(We present the first NCS review of 2021 by DGR. Even though we’re already six weeks into the new year without hearing from him, he has been busy listening and writing — witness the fact that we suddenly have an archive of four reviews, divided into four parts, of which this is the first. The others will follow over the next three days.)
We’ve been hammering the drum for Greek black metal group Human Serpent for a little while now – at least your dear writer has – so the announcement last year of a full-length followup to the group’s scorcher of a 2018 album For I, The Misanthropist (after a series of intervening EPs and singles) was exciting. While the singles and EPs proved to be a lot of fun, if only as a small slice of just how surgically dangerous the band have become, a new full-length blasting from the group’s furnace was obviously going to be a lot more exciting.
And thus with the closing of January do we find ourselves at the feet of the group’s latest release Heirlooms Eternal, an album self-described by the band like this: “It is the most aggressive, soul-suffocating and mind-destructive Human Serpent album/It is a physical manifestation of a life-walking private hell.”
For one: The album is certainly the most visually colorful, given the group’s excellent choice of red and black for the cover art (we may be biased toward that combo) vs their usual muted blacks, greys, and sepia tones. But also, when you have a song with a title like “Memories Are Rooms Of Pain”, you can’t help but think that maybe the band might be on to something when they describe their own music as “soul-suffocating”.
One of the overarching themes of 2020’s year-end lists was the huge number of bands for whom music was purely catharsis, with a lot of structure tossed to the wayside in favor of relentless hammering, or in some cases spirit-rending howling. The starting moments of Human Serpent’s Heirlooms Eternal are very similar in ideal to that movement — pressing play on opener “A Thousand Limbos Of The Mind” elicits an opening howl that sets the tone for the album early on. Human Serpent have long mastered the art of sounding raw on a black metal release, but with a lethal mind for melodic lines that seem to emerge from the smoke within each song, and Heirlooms Eternal demonstrates just how much the crew have honed in on that art in the three-year gap since For I, The Misanthropist.
Despite all its statements of hatred and intended soul annihilation, Heirlooms Eternal is a more ambitious release than its full-length predecessor. It’s about seven minutes longer and many of the songs – save for the aforementioned scorcher “Memories Are Rooms Of Pain” – easily leap past the four-minute mark like olympic long jumpers.
The closing song for instance is the simply titled “Mirrors” and weighs in at a hefty seven minutes and twenty-four seconds, which is a whole lot of high strung guitar being brought to the forefront. Yet one might assume, with a song length like that, that Human Serpent was aiming to create something more atmospheric and slower. The answer is a blunt and simple ‘not really’. “Mirrors” is the Human Serpent blueprint writ long-form, meaning that the high-speed pace that Human Serpent keep themselves to has a longer tail. Its a cavalcade of collapsing song structure, with one part piling over the other just to crash down upon their listener. If any song on Heirlooms Eternal were going to match the death portrait with faces blurred on the album cover in audio form, “Mirrors” comes damned close.
While a song like “Fuck Normality” may skirt along the edge of the truest edgelords out there, it’s also where Heirlooms Eternal comes into its own. You can take a pretty full grab of the overall Human Serpent audio collection and have a pretty good time with it. Nearly every song is about as fiery as black metal can get, and the group’s insidious ear for melodic lines that come right over the top of whichever auditory conflagration they’re unleashing at the moment means that often, Human Serpent‘s music can be more than sheer evil for evil’s sake. They build with apocalyptic-sounding melodic lines, and when those are often reinforced by the rhythm section going nuts on the blastbeats, they become titanic in their own right. “Fuck Normality” is where the Heirlooms Eternal‘s take on this formula crystalizes, after the initial one-two volley of musical suffocation washes over you. It is surgically lethal from the get-go, and the quick start-and-stop changeover from “Maze of Reminiscence” is breathless – which as it turns out is how much of Heirlooms Eternal moves as a whole.
There is always going to be a sense of familiarity with black metal of this sort though. You do know what you’re in for – for the most part – whenever you get constant comparisons to the infernal flames in audio form. Its a well-spoken musical language and one that these Greeks mastered early on. You’re moving in small intervals with the band’s musical progression; they had already started at breakneck from moment one and every release since has felt like an iteration on the idea of ‘how can we make this faster, angrier, more end-times-sounding’. Heirlooms Eternal with all its nihilism spilling out of the opening segments is the latest iteration on that. But to re-emphasize, the group’s melodic ear means they constantly have their hooks in you and it helps elevate them above so many of these sorts of projects. It’s sheer, scorching hatred with a purpose, but one whose lethality can also be appreciated from a musicality standpoint on top of the ‘holy hell is this abrasive’ introductory stance.
While I’ve made many a pitch for the Human Serpent crew before – even down to EPs and singles – Heirlooms Eternal is a great point to jump on the bus, if you aren’t immediately injured by the album’s opening scream.