artwork by Alexandra V. Bach
(In this post Andy Synn presents a listing of recommended black metal albums (or at least blackened ones) for each of the last 10 years, focusing on records and artists that he hasn’t written or read enough about.)
Wonder of wonders, Kerrang (yes, it’s still around) recently published a list of “The 13 Best Black Metal albums of the New Millenium” and… it was actually pretty solid?
I know, I was (pleasantly) surprised too!
And it got me thinking that, since I recently celebrated my tenth anniversary as a writer for NoCleanSinging, now might be a good time to publish my own thoughts on how the black (or, at least, “blackened”) arts have evolved, and endured, over the last ten years.
As far as possible I’ve tried to stay away from the biggest/most notorious names and focus more on those artists/albums which either I didn’t manage to cover myself, or which I feel didn’t get enough wider coverage/attention overall, but that doesn’t mean this article should be interpreted as an attempt to prove who is more “kvlt” (because it’s certainly not me).
What this is is simply a way of celebrating the art of Black Metal, in all its endless vitality and variety while also bringing some much-needed attention to some bands who richly deserve it.
2011 was a good year for me (musically speaking, anyway) and a good year for Black Metal as well. It was the year I discovered Woe, with their superb second album, Quietly, Undramatically, which stripped Black Metal of all of its unnecessary pomp and circumstance in order to focus on a purely riff-based vision, as well as the year in which Altar of Plagues cemented their place as one of the best bands on the planet with the spell-binding, life-changing Mammal.
It was also the year which saw the debut of two future Synn-report alumni, in the shape of Fyrnask and their elemental, early-Ulver-inspired Bluostar, and the abstract, avant-garde assault of The Tunnels by Terra Tenebrosa.
More importantly, however, it was the year which introduced me to the album Ex | ist by Infestus, beginning a love affair with the band which continues to this day.
As I wrote a few years later in my review of The Reflecting Void (arguably their finest hour):
It was Islander himself who introduced me to this (one man) band with his review of Ex|ist back in 2011, and they quickly became one of my favourite Black Metal artists due to their irrepressibly bleak outlook and tormented talent for conjuring unconventional riffs and irresistible rhythms out of the nothingness and void. Every element, every riff, every drum part, every caustic vocal, is the product of one man’s madness and genius and a fascinating window into the darkness of his soul.
Looking back now, 2012 was a defining year both my own musical tastes and for many of the bands which I still love to this day.
It was the year in which The Infernal Sea made their first major mark on the UK scene with Call of the Augur (which, in all the hype surrounding their subsequent releases, tends to be a little overlooked these days), while long-standing NCS favourites Abigail Williams finally (and firmly) threw off the shackles of their past with the career-redefining Becoming, an album which I think only gets better and better with each passing year.
It was also the year in which the ancestral home of Black Metal spat out two of the best examples of the genre – an equal mix of the orthodox and the unorthodox – in the shape of Drottnar’s technically-twisted Stratum, and Dødsengel’s massive (not to mention masterful) double-disc endeavour Imperator, which remains one of the most ambitious, outlandish, and impressive offerings in my collection to this day.
But no discussion of Black Metal in 2012 would be complete without mentioning Nidingr and their god-like (in more ways than one) third album, Greatest of Deceivers, which I still contend is one of the best Metal albums of the last decade.
Over the course of ten tracks (and just under forty-seven minutes), GOD delivers a veritable masterclass in pure riff-craft and vile, venom-coated hooks, all delivered with a punkish, sneering snarl and a bruising, almost Death Metal level of heaviness.
From the short, sharp, blast-a-thon of “The Balances” to the labyrinthine coils of “The Worm Is Crowned” (which also features a guest appearance from Kristoffer Rygg) there’s not a single dud or wasted moment on this album. It really is one of the very best of the decade.
I remember 2013 for delivering some of the strangest, and strongest, releases in my collection, from the scintillating sci-fi soundscapes of U.M.A. by Italian trio Progenie Terrestre Pura (still an amazing record, and one they’ve yet to better in my opinion) to the scorchingly riff-tastic, shamelessly bombastic, sickeningly underappreciated Baphometic Chaosium by the wonderfully-named Lightning Swords of Death.
