(This is Andy Synn‘s review of the new album by the Portuguese band Gaerea, which is set for release by Season of Mist on July 24th.)
Isn’t it funny how the human brain unconsciously and involuntarily makes connections between things?
Case in point, I can’t think about, or listen to, Portuguese powerhouse Gaerea without also thinking about their cousins in Selbst and White Ward.
The connections between the latter two are quite obvious, as both bands released their debut albums within one month of another back in 2017, meaning they’re always going to be inextricably linked in my mind.
But Gaerea didn’t release their first album, Unsettling Whispers, until almost a full year later, making their relationship to the other two a lot more tenuous and complex.
Perhaps what it comes down to is the fact that, to me at least, these bands, both collectively and individually, are potential new standard bearers for Black Metal, both cognisant of the genre’s roots and rich history, but not limited by established traditions or old boundaries.
White Ward, of course, have already proven themselves with the release of Love Exchange Failure just last year, and the new Selbst album (set for release in a few weeks) looks set to do the same for them.
What then should we expect from Gaerea’s new album? Sophomore slump, or soaring new standard?
Conventional wisdom, of course, would have it that a band’s second album is always their most “difficult”, but clearly no-one told Gaerea about this, as Limbo is utterly superior to its predecessor (which was by no means a bad album itself) in every way.
Faster, heavier, darker… more intense and more cathartic… practically every one of these six tracks is a raging maelstrom of keening distortion, pummelling percussion, and raw emotion, whose sheer ferocity rarely allows the listener more than a few moments to gather their thoughts.
And yet, despite what at first seems like an almost unrelenting deluge of bracing blastbeats and biting guitars, there’s a remarkable amount of structural subtlety and dynamic nuance to be found bubbling away just beneath the molten metallic surface of every song.
Take impressively ambitious opener “To Ain”, for example.
While the music is, undeniably, driven by a thunderous torrent of rolling kicks and hammering snare hits, it’s the song’s meditative mid-section – the calm at the heart of the storm, if you will – which is its true heart, and it’s the contrast between these fleeting moments of melodic ambience, not just here but in the sombre slow-burn of “Conspiranoia” and the moody atmospheric shroud overlaying “Mare”, which makes this record so incredibly immersive and endlessly engaging despite its almost overwhelming intensity.
Speaking of “intensity”, while the band’s stunning combination of raging riffs, pounding blasts, and piercing melodic lead lines frequently recalls the reckless, propulsive power of Der Weg Einer Freiheit or the crushingly dense assault of Infestus at their very best (comparisons which make far more sense than the lazy Behemoth/Mgla references I’ve seen thrown around elsewhere), it’s the unflinching, unfiltered emotional intensity displayed here which often makes an even bigger impact.
This is particularly apparent in the visceral, versatile, and thrillingly volatile vocals, whose dramatic range and dynamic delivery has improved and expanded tenfold since the last time we heard from the band, frequently hitting notes of such naked anguish and concentrated venom that you can practically feel every drop of spite and spittle lashing your skin.
Make no mistake about it, Limbo is not an album for the faint of heart. It’s an unforgivingly intense, emotionally wrenching experience, from start to finish, which demands an awful lot from its audience.
But it’s also one which rewards the truly dedicated listener with the sublime experience of having all their negative emotions dragged up, laid bare, and washed clean in a raging flood of pure catharsis.
And who among us doesn’t want to experience that, at least once in their lives?
Ha, that clip of them on a couch spinning the record…That’s ace.
I have to say I have some difficulty unequivocally liking Gaerea (have the same issue with Der Weg einer…and Mgla). I find this too ‘polished’ and well, black metal I’d play if I were to try to convince a non-lover that black metal has merits. Secretly, however, I want to play them Ceremonial Crypt Desecration. To me, bands like G, Behemoth, Mgla and so on all tend to sound the same and therefore I cannot latch on to their obviously emotive appeal….
Does anyone here follow this logic (if there is any)? I feel Im one of the few or something….
I agree in part…I think black metal with polished, modern production values, slick theatrical marketing, and thoughtful, elevated songwriting is almost impossible to square with the historical foundation of the genre. It’s far more accessible and palatable to fans of music that is intentionally mainstream, dabbling in the edgy trappings of black metal without attempting to explore the extremes. Black metal was to metal what punk was to rock, an emphatic rejection of the conventions of the genre, and shaping black metal’s tropes into a new, more comfortable package, analagous to pop punk or metalcore, is the antithesis of what the angsty young progenitors of the genre would have wanted.
