40: Fiat Nox: Demanifestation (Hymns of Destruction and Nothingness)
Crawling Chaos Records
Fits comfortably inside the modern penchant of modern extreme metal for oppressive aesthetics, favouring dissonance and density as ends in themselves. At the borders of death, black, and doom metal where listeners are permitted to luxuriate in an overtly apocalyptic vibespace. But Fiat Nox breathe new life into these over-used techniques by working them into lengthy and ambitious compositions that reward repeated listens, unfolding their true intent with patience and grace.
39: Forlesen: Black Terrain
I, Voidhanger Records
Best in class when it comes to soundscaping, bringing together ambient and post rock with recognisably metallic textural scenery. Occasionally coalescing into homogenous globules of doom metal, but chiefly a craft of sound manipulation, contrasting tones, tension via repetition, and sequences building information as an exercise in gradualism. ‘Black Terrain’ pulls the best elements from metal and adjacent subgenres renowned for their superficially pleasing textures and resituates them as structural and theatrical signifiers that truly elevates their artistic potential. A masterstroke of patient incrementalism.
38: Galicia: Precipice
Hailing from California, this outfit whip up a strangely hypnotic interplay between the informal violence of war metal and the melancholic melodic aspirations of Nordic black metal, employing elements of death and blackened thrash as mediators supervising this tense exchange of ideas. It’s as if the music is attempting to overcome its own drive to chaos by wresting more formal structures from the very soil itself. A densely packed slab of sonic information that cloaks its complexities behind the veneer of disorder, only revealing its internal logics via intimate and persistent study.
37: Amon Acid: Cosmogony
Helter Skelter Productions/Regain Records
Yorkshire’s own. A blend of swirling Hawkwind-esque space rock, weighty occultist stoner doom riffing, and ponderously psychedelic melodic licks make for a potent and monolithic concoction on Amon Acid’s latest LP, all whipped into an imposing fervour of understated malevolence. Gravitas abounds in the form of direct stoner riffs, a foundation allowing Amon Acid to let their less earthbound creative urges soar into the cosmos.
36: Ayyur: Hidden Rooms Sessions I
It may sound awfully cliché, but ‘Hidden Rooms Sessions I’ is one of those releases that makes one stop and take stock. Not of one’s life necessarily, or meaning thereof, but more as a commentary on the music it mirrors. All of the fanfare, the bombast, the clutter of information that haunts extreme metal, all dissolves away on this EP, forcing us to reconsider its purpose, its goal, and ultimately its appeal. Ayyur strip back this ancillary furniture, leaving us with only the sparsest of musical landscapes to inhabit, existing in perpetual confrontation with the lurking chasm behind it all, a patient force awaiting its final and inevitable triumph over the superfluous activity of extreme metal as a collective endeavour.
35: Bran: Odcházení
Although Bran trade in a rather typical variety of energetic, fast paced, melodic black metal, their take on this genre is so mechanistically precise as to be almost categorically distinct from comparable releases from recent years. The key to their success is simply their ability to unfold these compositions as one would a narrative arc, with each moment building on and complementing the last. The pieces flow with an intuitive sense of forward motion. Beyond musical flourishes for the sake of mere content, Bran take each axiomatic technique of musical development and make it move and flow like a river, via efficacious emphasis, and for just the right duration to achieve the maximum possible impact.
34: Out of the Mouth of Graves: Harbinger Unceremonious
Many metal subgenres have abandoned the pursuit of traditional music and started to bleed into noise. But here we witness life on the border, where familiar musical features are still populous enough to aid our perception, but we can nevertheless feel the walls slowly collapsing around us, sinking into the murk below. And this uncanny exercise in partial decay via sound mutations is undeniably more compelling and noteworthy than many purer metallic interpretations of noise genres.
33: Tyrannus: Unslayable
Essentially one elongated piece of high concept, Lovecraftian inspired extreme metal. Riffs bounce seamlessly from technical death metal to oppressively fluid black metal with ease. As the album progresses we move from dark and moody tones through to the (relatively) bright realm of euphoric and triumphalist black metal supplemented by staccato punches of death metal. But context is not a myth, and despite the rich tapestry of riff styles and neat pockets of melodic experimentation, Tyrannus are an artist with an ear for atmosphere, soaking their work in an overpoweringly drab aesthetic guaranteed to grey any sky.