2013 also saw The Howling Wind hit new heights with the vicious, visceral, and vitriolic strains of Vortex, while Vassafor delivered their crushingly dense and devastating debut, The Obsidian Codex (both these albums, FYI, rank amongst my all-time favourites).
But it was the boundary-pushing, career-defining, and elitist-triggering Try Not to Destroy Everything You Love, by Dutch Post-Black Metal provocateurs (and, lest we forget, pioneers) An Autumn For Crippled Children, which in many ways still stands out the most to me.
For whole much of the whole “Post-Black Metal” sub-genre (your Deafheavens, your Mols, etc) has been somewhat neutered and diluted in order to widen its appeal (in my opinion anyway), this is one album that still stands as a monument to what the movement once represented – namely a rejection of boundaries, of convention, of limitation, and an even more blatant (and unrepentant) embrace of Black Metal’s more hypnotic, cathartic, and introspective elements, all wrapped up in a boldly off-kilter and bleakly beautiful aesthetic.
Like many years, 2014 was a year of ups and down, triumphs and tragedies, both personally and professionally, for pretty much all of us.
But it’s safe to say that 2014, musically speaking at least, brought just as many brilliant, blackened highs, as any other, whether it was the light and shade, ebb and flow of intensity and electricity which characterised the self-titled debut by Ion, or the thrashy, Tech/Prog amalgamation of Stargazer and their thrilling third album, A Merging to the Boundless.
It was also a year of big hits from underground underdogs in the Black/Post/Sludge sphere, and I’d like to highlight Collider, the second album from Danish Blackened Sludge quintet Redwood Hill (whose latest album was released earlier this year, and about whom you’ll be reading more about in a Synn Report in the not so distant future), as well as one of my personal favourites Clawing Into Black Sun, the thunderous third album from Wolvhammer, for particular praise.
It was the double-disc phenomenon that is Contradiction, by Swiss sorcerers Schammasch, which remains both the year’s defining record – and the band’s magnum opus – in my opinion.
Unwavering in its ambition, captivating in its creativity, and almost arrogantly extravagant in both form and function, the two parts of Contradiction can be experienced both separately and together, but it’s only in the latter manner, allowing the sinuous, ever-shifting dynamic of the music to carry you from one song to the next, to the next, and so on and so forth, all the way to heart-wrenching, soul-clenching conclusion of “Jhwh”, that it truly makes the most sense.
Triangle may be even more extravagant. Hearts of No Light may have brought the band’s sound to a wider audience. But it’s Contradiction which is the true classic in the band’s back-catalogue.
Taking a look at the band’s featured here you have to admit… 2015 was a very good year. But, then, aren’t they all, if you’re willing/able to look hard enough?
Let’s face it, none of these artists/albums were likely to go bursting throughinto the mainstream, but simply by existing they make the world (of Black Metal) a better place.
Nowhere is this more true than in Antikatastaseis, the third album from Abyssal, which was (and remains) one of the very best (and nastiest) albums of the year (as well as, by my calculations, still the best album of the band’s career).
2015 also saw the release of Shaped By Aeolian Winds, the first (and only) album from Hæthen, which remains far more intense and immersive than many records from far bigger and more famous bands, as well as the whirling dervish of a debut that is Terra Nullius by Canadian quintet Spectral Wound (who, I still think, have a potential masterpiece in them).
When all is said and done, however, my heart belongs to two albums that blur the line between Black Metal and Hardcore, namely the ferocious cacophony of rampaging rage that is All Hail the Swinelord by This Gift Is A Curse and the seething intensity of Self by Terzij de Horde.
The latter in particular, though five years old now (and with, thankfully, a long-awaited follow-up somewhere on the horizon at last) remains as vital and as vibrant and as volatile today as it was back then, every listen immersing your ears in an acid-bath of scalding venom and uncompromising (yet infectious) intensity (and integrity) that strips Black Metal down to its meat and marrow and raw, exposed nerves.
