I like the beats and I like the yelling: Krolok, Ravenous Death, Fiat Nox

Krolok: Funeral Winds & Crimson Sky
Out 21st December on Osmose Productions

The second LP from this Slovakian outfit takes the trappings of black metal rendered on the murkier side and combines this with old school punk, a meeting of mysticism and aggression that demonstrates the lengthy shelf life one can garner from a unique atmosphere if delivered with imagination. ‘Funeral Winds & Crimson Sky’ sees the obscurantist philosophy behind such works as ‘Folkloric Necro Metal’ meet the aloof abrasion of Polish black metal in early Graveland or Veles, resulting in a work that invokes images of cold and foggy woods more than it does mountains and ice.

Weird sounds emanate from a variety of directions, seasoning the foundations of guitar and drumkit with the threat of the unknown. The trick to this is all about creating the illusion of distance within the mix. The overall presentation is relatively understated. The guitars are low in the mix, so despite the fact that a good portion of the riffs are actually ripped straight from hardcore punk and the primitive droning of Hellhammer goes largely unnoticed. They employ enough harmonic material from later iterations of black metal to temper these more grounded influences into something that feels like it truly belongs to a transitional reality between nature and what is commonly referred to as the “spiritual”.

Modest keyboards are deployed to accent certain passages and create this sense of “spiritualism” floating atop the all too human barbarism of the guitar and drum setup. They fill out the mix, giving it size and breadth, but they are placed in a such as way to appear distant. They are the ethereal sounds of the forest, emanating from sources unknown and for reasons unfathomable. Vocals are placed equally far off, utilising a mid-range cry of distortion that sits within the mix as just another instrument rather than a lead voice in this drama.

It is this understated delivery that allows Krolok to smuggle in a world of dramatic contrasts and juxtapositions into a work that – when taken as a whole – is remarkably well integrated. The clash of primitive black metal with subtle yet pronounced atmospheric flourishes allows them to work in elongated narratives that suck the listener down ever more twisted and alien pathways.

In spending so much energy and thought on the various foundational aspects of this music, even the most simple flourishes – a lead guitar melody here, a sprinkling of gentle synths there – goes a long way to heighten the drama and forward motion of this music.

It’s as if we are witnessing an old school, primitive black metal outfit attempt to compose an ambient black metal album. The result emphasises the strengths of each contrasting approach. And as it unfolds, many hidden pockets of intrigue are revealed under this broad thematic range that only gets bolder as the album progresses. ‘Funeral Winds & Crimson Sky’ bursts forth with full confidence in black metal’s ability to conjure very specific atmospheric qualities as a means of mapping out ambitious and original song structures that invoke escapism and jeopardy in equal measure.

Ravenous Death: Visions from the Netherworld
Out 24th January on Memento Mori

The second LP from Mexican death metal juggernaut Ravenous Death is a weighty undertaking. Given the meat ‘n’ taters brand of death metal these guys are working with, they would have to be pretty confident in their product to offer up over an hour’s worth of material for their public. No thrills death metal is a genre that usually lends itself to brevity, relying on a get-in-get-out philosophy to deliver the goods.

But Ravenous Death hoard more tools in their armoury than many of their contemporaries in this regard. Beneath the rather typical death metal veneer are folded in many familiar characters from across the extreme metal spectrum. They don’t shy away from the occasional black metal riff, and are not afraid of repeatedly smashing these against a straightforward thrash pummelling. At times they sound like early Deicide, at others like early Amorphis on speed, many of the riffs devolve into the kind of undiluted evil primitivism that would be at home on a Profonatica album, all framed by guttural vocals that varnish this content with a brutal death metal aesthetic.

The production is on the mechanical side and just screams death metal of the early 2000s. Drums seem to be a battleground between the triggered clicks that became the norm in that decade alongside an organic snare sound, and a performance that displays a mastery of various techniques across the death metal spectrum. Guitars embody an equally conflicted duality. Although the distortion is on the brutal side, many of the guitar leads that spring up over the course of this album bottom out the mix with layers of atmosphere, aiding the vocals in their quest to take the size and scope of this music beyond a purely riff based bludgeoning and into the realms of atmosphere heavy metal that characterises so many contemporary releases.