32: Kexelür: Llave a las profundidades...
‘Llave a las profundidades...’ is something of a Trojan Horse. Introducing itself as yet another demo of lo-fi, raw black metal, we slowly peel back the layers to find a multi-faceted demonstration of obscure music’s enduring capacity for depth and nuance. It is at once a survey of musical styles from a range of different cultures and periods. An exercise in strictly linear composition within a metallic setting, eschewing riff tessellation in favour of sequential structures. It is also a demonstration of the power of juxtaposition, as competing moods, themes, and compositional philosophies are compressed together and wedged in tandem. Effortlessly weird and profoundly eerie.
31: Riven: Cretaceous
Listening back to early Skepticism, Thergothon, or Switzerland’s Mordor, one forgets just how bizarre these early iterations of funeral doom were when compared to the strained emotive contrivances of its modern day operatics. ‘Cretaceous’ is a refreshing dose of this 90s Weird, one that digs beneath the surface of what we want to remember about that decade’s crowd pleasing hits, and actually reveals the truly bizarre sonic pockets that were eked out at the time but went largely unexplored for the sake of bigger budget theatrical offerings or emotionally manipulative metal-as-sentiment vehicles. An achingly slow unfolding of tangential sonic pockets, an unabashed indulgence in a cheap aesthetic that revels in its own left-of-centre delivery, and a willingness to forego contrived emotive finales for the sake of carving out its own inherent artistic identities.
30: Theandric: Flight Among the Tombs
Theandric lack the darkness of Cirith Ungol, the shameless intensity of Candlemass, the glamourous swagger of Queensrÿche, or the speed and exhilaration of Iron Maiden. What they do have is a shit load of riffs, an ear for melodic development, and a seemingly bottomless well of creative space in which to work. For these reasons alone I’d wager that this EP could and should reach an audience far beyond the usual (and weirdly specific) crowd of dedicated traditional heavy metal fans.
29: Tsalal: Agnosthesia
Akin to witnessing the emergence of black metal from the primordial soup of noise itself, undulating between the most basic of raw black metal structures into disjointed noise, minimalist industrial, and dark ambient. Here we see the inner turmoil of black metal centre on singular collisions of structure and void, of clean and distorted tones, even of tonal and atonal music itself. Each piece pivots on a clash between viscous drone and concrete solidity.
28: Krvna: For Thine is the Kingdom of the Flesh
Third Eye Temple/Ancient Dead Productions
As with the previous offering ‘Sempinfernus’, this is the perfect execution of an idea, bringing together many common traits of black metal from the last twenty years and marrying them into a fully cohesive and expressive statement of intent. This is not an album seeking to announce the grand next step for this conflicted genre, but rather bookends a chapter in its history, consolidating the best stylistic elements and jettisoning the surplus fauna.
27: Skare: Skare
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. There is no one star of the show, no single instrument overly foregrounded to the detriment of the whole. A testament to restraint despite the lavishness of the music. 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.
26: Holyarrow: 大員合戰 / 1661 – 1662 The Siege of Fort Zeelandia
Xiamen’s Holyarrow pack a considerable punch on this brief EP. A release timed to coincide with the 360th anniversary of the passing of Koxinga, Prince of Yanping, who led troops on a landing at Lakjemuyse, leading to the titular Siege of Fort Zeelandia, where they prevailed over Dutch colonists and thus ended the Dutch East India Company’s rule over Taiwan. Even on this brief EP, Holyarrow are able to pack a dense array of musicality that would give their opposite numbers in Scandinavia a run for their money, all without coming across as cluttered or unfocused.