On the other hand, I don’t think anyone should really give a shit what a bunch of teenage edgelords thought about whatever grand experiment they thought they were conducting. They don’t own the whole genre, they only own their records. For every garbage band cashing in on tremolo picking and corpse paint, there’s a band trying to create something special by elevating those elements to new heights, bringing new and interesting themes, and branching out in innovative ways. And while I often share your urge to throw on a Trve As Fvck album recorded into a boombox inside a metal trash can in the middle of the woods and watch my inquisitive friends cringe in horror, I usually resist. It’s not really up to me or anyone else to define what’s good about an entire genre of music.
Well put! Clearly, youre not suffering from a writers block–Im at the point where Im jot even able to eloquently bash metal records anymore, hehe.
I didnt mean to imply I am an elitist who cant see the value of ‘mainstream’ black metal–my record collection would betray that fact. Whats more, I certainly agree to the idea that being mainstream arguably is subversive within black metal, but I do need some danger, which this record is lacking, I feel.
Was not trying to call you out or accuse you, just felt like spilling some thoughts on the matter. I agree that, at the very least, the appeal of some of the more modern threads of black metal is entirely different from the appeal of the more aggressive and sharp-edged varieties. It’s a whole different mood, and it doesn’t always work for me, either.
Oh hey, didnt mean to imply ypi implied anything. We’re on the same page, even if we wouldnt be!
What, and this is a serious question, would “danger” be to you?
I’ve seen it thrown around quite a few times, usually tagged to some impotent 1st/2nd wave knock-off that sounds like it was written and recorded in someone’s shed… as if that’s somehow still “dangerous”.
Don’t get me wrong, I love some absolutely filthy music at times, but I do find a lot of Black Metal fans have developed this implicit belief – one which they’re totally unwilling to interrogate – that directionless lo-fi flailing is somehow morally and culturally superior, regardless of the fact that it’s no “danger” to anyone (except maybe the band themselves if they stand too close together).
For me the appeal of this record is not that it’s “polished” or “mainstream” (I’d refute both those terms), but that it is brilliantly “focussed” – we’re talking unwavering, laser-like focus, where all the members are locked in on the same page and vision, so that even when they ease off the gas (and it’s funny that anyone would consider this NOT aggressive or sharp, as it’s unerringly ferocious and razor-edged for about 90% of its run-time) they do so as a unit.
I wonder if it’s not so much the “polish” that’s putting you off (I wouldn’t necessarily call it “polished” myself, which is generally used as a pejorative, as just because the production is clear and powerful doesn’t rob it of its energy, or the rawness of the emotion, particularly in the vocals), but the tightness?
Like you said, your general tastes often run towards rougher and more ramshackle sounds – and those definitely have their place too – but I wouldn’t equate the fact that these guys, or DWEF, et al, have forged themselves into a straight-up blast-machine as a sign that they’re somehow less worthy than bands who wear their lack of “polish” as some sort of badge of honour.
Im off to a birthday get-together now–in the Neths, theyre possible u der specific conditions, but I’ll try and come back to this.
I can’t speak for the OP, and hopefully they return with their own thoughts. But, I strongly suspect they refer to a rhetorical sense of danger, rather than a literal one. When I discovered black metal as a teenager, I found the transgressive themes to be incredibly freeing.
It’s easy today to mock the overwrought, performative Satanism and death worship of those bands, but their rejection of the sense of what is traditionally “good”, and the embrace of what is traditionally “evil”, reflected so much of what I felt at the time, but through the ugliest possible mirror. I felt a despairing hatred of humanity, centered on our relentless destruction of the natural world, the astonishing hypocrisy of our bereft moral institutions, and the personal feeling that I needed to delete and obscure elements of my own being in order to participate in society.
In black metal I perceived a rejection of that rigid framework. Far removed from the campy gore and misogyny of the extreme edges of death metal, black metal was giving a voice to my darkest thoughts and feelings.
Today, free from the hormonal wash of the teenage mind, and mindful of the troubling and negative consequences of such unvarnished hatred, my tastes and priorities have shifted. But I still see the essence of black metal as a core of hate and rejection, unwelcoming to the casual listener. While you may take issue with such terms as “polished” or “mainstream”, I submit that all such terms, when applied to music, are both metaphorical, and relative.
Well, to begin with, this will a disconnected ramble on my part, so you’re warned.
@Mindriven: interesting take to which I agree, but what you’ve said pertains more to how you value your metal, I feel, or to your sense of what made bm somewhat subversive, which could be a more accurate description than ‘dangerous’.
