I like the beats and I like the yelling: Katharos, Battlestorm, Skognatt/Wehmut

Katharos: Of Lineages Long Forgotten
Out 13th May on Willowtip Records

I suppose one could love ‘Anthems to Welkin at Dusk’ to the point where creating a carbon copy of the album seems like the only logical response to life. To be fair to Katharos though, context is not a myth, and the Emperor classic is a tricky slip stream to navigate, one of the key reasons why symphonic black metal never really took much from it, preferring instead the orchestral NWOBHM path. Listening back to ‘Anthems…’ now is to catch a glimpse of an alternative present full of possibilities for epic and symphonic black metal of complexity and nuance, a present that Katharos seem hellbent on making a reality.

Their latest album, rather tellingly entitled ‘Of Lineages Long Forgotten’, is indeed a dense, complex reimagining of the mid 1990s Emperor formula. But despite the achingly apparent similarities, it would be unfair to dismiss Katharos as rip-off merchants however, a great deal of thought, time, composition, and technical ability has clearly gone into the creation of this work. All of which speaks of a dedication that is only possible in those with a true passion and understanding for their craft.

Although the production retains the breadth and depth required to bring a sense of majesty and might to this style, by today’s standards it still presents as pleasingly visceral. The guitar tone is sharp, bitingly abrasive, yet with a rich, earthy bass tone that fills out the mix nicely. Drums are equally nuanced, retaining a raw edge that acknowledges the lo-fi lineage of this music whilst elevating the experience into a more total sonic experience. Vocals are low in the mix, acting as a distant narration to these epic tails of theological mysticism, one that sits beneath the mix rather than at the centre of it. And of course there’s the symphonics themselves, which maintain a consistent presence throughout ‘Of Lineages Long Forgotten’, swerving between pleasing ornamentation and leading role with ease.

This latter feature is really the take home message of this album. We can call out the derivations and lack of originality till we’re blue in the face, but the fact is the music has an undeniable flow to it, an almost effortless drama that swirls from mood and theme seamlessly. Chugging mid-paced melodic thrash will happily bleed into sweeping tremolo pick ascensions replete with high end string tones that bring a sense of colour and light to proceedings, only for it to be swept down into riffs defined by their dark, gothic melodicism.

Katharos have positioned themselves at a vanguard of newer artists – Necronautical, Journey into Darkness – who seem keen to reclaim the symphonic black metal tag from its rather patchy past. All too often a source of embarrassment amongst the black metal faithful owing to its Disneyfied history, it’s easyr to forget that at one point it was the cutting edge of the scene in terms of musical maturity. Although it was maybe too much for some swallow back in the day, today’s listener is more open minded, more receptive to a breadth of musical experiences as long as they are delivered in good faith. ‘Of Lineages Long Forgotten’ resists all the Emperor comparisons I can throw at it precisely because it has been delivered with that good faith, with real knowledge and passion for the music sitting beneath its many moving parts.

Battlestorm: Summon Decimation
Out 27th March on Trauma Records

It’s a hard concept to pin down, but as any experienced listener will know, there’s a feeling to certain albums that just lets you know that the musicians really mean it. There’s a quality to the delivery, a flow to the compositions, and an intuitive aesthetic connection which opens up a direct channel from the listener’s musical brain to that of the artist. That’s the feeling I get when spinning ‘Summon Decimation’, the latest LP from Singaporean death/black metallists Battlestorm.

The reason I talk of delivery and intuition is because descriptively speaking this album frankly sounds rather dull. It’s a combination of old school black metal, early death metal, and Teutonic thrash. It’s utterly packed with riffs, choppy blast-beats and screaming guitar leads, percussive breakdowns, vitriolic vocals and banshee wails. But behind these fairly run of the mill descriptors sits a degree of quality control and attention to detail so lacking in many comparable releases coming out at present. Every moment is stuffed with class, aggression, vitality.

This is no mere conveyor belt of old school tropes slapped together for brand recognition. Battlestorm have taken real time in piecing these tracks together, ensuring that only the strongest material is bought to the table, and that each moment drives the momentum of the piece, shaping it into forward looking music with genuine telos. Just observe how the solo on ‘Exaltation of the Fallen’ works with the rest of the music, driving the riffs forward and serving as a link between the mid-section and the ultimate finale whilst simultaneously being quality material in its own right regardless of context.

