The decline and fall of riffcraft: Urfaust and Elysian Blaze

I’ll just come out and say, Emperor, Darkthrone, and Burzum were the three most significant artists to emerge from second wave black metal. The lineage of every artist within the genre – outside of Southern Europe – can ultimately be traced back to their work up to about 1994. Anything remotely symphonic owes a debt to Emperor. Everything remotely ambient and depressive (much to Varg’s chagrin) owes a debt to Burzum. And almost everything else owes a debt (and/or royalties) to Darkthrone’s initial black metal trilogy. And it is their combined legacy that unintentionally sowed the seeds for the riff’s slow decline in extreme metal as the key compositional driver.

What is perhaps ironic when it comes to Burzum is the fact that the project was defined by an elegant simplicity that still centralised the riff, only seeing ambient colourings dribble across ‘Det Som Engang Var’, before taking centre stage with ‘Hvis lyset tar oss’. The latter of which, along with the ‘Filosofem’, is perhaps the most aped of his works. And it is this that ultimately led to later offshoots of black metal that side lined riffs altogether in favour of rich atmospherics, synth undertones, and simple, pulsing rhythms that became known as ambient black metal.

The other missing ingredient when documenting the decline of the riff in extreme metal is funeral doom. When one approaches the early developments of this odd little subgenre, from Mordor, to Esoteric, Worship, Skepticism, and Thergathon, the literalness of the depressed tempos allows one to witness the riff’s decay in real time. Although these formative artists were still largely riff based composers, the gradual amalgamation of drab moods empowered by the inertial drone of lingering chords was taken as the entire point by many of their followers, leaving the riff as a mere hook to hang the real star of the show on: texture.

Here we see two artists whose inception came at the crossroads of this watershed development within extreme metal. Explicitly slotting themselves into the black metal lineage, they nevertheless took liberally from funeral doom, along with elements of ambient and neofolk sprinkled intermittently to further populate the scenery.

Urfaust are notable not just for their current status as the thinker’s choice in the cornucopia of modern extreme metal, but also for being one of the few artists within a broadly black metal milieu (aside from perhaps Attila’s Mayhem) to centralise the voice as a key motivator of their music. Willem Niemarkt’s vocals are unmistakable from the very first on their debut album ‘Geist ist Teufel’ released in 2004, which balances dark ambient, funeral doom, and black metal, before the former two elements eventually became the centrepiece of the Urfaust package. On this earlier iteration however, we see the black metal stripes placed front and centre alongside an almost jaunty folk underlayer.

But the overall presentation is undeniably drab. The tempos are slow, the production obscurantist, the texture sparse. In fact, taken as a musical whole, ‘Geist ist Teufel’ is a decidedly minimal early example of DSBM. Aside from the bouncy jig ‘Drudenfuss’, these tracks are light on riffs, rhythmic intrigue, or any discernible hooks, bass has absented itself, and aside from the intro, title track, and outro bookending the album, no keyboards march in to flesh out the picture.

But such aggressive minimalism is of course intentional. Niemarkt’s voice dominates the melodic and timbral picture. Part ritualist chant, part choral music, and part traditional song, his oddly obscured croons overpower both the atmospheric and melodic shape of the music, leaving the instrumentation as a mere tabula rasa. What is abundantly clear looking back on this album however is the picture of an artist still finding their voice. The album is half dark ambient and half minimal black metal, yet despite the obvious connections between these two genres, they fail to properly connect on ‘Geist ist Teufel’. The black metal is perhaps too sloppy, too lo-fi, too human to gracefully integrate into the grandeur of Urfaust’s more ethereal aspirations. And the dark ambient elements seeking to dominate the aesthetic picture outshine anything placed next to them, comprehensively stealing the show.

It would not be until Urfaust learned how to properly leverage the philosophy of funeral doom that their sound would develop into a complete and immersive picture. Here we see an artist still wedded to certain traditions of black metal despite the fact that they do not properly fit their artistic direction. Not only that, but they fail to bring anything noteworthy to their take on black metal, only solidifying in our minds the idea that they have hampered their development by remaining loyal to the genre’s conventions. They are not the strongest riffcrafters. That being said, it is clear even here that Urfaust had a unique perspective to bring to this particularly glum corner of extreme metal. But they would only be able to fully realise this once they truly shed their reliance on the riff completely.

