Beats and yelling: Serpent Ascending, Dinbethes, Atramentum

Serpent Ascending: Hyperborean Folklore
Out 17th June on I, Voidhanger Records

Stalwart Finnish death metal evolutionist Jarno Nurmi revitalises his post Desecresy project Serpent Ascending for album number two. Where ‘Aṇaṅku’ was a twisting, multi-faceted but ultimately smothering work of nocturnal claustrophobia, ‘Hyperborean Folklore’ seeks to bring us into the light. From the very first riff we are surrounded by bright, open melodies, rich and soaring guitar leads, and galloping, linear rhythms that stand in stark contrast to the disjointed mutilations of previous works.

This leads us to conclude that this a work of heavy metal – and many of the riffs align themselves with the genre’s darker tendencies – rendered through a death metallist mindset. The ambitious melodic aspirations of these older influences are injected with renewed gravity and significance in the contemporary moment via extreme metal’s realist tendencies, a relationship that finds its mediation in the guiding hand of restrained progressive metal.

But ‘Hyperborean Folklore’ is a work that makes any discussion of genre minutia look decidedly crass, or at the very least trivial. It is one of those albums that displays a mastery – both technical and philosophical – over a broad range of metal stylings and ethe not for the sake of coquettish showboating, but precisely because its vision is of such weight and scope that no specific branch of metal’s family tree could bear the weight alone.

A kaleidoscopic mechanism of riffs galivant out of the speakers in clear sequential order, set to basic yet effective pulsing rhythms, these graceful contrapuntal measures build their own micro logics within the superstructure of these lengthy tracks. It’s an experience akin to studying a minor detail in a vast Hieronymus Bosch-esque triptych.

Death metal builds complexity by stuffing each moment with an excess of musical matter, and challenging itself to organise this fragmented chaos into an internally coherent structure. Here, by contrast, Serpent Ascending have decluttered the picture, breathing air and room into each frame and thus allowing the listener greater opportunity to study the elegant detail of each moment. The riffs and their interplay are still relatively complex, but they are played with such fluidity, and at depressed tempos by death metal standards, that they fall into the listener’s mind almost irresistibly.

Vocals throw themselves into the task of signposting the melodic emphasis required to achieve this effect by veering from standard mid-range growling to low-end clean singing; the latter of which follows – with agreeably human imperfection – the central melodic inflection of the riffs. Dynamics also play a key role. Extended passages of either clean guitars or riffs with achingly large spaces between each chord air out the mix, allowing the bass to cut through, and providing the basis for stirring lead guitar motifs to command the moment.

Declarations of a particular album’s refusal to be categorised are by now a tired cliché, thanks in large part to its overuse next to albums undeserving of the accolade. ‘Hyperborean Folklore’ is a work that goes one step further, and makes us feel almost guilty for daring to describe it as one thing or another. Elements of death metal, black metal, heavy metal, prog, folk, and even industrial seep through the cracks of this artistic vision. But all are incidental to the overarching vision of understated epicism. It is a work that allows us to see the process of its very construction, but loses no magic by doing so, providing the listener with a unique insight into its own formation, and thus increasing our investment in the dramatic stakes of the music itself. We are at once captivated by the accessibility of its heady complexities and carried forward by its intuitively linear melodic drive.  

Dinbethes: Balans
Out 17th June on Babylon Doom Cult/Swarte Yssel

Nautical themed metal has had a surprisingly unfair hearing over the years. When it’s not limited to single tracks at the back end of an album (Immortal’s ‘Beyond the North Waves’) or mired in the cheap carnival of pirate metal, it’s seemingly frozen in the paralysing amber of Ahab, or limited to the coastal Victoriana of an Old Corpse Road.

Dindethes’ debut LP ‘Balans’ – whether intentionally or no – looks for all the world like a welcome course correction in this context. It’s not that their brand of rather traditional black metal of a conspicuously melodic bent is explicitly rooted in sea shanties and the like, it’s more that this stripe of cacophonous, dramatic, crescendo driven black metal is so suited to oceanic program music that it’s a wonder more artists don’t attempt a more rigid alignment with this conceptual material.

