I like the beats and I like the yelling: Kurokuma, Kato, Kluizenaer

Kurokuma: Born of Obsidian
Out 4th February, self-released

Eight years and a small collection of promising EPs later, Sheffield’s own Kurokuma have landed their debut album in 2022, entitled ‘Born of Obsidian’. Although aesthetically their take on sludge/stoner doom borrows from a wide pool of punk and metal influences, their approach has always been one of tying disparate influences into a remarkably focused vibe, fraught with ritualism, repetition, and rumination. The full-length medium is ideally suited for Kurokuma to expand on these themes and stretch individual ideas to breaking point.

Consisting of just five tracks but stretching to nearly forty minutes runtime, the essential building blocks of the music are dangerously simple. Kurokuma rely on fat drums with excessive crash cymbals, a full-bodied guitar tone, and heavily distorted bass to fill the gaps between what are at times outrageously simple riffs, sometimes consisting of little more than two note alterations. Whilst drums do their best to maintain solidity with persistent grooves alongside the rampant aggression of the dual vocal attack, nothing can hide the minimalistic core of this music.

But Kurokuma don’t seem interested in stitching a tapestry of riffs together in any traditional metallic sense. Instead, they have tapped into one of the few advantages stoner metal has over its cousins, that of expanding and extending the traditional rock/blues/jazz jam into new and darker territories. Guitars are wont to abandon riffs entirely and dissolve into noise, drums are less interested in the cut and thrust of fills and intricate patterns as they are in layering up syncopation as a platform from which to challenge the other instruments for dominance.

It’s at this point that one becomes aware that Kurokuma have crafted these pieces as ritualistic tapestries, full of trippy waves of guitar noise and driving bass hooks, all with a view to creating space for each instrument to shine individually. With a clear vibe created through the ancient art of the “jam”, each musician is free to introduce their own opinions and counterpoints into the fray, taking up a central role before melting back into the noise. With space created, and the listener well and truly drawn down the rabbit hole, they all link up to re-emphasise the basic central theme.

This style of composition – allowing ample space for (at least the illusion of) improvisation, with each instrument taking it in turns to drive the music forward – has all but been abandoned by metal over the years. As younger musicians fed on a diet of punk and heavy rock gradually forgot the jazz roots of metal, strict formalisation in composition was adopted. Stoner metal – being the closest subgenre to classic 70s hard rock – does often attempt to reacquaint itself with this more freeform approach to structure, but rarely do we see it so expertly and comprehensively expanded upon whilst retaining the malevolent veneer of modern extreme metal.

‘Born of Obsidian’ may at first strike one as too basic to retain the attention, but the music quickly morphs into a meditative, collaborative showcase of differing personalities, each of which is stamped on the music, tearing it one way or another in direct contrast to the laser focused exercises in sonic unity more typical of other metal endeavours of the last thirty years or so.

Kato: Conflagration
Out 18th February, self-released

‘Conflagration’ is the debut EP from this anonymous USBM outfit. In a genre replete with lo-fi anonymity, Kato buck the trend by releasing a remarkably polished, cinematic, and well-produced offering that sounds like the work of at least a collaboration, if not a fully fledged band. This is orientated toward a dark, cavernous, trippy take on black metal that could almost be called psychedelic if you look at it from a certain angle. Tracks are anchored by repetitive yet microcosmically busy riffs, upon which larger droning guitar tones, distant siren-esque leads, and clean reverb drenched arpeggios are free to fill out the mix with vast spaces of atmosphere.

The rhythm guitar tone is fairly off-the-shelf as far as modern production values are concerned, straddling that line between various forms of extreme metal, indeed almost making the “black metal” label entirely arbitrary. ‘Conflagration’ feels like the product of modernity’s meshing, melding, and wedding of various extreme metal traditions into a generic monolith from which one can borrow all manner of aesthetics and riff traditions.

Oppressive doom riffs make an appearance at one point, happily providing the finale to the track ‘Within’, which also sees subtle keyboards providing layers of texture, and aiding the lead guitars in their quest to legitimise the intent of the mix. Modest dissonance is another welcome addition to the Kato tool kit, applied alongside soaring harmonies the abrasive contrast is stark, and brings additional expressive range to what would otherwise be one-dimensionally “dark” tracks in terms of mood.

