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2015: The Year American Black Metal Broke

Ken Sorceron

If you’ve ever watched cycling you’ve probably noticed that behind the outliers at the front of the race is a group of cyclists arranged in a long line, all trailing the rider in front. From my admittedly limited understand of the sport, this group, referred to as a peloton, allows the lead cyclist to face the brunt of the wind resistance and then travel in his wake to make use of the decreased friction. Our eyes, and our mental attention, are naturally drawn the the leader in these situations, focusing on the peloton gives a much clearer idea of the pace and state of the race.

That’s the case in music at least. Outliers are just that, outliers. A band like Metallica is so improbable and wrapped up in so many additional factors that they can hardly tell you anything significant about thrash metal in the 1980s as a whole.

This is why it’s helpful to have a band like Abigail Williams around; not necessarily because their music is good, but because they serve as a quick way of taking the temperature of the genre they operate in.

Since their start as a metalcore band, Abigail Williams have built their discography by quickly jumping from trend to trend. They toyed with by-the-books symphonic black metal with their first two full lengths, around the same time that other former metalcore bands were trying to prove their legitimacy to “real” metal fans. When that didn’t stick, Abigail Williams put on their proverbial flannel and did a pitch perfect (quality aside) Wolves In The Throne Room impression on 2012’s Becoming, only a year after cascadian black metal had swallowed the metal internet whole.

Given this pattern of co-opting black metal’s style du jour, one would assume that the newest Abigail Williams record, The Accuser, would be heavy on shoegaze allusions and glistening major chords. But instead of applying some spf 20 and getting their Sunbather on, Abigail Williams feel content to sound largely like themselves. The Accuser certainly has some obvious stylistic touchstones. The druggy psychedelia of Nachtmystium is a noticeable influence, but given that ex-Nachtmystium members Charlie Fell and Jeff Wilson both played on the record this is less a case of aping another band’s style than adopting it naturally. For the first time since their debut EP Abigail Williams’ music feels like a product of the band’s specific skill set and taste.

A source of contention for much of this decade, American black metal continues sparking arguments about authenticity, image and metal’s shifting demographics. Cynics could have been forgiven for thinking that the eruption of Cascadian black metal in 2011 would fizzle out in a year or two, ultimately meeting the same fate as the thrash revival in the early aughts or folk metal’s brief omnipresence in 2008. Instead it has flourished and now American black metal, at the height of its powers, is being pulled in a million directions at once.

The gradual dissolution of American black metal shouldn’t come as much of a shock to anyone paying attention over the last year. The clock starts ticking the minute a scene or sound becomes easily identified and copied. If you heard Hope Drone’s Cloak Of Ash and assumed that they were from San Francisco and not Brisbane, then you understand what I mean. The sound of American black metal is now just a part of the global vocabulary. If geography were ever a selling point, that point is now moot. It’s telling that the bands in the genre that managed to stir the most controversy this year, Ghostbath and Myrkur, both went to great lengths to hide their American origins.

Yet the genre’s ability to grab headlines hasn’t diminished and its creative vitality has only grown stronger. Only now that strength is spread over an increasing diffuse field of acts. Bosse-de-Nage and Vattnet Viskar both reached new heights this year, balancing the washed out reverb of their peers with a wiry and nimble rhythm section. That said, grouping Bosse-de-Nage’s “Slint + blast beats” approach with Locrian, whose relationship to metal has always felt tenuous, is ridiculous.

The genre’s biggest names are worth more than just their weight in clickbait – they also increasingly sound very little like each other. Deafheaven’s New Bermuda may be divisive among both the band’s fans and detractors, but it puts the notion that the band is a one trick pony to bed. In the process of becoming heavier, Deafheaven distanced themselves even further from the essential atmosphere of black metal.

Their east coast counterparts in The Vast Hipster Plot To Destroy Metal From Within™, Liturgy, proved themselves to be equally malleable, putting out a record that, while not exactly what I would call ‘good,’ sounds like little else out there. For all of it’s faults, it’s clear that The Ark Work was deliberately built to obliterate any notions of being “just” a black metal record. Even Krallice, whose status as controversial seems fairly quaint at this point, quietly put yet another record of brow-furrowingly complex metal that resembles tech death (it’s worth noting that Colin Marston also plays in Gorguts) as much as it does black metal.

There is no longer a peloton.

Pinpointing exactly why American black metal is spread so thin is tricky. To be sure, every style becomes more creatively diverse as it grows, think of how death metal gradually stretched out in the early ’90s to include acts like Cynic and Atheist alongside more traditional bands like Obituary and Cannibal Corpse. But it is worth noting that American black metal’s evolution coincides with its shift from being songwriter-centric to band-centric.

The days of ‘bedroom black metal’ are long gone. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that Panopticon’s incredible Autumn Eternal, is one of the most orthodox sounding records from this field and the product of one man. Deafheaven went from being a two person studio project to a full five-man band. The same can be said for Krallice, whose initial releases felt like the sole product of Colin Marston and Mick Barr, have become harder to classify as the band’s songwriting became more democratic. It may seem like a no-brainer, but allowing more artists to contribute to a genre will lead to a wider range of influences, and in turn a wider range of sounds.

(A quick aside about that diversity. If we’re going to be honest with ourselves, even this expanded definition of American black metal still rests largely on the same hyper-narrow demographic of straight white dudes that it always has. It should not be notable that Deafheaven’s lineup features two people of color. The discourse around Myrkur would benefit greatly if audiences weren’t so quick to question her authenticity in such highly gendered ways. This topic deserves much more space than a single paragraph, but to not mention it at all would feel like an oversight.)

You can look at the disintegration of this scene as an omen of bad health, or you can see it as a group of innovative acts breaking free of a genre’s creative limitations. This is why it’s hard to be worried about American black metal breaking apart. If anything, this expansion has only helped some acts. Abigail Williams, who were viewed as an aberration early in their career have now graduated to headlining festivals like Sonic Fair and Northwestern Black Circle Festival. Persistent and innovative bands will now be forced to stand on their own merits, and the ones incapable of doing so will be exposed as creatively bankrupt.

—Ian Cory

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