Beats and yelling from: Midnight Odyssey, Sol Ether, Written in Torment

Midnight Odyssey: Echoes of a Celestial Ruin
Out 15th July on I, Voidhanger Records

In one sense the career of Midnight Odyssey could be read as a noble attempt to salvage some semblance of meaning from the “post” black metal project. However innocent post black metal’s origins may have been, it quickly became a destructive and entropic project, corroding what shared musical signifiers remained after the 1990s and mutating them into a thinly veiled individualist and atomised dead-end expression of idiosyncratic babble. The black metal equivalent of the needlessly syllable heavy language of critical theory.

Midnight Odyssey countered this by seeking to retain the grandiose and reverential spirit of black metal at its most atmospheric and stripping it of the rampant violence and overt misanthropy in a way that was still faithful to the bracing danger and melodramatic potentials the genre always promised. It brought a recognisable form of black metal into the celestial realm, threatening in its sheer scale, but tranquilly static from a human perspective, freed of the jagged conflicts and hierarchical quests that black metal was so embedded in at the time.

A less charitable reading of Midnight Odyssey is of a below average atmospheric black metal outfit who shed whatever potential they had on the ‘Firmament’ demo for increasingly and needlessly laboured albums of washed out, sweeping, murky trials of patience and credulity, overly burdened by mixes straining under the weight of their own excessively compressed inertia. A career that was either deeply hubristic or a social experiment in the limits of how much content one individual could churn out on a single release. A piece of performance art compelling not because of any artistic merit, but because it pointed to a paradox. In an age where individual attention is so highly sought after across a plethora of cultural outlets, artistic statements were growing ever more ambitious in size and duration, seemingly totally confident in their own ability to monopolise ever larger chunks of our time amongst all the competition.

I’ve been wrestling with this question since at least 2011 with the release of ‘Funerals from the Astral Sphere’, and with this latest compilation to drop we’re no closer to an answer. ‘Echoes of a Celestial Realm’ collects together the ambient works of Midnight Odyssey since 2020 in ‘Ruins of a Celestial Fire’, ‘Ashes from a Terrestrial Fall’, and ‘Echoes of the Thalassic Deep’, and therefore stretches to three hours’ worth of material.

Where other treatments of ambient from black metal artists have – however clunkily – at least attempted to flesh out a distinctive character to their metal styles, Dis Pater’s approach is to simply strip out the guitars and drums from the signature spacey atmospherics of Midnight Odyssey and to foreground the minimalist synths. Whilst we could mourn the absence of Pater’s undeniable melodic ingenuity on these soundscapes, he remains a master of textural manipulation. His ambient works are as outrageously sparse as Ildjarn’s infamous two hour ‘Landscapes’ LP, but he at least compensates the listener by exploring contrast, and the potential of certain tones to manipulate the emotive impact of a particular chord sequence.

Also deserving of praise – and this extends to Midnight Odyssey as a black metal endeavour as well – is the undeniable futurism that sits beneath these pieces like a haunting spectre. It would be easy to dismiss this futurism as yet more nostalgia. The cover art is an obvious nod to classic sci-fi literature of 1960s and 70s in Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, or Eric Frank Russell. Equally, the synth patches and artificial aesthetic he dwells on reach for distinctly modernist archetypes in Brian Eno or a spectral, undead retelling of 90s rave music, eschewing the hokey fantasticalisms of proto dungeon synth. But these are forms of nostalgia that reach for cultural moments born of a belief that we still had a collective future to prepare for. To put it another way, it is a yearning for a future we once had, of utopian cities and space exploration, now borne out as global catastrophe and totalitarian commodification.

Musically there might not be much more to say about ‘Echoes of a Celestial Ruin’. It’s no modern retelling of Tangerine Dream as far as talking points are concerned, but nor is it a total dud. Anyone casually familiar with this project will not be surprised by the ambient retelling of its core concepts and themes. But it is precisely that spectrality that keeps one returning to Midnight Odyssey and its unique potentials. It points to a futurism that leaves room for continuity with black metal and its historic impetus to date. But nor does it wallow in nostalgia for the sweet spot of the genre between 1991 to 1996. It references – both through imagery and textural choices – the overtly retro, but specifically those elements of retro culture that were preoccupied with what the future might look like, both artistically and societally.

It does so by summoning ghosts from the past, ghosts of futures that never came to fruition, with a view to signposting a way forwards in a more constructive manner than the atomised, postmodern expressions of nihilistic torment common to most post black metal. However laboured and clumsy Midnight Odyssey’s statements may be, they are focused on a broader horizon than the vast majority of projects that pertain to some facet of futurism, and for that if nothing else Dis Pater deserves both praise and close scrutiny.  

