I had grand plans for today’s SHADES OF BLACK, but they were derailed by the amount of time I put into an album premiere earlier today and by what happened across the U.S. yesterday and last night, events that fixated my attention and splintered my concentration on music (and on everything else except for the overflowing of frustration and rage in the nation’s urban streets).
I’m still distracted, but wanted to do something for those of you who might look forward to this Sunday tradition, maybe especially in these incredibly unsettling times. So I singled out one part of what I had originally planned to do, and will now focus only on that part — a new album-length split release by two remarkably talented black metal bands: Almyrkvi from Iceland and The Ruins of Beverast from Germany. It’s worth the sole focus, because I think we have here a record that will find its place on many a year-end list.
The split was digitally released by Ván Records on May 29th, and the same label will release it on limited vinyl and CD formats on June 12th. It consists of two monumental new songs by each band, and you’ll find Bandcamp and YouTube streams of all four down below.
In 2017 we had the privilege of premiering a stream of Almyrkvi‘s stunning debut album Umbra, about which my friend Andy then wrote:
“Umbra is as dark and as desolate as its name implies, with every track – from the pitch-black doom and gloom of “Severed Pillars of Life” to the brooding malevolence of “Stellar Wind of the Dying Star” and the apocalyptic ebb and flow of “Cimmerian Flame” – bathed in layers of deep shadow and glistening frost, and shot through with icy veins of piercing melody, as if multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Garðar S. Jónsson and drummer Bjarni Einarsson (both also of Icelandic savages Sinmara) seek to capture the very essence of that boundless, endless emptiness which exists just beyond the edges of this fragile, lonely world.”
He and I and other friends then had the pleasure of witnessing Almyrkvi‘s live performance at Oration Fest the next year in Reykjavik, an experience that only solidified the feeling that in short order Almyrkvi had become one of the best black metal bands around. If a very solid impression can be further solidified, the two songs on this split do so.
At more than 10 minutes in length, “Asomatous Grove” delivers brittle and biting chords, ravaging roars and wrenching snarls, and the cascading sheen of aurora-borealis synths. The sound is imposing and magisterial, and the drumming is powerful and punishing (the pounding sequence that leads toward the song’s mid-point is stunning). Yet the music is also steeped in bleakness and despair, and lit by fury. It includes moods of cold mystery, with solemn chants leading to whispery synths and glinting strings, as well as passages of apocalyptic devastation and gasping wonder — and a finale that sounds like the tolling bell of final doom across a desolate world scoured of life.
Almyrkvi‘s second track, “Managarmr“, is almost as long, and no less forgiving (or fascinating). Waves of levitating melody cast their eerie shine above plundering drums and growling guitars. The high tones soar with piercing brilliance, but the vocals straddle a line between sheer torment and shattering rage. The intensity of these combined sensations is startling, and transfixing. The music also has an unnerving quality, hallucinatory and even nightmarish. A multitude of unearthly wailing sounds and doses of skittering abrasion and ringing chimes send shivers down the spine, creating an eerie spell in the music’s final minutes — a sequence that ends in astral drift, screeching electronics, and muffled detonations.
THE RUINS OF BEVERAST
Three years have also passed since the last album by this German band — Exuvia, though we did get a ravishing new track from the band (reviewed here) in a March 2020 split with Mourning Beloveth. Alexander von Meilenwald has already assembled quite an array of musical triumphs over the last 15+ years, and now he can claim another.
The Ruins of Beverast’s two tracks on the split are, like those of Almyrkvi, of significant length. And they prove what a great idea it was for these two bands to join together on a single record.
At just shy of 13 minutes, “The Grand Nebula Pulse” is the longest of the split’s four tracks, and it is well-named. It opens with solemn monastic chants with a cathedral reverb, backed by spectral quavering tones. And so the contrast is dramatic when the music is given the thrust of a booming tribal rhythm and the menace of a rumbling bass whose sound is like an excavation machine gouging through stone. The music swells in power, and voices sway, as if participants in the throes of a ritual.
There’s a primeval and preternatural quality to the music in this phase, and the deep growls become a monstrous presence. But while the primal, massively head-moving qualities of the song persist, the music transitions again and again, dancing with the sound of vibrant guitar and bass arpeggios and scintillating percussive patterns, scourging the mind with dismal buzzing poison and inflamed cries, and exploding in displays of frightening magnificence that seem to move us into spectral or celestial realms. The vocals wail and sing with fanatical fervor, as if invoking mystical powers or manifesting the effects of possession. For the listener, it’s also very easy to get lost in this song, right through the organ-like shimmer and frenzied shouts that end it… though it doesn’t really end, but instead segues directly into the next song.
“Hunters” also drives with a compulsive rhythm, but one that pounds like a piston, and it immediately generates a dense surround-sound of cascading and writhing musical elements, all of them redolent of dementia, accompanied by ferocious caustic shrieks. As the rhythm becomes a lurching stomp, the music exhales deep groaning chords beneath the backing shine of the synths, a sign of crushing despair in the midst of a mayhem that is casting sanity to the four winds.
And yet, there’s a passage in which clanging chords and an irresistible drum rhythm give the music a swaying and dancing quality (though the strangled and larynx-burning vocals remain in the throes of pain-induced madness), and there’s something like an exotic, swaying-cobra sound to the extended guitar solo that carries the song to its close over the last two-and-a-half minutes, beneath a sky-high sound of magnificence and above that gripping beat. The solo is a spellcaster, even when it becomes molten. But the song as a whole is spellbinding.
And so there you have it — one person’s impressions of a truly remarkable split. I hadn’t spent much time with it before the release, but it’s already crystal clear that I’ll be spending a lot more time with it in the coming months, as time allows, and I also have no doubt that each listen will bring additional discoveries and produce new sensations. It will further come as no surprise at all if this split becomes a fixture on year-end lists as one of 2020’s best metal albums.
THE RUINS OF BEVERAST: