I like the beats and I like the yelling: Saqraruna, Velka, Zwaard

Saqraruna: Under the Light of Mountains
Out 18th March on Super Sargasso

For anyone paying attention, South America is playing an increasingly important role in the future of extreme metal. Despite the continent’s history with metal extending back many decades, only a handful of household names have experienced reputational cut through on a level comparable with their North American and European counterparts. But signs of embedded global recognition are increasingly forthcoming alongside metal’s rampant popularity across the continent. And if they continue to produce albums like ‘Under the Light of Mountains’ it’s easy to see why.

This is the second album from Peru’s Saqraruna, seeing them dive back into Peruvian history and culture for thematic material to put in service of their brand of epically persistent black metal. Saqraruna take the idea of longform composition seriously, unfolding melodies gradually via lengthy tremolo picked chord progressions, as if echoing the passage of deep time via their warping effects on our temporal perception.

But these are delivered against a backdrop of mid-paced blast-beats that function more as a representation of the harshness of the landscape than anything so pedestrian. Drums themselves strike the right balance between abrasively tinny yet with enough polish to lend the mix a cinematic sheen that only enhances the dramatic flavour of this album. Vocals are pitched at the mid-range, but retain a marked degree of all too human passion despite the technical restraint of the performance.

Saqraruna’s approach to black metal bears comparison to Hate Forest, Walknut, or Ygg, but they take their own stance and approach to this imposing, layered, patient variant of bracing and cold sonic tapestries, defined by their own melodic character and attitude toward tension and resolution. Therefore, I would argue that the appeal behind ‘Under the Light of Mountains’ is what could be called exemplary as opposed to revolutionary. Saqraruna play in a well established style that marks itself out by exemplifying that style and establishing their identity within it. Unlike revolutionary albums that are utterly novel creations representing a clear break with the past.  

But within their chosen remit, Saqraruna work in striking thematic shifts whilst retaining a distinctive atmosphere throughout. Their emotive range is far broader than their European antecedents, sounding positively reflective by the end of the nine minute epic ‘Flight of a Black Serpent’. Superficially this almost sounds like post metal. But the key difference being that the emotional payoff that Saqraruna deliver feels earned at this point, properly contextualised in an album fraught with jeopardy, conflict, tension, and release.

Achieving variance and identity within a pre-existing style is easier said than done. Saqraruna give themselves many creative levers on which to pull to extend the expressive range of these pieces beyond their influences. But this is hard to achieve with the degree of restraint and laser focused conceptual intent that Saqraruna manage to maintain for the entirety of ‘Under the Light of Mountains’.

Velka: Purgatori Ignis Iudicium
Out 11th December 2021 on Base Record Production/Necromance Records

The debut album from Spain’s Velka offers a fairly comprehensive tour of modern, polished, riff laden black metal popularised by Abigor and Cirith Gorgor amongst others. This bears similarities to the crisp, almost industrial aesthetic that Abigor have more recently pursued, with a healthy dollop of latter day Enslaved riffing for good measure, but unlike these familiar reference points, ‘Purgatori Ignis Iudicium’ somehow manages to avoid being unequivocally terrible.

Velka burst right of the gate with a dense and lightning fast brand of black metal informed by a cavalcade of imposing riffs and frequent shifts in tempo. Even the vocal delivery is somewhat disjointed with guttural death growls supplementing the usual goblinoid black metal stylings. Production is tight and polished, in line with the crystal clear requirements of delivering this music with no unwanted interference. Drums offer a tight foundation that is both rich yet precise, with only the slightest click of annoyance to the bass drum. The guitar tone is both warm yet razor sharp, filling out the mix when it settles on a more reflective tremolo picked riff as opposed to the tight palm-muted chugging that dominates these tracks.

Velka burst from moments of aggression to fully realised melodic progressions to projectiles of dissonance and noise with ease. The reason this succeeds where other bigger ticket acts fall down is all about unity of purpose. Many artists that settle on a style of genre hopping, riff burdened black metal replete with polished production and ambitious eclecticism come out sounding schizophrenic. There is no underlying blueprint holding it all together, and so we are left with a survey of multiple styles and traditions akin to watching a montage of riffing history.

Not so with ‘Purgatori Ignis Iudicium’. Despite each moment being dense with ideas and the tempo rarely dropping to a double digit BPM, Velka maintained a melodic and conceptual unity across these tracks that allows us to digest and follow the ideas through to their conclusion. Riffs building into a mid-track finale are clearly signposted, if not by shifts in pitch then in tempo. Breakdowns offer welcome respite from the wall of information we are asked to receive, but they still follow the clearly defined melodic character of the tracks they bookmark. And there are just enough shifts in mood and theme to diversify the aesthetic offering of this album beyond a simple masterclass in riff placement and performance.

‘Purgatori Ignis Iudicium’ may be a little too clinical and precise for fans who favour black metal’s patented sloppiness. And there’s no denying that Velka could have possibly shaved ten minutes off the runtime, as nearly an hour of this bighting tension can grow a little overwhelming. But that does not change the fact that this a refreshingly direct and straightforward presentation that marches forth with nothing but confidence in the strength of these compositions. And with good reason, very little in the way of aesthetic adornments via mixing and timbre range are required to bring these pieces to life.

Zwaard: Bloed en Wijn
Out 18th March on Argento Records

Another week, another anonymous black metal entity with an urgent message of mystery and darkness to convey. To be fair to the Dutch project known as Zwaard though, their debut EP ‘Bloed en Wijn’ has a creeping, enveloping aesthetic the uniqueness of which has not been seen since Elysium Blaze. The music feels as if it was recorded in a vast cathedral and the riffs are tailored toward enhancing this imagery, with simple two chord marches augmented by franticly repetitive lead refrains that only exacerbate the inertia of the mix.

Guitars are a wall of mournful noise both powerfully dense yet simultaneously wafer thin, with every other aspect of the mix merely ancillary to this requirement. Vocals are a procession of distant howls and screams of longing seemingly designed to enhance the dramatic impact of the guitars. Drums offer a direct and simple barrage of 4/4 beats and blast-beats that might as well bleed into the underlying static for all the reverb that has been applied to the kit. Crash cymbals and the odd fill can be discerned beneath the cacophony, but for the most part the drums are more a presence than a clear and distinct entity.

Rhythm guitar and drums conspire to subvert the very concept of rhythm by providing a wall of ambient noise that probably did subscribe to rhythmic dictates at one point, but are now so supressed and contorted by reverberating noise that their qualities are more ambient than metal. This leaves the lead guitars to flesh out the melody and phrasing of each passage. In this regard they work more as a string section in terms of timbre and technique, offering simple yet powerful harmonic material by which to progress these pieces toward a feeling of untimely demise. 

Look to Beithioch for another artist similarly in the thrall of their textural offering to the point where the composing style morphs and transfigures into something not quite metal anymore. We are given a rumbling wall of noise that is defined more by movements than by individual riffs as only the most dramatic shift in pitch or key and can be discerned. This leaves the lead guitars to gradually unfold these compositions via simple descending melodies or singular, sustained notes that function as connecting themes across these three lengthy tracks. A triumphant meeting of distinct aesthetics and finely tailored composition. 

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