Sol Ether: I : Golden Head
Out 10th July, self-released

A veneer of mysticism coats what is an unavoidably direct bludgeon of mid-paced death metal on this debut album from Boston’s Sol Ether. Following the ghostly ritualistic crooning of the opening séance ‘Spire of Fate’ we are treated to the violent immediacy of down-tuned staccato guitars, mechanical percussive assaults, guttural vocals, and a distinct lack of melody given the expectations set by the downbeat intro. Such jarring tonal swaps are not unwelcome however. Given Sol Ether’s interest in Celtic mythology, their toying with expectations in delivering earthy, direct death metal lends the music a sheen of tension, an underlying sense of malevolent grandeur similar to the hyper aggressive medievalist melodeath of Sarpanitum.

The sparsity of death metal present on ‘I : Golden Head’ allows Sol Ether to reconcile expressions of barbarism that pivot more on rhythmic physicality than they do any melodic philosophy or overtly spiritual framing devices. Pockets of chromaticism weave their way between the power chords, developing peripheral suggestions of urgency and tension couched within the brute certainty of percussive body beats.

Traces of pathos bleed forth from this otherwise highly unsentimental presentation. The stripped back presentation allows Sol Ether to maximise the payoff of contrast, from dissonance to melody, from the uncertain rhythmic pulses of the slower, tension ridden segments to bracing speed, from the indifference of violence to hopeful notes that see brighter colours creep into the periphery. What supervenes are fascinating narrative guitar lines that are almost imperceptible thanks to their elegant simplicity, but gradually make themselves known over the course of a composition, most notably on tracks such as ‘Windswept’, a subtly epic piece that achieves its longevity through the patient layering of themes and melodic developments over browbeating the listener with heavy handed symphonics and overworked guitar leads.

The album is framed by sparse interludes defined by haunting Celtic folk melodies that serve to bookmark the ambiguity of the metal tracks. Sol Ether work in their Celtic influences more subtly than many bands typically labelled as “Celtic metal”, chiefly by smuggling them beneath the understated playfulness of the drum philosophy or minimal guitar accents that echo the rhythm of a jig, but could go entirely unnoticed given the crystal clear, modernist production and down-tuned, distorted tones that articulate them.

‘I : Golden Head’ is a subtly technical work. It contains pockets of musical density surrounded by compact and direct death metal that serve as delivery mechanisms for an achingly tense relationship with resolution. The Celtic aesthetic burrows into the psyche on a more subconscious level, attempting to make the listener experience rather than witness the mythology and lifestyle of this piece of history, a classic case of showing over telling.

Written in Torment: Black Command
Out 4th July on Purity Through Fire

A veritable embarrassment of riches greets the ear on the latest album from Yorkshire black metallist Written in Torment. ‘Black Command’ both falls in line with the broad approach this artist has taken to date yet also amplifies every aspect to breaking point. The speed, heightened melodrama, strained aggression, the reaches for sorrow, rage, melancholia and revelry are all at fever pitch to the point where one hardly knows what to do with all this surplus information.

Whilst the formula could broadly be cast as melodic black metal, with hints of Dawn or Vinterland sitting in the background, Written in Torment work in the fantastical aspirations of symphonic variants to temper the wanton aggression of the vocals, which are joined by no small dose of folk flourishes and acoustic instrumentation along the way. Any attempt to balance each element so as to give the broadest thematic and emotive offering possible seems to have been jettisoned in favour of delivering every piece of information simultaneously.

The strained passion and shredded treatment of its very human themes threaten to make ‘Black Command’ a highly taxing affair. But what is perhaps most surprising is the fact that the music remains broadly digestible, engaging even. Although undeniably sitting on the riff-laden side of the genre over the atmospheric, the over excited rhythmic offering that compresses endlessly busy fills adjacent to the blast-beats are tempered by the swelling symphonics that adopt a minimalist yet undeniably longform philosophy to supplement the over excited melodic tangents of the guitars.

Black metal vocalists that buck the trend of ghastly high-end screeching are not automatically worthy of praise. And whilst the strained intensity of Leviathan’s mid-range crooning has its place (in hardcore maybe), the ensuing monotony strips away all emotive context, and thus the album’s momentum as a work of taut conflict. Even the slower moments are so packed with information that they remain in danger of becoming utterly bloated.

But just as ‘Black Command’ threatens to be a victim of its own success, it washes out the intensity in favour of distinctive lyrical guitar lines and deadpan clean vocals across the central motifs of ‘Mors Ultima’ and the title track, which work out finales so laboured and poignant that one can hardly believe that they fall only at the midpoint of the album.

But the break in speed is a welcome one. In relegating atmosphere to serve as mere incidental supplementary material to the riffcraft, Written in Torment seem to be shooting for a more direct rendering of black metal rife with activity and tension. But in order to make a success of this, one must compensate for the lack of frigid fixity of presentation with musicality that delivers more than base tension and blistering speed thrills. Any room to breathe therefore, especially one that works in exercises in dynamics and thematic development, is a welcome contrast.

‘Black Command’ is therefore a troubled beast. Succeeding on its own terms as a materialistically dense piece of music. But objectively it is a weighty, full fat, five course meal with brandy when compared to the elegant buffets and craft lagers of more laid-back affairs. Appropriate for certain occasions, but paradoxically limiting given the sheer density of its sonic landscape.

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