With its minimalist presentation, its leviathan adorned cover art, and bracing, adrenaline infused approach to riffcraft, ‘Balans’ is a perfect example of setting limited aims and achieving them to perfection. The riffs are catchy enough to keep one engaged, the production rich enough to lend weight and gravitas to its melodramatic aesthetic, the distant, echoey vocal attack powerful enough to open out the mix, evocative of the vast forces and spaces associated with the indifferent grandeur of the open ocean. Yet the result is decidedly modest.

No surplus information is to be found scattered across these five compact tracks. No overworked keyboard filler, no needless dissonance for the sake of keeping up with today’s edgy obsessionals, and production values that look like a distant ancestor of old school lo-fi credentials, now polished and legitimised without being fully domesticated.   

Old school extreme metal is often mischaracterised as an arms race of speed and noise. It’s certainly a truth, but not the truth. Just as the late 1990s were not entirely a race for the buck. Or the existential 2000s a wash of over-produced homogeneity. Just as the present moment could be understood as a desperate quest for specificity. We are drowning in content, and it can often feel like everything that can be done has been done, and all that’s left is to tweak at the boundaries of obscurity, or reaffirm the past.

‘Balans’, for all its understated satisfaction of genre credentials, slips under the radar of this paralysis. Cold, melodic, dramatic, crisp, clear, professional black metal, but one not explicitly loyal to the past, nor overburdened by the novelty of imagined yet impossible futures. The nautical metal theme runs through it like a backbone, but it disappears if you want it to, leaving tight, refreshing, epic black metal in its place that seems to exist outside of the present moment yet expresses no desire to be considered “of the past” either. An enigmatically simple and direct work of satisfying black metal is what remains for us to enjoy.

Atramentum: Through Fire, Everything is Renewed
Out 17th June on Invictus Productions

A more fitting title may have been ‘Through Mechanisation, Everything is Re-evaluated’, so fittingly does Atramentum’s second LP slide into the modernist black metal turn of crisp, industrial production, dissonant artificiality, and dense sonic landscapes stuffed with complex musical information via angular tempo changes, rubato drum fills, and enveloping guitar tones. Whether this amounts to a genuine evolution of past forms or is simply a re-imagining of black metal fit for a seemingly inescapable contemporary cynicism only time will tell. For every apparent victory lurching the music forward with conventional harmonics, there are three defeats back into harsh dissonance, jarring pitch shifts, and doom laden tritones.

Atramentum certainly fit neatly into this fledging subgenre, evolved in part by Icelandic acts such as Svartidauði or Carp Noctem, and traced through the undulating cell replication metal of Mitochondrion, and the windswept battering rams of Ireland’s Malthusian. If “Through Fire, Everything is Renewed” is par for this dissonant/industrialist course then, why single it out?

In taking a very pagan perspective seriously, – i.e. the emphasis on destructive forces such as fire as a necessary pre-requisite for renewal – they imbue the music with conflict, and therefore an undertone of hope. This is no mechanical drive totally hostile to organic life, an annihilation liturgy we have seen play out countless times in modern black metal. Atramentum pay lip service to these qualities certainly, but ultimately the real soul of this album can be found in those moments that pivot on traditional harmonic and melodic material. The clash between this and the more alien tonal choices keeps one engaged.

Equally the drums deploy the all too human stylings of jazz, adding dynamics, expression, opinions, over and above the complex artificial aesthetic that colours the rhythmic framing devices. Vocals veer from standard black metal histrionics to grounded hardcore emotivism to the guttural humanist deformities of death metal.

But far from this being a simple case of contrast manipulation – between the synthetic and the organic, between the nihilistic and the hopeful – Atramentum seek to escape the absurdly cyclical structure this style of black metal often adopts. There is a teleology to these pieces, a clear forward motion and purpose, rooted into the album’s concept of destruction and renewal. This marks it out as a work beyond the pure (and oftentimes browbeating) totalitarian nihilism of modern dissonant black metal, and takes us back into a world where music can offer both a diagnosis and a cure for society’s ills. Moreover, because these flashes of daylight are sandwiched within excessive and overbearing abrasion, they feel all the more earned, and all the more stable as a result.

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