To identify the truly distinguishing features of black metal one must ask where it situates the listener. Specifically, the fact that they are expected to temporarily divorce themselves from their immediate surroundings – both physical and social/cultural – and embrace a larger, more impersonal conception of reality. This severance from individualism is a step even death metal seemed incapable of making. For all its violent ruminations on mortality, however profound, death metal retained a largely very atomised, intimate understanding of life’s end.
By fixating on the passage of deep history, the indifferent vastness of wilderness, and the skewed moral conceptions of pre-Christian theology, black metal purports to be a window allowing us to understand a more constant and fundamentally humbling perspective on reality and our place within it. Aligning it to such terms as “fantastical” – whilst true in a literal sense – can be something of misnomer then. Whilst heavy metal and contemporary power metal views the realm of the traditional fantasy genre as a playground, allowing artists and fans to indulge in epic quests with actually existing notions of right and wrong, black metal attempted to engage with fantasy as a source of weird realism, a kind of rebuttal to liberal democracy’s ambient demands to grow up and engage with consumer capitalism.
Equally, black metal’s alignment with various forms of industrial music saw the same ideas play out under a futurist aesthetic. If both the past and future are perceived as vast, uncaring worlds, ill equipped or even openly hostile to our needs, the present can only be a brief illusion, one that will inevitably dissolve, leading to our demise if we fail to confront these facts with any degree of sobriety.
It’s hardly surprising then, that in the third decade of black metal’s existence it began to confront the modernist condition head on. The early signs of this artistic turn were patchy – a common facet of any genre facing the possibility of its own irrelevance – either taking the form of one dimensional DSBM or a certain strain of atmospheric black metal that was rich in aesthetics but light on content. But it wasn’t long before more serious attempts to confront the here and now were made, efforts that retained black metal’s sense of an inevitable and all powerful constancy, but imbued this with a challenging immediacy, daring the listener to engage with the now beyond enveloping domestic concerns.
These two examples took differing but equally compelling approaches to this endeavour. Aosoth, who – along with MkM’s other project Antaeus – explored the limits of psychological taboos via tracts on sadism, suffering, self-harm, and physical extremity; and Krieg, who, after beginning life as an unashamedly primitive form of occultist noise art, quickly turned to more considered sonic polemics on the nature of suffering, misanthropy, the circularity of hatred, and urban isolation.
Aosoth were in many ways the archetypical black metal band by which to understand the new century. If Antaeus is a protracted study in the limits of human fury, Aosoth were a more considered, calculating, and menacing entity. Less blind rage, more tactical coercion. Their third album ‘III: Violence & Variations’ is where we begin to see them craft a truly distinctive voice. Thick walls of guitar noise are funnelled through the speakers as if plucked from a formless void of chaos, underpinned by drums just as amenable to beating out a funereal marching dirge as they are to blast. Although the music itself is relatively straightforward, the presentation is liable to cause sensory overload. It’s akin to being plunged into a world defined by a plethora of competing noises, and having to focus in on one specific point in order to make sense of our environment. Aosoth give the impression that despite the enveloping waves of sound they confront us with, they are capable of more, and are only holding back due to our innate inability to process the full picture.
Layers upon layers of guitar noise dominate these tracks, but there is a poise and subtlety to the delivery that is indicative of an artist concerned with more than simply bludgeoning all into submission. Although the chord sequences are relatively straightforward, their focus seems to be toward subtly incremental developments over jarring bursts of chaos. Modest elements of dissonance pepper these pieces with agreeably abrasive overtones, but the underlying melodic character of the riffs can still be discerned. Drums pivot toward bolstering the imposing waves of noise rather than offering a characterful rhythmic identity. Precision blast-beats are punctuated by cascading fills that see the music threaten to collapse under its own weight like an aging star.
MkM’s distinctively monstrous vocalisations only add to this sense of entropy. His style in the early days of Antaeus deployed a staccato rhythmic beating lifted directly from hardcore punk, but with the release of ‘Blood Libels’ in 2006 he adopted a theatrical approach that bordered performance art. Through minimalist lyrics exploring the limits of sensory perception with all its warping psychological implications, he is able to command the direction of the music itself. With each new line delivered, the music ramps up the intensity. There is a persistence, an almost dispassionate determination to drive us through the experience to its ultimate and horrific conclusion. He will wait, allowing the music to develop and meander at a consistent level of extremity before delivering another stanza, thus forcing the pitch of the guitars up a notch, the tempo increasing and decreasing in keeping with whatever outcome will be the most uncomfortable for us to experience.
Antaeus always maintained a degree of bacchanalian joy in their craft, and whilst it’s certainly true that Aosoth existed in the same general orbit, any lasting remnants of hope have been finally and completely stripped away. Through cyclical repetition, gradual escalations in information the listener is expected to imbibe, each more distasteful to both musical and artistic convention than the last, and each musical development proving to be as fruitless and inconsequential as the last, we are left with little choice but to embrace the nihilism as it is offered, not with joy or gleeful Dadaist subversion, but because all other options have been confiscated by force.
