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The Interdimensional Exploration of Blut aus Nord’s “Hallucinogen”

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The formal inventiveness of Blut aus Nord is not precisely like that of other black metal bands of similar esteem. Unlike Oranssi Pazuzu and Aluk Todolo, they do not strike outside of the field of black metal so fiercely that they no longer feel like an adequate fit for what they do, but rather a seasoning. Nor with groups like Ihsahn or Arcturus do they burst so clearly into the realms of progressive rock that black metal is more an image of history rather than one relevant to contemporary work. Even in their deepest experimentation with industrial elements, electronica, and progressive rock, Blut aus Nord have kept a strong and vibrant core of black metal, explaining why perhaps they have retained a level of respect from black metal purists that those other groups have not. And so it may be tempting to view their new album Hallucinogen through the light of press and press buzz, to buy the hype that it is a radical reinvention for the group when in fact like most of their records it is more a refinement and maturation of instinct and directionality than some striking new ground.

This is, thankfully, not to say that the album is not good. If anything, the more measured experimentation of Blut aus Nord assures that each of their releases stays within a certain ballpark of quality. For a group who has 13 LPs, five EPs, and three splits to their name in 25 years, it is a shock that they manage to keep their work strong even during relative stylistic detours. Granted, at this point it should be expected, and one of the primary draws of the group is that, unlike some other bands which have a grip that is at once too tight and too loose on the conceptual thrust of its players and work that results in both a visionary petrification as well as misguided and poorly-executed experiments, Blut aus Nord has always functioned more as a collective than as a proper band.

Hallucinogen, for example, credits four musicians, but previous albums even in the past five years have been credited to one-, two-, and three-man lineups of the group, with the 777 trilogy, the recent Memoria Vetusta installment, and previous LP Deus Salutis Meæ all credited to different molecular lineups of the group. The only throughline is main figure Vindsval, a figure who controls the project much in the same way Garm controls Ulver, not with an iron fist, but a widely-inspired velvet glove employing members of the set as needed to accomplish that particular record’s sonic task.

It is not a surprise how Hallucinogen skews so close to the work Vindsval produced as a side-man for the Pyramids album A Northern Meadow, which features a similar fusion of the synthetic with the organic, of abstract poetry with a particularly abstruse but still melodically-geared black metal aesthetic. If anything, it is only a surprise that it took this long, coming a full four years after that previous well-acclaimed record — granted, a span that also saw Blut aus Nord exploring their more clatterous progressive industrial conceits, experiments which needed to come before this one for Hallucinogen to be as successful as it is. The resulting album is one that is less a purely new ground as much of the copy surrounding the record seems to indicate but instead a cold and sensuous synthesis of their straightforward black metal material as shown on the Memoria Vetusta album series, the progressive industrial/electronic elements shown on the 777 trilogy, and the more experimental flourishes of Vindsval’s time as a sideman with other groups. The record feels less like a startling vision and more like a clarification, that from it one can experience or understand any of the potential future paths of the band.

In terms of setting the band among its peers, placing the group among the Solefalds and Ulvers and Arcturuses of the world as one of the first black metal bands of the late second wave to not only pursue experimental, industrial, and progressive pastures but do so successfully, Hallucinogen is a triumph. While it does not offer as disruptive and wild a vision as some of their earlier works such as The Work Which Transforms God or the controversially abstract and chaotic MoRT, Hallucinogen feels laser-honed to thrive in the world of (post-) black metal of 2019, a fine and measured statement coming from a group that lived and produced masterworks in these waters before bands the larger contemporary names of the field were formed. It is a tremendously listenable album but without sacrificing the grandeur or acid-soaked romanticism that always drove this band.

Blut aus Nord may have started as a relatively straightforward black metal band, and in truth they still maintain many of the characteristics of one even here, but they clearly see black metal as a methodology and path of becoming rather than a particular sonic template. They still deploy tremolo picking, blast beats, and retched vocals, but they have a more concrete image in mind than merely “sonic darkness.”

The colors of the album hover in the cold blues and violets that marked Deafheaven’s New Bermuda and Mayhem’s Chimera, living in a sonic space in terms of chord choices, timbral choices, and lead lines placing it closer to the spacey progressive rock of Tangerine Dream or Eloy than the traditional dark chords of early black metal. Vindsval’s time maturing as a composer on previous records where he could explore different tonalities, broader chords, and more abstract sonic relations pays off here, where he uses the same tools but in less purely alien fashion than before. Granted, given the title of the record, the clearly lysergic impulse that underlies this material still comes to bare at moments, using a strange chord here or a drifting melody there to push the sonic sense enough to challenge without feeling disruptive.

Gone are the youthful desires for outre weirdness to prove their worth and inventiveness; Blut aus Nord are practiced and professional and know well the tools at their disposal. Hallucinogen is a colorful and compelling black metal record that comfortably folds in the sonic excursions of the new school of post-black metal while retaining the alien strangeness and visionary power of the old.

Hallucinogen surprise-released last Friday via Debemur Morti Productions.

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