Beats and yelling from: Sarpa, A Diadem of Stars, Skognatt

Sarpa: Mauta Tala
Out 17th February, self-released

The number of modern artists that take to the smorgasbord of history to serve as their creative muse is telling. Concocting uncanny blends harvested from different eras and regions piecemeal . Even more telling is how explicitly many of them are in admitting that this is precisely what they are doing, proud even. Our relationship to influence has gone from casual – and often unconscious – osmosis, to a formalist, iron clad doctrinal norm.

As listeners, given the totalitarian familiarity of our surroundings, we are at times wont to let our craving for a shred of the “new” override all else. It is this concern that led me to listen to ‘Mauta Tala’ a number of times through before I could even formulate a positive or negative response toward it. The latest EP from Texan outfit Sarpa is a challenging listen not just in the sense of musical density – it is not lacking for rampant activity – but precisely because one genuinely does not know what will happen next. A rare thing in a climate where music is praised for its ability to slot into an agreed set of interrelated cultural norms.

In terms of genre, it is possible to frame ‘Mauta Tala’. It is essentially thick, meaty, technical death metal, with mild hints at progression, scattered industrial rhythms, and nods to dark folk metal, not just via some welcome acoustic guitar seasoning but also via repeated melodic frames that crop up once the chaos of death metal subsides.

The ontology may be easy to grasp and intellectualise, the qualitative outcome is almost beyond the scope of language. Before eyes roll at this, it is worth noting that this is essentially one long twenty five minute piece of music. It opens with rampant technical death metal defined by an ambiguous tonal centre despite the nods to the melodicism of black metal deployed to supplement the dense chromatic play. Choppy rhythmic interchanges, directionless tangents, all may be common for the style, but Sarpa manage to retain the promise that the music might uncertainly be building to something, despite laying none of the groundwork for such an assumption. This is in direct contrast to many stylistically compatible recent releases, where we feel quite certain that all the activity and musical information will lead precisely nowhere.  

But our faith is rewarded as a bizarre, repetitious trance beat emerges by way of commentary on a very traditional, Morbid Angel-esque riff. The cluttered aesthetic field is quickly cleared by bouncy but powerful folk metal delivered with the gravity and dignity of Aeternus rather than the usual carnival connotations that come free with the phrase. Following a brief interlude, the music unwinds into pure avant-grade extreme metal, but delivered with the legitimacy earned by carrying through the themes, tonality, and thematic material of the music that preceded.

The genre hopping is near incoherent, as elements of gothic doom blend with industrial metal. But we buy into it because the music itself – the key, rhythm, melodic and harmonic shapes, the variations on a theme – rather dazzlingly, remain cohesive, linear, developed in clear alignment with the preceding chapters.

Outside of ambient, where the administration remains consciously monotone, such a long form compositional philosophy is challenging to maintain and communicate effectively via such a chaotic, stylistically and technically eclectic sonic offering. Many acts – particularly in the instrumental or “post” metal milieu – claim to achieve the kind of monolithic arc that Sarpa construct before us, but few with this level of ambition actually succeed in articulating what they set out to in the lengthy prose dedicated to these misguided works. Not so here.

A dazzling feat of stylistic engineering sits alongside an iron clad compositional discipline in order to bring an EP like ‘Mauta Tala’ to bear. With patient and repeated listens, the borderline impenetrable meanders into an uneasy viscosity, eventually solidifying into a bizarrest logic that is both awkward yet oddly flowing. One of the very few releases to come out in the last five years or so that demands of us a new vocabulary in order to even furnish it with curation.

A Diadem of Stars: Emerald Sunsets
Out 3rd February on III Damnation

This compilation brings together the last handful of digital only releases from this Greek outfit. Greek, but spiritually it is Ukrainian. The tranquil melancholy of the Drudkh-esque cover art tells you all you need to know about this music. Peasant black metal in the finest tradition of Tolstoy. One is reminded of his self-insert character Levin and his journey toward the end of Anna Karenina, seeking some form of spiritual rest through the simple fulfilment of need that agricultural communities lived by, stripping away the complexes of bureaucracy and disconnected material existences of urban Russia in its industrial infancy.