@Andy Synn: I absolutely reject (again: I know you’re not implying I do the reverse) the notion that one form of black metal should be placed above another based on its aesthetics (be it fuzz-out crap recorded in a shack, be it xeroxed album covers–although I love all that). I enjoy Sanguine Relic or Voyeur’s Blood (sloppy, noisy) as much as I do Death fortress (tight, industrial, noisy), Dissection (tight, melodic, laser-focus) or Enslaved (emotional, tight, also quite focussed). So it is not the tightness that bothers me with Gaerea, nor its ‘mainstream’ appeal, if ever there was one.
As for danger, naturally I don’t mean a literal sense of danger–that’s impossible. Although the first time I heard Marduk’s Heaven shall burn… I felt assaulted–and bought Tomb of the Mutilated, instead. I meant it as a short-hand designation, much like reviewers who say ‘brutal’ or ‘terrifying’, in this case to indicate what I do and what I don’t like. Music remains subjective, after all, but we have come up with (equally subjective) language that, when shared by readers (in this case), signals to us what we can expect. Or something like that.
When I say ‘danger’, I mean black metal (in this case) that, juxtaposed to ‘polished’, excites rather than bores me. Gaerea to me sounds polished, i.e. highly predictable. And, yes, perhaps this does have to do with the music’s focus. But not THAT it has a clear focus, but the sort of focus it has. To me, I’ve heard everything Gaerea does and has done before. It is the same as DWEF, perhaps Wiegedood, the million Deathspell Omega clones (and DSO themselves, by now) and certainly Behemoth. The sort of riffs, the sort of leads, the vocal patterns, the incessant blasting and even the slower parts: it feels like paint-by-the-numbers black metal. (But again, I also adore many paint-by-the-numbers bands…So hard to explain why Gaerea NO; other bands: YES)
The feeling of ‘I’ve been here before’ equally goes for the non-aural aesthetics surrounding Gaerea. Perhaps it is petty to address this for obvious reasons, but the outfits for example. It doesn’t feel good saying this, but they bother me—as does, in the end, that video with them on the couch. The outfits and hoods signal to me they’re trying too hard, that they’re trying to be something mysterious they’re not. (I feel the same about corpse paint sometimes, but oddly enough I am more lenient as I grew up finding corpse paint awesome—yet not so awesome as to go to concerts with it on my face, hehe). So ‘danger’ can also mean sincerity, if that makes sense. Then again: I love Lamp of Murmur’s very similar ninja outfits, but when Gaerea wears similar kit, I am sceptical. (Obviously, I am biased, as I like LoM’s music way more and because of that, I don’t ‘question’ LoM as much).
Excitement in black metal (in this case) comes from so many different elements—and as you can see from my examples, such elements do not need to be innovative. It can be exactly the one-person-recorded-on-a-potato 2nd wave black metal, it can be that I’m blown away by the sheer assault of the music, it can be the way a band have recreated a throwback sound (e.g. Ringare or Evil Feast), it can be how a band have upped the known game yet again (Mitras, Anaal Nathrak). All I look for is something that reignites (or even vaguely reminds me of) that feeling I had when I started enjoying extreme metal a long time ago. That I’ve been into this music for so long constitutes part of the/my problem—one that others may readily recognize—which is that at this point it is hard to find new metal that excites. Often, I like new music exactly because it appeals to what I already know I love—a sobering realization, I find.
To be brutally short and perhaps rude in my dismissal: I can’t quite see the added value in terms of Gaerea’s art when we have different bands who’ve done this before. But that’s my problem. I enjoy how others enjoy this band—hopefully those others will discover other bands (or not). And to be honest, my ‘argument’ makes little sense, what I’m talking about is so subjective that you can dismiss it very easily. What it comes down to, in the end, is that all our opinions are valid, as we are talking about music.
If you’ve read this, thank you for your patience.
First off, OF COURSE I read it all the way to the end. It would have been rude not to. And woe to anyone who just skims your comment as they won’t get the full content or context.
Secondly… ah, Death Fortress. Are they ever going to do anything again (or issue that damned last album on cd)?
Anyway, please consider this a response to both you and Mindriven (who I hope will also read this), as I think both of you make cogent points and are very much on a similar page.
I do appreciate how you acknowledge that your feelings are somewhat contradictory – after all, why give one band a “pass” for wearing these sorts of masks but not the other, why question Gaerea’s “added value” while also admitting to loving throwback bands who add nothing to the canon themselves – because it hits upon a key point… we’re ALL contradictory creatures at the end of the day, and we often can’t (and by we I am also including “me” in all of this) properly explain why we like one thing but not something else doing the SAME thing.
