The Ballad of Bolesław (Or, A Tomb I Have Known & Loved)
For thousands of years, humans have constructed tombs; from crude slabs of rock to opulent ossuaries, many of these resting places share a blueprint of egotism (this vanity, this anthropocentric tendency is rivaled only by Jon Schaffer‘s constant re-re-releases of decades-old Iced Earth material). That’s not to say these monuments aren’t important; our narcissism has fueled works of great beauty and historical significance around the world. You know your remains have made an impact when people will fly business class for 12 hours to see your desiccated organs in a set of little jars. I am no different from these tourists—when given the opportunity to see the tomb of the first king of Poland on a recent trip, I salivated at the thought of the sepulcher (and the chance to make tenuous connections to new metal releases, of course).
Poznań Cathedral (or the Archcathedral Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul for the Nile fans out there) seems almost impossibly old for a denizen of New England; originally built in the late 10th century, the building has become a patchwork of architectural styles that has survived a millennium of turmoil, from the invading forces of dukes to the bombers of WWII. Walking through the intricately carved entrance, I felt the weight of ages, the weight of the bodies that suffered to raise these walls.
Moving past the relics and altars, I made my way to the Golden Chapel. This room is supposedly the final resting place of the remains of Mieszko I and his son, Bolesław I, who would become Poland’s first king (Bolesław the Brave) in 1025. Never mind that the room is gilded from floor to ceiling—that’s the least intimidating detail. The ornate decorations that coat every inch of the chapel are crowned with a circle of painted saints, glaring down from on high with condemnation in their eyes. I’ve read plenty about the power of churches to instill fear in the hearts of commoners, but it took seeing this room for me to really understand. This is what a 10th century flex looks like:
A painting of Mieszko I on horseback adorns the western wall, and as I looked on, the sounds of hooves and trumpets seemed to echo into the modern day. France’s Darkenhöld are no strangers to medieval themes and imagery (i.e. castle fetishization, who can blame them?), but their new split with Griffon, Atra Musica, brings them closer than ever to folk music. Eschewing the distortion pedal altogether has led the band to an idiosyncratic sound—a fusion of the speed and intensity of black metal with the serene qualities of acoustic instruments. The final track, “Citadelle d’Obsidienne,” includes jaw-harps, flutes and double kick drums that call to mind the galloping of horses in a royal procession; this combination of auxiliary instruments is a recipe for either pretension or gimmick status, but the focused songwriting helps the band steer clear of these pitfalls. When intricate acoustic tremolos collide with blastbeats towards the end of the track, it’s an oddly beautiful moment that’s equal parts regal and rustic.
Beneath the extravagant veneer of the cathedral, tombs of ancient stone jut from the dirt. It’s an altogether less flashy affair, but what it lacks in gold, it makes up for in bone. The temperature plummeted as I followed the steps down into the crypts, home to the remains of untold bishops and holy men. Sections of the walls have been excavated, allowing visitors to see the layers of different styles of architecture: Romanesque sits atop Pre-Romanesque, and the rounded edges of the Gothic aesthetic sit lower still. The original tombs of Mieszko and Bolesław are little more than piles of stone after a thousand years, but their significance can be felt hanging over the room like a fog—good men or bad men, they were responsible for the creation of the Polish state.
In a far corner of the room, a lone skull sits atop a pillar of rock, a memento mori for all passing through the crypt (as if we need another reminder). Death metal works in much the same way—a recital, through violent sounds and imagery, for our inevitable expiration. Brighton’s (UK) Angron excel at peeling back the tissues of the genre until only the skeleton remains. Fear not, for this corpse is fresh; rather than attempting a dull tread back to the origins of the style, the band takes the mid-paced stomp of the early scene and melds it with bursts of harmonized riffs and a modern production that never skimps on the bass. “Necronolith” (is this just a fancy word for tombstone?) starts their debut EP off with some classic, seasick harmonies before veering off into blasting territory that approaches tech death in its flurry of notes. Make no mistake, this is primal, knuckle-dragging death at heart, but the rudiments have been twisted just enough to form a new entity.
WARNING – TRUE TRAD CHADS ONLY BEYOND THIS POINT
Hello swordbrothers and sisters, it is time to hail the Szczerbiec. You’ve heard of Excalibur, you’ve heard of Masamune (maybe even Joyeuse), but Szczerbiec is harder to spell and pronounce and thus has more power and/or clout. As legend has it, this sword was handed down to Bolesław the Brave from an angel and obtained its title (roughly translating into English as “The Jagged Sword”) after being struck against the Golden Gate of Kiev (this is patently false, as the Golden Gate hadn’t been built at the time he supposedly damaged the blade). Even without the dubious/mythological tales surrounding the sword, it’s still, in fact, more metal than you could ever hope to be. You have a shirt for Fleshgod Apocalypse’s album, King. Szczerbiec was the coronation sword for Polish kings for over four centuries between the 1300s and 1700s. You perform generic trad metal with a plastic Party City sword. Szczerbiec is protected with magical formulas, one of which reads: Rec figura talet ad amorem regum / et principum iras iudicum (“This sign rouses the love of kings and princes, the wrath of judges).” Your band has a stub on Wikipedia. Szczerbiec has a description of its hilt on Wikipedia that’s almost as long as this whole post. HAIL SZCZERBIEC! For any poseurs wondering where they can HAIL THE SZCZERBIEC, it’s currently located in the museum of the Wawel Castle in Kraków, Poland.