2019 was a banner year for medieval black metal, and in this 20th installment of the infectious song list I’ve included four of my favorite tracks from four of my favorite albums in that fascinating sub-genre. I’ll quickly add that this installment could have been longer, and I apologize in advance if I omitted an album you think should have been included here. In my defense I’ll note that this is the first time in this year’s list when I’ve included four songs instead of three or two. (To check out all the other songs that have preceded these three, click this link.)
Our old friend Professor D. Grover the XIIIth (ex-The Number of the Blog) reviewed Obsequiae’s new album for us in late November, closing with the observation that “there is no doubt in my mind that The Palms Of Sorrowed Kings is the best album released this year”.
It is no doubt a remarkable album, its achievements all the more impressive because it had to follow such an extraordinary predecessor in 2015’s Aria of Vernal Tombs. It was to be expected that devoted fans of that earlier one would use it as the measuring stick for the new one, and as far as I can tell, most people felt it measured up very well, even if it couldn’t quite achieve the same level of surprise and wonder.
The whole album is a stunner, but as a little time has passed it’s the title track that has proven to be the one I think belongs on this list. Perhaps ironically (given the name of our site), the choral singing in the song is one of the aspects that has made it stick in my head, but hardly the only aspect. The piercing shine of the guitars, the mesmerizing and mystical quality of the skirling melodies, and the powerful booming and hurtling impact of the rhythm section stand out as well. The song is such a whirling, ebullient, time-traveling spectacle that I get tremendous thrills every time I hear it.
Yes, it was a banner year for medieval black metal, and we did our own part to raise that banner by reviewing and premiering music from each of the three albums whose music completes this installment, including Grylle’s amazing record, Les Grandes Compagnies. The song we premiered from that album, “Gothique Anjevin”, is one that makes almost no use of heavy-metal instrumentation (a bass can be detected, but that’s all). Instead, Grylle crafted this brilliant piece of medieval black metal using drums, lutes (both saturated and clean), psalterion, santoor, and mandolin. As I wrote at the time, about the album as a whole:
“The music of Grylle leaves me in a state of gleeful wonder, translating the spirit (and some of the sounds) of black metal through ancient instrumentation and the enthralling accents of antique melody. The music and the inspirations may have been born within that most ‘outsider’ of extreme metal genres, but Grylle has then stepped outside of even that, while keeping one foot in the black circle”.
Of all the tracks on the album, including the one we premiered, it’s “France, qui te veult mal?” that I chose for this list. The opening flute melody, backed by acoustic strumming, is immediately entrancing, and it becomes even more enthralling as it proceeds, ultimately backed by additional layering of instruments and the viciousness of harsh rasping and howling vocals. The rhythmic drive of the music becomes a tremendously potent (indeed, explosive) presence, creating an earthy flesh-and-blood partnership with the sheer sorcery of the melodies. Magnificent!
Released by the same label (Antiq Records), Par le Sang Versé by the French band Véhémence was one of the most thoroughly entrancing and gloriously vibrant metal albums I had heard in years, regardless of sub-genre. We had the honor of premiering a full stream of the record, preceded by an admittedly over-the-top review in which I included these reactions (among many others):
“It seizes ancient folk traditions and hurls them forward into the modern age, but without letting go of the intense devotion to the centuries-old well-springs of inspiration that gave birth to this record. I do think it’s impossible not to be moved in some significant degree by this fervent music, and likely that most listeners will simply be swept aloft and carried away, as I’ve been.
“Abundantly layered with a broad array of instrumentation, both modern and ancient, and featuring a similar contrasting hybrid of vocal expressions, the music weaves with rich colors a great tapestry of human endeavor, both exalted and humble, mythic yet also grounded in ancient soil, nourished with spilled blood and watered with tears. The sounds are joyful, capturing the buoyancy of whirling peasant dances, and they also channel visions of dramatic panoramic grandeur and epic tragedy. The album is a beautifully conceived and meticulously executed work, thrilling in the moment and lasting in the memory.”
I had no doubt I would include a track from the album on this list, and the one I chose (not an easy choice) was “Passage dans la Douves“. I’ll again borrow from what I wrote last year:
“Passage dans les Douves” is a glorious, fiery, heart-pumping dance whose bright, rippling riffs whirl us up in the air. And again, we’re treated to the dulcet tones of a darting, sun-dappled acoustic guitar melody and the sublime pulse of a lilting flute harmony, before we’re caught up in the dance again, the electrifying guitar melody resembling a devilish reel, like bagpipes and fiddle at an old-country peasant celebration — high up in the clouds.”
To close today’s installment I’ve chosen a song from Hic Regnant Borbonii Manes, the third album by the French band Sühnopfer. It’s easily one of the longest songs on this list, and a rarity for that, because long-form songs don’t easily earn an adjective like “infectious”. The song I chose, “L’Hoirie de mes Ancestres“, happens to be another one we premiered in advance of the album’s release, which happily gives me the chance again to quote myself:
“There are both instrumental and melodic accents in the music on the album which seem to ring across many centuries, catapulted from a much earlier era into our day as if riding the trails of meteors. Such accents and influences will be evident when you listen to “L’Hoirie de mes Ancestres“, and their charms are not lost despite the fact that the song as a whole is a raging wildfire.
“This track really is breathtaking in the explosiveness of its energy and the extravagance of the instrumental virtuosity on display. The constantly changing drumwork in particular is simply jaw-dropping, and the rapidly whirling fretwork is just as fast and agile. The music is gloriously fiery, and yet the melodies manage to be yearning and anguished in their emotional resonance as well as ebullient. As if the music alone weren’t intense enough, the throat-lacerating, mind-melting quality of the vocal attack is a senses-scalding experience.
“Within this torrential surge of sound there are a couple of moments when the storm briefly abates, just long enough for rippling and dancing classical guitar notes to throw you off balance, but not long enough to replenish your winded lungs. The music is also occasionally segmented by bursts of pounding bass and majestic fanfares, and near the end the drumming becomes less off-the-hook, allowing the melody to swirl and ring for a few moments before a last bonfire of exuberance, and the sound of Ardraos‘ wild cries.”