Beats and yelling from: Skare, Gnipahalan, Mons Veneris

Skare: Skare
Out 12th September on Amor Fati

Australia’s Skare delivery a near flawlessly executed slab of bracing melodic black metal for their self-titled debut. This is an exhilarating, cold, soaring, tight collection of soundscapes that consolidates the best elements of the genre, binding them into an austere package that is no less lacking in activity and life for the fact. A weighty backdrop of keyboards underpin a gentle guitar tone that sits at the cleaner end of the spectrum, almost allowing us to decipher the spacious twang of individual strings. Minimalist yet tight drums fill out the mix with fills and rolls that merge seamlessly with blast-beats to create an unsettling foundation, akin to the sensation of free falling, along with the ambiguous grip on our sense of self that this implies.

Simple yet effective themes sweep the listener off their feet, initially guided by that distinctively clear guitar tone, delivering bombastic yet oddly intricate melodic lines. Where some black metal attempts to pose as emanating from another reality, these riffs seem to soar above our present context, raining down from some celestial yet ephemeral realm of experience. Despite the aggression of the vocals, the package taken in its totality oozes eminently healing qualities bearing particular resonance for those with limited access to outdoor spaces beyond modernist mundanities.

As more restrained themes grant the music space to rest and dwell on a given moment, the strings will pick up the main theme of the guitars and recontextualise the opening bars into something more unified, still grander, and utterly immersive. In some cases this pattern might be reversed, for instance on the funeral doom opening to ‘Beyond the Church Spires’, that sees a tentative melodic character build stiltedly into fast paced gothic themes befitting the track’s title, thus building the intensity from the ground up.

And this is where the real strength of ‘Skare’ lies. It’s textural and technical offering is undeniably familiar for anyone versed in black metal of a more reflective, melodic character. But as a compositional beast this is a taught workhorse of an album, delivering fluid, intuitive, artisanal musical clusters that comprehensively fill out any empty spaces in one’s consciousness. As a spectacle of simple yet effective arrangements it is just as worthy of praise. The keyboards play a defining role in fleshing out these tracks, yet the actual melodic lines are kept restrained, never overshadowing the overall picture with heavy handed opulence common to symphonic black metal. They work in perfect unison with the guitar tone, linking up and diverging in harmonic character with ease. Drums keep the foundations of the music in constant, linear motion without ever mutating into an unwelcome centrepiece.

There is no star of the show, no effect or instrument that Skare became enamoured with to the detriment of the whole. A testament to the restraint of these pieces despite their obvious lavishness. ‘Skare’ is a strikingly well crafted debut that reaffirms black metal as the delicate art of nose-to-tail composition and mastery over an array of textural pastures. It flows into the mind offering both a shot of adrenaline yet also a touch of comforting familiarity in spite of its explicitly dense offering of sonic nutrition.

Gnipahalan: I nordisk vredeslusta
Out 15th September on Purity Through Fire

One thing that always strikes me about black metal, in whatever guise it presents itself, is the urgent need to establish and insist upon a world that is other to what the listener may be accustomed to. Even veterans of the genre must move through a world of the day to day, one largely distinct from the fantastical grotesqueries this music is bent on invoking. Part of the reason why laboured intros and interludes are so common in the genre is to introduce a pallet cleanser before the main event, or as connecting tissues designed to reaffirm a common bond with the audience before pulling them further into the experience.

On ‘I nordisk vredeslusta’, Gnipahalan set about this project so insistently and instantaneously that one feels fully enveloped in the album’s magisterial phantasmagoria with little to no preamble required. This is gothic infused symphonic black metal on overdrive, a more cyclical rendition of ‘Anthems to Welkin at Dusk’ maybe, albeit with a more reflective meditative purpose in mind. Swelling strings link up the swirling lacquer of ascending and descending guitar chords that keep the music in constant minor key melodic churn. Vocals throb out of the mix in stilted, staccato gut punches of ghoulish spoken word, replacing the drums as a percussive entity, leaving the latter free to whip up a panorama of rhythmic energy worthy of the cinematic ambitions of the music itself.

