In this second part of his four-part feature into Black Metal’s sonic evolution over the last two decades, Tom Dare is setting his sights on two aspects of the genre’s evolution that almost seem to run counter to the musical tenets of its early years. Today he’s looking at how Black Metal has come to embrace both its proggier and more ambient sides….
Black metal’s never quite got the credit for how progressive it has been as a genre – partially due to the incessant cheerfulness with which bands rehash 20 year-old riffs (unsurprising, given more revolutionary BM bands not enjoying the same levels of success some of their more generic cohorts do) and partially because by its very nature, the most challenging BM bands can be hard to track down by their reverence of “the underground”.
Enslaved might not be the only black metal band audibly familiar with pre-BM progressive music, but they’re easily the most prominent. While the rawness of Frost and the mid-era Bathory Vikingisms of Eld are still hugely powerful over 15 years on, it is the band’s transformation into an exploratory, emotional act over the last decade that has proved to be their most spectacular aspect. What started with Mardraum, and progressed with Isa and Ruun, reached new creative pinnacles with 2010’s majestic Axioma Ethica Odini. It’s a record that manages to combine trademark black metal fury with spacey atmospheres, creating something simultaneously vicious and soothing, both bright and blood-drenched.
Listen to ‘The Truth Won’t Set You Free’ by Ludicra:
And while there are other Norwegians – like Borknagar – doing progressive things with BM, two of the recent luminaries have unsurprisingly come from the fertile USBM diaspora. While now sadly defunct, Ludicra managed to turn in some of the most affecting music you’re likely to hear in their always under-the-radar career. The now-classic Another Great Love Song confirmed them as a band with a highly innovative voice, a tale-telling quality, that was perfected in their final masterpiece, The Tenant – a nihilistic, hopeless and yet beautiful psychedelic trip through urban isolation. A distinctly American-sounding band, they were an undoubted influence on a subsequent bunch of fellow San Franciscans – Cormorant.
They may be rapidly evolving beyond the limits of black metal, but Cormorant’s inspirations – the aforementioned Ludicra, as well as Cobalt, Primordial and Agalloch – are firmly within its borders. The same yarn-spinning progressive textures Ludicra were so brilliant at is present, with a folkier, less bleak but significantly heavier delivery. Latest album Dwellings, while still the sound of a comparatively young band whose most distinct works are definitely ahead of them, is nevertheless a confident expression that pushes the capabilities of the genre even further down the progressive road. They are the latest carrier of the baton first passed on by Emperor – one that shows no sign of being dropped any time soon.
Right from early Burzum, black metal’s ability to be abstract and ambient has been one of its central characteristics, and one that has been focused and expanded upon greatly. The imminently-departing Wolves In The Throne Room are perhaps the most significant of these, their evolution culminating in The Black Cascade and Celestial Lineage setting the modern standard for invoking a confusing fog. The almost formless, intangible flow of mood is both profoundly abstract and utterly human, indefinable but penetrating at the same time. While early on Mayhem weren’t a million miles away from traditional heavy metal in many ways (identifiable, memorable riffs, tangible structures – however odd – and vocal refrains that are repeated to act in semblance of choruses), WITTR and their cohorts present somethintg far more fluid.
Listen to ‘Wanderer Above The Sea Of Fog’ by WITTR:
While Eastern Europe’s black metal credentials are as old as Scandinavia’s (Master’s Hammer and Tormentor, anyone?), it wasn’t really until about a decade or so ago that the atmospheric bands at the heart of it it started to get the attention they deserved – none more so than Ukrainians Drudkh. They may have their fair share of controversy surrounding them (they don’t print their lyrics and they shriek in Ukrainian, so it’s not precisely clear what their lyrical content is), the quality of some of their albums is beyond doubt. Their first four albums (Forgotten Legends, Autumn Aurora, The Swan Road, and Blood In Our Wells) have become furious benchmarks for how to create a thick, draining atmosphere that conjures up images of earthy landscapes, and while they’ve had their highs and lows since, it’s impossible to deny the originality and power of what they’ve done.
Watch the video to ‘Cunoasterea Tacuta’ by Negură Bunget:
A far more dream-like, misty band with a less cutting sound, Negură Bunget’s 2006 album, Om (Romanian for “Man”), is one of the very best black metal records you’ll ever hear, and yet totally different from what you expect from BM. The rich atmosphere is powerful and hypnotic, and hits all the musical G-spots you’d ask of the genre, but with a totally different touch. Negură Bunget’s Romanian origin is crucial to their sound, and following recent line-up changes has become ever more so – while the feel is recognisable, the sound identifies them with their homeland, appearing to express “this is where we’re from, this is who we are” in a disarmingly honest manner.
Hold tight – we’ve only just reached the halfway point in Tom Dare’s Black Metal essays. If you missed part one (on the fury and mentalism of Black Metal, click here, and remember to come back tomorrow when Tom takes a long hard look at the genre’s increasingly location-minded exponents.