July Roundup: Black’n’Death’n’Thrash’n’Folk
Latest-est music from Naglfar, Skeleton, Firelink, Ringarë, Slidhr and Akatechism, also Panopticon and Aerial Ruin.
Naglfar – Cerecloth
It’s been a long while since Teras dropped to divide Naglfar‘s fans’ opinions, so Cerecloth was received with hands shaking in anticipation. Or would have been, if I were more of a fan. The Swedish meloblack group has had their moments in the sun, their earlier output especially, but choice cuts from later albums as well haven’t lost their charm, but for one reason or another I’ve never been invested in the group enough to mourn Jens Ryden’s departure in the mid-aughts, or the fact that Teras wasn’t the same song over and over again, something that really seemed to get beneath Naglfar’s fans’ skins at the time.
Well, fans rejoice, Cerecloth sees the band return to the height of their power, at least in theory. For about three quarters of an hour, Naglfar offers grim majesty and fantastic realms have become synonymous with many of the ’90s symphonic black metal bands, but instead of opting for a keyboard, the Swedes, as always, have honed their melodies on guitars. This compositional focus is reflected in the mix; it’s all very compressed but you can still tell the rhythm and the lead guitar apart, whether they’re playing the same line or not, the monotone rasp of Olivius’ vocals is front and center, but never challenging the leads, the bass presence is felt as the existence of low end and the drums only annoy with the prominent thudding of the kick, quarreling with the rest of the sound.
And just like the mix, Cerecloth‘s songs may have a variety of influences, but only use them to do one thing. Tempo and rhythm changes aren’t the dearest part of Naglfar’s arsenal, only existing to allow for a sense of movement, the vast majority of the material blasting and fasting its way through a handful of melodies per song, closing where it began. “Like Poison for the Soul” and “Vortex of Negativity” find their melodies burrowing deeper first, and with “Cry of the Serafim’s” pleasantly mid-tempo first half, they make for a much stronger mid-album than a record with this narrow a scope would’ve warranted, elevating the experience.
But it’s the penultimate “Necronaut” that has the honor of serving as an album highlight. Its slow, doomy opening section with its harmonized guitar melodies is textbook My Dying Bride, but somehow doesn’t sound entirely out of place here, which may be due to either there already having been so much of the same thing, or else the faster mid-section. It unfortunately at times can also feel unfinished, essentially containing only one verse between its lengthy intro and its repetition as the closing theme. The return to Naglfar’s own heartland in the following “Last Breath of Yggdrasil” doesn’t work too well either, as a result of “Necronaut’s” difference, and by ‘virtue’ of being the album’s only song incapable of carrying its weight, stretched too thin.
In many ways, Naglfar’s latest feels the same as Memoriam‘s works have; best described as workmanlike, they’re not bringing anything new to the table, and only really do one thing. But they’re good enough at what they do to make it work, smart enough to know to apply variation, and experienced enough to know when to do it. And even though they do throw a curveball, they only do so at the end, when the ‘what ifs’ can’t take away from the majority of the album. But besides all its strengths, it’s too workmanlike to live on as its own entity in the coming years, to be a masterpiece. But for what it is, you could do a hell of a lot worse.
3.5/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell
Skeleton – Skeleton
An Austin trio, Skeleton are something of newcomers, and completely unashamed ones at that, at least if stealing Bummer’s leatherdaddy from the cover of Spank is anything to go by. But they’re no helmet-wearing men, no. Theirs is a sound that is rooted in the earliest days of black metal–a punky take on both riffs and playing, with hints of thrash metal surfacing every now and then. A few songs, like the closing “Catacombs” take a more tremolo-centric turn, and the occasional injection of groove gives Skeleton a more rock’n’rolling vibe than many of its counterparts.
An album like this lives and dies by its riffs, and there are riffs aplenty to be found here, though not all of them are great. Skeleton is a short record, only spending 27 or so minutes with its 11 songs, so much of what isn’t great or memorable goes by as fast as it came; this is just about the only fast thing on the album, as mostly the Texans stay safely at midpace. Not a bad decision, as it’s often more forgiving for playing that’s not even meant to be, shall we say, precise. Skeleton’s got the riffs, and the attitude, and even though their debut’s probably not going to prove a masterpiece down the line, nor will anything else the band does, judging by this, but it’s short and packed with good moments enough to make it a fun romp.
3.5/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell
Firelink – Firelink
A year or so back, the Dark Souls-inspired Firelink caused quite a ruckus, even on this here Toilet-themed metal blog, with its wide variety of (extreme metal) influences tied together by an underlying presence of melodic (black) metal. I, myself, found it left a lot to be desired, from the programmed drums to the overall production and the monotone vocals, often poorly arranged to fit the rest of the music. No to mention a good bit of their influences never came to bloom into anything good. But there was enough of intrigue in there to keep me interested in a potential follow-up, which has now arrived in the form of a self-titled sophomore.
In many ways, their latest record feels like it was tailored to my tastes. The programmed drums have been replaced by yet another expert performance from Kevin Paradis, in what may be the single greatest leap between the records. The overall production feels more even here, and the guitar tone never dips like it did on the debut. Whereas The Inveterate Fire sounded like it had been worked on with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink mindset, appropriating every idea that didn’t fit the duo’s other band, Valak, and then forced through gruesome rewrites until some semblance of cohesion had been attained, Firelink has the benefit of an established sound. Working towards a known goal has lent greater cohesion to the songwriting, sections flow into each other more naturally and more room has been left for Adrian Davis’ vocals; this means that even if there had been no advancement made in their arrangements, they would not sound as off, as often, and besides, his performance is far more expressive and varied here. And yet, of the two, Firelink is undeniably the weaker record.