Drums are heavy on the bass, with the snare adopting a low-end thud. The mix is clear enough for us to appreciate the intricacies of the performance, which links up with the repetitive intensity and persistence of the rhythm guitar to give these tracks an undeniable urgency. But the focus seems to be geared toward creating a pulsing presence rather than a display of virtuoso skin bashing. Equally the vocals seem to merch into the mid-range with ghoulish growls which extend symbols out for multiple bars, thus intensifying the single-mindedness of the music.

‘Conflagration’ is an interesting meeting of styles that seeks to wire in elements of doom, death, psychedelia, and of course black metal into a broad statement on the shape of contemporary extreme metal. It is still fluid, streamlined, and obsessive, all traits we would consider to be closer to black metal than the angular, disjointed structures of death metal, or the tectonically slow builds of doom. But Kato have taken the art of borrowing aesthetics from other genres that little bit further, and begun to insert them into the very DNA of these compositions, warping and manipulating the inherent qualities of its various antecedents into subtly new directions. This process is understated, smuggled in beneath the surface of ‘Conflagration’, but the process is interesting to observe nonetheless.

Kluizenaer: Ein Abbild Der Leer
Out 18th February on Wolves of Hades and Breath:Sun.:Bone:Blood

On their latest LP, Germany’s Kluizenaer cross cavernously vast black metal with dark ambient and minimalist industrial. One can sense the fingerprints of early The Ruins of Beverast all over ‘Ein Abbild Der Leer’, supplementing the laboured doom jams with lengthy ambient segments that speak of non-metallic influences in the form of Lustmord. Kluizenaer’s attention is clearly focused on atmosphere, relying on the size of the guitar tone to flesh out these pieces as a stand in for complex riffing.

The stage set with throbbing guitar noise, distant howls and high-end histrionics, and a vast snare that sounds like it was recorded in a cathedral, Kluizenaer are free to build themes around two note interchanges with minimal harmonic accents, flexing up or flexing down the intensity through distorted and clear guitar tones and simple switches in tempo. This is all reminiscent of the Russian approach in Walknut or Ukraine’s Ygg, albeit with more focus on fleshing out the doom aspects, opting for an aesthetic orientated toward monolithic size over cold and grim landscapes.

Metal has seen many arms races over the years, from virtuosity and speed to noise and aggression to primitivism and simplicity, in the 2000s abrasion via dissonance and jarring tempo changes was the order of the day, today it seems to be an overwhelming and apocalyptical darkness.

Everyone wants to make the final statement in nihilistically vast music that engulfs the listener in dense sonic tapestries born of texture rather than a surplus of musical information. And like any previous arms race, the issue for most artists seems to be standing out. How does one make their statement of humanity’s annihilation appear all the more final and conclusive than their contemporaries?

There are many possible answers to this question, Kluizenaer’s seems to be in economies of scale. The raw ontology of their music is relatively straightforward. Take a step back and the mix isn’t all that dense, despite the size of the guitars, the reverb on the vocals, the powerful echo to the snare drum, everything is left relatively sparse by modern standards.

Kluizenaer are keen to make use of dynamics and the power of emptiness. It is this art of contrast that allows them to get away with such simple riffs and refrains. The vastness of a particular passage feels more alive with activity thanks to the quiet emptiness that preceded it. Said emptiness feels all the more expansive and unsettling thanks to the full-bodied production applied to the metallic segments.

There is a caveat to this however. One can admire ‘Ein Abbild Der Leer’ as a masterstroke of arrangement. One could admire the placement of ambient segments alongside bracing black metal, or the trading blows of slow burn crescendos. But this is ultimately music that attempts to tug at the heart strings. The minimalism at work beneath the overtly emotive motivation behind the pieces means its impact may be limited for ears already accustomed to this style of apocalyptic black/death/doom metal (and there are lot of outfits like this around at present).

This doesn’t hold ‘Ein Abbild Der Leer’ back from being an enjoyable experience, and in purely technical terms there is still much to admire in Kluizenaer’s craft. But this degree of emotional specificity combined with the requisite intensity is a flame burning too brightly to last for long without a dramatic (and novel) course correction.

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