Beats and yelling from: Hate Forest, Order of Nosferat, Grymmstalt

Hate Forest: Innermost
Out 21st December on Osmose Productions

Hate Forest shed their reverential grandeur and delve back to the earthy aggression of their formative years for their latest album ‘Innermost’. If ‘Hour of the Centaur’ struck a rather stirring, defiant tone, here we see Roman Saenko turning Hate Forest into an expression of wanton despair, spite, and misanthrope. A lot has changed in the two short years between each release. An optimistic rage that welcomed what the future may bring has morphed into a focused anger at what the present has brought us. Whilst Drudkh’s first post Russian invasion album ‘Всі належать ночі (All Belong to the Night)’ may have been Saenko’s attempt to bring a message of solidarity and catharsis to the people of Ukraine and those around the world helplessly looking on, ‘Innermost’ is the more personal expression of disjointed fury.

Whilst the presentation of ‘Innermost’ is undeniably slicker than early Hate Forest from ‘The Most Ancient Ones’ era, there are clear call backs to this time. A wakeful, uncomfortable unease sits at the heart of these tracks, despite their flowing rhythmic waves and undeniable momentum. The chord progressions flirt with dissonance, but even at their most melodic they never seek to strike a hopefully tone. Note interchanges are compressed together in tighter clusters. They still flow in the linear, intuitive style so familiar to those well acquainted with Hate Forest. But there is an anxious, frantic element of hyperactivity that keeps the thematic material swirling in a miasma of background upset.

Despite the cold, orchestral tone adopted by the guitars, the overall aesthetic is a degree or two colder than the preceding album. Drums are somewhat supressed, offering only impressionistic expressions of the fluid blast-beat interchanges that are another signature feature of Hate Forest. The familiar guttural vocal offering is intact, but is supplemented by mid-range, monstrous rasps of misdirected malice. This further heightens the general feeling that Saenko is not entirely in control of proceedings. Not in the literal sense, but in the artistic sense one gets from certain forms of chaotic black metal, whereby the music appears to run outside the sphere of influence of the musicians themselves, and into a realm of pure expression unshackled by the formalities of music theory or technique.

This is noteworthy as far as Hate Forest are concerned, as their style has – despite its latent triumphalism and fury – always given voice to a remarkably restrained version of black metal. There is chaos and disorder within their body of work, but when taken against comparable artists there is a degree of mastery and poise that sits at the macro level, expressing its will over the apparent anomie beneath. This downbeat tone has come to define a good chunk of Ukrainian black metal over the years, and it has begun straining at the leash on ‘Innermost’, as the inner barbarians approach the gate, threatening the hierarchical unity within.

Despite these comments, the tried and trusted Hate Forest formula remains very much present, like a hidden backbone propping up these pieces and fashioning them into uniformity. Given everything that has happened to Saenko’s homeland in the intervening years between this and the release of ‘Hour of the Centaur’, the extent to which he still exercises emotional and structural control over his projects is noteworthy, enough to at least direct them into a coherent expression of events so vast and complex they are difficult to absorb for any one individual.

Order of Nosferat: Vampiric Wrath Unleashed
Out 21st December on Purity Through Fire

No one’s favourite vampiric black metal production line returns for album number four in two years. If there is an emergent narrative arc across their body of work, we could maybe note the increase in activity from ‘Nachtmusik’ through to ‘Vampiric Wrath Unleashed’. The former was catchy, harmless, but nevertheless enjoyable lo-fi black metal, one that almost seemed self-aware of its context as part pastiche, part homage, and part just good fun. The latest album however, sheds these light hearted elements, and attempts to present itself as a sincere and serious work of obscurantist black metal.  

The tracks are frantic, faster, more emotively strained. They are still laced with catchy riffs and flowery keyboard lines, but the tone is darker. Order of Nosferat have attempted to bolster their sound with gravitas. Whether this is to be applauded or not depends on whether you’re inclined to take this style seriously, and if you don’t, whether you think the carefree package found on previous releases is damaged by the choice to heighten the dramatic stakes on ‘Vampiric Wrath Unleashed’.

