I like the beats and I like the yelling: Ultra Silvam, Ouija, Saidan/Klanen

Ultra Silvam: The Sanctity of Death
Out 25th February on Shadow Records / Regain Records

Ultra Silvam gut the bracing melodicism of Swedish black metal, remove the regal innards, explode the restrained dignity and poise of a Dawn, Dissection, or a Sacramentum by condensing this riff laden style into dense, violently short bursts of razor-sharp metallic energy.

Their debut, 2019’s ‘The Spearwound Salvation’, was such a compact rendering of melodic black metal that it almost fell into self-parody. Rather than working out elongated narrative arcs in any obvious way, Ultra Silvam smash together contrasting riffs, some complex with hints of the epic, and others aggressively simple, laying these out in such quick succession that the resulting alchemy is remarkably complex, with many hidden pockets of information on offer, but breezing by so quickly that one beat missed means we lose the entire thread.

Their latest offering ‘The Sanctity of Death’ is a clear continuation of this project, but with some subtle alterations and – in the context of this artist’s evolution at least – a marked degree of restraint. There are moments of calm, if not by way of a break in the full-frontal metal assault, then at least in Ultra Silvam’s willingness to air some ideas out for a few measures.

Opener ‘Dies Irae’ sets this tone nicely, with distinctive themes that are unravelled clearly from the get-go, leading us into the inevitable rendition of the iconic religious chant, now becoming more of a mainstay in metal albums than Chopin’s Funeral March. But the tempering of this music’s more frantic ethos – in the slow burn interlude of ‘Tintinnabuli Diaboli’ for instance –is only carried out with a view to better contextualise and repurpose the underlying impetus to chaos. There is no better example of this than on the epic closer ‘Of Molded Bread and Rotten Wine’.

The production is suitably rough around the edges. The aesthetic is very much one of a garage band, thrashing out the fastest and most intense music they possibly can whilst free from the confines imposed by audience expectations. But despite the frenzied presentation there is method in the madness. Drums may be a little quiet, but we sense their metronomic presence and feel the intricate linking fills in the gut if not in the mind. The guitar is sharp and rough, jettisoning enough low to end to allow full articulation of the dizzyingly fast conveyor belt of riffs that bolt past the ears. Vocals are a hoarse mid-range growl at once controlled yet aggressively passionate.

For all the rough aesthetics framing of this album, the image of musicians working themselves into a Bacchanalians frenzy, the constant threat that the music is about to completely lose control and fall into chaos, for all this, there is obvious method in the madness. Melodic threads weave their way through the backbone of each track. Riffs conspire to reach an obvious finale that suddenly gives context to the preceding chaos in ways that are infinitely fascinating. The contrast between riffs so simple as to be almost comical against licks and refrains that hint at neoclassicalism bordering on the esoteric leaves one’s interest constantly refreshed. The music seems to be forever reinventing itself in ways that shed new light on the previous bar or passage.

It may take some focus to get into the right headspace to receive the full scope of what Ultra Silvam are trying to achieve. There is a lot of information to be unpacked on this half hours’ worth of music. But the rewards seem to be endless for those tuned into the required wavelength. ‘The Sanctity of Death’ may be liable to cause emotional whiplash, but it never fails to inject an overarching context that gradually reveals itself over the course of each track. It’s rare to meet an album that blends the most provocatively simple and abrasive elements of raw black metal with the sweeping scope and ambition of the genre’s more neoclassical ambitions, all the while elevating the artistic potential of these contrasting ends of the aesthetic spectrum. Adrenaline meshed seamlessly with artistic intrigue.

Ouija: Selenophile Impia
Out 27th April 2021, self-released

‘Selenophile Impia’ is the latest EP from this Spanish black metal outfit. It’s an interesting summation of various European mainstays, with elements of Bathory, Darkthrone, and Enslaved, plus some hints at funeral doom flavours creeping in on the closing track ‘Therianthropic Involution’. Although brief, Ouija manage to collect a plurality of disparate colours into a remarkably focused work of riff laden black metal, orientated toward instrumental precision and delivery over weighty atmospheric concepts.