Its improvements over the debut’s weaknesses are its only strengths. With a more focused sense of what ideas to incorporate, the songs pack notably less information, but are hardly any shorter, meaning most drag on beyond their boundaries. The soft, clean and melodic sections have been thinned out, or else they’re so impotent as not to be felt; whichever the case, their lack(ing) is felt hard, leaving less obvious ups and downs between the dynamic polarities (although, it should be said, the range is as long as before, it just feels less so). Lastly, the hooks aren’t sharp enough, making much of what is heard less interesting, leaving individual moments incapable of carrying the whole. If this was my first dance with Firelink, I highly doubt there’d be a second.
2/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell
Aerial Ruin / Panopticon
This split was released very early on this year, but I figured it would be an opportune moment to remind you of its existence, now that the Stygian Bough Volume 1 is out, and received a favourable review on these very pages. On the first 5 songs, you will find the same soft folk and gentle singing that you might already associate with Erik Moggridge, even if the Bell Witch collaboration were your first brush with his work. “Lesser the Blade”, however, showcases his ability to create dark and even menacing music on his own, moreso perhaps, than on Stygian Bough.
Austin Lunn’s 4 songs cover a wider variety of stylistic inspiration with their mix of bluegrass and country-folk, or whatever, I’m neither an expert, nor does it really strike me as a particularly important. Of his originals, “No Lines Away” rings quiet and slow, led by a violin, lying somewhere between despondency and bemusement, whereas “The Pit” is a brisker take, perfectly matched by Lunn’s rough, weary voice. Between the two lie covers, of which Chris Knight’s “North Dakota” especially shines with Panopticon‘s treatment. With some of Panopticon’s best acoustic songs, and a fine offering from Aerial Ruin, the split should be a no brainer for anyone capable of appreciating the less distorted tones.
Ringarë – Sorrow Befell
Last year, Ringarë‘s long-overdue debut almost convinced Richter, and retrospectively, ended up the best nighttime record from the year. Not long after, they dropped demos of older dungeon synth tracks, and now, with Sorrow Befell, tie the two approaches together. Well, not really, but at least it includes both styles. Not much has changed for Ringarë. The production is raw and thin, but clear enough for each element to stand out discernibly. Particularly the soft bass lines stand to challenge the cold, mystic synthwork, whereas the guitars often focus on building atmosphere and ambiance through walls of hissing distortion.
The songs are much shorter than on Under Pale Moon, ranging from 4 to 7 minutes, which leaves less time for lingering anticipation. Sections and pace shift more urgently and the already pronounced activeness of the compositions is further underlined with more deliberate percussion. A fine and more focused, if quick follow-up that has traded a bit of its mystic aura away.
The B-side comprises of a dungeon synth song, “Lightless Descent”, divided into 4 movements. Much like the material on the A-side, the movements, and even the entire composition, is relatively short in comparison to the band’s previous recordings. But although “Lightless Descent” is likewise more action-focused, it does not carry the sense of urgency over from the A-side. The feel of wintry mysticism is better contained in it, often tonally revisiting Hlidskjalf‘s territory in the process. Sorrow Befell offers a quick glimpse into both sides of Ringarë, but despite leaving you hungry for more, and not being the next step for the band, given their short career since beginning to publicly produce material, there hasn’t yet been an influx of Ringarë, so it serves as a passable stepping stone. Not quite more of the same, not quite something bigger or better.
3/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell
Akatechism / Slidhr – Amongst the Lost Light of Misaligned Stars
A German black/doom/death duo project from the drummer of Shrines of Insanabilis and an unknown second member, Akatechism dropped their sole demo over 5 years ago, and haven’t exactly hurried with the followup. Even now, their side encompasses only one 6 minute song, “Amongst the Lost Light”. Yes, we are talking about my all-time least favourite format, the 7″ split. Regardless of how good the songs’ from each band would be, it’d feel like a waste of resources, not money, but the raw materials required to press one. The format doesn’t allow for very long songs either, which might have lent a point besides purpose, for the record, so you’re never getting much of any band involved, usually barely more than an appetizer without a meal to follow.
And now that we’ve got that obligatory piece out of the way, we can focus on the music. Not much of Akatechism’s doom, or even death tendencies show up today. Instead, “Amongst the Lost Light” is dipped in the menacing atmosphere and swirling chords of black metal’s more psychedelic vein. But as opposed to the nightmarish offerings of the Icelandic scene, it’s a fairly subdued take on the sound, creating distress through its several rhythm and tempo changes and false endings, rather than allowing it to permeate the compositions as a whole.
Slidhr, a collaboration between former Myrkr instrumentalist Joseph Deegan and members of Sinmara, has followed a similar path throughout their 15-year existence, which has produced quite a bit more material than Akatechism’s. Though, if something, they’ve always held their sound closer to the continental Northern-European take, meaning their trek towards the hallucinatory has never felt as reined in, and more as prods into the unknown.
Compositionally, “of Misaligned Stars” similarly features sudden tempo changes, but keeps a more consistent rhythm and ironically, comes off as the subdued cousin of Akatechism. Changes between sections are never as pronounced, the half-entrancing atmosphere and lack of sharpness in individual motifs translates into a duller experience. Amongst the Lost Light of Misaligned Stars’ halves go well together, without sacrificing each band’s identity, but there’s precious little to cherish here, and neither band has the room to expand on their ideas. At least it has awakened an interest in Akatechism’s future.
3/5 Flaming Toilets ov Hell