2019 Roundup: Black Metal, part II
Taking a look at the latest from Umbra Conscientia, Ancient Moon, The Negative Bias, Ragnarok, Keres and Törzburg.
Originally introduced as an unnamed project by Terratur Possessions, Umbra Conscientia released their debut in late November, to a baffling mix of great acclaim and little fanfare. The two-and-a-half-minute ritual/ambient/whatever intro sets a misguiding mood as “Maze of Exile” instantly guides Yellowing of the Lunar Consciousness onto an unhinged, violent path much like that of Funeral Mist, only with malevolent riffs further twisting around their hardened core. The arrangements are more skillful and organic in the sense that unlike FM, Umbra Cosncientia’s debut doesn’t sound like it was recorded one section at a time and assembled on a computer. It may be rigorous, unerring and precise, but it remains the work of flesh, possessed as it may be.
The lightning-fast, militaristic drumming, intense and intricate enough to engage on its own, adds an air not unlike Katharsis (though the raw pummeling is otherwise kept away from)—hints of the Germans lie in the record’s chaotic atmosphere. Both bands are also referenced as influences in Terratur Possessions’ promo for the record, so clear is their influence. And yet Umbra Conscientia doesn’t come off as a knockoff or redundant. From the moment of its birth, it was a beast standing tall on its own limbs. As if Yellowing of the Lunar Consciousness needed to be further elevated, vocalist F gives a manic performance, ranging from every known manner of hellish screaming, through roars emanating from a deteriorating mind, to incantations to the malevolent depths that could hardly have been matched by anyone else. The artwork gets extra points too.
An international, European
conglomerate band of which I knew very little before, and not a bit more afterwards. Benedictus diabolica, Gloria Patri is the group’s second full-length and features a record high amount of tracks for the band—two. That’s two massive tracks of almost droning, atmospheric black metal that relies on texture and a heavy set of layers mostly executed on guitars, but featuring keyboards as well. An apocryphal atmosphere, a numinous feel and a steady beat that only changes once or twice per album lay the foundation over which raw guitars are layered. Most often, development takes place through additional layers appearing or existing layers disappearing, though there are a few clear shifts as well.
Though at times the keys are left alone , or raised above, mostly they’re used to maintain ambiance beyond the dense guitarwork. The vocalist chiefly sticks to a dry, throaty growl, but plenty of chants are also used, and the second part even breaks down for a ritualistic percussion show. Ancient Moon builds from simple elements, and relies heavily on the tension and atmosphere they create to engage, but the album uses its elements so liberally I wonder whether it would be more accurate to call Benedictus diabolica, Gloria Patri an exercise in restraint or excess. Whichever the case, it is a compelling record that would go well with Ringarë’s debut from last year, as different as the goals between the two may be.
Oh hello, another two-track album with even longer songs than the previous one. However, The Negative Bias builds their sophomore from a much larger set of influences than Ancient Moon did, and for entirely different goals and purposes. Narcissus Rising‘s basis lies in progressive black metal, laced with every kind of extreme metal imaginable and doused with ambient. The Negative Bias excels at nothing, but handle everything from individual riffs to the riveting atmosphere that sails between ominous and disquieting.
The chants, thrusts of dissonance and the general melding of their influences into a coherent sound and working songs—you’d expect it all to rise above and make for something exceptional, especially since Florian Musil coats the record with a beastly performance on the kit. Alas, Narcissus Rising fails to become more than the sum of its parts, well crafted as they may be. It’s an engaging record for as long as it’s playing, but not one I’d even like to remember afterwards.
Over 25 years, 9 full-lengths and quite a few line-up changes down the line, Ragnarok has never quite risen to the forefront of Norwegian black metal, but have nevertheless managed to amass a sizable following and status. 2016’s Psychopathology saw the band undergo some of their most significant personnel changes yet, as the formidable drummer and mastermind Jontho decided to move behind the mic. His replacement, Malignant, proved good but he’s stylistically more average than Jontho, lacking the charisma and presence of his immediate predecessors, HansFyrste of Svarttjern and Hoest of Taake, failing to match his percussive performance with his oral onslaught.
