(This is Andy Synn‘s review of the new album by the German band Beltez, which was released on October 30th by Avantgarde Music.)
What is it about the German Black Metal scene which makes it such a hive of activity and vitality?
Far from the cliched, mechanistic precision which so many still hold as their primary preconception of the country, in my experience it’s awash with bands as emotive and progressive as they are corrosive and aggressive, from the creative complexity of Bethlehem to the ever-evolving darkness of Ultha, from the introverted intensity and extroverted extremity of Infestus and Imha Tarikat to the keening catharsis of Der Weg Einer Freiheit and the gloomy grimness of Farsot… and beyond.
With their last album, 2017’s Exiled, Punished… Rejected, Cologne quintet Beltez took their listeners on an emotional roller-coaster of pitch-black fury and white-hot anguish, which firmly put their name on the map.
But, as good as that record was, A Grey Chill and a Whisper is another beast entirely, one which finds the band expanding their creative vision, adding new shades to their emotional palette and new shapes to their mental architecture, and stretching their skills and their songwriting like never before.
Key to the band’s newfound vision is their decision to not only structure this record as a concept album, but to actively commission an original short story from the author Ulrike Serowy upon which to base it, with both the music and the story crafted in parallel to tell a tragic story of love and loss, separation, isolation, and obsession.
It’s a bold and unique move, and one which immediately sets this album apart as something special.
In purely musical terms, of course, A Grey Chill and a Whisper possesses a sense of drama and a keen grasp of dynamics reminiscent of Dark Fortress at their best, coupled to an overarching darkness which recalls latter-day Enthroned at their most ominous and oppressive.
But it’s also far more than this, and very much its own distinct entity, not just an album of outlandish extremes but a record willing to engage with and illuminate all the messy greys that exist between the brightest and darknest moments of our lives.
As a result A Grey Chill and a Whisper is an album of incredible emotional intensity, marrying various elements designed to stimulate a variety of sensations and responses – from elegant, melancholy melodies to harrowing, heart-wrenching vocals, from sinister, spine-chilling riffs to dolorous, doom-laden chords – into an intricate tapestry of desolate beauty and intimate despair.
Whether it’s the pulsing electricity and haunting ambience of “The City Lies In Utter Silence” or the brooding bombast of “Black Banners”, the creeping claustrophobia and apocalyptic atmosphere of “A Taste of Complete Extinction” or the simmering slow-burn and explosive intensity of “The Unwedded Widow”, every song has its own distinct flavour, its own unique way of capturing your attention and plucking at your heart-strings.
Yet, at the same time, the overarching narrative, the dynamic, developing story underpinning the whole affair, ensures that each and every track, each and every chapter, flows smoothly and seamlessly into the next with unstoppable, irresistible momentum.
It’s the record’s finale, however, which raises the stakes even further, beginning with the stunning title-track, whose massive riffs and equally massive, utterly mesmerising, melodies not only highlight just how fantastic this record actually sounds (especially in terms of its sleek, obsidian guitar tone) but also seek to capture both the wonder and horror of our existence in microcosm.
This, in turn, gives way to the record’s defining moment, “I May Be Damned But At Least I’ve Found You”, which effectively condenses everything great about the album – every ounce of pitch-black power, every poignant, progressive inclination, every moment of scorching, soul-crushing catharsis and moody, melodic menace – into fourteen phenomenal minutes of ever-shifting, ever-twisting, blast-fuelled and hook-filled Black Metal that demands your total attention, start to finish, beginning to end.
What makes this song (and, indeed, the album as a whole) even more effective is the way it then segues into the climactic coda/epilogue of “We Remember to Remember”, which wisely steps away (at least initially) from the extravagance of the previous track in favour of a darker, doomier, and more sombre approach which provides the record with one final moment of creative contrast to usher it into oblivion.
Truth be told, a large part of me right now wants to declare this album to be a minor masterpiece.
It really is that good (and I haven’t even touched upon how great the individual performances are across the board, from the impressive power and subtle progressive flair of the drums to the potency and prominence of the bass to the scintillating lead guitar work, and so on).
But, of course, “masterpiece” is a loaded word, and one I’m honestly loathe to use even at the best of times, both because of the online backlash which inevitably ensues and because over-use of the word has, in my opinion, largely diluted and devalued its impact and meaning.
In the end, only time will truly tell if A Grey Chill and a Whisper really has the necessary depth and staying power to be ranked as a true modern classic.
But, right here and right now, I have no qualms and no hesitation in declaring it one of the best – if not the best – Black Metal albums of the year.