I like the beats and I like the yelling: Tundra, Meslamtaea, Holyarrow

Tundra: The Darkening Sky
Out 4th March on Corrupted Flesh Records

Exemplifying a brand of cold black metal that is usually the preserve of the solo project, Italy’s Tundra reacquaint raw and atmospheric black metal with the power of energetic instrumentation and collaborative playing in a way reminiscent of early Gorgoroth. The riffs may be familiar, a little basic at times, but one can hear the interaction between different musical personalities couched within this iteration of obscurantist black metal.

Originally self-released back in 2019, ‘The Darkening Sky’ is Tundra’s fourth LP and will receive a label release on Corrupted Flesh this March. Although treading on well worn territory as far as black metal is concerned, Tundra attempt to inject a broader expressive range into what can sometimes be a famously straightjacketed style. Raw, aggressive, lo-fi black metal with hints of blackened thrash in places meets the ethereal and reflective tendencies within the genre via mournfully melodic riffs, sombre acoustic guitars, and muddied, atmospheric production values.

For a genre so often intent on creating one specific mood and recreating it to perfection, it is sometimes forgotten that at one time black metal used to be music of motion, variety, and purpose. Tundra couch these qualities within a framework that retains its integrity as a work of cold and wintry metal, but they do not shy away from working in emotional dualities across these tracks. Aggressive and maniacal vocals contrast nicely with melodic lamentations and the fragility of the acoustic guitars. A warm and distorted bass guitar often cuts through the tremolo picking to provide counterpoint and commentary on the central narratives. Drums break up the garden variety blast-beats to solidify the framework of the riffs.

All this is more easily achieved by a group of musicians with differing personalities playing off each other, which again is in direct contrast to the usual misanthropic ethos common to this brand of black. But here it works to breathe life and colour into these tracks, a sense of contrast and variety, even if this plays out as a game of subtle incrementalism. Musicality and variety are contained within an album that retains its credentials as a unified artistic vision encompassing the best elements of black metal; cold, sorrowful, aggressive, adventurous.

Meslamtaea: Weemoedsklanken
Out 25th February on Babylon Doom Cult Records

Look past the post-apocalyptic cliches and the cheesy cover art and one may find a surprisingly novel manipulation of experimental back metal on the latest LP from this Dutch outfit. ‘Weemoedsklanken‘ is album number three for Meslamtaea, which sees them expand on a brand of dissonant, progressive black metal with the addition of a full time flugelhorn player in Izzy, who sits alongside the more garden variety strings and synths. It’s sometimes difficult to describe new releases of avant-gardist black metal without making it sound like an overcooked disaster. We have in large part the legacy of Deathspell Omega and Enslaved to thank for that.

But Meslamtaea manage to adopt traits from both these acts and concoct them into something worthwhile, something with a clear vision, a little soul, and some playfully experimental avenues that pose as a genuinely novel entity. In a sense we probably should not view this album as anything close to black metal at all. Sure many of the riffs fit within a certain modern technical and dissonant strain of the style, replete with a warmer, sharper guitar tone and tight blast-beats to boot, but there is also a marked post-rock-cum-jazz undertone to these pieces that informs the way many of the riffs take shape and develop.

It has become an obnoxious trend within metal to work in elements of jazz and older prog styles as a way of begging for experimental legitimacy, which fans will lap up as a route to posing as entities with intellect. But Meslamtaea have a way of stitching the musical fragments of jazz together with black metal in a way that feels more integrated. Eruptions of apparent improvisation feed seamlessly into the formalised structures of black metal, with the fragments of one provide the building blocks of the other.

In this way Meslamtaea make their melding of genres explicit within the material. This is not just jazz instrumentation and surface level tropes mashed into some dissonant black metal riffing for the sake of appearing intelligent. Rather, Meslamtaea acknowledge the improvisational nature of jazz, and spend real effort integrating this into a black metal framework. This makes the pieces more believable as flowing, unified works whilst simultaneously expanding the expressive range of both musical traditions.

There are plenty of atmospheric post rock/metal passages that – while fitting in context – seem to function more as link phrases. Whilst not entirely without merit (the expansion of timbre is welcome) they often sink into overly emotive filler segments. This seems to stem from Meslamtaea attempting to refer back to their melancholy, post-apocalyptic subject matter with mournful refrains and sombre moods. But ‘Weemoedsklanken’ primarily situates itself as a work for the brain via its complex musical structures that take shape through painstakingly stitching together genres and techniques. All of which can be appreciated in its own right without the need to refer back to relatively cliched conceptual material.

This is a nit-pick however. The post metal elements for the most part work as a neat supplement to the angular, unpredictable riffing and densely colliding time signatures, making the album flow from one moment to the next with ease. If one is able to look past the veneer of what looks like eclectical masturbation one will find a rewarded and surprisingly audacious piece of avant-gardist modern metal in ‘Weemoedsklanken’.

Holyarrow: 大員合戰 / 1661 – 1662 The Siege of Fort Zeelandia
Out 22nd February on Pest Productions

Offering a take on black metal that echoes Southern European styles in its manipulation of epic heavy metal melodies and working in elements of folk instrumentation and sweeping symphonics, Xiamen’s Holyarrow sure pack a punch on this brief EP. The release of ‘大員合戰 / 1661 – 1662 The Siege of Fort Zeelandia’ has been timed to coincide with the 360th anniversary of the passing of Koxinga, Prince of Prince of Yanping, who led troops on a landing at Lakjemuyse, leading to the titular Siege of Fort Zeelandia, where they prevailed over Dutch colonists and thus ended the Dutch East India Company’s rule over Taiwan.

Given the specificity of this conceptual material one could be forgiven for thinking that Holyarrow have hamstrung themselves in the somewhat overloaded theme. But an epic voyage across the waves to oust foreign invaders proves to be an ideal setting to insert this brand of bouncy, epic, melodic black metal, replete with characterful and heroic riffs and intricate folk melodies. Even on this brief EP Holyarrow are able to pack a dense array of musicality that would give their opposite numbers in Scandinavia a run for their money, all without coming across as cluttered or unfocused.

The mix is crisp and clear, with a tinny snare sound doing nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the performance. Guitars embody a nice balance between good old abrasion and a sharp edge ideally suited to articulating layered and intricate melodic inflections. Vocals are an aggressive bark of barbaric revelry, simultaneously at home in the historical context of the lyrical subject matter yet also convincing as a dispassionate narrator of events.

Choral chants crop up frequently to lend the music a sense of historical gravitas, immediately calling to mind Homeric epics of antiquity. The backbone of these tracks consists of a central melodic through-line carried forward by rhythm guitar from which other elements bounce off and enhance as the piece progresses. Vocals will follow their rhythmic dictates, with the clean chants occasionally wresting the narrative from the guitars and raising the key and pitch of the music to a state of near euphoria. This backbone also provides the drums with a clear blueprint from which to build a rhythmic philosophy. Subtle keyboard layers work to enhance the central motifs, whilst guitar leads and random solos jump out to heighten the intensity and stakes of the narrative.

It should be noted that all this is packed into an EP just over ten minutes in length. For this reason it feels much longer, but in a good way, as if one cannot quite comprehend how much music has gone into such a short space of time. Truly a work of efficient and clever arrangement as much as it is of raw musical talent.

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