The Shape Of Blackgaze That Never Came

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By 2009, both Alcest and its sister project Amesoeurs had released their first, seminal records—Souvenirs d’un autre monde and Ruines humaines, respectively— joined by early blackgaze luminaries like Lantlôs. This early period of productivity set the stage for a wealth of bands simultaneously exploding onto the scene with this sound, all coming out of the woodwork in the early 2010s. Blackgaze, this distilled form of black metal influenced by shoegaze, post-rock, skramz and ambient was crossing over to the then-still-relevant music blogosphere. Having so much of its roots in styles already acclaimed in the white-hot indie press, blackgaze overstepped the inherent hostility of so much black metal, replaced by more malleable, “crescendo-core” stylings. Frigid riffing and blistering speed was supplanted with transient composition and more familiar melodic trappings.

The 2000s in general saw black metal’s rise in critical relevance with a broader range of music blogs and forums. For sites like Pitchfork, it was more permissible—and eventually fashionable—to highlight black metal, with its mythologized origins, occulted performers and bold aesthetic sensibilities, in a way it wasn’t for other subgenres like death metal.

The World Comes To An End In The End Of A Journey, a compilation from Chinese label Pest Productions, was released in 2009. It proved both a nexus point for the burgeoning style, while also acting as a haunted, lost future of what could have been for both the bands involved and the genre, like a piece of subgenre hauntology. It’s a release that’s always interested me as a result, and represents such a specific time in extreme music and its surrounding media and culture.

The first track of the compilation is by Ethereal Beauty, opening with “The Sun Shines Tomorrow”. Its style of acoustic instrumentation brings  to mind Agalloch, themselves a precursor to much of the blackgaze sound, specifically the White EP. The track’s interpolation of open acoustic chords with legato lead guitar is here underlined with blast beats, juxtaposing the harsh and the soft. This gives way to a more open-sounding finale, where some arpeggiated leads are accented with neatly syncopated drum-work. A short instrumental, deftly introducing the ice cold atmosphere teased by the cover.

Their second track, “There’s A Grey Cloud Above Us”, is more subdued, fading in with some arpeggiated cleans like fog hitting a battered coastline. Once the rhythm section kicks in, the track settles into a mid-paced, understated track that never, even in its break, threatens to derail. Realistically it’s probably the weaker of the two Ethereal Beauty tracks but the lead melody and drumming has always made it linger with me longer than “The Sun Shines Tomorrow”.

This was the only credit of note from Ethereal Beauty, though the ashes of the project resulted in Desolation who put out a full-length in 2010, though more long form, droning and traditionally depressive in comparison to their material here.

Brazil’s Shyy begins their contributions with “The White Sheet Faces The Dark Light”, an interesting track which has an instrumental stylistically much closer to angular post-punk than traditional shoegaze, which draws parallels to a band like Lifelover. It’s probably the most conventionally “pretty” song on the album, with melodic, distant clean vocals throughout. “As I Fly” is more sanguine and has a slower pace throughout. More dynamic in its composition, it’s a track with much more expressive instrumentation and pronounced, muscular rhythms to it, and is a massive highlight on the compilation.

Shyy took a while to record full-length material: a split in 2012 aside, their only full-length LP was in 2018, almost a decade after this comp, broadly continuing in the same blackgaze lineage.

Germany’s Heretoir are by far the biggest name from this comp. A project whose appeal has broadened and fanbase grown beyond blackgaze in the decade following this comp, later material saw Heretoir adopting a more layered, atmospheric approach that, while cleaner, still retained the spirit of their work here.

Relaxing but ultimately transient, “Trümmerwelten” is the most disposable track on the comp, loose and inarticulate in its delivery but without evoking any strong emotions, though the acoustic instrumentation is nice. “Herbstwind” is much more in-line with what you’d expect, just a blanket of hazy, ice-capped riffs matched with subtle but pretty synthwork. A short break emphasizes the bass, injecting the track with some warmth amidst the frigidity of the mix.

Another German band, Soliness, ultimately never released an album, and the pair of tracks on this comp were the only official release from the project. “Longing For” is initially mid-paced and melodically linear but never feels ponderous, aided by a shift in tempo at the halfway mark. “Skygaze” is their standout, however: earworm riffs wrapped around distant vocals and more consideration is put into the structure. It’s a track that’s as reminiscent of Explosions In The Sky as it is Forgotten Woods.

Save for a three-way split in 2009, Dernier Martyr also has an otherwise empty discography. “Follow The River, Towards The Sea” is a track of two halves, its first being conventional Darkthrone worship before breaking into more soft, melodic and dreamy sounds. Their second track “937 km” follows in the latter trajectory, much more spacious and soft in its instrumentation, accented with harsh vocals. “Tortured By Time” is a short piece that initially brings to mind the sort of melodic guitar work from mid-’90s skramz records in its bittersweet and melodic progression, not a thousand miles away from something like Indian Summer. It then launches into more conventional, aggressive black metal but is peppered with barks and shouted vocals that evoke the exact opposite of its melodic introduction—a more gruff and tough delivery.

Chinas’s Dopamine are easily the highlight of the record. “Melting”, the final track and their sole contribution, is among my favorite tracks in black metal. A gorgeous, tempered introduction of overdubbed, high-treble guitar arpeggios belie the subtle, increasing tension of  the track. It bursts into life with a volley of blast beats and caustic vocals that have the most vicious timbre to them. Dopamine also didn’t release much material in the wake of the compilation, only officially releasing a self-titled EP in 2010 and inexplicably a new single in 2023.

The World Comes To An End In The End Of A Journey is an album whose sound evokes melancholy and the dreams of lost futures, and this has only increased in the 15 years since. In the years following the compilation’s release, blackgaze and its splinter microgenres became bigger than ever; black metal as a whole became bigger than ever, its aesthetics and its mythology spread beyond its once-insular fanbase and reached everything from fashion designs to tumblr soft mood-boards. The spread of blackgaze, the peak of which was Deafheaven‘s Sunbather, represented not only a peak in critical acclaim for the subgenre, but also signaled black metal’s total adoption and integration by high and low culture. Black metal had so much prominence in the early 2010s music sphere, with blackgaze being a major contributing factor to this.

But it seems, in spite of this proliferation, blackgaze could’ve been so much more, and perhaps still could be so much more.

By the mid-2010s the once white-hot critical reception to many blackgaze releases had grown more subdued, and it seemed many established acts were content to spin wheels in the same stylistic delivery. The trajectory of blackgaze isn’t dissimilar to third-wave post-rock, now often erroneously and decisively called “crescendo-core”—a once burgeoning style in a critical boom that petered out in relevance much the same way blackgaze did. Most of the bands on this compilation vanished without aplomb, adding to its ghostly feeling. While of course it’s still made, enjoyed and shared, blackgaze as an active, relevant style outside of its own circles has shrunk considerably. The sound that persisted and continues to influence extreme music more broadly is now the dissonant and cavernous sounds of black metal in the past decade. The influence of Black Cilice or Cultes Des Ghoules is now more audible than Les Discrets.

For as melancholy as the album and its context is for me, it’s not without a little hope. As an album, it highlights how the genre juxtaposes depressive sounds and imagery alongside bright, shimmering melodic composition. The perennial juxtaposition of black metal—light and dark, like the two-tone, monochromatic imagery that’s dominated black metal from the days of A Blaze In The Northern Sky, that manifests itself on the icy landscape of The World Comes To An End In The End Of A Journey’s cover and the frigid, uncompromising black metal lineage that continues to this day.

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