I have a confession to make. There’s no real rhyme or reason why or how I select the bands I’ve chosen to represent each year. I just go through my music collection and pick out whichever albums/artists I don’t think I’ve written, or read, enough about.
With that in mind, you could be forgiven for thinking that 2016 was a proggier-than-usual year, especially considering how shamelessly odd, shamelessly catchy, shamelessly savage much of A Requiem for Terra by Black Hole Generator (aka Vulture Industries‘ main-man Bjørnar E. Nilsen) is, as well as how brilliantly Woman Is the Earth managed to craft a truly immersive experience with Torch of Our Final Night.
But those of you who prefer your Black Metal a little bit more “red in tooth and claw” needn’t fret, as 2016 was also home to the primal, propulsive strains of Allir vegir til glötunar by Iceland’s Naðra (who by rights should be just as well-known as their more infamous brethren), as well as the utterly gargantuan grooves of Ruins and their fearsome fifth album, Undercurrent.
However, no retrospective (even one as incomplete as this one) of 2016 would be worth the paper its printed on (metaphorically speaking, at least) if it failed to mention the desolate, desperate debut album from Throane, yet another phenomenal project from the morbid mind of the uniquely talented Dehn Sora (whose work in Treha Sektori I also love).
Over the course of seven sinister songs Derrière-Nous, la Lumière deconstructs the essence of Black Metal – dissolving its bonds and shredding its boundaries – into an almost formless, primordial mass of oppressive atmosphere and distorted dissonance, yet does so without losing the shape, or sharpness, which makes the genre what it is, ultimately creating what still stands out as one of the darkest, most despair-fuelled, albums of the last decade.
As we get closer and closer to the present day I’m becoming more and more aware of just what some of these albums mean to me, and the effect that they have on me still.
As Was, the fourth (and finest) album from New York Black Metal bruisers Black Anvil remains one of my all-time favourite albums, for example, with a mix of meaty riffs, muscular rhythms, sleek melodies, and cathartic (not to mention Satanic) vocals that cuts me right to the core every time, while the wild, almost reckless, energy of Arrows of a Dying Age by defunct Chicago duo FIN never fails to get my blood-pumping and my bones jumping.
Then there’s the more cerebral, but no less visceral, stuff, such as Autocognition of Light, the astonishingly good second album from Colombian cultists Ignis Haereticum, or the calculated chaos of Serpent Column and their mind-bending, neck-wrecking debut Ornuthi Thalassa.
But above all of them stands Kwintessens, the utterly unique, wildly unorthodox, and punishingly uncompromising second album from Dodecahedron, an album which effectively shatters the firmament and foundations of Black Metal only to rebuild them in its own twisted image, all discordant angles, dissonant edges, and warped, non-euclidean dimensions.
Sadly the band quietly called it quits last year following the death of their close friend and former frontman Michiel Eikenaar, meaning we’re never going to see a direct follow-up to this particular piece of calculated insanity, but some of the band’s members have spun off into a new project named Autarkh, which promises to be just as (if not even more) complex and chaotic!
Choosing a mere handful of albums to represent 2018 was hard. Let’s face it, this was a packed year (for more than just Black Metal).
Still, one obvious choice was Where the Ocean Meets the Sky, the powerful and progressive second album from the UK’s own Aklash, and I still stand by my decision to select it as one of my “Critical Top Ten” of 2018.
This, in turn, reminded me to highlight several selections from my “Personal Top Ten”, including the atmospheric, anti-fascist, existentialist Black Metal of Antlers and their riveting second (and, sadly, final) album Beneath.Below.Behold. as well as the artsy Avant-Black spiritualism of Panegyrist and their uniquely enthralling (and still largely unparalleled) debut Hierurgy.
And then there’s Further Still by Bosse-de-Nage, an album which I missed out on when it first came out, but which is undoubtedly one of the rawest, most relentless, yet subtly refined, records of the year.
But it’s the long-awaited full-length from Mare which perhaps has the strongest case of deserving far more attention and acclaim than it actually received.