The production is on the mechanical side. This is after all riff driven music and has little regard for dynamics or timbral nuance. Drums offer a solid, machine gun like cacophony beneath the fray. But the performance is far from one dimensional, as tempos and link fills are interchanged with ease to service the flow from one riff to the next. The guitar tone is more in line with thrash than it is death metal. This allows it to trade blows between dirty black metal riffing, atonal thrash, and even some hints of melodic heavy metal without compromising on the overall impact.

Beyond that there’s not much more to say about this album. I am as tired as anyone with old school revivalism and artists seeking accolades for their ability to dredge up yet more of the past. So it was not without some trepidation that I approach ‘Summon Decimation’, an album replete with all the usual calling cards along with the pencil drawn cover art, a staple of the roster of revivalist ringleaders Hells Headbangers. But Battlestorm have packed so many ideas into one space and painstakingly arranged them into the most efficient, exciting, energetic and intellectually engaging package possible that one cannot help but submit to the experience. The sonic equivalent of being lucidly intoxicated.  

Skognatt/Wehmut: split
Out 30th March, self-released

Skognatt open this split EP of Bavarian black metal with a brand of stripped back, atmospheric black metal that manages to maintain momentum and variety, rare qualities for many of their peers working in the same sonic milieu. Despite the minimalist philosophy, Skognatt are always pulling the music forward via elegantly simple guitar melodies, clean and distorted interchanges, and welcome layers of melodic material. It seems they have taken the aesthetics of atmospheric black metal and rather than driving this into an elongated rumination that pivots on lengthy repetitions, they have instead written linear folk metal pieces that almost behave like anthemic rock were it not for the glum presentation.

These tracks follow a stop-start ethos, with either mid-paced marching rhythms or lackadaisical blast-beats finding their momentum interrupted by clean guitar breakdowns and frequent pauses to reflect on a particular riff or refrain. Vocals are a persistent flow of distorted narration that seemingly goads the music forward into the next passage.

All is hesitant, tentative, modest, yet just at the point where one wonders how long a particular repetition will last Skognatt introduce a new element, either additional harmonics, a basic tempo change, a switch to clean guitars accompanied by a break in the percussion. None of this is rocket science, but it is remarkable how effective these basic tools can be when applied to a genre that is so often underserviced in this department. The overall mood is one of melancholia, with undertones of classic black metal grimness to offset any feeling of overworked sentiment. The result is a surprisingly broad emotive picture that is able to work in lighter colours that blend seamlessly alongside the greyer shades of the overall picture. A subtle work of drab but diverse black metal.

Despite Wehmut billing themselves as depressive black metal, for their half of this split they offer a surprisingly slick melding of traditional melodic black metal with tasteful hints of post metal, all drawn together under the atmospheric umbrella. A wash of tremolo picked guitars submerged in reverb forms the backdrop of these tracks, working through riffs that are undeniably melodic, sitting at the borders of mournful and heroic, they have an understated epic quality that proves to be infectiously immersive.

Atop this are placed high end lead harmonies that form the centrepiece of the lyrical voice, backing up the obscurantist distorted howls with confidently shaped musical characters. Drums offer a supressed thud of realism beneath the mystical wash of reverb drenched guitars. Although lacking in any dynamic qualities, they have a suitable echo that is repressed enough not to swallow the entire mix when switching into blast-beats, resulting in a pleasing rhythmic framing for this otherwise rather foggy brand of black metal.

The music itself is fluid, as passages defined by their strong melodic character – one that occasionally borders on the truly stirring – reach finales of slow, doom laden rhythms that allow the music to build into crescendos of release and resolution. But all is delivered with a sense of objectivity. Although the music is highly emotive, dripping with melodic through-lines designed to tug at the heart strings, the delivery is more naturalist, it does not seem to emanate from a specific human perspective but shoots for a more universalist, realist vantage point, allowing us to reflect on the wider natural landscape beyond our everyday experiences. Which – let’s face it – remains one of the chief appeals of quality black metal, especially variants that sit at the atmospheric and epic end of the spectrum.

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