Origins of paralysis: Aura Noir and Absu

The term blackened thrash warrants closer scrutiny. Today it’s considered a subgenre, and one that contemporary fans seem to have a near limitless appetite for despite the endless conveyor belt of colour-by-numbers artists that are currently flying its colours. But a strong argument could be made for this being the black metal archetype. Given the first wave’s affinity for thrash metal, it was not until Norway took the rudiments of Sarcofago, Bathory, Sodom, and Hellhammer in a more orchestral direction that the common understanding of black metal changed entirely. Indeed, these first wave artists were not shooting for anything like the black metal that followed, but were simply trying to take the metal music they loved in a darker, harder direction. Even Slayer’s ‘Hell Awaits’ in retrospect could look like a blackened thrash album.

Given its current fixation on dirty, primitive sleaze it’s easy to forget the epic potentials buried within a combination of heavy metal melodicism, thrash metal’s seemingly boundless energy, and early black metal’s penchant for the esoteric. Despite modernity’s homogenisation, it’s a genre that could contain within it everything from the angular rumblings of Aura Noir to Immortal’s cinematic ‘At the Heart of Winter’.

Aura Noir are a household name in fort b-tier, but its clientele have lent their talents to many of the bigger hitters of the Norwegian scene. Although their debut proudly outed blackened thrash as a genre with its titular manifesto ‘Black Thrash Attack’ (yes, this is one of those genres that’s very proud to be what it is), it was their second album ‘Deep Tracts of Hell’ that saw the formula really come together. Although this project was an attempt to strip black metal back to its fundamentals, it is also apparent on listening to ‘Deep Tracts of Hell’ that history cannot be undone, the fragments of what have gone before will inevitably affect what is to come, even if this occurs at the subconscious level.

Thrash had had its day when ‘Deep Tracts of Hell’ was released in 1998, and for all the rampant Slayer-esque persistence to the riffing, the early Bathory barbarism, and the infectious impatience of Kreator, this still looks very much like a product of the 1990s. It’s an album that seems to be fighting against its own revivalism. There are plenty of riffs that would be at home on any first wave black metal album, yet these only serve to cloak the frigid minimalism of other riffs that feel very much like post ‘A Blaze in the Northern Sky’ Norwegian black metal.

The result is an album that – despite this artist’s reputation and self-declared allegiance to blackened thrash – ontologically speaking is still closer to second wave Norwegian black metal than our contemporary idea of what blackened thrash should look like. Sure it’s violent, raw, aggressive, barbaric, replete with outrageous chromaticism, choppy drum fills, and barbaric vocals. Yet despite all this the music does not gallop along with consistent momentum like classic thrash, instead it flows past the mind with liquid consistency like black metal. We often define this genre as the application of a black metal aesthetic to thrash, but Aura Noir force the two genres much closer together, and often give full voice to compositional techniques much closer to the ethereal minimalism of black metal, despite the bombastic and outrageously aggressive presentation of this album.

Absu are now best remembered for crafting dense interpretations of blackened thrash almost too replete with information to be listenable. But the Texans’ formative years were much more chameleonic than this legacy suggests. From the understated occultist death metal of their debut ‘Barathrum: V.I.T.R.I.O.L.’ (1993), to the flamboyant and cinematic Celtic metal of ‘The Sun of Tiphareth’ (1995), Absu were far more than a one trick pony. It wasn’t until ‘The Third Storm of Cythrául’ released in 1997 that the thrash influence became explicit. But unlike the self-congratulation that haunted much of the genre, Absu’s connection to thrash metal seems merely incidental, as if it were selected simply because it was the most effective canvas for rendering this step of their evolution.

‘The Third Storm of Cythrául’ is often overshadowed by the outrageous concoction of aggression and epicism found on the follow up ‘Tara’ (2001), so in many ways one could look at this as the transitional album. The detached darkness remains, the album is replete with an outdoorsy atmosphere that speaks of open steppes, treacherous landscapes, and wide mystical vistas filled with all manner of fantastical dangers. But the rhythms maintain a galloping pace, suggesting adventure and triumph, dispensing with the tentative despair that haunts a lot of black metal. Proscriptor keeps his anal obsession with fills under wraps, allowing the pacing of certain pages to be aired out a little and settling on a particular pattern for at least a few bars.

This allows the guitars to maintain a least a sense of repetition alongside the irresistibly frantic overtones that dominate the music. But repetition can be important, and somewhat lacking on future incarnations of Absu. It allows these tracks to flow with teleology, we are driven from point A to point B as passages are given valuable if small windows of breathing space to provide context to the succeeding moment.

The music is undeniably dense, packed with random fills, guitar screams, and vocal projectiles that range from low end growls, Proscriptor’s trademark goblinoid jeers, and banshee howls, but space is set aside to stitch the raw barbarism of these elements into a wider narrative of heroism, struggle, and the will to life. Absu are both acting as world builders and antagonists, they create a fully formed universe for the listener to inhabit, and proceed to tell epic tales within this environment. Many artists are capable of the former, but often fall short on the latter. In Absu’s case they would later end up jettisoning their talent for unadulterated creation in favour of dense and impenetrable chaos.

An argument could be made that blackened thrash was doomed from the start. Arriving on the scene already fully conscious of what it was, proudly announcing the credentials of genre in a way many branches of the metal family tree are wont to do, albums almost write themselves. That’s certainly the case with modern incarnations of the genre. But for Absu any connection with thrash seems almost incidental. They wanted to craft a musical journey based on specific mythologies, and stitched together elements of black, death, thrash and folk in order to convey this concept. And this sincerity and unselfconscious joy bleeds through every pore on these earlier releases. Even Aura Noir, despite the name of their debut, look like a more sincere project than many contemporary examples of this style. Their concoction of Teutonic thrash and Norwegian black metal was delivered with such energy, aggression, and a willingness to push the music with a degree of intensity and unrestrained barbarism that comparable modern releases are simply unable to match its impact.

The pick of the week is going to ‘The Third Storm of Cythrául’ however. Although ‘Deep Tracts of Hell’ is a reliable go-to album when a certain mood takes hold, one must be in that mood to enjoy it. Absu offer a diverse array of corridors and creative avenues to wander down over the course of this album, complementing the rampant militarism of thrash with the fragility of folk, an understated spiritualism that sits behind rich atmospheres, and an ability to carve new avenues for their music that are not pre-set by the conventions of genre dogmatism whilst retaining a clear and unique vision of their own conveyed through their willingness to experiment.

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