collection of swelling blast-beats, but there’s no other way to describe the simple but raw rhythmic energy that underpins these tracks.
The production is demo quality, relying on reverb, rain samples, and random inflections of guitar noise to open out the mix, giving it size and life. It’s a common trick, but that’s because it works. ‘I: Cutting Wood for Magickal Purposes’ is a deeply immersive experience that places the listener at the centre of this dark and ritualistic music. I mentioned that the vocals had an element of humour to them. But this is not presented in a clownish or unserious way. A more appropriate description would be drunkenness, the kind of intoxication we associate with occasions of extreme revelry. In this it does bear comparison to early Czech black metal in Master’s Hammer and Root.
Riffs range from dirty and primitive early blackened thrash, to the darker aspects of heavy metal, with no small dollop of drab doom metal influence creeping in at times. As if to reaffirm the more eccentric aspects of Boarhammer’s influences we are treated to a cover of Mercyful Fate’s ‘Black Funeral’ to round off the demo. There are darker aspects to the package however, with intro to opening number ‘Riding the Hedge’ kicking things off with a mournful, funereal march before the dirty black metal madness truly sets in. Such moments are revisited throughout, as if attempting to temper the unbridled and near jaunty energy of the metallic elements.
It’s rare to meet such a brew of good humour, darkness, nuance, and subtlety within this brand of old school ritualistic black metal. When dealing with the more eccentric elements of metal in this way the danger is obviously falling into self-parody. But Boarhammer have a clear musical vision to convey, and never let the quirkier elements of their sound distract from making this demo anything other than a truly engaging and immersive slab of weird metal.
Délétère/Sarkrista: Opus Blasphematum
Out 3rd December on Sepulchural Productions
This treat of a split EP sees two rare holdouts of straightforward quality black metal of the last decade join forces and reaffirm their intent. Canada’s Délétère, who serve up another three tracks of energetic and uplifting melodicism, and Germany’s Sarkrista, displaying their more traditionally minded brand of blasphemous black metal.
Délétère’s take on the style is on the positive side, working fast paced punky rhythms into stirring folk orientated lead melodies that are at once uplifting and melancholic in equal measure. The sorrowful undertone to their style of melody means that this music avoids the pitfall of being overly cheesy or clownish given the fact that this is relatively uplifting as far as black metal is concerned. The result is more cathartic than it is upbeat.
There is no perfunctory intro or crescendo like build slapped onto the start of this EP, Délétère simply explode out of the gate with lightning fast blast-beats and high end tremolo picked lead melodies. These are accompanied by tight rhythm guitars that offer simple but agreeable counterpoint, working out melodic narratives with an eye on the long form. Despite the intensity of the delivery, the cadential centre of these pieces is so well thought out that we never grow tired of the cavalcade of sonic information thrown at us.
Vocals are a little more unhinged than the tight musical foundation that sit upon. This offers a neat contrast between the tight yet enthusiastic formalism of the music itself and the intoxicated passion of the human voice as it rides the waves of energy. As if mimicking the different paces found in the rhythms of nature – the immediate passing of the seasons and animalistic activity alongside the deeper processes of earth and climate – the melodic style of Délétère is wonderfully cyclical, with each element going on its own journey only to link up with the rest of the music further down the line. This is the chief reason why – despite the intensity – this music never grows overwhelming.
Sarkrista take a much blunter approach which many may find a little on the generic side, but as far as garden variety black metal goes this is still above par. Although their approach to the style will hold few surprises – tremolo picked riffs, a wall of blast-beats, blasphemous lyrics – they do take a long form approach to melody that means each track feels like an undeniably cohesive piece. These tracks are compact, efficient, and direct, unlike some more bloated works in this area that come across as several tracks stitched together with little in the way of connecting themes.
Sarkrista work bouncy rhythms beneath highly melodic lead guitar work. These tend to settle on a theme or refrain with subtle variations that are unpicked as the track progresses. Not so much a collection of riffs played in sequence as it is a series of subtly different iterations on the same theme.
Although this template is altered little across the four tracks Sarkrista have committed to this EP, the formula never seems to grow tired. The reason for this is the energy and efficiency of the compositions. There is no excess fat on this music, it is lean and direct, meaning that one’s ear is drawn solely to the melody as it gradually evolves over the track. This is a kind of repetition by the back door, whereby we are receiving the same or very similar information from start to end, but we still feel like we have progressed from point A to point B after the experience.
On the whole this EP is a treat for anyone that considers themselves a serious fan of modern black metal. This is not so much an assessment of where the genre is in 2021 as it is a reminder of the creative spaces still available within these relatively traditional approaches to the form. A form that takes a more direct approach, eschewing heavy keyboard use and overworked atmospheres but still manages to deliver a deeply escapist experience all the same.