25: Cauchemar: Rosa Mystica
Temple of Mystery Records
Supplementing the hedonistic bounce of Witchfinder General with a much needed sobriety, along with a dash of folk pageantry, and some raw creativity in the riff department, this is an approximation of the Cauchemar formula. ‘Rosa Mystica’ is one of those albums that poses as modesty incarnate, but upon studying the mechanics beneath, we see a bizarre yet compelling cultural crossroads, a shining iteration of metal as a globalist phenomenon. It looks for all the world like an honest, original, creative piece of heavy metal magic with a strong doom orientation because it is precisely that. But whether by accident or design it can also be studied as a curious exercise in cross cultural and temporal musical pollination.
24: Theomachia: The Theosophist
This conceptually weighty EP self identifies as “gnostic black metal”, and although familiar genre cogs are at work behind the scenes, they work in direct contradiction to the underlying themes of the music, which lean toward neofolk in spirit. Most black metal searches for a means to transgress modernity through encounters with external forces beyond the self, eschewing the immediacy of the human psyche, self-reflection, ritual, and intuition. ‘The Theosophist’ by contrast, is black metal that seeks revelation by looking inward, to the boundless eternity of the self, to which the exterior forces of reality and nature would seem to be antagonistic.
23: Battlestorm: Summon Decimation
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 one gets upon spinning ‘Summon Decimation’ a combination of old school black metal, early death metal, and Teutonic thrash. Whilst utterly packed with riffs, choppy blast-beats, screaming guitar leads, percussive breakdowns, vitriolic vocals, and banshee wails, behind these run-of-the-mill descriptors sits a degree of quality control and attention to detail so lacking in many comparable releases recently. Every moment is stuffed with class, aggression, vitality.
22: Medieval Demon: Black Coven
Medieval Demon pose as a link between various forms of underground metal, from the Hammer Horror worship of retro doom and psychedelic metal, to the ghoulishness of Mortuary Drape or Necromantia, wrapping this into symphonics and no small element of traditional heavy metal deployed as link riffs between each rumination on regal necroticism. ‘Black Coven’ is as daring as it is cliché ridden, indulgent as it is masterfully composed and arranged, and as eclectic as it is specifically fixated on its deliciously limited aesthetic. A deceptive layer-cake of an album concealing many hidden revelations for those willing to take the plunge.
21: Táltos: Érezd hogy élsz
A sincere and largely successful attempt to render the trancelike experience of pagan ritual, with all its intoxicating undertones, randomness fashioned into internal logics through the perspective of raw experience into sonic form. What can at first seem inexplicable, without coherence, coalesces into a phenomenon with sui generis meaning, one that collapses upon contact with the cold light of day, but by inserting oneself into the experience of ‘Érezd hogy élsz’, it brings to solidity a representation of those liminal experiences and grants them a sense of permanence.
20: Pestilength: Basom Gryphos
Nuclear Winter/Sentient Ruin/Goat Throne
Every time death metal tries to break out of its funk it seems to fall further backward. Until we end up in the bizarre situation where explicitly retro acts like Blood Incantation are praised for their forward thinking ethos. The problem being that actual quality death metal that breaks the mould is just not as sexy as the postmodern bells and whistles of current media darlings. ‘Basom Gryphos’ is one such example of death metal frankly just being itself, opening out a creative space through music with blood coursing through its veins without feeling like a repeat of the past.
19: Desecresy: Unveil in the Abyss
Few death metal outfits can boast an instantly recognisable style in today’s crowded field. The formula may have developed only incrementally over seven albums, but here it’s as if they have suddenly rediscovered why they love what they do, and this love shines forth in every sinew of the music. The performances and compositions themselves present with renewed fluidity, demonstrative of an artist truly enjoying their craft, and allowing the music to flow out of them with ease.
18: Gnipahalan: I nordisk vredeslusta
Purity Through Fire
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 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 act against our best interests and continue to sodden ourselves in the experience. Gnipahalan bottle the essence of the black metal project on this album.