Don’t get me wrong, those “in the know” surely did their best to raise the album’s profile (and those of us who stumbled upon it quite at random and recognised it’s stunning quality also played our part) but the truth is that Ebony Tower deserves to be more than just an “underground classic” and should be known far and wide as an example of everything which makes the genre great – an intoxicating distillation of malevolent yet majestic, spiteful yet spellbinding sounds – all neatly collected in one pitch-black, pitch-perfect package.
Oddly enough it was a lot easier to make my selections for 2019 than it was for 2018. Not because 2019 was any less stacked with killer releases, but I kind of already knew which records I wanted to represent here.
Consummation‘s fearsome debut, The Great Solar Hunter, for example, was a scorching slab of (practically) unrelenting rage, whose occasional atmospheric embellishments only served to make the rest of the record seem that much more aggressive by comparison, while the wicked leads and whip-cracking riffs of Worsen‘s similarly killer Cursed to Witness Life (which I only discovered earlier this year) has helped fill that nasty, Nachtmystium-shaped hole in my heart.
Moving from debuts to sophomore albums, In Nomine Mortis by Canadian quintet Idolatry remains as razor-sharp today as it was then (fans of Necrophobic, Inquisition, and Immortal should check it out ASAP if they haven’t done already), and then there’s the stunning second album from The Negative Bias, Narcissus Rising, which wasn’t just a huge step up for the band, but one of the best albums of the year, without question.
That being said, I can’t resist another chance to lavish some extra praise and attention on Muladona, the phenomenal fifth album from Sludge-soaked, Drone-infused, Doom-laden Black Metal misanthropes Rorcal.
One of the harshest, nastiest, and most harrowing albums of the year – yet also utterly haunting in its own way – it tells a story of plague and damnation, demonic possession and dreadful, via a nerve-scraping, gut-wrenching blend of bestial snarls and throat-rending screams, lurching, low-tuned riffs and seething, screeching tremolo, calamitous, doom-laden chords and claustrophobic, droning ambience, interspersed with chilling spoken-word excerpts taken from the novel upon which it is based, resulting in an auditory experience quite unlike anything else.
Some of the albums I’ve chosen to highlight from this year I/we have written about a fair bit before – Imha Tarikat, for example, reached new heights of excellence with Sternenberster (an album so good it’s about to be re-released for the second time this year), while it was Islander himself who introduced me (and, I’d imagine, a lot of our readers) to France’s Abductionand their progressive, passionate, and surprisingly poignant, third album Jehanne.
Others, however, we haven’t written very much about at all, from the riveting riffs and slithering grooves of Serpent Noir and the classic Black Metal majesty of Death Clan OD, to the more unorthodox – but no less impressive – strains of Sagrada Tierra del Jaguar by Yaotl Mictlan, which combines Mexican and Mayan mysticism and instrumentation with Black Metal’s brooding brimstone fury in scintillating style.
But this section, if anything, is really just an excuse to write about the utterly outstanding For You Men Who Gaze Into The Sun by Belgium’s Antzaat, who, despite this being their full-length debut, already possess the sort of focussed determination and fearless confidence that you usually only see/hear from veteran bands.
Of course, no-one is going to claim that these eight tracks (and one intro) are utterly unique and original in their approach – throughout the record you can hear touches and traces of Mgla’s melodic mesmerism, Watain’s imperious arrogance, Bathory’s’s primal power, and more – but the band’s explosive energy and primal intensity is theirs and theirs alone.
It’s the dynamic, streamlined songwriting which really puts For You Men… over the top however, with every song arranged and arrayed in such a way that it’s almost impossible to pick a single favourite moment – whether it’s the grim grandeur and pure power of the title track, the bold, bombastic bass-lines and ruggedly melodic riffs of “Crown of Concrete”, or the vicious vocal hooks and infectious drum work of “Veil of Darkness” there’s something here for practically every disciple of the blackened arts to worship.
It’s not perfect by any means (the intro is pretty superfluous, and the record just kind of… ends… unexpectedly at the conclusion of “And This Day Shall Come Again”) but it’s still one of the most stunning Black Metal albums of the year, make no mistake about it.