I’ve been a latecomer to black metal, but it’s been growing on me, sorta like rash that just spreads the more I scratch it. I’ve been trying to further my black-metal education (though still, I haven’t read Hideous Gnosis) while at the same time trying to keep up with interesting new releases across many extreme metal genres — which hasn’t been easy. Only so many hours in the day, unfortunately.
Basically, when it comes to black metal, I feel like a small child. In black diapers. Actually, I gave up the black diapers last week. Figured it was time. Because they weren’t black when I started wearing them.
Anyway, I’ve been trying to get educated. One thing I’ve learned is that the term “black metal,” standing alone, really doesn’t tell you very much. Bands that work under that banner can sound remarkably different from each other. I suppose I still associate that genre label with tremolo picking, blast beats, and evil-sounding shrieking in the vocals — but I’m discovering that’s a gross generalization that fails to capture the musical variety of “black metal.”
For example, I’ve listened to three new/forthcoming releases in the last couple weeks that are all classifiable as “black metal” but that sound dramatically different from each other — one from a legendary Norwegian band whose members are pictured above and whose name will be found in every history of the genre that has been or will be written — Darkthrone — and two from bands that are painfully obscure outside their home countries (and maybe even within their home countries) — Nydvind and Bustum.
I really like all three releases, though they sound nothing alike. Collecting some thoughts about each of them in this roundup and allowing you to stream some excerpts is as good a way as any to illustrate the variety in black metal, even as it’s being practiced today. (read on, after the jump . . .)
You black metal afficionados out there in the audience will probably know exactly how these different interpretations of black metal fit into the genre’s rich history. I don’t have to be an expert to know that what Darkthrone is doing is completely original.
As for the other two, you experts out there, unlike me, could probably trace the sounds/styles of Nydvind and Bustum back down the branchings of black metal and identify their precursors. For all I know, their music is completely derivative of something further back along those pathways of time — but I don’t yet know enough to tell. We don’t get many comments here at NCS, but I really want to encourage some on this post if you feel up to it. What do you hear when you listen to this music? Do you think it’s good or imitative? Or both? Help further my education!
You don’t have to read much about the history of black metal before coming across the name Darkthrone. This two-man creative force (Fenriz and Nocturno Culto) has been making music for more than 20 years and was a pivotal element in the so-called second wave of black metal that began in the early 90s. Darkthrone’s latest album (their 14th), Circle the Wagons, is scheduled for an April 5 release on Peaceville Records, and it’s one of the best things I’ve heard this year or last.
Put aside your expectations, unless maybe you’ve listened to the last two Darkthrone albums, which apparently began the sharp turn in direction that the new one continues. Think of this: a combination of punk rock rhythms, thick guitar riffing (downright sludgy in places), screaming solos, classic rock-n-roll drum rhythms and high-hat work (no blast beats — Fenriz seems to detest them), a combination of gravelly harsh vocals and dramatic clean singing, and yes — some tremolo picking. I can’t think of anything I’ve heard that sounds quite like this.
The pace varies from up-tempo rockers to down-tempo doomy numbers, and the songs invoke widely different emotions, but they’re all just primitively appealing. A lot of that elemental appeal comes from the production — intentionally designed to produce a raw, garage-band sound. When most extreme metal bands are taking full advantage of the sophisticated recording and mixing technology that’s now available on a DIY basis, Darkthrone have thrown themselves back to another era — or maybe just staying connected to the underground in the current era.
Take it from the ever-interesting Fenriz himself, as quoted on the Peaceville web site:
Album by album we gnaw away at the overwhelming mass of so-called raw metal out there – well, the only time i saw something raw wrapped in plastic was when it was DEAD meat. And so in the long run, all raw bands with old raw sound WINS – and your plastic paradise instant gratification sound vanishes with time.
Picking a song to share with you from Circle the Wagons was hard as hell, but I finally decided on “Stylized Corpse”. It includes more awesome riffs than anyone has a right to. It starts slowly, but by the time it ends, it twists your head right off at the roots. Man, I just love it! (Circle the Wagons is available for pre-order from the usual retail merchants — go spend yo money!)
