I don’t feel great, thanks for asking. Within an hour after finishing yesterday’s roundup it became evident that I was coming down with a cold. (My spouse brought it home with her last week, so I don’t blame yesterday’s bands.) By dinnertime last night I felt like fresh shit, and didn’t sleep worth a shit either. I don’t think it’s much worse this morning but it’s not any better either. One of the few things that makes me look backward with fondness on covid is that I went two years without a cold. Staying away from human germ-carriers was a big silver lining.
I was tempted to just blow off this usual Sunday column and instead wallow in misery. Didn’t seem quite fair to share my thoroughly clogged and befogged headspace with innocent bands, or to interrupt their performances with ugly hacking and explosive blasts of sneezing, even though I was able to re-listen to the parts that were interrupted with rail-gun blasts of snot.
Well, but the world is not a fair place. It brings colds and music writers who don’t know when to shut up, and I thought forging ahead with this column might temporarily take my mind off my miseries. So it did.
BLACK BIRCH (Sweden)
Black Birch describe themselves as an “Atmospheric Black Metal duo from Southern Sweden” (the two of them are Gina Wiklund and Ulf Blomberg), with an ethos that is “Antifascist & vegan”. I see on their Bandcamp page that they’ve been releasing a sequence of seven singles since January of this year, and on September 1st they’re going to release a self-titled EP on vinyl and digital formats that includes two of those previous singles and two new songs.
If you visit their Bandcamp page for the EP you’ll find streams of two of the EP’s songs that were earlier released as singles, but I’ve also fortunately been able to listen to the other two tracks. The four songs follow a thematic sequence — “Fallen“, “Death“, “Soil“, and “Birth“. While the band make use of the old violent techniques of percussive blasting, scorched-earth tremolo’d riffing, and hair-raising screams, there’s also an aspect to the music that’s distinctively “modern” (for want of a better word), and its portrayals of turmoil and tragedy tug at the heartstrings, while also periodically transporting us into environments where vast wilderness surrounds lonely travelers.
You can hear “Fallen” now (it’s one of the previous singles and came with a riveting video too). Soft, meditative, and haunting at first, the song begins to thunder and scath, racing to the gallop and delivering riffing that both blazes and blisters in sounds of desperation, and also descends into bleakness. Gina Wiklund’s utterly unhinged screams and Blomberg‘s vehement howls dial up the music’s intensity even further.
Eventually the race spends itself and the band switch to a rocking cadence, backing guitars that ring out a forlorn melody, before the music hurtles and blazes again
“Fallen” is an attention-grabbing way to begin, and the new song “Death“, which follows it, maintains rapt attention. It wastes no time building up the intensity, but instead rages like a typhoon immediately. The pacing soon slows, but there’s no relent in the music’s intensity, thanks again in part to the frightening blasts of throat-lacerating vocal passion. Even when the drum-beats become steady, the bass is a huge clanging presence and the frantic, sense-surround riffing seems to cry out in agony. The guitars not only blaze but generate rapidly flickering and whistling tones that stand out in the midst of the storm (and might even seem resilient and hopeful in their mood).
Black Birch wisely create a sudden contrast by following “Death” with the other previously released single, “Soil“. Introduced by distant thunder and brittle picking, it picks up an introspective mood again, paving the way for the guitars to ring out a beautiful dual-guitar melody of yearning. But Black Birch are so powerful when they storm that you know the storm will come again, and so it does — immersing the listener in maniacally booming rhythms, cauterizing vocals, and powerful tides of distressing melody.
The drums switch into punk-ish beats and rapidly strummed chords that again seem to channel resilience, and back and forth the music goes, surging in episodes of violent distress and defiance, and seeming to raise beseeching hands. The piercing trill of the guitars, particularly when they stand alone, is magnetic. At full power, the music is breathtaking.
Last of all comes “Birth“, the other new song, completing the thematic cycle of new birth fed by the nutrients of the soil derived from death. Like “Death“, it’s an immediate hurricane of intensity that sucks the wind from the lungs to hear, though it must be said that there’s a feeling of despair and derangement in the music (and the drumming in particular is lights-out) — until near the end, when the band again show their softer side, drums banished, the bass murmuring, the guitars ringing out brightly, and seeming to straddle a line between a lament and a hope.
The EP is being co-released with the band by Fiadh Productions (U.S.) and Vita Detestabilis (Europe) on vinyl, leaving digital formats for sale by Black Birch.
BLOOD ABSCISSION (?)
I paid attention to this next half-hour EP of atmospheric black metal because of an intersection of recommendations by others. It surfaced on August 4th, and by the next day I saw favorable comments about it within a private Facebook group of metal writers that I’m part of, and in a message from Rennie of starkweather. Such intersections don’t happen often, so I thought I should see what was up, without delay.
The EP, simply entitled I, is by a project named Blood Abscission of unknown location, membership, and origin. So there’s really nothing I can tell you about the record apart from what I hear. Even the tracks have no names, simply Roman-numeral titles. The photo on the album cover is simple, stark, and kind of threatening, but it doesn’t really answer any of the mystery, and it certainly doesn’t have any obvious connection to black metal — although that’s what the music is.
But I have to say that although the music has obvious connections to black metal traditions, and particularly Nordic ones, it’s a black gem with more than the usual facets.
In the album opener you’ll get plentiful doses of turbocharged blasting, blizzard-like riffing, and maniac screams. But even though the riffs often come in piercing ice-storms of sound, the layered guitars ripple, quiver, whirl, and soar, creating electrifying displays of heart-exploding sonic spectacle.
The sound of the guitars is indeed piercing, fiercely hook-laden, and often glorious, and joined by vast synths that sometimes resemble organ chords or orchestras. When the drive-train briefly downshifts and the pacing becomes more solemn and momentous and less pneumatic, the music expands to even more majestic elevations.
The guitars and synths continue to occupy center stage in the other songs, and they ring and sweep with such blinding brilliance that there’s no escaping them. That’s not to suggest that the rhythm-section’s work is negligible. They of course do play an important role in the changing rhythmic dynamics of the music, but it’s definitely a subsidiary role.
I thought the vocals would also be subsidiary, expecting that we’d hear nothing but acid shrieks all the way through — until about three minutes into the second track when extravagant near-sung cries rose up, soaring in sounds of wrenching torment, and that’s not the last time those vocal variations play a role.
Blood Abscission clearly prefers operating at heights of awe-inspiring wonder, no matter how tortured the screams or scorching the sounds, no matter how wretched or enraged the moods might be. In other words, this is music of stupendous scale and splendor. Even when the eye-popping intensity diminishes (which does happen), it sounds like visions of sweeping, mesmerizing beauty — in addition to revealing moments of intriguing celestial mystery (as in the fourth interlude-track).
One other thing worth noting: The songs flow into each other, fashioning a single album-length trip, a kind of black metal suite intended to be heard straight through, and if you listen to the YouTube stream, it doesn’t even have the micro-second breaks among the Bandcamp tracks.
No idea whether we’ll find out who made this startling EP or where they’re from. From the music alone, one of my friends guessed Iceland. Could be. Wherever they’re from, and whoever they are, I certainly hope this won’t be the last of their works. This one, I bought after one listen.