17: Hail Conjurer: Earth Penetration
Signal Rex/Bestial Burst
Uses genre alchemy as a trojan horse, blending styles and techniques without making this the centrepiece of the music itself. ‘Earth Penetration’ is an undeniably weird album from whichever angle one approaches it, but it is thus and so in a totally natural and uncontrived manner. The eccentricities of its many stylistic leanings work in conjunction with each other to create this bizarre, unpredictable, and eminently novel experience./
16: Live Burial: Curse of the Forlorn
Transcending Obscurity Records
A swirling, dynamic, diverse, cinematic menagerie of death metal that pivots on marrying grim, chasmic atmospheres with energetic riffing, bolstered by lead guitar work that veers from baroque melodicism to eerie, cyclical refrains whipping up an intoxicating sense of dread. To give greater currency to the contrasting elements of reflective, despondent meditation, these rather delicate musical qualities are collided against breakneck blast-beats and frantic riff impetuses that guide the listener through a phantasmagoria of competing yet complimentary moods.
15: Kostnatění: Oheň hoří tam, kde padl
By working in the intriguing and epic aspects of Turkish folk music, Kostnatění have stumbled onto a surprisingly effective formula for retaining the raw power and technical complexity of black metal whilst injecting melody, harmony, and a clear purpose. Each moment feels like it’s about to buckle under the weight of information stuffed within it. But from these atomised units of polyrhythms, layered guitars, contrapuntal play, and ambiguity of key arise epic themes and glorious melodic refrains that feel like they could belong nowhere else.
14: Ancient Gate: Forgotten Dark Age
True to both the name Ancient Gate and the title of this EP, ‘Forgotten Dark Age’ feels like peering through a window into another age replete with its own self contained narratives and Homeric moral standards. These tracks have a melodic character that supervenes over and above any individual riff or chord sequence. Even the simplest two note exchange takes on new significance when placed within these epic soundscapes.
13: Benthik Zone: εἴδωλον
Masters of scene setting, Benthik Zone show their hand early by forcing the listener through such abrasive and unwholesome transitions that by the time track three ‘Sonho-a Desnuda’ kicks in we are primed to accept almost anything. And this focus on arrangements complimenting their rich brew of competing flavours is what sets this album apart from similar endeavours. From there they marshal their textural armoury into a battering ram of industrial black metal with a strong doom aesthetic.
12: Swords of Dis: Cor Mundum Crea in Me, Sanctum Ignis
From the home of metal itself, Birmingham’s Swords of Dis offer angular, dissonant, doom-laden black metal that takes the oppressive nihilism of Mayhem’s ‘Ordo ad Chao’ and strips the presentation back to a restrained sparsity. Swords of Dis imbue the nihilistic undercurrent of modern black metal with an emotive core born of a desperate theological rumination. Grating, high-end guitar lines weaving in and out of one another via deliberately off-key meanderings juxtaposing with the almost Gregorian ritualism of clean vocals. Although dissonant black metal is almost the default setting for the genre, Swords of Dis are carving out new creative spaces within this aesthetic.
11: Krolok: Funeral Winds & Crimson Sky
A clash of primitive black metal with subtle yet pronounced atmospheric flourishes allows Krolok to work in elongated narratives that suck the listener down ever more twisted and alien pathways. It’s as if we are witnessing an old school, primitive black metal outfit attempt to compose an ambient black metal album. The result emphasises the strengths of each contrasting approach. And as it unfolds, many hidden pockets of intrigue are revealed under this broad thematic range that only get bolder as the album progresses. ‘Funeral Winds & Crimson Sky’ bursts forth with full confidence in black metal’s ability to conjure very specific atmospheric qualities as a means of mapping out ambitious and original song structures that invoke escapism and jeopardy in equal measure.
10: Marthe: Victimized
Marthe’s intoxicating blend of Bathoryisms and loose psychedelia only intensifies on this single. ‘Victimized’ picks up exactly where the ‘Sisters of Darkness’ EP left off, marrying foot stomping heavy metal with Viking intensity, soaring guitar leads rich in bracing spirituality yet minimal in melodic content, and a stirring blend of distorted and clean vocals, matching Quorthon for sheer dramatic commitment.
9: Cntmpt: Von Unreiner Willkür
Into Endless Chaos Records
Horror and laughter as emotional weapons of the brain are closer kin than we often give them credit for. Both are reactions to unexpected occurrences, the unexplainable, or events that have truly run beyond our control. ‘Von Unreiner Willkür’ is definitely an example of the latter of these. With each track starting from the most basic premise, only to gradually dissolve into utter absurdity through outrageous repetition, incremental devolutions of melodic character, and the total submission of the human core to the one reliable truth exemplified by the narrative structures at play across these tracks: things will only ever get worse.
8: Cultic: Of Fire and Sorcery
One way of reading ‘Of Fire and Sorcery’ is as a metal album set to a dungeon synth soundtrack. Or maybe a dungeon synth album elevated by interludes of dirge ridden death/doom. Whatever angle we come at this, there’s no denying the rich and captivating experience that Cultic have to offer. Despite the simplicity of each musical component, the album unfurls in a gradualist and deliberate manner, compelling us to continue listening. By adding a degree of unselfconscious bombast and naivety to a down and dirty metal formula, they imbue it with a sense of theatre and high drama that bolsters the experience into something entirely novel.
7: Vómito Vacuo: Locura y un cuerpo
Jarring transitions, sudden tonal swaps, elongated scale runs defined by uncertainty of resolution, riffs that build up momentum only to be cut down midway through by the angular drumming. All serve to make ‘Locura y un cuerpo’ an original carnival of psychological torments for both our musical sensibilities and our sense of truth and lie. It warps our perspective on reality, plays with our expectations, and fearlessly twists musical convention into freshly tortured and stretched formations.
6: Ultra Silvam: The Sanctity of Death
Shadow Records / Regain Records
It’s rare to meet an album that blends the most provocatively simple and abrasive elements of raw black metal with the sweeping scope and ambition of the genre’s more neoclassical ambitions, all the while elevating the artistic potential of these contrasting ends of the aesthetic spectrum. Adrenaline meshed seamlessly with artistic intrigue.
5: Rotheads: Slither in Slime
The latent dark romanticism of early Swedish death metal is brought to the fore on ‘Slither in Slime’, finding a subtle articulation via d-beats, droll guitar solos, and tritone driven doom segments. What makes the Rotheads approach so novel is their ability to air out these elements into grandiose statements of gothically tinged glum drama whilst retaining a poise and dynamism – and a healthy squelch of filth – that positions it squarely in the death metal camp, and an expertly focused and efficient variant at that.
4: Imprecation: In Nomine Diaboli
Dark Descent Records
The veil has been lifted, and those of us hunting for scraps within the qualitative frugalities of modern death metal have had our prayers answered and our eyes opened by ‘In Nomine Diaboli’, undoubtably a reacquaintance of our love for this genre. An oddly life affirming experience via this intoxicatingly violent form of music.
3: Cmpt: Krv i pepeo
I’m not one to drop a Burzum comparison lightly, but here the reference really is justified. Cmpt have a similar approach to getting more from less. The atmosphere and aesthetics of this album – whilst expertly placed – are relatively understated. Anything more would be a distraction. The riffs patiently build from the most minimal beginnings – a two note interchange, a gradual ascent – and through the manipulation of well-placed tempo changes, subtle layering or removal of guitar harmonies, and background keyboard effects, Cmpt craft a truly arcane experience.
2: Mortify: Fragments at the Edge of Sorrow
‘Fragments at the Edge of Sorrow’ is a work of sonic ambiguity, a bizarre, malformed universe of phantasmagorias and fragmented musical shards. Odd key and time signatures, chromatic play, tritones, clashes of tempo and novel harmonic interplay all factor into this recipe. But Mortify have clearly mapped out a lengthy recipe in order to properly ascertain where each element should be deployed, and in what order. As with many great albums, this is an act of world building that makes the listener forget about their preoccupations with genre, the politics of technique, and the stylistic burdens of history. It overcomes all this in order to reiterate what we already knew about death metal over all the noise of its current existential dualism: the tools and ingredients to create with total freedom and resolve are already there, it just takes someone with a little knowledge and imagination to breathe new and terrible life into these dormant facets once again.
1: Serpent Ascending: Hyperborean Folklore
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. Death metal builds complexity by stuffing each moment with an excess of musical matter, challenging itself to organise the 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 subliminally. ‘Hyperborean Folklore’ is a work that allows us to see the process of its very construction, but loses no magic for providing the listener with a unique insight into its own formation, 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.
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