To their credit, Order of Nosferat are not one trick ponies, nor do they expect accolades for merely achieving the correct aesthetic. There are riffs here. Some trade in traditional shapes found in formative Norwegian and French black metal, some delve into the ear candy punkist variety found scattered across modern raw black metal, and some attempt to etch out a hint of an extended narrative arc. One that remains sadly underdeveloped for the sake of the Fordist production line at the heart of this album, throwing out genre tropes like someone reading off a to-do list.

Understated ambient interludes are scattered across the album, going a long way to broadening the emotive offering. Their delivery is minimalist, obscured, and remarkably downbeat given the unrestrained melodrama of this outfit’s stock-in-trade. Light synth tones also follow the guitar lines on the metal pieces, supplying simple yet effective harmonic compliments when it counts.

But the unavoidable conclusion after experiencing ‘Vampiric Wrath Unleashed’ is that the Order of Nosferat project is one of diminishing returns. As far as this brand of lo-fi, vampire enthusiast black metal goes they are certainly above average, offering more talking points than the vast bulk of their contemporaries. But ultimately, we don’t want talking points. In a more serious style we would want danger, jeopardy, activity, inspiration, but in this context at the very least we would settle for entertainment. Order of Nosferat have sacrificed that vital quality somewhat. In attempting to elevate their artistic nuance, they have made their music less fun to listen to, without any degree of serious artistic payoff to compensate us.

Grymmstalt: Anthems of Mournful Despondency
Out 21st December on Signal Rex

South American black metal prolificicists Lord Valtgryftåke and Wampyric Strigoi get together for another outing of ghostly, submersed black metal in the form of Grymmstalt and their debut album ‘Anthems of Mournful Despondency’. Unlike Winterstorm, which adopted a cold immediacy that put many Darkthrone imitators to shame, here we meet a more reflective, longform, tragic entity, seeking to draw out lengthy, torturous pieces of ruminant black metal at once meditative yet fraught with internal discord.

The production is lo-fi in that very deliberate way that lends the music its legitimacy. As if we are listening to the music on a tenth generation cassette rip. This places a degree of distance between us and the music. It is – both on the raw technical level and in terms of any emotive import – once removed from our immediate experience, leaving s to interpret its expressions as we would a text in old English, via clues, vague familiarities, or guess work.

What is most obviously apparent is the depressed tempos at play here. The album is forty five minutes long but made up of only five tracks. Each one achingly long, slow, and remarkably single minded in terms of emotional intent. Drums rarely build to more than a marching pace, offering basic metronomic pulses beneath the mix, and what is probably a cavalcade of crash cymbals at the end of every bar. With the final effect of this being merely to bolster the ambient static that scatters the pixels of these pieces into the blurred images that they are.

Tinny guitars dominate the foreground of the mix, working through simple but not simplistic chord progressions of classicalist black metal of a particularly despondent variety (‘Anthems of Mournful Despondency’ is one of those handily descriptive album titles). The strings are left open and ringing after each chord, offering an inertia that compounds into ambience as each riff gets going and burrows into the mind via single minded repetitions. What sounds like a clean tone occasionally sits atop this rudimentary framework, possibly extending the timbral offering, but only in the most subtle, incremental way imaginable.

Vocals are a near constant, high-end howl of despair. But they exhibit a theatrical, almost operatic level of melodrama that truly elevates the impact of this music beyond what many of Grymmstalt’s contemporaries are capable of. As with the music they are set to, they are also aided by the ghostly veil of the production values that covers the album like a fog of obscurity, offering the listener mere hints at the world this music inhabits, one we hold ambiguous feelings of repulsion and attraction toward.

Despite the achingly slow progression of the music, the almost robotic obsession it displays to a single riff or chord progression with little in the way of variety in pitch, timbre, volume or tempo to compensate, and despite the clinical functionality of the overall presentation, again like a product from the mind of an A.I. rather than of raw human passion, ‘Anthems of Mournful Despondency’ compels us to continue spending time with it. It’s a style that lends itself to a frustrating monotony that blasts through the barriers of tedium and welcomes new and fertile artistic ground beyond this creative taboo.    

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