Beats and yelling from: Fryktelig Støy, Verzauber, Gwenwyn

Fryktelig Støy: Disappointment
Out 29th January, self-released

For all the darkness and anger rife in extreme metal, I have always found it to be well of affirmation, a source of light, strength, a resounding yes to life. Subgenres that lean into depressive themes therefore have a tendency to leave me flummoxed (barring some notable exceptions in funeral doom). All of the constructive potential of extreme metal is stripped away for the sake of self-annihilation, a narrow corridor of individualist limitation and mental void.

‘Disappointment’, the debut album from Melbourne’s Fryktelig Støy, has some useful instruction for reluctant depressives such as myself. Conceptually, the album borrows from the stories of mythological and historical figures, using them to serve as mouthpieces for personal stories of betrayal, disappointment, and resolve in the face of abuse. This supplements a state of despair – one chiefly articulated through the music itself – with motivation, defiance, a glimmer of purpose even.

The album is deeply wedded to its themes, to the point that it informs the DNA of the music itself. Stylistically it borrows from DSBM, doom metal, dark ambient, industrial, and even – via the high drama of the vocals – performance art. But structurally, Fryktelig Støy take a more freeform approach than is common for extreme metal. The tracks do not pivot on the accumulation and interchange of riffs as metal so often does.

Instead, loose themes and refrains are played out and reinterpreted from various angles. Genre alchemy sees a simple note cluster articulated via doom metal, a galloping black metal blast, then a loose noise rock jam. Themes are resituated across multiple contexts. ‘Disappointment’ is a highly emotive work, with the vocals adopting a spoken word approach over formally structured phrasing. Largely distorted but with lyrics more than audible, they take on a clean, Celtic metal croon for the track ‘Boudica’ because of course they would, but at other times Em Støy could be a worthy successor to the wanton fury of Lori Bravo. But more than that, the music follows the narrative arc of lyrical themes, building in intensity, speed, pitch, and layers of additional noise as the emotional waves of each piece rise and fall.

The result is a linear, flowing narrative of despair juxtaposed by hope, free of the jarring transitions and structuralist dogma typical of extreme metal. The presentation is there, but reinterpreted into a work with a very specific conceptual axe to grind, one that informs not only the lyrics and atmosphere, but the very way in which the music is constructed and articulated.

In this sense ‘Disappointment’ is a piece of experimental metal in every sense of the word. The final product is about as cohesive as they come, offering a clear narrative arc discernible even if we set aside the lyrics. The most abrasive and alienating elements of various extreme metal subgenres are lifted piecemeal as material to craft this specific vision, but rather than this coming across as an act of unanchored postmodernist play – as is so often the case is so often the case – Fryktelig Støy’s vision is that pronounced, fully realised, and expertly delivered that ‘Disappointment’ presents as a standalone work of conceptual art, one that just happens to be wearing metallic clothing.   

Verzauber: Frankincense & Vitriol
Out 6th April, self-released

Black metal in long form now, and I mean reeeeeally long form, with the debut album from Irish solo outfit Verzauber. Yes, this album kisses the hour and twenty mark, and could probably do with a healthy dose of self-editing, but the stylistic leanings of ‘Frankincense & Vitriol’ warrant a broad, epic brush stroke of the cinematic. It borrows from the theatre of Southern European black metal via Agatus, but is perhaps more recognisable as a descendant of Viking era Bathory via the lens of Graveland, with a healthy dose of old school primitivism to offset the soaring, marshal themes of bombast and conflict.

For a self released debut, the mix on this album is massive, but retains an edge of DIY charm, which I point out not just because it pleases my sentimentality, but because it lends the music a sense of realism, spontaneity, a grounding of barbarity that stands opposed to its mythological regality. Heavy, throbbing drums are set low in the mix, audible and diverse, but never overpowering, which is just as well because the actual snare sound is massive. A panorama of guitars dominate the foreground, offering a tone that would be more at home in epic doom or heavy metal, which in turn pulls Verzauber away from a typically cold black metal sound toward epic, mythologically driven stylings. A mid-range vocal rasp completes the picture, adding a narrative accompaniment to flesh out the distinctive conceptual picture.

Verzauber sounds like an artist with a passion for metal as an articulation of longform narrative arcs, grandiose pantheons, and high adventure, hence the feeling one gets that this is an epic doom metal album in disguise, supplemented by elements of Celtic and Viking metal. But they have chosen a starkly primitive – philosophically if not literally speaking – mould through which to shape this vision. There are old school thrash riffs aplenty, alongside more explicitly dirty black metal segments.

The result is a work that spiritually aligns metal with a celebration of the hero, of the fantasy as fable and motivator for individual action within extraordinary surroundings and circumstances. But all this is expressed through the tools of monstrosity, openly hostile and implying great danger. The riffs of distinctive melodic content, containing within them the foundation for soaring guitar leads are deployed simply to make way for atonally barbaric cacophonies. It is often said that this style’s chief appeal lies in escapism, the implication being that we wish to escape our mundanity and transcend into extraordinary surroundings, but if said surroundings are as conflicted, dangerous, and challenging as this, it may time to reassess what exactly we mean by escapism.

Gwenwyn: The Hexing Jar
Out 1st May, self-released

Gwenwyn is the new dungeon synth project from Welsh solo black metal outfit Asenath Blake. Their debut album ‘The Hexing Jar’ doubles down on the genre’s penchant for the vignette form, conceptually centring itself on a witch’s botanical laboratory, with each track descanting on different poisons and tonics. The theme of mixing and alchemy works rather well in the bizarre micro genre melting pot that is dungeon synth. This is after all music that makes great currency through suggestion and hint rather than fully materialised musical pictures. For the fantasy to hold sway, it can never be finally realised.

‘The Hexing Jar’ is a bright, tentative, fragile, dare we say eerie collection of pieces, each using minimalist synth tones and background sound effects to usher the listener into the experience, only to paint this sparse picture with simple yet vivid melodic refrains via patches with plenty of attack such as harps, lutes, and pizzicato strings. One gets the sense of walking into the same room at different times of the day and night, and as the light and aura of the room changes with the passage of time we act as witness to a series of esoteric rituals, each with their own unique spiritual import.

Some refrains remain consigned to atomised isolation, an idea dropped as instantaneously as it was introduced. Others carry the piece forward into a new passage, a change in the lighting, the drawing of a curtain heralding a marked shift in vibe. This distinctive melodic character never goes is maintained or the entire album, retaining a – despite the shortform structure – sense of perpetual unfolding, of suspended reveal, a series of revelations never fully realised, the final consequence remaining obscured.

In this it calls to mind I Shalt Become’s idiosyncratic ambient black metal album, ironically also called ‘Poison’, which adopted a similarly stark tension between bright and opaque, threatening and comforting, and expressed this via compositions that adopted the same posture of an eternal unfurling.

The explicit realism of some of the patches is offset by the equally explicit artificiality of others. Gwenwyn may borrow from darkwave and neofolk, but this is unmistakably a dungeon synth album, with the abstract and alien impression one gets from certain unhuman synth tones enhancing the disorientation engendered by these pieces. A work of curiosity in miniature, understated, mysterious, and intentionally open ended.

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