What I think it really comes down to, and I’ve been thinking this for a while, is that a lot of the craving for “danger” (which, as both you, me, and Mindriven have found, is hard to properly define) is actually a nostalgic longing for the days when Black Metal was fresh and new. The “danger” came from its newness, its freshness – it felt transgressive because it was SO new, SO fresh – but that, inevitably, was always going to fade.
It’s why you, why I, why we (particularly, though not solely, as Metal fans) so often go gaga for a REALLY good throwback band – it’s not really (or not just) because they capture the true “spirit” of the genre, but because they remind us of better, younger, days when everything felt fresh and new to us (and, again, that’s a very human thing).
Ironically, of course, there’s nothing “dangerous” about the familiar, and what we’re really craving is actually (and I include myself here) a sense of comfort that recalls a time when things “felt” fresher and more dangerous (another irony, of course, is that Gaerea are inarguably newer and fresher in their approach than many of those retro bands trying to recreate the old days).
I’m not saying that it’s impossible to recapture that feeling of freshness, of newness, of “danger” (I’m reviewing an album right now which, even if it’s not for everyone, certainly doesn’t play by the rules, Black Metal or otherwise), but I don’t think the genre as a whole is EVER going to feel that way again, simply because it’s NOT new any more.
What we need to be looking at, therefore, is not what will make Black Metal “dangerous” again, but what it is that will allow the genre to thrive, so that it continues to live on long after we, and the bands we love now, are gone.
I can’t say that Gaerea are going to be part of that (although I do think you sell them short, as the emotion and catharsis behind this feels very real to me) but I do think they’ll be that band – the one that clicks, that makes the listener feel something new, something unfamiliar, something a little bit dangerous – for SOMEONE.
Like you said, it’s all subjective, in the end, but I enjoy any discussion that allows me/us to take a deeper look into the how and the why (and the what) of how we react and respond to music.
I think we all nailed it. And yes, I did sell Gaerea short. Case closed.
In seriousness, thanks for partaking in this discussion; so much fun in between writing other stuff that doesnt allow for much free form….
A thought-provoking exchange, all around. Andy, I think your observation on the intersection of nostalgia and freshness is particularly insightful. I’ve thought a lot (and bitched a lot) lately about the old school death metal revival that’s been going on over the past few years, primarily because so much of the material doesn’t hit home for me like the classics. At the same time, a precious few of these throwback albums do break through my shell, and there seems to be little rhyme or reason to which ones are going to spark that positive response. It’s endlessly fascinating to ponder and explore the nature of subjectivity and taste.
You’re not alone on that. Every time Gaerea released a single from an (at the time) up coming album, I would get excited because it was great, but then the album is a wash of the same polished sound. But as you said, others may love it for that. For Mgla I mostly agree, but Exercises in Futility was amazing for me. The right balance of some raw and polish for me. But their other albums have blurred together to my ear (all opinions of the bands’ controversies aside). Overall I think I see and definitely agree with some of the logic. Too polished and too much the same sound doesn’t do it for me. But I also don’t love black metal because it’s necro recorded through a tin can and a rat’s anus to make it sound raw for raw’s sake. Still has to have shape and form and other things I can’t quite put into words in a blurb like this.
I had the chance to catch the full premiere on YouTube that the band was streaming a couple of days ago. And I can say that all other songs are equally great than those already published. I have to agree that while Unsettling Whispers was a fantastic album, Limbo surpasses it in every way. This album is definitely worth your money – and as a matter of fact, I already pre-ordered it via Bandcamp 😉
Its interesting to see everyones thoughts and reactions to the levels of polish and clarity afforded to modern music makers. It absolutely does change things, in so many ways.
I think you all make salient points with regards to danger and focus and the various other touchpoints.
Personally, as I age more and more, I find that no trappings grab me any more than another. I simply yearn for a good combination of song writing and atmosphere. That frees me to keep terms like ‘danger’ and ‘bestial’ apart from any scene or histrionic trappings. That early stuff was dangerous. It still feels it, even though its easy to laugh at it as well. And I mean a good hearty chuckle. When Black Metal was becoming a huge scene in Norway, I was a huge punk and hardcore fan in the US. So a parallel of some sort. I watched as the hardcore scene was able to make better and better sounding demos and eventually stuff sounded very professional. This did rob some bands of the danger they might’ve had, but if a band knows what theyre doing then they can harvest those feelings whatever the canvas and paints used.
Case in point. Vassafor. That man knows how to record and he knows how to play some dangerous sounding music. Fascinating entity.
Anyway, I guess I am not saying too much here, so let me close by saying this Gaerea really sounds amazing. The songwriting is solid. At first it can sound rather average. Just a lot of blasts, but its super well thought out and I really like the clarity of everything.