Out 3rd December on Signal Rex
If I were to indulge in a gross oversimplification for a moment, I’d say that the history of black metal from a sonic perspective has been a continuous process of overcoming. The motivation of its original innovators was about reclaiming metal as a primitive and dangerous form of music from the overly clinical and domesticated direction death metal was taking in the early 1990s. But it’s history ever since has been a response to this central question: what are we in antithesis to? Artists ever since have defined themselves by their adversaries, even those that take the very concept of adversary as their adversary. From those that veered wildly into limiting every aspect of the sound until nothing remains but a wall of static noise, to those who attached a dazzling array of orchestral bells and whistles to the formula, resulting in a product barely recognisable as black metal.
But in this day and age, for advocates of the primitive school the problem is not so much one of creating room for manoeuvre within such a deliberately limited style, but understanding why the limits were put there in the first place. The vast majority of overt nostalgia fests that flooded the airwaves in recent years seem to understand the need for limits, but not what to do with them, hence why most of these works are aesthetic representations of the past that dissolve into air if one digs beneath the surface.
Ecuador’s Winterstorm by contrast apparently understand this ethos. Their debut album ‘Vinterstormener’ offers a sparse and by the numbers rendition of black metal along the lines of ‘Nattens Madrigal’, ‘Hordanes Land’, or ‘Panzerfaust’. All the surface levels elements are in place. The cold immediacy of washed-out distortion, the distant, metronomic thud of a “drumkit”, and the distant, high-end screeching of the vocals.
But these facets – whilst so often the focus of popularist accounts of black metal – are all secondary to the real reason this minimal style of black metal has legs: a meeting of form and content. Winterstorm seem to understand that opting for such a pronounced and immediately identifiable aesthetic places very real restrictions on the manner in which one can compose. But today’s age of near limitless possibilities creates a tyranny of choice. This makes limitation a blessing in disguise. Within the microscopic environment of lo-fi black metal, rather than succumbing to a static, one-dimensional exercise in box ticking, Winterstorm have crafted compositions that tessellate perfectly with their aesthetic choices.
There are two guitar lines on each track that for the most part marry up, playing in unison to fill out the mix. But occasionally they will diverge, offering simple, cyclical counterpoint which suspends our perception of time, giving the music that essential unchanging quality so common to all quality black metal. Drums do not stray outside their remit, performing the simple but essential role of framing these pieces with simple beats, and the occasional crash cymbal or fill. For the most part however they provide a solid foundation to rest the soaring drama of the melodic guitar lines and strained vocals.
The melodies themselves find an engaging balance between pathos, aggression, catharsis, melancholia, and heroism. Given that all of this is funnelled through the strict specs of the mix the actual music does not need to be all that complex to pull off such a broad emotional range. The marriage of composition and delivery finds its paragon on ‘Vinterstormener’, one that surpasses mere nostalgia pandering and becomes its own beast. A reaffirmation of a very specific style of black metal and its enduring virtues if treated with a little imagination.
Slimelord: Moss Contamination
Out 3rd September, self-released
Yorkshire’s own Slimelord returned this year for EP number two. Where the debut, 2019’s ‘The Delta Death Sirens’, was a laser focused demonstration of dirge ridden death/doom, this year’s ‘Moss Contamination’ sees them tap into the more expansive and ethereal qualities of the genre pioneered by disEMBOWELMENT, and later championed by the likes of Spectral Voice and Anatomia.
Slimelord may look a little like these antecedents aesthetically speaking, but they pivot their approach around three distinctive elements that give ‘Moss Contamination’ it’s character. The tension between the slow builds and chaotic releases of speed are fraught with unpredictability. The quirky lead guitar melodies sound like they’re turning themselves inside out, taking on a call and response role with the guttural vocals. And finally the riffs, which embody a genuinely doomy character throughout, as opposed to a lot of death/doom which tends to settle for death metal riffs with the tempo dropped. There is a sense of dreadful inevitability to these pieces, a slow march toward finality.
The production seems to be directed toward harnessing this push and pull of atmosphere. The guitar tone is undeniably murky, with distant, cavernous lead melodies emerging at frequent intervals from the gloom. It’s as if guitarist Xander Bradley is revealing them to us rather than consciously playing them. A throbbing bass can easily be discerned beneath this despite the dominance of the rhythm guitar, with its percussive qualities on full display, aiding the drums in anchoring the haze that covers the other instruments. Drums are equally sharp, cutting across the mix with precision and clarity. Vocals are a distant, echoey, guttural presence, directed toward applying additional atmosphere and texture over a pronounced lead role.
Alongside these familiar trappings of death/doom comes Slimelord’s penchant for progressive metal (not surprising given that this is essentially a Cryptic Shift side project). Many of the lead melodies, the bass licks, the unpredictable stop/start rhythms, the odd chord shapes, all are lifted straight from the progressive death metal playbook, here reappropriated in service of a darker, murkier, and altogether weightier undertaking. But it’s this marriage of atmosphere, clever composition, and mastery of technique that makes good death/doom endure, and it’s something that Slimelord are proving to be truly adept at.
Funeral Mist: Deiform
Out 17th December on NoEvDia
The most curious thing about Marduk is the side projects of its various members. The fact that an apparently interesting collection of musicians is behind one the most singularly boring entities in black metal is one of life’s mysteries. Not to mention the fact that they are so amply rewarded with popularity and acclaim for their efforts. Grumbling aside however, Funeral Mist – masterminded by D. Rostén – have just put out their fourth LP entitled ‘Deiform’. It’s a work of focus, variation, surprise and familiarity in equal measure.
Funeral Mist take the virulency of war metal and inject it with some much needed substance, along with many welcome eccentricities that come with the territory of hyper fast and aggressive black metal; bizarrely aggressive vocal inflections, outrageously chromatic riffing, stop/start rhythms collided against fluidity, and additional stylistic colourings borrowed from both the martial and the theological schools of thought. ‘Deiform’ feels like what Mayhem under Blasphemer’s stewardship wanted to sound like but could never quite pull off.
All the strained melodrama is there, contained within a mechanical, almost industrial coloured production. A diverse array of vocal techniques are explored (by black metal standards). A razor-sharp guitar tone, odd interludes of unidentifiable sound effects and war chants, all serve to dilute the one-dimensional aggression so common to this style. The diverse array of influences – from the children’s singing on ‘Children of Urn’ to the choral chanting of opener ‘Twilight of the Flesh’ – allows Funeral Mist to maintain a degree of intensity whilst constantly refreshing the sound palate.
These quirks work in harmony with the intensity and momentum of each piece. They are not constantly interrupting the flow as they did on those aforementioned Mayhem releases. ‘Deiform’ taps into a threatening sense of melodrama and danger that many shy away from in modern metal, favouring dense walls of unambiguous apocalypticism over the pre-capitalist sense of theological despair that riddles this album. It would be almost comical were it not delivered with a degree of conviction and polished musicianship, fleshing out the vision into reality.
Surprise hits come in all shapes and sizes, hence the…surprise. But Funeral Mist have delivered an unexpected masterclass in an aggressive form of black metal, with elements of war metal and industrial influences that finds its kindred in the likes of Mayhem, Thorns, and Impaled Nazarene. Here delivered into a concise but richly diverse package with an array of musical traditions on display, all working toward delivering a rewarding sample of old forms in new shapes.