A more fitting descriptor might be a symphonic retelling of Burzum. All the sombre grandeur of black metal is on display, including the pathos and deep sense of loss that stands as an unanswerable accusation at the heart of the style. But any opportunity for silent reflection is swept away in the bombastic certainty of Gnipahalan’s theatricality. The world is built and insisted upon. This is black metal that eschews balking at the shortcomings of our present reality and instead sets about the task of creating anew, simultaneously indoctrinating all those who come into contact with it.

In this sense it is the next phase of evolution for black metal made finally explicit. It assumes the initial project in standing contrary to other forms of music, the common lifestyles of modernity, and even contrasting itself against other forms of extreme metal, all has already been completed, and the unrestrained expressions of this monstrous genre have won out. All that remains to be achieved is to solidify the victory. What’s perhaps most remarkable in this regard is how fresh ‘I nordisk vredeslusta’ manages to sound, and how apart from the pack of undeniably similar artists Gnipahalan are able to position themselves.

It’s not that there is anything new or remotely novel to be had within this album. It is that it achieves more completely and convincingly what so many similar albums fail to quite grasp. The expression is so total, the delivery so untroubled by context or pacing, and the sonic palette so overstuffed with information that we are forced to decide against our best instincts and continue to sodden ourselves in the experience. There is an odd hypnotism at play beneath the mechanics of this album that keeps one enthralled, sustaining our interest to the last despite the ontological intensity – or monotony – of the raw experience. We are but forced to conclude that Gnipahalan have bottled the essence of the black metal project on this album and discovered a way to harness its power without amending the tried and trusted formulas in any notably dramatic way.

Mons Veneris: Inversados d’Um Abismo de Podridão
Out 11th September on Signal Rex

Portuguese black metal stalwarts Mons Veneris deliver an endurance test of abrasively out of tune raw black metal in the finest tradition of Les Légions Noires on their latest offering ‘Inversados d’Um Abismo de Podridão’. Every aspect of this album is carefully designed to be out of place. From the clunky tempo changes taking a few measures for all instruments to correct themselves, to the poorly tuned guitars delivering bum notes and missed cues a little too frequently for comfort, to the pained vocals veering from pathetic moans to harsh screeches delivered via the way of terminal illness rather than aggression.

One almost has to admire the gall in Mons Veneris’ ability to not only deliver such an irretrievable mess, but to birth it in the most painful and achingly intolerable manner possible. This point goes even more for seasoned fans of raw black metal. The average listener, unaccustomed to Ildjarn or Vlad Tepes may find the forty minute cacophony across this album as so much formless noise, but will be untroubled in tuning it out as one would air conditioning or background chatter. But for alleged fans of this style, happily residing at the farther reaches of lo-fi black metal, this album presents a challenge.

Even at the most chaotic and apparently lawless end of extreme metal, there are still rules to consider, rules that often go unspoken until they are very much broken. We recognise where the usual signifiers should fall, and we recognise it all the more when we witness an artist so flagrantly ignoring them. Riffs that should pivot on meditative repetition are played so poorly, with one or tuther guitar tracks dropping out or delivering bum notes seemingly at random, totally breaking the spell of hateful ritual. Guitar melodies that look to introduce a sense of delicacy, inviting greater tension by way of contrast, are completely eviscerated by overwhelming ill-placed blast-beats that dominate the mix. Moments of grim reflection where the tempo slows and melodic throughlines seek minimalism are overwhelmed by surplus static, random note clusters, and overly zealous vocal histrionics, thus killing off any interlude in the thunderous barrage of noise that is ‘Inversados d’Um Abismo de Podridão’.

Texturally we’ve heard harsher vibrations. But the devil’s in the delivery. And Mons Veneris are able to impress with their ability to deliver such an extreme experience in 2022 that still recognisably clings to the tag of black metal. This is an album that warrants scrutiny as a state-of-the-nation-address rather than any obviously pleasing musical menagerie. It makes us sit back and consider what we want from all this negativity and demands to live at the very edge of sonic pleasantry. Scattered musical fragments exist across ‘Inversados d’Um Abismo de Podridão’, but they are so constantly recontextualized into the most uncomfortable experience possible that by the end one is left to consider if the appetite for overtly abrasive music might finally be sated. Any contemplative, misanthropic node of our being is left nonplussed by this venture, and if nothing else, we walk away from the listening with some telling questions to consider.

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