Ashencult – Black Flame Gnosis

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I’m not a Philadelphia native, but I spent my high school and college years there. I retain a great deal of affection for the city.

Philly is affordable and approachable, by East Coast standards. Compared to New York, where I live now, it offers a number of advantages. The food and booze are cheaper. (I dearly miss its BYO restaurants.) The residents are less crazy, or at least less painfully fashionable. Its considerable grit helps preserve its personality.

But Philly’s charms do not include a profuse metal scene. Metal-Archives has only 176 entries for Philadelphia. (Boston, for instance, has 213, despite its smaller population.) Metal bands form and play shows there, to be sure, but rarely does a Philly group achieve broader acclaim. I have always found this perplexing; the city’s underdog toughness should lend itself to metal.

Ashencult play the kind of black metal that Philly should spit out more often. Like Philly, their self-released debut Black Flame Gnosis is steeped in history. It revels in ’90s-era Scandinavian trappings of the sort that I, with my prosaic inclinations, find slightly silly: corpsepaint, anonymity, lyrics about mystical stuff, the word “cult.” The music observes tradition, too, albeit the Swedish kind. Like Dissection or Dawn, the songs unwind into tangled skeins of speedpicking. Reverb abounds.

But these accoutrements feel more like means than ends. Beneath the grym surface lies a skewed, charming roughness. Ashencult do not shine with crystalline perfection, as Dawn does. The guitar harmonies don’t resolve tidily, but wander off into dissonance. Forceful punk downpicking appears out of nowhere. The performances hang loose by contemporary standards, but their effect is “hard-fought” rather than “sloppy.” Metal should strive, and Ashencult are striving.

It would do my heart good to see Ashencult reach a broader audience. I always smile when my adopted hometown gets one over on the rest of the world, but Philly bands have little luck in such affairs. I’m content to imagine Ashencult’s nameless members ripping through sweaty practices in the basement of a decrepit duplex, surrounded by greasy wrappers and empty bottles. I hope their racket keeps the neighbors up at night.

— Doug Moore

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Bandcamp (Digital download)

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