1. Darkthrone: Stylized Corpse
This pagan/black metal band from France has been around for ten years, but the recorded output has been notably scarce: The first full-length was released in 2006 (Eternal Winter Domain), and the second (Sworn To The Elders) only emerged this year, on a German label called Trollzorn. We’re guessing the low output has something to do with, you know, figuring out other ways to pay the monthly bills, so we’re definitely not being critical.
The band describes itself as “Nordic Heathen Metal,” which presumably refers to the incorporation of folky, pagan melody into the music — and it’s an interesting and very appealing blend of traditions.
Sworn To The Elders includes eight songs — and the first one of those is an instrumental Intro, an ominous but epic-sounding orchestral overture, heavy on the bassoon, plus the cawing of crows and what sounds like the grinding of a rack or the crawling of wagon wheels across rocky ground. That Intro abruptly shifts into a wash of buzzing, tremolo-picked guitar and a mix of howling and clean vocals on “Son of Fire.” That song — like all others on the album — is very catchy, quite melodic, and darkly beautiful.
The music throughout the songs that follow the intro shifts back and forth between buzzing waves of guitar, blast beats, and shrieked vocals, on the one hand, and more traditional melodic pagan metal stylings on the other, with the transition marked by shifts in tempo. The songs have an anthemic quality to them, and include unusual elements (at least within conventional black metal) of prominent bass lines and the use of acoustic instruments in places. Vocalist Richard Loudin is adept at both the mid-range howling and the clean vocals and the rest of his bandmates are quite good at what they do, too.
The production is clean and sharp — which may be exactly the kind of thing Fenriz is complaining about. Granted, Nydvind doesn’t sound as raw as Darkthrone or the next band featured in this post, but for the kind of music Nydvind is creating, it’s a plus — and I like it a lot.
Have a listen to this track from Nydvind’s Sworn To The Elders:
2. Nydvind: Son Of Fire
This band from western Poland has been around for almost as long as Darkthrone (Bustum formed in 1992), but their musical output has been as abbreviated as Nydvind’s — three demos in the mid-90s (later collected in a 2005 compilation) and their first full-length album, The Return of Hate, only last year. (And I thought hate never left us. Who knew?)
Again, we’re guessing that choked output has something to do with frustrating shit like having to pay the rent and put bread on the table. Creating black metal isn’t exactly a lucrative profession in any country, but Poland seems to be a particularly inhospitable place to practice the black metal arts — particularly for a band like Bustum that seems determined to stay underground.
I keep telling myself I shouldn’t like this album, but my self keeps telling me, in a demented voice, to get fucked. On their rudimentary MySpace page, Bustum describes themselves as “POSSESSED BLACK METAL,” and I’ve got this nagging worry that it’s some kind of legally mandated consumer warning, like “SMOKE THESE CIGARETTES AND YOU WILL DIE COUGHING BLOOD,” instead of band puffery.
Because “possessed” is kinda how I feel after listening to The Return of Hate a few times. The music is mainly fast and furious — the blast beats come so inhumanly fast that they fuse into a solid wall of sonic force, and the distorted tremolo picking keeps pace, covering you in mournful, cascading chord progressions. Just when you think this is all there will be, the music breaks down into heavy, headbanging riffs or sludgy, funereal marches and somewhat more conventional drum fills. I’m pretty damned impressed with the instrumental work — it sounds like people who have been playing for 20 years and have learned a few things along the way.
A word about the vocals: They’re supplied by a session artist called Necro, and they consist of completely demented shrieking, mainly high up in the register. I don’t speak Polish, but I’m not sure the vocals use words in any language. These are the sounds I imagine would be made by someone in the process of being drawn and quartered. But, you know, they fit.
In a nutshell, Bustum’s music is some raw, filthy, evil-sounding stuff — and nothing remotely like the first two albums we reviewed above. But I like it! Put away everything with a sharp edge to it, make sure no children or small animals are in the room, and listen to the title track from The Return of Hate:
3. Bustum: The Return of Hate
Finding this album on Internet download sites isn’t difficult. Finding a way to buy it is more challenging. Bustum released The Return of Hate on Darker Than Black records, and the label’s worldwide distributor (in Germany) has an online store where you can order the album via this link with a PayPal account (which is what we did). No idea whether the band will see any of the money, but we can hope.