Australia’s Elysian Blaze, by contrast, emerged from their chrysalis a practically complete entity. Depending on your preferred tackle, their debut album ‘Cold Walls and Apparitions’ released in 2005 could be blamed or praised for solidifying the DSBM subgenre following Xasthur and Leviathan’s first salvo of releases at the turn of the century. But unlike their US counterparts, Elysian Blaze retained a gothic grandeur, traditional melodic arc, and the high drama of germinal black metal, all deployed to compliment – or perhaps even anchor – the discordant swirls of descending despair at the centre of their style.

Whilst some – particularly apologists for formative USBM – would argue that this leaves Elysian Blaze behind the creative evolutionary curve of history, the focus on rather straightforward compositional approaches draws the listener into the music, providing much needed context for the more monstrous aspects of this sound. The contrast between this and the jarring manipulations of key and dissonance subtly scattered across these pieces works well as a narrative device, and elevates the tension far more than the overly laboured outings in abrasion that Leviathan were putting out around this time.

But one cannot discuss this artist in depth without turning to the real star of the show, the production. Elysian Blaze – especially the earlier material – are not devoid of riffs, melodic and harmonic content is present certainly, but here we witness the slow decay of complexity and nuance for the sake of centralising a pronounced aesthetic package. But this development goes further, to the point where choices in tone and mastering begin to manipulate the compositional direction taken. The guitar tone is so supressed in reverb and distortion that it functions more as an atmospheric presence as opposed to an articulator of riffs. Loose, distant clean arpeggios float across the top of the mix, adding layers of understated gloom to the overarching noise, and a wash of panoramic string tones – again greeting the listener’s ear as though submerged in water – flesh out this textural offering with waves of chasmic monumentalism.

Although the music does reach for mid-paced blast-beats for scant passages, funeral doom tempos persist as the glue holding these uneasy binds together. It is not just tempo and drone that bring this in line with funeral doom. The traditionalist approach to melody – despite being restricted to very basic refrains due to the sheer weight of the mix – gives ‘Cold Walls and Apparitions’ a sense of grandeur beyond the individualism of DSBM. Despite Elysian Blaze’s explicit pivot toward the darker corners of their sonic psyche, it avoids the overt self-indulgence of many comparable artists by retaining a romanticism bordering on the epic, graduating the music into resonating beyond the specificity of place or individual orientation and into a rumination for the ages.

Whatever quality we can garner from their work, many would mourn the coming of artists such as Urfaust and Elysian Blaze. They were symptomatic of a larger trend – one whose roots are traceable  most distinctively in black metal owing to its low bar of technicality and pivot away from the pure riff geometry of thrash and death metal and into textural manipulation – that saw the slow decline of the riff as the core pillar of composition within metal. But such a reading only takes into account half the story. The fact that a lot of questionable music resulted from this move does not mean that it is inherently without value. These obscurantist corners of extreme metal lend themselves to a tight union with dark ambient, noise, and other adjacent practices. Urfaust and Elysian Blaze, along with a clutch of others, are proof that there is value in this project. The existence of the Xasthurs and Striborgs of the world is an unfortunate side effect for sure, but defective execution is not an argument for defection of theory.

Riff organisation still has an important role to play within extreme metal, and many notable artists still prove that the riff has not yet run its course. But it must now exist in competition with a movement in timbral manipulation which – by its very nature as an easy access form – is perhaps suffering from overpopulation. In this context, strong administration and quality control – shining a light not just on its more compelling origins but also its worthy successors – is a matter of urgency.

For our pick this pair, and taking these albums in isolation, we are siding with Elysian Blaze. ‘Cold Walls and Apparitions’ presents the more complete, fleshed out picture from the off. And whilst it’s true that Urfaust’s career following the release of ‘Geist ist Teufel’ probably talk more interesting twists and turns. Elysian Blaze proved more adept at allowing the raw sonic material flowing out of their instruments to inform the compositional philosophy. In short, between form and content, the information flows both ways, thus the pictorial outcome is more complete and immersive as a result.

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