Krieg are one of the more heralded American black metal acts, not least because mastermind Neil Jameson is America’s own rather depressive answer to Fenriz. Both being outspoken fans as much as they are musicians, and both can lay claim to a considerable legacy and cultural capital alongside a passion for vinyl. But whereas Frenriz’s eccentric black metal daddy with a huge record collection is an increasingly stale contrivance, Jameson is not afraid to confront us with sincerity, whether that means making demands on the scene that might upset a few folk along the way. Even if his musical offerings boast more misses than hits – and his indulgence of Thurston Moore, someone who is frequently offered a platform within metal by our beloved useful idiots despite demonstrating only pseudo superficial knowledge of the topic – Krieg has always occupied a unique place in the story of post 2000 black metal.
Although Jameson now swears off the first two Krieg albums as the output of a mind too young and ill-equipped to truly convey an artistic message, they remain fascinating studies of second wave black metal as an exercise in the limits of expression through noise along with Profanatica, Impaled Nazarene, Beherit and the like. But with ‘The Black House’ released in 2004, Krieg took a modernist turn. The production was cleaned up, the musicianship tightened, and the conceptual framework shifted toward psychological despondency over playful occultism. EPs with titles like ‘Kill Yourself or Someone You Love’ and ‘Patrick Bateman’ begin to manifest, resituating black metal’s well-established misanthropy in a domestic setting. This was an expression of the mental grind of just existing in the here and now with all its demands and expectations, the relentless requirement to interact with others and the tension this engenders. Each individual instance of unpleasantness may be trivial in itself, but culminates in an overwhelming despondency, a sense of deep loss of something just beyond perception, and the isolation of living amongst millions of unrelated individuals, an isolation more intense than the remotest wilderness.
It is therefore fitting that the Krieg album that perhaps best defined this era was 2010’s ‘The Isolationist’. Although largely overlooked or dismissed by many critics, after returning to this album for the first time since its release its remarkable how much it holds up. It’s a concoction of Krieg’s adept ability to express violence as a loss of control, an anger that has finally unshackled itself and plays out in acts of indiscriminate rage, along with more ethereal and considered qualities that are usually the remit of post black metal, but here find a new and important role. By salvaging ‘The Isolationist’ from being a work of primal fury alone, the gentler aspects of mid-2000s USBM calms the music into states more meditative than those invocating physical and mental discord.
The guitar tone is fuzzy and loaded with bass. Despite the bulk of the music being made up of galloping tremolo picked riffs, they are lent a degree of depth and warmth that only adds to the intrigue of these pieces. It’s as if the black metal’s sparsity has been internalised into the listener in the works of Krieg, the wilderness has been fully assimilated into the psyche, and must be contended with on a deeply immediate level rather than from the imposing and external threats of traditional black metal. Drums are equally warm and rich, displaying an aesthetic that would perhaps be more at home on a stoner doom album. They largely stick to raw blast-beats, with the modesty of the mix lending all a degree of intimacy bordering on the improvisational.
Vocals take a similar approach to MkM’s in their adoption of mid-rage rasping ballads with a loose conception of rhythm. It furthers the organic, almost spontaneous feel to these pieces. Despite the immediacy of the mix, the music is undeniably atmospheric. Minimalist chord progressions race by at breakneck pace, revelling in the violence of their delivery, yet are underpinned by a sense of grim permanence, an inevitability defined by the emphasis of each note as much as the simple minor key cadences they are shaped by.
Lo-fi ambient interludes and experimental noise segments break up the disarming directness of the black metal tracks, and only further the deeply disorientating swirl that sits at the heart of this experiment in black metal as an outlet for (or cause of) psychological warping. For all the speed and activity present at the ontological level, these pieces sit in stasis, developed little beyond their initial themes save for some traditional black metal melodic inflections. There is a sense in which the music is kept deliberately futile, pointless, it achieves nothing save a reminder of the relentlessness and degradation at the heart of modernity’s demands.
These are two comparable but very different approaches to black metal that I am going to loosely define as “modernist”. Aosoth acknowledge the nihilistic violence that sits at the heart of polite domestic conventions and content themselves with throwing barbs of venom at said conventions from an externalised perspective, reminding the listener of their absurdist plight by further beating them down. Krieg’s ‘The Isolationist’ is an internalised coping device. This is not a work that can or even tries to make sense of our present condition, but only to give voice to the raw experience of it, the betrayal, sense of loss, the anguish at the realisation that this is actually it.
In nominating a pick of the week, I am going to actually recognise the opinions of others in this equation (an act that normally leads me to vomit uncontrollably). For despite my praise of ‘The Isolationist’, I acknowledge that there is a subjective angle to this. If you come at this album from the wrong direction it can look like bland and distastefully self-indulgent black metal, for all its depressive pontifications on life in the affluent West, it is but one step above DSBM. I disagree with this assessment, but I acknowledge that it could be valid from a certain angle, meaning its source is a weakness in the album itself. ‘III: Violence & Variations’ suffers from no such shortcomings. I fail to see how anyone could interpret the album as anything other than what it was intended to be. A towering sonic monument to discomfort, chaos, the shattering of the illusion behind our world of spreadsheet maintenance, MOTs, and weather reports. Therefore, we must, for the sake of artistic integrity if nothing else, nominate it as our pick of the week despite my surprisingly enduring soft spot for what I believe to be Krieg’s crowning achievement.