But before we get too carried away by the image of the simple 19th Century Russian peasant worrying about ducks flying to Moscow, lets return to A Diadem of Stars. This music essentially apes the work of Roman Saenko, particularly the aforementioned Drudkh for its galloping tempos, and soaring tremolo picked riffs made of simple, gloomy chord sequences, trading on a layering of rhythm guitar tracks as opposed to any active lead melodies. This is a tried and true formula, fixated on providing a basic yet engaging sense of journey, but one that pivots almost entirely on atmosphere. The cumulative effect of the layered guitars draws the listener in, with the scenery populated by simple ascents and descents, minimalist clean vocal chants, and only the most basic switches in tempo deployed to give a sense of motion.

Neofolk is the hidden dictator at work behind this sparse musical landscape, linking together the black metalist tendencies with the overarching thematic material A Diadem of Stars are attempting to work with. The distorted tone populates these pieces with the realities of life’s many brute revelations, whilst the brief melodic fragments that do emerge – along with some acoustic interludes and light choral textures – populate these pieces with a human perspective, the agents that must succumb to or overcome the inevitable demands of earthly existence, the immediacy of needs presented to people in preindustrial communities. This latter fact is both a source of catharsis – there existence was, after all, free of dehumanising Marxist alienation from their labour – yet also a wellspring of sorrow.

The music of a Diadem of Stars is perhaps not quite sophisticated enough to marshal this complex thematic material into a coherent narrative. They deploy aesthetic hints, nods to acute melancholia via the lens of atmospheric black metal, and brief insights into the complex psychological bridges we – as residents of late capitalism – must build in order to enter the mindset of individuals that inhabited subsistence communities. But ‘Emerald Sunsets’ only manages a mere acknowledgement that there is a bridge to be built. The immersive construction of this bridge is yet to be undertaken.

Skognatt: Of Mountains, Rivers, and the Moon at Night
Out 27th January, self-released

The latest EP from Skognatt offers a crisp, clear, yet pleasingly foggy atmosphere to sink one’s psyche into. With the intent explicitly laid out in the title of this EP, the temptation is to review it based on whether it achieved the aims it set out initially, here deduced as programme music designed to accompany reflections on various natural features. This may at first appear as a surplus indulgence of tired clichés as far as black metal is concerned, but any misgivings one might have quickly dissipate as the sincere modesty and intuitive creativeness of ‘Of Mountains, Rivers, and the Moon at Night’ quickly unfolds before out ear.

This is understated melodic black metal totally at ease with itself. It offers a degree of carefree naivety constantly under threat from the sorrow engendered by the relentless wheels of change. But whereas many post black metal outfits shooting for similar airs and graces end up in dead end sentimentalism, Skognatt are able to articulate a more mature, haunting, and immersive example of this odd emotional tangent between nostalgia, yearning, and lamentation.

And they achieve this via a surprisingly direct mix. The guitar is thin, but exhibits a crystalline body and clarity superficially ill suited to the subject matter. But thanks to the intuitively simple and flowing melodies articulated across these three tracks, everything coalesces into a surprisingly hypnotic approach to expression of joyful grief. The latter half of the closing track ‘Moon’ offers a gentle acoustic outro that wonderfully builds on the themes of the black metal that preceded it, a quiet exit from the stage. The fret slides may be a little distracting for the cognisant among us, but such an observation is a mere blot on an otherwise tightly rendered canvas.

‘Of Mountains, Rivers, and the Moon at Night’ is an oddly humble take on black metal as the art of mourning. The emotive funeralism is kept in check by a modesty rarely seen in comparable releases attempting to tug at our more irrational heartstrings. Compelling melodies, clever manipulation of simple rhythmic interchanges, and subtle yet effective timbral manipulation, there is no secret magic to what makes this work. And perhaps it’s this naked sincerity, this total lack of fanfare, that makes this EP such a welcome breath of fresh air.

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