I suppose the real question given the sheer quantity of familiar elements that crop up on ‘Visions from the Netherworld’ is whether Ravenous Death are able to articulate a voice of their own. The fact that this album works as an extensive demo-reel of extreme metal riffing both old and new is not entirely to its detriment. After all, they are executed competently, and the result is a feast of musicality for fans of death, black, and thrash metal alike.

But at some point, at about the forty five minute mark, after yet another mashup of caverncore and percussive death metal, we have to ask what this album is achieving beyond a “state-of-nation” address to extreme metal. As a summary and celebration of where we are so far Ravenous Death have plenty to say, but despite the myriad influences they have painstakingly stitched together in forming these tracks, it’s still not clear they have taken us anywhere new by the end of ‘Visions from the Netherworld’.

That’s not simply a point about lack of originality – indeed Ravenous Death have more to say in this regard than a lot of death metal outfits today – but more that the album adopts a cyclical structure rather than a narrative one. Each track circles around clearly defined themes and works in many riff traditions by which to articulate them, but it’s never quite clear this is going anywhere beyond “isn’t death metal awesome!” declarations. It sure is awesome, and ‘Visions from the Netherworld’ has many treats to offer fans who agree, but for such a lengthy work we need a little more depth and clarity of purpose to justify dedicating such a large chunk of our time to this undertaking.

Fiat Nox: Demanifestation (Hymns of Destruction and Nothingness)
Out 22nd January on Crawling Chaos Records

The latest EP from Fiat Nox is another brash statement of dark black metal. Their compositional approach is not unlike fellow Deutschlanders The Ruins of Beverast. The style of each artist may be wildly divergent, but Fiat Nox adopt a similar long form philosophy across these three lengthy tracks, one that is both deeply satisfying, but not in an immediately obvious way. Individual riffs and refrains may be generic bordering on tedious, but as the tracks unfold they form part of an enriched and deeply rewarding superstructure (all of which could be said of the Beverast ethos). Context is retrofitted onto the preceding music, meaning that additional value is bestowed on these works with each new listen. That being said, not all listeners would have the patience for this, discarding the experience after the first few rather boiler plate measures of the opening number ‘The Enshrouded Gateway’.

Fiat Nox approach their medium with a degree of restrained theatrics. The mix, despite its polish and nuance, is relatively understated, as if emerging from the gloomy interludes that border each track, but never quite reaching the cold light of day despite the fact that large portions of the music are made up of blast-beats and tremolo riffing, displaying – in the process – ample dissonance that seems to mark so much of modern extreme metal. Vocals veer from guttural death growls to high-end screeching to the occasional passionate shout in the distance, thus serving to humanise what is on the whole a rather mechanical mix.

But unlike many of their contemporaries, Fiat Nox supplement these more abrasive qualities with refined and mournful melodies, the direction of which can sometimes take the whole ten minutes of a track to unfold. From simple one bar guitar licks are gradually unfolded layers of melodic narrative that drag the direction of the rhythm guitar along in their wake. This is reminiscent of Icelandic acts such Svartidauði or Carpe Noctem, who achieve a similar balance of density and melody with a pronounced dissonant character.

Drums emphasise moments of transition by slashing the tempo at key moments, or else breaking entirely to allow a particular riff to air out. They offer a tight and nuanced performance that seems more orientated toward integrating itself into the subtle guitar layers rather than anything approaching showmanship.

Modern extreme metal has a habit of favouring the “extreme” aspect of its textural range to the detriment of composition at times. Dark, oppressive aesthetics dominate, dissonance and density are treated as ends in themselves. Fiat Nox fit very much within this modern tradition at the borders between death, black, and doom metal with an overtly apocalyptic aesthetic. But they are able to breathe new life into these over-used techniques by working them into lengthy and ambitious compositions that reward repeated listens, unfolding their intended destinations with patience and grace.

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