Perhaps to get the most out of their newfound line-up, the songwriting is more fleshed out and dynamic this time around. The opening title track is the kind of melodic bruiser long-time fans would have come to expect from the band, channeling a halfway point between Gorgoroth and Marduk, but not as unwilling to let go of the constant aggression as the latter, nor dipping into the melancholy of the former. But, unlike on some previous records, its straightforward ire is rarely replicated on the album. “Chapel of Shadows” relies on a calmer arpeggio combined with Malignant’s scathing performance and gives debuting bassist Rammr a central role, while “Sanctimoneous” and “Nemesis” play with clean guitars, chants, Dissection-esque parts and Rammr’s elevated presence. Ragnarok’s (by now recognizable) sound remains intact throughout the record and the little flourishes keep the material fresh while the melodic sensibility ensures memorability. Non Debellicata may not match the band’s strongest songwriting but alongside Collectors of the King, it’s their most consistently enjoyable album.
Keres – Ice, Vapor and Crooked Arrows
Man, you know what this roundup needs? I mean, don’t you just think everything up to this point has been pretty… clean? Sure, apart from maybe The Negative Bias, nothing comes close to “sterile” and could only be described as clean by the standards of raw black metal. But this is a black metal roundup, and Keres does play it raw.
Ice, Vapor and Crooked Arrows relies on heavy layers of extremely distorted guitars that may obfuscate the riffs for ears unused to such production. To add insult to injury, opener “Dream of Clouds” is likely the most straightforward song ever written by the band, and the guitars become more akin to a pummeling barrage of noise than the darkly melodic riffing Keres is known for. Though many later songs feature more vivid riffs, and less direct structures, the melodic sensibility lies largely deep beneath the surface, and is not often evoked on the guitars; instead, it often relies on more primal riffs, once or twice even recalling later Beherit.
Yet, Ice, Vapor and Crooked Arrows isn’t raw black metal in the same sense as Black Cilice is. The vocals, a lower register roar similar to Book of Desire, cut clear through the distortion, as does the soft bass which plays a major role in carrying the compositions and creating atmosphere. And while the keys, the main melodic vehicle on this record, have been placed somewhat into the background, they’re still easily discernible. While I was never disappointed in Ice, Vapor and Crooked Arrows, I was initially let down by it. It seemed too enthralled by its newfound raw simplicity, lacking in the melodic mastery of Battle Secrets or The Eagle and the Scorpion, and I rarely returned to it, other than “The Sleeping Master”, the melodic riffing of which seemed the only callback to the Keres I had been fond of. But as I began to play it more and more for the purposes of this roundup, I’ve found myself enchanted by its eclectic austerity, and can barely set it down.
Törzburg – Dracula’s Castle
Iron Bonehead Productions
A Finnish one-man band with its debut demo on Iron Bonehead. You just know it has to be
shit great. Dracula’s Castle is even rawer than the previous entry, with none of that atmospheric soft bass or those clear-cutting vocals. It’s raw, noisy and LOUD, and that’s all it is, though we’re still not talking obfuscated in layers of noise à la Black Cilice. Törzburg‘s firstborn is raw, moderately paced and harrowing lo-fi black metal topped with a throat-tearing vocal performance. It’s a cliche-ridden, four song effort that offers nothing particularly memorable, but nevertheless effortlessly engages for its duration and has enough riff- and tempo changes to keep itself fairly fresh and interesting.
While there may be much to improve upon within the realm of singular motifs, Törzburg already has the songwriting and general approach nailed and I love the cross-section of raw but articulate that it hits. More primitive than what has become known as the Finnish sound, cruder and uglier than the French scene that I should think inspired the vampires and castles theme and lacking the melancholic tendencies of both, yet indebted to both, Dracula’s Castle is one ugly piece of black metal refuse and a promising, if faceless, gambit.
Facebook links where applicable, Bandcamp links provided for each band. Go tell them we said “Hi” and get yourself an album or two. All images courtesy of each band’s/label’s respective Bandcamp site.