With that in mind, the production is suitably polished, with the mix exhibiting a pristine musical sheen as opposed to the four-track static that many of their contemporaries favour. The guitar tone is cold and crisp, able to effectively layer up those tremolo riffs just as easily as the staccato rhythmic punches of melodic metal and some welcome old school black metal flourishes. Drums offer an equally diverse smorgasbord of intricate patterns that favour the interplay of cymbals and kick drums alongside more garden variety mid-paced blast-beats. Vocals fit this duality nicely, offering a lower register than is typical for black metal, but no less rhythmically precise for it.

Despite the music’s multifaceted armoury of black metal riff traditions, it is still surprisingly direct. The individual tracks meander and break off into a variety of different pathways for sure, with each offering unique tonal colourings, but all is rendered through a very immediate and intimate presentation. No ethereal keyboards, no heavy-handed reverb, and – despite some clean segments – no overly indulgent guitar noise. Ouija are totally focused on delivering this slab of melodic metal via riffs and instrumental interchange, with very few adornments to distract us from the experience.

Saidan/Klanen: Saidan/Klanen (split)
Out 14th January on Corrupted Flesh Records

Some fresh USBM offerings are gathered together on this split EP from Corrupted Flesh Records, both of the obscurantist, lo-fi arm of the genre, though no less melodic and longform for it. Saidan of Tennessee provide two tracks of raw and frantic black metal of the ‘Nattens Madrigal’ variety, along with a minimalist dark ambient interlude. And Klanen of Virginia offer an equally obscure and melodic take on black metal with a more sentimental attitude to riffs and melodic through lines.

Originally released in February last year, the vinyl pressing of this EP was severely delayed owing to major COVID induced lead-time issues in vinyl production. We have in part to thank Taylor Swift and Adele fans for this owing to their newfound love of vinyl records during lockdown. Now that record spinning is the new pastime at dinner parties the turnaround time for short runs of underground records has skyrocketed as suppliers rush to keep up with the insatiable demand of the boujee white middle classes.

Anyway, axe grinding aside, what have we here? Saidan play hard and fast melodic black metal that reminds us of early Gorgoroth in spirit if not in execution. They give a similar impression of musicians playing so intensely as to work themselves into a frenzy of euphoria. And euphoria really is the word here, not aggression, as the riffs blaze by in highly strung melodic flourishes and soaring chord progressions.

Despite the raw production, which allows only for the “feel” of the drums to be audible beneath the dominant guitar lines and distant, echoey vocals, the music retains a sense of comfort. The presentation seems to be orientated toward catharsis for the listener as opposed to beating them over the head with abrasion.

The restless guitars, dispensing with riffs as quickly as they are acquired, still retain a degree of focus and narration, as we gradually become alive to the fact that riffs and motifs are returned to in a modestly complex tapestry. Saidan tease us with hints of a cadence throughout a track, but very rarely do they actually hit one. This delayed finality gives these pieces a sense of unity lacking in more segmented works of black metal that tend to deliver a series of unrelated riffs as opposed to a connected string. Saidan’s approach may be modest in terms of complexity, but this simple fact makes these two tracks all the more engaging for it.

Klanen offer a very similar style of black metal, albeit one with a greater focus on developing individual motifs and interchanges with a view to creating a specific mood within each piece. Klanen have clearly also been eating their early Ulver greens, but instead of laying out an elongated string of interconnected riffs they focus on one or two motifs, applying subtle variances in pitch, phrasing, and rhythm to develop the music and give it forward motion.

Alongside the mic-held-underwater quality to the mix of the black metal tracks, Klanen also give us some ambient material to work with. ‘Visages of Everlasting Grief’ is a short and minimal dungeon synth piece which provides some welcome variation in timbre to go alongside the raw static of the black metal tracks.

Although hardly groundbreaking, this EP is a neat demonstration of some newer USBM artists currently at large. Both offer tight and focused takes on raw yet melodic black metal, illustrating its value as a short form medium that can immediately set a mood and tone. An underrated facet of this style that often goes overlooked in favour of the arms race toward ever grander and more epic statements.

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